September 5, 2013
Chinese Official, a Symbol of Greed and Corruption, Is Sentenced
By NEIL GOUGH
HONG KONG — A court in northwest China sentenced a former provincial safety official on Thursday to 14 years in prison for graft, a year after he became a symbol of a callous and corrupt bureaucracy when Chinese Internet users circulated photographs suggesting he had been living beyond his means.
The Xi’an Intermediate People’s Court issued the sentence after convicting Yang Dacai, a former safety inspection official in Shaanxi Province, on charges of taking bribes and possessing assets of unclear origin, Chinese state-run news outlets reported Thursday morning. Phone calls to the court in Xi’an seeking confirmation of the sentence went unanswered Thursday.
Mr. Yang’s case is one of many in China in recent years to demonstrate how local officials can be held accountable to public opinion, as ordinary citizens frequently turn to microblog posts and other online social networks to vent complaints against rampant corruption or other abuses of power.
However, such complaints against senior or national-level officials remain taboo and are actively scoured from the Internet by government censors and employees of the companies that operate online forums.
At the same time, the Chinese government has started a nationwide campaign in recent weeks against the spreading of so-called online rumors. Celebrity bloggers have been told to be careful what they say in online comments, dozens of microbloggers have been arrested and several Web sites and other Internet companies have been shut down.
At his trial last month, Mr. Yang had pleaded guilty to charges of taking bribes worth 250,000 renminbi, or $41,000, and possessing 5 million renminbi, or more than $800,000, in funds of doubtful origin.
Chinese news reports over the past year have commonly referred to Mr. Yang as Brother Watch for his habit of wearing expensive wristwatches, which was first publicly exposed by Chinese Internet users in widely circulated microblog postings and eventually led to his downfall.
After a multivehicle pileup killed 36 people on a highway in Shaanxi on Aug. 26 of last year, news photos showed Mr. Yang at the scene of the accident with a smile clearly visible on his face.
Offended by what they saw as an inappropriate expression, some Chinese Internet users began a collective online campaign to dig up dirt on Mr. Yang, in what is referred to in China as a “human-flesh search engine.”
Internet users scrutinized photos of Mr. Yang attending public functions and soon discovered one showing him wearing an expensive watch. Other photos of Mr. Yang wearing different expensive watches quickly emerged and were widely circulated on the Internet.
The state-run news media then began to cover the story of Brother Watch. For example, a screenshot from a China Central Television news program that was circulated online shows Mr. Yang wearing flashy watches on 11 different occasions.
Provincial party officials in Shaanxi started an investigation. In February of this year, Mr. Yang was stripped of his posts for “serious disciplinary violations,” and his case was referred to prosecutors.
Footage broadcast Thursday morning on China Central Television showed a judge in the Xi’an court reading out the verdict. Mr. Yang stood facing the judge, wearing an orange defendant’s uniform and looking notably thinner than he had appeared in photos a year earlier. A faint smile was clearly visible on his face.
“History’s most unfortunate smile and costliest smile belongs to ‘Brother Watch’ Yang Dacai,” read one widely circulated posting on Thursday to Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. “Given the sentence of 14 years, I reckon in the future officials will definitely popularize sullen faces.”
Chen Jiehao contributed research from Beijing.
Australian billionaire: Rupert Murdoch discovered wife Wendi Deng was a Chinese spy so he ‘got rid of her’
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, September 5, 2013 9:31 EDT
Flamboyant Australian billionaire Clive Palmer on Thursday said he plans to sue Rupert Murdoch over unflattering allegations and claimed the media mogul’s estranged wife is a Chinese spy.
Palmer, best known for building a replica of the Titanic and who is running for election in Australia on Saturday, seethed over a comment piece questioning his wealth and whether he was indeed a university professor and a mining magnate, as he claims.
Murdoch’s flagship The Australian ran the story on its front page under the headline “Why we need to worry about the real Mr Palmer”, alleging he was “a man with a history of peddling fantasies that often morph into a unique version of ‘reality’”.
According to the latest polls, the Palmer United Party is on track to win a Senate seat in his home state of Queensland and the daily said it would allow him to “exert his unsubtle influence in Canberra”.
“Contrary to the flim-flam and spin, Clive Frederick Palmer is not a professor, not an adviser to the G20, not a mining magnate, not a legal guru and not an advocate for freedom of speech. He’s probably not a billionaire,” the newspaper said.
The broadsheet is backing conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott to win the election and said it had spent months examining Palmer’s track record.
Palmer, who says he has made his money in mining and is also a real estate developer and tourism resort operator, was a long-time supporter of Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition. He tore up his membership last year after a bitter, public dispute and set up his own party.
He accused Australian-born Murdoch, now a US citizen, of telling his reporters what to write and said he needed to be brought to account.
“Murdoch will be sued by me today and will be brought to Australia to answer these questions in the Supreme Court,” he told the Seven Network.
“It’s time this fellow was brought to account, this foreigner who tries to dictate what we do.”
In a separate interview with the Nine Network, Palmer made extraordinary claims about Murdoch’s estranged wife Wendi Deng.
“‘You know, Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi Deng is a Chinese spy, and that’s been right across the world,” Palmer alleged, prompting the stunned host to ask whether he had “lost the plot”.
“She’s been spying on Rupert for years, giving money back to Chinese intelligence. She was trained in southern China. I’m telling you the truth,” Palmer said.
“Wendi Deng is a Chinese spy and that’s why Rupert got rid of her.”
He continued: “And this guy (Murdoch) wants to control Australian politics. He wants to control what you think.”
The Palmer United Party is fielding candidates in each of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives and 18 Senate candidates across the eight states and territories as it spreads its populist message, which includes slashing taxation.
Mexico leader to discuss alleged U.S. spying with Obama
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, September 4, 2013 14:47 EDT
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said Wednesday he would voice concerns about alleged US spying on his emails to US counterpart Barack Obama, warning it would be illegal if proven true.
The two leader will come face to face at the Group of 20 meeting in Russia on Thursday, four days after a US journalist reported that the National Security Agency snooped on the online activities of the Brazilian and Mexican leaders.
The new claims of spying in Latin America came two months after allegations of widespread US electronic espionage in the region that infuriated allies and rivals alike.
“If it is proven that an action took place, with the use of espionage means, this is clearly not permitted and it is outside the law,” Pena Nieto told reporters during a layover in Canada on his way to Saint Petersburg.
“There will surely be space at the G20 for some sort of meeting, either casual or informal, with the US president to make our position very clear,” he said, recalling that his government has asked the United States to investigate the matter.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is already in Russia for the G20 talks and she is scheduled to visit Obama in Washington next month, though Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo refused to say this week whether the trip would be affected.
The Mexican and Brazilian governments summoned the US ambassador to their respective countries this week to seek explanations about the latest espionage claims.
In Brasilia, Communications Minister Paulo Bernardo said the answers given by the United States since the first allegations emerged in July have been “false.”
“All the explanations given since this episode started have been false,” he told reporters late Tuesday, according to the state-run Agencia Brasil news agency.
US journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has access to secret documents leaked by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, told Brazil’s Globo television this week that the agency spied on Rousseff’s Internet searches and Pena Nieto’s emails before his election last year.
In July, Greenwald co-wrote articles in Brazil’s O Globo newspaper saying the NSA spied on Latin American allies and rivals, using electronic espionage to monitor military purchases in Venezuela, energy and drug issues in Mexico and rebel movements in Colombia.
He also revealed that the US government had a joint NSA-CIA base in Brazil to gather data on emails and calls flowing through the country.
In his latest report, Greenwald said the NSA was trying to better understand Rousseff’s methods of communication and interlocutors using a program to access all Internet content she visited online.
Before Pena Nieto was elected in July 2012, the NSA intercepted some of his voice mails, which included messages in which he discussed the names of potential cabinet members before his July 2012 election victory.
“It’s more serious that what appeared at first sight,” Bernardo said.
But the Brazilian minister said a diplomatic solution was the way to resolve the issue.
“We are friends, we have 200-year-old diplomatic relations,” he said.
The row was at the center of a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry in Brazil in August, but Brazilian officials said they were not satisfied by the explanations.
Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo met with US Vice President Joe Biden last week and said the United States rejected an offer to negotiate a bilateral agreement on surveillance.
The Brazilian government now wants Internet governance and US espionage accusations to be discussed in international forums.
Power cut paralyses Venezuela
President Nicolás Maduro cites sabotage by opposition for blackout, which left 70% of country without electricity
Associated Press in Caracas
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 08.12 BST
Venezuela was plunged into darkness on Tuesday when the country's main power distribution network failed, depriving 70% of the country of electricity and creating traffic chaos in much of Caracas.
The electrical energy minister, Jesse Chacón, appeared on state TV to explain that the failure was in the "backbone" that carries electricity from the Bajo Caroni region, where 60% of Venezuela's power is generated.
President Nicolás Maduro said on Tuesday night that 14 of 23 states had lost power for much of the day and blamed "sabotage", suggesting opposition groups were responsible. He said service had been progressively restored with some exceptions, including the oil-producing state of Zulia. Maduro blamed "the extreme rightwing", as he has in the past, via Twitter.
Power was restored in Caracas by nightfall.
Despite possessing the world's largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela has been plagued in recent years by worsening power outages, but they have rarely reached metropolitan Caracas, home to more than one-sixth of the country's 28 million people.
Maduro said the oil industry, the lifeblood of the economy, had not been affected by the outage.
A man sits down to have lunch by candlelight A man sits down to have lunch by candlelight after much of Caracas was plunged into darkness. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters
In an evening broadcast on state TV, he claimed the outage was "part of a low-level war" on what his government refers to as "the revolution" begun by the late president Hugo Chávez, Maduro's political mentor but provided no evidence to support his accusations of sabotage.
Maduro said he had ordered the military to protect the entire country.
The capital's subway service was temporarily interrupted and the authorities evacuated passengers from several trains.
Opposition politicians say the government, while spending billions on programmes for the poor, has not invested sufficiently in the electrical grid and generating plants to keep up with growing demand.
Authorities say delays in several initiatives designed to boost electricity output are partly to blame.
Chacón, a long-time close aide to Chávez, was named energy minister after Maduro won the election in April by a thin margin. The previous energy minister was Chávez's brother, Argenis.
Chávez died in March after 14 years in power. Maduro was his foreign minister and later, while Chávez was dying of cancer, his vice-president.
In the USA...
Barack Obama raises possibility of new legislation to curb NSA powers
President defends NSA but acknowledges 'legitimate questions' about the agency's role, especially with advance of technology
Ewen MacAskill in New York
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 18.34 BST
Barack Obama has raised for the first time the prospect of new legislation to limit the powers of the NSA, the US spy agency caught up in controversy over the sweep of its surveillance operations.
Answering a question at a joint press conference with Swedish prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt on Wednesday, Obama said there were "legitimate questions" about the NSA. He said existing laws may not be sufficient to deal with advances in technology that have allowed the NSA to gather much more data than before.
There have been calls for new legislation from members of Congress to limit the powers of the NSA, but this is the first time that Obama has hinted he might back such a move. Until now, Obama has only proposed limited changes and is awaiting recommendations from a review body he set up.
The president's language was more sympathetic towards the privacy camp than it has been over the past few months. Just because the US intelligence agencies could do something did not meant it should, Obama said, particularly if the US is being too intrusive in looking into the behaviour of other governments.
Technological changes meant the "risks of abuse are greater than they have been in the past", he said.
Obama, visiting Stockholm on his way to St Petersburg for the G20 summit, held a joint press conference with Reinfeldt that was dominated by the Syria crisis. But the first question was on the NSA from a Swedish reporter, who asked about the extent to which it had stirred up an angry reaction, including in Sweden, and the impact it is having on US relations round the world.
"This is a question I have received in previous visits to Europe since the stories broke in the Guardian; [a question] I suspect I will continue to get as I travel through round the world for quite some time," Obama said.
Defending the NSA, Obama said that the US, like other countries, had an intelligence operation aimed at improving its understanding of what is happening round the world. Since 9/11, he added, much energy had been focused on counter-terrorism.
"What I can say with confidence is that when it comes to our domestic operations, the concerns that people have back home … we do not surveil the American people or persons within the United States. There are a lot of checks and balances in place designed to avoid a surveillance state," Obama said.
"There have been times where the procedures, because these are human endeavours, have not worked the way they should and we had to tighten them up. And I think there are legitimate questions that have been raised about the fact that as technology advances and capabilities grow, it may be that the laws that are currently in place are not sufficient to guard against the dangers of us being able to track so much."
Some members of Congress are pressing for changes to the Patriot Act to end the NSA's power to scoop up the phone records of millions of Americans.
Obama and other US politicians have caused upset with repeated statements that the NSA does not read the emails of Americans or listen in on their phone calls – and that the surveillance applies only to non-Americans.
Addressing this, Obama said: "Now when it comes to intelligence-gathering internationally, our focus is on counter-terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, cybersecurity – core national security interests of the United States. But what is true is that the United States has enormous capabilities when it comes to intelligence."
He added: "One way to think about it is: in the same way that our military capabilities are significantly greater than many other countries, the same is true for our intelligence capabilities. So even though we may have the same goals, our means are significantly greater.
"And I can give assurances to the public in Europe and around the world that we're not going around snooping at people's emails or listening to their phone calls. What we try to do is to target very specifically areas of concern."
Obama was careful to speak only about content and avoided the issue of metadata – the timing, duration, location and other information about phone calls, emails and other private information being scooped up daily round the world by the NSA.
In spite of his insistence that there was no mass snooping on content, Obama acknowledged the concerns. "What I have said domestically – and what I say to international audiences – is with the changes in technology, with the growth of our capabilities, if our attitude is: 'Because we can do it, we should go ahead and do it,' then we may not be addressing some of the legitimate concerns and dangers that exist when we are talking about intelligence-gathering and surveillance."
Apart from the backlash round the world, Obama is also having to contend with problems in the US over surveillance. He hoped to deflect the issue with an announcement last month of minimal changes such as the creation of a review body but the controversy has refused to die.
The review body he set up was derided by some privacy activists as lacking independent voices. The issue will also be kept in the public eye by congressional hearings, court cases and calls by internet companies – suffering from their association with the NSA – for greater transparency.
Privacy fears cause more to cover online tracks
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, September 5, 2013 7:28 EDT
Amid growing fears about online surveillance and data theft, Americans are increasingly taking steps to remove or mask their digital footprints on the Internet, a study showed Thursday.
The Pew Research Center report said 86 percent of US Internet users have taken some steps to avoid online surveillance by other people or organizations.
Despite these precautions, 21 percent of online adults in the survey have had an email or social media account hijacked and 11 percent have had information like Social Security numbers or financial data stolen.
The report said 12 percent of those using the Internet have been stalked or harassed online, and six percent have been the victim of an online scam and lost money.
Another six percent said they have had their reputation damaged because of something that happened online, and four percent said they were in physical danger because of something that happened online.
According to the study, 50 percent of Internet users say they are worried about the amount of personal information about them that is online — a figure that has jumped from 33 percent in 2009.
“Users clearly want the option of being anonymous online and increasingly worry that this is not possible,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and an author of the report.
“Their concerns apply to an entire ecosystem of surveillance. In fact, they are more intent on trying to mask their personal information from hackers, advertisers, friends and family members than they are trying to avoid observation by the government.”
The survey found some 64 percent of online adults clear “cookies” which store information, or their browser history and 41 percent have disabled cookies.
Some delete material they have posted in the past, create usernames that are hard to tie to them, use public computers to browse, or give inaccurate information about themselves.
Roughly 14 percent of the users survey said they at times encrypt email and 14 percent say they use services like virtual networks that allow them to browse without being tied to a specific Internet protocol (IP) address.
“Our team’s biggest surprise was discovering that many Internet users have tried to conceal their identity or their communications from others,” noted Sara Kiesler, an author of the report and a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University.
“It’s not just a small coterie of hackers. Almost everyone has taken some action to avoid surveillance. And despite their knowing that anonymity is virtually impossible, most Internet users think they should be able to avoid surveillance online — they think they should have a right to anonymity for certain things, like hiding posts from certain people or groups.”
Most Web users said would like more control over their personal information, saying in many cases it is important that only they or the people they authorize should be given access to their emails, their contacts, their locations and the content of what they download.
“These findings reinforce the notion that privacy is not an all-or-nothing proposition for internet users,” said Mary Madden, a Pew researcher. “People choose different strategies for different activities, for different content, to mask themselves from different people, at different times in their lives. What they clearly want is the power to decide who knows what about them.”
The researchers surveyed 1,002 adults, including 792 Internet and smartphone users, from July 11-14. The margin of error is 3.4 percentage points for the full survey group and 3.8 percentage points for Internet users.
September 4, 2013
On the Edge of Poverty, at the Center of a Debate on Food Stamps
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
DYERSBURG, Tenn. — As a self-described “true Southern man” — and reluctant recipient of food stamps — Dustin Rigsby, a struggling mechanic, hunts deer, doves and squirrels to help feed his family. He shops for grocery bargains, cooks budget-stretching stews and limits himself to one meal a day.
Tarnisha Adams, who left her job skinning hogs at a slaughterhouse when she became ill with cancer, gets $352 a month in food stamps for herself and three college-age sons. She buys discount meat and canned vegetables, cheaper than fresh. Like Mr. Rigsby, she eats once a day — “if I eat,” she said.
When Congress officially returns to Washington next week, the diets of families like the Rigsbys and the Adamses will be caught up in a debate over deficit reduction. Republicans, alarmed by a rise in food stamp enrollment, are pushing to revamp and scale down the program. Democrats are resisting the cuts.
No matter what Congress decides, benefits will be reduced in November, when a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expires.
Yet as lawmakers cast the fight in terms of spending, nonpartisan budget analysts and hunger relief advocates warn of a spike in “food insecurity” among Americans who, as Mr. Rigsby said recently, “look like we are fine,” but live on the edge of poverty, skipping meals and rationing food.
Surrounded by corn and soybean farms — including one owned by the local Republican congressman, Representative Stephen Fincher — Dyersburg, about 75 miles north of Memphis, provides an eye-opening view into Washington’s food stamp debate. Mr. Fincher, who was elected in 2010 on a Tea Party wave and collected nearly $3.5 million in farm subsidies from the government from 1999 to 2012, recently voted for a farm bill that omitted food stamps.
“The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country,” Mr. Fincher, whose office did not respond to interview requests, said after his vote in May. In response to a Democrat who invoked the Bible during the food stamp debate in Congress, Mr. Fincher cited his own biblical phrase. “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Department of Agriculture released a 2012 survey showing that nearly 49 million Americans were living in “food insecure” households — meaning, in the bureaucratic language of the agency, that some family members lacked “consistent access throughout the year to adequate food.” In short, many Americans went hungry. The agency found the figures essentially unchanged since the economic downturn began in 2008, but substantially higher than during the previous decade.
Experts say the problem is particularly acute in rural regions like Dyersburg, a city of 17,000 on the banks of the Forked Deer River in West Tennessee. More than half the counties with the highest concentration of food insecurity are rural, according to an analysis by Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks. In Dyer County, it found, 19.4 percent of residents were “food insecure” in 2011, compared with 16.4 percent nationwide.
Over all, nearly 48 million Americans now receive food stamps, an $80 billion-a-year program that is increasingly the target of conservatives. Robert Rector, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argues that the food stamp program should be overhauled so that benefits are tied to work, much as welfare was revamped under President Bill Clinton. He advocates mandatory drug testing for food stamp recipients — a position that draws support from Mr. Rigsby, who dreams of becoming a game warden and said it irritated him to see people “mooch off the system.”
But when benefits drop in November, the Rigsbys, who say they receive about $350 a month, can expect $29 less.
“People have a lot of misimpressions about hunger in America,” said Maura Daly, a Feeding America spokeswoman. “People think it’s associated with homelessness when, in fact, it is working poor families, it’s kids, it’s the disabled.” Hunger is often invisible, she said, and in rural areas it is even more so.
Hunger was easy to see on a recent morning in Dyersburg. Hundreds of people, many of them food stamp recipients, lined up at the county fairgrounds for boxes of free food — 21,000 pounds of meat, potatoes, grains and produce — that had been trucked in from a food bank in Memphis. About 80 volunteers set up an assembly line in a warehouse to distribute the food.
More than 700 families get help each month from the charitable program, Feed the Need, which was founded in 2009 by Mark Oakes, the chairman of the local Salvation Army, after a string of nearby factories closed.
“We couldn’t absorb the work force back into our community,” Mr. Oakes said, “and people were hungry.”
Among the first in line at the fairgrounds was Kathy Baucom, 61, a former welder disabled by lupus. She lives alone in a trailer, hunts deer — “last year I bagged seven,” she said — and makes burgers, roasts and jerky out of venison. Her food stamp benefits of $125 a month were recently reduced to $117.
“I don’t buy milk because it’s so expensive,” she said. “I don’t buy cheese.”
Officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, food stamps have long been a cornerstone of the federal safety net. Benefits, adjusted for income, are loaded monthly onto a government-issued debit card. Recipients say the money typically lasts a little more than two weeks.
“We don’t splurge,” Ms. Adams said, “and it doesn’t last.”
She shops at Save-A-Lot and cooks frequently with pasta, because it is filling. One recent evening, she baked a tray of mostaccioli, an Italian pasta, with meat and cheese. Hoping it would last for two meals, she had none herself.
“You hate to tell your child, ‘You can’t eat this, you have to save it for another day,’ ” she said.
For the Rigsbys, both 20, the priority is three meals a day for their son, Drake, who is 1. Some months they run out of milk. Mr. Rigsby, who is out of work with a knee injury, recently sold his truck for cash; his wife, Christina, works part time as a clerk at J. C. Penney. On the refrigerator in their sparsely furnished apartment is a calendar marked with the date — the 6th — that their card is refreshed. “FOOD!” it declares.
“When we got married, we told each other that we want to be able to sit down at the table and eat as a family,” Mrs. Rigsby said. “But we don’t really get to do that.”
In Washington, House Republicans propose cutting $40 billion more in food stamps over the next 10 years by imposing work requirements and eliminating waivers for some able-bodied adults. The cuts would push four million to six million low-income people, including millions of “very low-income unemployed parents” who want to work but cannot find jobs, off the rolls, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research organization.
Even if approved in the House, the cuts would face strong opposition from Democrats in the Senate. But the arguments of Mr. Rector, the Heritage Foundation scholar, are gaining traction with conservatives on Capitol Hill. “I think food stamps have in the Republican mind become the symbol of an out-of-control, means-tested welfare state,” Mr. Rector said.
Here in Tennessee, Mr. Fincher embraces that view. “We have to remember there is not a big printing press in Washington that continually prints money over and over,” he said in May.
Mr. Rigsby said his family would find a way to make do. “The way I was raised,” he said, “it’s, ‘Be thankful for what you’ve got.’ We’re not the worst case out there. But somebody else? How is this going to affect them?”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 4, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the 1-year-old son of Dustin and Christina Rigsby. It is Drake, not Blake.
September 4, 2013
Clinton Urges Americans to Sign Up for Health Care Exchanges
By ABBY GOODNOUGH and AMY CHOZICK
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — He chose his home state as the venue, and did not refrain from ticking off several problems he saw with the law. But former President Bill Clinton on Wednesday made a meticulous, if wonkish, case for Americans of all political leanings to embrace the Obama health care law.
“The health of our people, the security and stability of our families, and the strength of our economy are all riding on getting health care reform right and doing it well,” he said.
Less than a month before Americans can start shopping for insurance under the law, the speech comes at a pivotal time for the Obama administration, which needs millions of healthy Americans to buy insurance through new state-based markets in order for the law to work but faces an escalating campaign by Republicans to cut or eliminate the law’s financing. Even supporters of the law have criticized the administration as having done too little to explain and sell it to the public.
Mr. Clinton made the speech at the request of the White House, but on his own terms. He chose to deliver it at the glass building in downtown Little Rock that houses his presidential library. The venue allowed him to lend a hand to Senator Mark Pryor, a Democrat who is facing a difficult re-election fight here, and to start wooing his home state should his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, decide to make a presidential bid in 2016.
The former president avoided soaring rhetoric, even saying at the beginning of the 50-minute speech that he would “try to use very few adjectives” and instead just “explain how this works.”
“I have agreed to give this talk today because I am still amazed at how much misunderstanding there is about the current system of health care, how it works, how it compares with what other people in other countries pay for health care,” Mr. Clinton told the crowd assembled in a hall around the corner from a montage of black-and-white photographs of the 1992 presidential campaign. The audience of about 250 included Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, and Speaker Davy Carter of the Legislature and Michael Lamoureux, president of the State Senate, both Republicans.
Despite the bipartisan show, health care is a contentious topic in Arkansas politics that conservatives have seized on in local campaigns. Mr. Pryor did not attend the event for risk of being too closely associated with the health care law, according to one person with knowledge of his plans, but who was not authorized to discuss them publicly. A campaign spokesman has said that Mr. Pryor had a scheduling conflict.
With the new insurance markets set to open on Oct. 1 for an initial six-month enrollment period, the White House has asked cabinet officers and other presidential appointees to step up efforts to promote the law. The administration has also recruited actors and entertainers and is seeking athletes and disc jockeys to whip up enthusiasm. Last week, the singer Katy Perry retweeted a Twitter post from President Obama encouraging young people to sign up for coverage. He responded, “Thanks for spreading the word.”
Mr. Clinton’s speech, which the White House broadcast live on its Web site, was not the first time that the former president, whose own attempt to sell a universal health care law failed drastically in his first term, has stepped into the debate over the new law. At the Democratic National Convention last September, Mr. Clinton delivered an endorsement of Mr. Obama that included concrete, well-received explanations of his policies, including on health care. That speech in particular signaled to the White House that Mr. Clinton could be an effective surrogate to sell the highly complicated Affordable Care Act.
On Wednesday, the former president carefully laid out Mr. Obama’s plan without delving into politics. But his mere involvement in selling the law provides him with a platform to reframe the failed battles of “Hillarycare” from his own administration.
“It would not be in her interest to be running for president and have this be a huge controversial issue in 2016,” said Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy at Harvard who closely follows public opinion of the law. “The Clintons have a lot of interest in getting this up and working and making it a legacy for the Democratic side.”
Reading glasses perched on his nose, Mr. Clinton struck a professorial tone as he explained in extensive detail the intricacies of the act. He laid out who would qualify for federal subsidies to help pay for the cost of coverage through the new markets and even ticked off Web addresses and phone numbers where Americans could find information.
Calling the current system “unaffordable and downright unhealthy for millions of Americans,” he emphasized that other prosperous countries “cover everybody and do it at far less cost,” and bemoaned that the United States ranks “first by a country mile” in the percentage of income spent on health care.
Mr. Clinton said that last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding the law created a “whopper” of a problem by allowing states to opt out of expanding Medicaid and covering more low-income people. Almost half the states subsequently refused to expand the program, which will leave far more people uninsured than Mr. Obama had planned.
But Mr. Clinton praised Mr. Beebe and the Republican-controlled State Legislature here for agreeing on a compromise. Under Arkansas’s so-called “private option,” federal money that was supposed to support an expansion of Medicaid will instead help eligible residents buy private insurance through the state’s new online marketplace, or exchange.
Without mentioning Mrs. Clinton’s efforts specifically, Mr. Clinton talked about the longtime opposition to universal coverage. Perhaps the most pointed criticism came in the 1990s when the health insurance lobby introduced the multimillion-dollar “Harry and Louise” television campaign to protest the Clintons’ proposed health care overhaul.
“We’d all be better off working together to make it work as well as possible,” Mr. Clinton said, “instead of to keep replaying the same old battles.”
Mr. Clinton said the law did have some problematic provisions, including one that prohibits many people with modest incomes who cannot get insurance through their spouses’ jobs from buying subsidized coverage through the new marketplaces. But he stressed that such problems could be fixed if opponents of the law in Congress and in state governments would drop their resistance.
“We’ve got to do this,” Mr. Clinton said.
Robert Pear and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Washington.
Heartbreaking Moment: Democrat Asks Kerry for a Veteran if Syria Evidence is Real
By: Sarah Jones
Sep. 4th, 2013
Representative Juan Vargas (D-CA) asked a heartbreaking question Wednesday during the House Syria hearings. He asked on behalf of a veteran if the Syria evidence was real.
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA): First of all, I’d like to say before I ask an embarrassing question. I have the greatest respect for all of you… On Saturday however, I had the opportunity to speak to a small group of veterans in my district in San Diego before I flew here for the classified briefing on Sunday, and they asked a question I think, and I told them I would ask. I first told them I wouldn’t, but they convinced me that it was a good question. That is that one of them has a son in the military today, and he believes that last time we went running off to war that the facts that were given were lies, were misleading. And what he wanted was one thing, and I told him all I read, and certainly now all that I have read does lead me to believe that chemical weapons were used and that children were gassed, and because of that we do have to act. But he wanted you to promise that the facts you have given us are true to the best of your ability. That you’re not lying. That you’re not holding anything back. That what we’ve seen. That what I’ve read, and I’ve read everything given to us twice now to make sure I’ve read everything. I want to make sure that you promise us, you’re telling the truth.
Sec. of State John Kerry: Congressman, I’m proud and perfectly willing to tell you that everything I’ve said is the truth. And based on the information that’s been presented to me, and as I have based on my own experience in war which I resolved to do if I ever was in a position to make any choices in the future fully vetted, and I’m comfortable with it. And I wouldn’t possibly make this recommendation if I weren’t comfortable with it. I believe we’ve vetted this. We’ve double checked it. Asked the intel people to rescrub. We’ve even had a separate team created that had independent from the original to totally vet, check all the analysis find out if it could have been an opposition or anything else, and in every case I would say for myself and everybody that we have sat around the table with there is a comfort level that is rare in this kind of situation. I wouldn’t have said we can prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt if I didn’t believe it.
These hearings are part of the dialogue that should take place before any military strike. The questions that need to be asked and answered before decisions are made are: What is the evidence? What agencies/countries validate the evidence? What is the exit plan? Will this save civilian lives? Who is with us and who is not, and why? How would we define victory? What are the risks in terms of retaliation? How do our values inform the risks of retaliation against the perceived moral need to act?
The hard thing for citizens and our troops is that we are not privy to classified information, which has been referenced consistently throughout the hearing. This leaves us, in the end, having to take a leap of faith or fall into cynicism, neither of which is logical.
The saddest thing of all is that lies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have left the scar tissue of mistrust on our collective psyche. It is so bad that even veterans who served their country now have doubts. It is heartbreaking to think that we can’t stand together because the lies of George W. Bush destroyed our trust and tore us apart.
Bernie Sanders Makes The Most Compelling Argument You’ll Ever Hear For NOT Striking Syria
By: Jason Easley
Sep. 4th, 2013
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made an argument against military action in Syria that was easily the most compelling case that anyone on either side of the debate has offered.
Sen. Sanders said:
I’m keeping an open mind, and I want to hear everything the administration has to say, but I would be less than honest with you if I didn’t say I have very, very deep concerns about this proposal.
Here are my concerns Ed, and there are a number of them. Number one, the Congress as everybody knows is significantly dysfunctional today, and in the midst of a collapsing middle class, high unemployment, low wages, global warming, and all of the other major problems our country faces, We’re not dealing with them today, and what do you think happens if we get involved in a war in Syria where all the attention will be? How are we going to address the major problems facing our people?
Issue number two. The president talks about a surgical strike, limited engagement. But listen carefully to what people like Sen. McCain are talking about. That’s not what they’re talking about. They’re talking about regime change. They’re talking about overthrowing Assad. And that means billions and billions of dollars, and if the effort does not go well sometime in the future, it could, it could mean troops on the ground.
Third point, you know, we talk about a world of law. I have real concerns about the United States acting unilaterally without the United Nations, without NATO, without the international community. I think that sets a terrible precedent in the years to come for other countries to take similar action, and what are we going to say if Russia or China goes to war.
The clincher in Sen. Sanders argument is that the cost of this action may be paid for by the poor, “Our Republican friends have made it very clear. They’re not going to ask the wealthy or large corporations to pay more in taxes. They already want to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. What may well be happening is the cost of this war may be paid for by more kids being thrown off Head Start. Senior citizens being thrown off Meals on Wheels programs. Educational programs being cut. The Republicans would go in that way to pay for this war. That’s clear to me.”
It turns out that the most compelling argument against military action in Syria is a simple one. We can’t trust the Republicans not to drag us into another war. Sen. Sanders separated the surgical strikes that President Obama wants from the long term goal of regime change that neo-con hawks like John McCain are pushing for.
President Obama isn’t going to be in office forever, so the question is would a future president use the authorization of 2013 as justification for full scale war elsewhere in the region after the current president leaves office? I think this is much more realistic possibility than the idea that Obama is about to take the country into a full scale Iraq style war. The precedent for overreaching on an authorization has already been set. Remember, George W. Bush used the authorization of force in Afghanistan as justification for the invasion of Iraq.
I trust Obama’s judgment, but I don’t trust John McCain, or any potential future Republican president to do the responsible thing.
Bernie Sanders made a compelling argument by not screaming that Syria will be another Iraq, calling Obama a warmonger, or dreaming up fear based fantasy scenarios for a full scale war with Syria.
Just saying no, and we don’t belong there isn’t enough. The humanitarian argument for intervention is a strong one, but an equally strong case can be made for Democrats pushing to spend the money that would be spent in Syria on restoring some funding to the food stamp program or Meals on Wheels.
Sen. Sanders made the best argument that you will ever hear against military strikes in Syria. He made his case without insulting the president. He has kept an open minded, and acknowledged what a difficult decision this is.
One thing is clear. The country is benefiting from the debate that President Obama has encouraged our nation to have. No matter the outcome of the congressional vote, the American people aren’t being steamrolled into more military action.
The thoughtful views of people like Bernie Sanders are getting a full airing, and the the nation is better off because of it.
Three Incredibly Stupid Things Right Wingers Have Said That You Won’t Believe
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Sep. 4th, 2013
Angry GodOh my God! Oh my God! Have you ever heard such good news? Finally! Silence! Even if it is the silence of the grave, it has to be better than listening to clowns like Janet Mefferd, Peter LaBarbera and Sandy Rios, to name just three.
But that’s exactly what Janet Mefferd promises. She says that if SCOTUS legalizes same-sex marriage that God will strike! Zap! Crispy critters, earthlings! And not only that:
And every single Founding Father will flip in his grave and God in his Heaven will still have that arrow, that bow and arrow pointed at us, that Jonathan Edwards talked about in ‘Sinners in the hands of an Angry God,’ holding the bow and arrow, holding back His wrath, but only for a time.
Okay, so maybe not crispy critter but pincushions. But still! Great news, right? I will be so glad when it’s over (so will the Founding Fathers – can you imagine flopping around like that?), because so many of these people have been left behind, and I’m not talking about evolution here though that’s also a problem.
Nossir. I’m talking about God gathering up his wayward kidlettes and bringing them home to his wrathful bosom in the sky.
And LaBarbera, of Americans for a Bunch of Made-up Shit About Homosexuality…well, here’s a guy who reverses reality so he can feel good about himself. You see, in his deranged world – well a lot of things are true in his deranged world – the granting rights is a form of tyranny (in the rest of the world it’s the taking away of rights that is tyranny):
The homosexual agenda is about restricting people’s liberty and freedom,” LaBarbera told Mefferd, “We have to get back to showing where the true discrimination is: the citizens of New Jersey just lost their freedom here; we have got to get back to emphasizing that we are for true liberty.
Now of course, there is no gay conversion therapy in either the Old or New Testament so the bigots of New Jersey haven’t lost a damn thing, and not only that, but helpless minors are saved from ruthlessly deranged parents who listen to people like Janet Mefferd and Peter LaBarbera.
And no, I haven’t forgotten Sandy Rios. You’ve probably been wondering what the Religious Right’s reaction to intervening in Syria might be. Lemme tell ya: Sandy Rios says she doesn’t think it’s going to go well because gay guys don’t make good soldiers and women soldiers…well, shoot like girls. I know, can you believe it?
It’s getting more exaggerated. This is the nature of John Kerry, he always does this; he’s not to be trusted. This is the reason why I think we have to be concerned about going into Syria because the people that we’re looking at to lead us are untrustworthy people. There’s a second reason and that is military readiness. When I looked at those battleships going into the Mediterranean, supposedly getting ready for battle in Syria, I couldn’t help think about all the stories I’ve read about how women now are in the ranks of the Navy, getting pregnant at exponential numbers; when I think about the folding in and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the homosexual takeover of so much of our military I’m not sure how effective those naval ships will be.
(I don’t know about you but when I read stuff like this I just have the urge to giggle insanely).
So I guess the deal is that all the gay guys with their limp wrists and the women with their girlie shooting motion are going to bollocks things up good. I mean, who do you win a war with soldiers like that, right, Sandy?
Everyone knows it takes hate to be a good Christian soldier. It’s not a job for gays and women. So we ought to send some Christian crusaders over there to take some bullets. I mean, they can soak up lead with the best of them, right?
I nominate Sandy to lead them. A good leader gets out in front of her troops and I can’t think of a better person to take that lead position than Sandy Rios. Her faith will be her armor and she can smite Saracens and recapture the Holy Land and find the True Cross and all that in record time. And as she passes through Antioch on her way to Damascus to depose Assad she might even find the Holy Hand Grenade.
Just remember to use it exactly as prescribed, Sandy! Reading from Armaments, chapter two, verses nine to twenty-one it ought to go something like this.
Sandy Rios: And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, ‘O Lord, bless this Thy hand grenade that, with it, Thou mayest blow Thine enemies to tiny bits in Thy mercy.’ And the Lord did grin, and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals and fruit bats….
And the Lord spake, saying, ‘First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three. No more. No less. Three shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then, lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.’
So come on down and start your smiting, God, because we have a lot of feasting to do and we can’t enjoy it listening to tools like Sandy Rios, Janet Mefferd and Peter LaBarbera. I mean, seriously. Wrath be damned. With these design flaws there ought to be a recall. GM can do it. Why can’t you?
Revealed: How US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security
• NSA and GCHQ unlock encryption used to protect emails, banking and medical records
• $250m-a-year US program works covertly with tech companies to insert weaknesses into products
• Security experts say programs 'undermine the fabric of the internet'
James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald
The Guardian, Friday 6 September 2013
US and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.
This story has been reported in partnership between the New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica based on documents obtained by the Guardian.
For the Guardian: James Ball, Julian Borger, Glenn Greenwald
The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have broadly compromised the guarantees that internet companies have given consumers to reassure them that their communications, online banking and medical records would be indecipherable to criminals or governments.
The agencies, the documents reveal, have adopted a battery of methods in their systematic and ongoing assault on what they see as one of the biggest threats to their ability to access huge swathes of internet traffic – "the use of ubiquitous encryption across the internet".
Those methods include covert measures to ensure NSA control over setting of international encryption standards, the use of supercomputers to break encryption with "brute force", and – the most closely guarded secret of all – collaboration with technology companies and internet service providers themselves.
Through these covert partnerships, the agencies have inserted secret vulnerabilities – known as backdoors or trapdoors – into commercial encryption software.
The files, from both the NSA and GCHQ, were obtained by the Guardian, and the details are being published today in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica. They reveal:
• A 10-year NSA program against encryption technologies made a breakthrough in 2010 which made "vast amounts" of data collected through internet cable taps newly "exploitable".
• The NSA spends $250m a year on a program which, among other goals, works with technology companies to "covertly influence" their product designs.
• The secrecy of their capabilities against encryption is closely guarded, with analysts warned: "Do not ask about or speculate on sources or methods."
• The NSA describes strong decryption programs as the "price of admission for the US to maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace".
• A GCHQ team has been working to develop ways into encrypted traffic on the "big four" service providers, named as Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.
NSA diagram This network diagram, from a GCHQ pilot program, shows how the agency proposed a system to identify encrypted traffic from its internet cable-tapping programs and decrypt what it could in near-real time. Photograph: Guardian
The agencies insist that the ability to defeat encryption is vital to their core missions of counter-terrorism and foreign intelligence gathering.
But security experts accused them of attacking the internet itself and the privacy of all users. "Cryptography forms the basis for trust online," said Bruce Schneier, an encryption specialist and fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "By deliberately undermining online security in a short-sighted effort to eavesdrop, the NSA is undermining the very fabric of the internet." Classified briefings between the agencies celebrate their success at "defeating network security and privacy".
"For the past decade, NSA has lead [sic] an aggressive, multi-pronged effort to break widely used internet encryption technologies," stated a 2010 GCHQ document. "Vast amounts of encrypted internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable."
An internal agency memo noted that among British analysts shown a presentation on the NSA's progress: "Those not already briefed were gobsmacked!"
The breakthrough, which was not described in detail in the documents, meant the intelligence agencies were able to monitor "large amounts" of data flowing through the world's fibre-optic cables and break its encryption, despite assurances from internet company executives that this data was beyond the reach of government.
The key component of the NSA's battle against encryption, its collaboration with technology companies, is detailed in the US intelligence community's top-secret 2013 budget request under the heading "Sigint [signals intelligence] enabling".
NSA Bullrun 1 Classified briefings between the NSA and GCHQ celebrate their success at 'defeating network security and privacy'. Photograph: Guardian
Funding for the program – $254.9m for this year – dwarfs that of the Prism program, which operates at a cost of $20m a year, according to previous NSA documents. Since 2011, the total spending on Sigint enabling has topped $800m. The program "actively engages US and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products' designs", the document states. None of the companies involved in such partnerships are named; these details are guarded by still higher levels of classification.
Among other things, the program is designed to "insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems". These would be known to the NSA, but to no one else, including ordinary customers, who are tellingly referred to in the document as "adversaries".
"These design changes make the systems in question exploitable through Sigint collection … with foreknowledge of the modification. To the consumer and other adversaries, however, the systems' security remains intact."
The document sets out in clear terms the program's broad aims, including making commercial encryption software "more tractable" to NSA attacks by "shaping" the worldwide marketplace and continuing efforts to break into the encryption used by the next generation of 4G phones.
Among the specific accomplishments for 2013, the NSA expects the program to obtain access to "data flowing through a hub for a major communications provider" and to a "major internet peer-to-peer voice and text communications system".
Technology companies maintain that they work with the intelligence agencies only when legally compelled to do so. The Guardian has previously reported that Microsoft co-operated with the NSA to circumvent encryption on the Outlook.com email and chat services. The company insisted that it was obliged to comply with "existing or future lawful demands" when designing its products.
The documents show that the agency has already achieved another of the goals laid out in the budget request: to influence the international standards upon which encryption systems rely.
Independent security experts have long suspected that the NSA has been introducing weaknesses into security standards, a fact confirmed for the first time by another secret document. It shows the agency worked covertly to get its own version of a draft security standard issued by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology approved for worldwide use in 2006.
"Eventually, NSA became the sole editor," the document states.
The NSA's codeword for its decryption program, Bullrun, is taken from a major battle of the American civil war. Its British counterpart, Edgehill, is named after the first major engagement of the English civil war, more than 200 years earlier.
A classification guide for NSA employees and contractors on Bullrun outlines in broad terms its goals.
"Project Bullrun deals with NSA's abilities to defeat the encryption used in specific network communication technologies. Bullrun involves multiple sources, all of which are extremely sensitive." The document reveals that the agency has capabilities against widely used online protocols, such as HTTPS, voice-over-IP and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), used to protect online shopping and banking.
The document also shows that the NSA's Commercial Solutions Center, ostensibly the body through which technology companies can have their security products assessed and presented to prospective government buyers, has another, more clandestine role.
It is used by the NSA to "to leverage sensitive, co-operative relationships with specific industry partners" to insert vulnerabilities into security products. Operatives were warned that this information must be kept top secret "at a minimum".
A more general NSA classification guide reveals more detail on the agency's deep partnerships with industry, and its ability to modify products. It cautions analysts that two facts must remain top secret: that NSA makes modifications to commercial encryption software and devices "to make them exploitable", and that NSA "obtains cryptographic details of commercial cryptographic information security systems through industry relationships".
The agencies have not yet cracked all encryption technologies, however, the documents suggest. Snowden appeared to confirm this during a live Q&A with Guardian readers in June. "Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on," he said before warning that NSA can frequently find ways around it as a result of weak security on the computers at either end of the communication.
The documents are scattered with warnings over the importance of maintaining absolute secrecy around decryption capabilities.
NSA Bullrun 2 A slide showing that the secrecy of the agencies' capabilities against encryption is closely guarded. Photograph: Guardian
Strict guidelines were laid down at the GCHQ complex in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on how to discuss projects relating to decryption. Analysts were instructed: "Do not ask about or speculate on sources or methods underpinning Bullrun." This informaton was so closely guarded, according to one document, that even those with access to aspects of the program were warned: "There will be no 'need to know'."
The agencies were supposed to be "selective in which contractors are given exposure to this information", but it was ultimately seen by Snowden, one of 850,000 people in the US with top-secret clearance.A 2009 GCHQ document spells out the significant potential consequences of any leaks, including "damage to industry relationships".
"Loss of confidence in our ability to adhere to confidentiality agreements would lead to loss of access to proprietary information that can save time when developing new capability," intelligence workers were told. Somewhat less important to GCHQ was the public's trust which was marked as a moderate risk, the document stated.
"Some exploitable products are used by the general public; some exploitable weaknesses are well known eg possibility of recovering poorly chosen passwords," it said. "Knowledge that GCHQ exploits these products and the scale of our capability would raise public awareness generating unwelcome publicity for us and our political masters."
The decryption effort is particularly important to GCHQ. Its strategic advantage from its Tempora program – direct taps on transatlantic fibre-optic cables of major telecommunications corporations – was in danger of eroding as more and more big internet companies encrypted their traffic, responding to customer demands for guaranteed privacy.
Without attention, the 2010 GCHQ document warned, the UK's "Sigint utility will degrade as information flows changes, new applications are developed (and deployed) at pace and widespread encryption becomes more commonplace." Documents show that Edgehill's initial aim was to decode the encrypted traffic certified by three major (unnamed) internet companies and 30 types of Virtual Private Network (VPN) – used by businesses to provide secure remote access to their systems. By 2015, GCHQ hoped to have cracked the codes used by 15 major internet companies, and 300 VPNs.
Another program, codenamed Cheesy Name, was aimed at singling out encryption keys, known as 'certificates', that might be vulnerable to being cracked by GCHQ supercomputers.
Analysts on the Edgehill project were working on ways into the networks of major webmail providers as part of the decryption project. A quarterly update from 2012 notes the project's team "continue to work on understanding" the big four communication providers, named in the document as Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook, adding "work has predominantly been focused this quarter on Google due to new access opportunities being developed".
To help secure an insider advantage, GCHQ also established a Humint Operations Team (HOT). Humint, short for "human intelligence" refers to information gleaned directly from sources or undercover agents.
This GCHQ team was, according to an internal document, "responsible for identifying, recruiting and running covert agents in the global telecommunications industry."
"This enables GCHQ to tackle some of its most challenging targets," the report said. The efforts made by the NSA and GCHQ against encryption technologies may have negative consequences for all internet users, experts warn.
"Backdoors are fundamentally in conflict with good security," said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Backdoors expose all users of a backdoored system, not just intelligence agency targets, to heightened risk of data compromise." This is because the insertion of backdoors in a software product, particularly those that can be used to obtain unencrypted user communications or data, significantly increases the difficulty of designing a secure product."
This was a view echoed in a recent paper by Stephanie Pell, a former prosecutor at the US Department of Justice and non-resident fellow at the Center for Internet and Security at Stanford Law School.
"[An] encrypted communications system with a lawful interception back door is far more likely to result in the catastrophic loss of communications confidentiality than a system that never has access to the unencrypted communications of its users," she states.
Intelligence officials asked the Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica not to publish this article, saying that it might prompt foreign targets to switch to new forms of encryption or communications that would be harder to collect or read.
The three organisations removed some specific facts but decided to publish the story because of the value of a public debate about government actions that weaken the most powerful tools for protecting the privacy of internet users in the US and worldwide.
How internet encryption works
You may not realise you use encryption, but you probably do – and if someone breaks it, your details are theirs to own
Charles Arthur, technology editor
The Guardian, Thursday 5 September 2013 20.19 BST
Don't be fooled by the suggestion that only terrorists, paedophiles and those with "something to hide" use encryption on the internet. Anyone who shops online uses it – though probably without realising that that's what the padlock symbol in the address bar of their browser means.
When you see that padlock on a shopping site or bank site, or when you use Skype for video chat, or Apple's iMessage, or BlackBerry's messaging and email systems, or a host of others, your communication is encrypted. If someone breaks that encryption, your details – such as your credit card, address, and what you're buying – are theirs to own.
Modern computer-based encryption uses "public-key encryption", which has been in use since 1973 – having been developed, in secret, by GCHQ. (It finally admitted its work in 1997.)
Public key encryption relies on the fact that it is much harder to figure out the factors of a number – what numbers were multiplied together to produce it – than to multiply them to make the number. Quick, what two numbers do you multiply together to produce 323? (Answer at the end.) If you choose two large prime numbers, a computer can multiply them together easily, but it can't deconstruct the result with anything like the same ease.
The key to public key encryption is thus to generate large numbers using numbers that only you (or your computer) know. The large number can be published online, and used to encrypt a message using specific and well-tested mathematical formulae. In effect, the large number is a digital padlock which you make available to anyone so they can secure a message. Only you hold the keys to the padlock, so it doesn't matter how many copies are out there. When you link to a shopping site, the creation of the secure link is enabled in the first place by that padlock-and-key process.
But if someone can figure out the factors of the big number, they have in effect cracked your padlock. The difficulty of doing so rises with the size of the number: "brute force" decryption attempts to find its factors by slogging through the number range. A key's strength is measured by the number of digital bits it uses, and the encryption method. The old benchmark used to be a 40-bit "key" encoded with the RC4 algorithm; these days that could be cracked in moments by a standard desktop computer. These days, 256 bits or more (which theoretically should take thousands of years to crack) is common.
While the NSA, GCHQ and other intelligence agencies can afford to spend millions on custom-built chips to crack encrypted signals, many hackers have begun to use the power of modern graphics processing units (which drive the screen on your computer) to crack passwords. The latest software can manage 8bn guesses per second – and crack passwords up to 55 characters long. Crack that, and you can access the user's account – at which point, encryption might not matter.
(Answer: 323 is the multiple of 17 and 19 – both prime numbers.)
The US government has betrayed the internet. We need to take it back
The NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. We engineers built the internet – and now we have to fix it
The Guardian, Thursday 5 September 2013 20.04 BST
Government and industry have betrayed the internet, and us.
By subverting the internet at every level to make it a vast, multi-layered and robust surveillance platform, the NSA has undermined a fundamental social contract. The companies that build and manage our internet infrastructure, the companies that create and sell us our hardware and software, or the companies that host our data: we can no longer trust them to be ethical internet stewards.
This is not the internet the world needs, or the internet its creators envisioned. We need to take it back.
And by we, I mean the engineering community.
Yes, this is primarily a political problem, a policy matter that requires political intervention.
But this is also an engineering problem, and there are several things engineers can – and should – do.
One, we should expose. If you do not have a security clearance, and if you have not received a National Security Letter, you are not bound by a federal confidentially requirements or a gag order. If you have been contacted by the NSA to subvert a product or protocol, you need to come forward with your story. Your employer obligations don't cover illegal or unethical activity. If you work with classified data and are truly brave, expose what you know. We need whistleblowers.
We need to know how exactly how the NSA and other agencies are subverting routers, switches, the internet backbone, encryption technologies and cloud systems. I already have five stories from people like you, and I've just started collecting. I want 50. There's safety in numbers, and this form of civil disobedience is the moral thing to do.
Two, we can design. We need to figure out how to re-engineer the internet to prevent this kind of wholesale spying. We need new techniques to prevent communications intermediaries from leaking private information.
We can make surveillance expensive again. In particular, we need open protocols, open implementations, open systems – these will be harder for the NSA to subvert.
The Internet Engineering Task Force, the group that defines the standards that make the internet run, has a meeting planned for early November in Vancouver. This group needs to dedicate its next meeting to this task. This is an emergency, and demands an emergency response.
Three, we can influence governance. I have resisted saying this up to now, and I am saddened to say it, but the US has proved to be an unethical steward of the internet. The UK is no better. The NSA's actions are legitimizing the internet abuses by China, Russia, Iran and others. We need to figure out new means of internet governance, ones that makes it harder for powerful tech countries to monitor everything. For example, we need to demand transparency, oversight, and accountability from our governments and corporations.
Unfortunately, this is going play directly into the hands of totalitarian governments that want to control their country's internet for even more extreme forms of surveillance. We need to figure out how to prevent that, too. We need to avoid the mistakes of the International Telecommunications Union, which has become a forum to legitimize bad government behavior, and create truly international governance that can't be dominated or abused by any one country.
Generations from now, when people look back on these early decades of the internet, I hope they will not be disappointed in us. We can ensure that they don't only if each of us makes this a priority, and engages in the debate. We have a moral duty to do this, and we have no time to lose.
Dismantling the surveillance state won't be easy. Has any country that engaged in mass surveillance of its own citizens voluntarily given up that capability? Has any mass surveillance country avoided becoming totalitarian? Whatever happens, we're going to be breaking new ground.
Again, the politics of this is a bigger task than the engineering, but the engineering is critical. We need to demand that real technologists be involved in any key government decision making on these issues. We've had enough of lawyers and politicians not fully understanding technology; we need technologists at the table when we build tech policy.
To the engineers, I say this: we built the internet, and some of us have helped to subvert it. Now, those of us who love liberty have to fix it.
• Bruce Schneier writes about security, technology, and people. His latest book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive. He is working for the Guardian on other NSA stories
How to remain secure against NSA surveillance
The NSA has huge capabilities – and if it wants in to your computer, it's in. With that in mind, here are five ways to stay safe
theguardian.com, Thursday 5 September 2013 20.06 BST
Now that we have enough details about how the NSA eavesdrops on the internet, including today's disclosures of the NSA's deliberate weakening of cryptographic systems, we can finally start to figure out how to protect ourselves.
For the past two weeks, I have been working with the Guardian on NSA stories, and have read hundreds of top-secret NSA documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. I wasn't part of today's story – it was in process well before I showed up – but everything I read confirms what the Guardian is reporting.
At this point, I feel I can provide some advice for keeping secure against such an adversary.
The primary way the NSA eavesdrops on internet communications is in the network. That's where their capabilities best scale. They have invested in enormous programs to automatically collect and analyze network traffic. Anything that requires them to attack individual endpoint computers is significantly more costly and risky for them, and they will do those things carefully and sparingly.
Leveraging its secret agreements with telecommunications companies – all the US and UK ones, and many other "partners" around the world – the NSA gets access to the communications trunks that move internet traffic. In cases where it doesn't have that sort of friendly access, it does its best to surreptitiously monitor communications channels: tapping undersea cables, intercepting satellite communications, and so on.
That's an enormous amount of data, and the NSA has equivalently enormous capabilities to quickly sift through it all, looking for interesting traffic. "Interesting" can be defined in many ways: by the source, the destination, the content, the individuals involved, and so on. This data is funneled into the vast NSA system for future analysis.
The NSA collects much more metadata about internet traffic: who is talking to whom, when, how much, and by what mode of communication. Metadata is a lot easier to store and analyze than content. It can be extremely personal to the individual, and is enormously valuable intelligence.
The Systems Intelligence Directorate is in charge of data collection, and the resources it devotes to this is staggering. I read status report after status report about these programs, discussing capabilities, operational details, planned upgrades, and so on. Each individual problem – recovering electronic signals from fiber, keeping up with the terabyte streams as they go by, filtering out the interesting stuff – has its own group dedicated to solving it. Its reach is global.
The NSA also attacks network devices directly: routers, switches, firewalls, etc. Most of these devices have surveillance capabilities already built in; the trick is to surreptitiously turn them on. This is an especially fruitful avenue of attack; routers are updated less frequently, tend not to have security software installed on them, and are generally ignored as a vulnerability.
The NSA also devotes considerable resources to attacking endpoint computers. This kind of thing is done by its TAO – Tailored Access Operations – group. TAO has a menu of exploits it can serve up against your computer – whether you're running Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, or something else – and a variety of tricks to get them on to your computer. Your anti-virus software won't detect them, and you'd have trouble finding them even if you knew where to look. These are hacker tools designed by hackers with an essentially unlimited budget. What I took away from reading the Snowden documents was that if the NSA wants in to your computer, it's in. Period.
The NSA deals with any encrypted data it encounters more by subverting the underlying cryptography than by leveraging any secret mathematical breakthroughs. First, there's a lot of bad cryptography out there. If it finds an internet connection protected by MS-CHAP, for example, that's easy to break and recover the key. It exploits poorly chosen user passwords, using the same dictionary attacks hackers use in the unclassified world.
As was revealed today, the NSA also works with security product vendors to ensure that commercial encryption products are broken in secret ways that only it knows about. We know this has happened historically: CryptoAG and Lotus Notes are the most public examples, and there is evidence of a back door in Windows. A few people have told me some recent stories about their experiences, and I plan to write about them soon. Basically, the NSA asks companies to subtly change their products in undetectable ways: making the random number generator less random, leaking the key somehow, adding a common exponent to a public-key exchange protocol, and so on. If the back door is discovered, it's explained away as a mistake. And as we now know, the NSA has enjoyed enormous success from this program.
TAO also hacks into computers to recover long-term keys. So if you're running a VPN that uses a complex shared secret to protect your data and the NSA decides it cares, it might try to steal that secret. This kind of thing is only done against high-value targets.
How do you communicate securely against such an adversary? Snowden said it in an online Q&A soon after he made his first document public: "Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on."
I believe this is true, despite today's revelations and tantalizing hints of "groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities" made by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence in another top-secret document. Those capabilities involve deliberately weakening the cryptography.
Snowden's follow-on sentence is equally important: "Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it."
Endpoint means the software you're using, the computer you're using it on, and the local network you're using it in. If the NSA can modify the encryption algorithm or drop a Trojan on your computer, all the cryptography in the world doesn't matter at all. If you want to remain secure against the NSA, you need to do your best to ensure that the encryption can operate unimpeded.
With all this in mind, I have five pieces of advice:
1) Hide in the network. Implement hidden services. Use Tor to anonymize yourself. Yes, the NSA targets Tor users, but it's work for them. The less obvious you are, the safer you are.
2) Encrypt your communications. Use TLS. Use IPsec. Again, while it's true that the NSA targets encrypted connections – and it may have explicit exploits against these protocols – you're much better protected than if you communicate in the clear.
3) Assume that while your computer can be compromised, it would take work and risk on the part of the NSA – so it probably isn't. If you have something really important, use an air gap. Since I started working with the Snowden documents, I bought a new computer that has never been connected to the internet. If I want to transfer a file, I encrypt the file on the secure computer and walk it over to my internet computer, using a USB stick. To decrypt something, I reverse the process. This might not be bulletproof, but it's pretty good.
4) Be suspicious of commercial encryption software, especially from large vendors. My guess is that most encryption products from large US companies have NSA-friendly back doors, and many foreign ones probably do as well. It's prudent to assume that foreign products also have foreign-installed backdoors. Closed-source software is easier for the NSA to backdoor than open-source software. Systems relying on master secrets are vulnerable to the NSA, through either legal or more clandestine means.
5) Try to use public-domain encryption that has to be compatible with other implementations. For example, it's harder for the NSA to backdoor TLS than BitLocker, because any vendor's TLS has to be compatible with every other vendor's TLS, while BitLocker only has to be compatible with itself, giving the NSA a lot more freedom to make changes. And because BitLocker is proprietary, it's far less likely those changes will be discovered. Prefer symmetric cryptography over public-key cryptography. Prefer conventional discrete-log-based systems over elliptic-curve systems; the latter have constants that the NSA influences when they can.
Since I started working with Snowden's documents, I have been using GPG, Silent Circle, Tails, OTR, TrueCrypt, BleachBit, and a few other things I'm not going to write about. There's an undocumented encryption feature in my Password Safe program from the command line); I've been using that as well.
I understand that most of this is impossible for the typical internet user. Even I don't use all these tools for most everything I am working on. And I'm still primarily on Windows, unfortunately. Linux would be safer.
The NSA has turned the fabric of the internet into a vast surveillance platform, but they are not magical. They're limited by the same economic realities as the rest of us, and our best defense is to make surveillance of us as expensive as possible.
Trust the math. Encryption is your friend. Use it well, and do your best to ensure that nothing can compromise it. That's how you can remain secure even in the face of the NSA.
Obama pushes for Syria support from G20 as Congress undecided on strikes
President expected to make direct appeal to American people to corral further support for military action against Assad
Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Thursday 5 September 2013 21.25 BST
Barack Obama began personally calling wavering US lawmakers during his trip to Russia on Thursday as his pursuit of congressional authorisation for military action against Syria threatened to drag on well into next week.
The majority of Congress remains undecided, according to various unofficial "whip counts" collated in Washington, and the president has cancelled a trip to California planned for next week to "to work on the Syrian resolution before Congress", according to a White House official.
Obama is also expected to make a direct to appeal to the American people in a televised address from the oval office when he returns from the G20 summit in Russia.
Although the White House received a boost on Wednesday when an influential Senate committee narrowly voted in favour of military action, the introduction of clauses calling for regime change by hawkish Republicans has complicated efforts to secure support among more liberal Democrats.
"I am firmly undecided at this point," said senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, on Thursday. "This is a very difficult issue."
A running tally maintained by CNN estimated 24 senators were preparing to vote yes against 17 leaning no, with the remaining 59 undecided. In the House, the position appears reversed with 97 leaning against and only 28 so far declared in favour.
The perceived lack of domestic support for US intervention is proving to be a major impediment to the administration's efforts to persuade Congress.
Four recent polls have shown a majority of Americans oppose the idea of retaliatory airstrikes, with one poll last week by the Washington Post and ABC News showing 59% are against the White House strategy versus 36% in favour.
The administration was also put on the back foot Thursday by a New York Times report detailing alleged atrocities by Syrian rebel fighters.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the apparent attack and said the US was seeking more information from rebel commanders.
She angrily rejected Russian claims, however, that secretary of state John Kerry had lied to Congress by downplaying the role of extremists in the rebel forces. Russian president Pig Putin claimed Kerry had denied any al-Qaida involvement, but the State Department said he was just saying its extent was exaggerated.
"Secretary Kerry is a decorated combat veteran who has had more than words aimed at him so he is not losing sleep over such as preposterous comment which was based on a misquote anyway," said Psaki.
She also insisted the administration remained confident of securing congressional backing for a response to alleged Syrian chemical weapons use. "Based on our conversation with members of Congress we are confident that they are not going to let this brutal act go unanswered," said Psaki.
Kerry will fly to Paris and London this weekend to help shore up international support for action against Syria amid various reports about the size of the coalition aligned with the US.
New UN ambassador Samantha Power, a noted advocate of humanitarian intervention, will also step up the administration's public lobbying on Friday with a speech to Center for American Progress in Washington expected to draw on her experiences of military action in the Balkans.
Psaki said at least 80 countries or organisations had acknowledged and condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria – more than 50 of these publicly. A further 30 or more have said Assad was responsible, according to the State Department, and nine were in support of US military action: Australia, Albania, Kosovo, Canada, Denmark, France, Poland, Romania and Turkey. An unspecified number had offered military support of their own, but the US says it has the capacity to act alone if necessary.
09/06/2013 11:05 AM
Syria Spat: Pig Putin Plays Stubborn Host to Obama at G-20
By Matthias Schepp and Carsten Volkery
Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to budge at the G-20 summit on Thursday in his rejection of President Obama's plans for a military strike on Syria. The two countries, it became clear over dinner in St. Petersburg, are as estranged as ever.
It was just after 5 p.m. when the black Cadillac from the US arrived at the Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg. Host Pig Putin was waiting to receive his guest, US President Barack Obama. Their greeting lasted but a few seconds, but Obama was careful to smile broadly for the cameras, and Pig Putin smiled too. The pair are political professionals after all.
Later, though, the grins were nowhere to be found. Obama, the Associated Press wrote ahead of the G-20 summit in Pig Putin's hometown, was visiting "the lion's den of Russia." And he came with a clear mission: He wanted to generate international support for a military strike against Syria. The Pig, though, was intent on preventing exactly that.
As such, an impasse seemed unavoidable as the leaders from the world's 20 most important industrial and developing economies sat down to dinner in Peterhof Palace. Just prior the start of the summit, Pig Putin announced that Syria would be discussed at dinner after all, contrary to the official agenda, which had foreseen an exchange of ideas on sustainable economic development. The change seemed to reflect the Russian president's certainty that he would not be backed into a corner during such a discussion; the majority of those present shared his skepticism of a military strike in Syria.
Dinner began an hour late and lasted for four hours, until well past midnight. Afterwards, there was a fireworks show and a concert ("La Traviata" from Giuseppe Verdi), but harmony was nowhere to be found. "The G-20 has just now finished the dinner session at which the divisions about Syria were confirmed," wrote Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta in a tweet.
Obama argued once again in favor of a limited strike on Syria to penalize the regime of President Bashar Assad for the poison gas attack on Aug. 21 which killed over 1,400 people. For days, the US president has been insisting that the blatant violation of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention cannot go unpunished. Washington believes that a one-time strike is both appropriate and necessary -- and vital for the credibility of the international community.
Immune to Such Arguments
Pig Putin, however, once again proved immune to such arguments. He continues to profess his doubts that his ally Assad was behind the poison gas attacks. Moscow insists that it isn't "logical," saying that there is no military reason for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons. And Putin has been quick to disregard the evidence presented by the US, Britain, France and Germany, saying it wasn't substantive and that the Syrian rebels could just as easily be behind the attack.
St. Petersburg was once built by Peter the Great as a symbol of Russia's opening to the West. But on Thursday evening, it became the stage for yet another battle for supremacy between Washington and Moscow.
In this particular power struggle, most observers on the eve of the G-20 appeared to be on the side of the Kremlin. Pope Francis sent a letter demanding that a political solution be found to the Syrian conflict. Then China emphasized its opposition to a military strike, with Deputy Foreign Minister Zhu Guangyao saying that it would drive up the price of oil and endanger the global economy. Beijing's position was hardly a surprise; China has joined Russia in preventing several resolutions in the United Nations Security Council. But Pig Putin's plan to isolate Obama seems to have worked.
During Thursday night's dinner, it became clear that, while all of those present condemn the use of poison gas, none of them seemed inclined to do anything about it. At the same time, though, few appeared interested in preventing the US from going it alone. Participants said that most believed an attack rested solely in the hands of the US Congress.
Meanwhile, the real arrows in the diplomatic battle between the two were being fired far away from St. Petersburg. In New York, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samatha Power made withering comments about Russia's role on the world stage on Thursday. Indicating that the US was prepared to move ahead without a Security Council resolution, she said that "Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities."
'Nail in the Coffin'
Meanwhile, Russian diplomats have accused the US of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and reject the idea of staging a military invention on the basis of humanitarian reasons. A US attack on Syria, said Pig Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Kremlin-funded international broadcaster Russia Today, would lead to "a total destabilization of the region." He said that an intervention without a UN mandate would be "another nail in the coffin of international law and international relations."
The fact that Obama plans on meeting with regime critics and gay and lesbian activists following the summit is seen as a provocation among Moscow's power elite. "In order to solve … the Syrian conflict, Obama should have turned to Russian with a request for cooperation," wrote the Russian paper Izvestia. "Instead he has only uttered nonsense about Russia in recent months and presented us as a regime from the Middle Ages ruled by a despot." Instead of focusing seriously on Syria, the paper wrote, Obama prefers to meet with gays.
Washington, for its part, has accused the Kremlin of rejecting every possible joint solution in the UN Security Council. Even the Syrian peace conference, which had originally been planned for summer, ultimately failed because Moscow has refused to back away from Assad. Putin's repudiation of evidence for Assad's complicity in the poison gas attack offered by Western intelligence agencies is seen in Washington as a cynical denial of reality. Moscow's claim that the rebels may have been responsible is completely "implausible," say Obama's advisors.
On the Line
On Thursday night, the discussion in Petershof Palace did little to break through this deadlock. Those opposed to a strike without a UN mandate were clearly in the majority. The Europeans were split. All EU countries believe that the use of chemical weapons should not go unpunished, but neither Germany nor Great Britain want to participate in a strike. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister David Cameron both emphasized the need for a political solution in St. Petersburg on Thursday night. Only France has unconditionally sided with Obama, along with Australia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Russian broadcaster Rossiya closed its report from the first day of the G-20 by saying pathetically: "It will become clear as early as tomorrow evening whether the world's leading powers will adhere to international law or whether they will go separate ways."
Obama's perception of Russia, in any case, isn't likely to change. Even before he took off on his way to Europe, he said that US relations with Russia had "hit a wall."
The president, though, has more than just Russia to worry about when it comes to formulating a response to Syria. There is plenty of disagreement back at home too. To be sure, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave the green light for a military strike on Wednesday, and top Republicans and Democrats are supportive. But Obama is still battling for reliable majorities in the two houses of Congress. When Congress votes next week, Obama's credibility will be on the line.
Russia sends warship with ‘special cargo’ to Syria
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, September 6, 2013 6:58 EDT
A Russian warship carrying “special cargo” will be dispatched toward Syria, a navy source said on Friday, as the Kremlin beefs up its presence in the region ahead of possible US strikes against the Damascus regime.
The large landing ship Nikolai Filchenkov will on Friday leave the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol for the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, from where it will head to Syria’s coast, the Interfax news agency quoted a source from the Saint Petersburg-based central naval command as saying.
“The ship will make call in Novorossiisk, where it will take on board special cargo and set off for the designated area of its combat duty in the eastern Mediterranean,” the source said.
The source did not specify the nature of the cargo.
Russia has kept a constant presence in the eastern Mediterranean during the Syrian crisis.
In recent days Russia has made steps to beef up its naval grouping in the region.
The Russian destroyer Smetlivy will soon join the group in the region as well as the destroyer Nastoichivy, Interfax has said.
The anti-submarine ship Admiral Panteleyev has already entered its zone of operation as the flagship of the current rotation of the Mediterranean grouping, a military source has told the news agency.
Already in place in the eastern Mediterranean are the frigate Neustrashimy, as well as the landing ships Alexander Shabalin, the Admiral Nevelsky and the Peresvet.
They are expected to be joined by the large landing ships Novocherkassk and Minsk and the missile cruiser Moskva. The reconnaissance ship Priazovye is also on its way to join the group.
The US already has a strong naval presence in the region and any US military action against Syria is widely expected to be launched from the sea.
September 5, 2013
Israel Backs Limited Strike Against Syria
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — President Obama’s position on Syria — punish President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons without seeking to force him from power — has been called “half-pregnant” by critics at home and abroad who prefer a more decisive American intervention to end Syria’s civil war.
But Mr. Obama’s limited strike proposal has one crucial foreign ally: Israel.
Israeli officials have consistently made the case that enforcing Mr. Obama’s narrow “red line” on Syria is essential to halting the nuclear ambitions of Israel’s archenemy, Iran. More quietly, Israelis have increasingly argued that the best outcome for Syria’s two-and-a-half-year-old civil war, at least for the moment, is no outcome.
For Jerusalem, the status quo, horrific as it may be from a humanitarian perspective, seems preferable to either a victory by Mr. Assad’s government and his Iranian backers or a strengthening of rebel groups, increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadis.
“This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”
The synergy between the Israeli and American positions, while not explicitly articulated by the leaders of either country, could be a critical source of support as Mr. Obama seeks Congressional approval for surgical strikes in Syria. Some Republicans have pushed him to intervene more assertively to tip the balance in the Syrian conflict, while other politicians from both parties are loath to involve the United States in another Middle Eastern conflict on any terms.
But Israel’s national security concerns have broad, bipartisan support in Washington, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby in Washington, weighed in Tuesday in support of Mr. Obama’s approach. The group’s statement said nothing, however, about the preferred outcome of the civil war, instead saying that America must “send a forceful message” to Iran and Hezbollah and “take a firm stand that the world’s most dangerous regimes cannot obtain and use the most dangerous weapons.”
After years of upheaval in the Middle East and tension between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the two leaders are now largely in sync on how to handle not just Syria, but also Egypt. Mr. Obama has not withheld American aid to Egypt after the military-backed ouster of the elected Islamist government, while Israel strongly backs the Egyptian military as a source of stability.
On Syria, in fact, Israel pioneered the kind of limited strike Mr. Obama is now proposing: four times this year, it has bombed convoys of advanced weapons it suspected were being transferred to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that Israel considers a major threat.
It has otherwise been content to watch the current stalemate in Syria pull in what it considers a range of enemies: not only the Syrian Army and Iran, but also Hezbollah, which has thousands of fighters engaged on the battlefronts in Syria, and Sunni Islamists aligned against them.
Though Syria and Israel have technically been at war for more than 40 years, the conflict in Syria is now viewed mainly through the prism of Iran. A prolonged conflict is perceived as hurting Iran, which finances Mr. Assad’s war effort. Whether Mr. Obama follows through on his promise to retaliate for the use of chemical weapons is a test of his commitment, ultimately, to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb — as long as the retaliation does not become a full-scale intervention in Syria.
“If it’s Iran-first policy, then any diversion to Syria is not fruitful,” said Aluf Benn, editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “From the Israeli point of view, the worst scenario is mission-creep in Syria and America gets entangled in a third war in the Middle East, which paralyzes its ability to strike Iran and limits Israel’s ability to strike Iran as well.”
This spring, when an Israeli official called for an international response to what he said were earlier Syrian chemical attacks, he was muzzled and reprimanded for appearing to pressure the White House. Now, said Eyal Zisser, a historian at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the region, “it’s clear that Israel does not want to appear as somebody that is pushing the United States for a deep involvement.”
There are significant differences between Israel and the United States on Syria. There was widespread criticism here of Mr. Obama’s decision to delay responding to the chemical attack, with the quote “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk” from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” becoming a common refrain. One Israeli dentist even took out a large newspaper ad promoting his implant services with a picture of Mr. Obama captioned, “He doesn’t have teeth?”
There has also been a broader debate about how best to respond to the war in Syria.
When the uprising began, many here saw Mr. Assad, who like his predecessor and father had maintained quiet on the border, as “the devil you know,” and therefore preferable to the rebels, some of whom were aligned with Al Qaeda or Sunni militants like the Palestinian Hamas faction.
As the death toll has mounted, more Israelis joined a camp led by Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, who argues that the devil you know is, actually, a devil who should be ousted sooner rather than later.
That split remains. But as hopes have dimmed for the emergence of a moderate, secular rebel force that might forge democratic change and even constructive dialogue with Israel, a third approach has gained traction: Let the bad guys burn themselves out.
“The perpetuation of the conflict is absolutely serving Israel’s interest,” said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, was one of several experts who said this view differs from the callous “let them all kill each other” shrug popular here during the long-running Iran-Iraq war. Rather, Ms. Wittes said, the reasoning behind a strike that would not significantly change the Syrian landscape is that the West needs more time to prop up opposition forces it finds more palatable and prepare them for future governing.
She cited dangers for Israel if the conflict continues to drag on, including more efforts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, instability in Lebanon and pressure on Jordan.
Despite those threats, Matthew Levitt, who studies the region at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Jerusalem and Washington essentially agree that “right now, there’s no good way for this war to end.”
Israeli leaders “want Assad to be punished; they’d like it to be punishing enough that it actually makes a difference in the war but not so much that it completely takes him out,” Mr. Levitt said. “The Israelis do not think the status quo is tenable either, but they think the status quo right now is better than the war ending tomorrow, because the war ending tomorrow could be much worse. There’s got to be a tomorrow, day-after plan.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 6, 2013
An earlier version of this article misstated Amos Yadlin’s former position. He was the head of Israeli military intelligence, not the director of the Mossad intelligence agency.
September 5, 2013
Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria With a Focus on Forces
By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.
Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.
For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved.
The strikes would be aimed not at the chemical stockpiles themselves — risking a potential catastrophe — but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks, military officials said Thursday.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that other targets would include equipment that Syria uses to protect the chemicals — air defenses, long-range missiles and rockets, which can also deliver the weapons.
Mr. Obama’s instructions come as most members of Congress who are even willing to consider voting in favor of a military response to a chemical attack are insisting on strict limits on the duration and type of the strikes carried out by the United States, while a small number of Republicans are telling the White House that the current plans are not muscular enough to destabilize the Assad government.
Senior officials are aware of the competing imperatives they now confront — that to win even the fight on Capitol Hill, they will have to accept restrictions on the military response, and in order to make the strike meaningful they must expand its scope.
“They are being pulled in two different directions,” a senior foreign official involved in the discussions said Thursday. “The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference.”
Officials cautioned that the options for an increased American strike would still be limited — “think incremental increase, not exponential,” said one official — but would be intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military.
It was a measure of the White House’s concern about obtaining Congressional approval that Mr. Obama canceled a planned trip to Los Angeles next week, where he was scheduled to speak to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and hold a fund-raiser. One senior official said Mr. Obama would get far more involved in direct lobbying for a military authorization, and there is talk inside the administration about a formal address to the nation.
In endorsing a strike on Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made some modifications to the resolution proposed by the White House, and other versions are also being circulated. The latest is from Senator Joe Manchin III, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia who proposes giving Mr. Assad 45 days to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and begin securing and ridding the country of its weapons stockpiles. Only if Mr. Assad refuses would the president be authorized to take military action.
“We need some options out there that does something about the chemical weapons,” Mr. Manchin said. “That’s what’s missing right now.”
The concept is already being debated by some government officials and foreign diplomats, though the White House has not weighed in.
For now, White House officials insist that they are slowly gaining ground in lining up support, though the evidence is slim. “We’re very pleased with the trend lines,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser. “I think each day what you’ve seen is different members coming out on a bipartisan basis to support an authorization to use military force.”
He noted Wednesday’s Senate committee vote and the endorsements from a range of senators, including from John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and the liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer of California. “What we’re seeing each day is an increasing number of members who are convinced that a military response is necessary,” Mr. Rhodes said. “But we’re going to continue to make the case to members.”
Privately, some members of the Obama administration appear concerned that General Dempsey’s presentations to Congress — particularly his repeated assertions that any American intervention in Syria is unlikely to have a decisive effect on the civil war — are undercutting the administration’s argument that the attacks, while targeted, would also change Mr. Assad’s calculus.
So as the target list expands, the administration is creeping closer to carrying out military action that also could help tip the balance on the ground, even as the administration argues that that is not the primary intent.
The bulk of the American attack is still expected to be carried out by cruise missiles from some or all of the four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers within striking range of Syria in the eastern Mediterranean. Each ship carries about three dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles, a low-flying, highly accurate weapon that can be launched from safe distances of up to about 1,000 miles.
But military planners are now preparing options to include attacks from Air Force bombers, a development reported Thursday by The Wall Street Journal. The Pentagon was initially planning to rely solely on cruise missiles.
Bombers could carry scores more munitions, potentially permitting the United States to carry out more strikes if the first wave does not destroy the targets.
Among the options available are B-52 bombers, which can carry air-launched cruise missiles; B-1s that are based in Qatar and carry long-range, air-to-surface missiles; and B-2 stealth bombers, which are based in Missouri and carry satellite-guided bombs.
The Navy in recent days has moved the aircraft carrier Nimitz into the Red Sea, within striking distance of Syria.
But Defense Department officials said Thursday that the Nimitz, and its squadrons of F-18 Super Hornet attack planes, as well as three missile-toting destroyers in its battle group, are not likely to join any attack unless Syria launches major retaliatory strikes.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers on Wednesday that an American operation would cost “in the tens of millions of dollars,” the first time any administration official has put even a rough price tag on the possible strike.
Mr. Assad has openly mocked the United States for delaying any military action, and has seized on the pause to move military equipment, troops and documents to civilian neighborhoods, presumably daring Mr. Obama to order strikes that could kill large number of civilians.
“The additional time gives Assad the potential advantage of complicating U.S. targeting by surreptitiously moving people or even chemical munitions into them, aiming to create casualties or chemical release as a direct result of U.S. attacks,” said David A. Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who planned the American air campaigns in 2001 in Afghanistan and in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
But General Dempsey told lawmakers on Wednesday that American spy agencies are “keeping up with that movement,” which he said also included prisoners, potentially to be used as human shields, and that all necessary steps would be taken to minimize civilian casualties.
The Pentagon is also planning contingencies to counter or respond to any retaliatory attacks by Mr. Assad’s forces. General Dempsey said the Syrian leader could lob long-range rockets against his neighbors; encourage surrogates and proxies, like Hezbollah, to assault American embassies; or carry out a cyberattack against the United States or American interests.
“We are alert to all of the possibilities and are mitigating strategies in the way we’ve positioned ourselves in the region,” General Dempsey said.
G20: frosty stares betray anger and mistrust over Syria
Diplomatic niceties eclipsed by discord in wake of chemical attack on Ghouta
Patrick Wintour, political editor
The Guardian, Thursday 5 September 2013 20.41 BST
Sir John Major once memorably described EU negotiations as 12-dimensional chess, a phrase that has recently been ascribed in America to Barack Obama's fraught efforts to assemble a diplomatic and political coalition to support a US attack on Syria.
But trying to get a handle on what is happening at a G20 summit in St Petersburg requires more than 12 dimensions. The permutations of discussions are myriad; the Russian city has become a maze of bilaterals, , plenaries, brush-bys, informals, dinners, light and dance shows and quick chats between 20 world leaders attending.
There are also their finance ministers, plus the various hangers-on from bodies such as the EU, the Financial Stability Board, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation – all enough to leave any mortal gasping for breath.
St Petersburg airport looks like the presidential aeroplane lot, in which David Cameron's modest British Airways jet fails to stand out. Even the Pope has got in on the act, urging in a letter to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to stage a day of fasting for Syria. The only world figure missing seemed to be the Dalai Lama, or possibly Gareth Bale, and no world problem from the Rock of Gibraltar to the mountains of Tibet is immune from discussion in this political bazaar.
In theory, this vast array of political and economic talent has assembled in the gilded, chandeliered magnificence of St Petersburg's Constantine Palace to discuss the global economy. For Putin, it was to be a chance to shine on the world stage, to show off the splendour of his home town and to be respected.
Fortunately, for the sherpas, the hapless people that hide in darkened rooms for weeks on end preparing turgid communiques that no one reads, it looked as if the economy would be relatively benign. Almost for the first the time since the behemoth of the G20 was invented, there was not a crisis to solve, either on the world stage or in Europe.
At worst, there was the risk of an economic downturn in emerging countries such as India that feared losing hot money due to the end of the monetary stimulus in the US. Putin felt secure in preparing a bland set of proposals on growth, apprentices and jobs.
But then, in the early hours of 21 August, astonishing footage started to flood social media sites showing victims of an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians in and around the agricultural belt of Ghouta, around the Syrian capital of Damascus. Syrian opposition activists had earlier reported heavy fighting in eastern Damascus in districts that were primarily rebel strongholds.
The likelihood was that Pig Putin's client, President Bashar al-Assad, was responsible. Within hours, Pig Putin must have probably realised the sight of gassed children on TV screens meant his carefully constructed G20 agenda would have to be torn up. The Pig overnight found himself turned from the ringmaster of an economic revival to the protector of an international pariah.
It was not as if relations between Obama and Pig Putin had been on a high. Obama had cancelled a bilateral with Pig Putin in protest at his provision of a visa to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, and instead found time to meet a delegation of gay activists and transsexuals. Putin, 10 years Obama's senior, warned the US president not to break international law by attacking Syria without a UN mandate.
On the day before Obama arrived, Pig Putin described the US secretary of state, John Kerry, as a liar – "Well, he [Kerry] lies. And he knows that he lies. This is sad" – not necessarily the most diplomatic language for a host to deploy hours before his guests arrive in the midst of an acute international crisis.
By the time the Pig stepped forward outside the Constantine Palace in glorious sunlight to greet Obama, the US president was ready to deliver the death stare. They managed 15 seconds of pleasantries, touching on the late summer weather. Elsewhere, Obama was greeted by a chorus of dissent from other world leaders urging him to show restraint.
And what of Cameron? It was in St Petersburg, at an earlier G8 summit, that President George Bush famously greeted Tony Blair "Yo, Blair". After his ignominious and mishandled defeat in the Commons last week, relations between the current UK prime minister and US president are more strained. Cameron has been stripped of a central role at this summit, and heavily blames the politicking of Labour leader Ed Miliband. But Cameron has worked as hard as possible within the confines of the Commons vote to show his determination to shake the world out of its lethargy at what he regards as the biggest humanitarian crisis of this century.
At a session on Thursday night, including a discussion with Pig Putin, Cameron pressed the case for more funding to help refugees, the need to create humanitarian routes so aid convoys can drive into Syria safely and the need for better chemical weapons protection for Syrians under attack from Assad.
It is a noble cause to fight, even if it is not the central role he planned, standing shoulder to shoulder with Obama as he made the case for military action.
• This article was amended on 6 September 2013. An earlier version misspelled the Dalai Lama's name as the Dali Lama.
Obama may have to wait two weeks for Congress vote on Syria
US president faces fiercest opposition in Republican-held House of Representatives but Senate is also not a definite yes
theguardian.com, Friday 6 September 2013 11.18 BST
Barack Obama may not be able to seek overall congressional support for an attack on Syria for as long as a fortnight, amid signs he has failed to build an international alliance at the G20 and still faces the prospect of heavy defeat in the House of Representatives.
Sources at the G20 expected a vote in the Senate next week but a delay for at least for another week in the House. But the Republican-controlled House – where Obama faces his toughest opposition – has yet to even agree on the text of a resolution. Current calculations suggest Obama will lose in the House substantially.
Unless both Houses adopted the same resolution, which is unlikely, additional time would also be required to synchronise the two resolutions in order for a unified congressional position on the limits of force to emerge.
The slow timetable would give the White House longer to win over opinion, as well as increase the possibility that the UN weapons inspectors will report definitively on whether chemical weapons were used on 21 August.
The UN report will not ascribe responsibility for the attack, and David Cameron admitted scepticism that he would ever be able to persuade the Vladimir Putin that the attack was carried out by forces loyal to President Assad.
The longer timeframe also risks anger dissipating over the attack.
09/05/2013 03:50 PM
Moscow Mayor Race: Navalny Strengthens Opposition Chops
By Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, recently sentenced to five years in prison, is waging a mayoral campaign in Moscow in what is considered the greatest political event of the year. A win would make him one of the country's most powerful men.
The candidate doesn't arrive by car with someone there to open the door for him. Instead, he comes around the corner on foot and at a leisurely pace. That alone is unusual for Russia.
Alexei Navalny, wearing jeans and a light-blue shirt and holding an umbrella, is suddenly standing among the crowd near the Kashirskaya metro station in the southern part of Moscow. Then he starts asking the people gathered around him if they know, for example, how much money Russia earned in the last 15 years from the sale of oil, gas and metals.
"No idea," calls out a retired woman. "We never got any of it."
"Three billion dollars," Navalny says. "Enough for 640,000 rubles to go to every Russian -- from newborns to 100-year-olds." That's nearly $20,000 (€14,500). The people groan.
"And did you know that in Moscow a janitor officially earns 43,000 rubles a month, but he only sees 18,000 rubles of that? The rest disappears along the way into officials' pockets, even though Moscow's budget is almost as big as New York's!"
Odd Matchup in Moscow
It's election season in Moscow. This Sunday voters here and in many other Russian cities and regions will go to the polls to elect their mayors and governors. Pig Putin did away with these direct elections 10 years ago and this is the first time since that people in big cities here have been able to participate in local votes. It's a concession to the protest movement that arose over election fraud in the 2011 elections for the Duma, Russia's parliament. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets at the time and briefly caused Putin's system to falter.
Forty million Russians will go to the polls in this election -- in far eastern Magadan, in Chechnya, in Arkhangelsk, in Smolensk, in Irkutsk. But by far the most significant election is the one in Moscow, the capital, with its 7 million voters.
Moscow is the country's political hub and financial center, a glittering object of longing for every Russian from the provinces. One-eighth of the country's population lives in or around the city and over one-quarter of Russia's gross domestic product is generated here. But the main reason all eyes are on Moscow's election right now is Alexei Navalny.
For many it seems simply inconceivable to see the eloquent 37-year-old Navalny taking to the city's squares as a challenger to the pale 55-year-old incumbent Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. This is the same Navalny who was one of the leaders of the December 2011 demonstrations, the charismatic blogger and lawyer who is good-looking and even better at public speaking -- and is perhaps the person the Kremlin hates the most. Time called him "Russia's Erin Brockovich," after the famous American activist.
This is not just a contest between Navalny and Sobyanin. This is an unofficial leader of Russia's opposition facing off against the Kremlin. Political scientists are calling the Moscow election on Sept. 8 the most important political event of the year.
A Serious Miscalculation
According to the unwritten rules of political life in Pig Putin's Russia, Navalny should be behind bars right now, after being sentenced in the provincial city of Kirov on July 18 to five years in a prison camp -- allegedly for theft, but in reality because he is considered the head of Russia's political opposition. But instead of doing time, Navalny is making appearances all over Moscow, speaking three times a day at malls or in front of metro stations, telling people he wants to take office in city hall because, as he says, "If you want to change Russia, start with Moscow."
For a long time, people didn't know what to make of all this. That was until they realized it was the result of a serious miscalculation on the part of the government.
With the Pig's blessing, Sobyanin and Vyacheslav Volodin, the deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration, had worked out a clever plan. They wanted to move up Moscow's mayoral election, originally scheduled for 2015, to secure Sobyanin's seat at the height of his popularity and in the face of growing economic problems.
The plan was to refrain, as much as possible, from resorting to fraud in this election, and to allow Navalny, a heavyweight on the opposition's side, to run against Sobyanin. But as so often happens in Russia, the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing. Months before, Pig Putin had also instructed the country's law enforcement agencies to continue to take rigorous action against members of the opposition. Navalny was one such opposition member who ended up a target. Authorities charged him with stealing lumber and told the judges in Kirov to sentence harshly. Navalny was given five years in a prison camp and handcuffed in court.
The nation was thus baffled when the prosecutors, just hours later, demanded Navalny's release -- at least until his sentence went into effect. Later it emerged that Sobyanin, fearing this would tarnish his electoral victory, called Putin to voice his objections, and Putin decided the recently convicted candidate could still run for election. Navalny returned to Moscow.
The whole episode provided a clear example of the lack of independence in Russia's justice system. But Putin was willing to accept that collateral damage, since he found Navalny more useful in Moscow than in a Kirov prison.
"I thought it was strange, I will not conceal that, that one of the suspects in the case, who cooperated with the prosecution, got a four-and-a-half-year suspended sentence, while the second suspect ... was slapped with five years behind bars," the Pig stated publicly, surprisingly siding with his opponent.
The subject of Kirov certainly comes up as Navalny holds his speeches around Moscow, whether it's in the district of Orekhovo or at the Krasnogvardeyskaya metro station. "They sentenced me, but one day later they were forced to set me free, because thousands took to the streets in my defense," he says.
That's an exaggeration, and a statement that in any case doesn't particularly interest the audiences that gather at Navalny's appearances. At first there are just 10 or 20 people, but gradually the crowd will swell to perhaps 200. But these audiences don't come because of Pig Putin or the larger political issues. They come because of the rising cost of living or the traffic jams that clog Moscow's streets.
Navalny was quick to understand this and he has studied up on all the key data on Moscow. He knows what will impress people. He tells them why the state-run health clinics are in such a catastrophic state and explains why he would introduce a visa requirement for illegal immigrants from Tajikistan. These types of statements draw applause. He hardly says a word about Pig Putin. Navalny is not nearly as aggressive as he once was and he keeps his distance from TV cameras.
He knows he needs to be careful. The government demonstrates almost daily how easily it could sweep Navalny out of the way again. It accused him, for example, of running a private company in Montenegro. A tabloid with ties to the Kremlin alleged Navalny was receiving funds from abroad for his election campaign. Police confiscated his campaign flyers, and even arrested him briefly after one of his appearances drew an audience of 7,000, making it an "unregistered mass demonstration."
On the other hand, where the Kremlin once searched feverishly for such pretenses for taking down its opponents, now it is doing everything it can to make sure Navalny is able to continue his election campaign. All the previous accusations against him? They're not so bad after all, people close to the Kremlin now seem to be saying.
A Western 'Virus'
Navalny was also able to obtain permission to run for office only with help from ruling party United Russia, the same party he has fought against for years, calling it the "party of crooks and thieves."
That has given rise to rumors -- for example that Navalny, who received a fellowship at Yale University, is actually backed by the US. One political scientist compared him to "a virus" that was "developed in special laboratories in the West."
There is also a rumor that the Moscow election is part of a plan to topple Pig Putin, a plan devised not by the opposition, but by members of the Kremlin elite who brought about the early election. These members of the elite, aware that Putin's popularity is declining and wanting to preclude an uncontrolled power shift, supposedly adopted Navalny as their tool, because of his ability to draw in some of those in the elite who are critical of the regime. Navalny says this theory is "complete nonsense."
Still, it's true that he has rich benefactors. His campaign manager is a Russian investment banker and he is backed by many major corporations. Nearly 140 business owners have expressed their support for him.
And the Kremlin is unquestionably committed to a new approach. It wants to draw the opposition away from the streets and is providing an outlet for voters critical of the government. This is another way to defeat the opposition, and a more elegant one, although it remains to be seen whether this change of course was initiated by the Pig or concocted somewhere else in the depths of the Kremlin.
The Moscow election serves as the first test of this new approach. The risk of something going wrong here seems to be small. The incumbent mayor is considered the clear favorite, likely to receive 55 to 65 percent of the vote, with his challenger managing perhaps 11 percent. To defeat Sobyanin, Navalny would need to win over 1.5 million voters. Even after making several hundred campaign appearances, he has reached no more than perhaps 25,000 Muscovites.
Embodiment of Success
Meanwhile, the other side has prepared for the future. This could be seen last Tuesday, for example, when Navalny's opponent Sobyanin made a campaign appearance, inspecting a new large-scale entrance ramp that's meant to help reduce traffic jams on Moscow's chronically congested ring road.
Sobyanin wore a well-tailored suit, a snow-white shirt and polished shoes. Direct contact with the people isn't really his thing, and bodyguards kept even journalists at a distance.
Sobyanin doesn't just look like a perfect example of a top-level manager, he acts the part as well. Rising from a small town mayor to a provincial governor, and then later to the head of Pig Putin's presidential administration and deputy prime minister, Sobyanin can claim a number of successes in Moscow.
He created a large pedestrian zone downtown and saw to it that street-side cafés received their operating licenses quickly. He stopped the unchecked proliferation of vendors' stands along the city's streets, built playgrounds in back courtyards and set up solar-powered bike rental stations. He also expanded the metro system at a record pace and created paid parking spaces, somewhat easing traffic congestion.
Moscow has less than 1 percent unemployment, despite having a population larger than Greece's, and it is the richest city in Russia. Because Sobyanin appears to be the embodiment of these successes, the accusations of corruption Navalny levels against him simply don't stick.
One of Sobyanin's biggest advantages is the remarkably young team he has surrounded himself with. His head architect is 36. His transportation minister is 37, as is Sergei Kapkov, head of the department of culture. Kapkov is considered the star of the city's government. His predecessors included numerous theater directors with an average age of 65. He provided the city with comprehensive free Internet access, fixed up run-down parks and did away with their entrance fees. As a result, the number of visitors to Moscow's world-famous Gorky Park has nearly quadrupled.
Young, Creative Professionals
"We want to make Moscow, where the infrastructure is still Soviet influenced, more European," Kapkov says. "Our clientele are the young, high-performing residents of this booming city, people under 40, who could also work successfully in London or Berlin."
In other words, Sobyanin and his team are targeting the same Muscovites who took to the streets to protest against Putin. And because Sobyanin, unlike the president, avoids provocative political statements, he does have supporters among this new "creative" middle class. How to woo those Russians who feel they are being held hostage by the last Soviet generation, by men like Putin -- this is becoming a fundamental question for Russia's leaders.
Navalny may lose the election, but that doesn't mean he will have lost entirely. A great deal depends on what the Kremlin does after Sept. 8, and Navalny says he has no idea what that will be. The court in Kirov can draw out the appeals process as long as Pig Putin likes. "Then they can lock me away completely, or change my sentence to probation," he says. "Both would amount to removing me from public politics."
Doing so, though, would still fail to change one salient point -- this election campaign has made Navalny "an influential factor in Russian politics," in the words of the editor in chief of the respected daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta . Navalny is something of a new Boris Yeltsin, bringing to mind the man who rose to prominence fighting corruption in Moscow in the mid-1980s, only to be stripped of power by Mikhail Gorbachev.
A few years later, though, Yeltsin was back, toppling Gorbachev and becoming president himself.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.
Russian legislators introduce bill to take children away from LGBT parents
By David Ferguson
Thursday, September 5, 2013 12:47 EDT
A Russian lawmaker has introduced a bill that would allow the state to remove children from homes headed by LGBT parents. According to the Associated Press, the draft bill was published on the Russian parliament’s website Thursday morning and proposed to make the “fact of nontraditional sexual orientation” grounds for removing or denying parental custody rights.
The bill, if passed, would add sexual orientation to a list of disqualifying factors that includes alcoholism, drug addiction and a history of child abuse. Bill author Alexei Zhuravlev said that the law would be a natural extension of a law passed earlier this year that bans so-called “homosexual propaganda,” i.e., any expression of sexuality or affection that deviates from the supposedly “traditional” heterosexual norm.
If “propaganda” is to be banished in the public sphere, said Zhuravlev, it should be banned “also in the family.”
Lesbian mother Masha Gessen wrote in the Guardian that she and her partner are fleeing Russia to live in New York City rather than continuing to endure the vicious wave of anti-LGBT persecution that has followed in the wake of the new law.
“Russia has a lot of poorly written laws and regulations that contradict its own constitution, but this one was different,” said Gessen. “Like other contemporary laws, it was so vaguely worded that it encouraged corruption and extortion (fines for ‘homosexual propaganda’ are backbreaking) and made selective enforcement inevitable. But it also did something that had never been done in Russian law before: it enshrined second-class citizenship for LGBT people. Think about it: it made it an offense to claim social equality.”
Hitler's bodyguard Rochus Misch dies at 96
Misch was last surviving witness to Hitler's final hours and remained proud to the end about his years with Nazi leader
Associated Press in Berlin
theguardian.com, Friday 6 September 2013 13.48 BST
Rochus Misch, who served as Adolf Hitler's devoted bodyguard for most of the second world war and was the last remaining witness to the Nazi leader's final hours in his Berlin bunker, has died aged 96.
Misch died on Thursday in Berlin after a short illness, his biographer Burkhard Nachtigall confirmed on Friday.
Misch remained proud to the end about his years with Hitler, whom he affectionately called "boss". In an interview in 2005, he recalled Hitler as "a very normal man" and gave a riveting account of the German dictator's last days. "He was no brute. He was no monster. He was no superman," Misch said.
Born on 29 July 1917 in the tiny Silesian town of Alt Schalkowitz, in what today is Poland, Misch was orphaned at an early age. At 20 he decided to join the SS, an organisation that he saw as a counterweight to a rising threat from the left. He signed up for the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, a unit founded to serve as Hitler's personal protection. "It was anti-communist, against Stalin – to protect Europe," Misch said. "I signed up in the war against Bolshevism, not for Adolf Hitler."
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Misch found himself in the vanguard, as his SS division was attached to a regular army unit for the blitzkrieg attack. He was shot and nearly killed while trying to negotiate the surrender of a fortress near Warsaw, and was sent to Germany to recover. There he was chosen in May 1940 as one of two SS men who would serve as Hitler's bodyguards and general assistants, doing everything from answering the telephones to greeting dignitaries.
Misch and his comrade Johannes Hentschel accompanied Hitler almost everywhere he went, including his Alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden and his "Wolf's Lair" headquarters. "He was a wonderful boss," Misch said. "I lived with him for five years. We were the closest people who worked with him … we were always there. Hitler was never without us day and night."
In the last days of Hitler's life, Misch followed him to live underground, protected by the so-called Führerbunker's heavily reinforced concrete ceilings and walls. "Hentschel ran the lights, air and water and I did the telephones – there was nobody else," he said. "When someone would come downstairs we couldn't even offer them a place to sit. It was far too small."
He recalled that on 22 April 1945, two days before two Soviet armies completed their encirclement of Berlin, Hitler said: "That's it. The war is lost. Everybody can go."
"Everyone except those who still had jobs to do like us – we had to stay," Misch said. "The lights, water, telephone … those had to be kept going but everybody else was allowed to go and almost all were gone immediately."
Following the German surrender on 7 May, Misch was taken to the Soviet Union where he spent the next nine years in prisoner of war camps before being allowed to return to Berlin in 1954. He reunited with his wife, Gerda, whom he had married in 1942, and opened up a shop.
In the 2005 interview Misch deflected questions of guilt or responsibility for the Holocaust, saying he knew nothing of the murder of six million Jews and that Hitler never brought up the Final Solution in his presence. "That was never a topic," he said emphatically. "Never."
Netherlands to pay compensation over Srebrenica massacre
'Historic' ruling sets precedent that countries providing troops as UN peacekeepers can be held legally responsible for crimes
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 6 September 2013 13.47 BST
The Netherlands has been ordered to pay compensation for the deaths of Bosnian Muslims in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in a ruling that opens up the Dutch state to compensation claims from relatives of the rest of the 8,000 men and youths who died.
The judgment by Holland's supreme court is the final decision in a protracted claim brought by relatives of three Muslim men who were expelled by Dutch soldiers from a United Nations compound during the Balkans conflict then killed by Bosnian Serb forces.
Although the case related only to the murder of three victims, it confirms the precedent that countries that provide troops to UN missions can be held responsible for their conduct.
The case was brought by Hasan Nuhanovic, an interpreter who lost his brother and father, and relatives of Rizo Mustafic, an electrician who was killed. They argued that all three men should have been protected by Dutch peacekeepers. Mustafic and Nuhanovic were employed by the Dutch, but Nuhanovic's father and brother were not.
The men were among thousands who had sought shelter in the UN compound as Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic overran the area on 11 July 1995. Two days later, the outnumbered Dutch peacekeepers bowed to pressure from Mladic's troops and forced thousands of Muslim families out of the compound.
Bosnian Serb forces sorted the Muslims by gender, then began executing Muslim men and boys. The bodies of approximately 8,000 were buried in hastily dug mass graves.
The international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague has ruled that the killings constituted genocide and Mladic is on trial for crimes committed at Srebrenica. The atrocity was the worst massacre on European soil since the second world war.
The Dutch court ruling held that in the chaos of the Serb takeover of Srebrenica, UN commanders no longer had control of the troops on the ground and "effective control" therefore reverted to Dutch authorities in the Hague.
The human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who represented the Bosnian families, called the ruling historic because it established that countries involved in UN missions can be found legally responsible for crimes, despite the UN's far-reaching immunity from prosecution. "People participating in UN missions are not always covered by the UN flag," she said.
Toon Heisterkamp, a supreme court judge responsible for briefing the media, insisted that the narrow focus of the case meant it was unlikely to have far-reaching effects.
Outside the courtroom, Nuhanovic said he was stunned by the ruling, which ends a 10-year legal battle and opens the door to compensation claims against the Dutch government.
"I was thinking about my family, they are dead for 18 years," he said. "It does not change that, but maybe there is some justice. It should have happened years ago. In the future, countries might act differently in peacekeeping missions and I hope the lives of other people in the future will be saved because this mistake was admitted."
The Dutch government resigned in 2002 after the National War Documentation Institute blamed the debacle on Dutch authorities and the UN for sending underarmed and underprepared forces into the mission and refusing to answer the commanders' call for air support.
The government accepted "political responsibility" for the mission's failure and contributes aid to Bosnia, much of which is earmarked for rebuilding in Srebrenica. But it has always said responsibility for the massacre itself lies with the Bosnian Serbs.
The three men were among the last to be expelled, the 2011 ruling said, and by that time the peacekeepers, known as "Dutchbat" for Dutch battalion, had already seen Bosnian Serb troops abusing Muslim men and boys and should have known they faced the real threat of being killed.
"Dutchbat should not have turned these men over to the Serbs," a summary of the judgment said.
The Hague appeals court in 2011 ordered the families of the three dead men to be compensated, but no figure was ever reached, pending the outcome of the government's appeal to the supreme court.
Zegveld said the amount of compensation the families will receive was not important. "It's far more important what's been decided today than any amount that will be established in the future," she said.
The Srebrenica massacre has turned into a national trauma for the Netherlands. Dutch troops returning home faced accusations of cowardice and incompetence.
The Dutch soldiers, many of whom feared for their own lives, helped the attacking Bosnian-Serb troops as they separated Muslim men from women. The men and boys were then bussed to execution sites. A subsequent inquiry exonerated the ground forces.
"Dutchbat decided not to evacuate them along with the battalion and instead sent them away from the compound," a summary of the supreme court ruling said.
"Outside the compound they were murdered by the Bosnian-Serb army or related paramilitary groups."
Children removed from Christian sect after German police raids
Forty children taken from their parents in Twelve Tribes sect in Bavaria after allegations of child abuse
Kate Connolly in Berlin
theguardian.com, Friday 6 September 2013 11.14 BST
Forty children have been taken from a Christian sect in Bavaria, southern Germany, following police raids at a monastery and a farm after accusations of child abuse.
The children, aged between seven months and 17 years old, are members of the Twelve Tribes sect, which has its roots in the US. They have been placed with foster families while the group is being investigated.
The group, whose teachings are based on the Old and New Testament, is known to believe in corporal punishment. It had been under observation by authorities for some time, particularly for its refusal to send its children to school.
Teaching licences were recently withdrawn from the sect's own school near the town of Deiningen, near Augsburg, with inspectors declaring its teachers unfit.
The sect's two complexes were sealed off on Friday as officials explained that Thursday's dawn raids, carried out over three and a half hours by 100 police officers, were prompted by "fresh evidence indicating significant and ongoing child abuse by the members".
Police said they were looking to press charges against the parents and the sect's chief, 54-year-old Detlef Markell, who has professed his innocence.
By their own admission, parents of the Twelve Tribes, which has around 100 members in two locations in Bavaria where it has had a base for 15 years, are instructed to beat their children "with a small reed-like rod which only inflicts pain and no damage".
On its website, the group declares itself to be an "open and transparent community that does not tolerate any form of child abuse. Our children grow up in a loving environment and are educated in the spirit of charity."
But Helmut Beyschlag, head of Noldingen district court, said: "We suspect that parents were exercising abuse."
According to initial reports, the disciplinary rods used were soaked in oil to make them more pliable during a beating, when children were allegedly struck on their bare feet, arms and backs, inside the former Cistercian monastery.
Eyewitnesses to the police raids said no resistance was shown, and that as the children were removed they showed no emotion towards their parents.
The Twelve Tribes lives a self-sufficient existence, producing its own food and electricity. As well as resisting the state education of its children, it also rejects sex education and the women (known as "sisters") of the sect are subservient to the men (known as "brothers"). The members believe themselves to be descended from early Christians.
Following a magazine investigation last year in which the abuse allegations were raised, the sect strongly denied allegations of abuse, declaring: "We are an open and transparent community which does not tolerate any form of child abuse."
European Central Bank chief rules out debt relief lifeline for Greece
Greece faces a funding gap of up to €11bn in second half of 2014, but Mario Draghi says ECB will not take part in any debt restructuring
The Guardian, Thursday 5 September 2013 19.28 BST
The head of the European Central Bank has ruled out handing Greece a debt relief lifeline, hours after the head of the eurozone finance ministers admitted that Athens will need additional aid next year.
ECB president Mario Draghi was adamant that the ECB would not participate in any debt restructuring, despite growing speculation that Greece will be unable to fully return to the financial markets when its current bailout ends in 2014.
"It is pretty clear that we cannot do monetary financing," Draghi told reporters in Frankfurt on Thursday, insisting that the ECB's own treaty made it impossible. Asked directly if the ECB would take part in any Greek debt relief, he said: "No", adding that any future assistance for Greece must also come with strings attached, or "conditionality".
Greece faces a funding gap of up to €11bn in the second half of 2014, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund. Rumours that a third bailout will be needed have swirled through the financial markets in recent weeks.
Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who also chairs the eurogroup of finance ministers, left MEPs in little doubt that euro governments will have to consider some extra help for Greece soon. Appearing at the European parliament, Dijsselbloem said it was "realistic to assume that additional support will be needed" when the existing bailout concludes at the end of next year.
"As far as the potential need for a third programme for Greece is concerned, it's clear that despite recent progress, Greece's troubles will not have been completely resolved by 2014," said Dijsselbloem, who warned that Greece would probably not be able to return to borrowing from the financial markets when its bailout ends.
Dijsselbloem said the Eurogroup "stood ready" to help Greece, while rejecting suggestions that a full-blown third bailout package would be needed. He argued that officials would not be able to assess Greece's progress until next April. But according to Reuters, Euro officials may need to take a decision this November.
Last week, Greece's finance minister Yannis Stournaras told the Guardian there was no imminent need of a bailout. But while tourism has picked up this summer, unemployment remains around record levels. It will not return to pre-crisis levels for 20 years, according to new research from the country's main private sector union, GSEE.
The euro fell almost one cent against the US dollar, after it emerged that the ECB's governing council had considered cutting borrowing costs across the eurozone to a new record low.
The ECB cut its forecast for growth in 2014 to 1%, from 1.1%, illustrating the weak nature of the recovery. Draghi warned that he was "very, very cautious", despite the eurozone exiting recession last month.
Jessica Hinds of Capital Economics was gloomy. "Despite the string of better economic numbers over the summer in the eurozone, we still expect the region to underperform the US and the UK. Indeed, we do not forecast the eurozone to grow at all next year, much less than the 0.8% growth that is expected by the consensus and the 1.0% by the ECB. By contrast, we are forecasting the UK to grow by 2% in 2014 and the US economy to expand by 2.5%."
Analysts at Nordea Markets predicted that the ECB could cut interest rates from 0.5% to a new record low of 0.25% before the end of the year, having voted to leave them unchanged this month.
Romania's struggle for democracy is encapsulated in a village
Opposition to proposals for a gold mine around Rosia Montana is at the heart of pro-democracy protests
theguardian.com, Thursday 5 September 2013 15.08 BST
Romanians protest against the Rosia Montana gold mine in Bucharest.
Fifteen years ago, Canadian company Gabriel Resources came to Romania with a plan to build Europe's largest gold mine around the village of Rosia Montana, in the Apuseni mountains. The exploration would involve digging up Rosia Montana and two nearby villages, destroying four mountains and placing a giant cyanide pool in the area.
To date, the corporation does not have full authorisation to begin construction. Permits have been granted by state authorities only to be later annulled by courts and then reissued. The environmental impact assessment procedure started in 2004 but has not yet been finalised by the Ministry of Environment.
In Rosia Montana, Gabriel Resources has been buying up property from locals but could only get so far: more than 100 villagers whose homes are on the envisaged perimeter of the mine are determined to stay. Supported by environmentalists, architects and lawyers, the villagers' NGO has been battling the corporation and state authorities in courts. Despite the mainstream media showing unflinching support for Gabriel Resources and politicians including President Traian Basescu singing the praises of gold-mining, the campaign gained public sympathy.
Over time, Rosia Montana supporters have been resorting to advocacy, legal actions, small protests, petition writing. They have been promoting an alternative future for Rosia Montana involving cultural tourism and biological farming. In the last two years, however, the movement has been re-energised. In 2011, at a time when Romania's educated youth had already been exposed to the global Occupy movement, Romanian authorities proposed a mining law which would allow private companies to conduct expropriations.
Understood by most as serving Gabriel Resources' interests, the law met with public opposition. In the western city Cluj (a centre of progressive politics) and in the capital, Bucharest, people organised Occupy-style protests. The best known example is the occupation of the Intercontinental Hotel in Cluj – "Occupy Conti".
Then, in January 2012, protests erupted across Romania in response to a proposal to privatise the medical system. Tens of thousands took to the streets to complain not only about plans for the health sector but also against the perceived corruption and arrogance of politicians. Occupy-style tactics were used again this time around: people returned to the streets day after day called for participatory democracy; they formed working groups and drafted policy proposals. Saving Rosia Montana, this country's symbol of defending the commons, was included in all manifestoes.
The January protests have been criticised for their lack of impact, but they did constitute a school of activism in a society in which the public have been relatively quiet since the early 1990s. And it is precisely because of this recent history that activists were well prepared when the government of the Socialist prime minister, Victor Ponta, took decisive action on Rosia Montana.
The Ponta government proposed last week a law that would give Gabriel Resources extraordinary powers, including the right to conduct expropriations in Rosia Montana. The text mandates authorities to give the company all necessary permits for construction and exploration by set terms (15 days, 30 days, 60 days, etc) regardless of national legislation, court rulings or public participation requirements. If the parliament approves this law (a vote could take place as early as this month), Romanian citizens will no longer have a say over Rosia Montana. Outrage was compounded by the fact that, while in opposition, Ponta's Social Democrats had declared themselves against the project. This turnabout reinforced the perception that the political class is corrupted and unworthy of trust.
Thousands protested peacefully in Bucharest and dozens of other cities on 1 September against the legislative proposal, in a day of mobilisation called for on social media. They had slick slogans and banners, loudspeakers and tents, drums and video cameras. They announced that "the revolution begins with Rosia Montana".
What was planned as one day of protest proved to be insufficient: protesters were on the streets again over the next days, with another bigger action called for 8 September. On 3 September, they commemorated the dead of the 1989 revolution, implying perhaps both that Romanians are constructing a memory of protest and that they are ready to start once again working towards real democracy – even without the politicians.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7R34abV4nu4
Iran: Rafsanjani signals wavering in long-standing support for Syria
Former president blames Assad for chemical weapons attack, setting up a clash with hardliners in Islamic republic – analysis
Gareth Smyth for the Tehran Bureau
Friday 6 September 2013 14.15 BST
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Photograph: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 79, has been written off more than most. But the former president and head of the expediency council remains an astute operator, and my guess is that he has chosen his ground carefully in calling for a reappraisal of Iran's unblinking support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
In saying Assad's forces were responsible for using chemicals weapons in Damascus in an attack on 21 August, Rafsanjani has surely judged this a good issue for the first serious clash between pragmatists and more "hardline" forces since Hassan Rouhani, a Rafsanjani ally, took over as president a month ago.
While a clash was inevitable sooner or later - and while Rouhani still has the aura of June's overwhelming election victory - it has arrived quickly, and reflects how delicate a time it is in the Middle East as the United States ponders its first direct military involvement in the Syrian war.
The public argument within Iran's political class reflects a wider disagreement in Tehran over regional policy and the prospect of talks with Washington about the nuclear programme. There are many in Tehran who would love to undermine Rouhani's calls for dialogue as means of reaching a compromise over the nuclear programme and reducing region-wide tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims being brought to boiling point by violent chaos in Syria.
Whatever Iran's longstanding alliance with Assad and whatever the imperatives of maintaining logistical support to Hezbollah, Iran has a strong public policy of opposition to chemical weapons. The deaths of 20,000 Iranian soldiers and the continuing suffering of around 100,000 Iranians from the use of chemicals by Iraq during the 1980-88 war are well known in the country. They are often highlighted on state television.
And while Iran's link to Assad remains strategic, the conflict is clearly worsening relations with Sunni Arab states. Shia are deeply aware – it is intrinsic to the origins of the faith – of their minority status. Takiyya, the doctrine that holds that beliefs can be disguised in certain circumstances in order to protect the faithful from danger, came about because the Shia cannot win any all-out conflict.
The calculation of the pragmatists is surely that the longer the Syria war lasts, the greater the prospect that the fall of Assad. This would at the very least leave Tehran facing a new regime in Damascus, from which it and Hezbollah are deeply alienated, or perhaps a mess with little of a regime to speak of.
Violence in the region has proved deeply unpredictable. Think of Russia's 1979-89 war in Afghanistan, of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, of 9/11, of Hezbollah's action in Beirut in 2008. Syria could produce even greater genies that cannot be replaced in any bottle.
In Beirut, a friend told me of "whole Syrian families glad to find a branch of a tree on the airport road where they can shelter". Many Iraqi Christians who fled to Syria to escape Sunni sectarian "cleansing" have returned to face uncertainties in their homeland, and some reports say 150,000 Syrian Christians fleeing Sunni violence are under effective siege in a "valley of Christians" in the west. These are the lucky ones.
Rafsanjani's speech reflects a view that Iran should work for a diplomatic compromise. He broke from earlier claims from officials including Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, and Abbas Araghchi, then foreign ministry spokesman, that rebels and not the Assad regime had used the chemicals. Rafsanjani's speech also acknowledged the weaknesses of Iran's position – especially in being unable to sell, or to receive payments for, oil. This was a brave move, as it carries that risk that some in Washington will argue once again that with Iran "weakening", confrontation and force can produce a new dawn for pax Americana in the region.
It is hard not to think Rafsanjani is acting as a stalking horse for the president. But even Rouhani, in condemning the use of chemical weapons and calling for international action, did not attribute culpability to either side. And in changing tack after initial comments, Zarif argued that with "no proof" that the Syrian government was responsible, culpability should be established internationally before any action taken. Rafsanjani has led from the front.
One western diplomat told me back in February that the outlines of a Syrian agreement, tied in to a wider regional settlement, were apparent, even though the political difficulties in achieving them were acute.
"Everybody's had to go with the Shia-majority dominance of Iraq, and in Syria, we are prepared to accept similar logic," he said. And if this were to be the outcome, he continued, it would be better achieved round a table than through unpredictable violence. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, he argued, needed to front a deal, backed by the US and Russia, that would accept majority Sunni rule in Syria with minority rights, and Shia-rule in Iraq with minority rights. But even then, the diplomat was not optimistic. "The stars are not aligned to allow that to happen," he said.
The effects of US strikes on possibilities for diplomacy are unknown, and yet the diplomatic doors remain slightly ajar. There was considerable speculation in Tehran at the end of August that a visit by Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the leader of Oman, was intended to help start low-profile talks between Iran and the US. The daily Khorasan reported the Sultan had brought a proposal for Iran to be readmitted to the international money-transfer system Swift if it reduced uranium enrichment. And this came after the visit of Jeffrey Feltman, the UN under-secretary general and former senior US diplomat and ex-Lebanon ambassador, ostensibly to discuss the UN interest in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon.
The "leaking" of details of the Qaboos visit – possibly by conservative elements opposed to talks with the US – may have reflected the disagreements within Iranian politics. The visit, or indeed the leak itself, may have prompted Rafsanjani's intervention over chemical weapons.
"One cannot be sure of anything," an analyst in Tehran said. "Once the first Tomahawk missile takes flight, everybody is in the dark as to what happens next. Curiously in all this the collective political establishment of the West too, seems to be viewing the coming crisis like a deer caught in the headlights. We will have to wait and see what the next two weeks or so will bring: war or the greatest political stepping back from the brink of war the world will have ever seen the Americans take."
The pragmatists in Tehran may be judging that Syria is taking the region in a direction where pragmatism will be submerged – "burned" would be a better word – by militarists and those on all sides who blame others for everything. If so, then Rafsanjani is telling pragmatists in Washington and Europe and the Sunni Arab establishment that there are those in Iran who want to talk. Rouhani and Rafsanjani await a response.
Iran’s foreign minister condemns Holocaust: ‘We condemn the massacre of Jews by the Nazis, and we condemn the massacre of Palestinians by the Zionists’
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, September 6, 2013 7:45 EDT
Iran’s foreign minister said on Facebook that Tehran condemns the World War II Nazi massacre of the Jews, in stark contract to Holocaust denials by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“We condemn the massacre of Jews by the Nazis, and we condemn the massacre of Palestinians by the Zionists,” Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on his Facebook page, where he published the text of an interview he gave to the Tasnim news agency.
Zarif was also asked whether he wished Jews “Happy Rosh Hashanah” (new year), and had had an exchange about the Holocaust on Twitter.
“I replied to a question from a person who appeared to be the daughter of the ex-speaker of the US House of Representatives,” Nancy Pelosi, he wrote.
On his recently activated Twitter account, Zarif wrote in English “Happy Rosh Hashanah,” and Christine Pelosi replied, thanking him.
“Thanks. The new year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial, sir,” she wrote.
Zarif replied: “Iran never denied it (the Holocaust). The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.”
Tehran does not recognise Israel and Ahmadinejad’s eight years in office were filled with anti-Israeli diatribes and denial of the Holocaust.
The controversial Ahmadinejad was succeeded as president by Hassan Rowhani, who won a surprise election victory over five conservatives on June 14.
The former president’s anti-Israel diatribes and Iran’s controversial nuclear programme both contributed to its increased international isolation.
Rowhani’s website on Thursday said he has tasked the foreign ministry with handling sensitive nuclear talks, in a possible signal of a less confrontational approach with world powers.
It was not immediately clear, but his announcement would seem to indicate that Zarif, a moderate who has lived in the West and negotiated with it, would take on the role personally.
“Every year we wish happy new year to our Christian compatriots,” Zarif told Tasnim.
“We also have a Jewish minority that is represented in parliament by one deputy,” he said.
“We have nothing against Jews and Judaism, but we do not allow Zionists to present Iran as being anti-Semitic and bellicose in their propaganda so they can continue to repress the Palestinian people… and have their crimes forgotten,” he added.
Iran reportedly pushing for revenge strikes if U.S. attacks Syria
By Arturo Garcia
Thursday, September 5, 2013 22:46 EDT
The leader of a paramilitary arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has allegedly ordered militia groups in Iraq to strike U.S. interests in the event of an American military incursion into Syria, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The message from Qasem Soleimani, head of the Qods Force, as the unit is known, was intercepted by U.S. officials as it was sent to Shiite groups in the region, which are already sympathetic to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Officials argued that Soleimani encouraged the militants to be ready in case of a U.S. attack, as the issue continues to be debated before going to a vote by American lawmakers, but did not identify any potential targets mentioned in Soleimani’s directive.
The Journal also reported that the State Department issued an alert on Thursday advising against nonessential travel to Iraq, which included a warning about terrorist activity “at levels unseen since 2008.”
Female author gunned down by militants in Afghanistan
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, September 5, 2013 13:24 EDT
Suspected Taliban militants shot dead the Indian author Sushmita Banerjee, writer of a popular book about her dramatic escape from the Taliban in the 90s, in eastern Afghan province of Paktika on Wednesday night, police said on Thursday.
“We found her bullet riddled body near Madrassa on the outskirts of Sharan city (the provincial capital) this morning,” provincial police chief Dawlat Khan Zadran told AFP, confirming earlier reports from Indian media.
Ms Banerjee, 49, was a fairly well-known writer whose book “Kabuliwala’s Bengali Wife”, about her dramatic escape from the Taliban was made into a Bollywood film in 2003.
Police on Thursday said that the book may have been the reason militants targeted her, saying they had spoken with her husband.
“Our investigation … indicates that the militants had grievances against her for something she had written or told in the past, which was then turned into a film,” the provincial police chief said.
“She had been shot 20 times and some of her hair had been ripped off by the militants,” Zadran said.
She was married to Afghan businessman Jaanbaz Khan and had recently moved back to live with him in the insurgency-hit Paktika province, reportedly to run a health clinic there.