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« Reply #8805 on: Sep 18, 2013, 06:37 AM »

Libya prepares for its trial of the decade

Government refused to hand Muammar Gaddafi's son and spymaster over to international criminal court for war crimes

Chris Stephen in Tripoli
The Guardian, Tuesday 17 September 2013 19.03 BST   

It is Libya's trial of the decade, the playboy scion and the sinister spymaster facing their accusers in a case that promises to lift the lid on both the horrors and the excesses of the former regime.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, and Abdullah al-Senussi will go on trial on Thursday facing a litany of charges and possible death penalties if found guilty. But the case has also put the new, precarious Libya itself on trial as it defies the international criminal court, which has ordered that the pair be transferred to The Hague.

Officials are eager to reassure the world that Libya will be able to stage a fair trial and is justified in wanting to mete out justice to its own, rather than handing over the pair to face international justice. "We will not have Mickey Mouse trials under this government," the justice minister, Salah Marghani, told the Guardian. "We had Mickey Mouse trials in the past and we saw the results. We had trials in sports stadiums and town squares with terrible results."

Yet the authorities have been unable even to bring Gaddafi to Tripoli from western Libya, where rebels captured him in November 2011.

The government has failed to persuade the city of Zintan's powerful militia to hand Gaddafi over, and he will not appear alongside Senussi and 28 other former regime officials on Thursday.

For three decades Senussi was Muammar Gaddafi's chief enforcer, accused of oppression at home and terrorism abroad. Senussi, 63, shared the Bedouin and army background of his boss and was chief hatchet-man to one of the world's most brutal and idiosyncratic regimes. In official photographs of the flamboyant dictator, Senussi's heavy, dark face is a constant feature, characteristically standing off-camera, eyes scanning the crowd.

Married to Muammar Gaddafi's sister-in-law, Senussi oversaw an oppression that revelled in public displays of brutality. Sport stadiums were used to stage mass executions that were broadcast on live television.

The brutality was the signature of a regime that ruled by terror. One film, viewed by the Guardian, shows a political opponent being beaten to death in one of the ruler's compounds by a swarm of soldiers, each competing to land the most savage blows. The man is shown being dragged through the throng, one soldier pushing through the crowd, brandishing a knife for the camera, which he uses to hack at the victim.

Senussi is most reviled for one particular crime, the massacre of 1,200 political prisoners at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison in 1996, which witnesses say he personally supervised.

Azerdin Madani, jailed at Abu Salim in the 1980s for his part in a failed assassination attempt against Muammar Gaddafi, remembered Senussi patrolling the corridors: "He was responsible for all that happened there, all bad things. He was the worst. When he was walking outside [the cells], you would know, you would feel the shiver along your back."

Madani suffered torture and near-starvation at the hands of Senussi's jailers, but says: "I want to see him have a proper trial; he should have justice. I want him to see that this is the difference between his way and ours."

Abroad, Senussi is linked to a wave of killings, including the 1984 shooting of British PC Yvonne Fletcher and the Lockerbie bombing; France has already convicted him in absentia over the destruction of a French airliner over the Sahara in 1989.

The case against Gaddafi opens a very different box – that of the excesses and wild years of the former ruler's children. After Tony Blair ushered in the end of international sanctions on Libya by meeting his father in 2004, Gaddafi, 41, moved to a luxurious mansion in Hampstead, London, to enjoy the high life.

Slim and boisterous, he numbered Lord Mandelson, financier Nathaniel Rothschild and Prince Albert of Monaco among his friends. The royal family entertained him at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. The London School of Economics awarded him a controversial doctorate and a charity foundation he controlled later pledged a £1.5m donation to the university.

Gaddafi was also an intermediary in his father's foreign dealings, arranging with British authorities the return in 2008 of the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and giving big oil concessions to BP shortly afterwards.

In the early days, Gaddafi portrayed himself as a reformer. That vanished with the coming of war, when he famously wagged his finger at rebels on state television. That finger is now missing; Gaddafi insists it was severed by a Nato bomb as he fled Tripoli at the end of the revolution.

Prosecutors say both men will face a four-page charge sheet featuring crimes from the time of the civil war and the dictatorship that preceded it.

But with the country fragmenting amid spiralling violence, many wonder whether Libya can hold an effective trial. Gaddafi's ICC-appointed lawyer, John Jones QC, called for this week's trial to be cancelled. He told the Guardian: "None of the prerequisites for a fair trial are in place."

Earlier this month, a unit of gendarmerie kidnapped Senussi's daughter, Anoud, from the custody of justice ministry police in Tripoli, underlining the government's inability to control its own security forces.

Human rights groups say the kidnapping puts a question mark over Libya's ability to hold a fair trial. "The abduction of Senussi's daughter sends a very chilly message on the threats to potential witnesses," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's international justice programme in New York. "The stakes for Libya are very high, in terms of projecting, in this trial, that the rule of law is being applied."

Libya's decision to go ahead with the trial may also see the patience of ICC judges snap.

Since Gaddafi and Senussi were captured, The Hague has repeatedly castigated the Libyan authorities for failing to hand over both men to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Last year ICC official Melinda Taylor was detained for several weeks by Zintan militia after trying to visit Gaddafi.

Holding a trial in defiance of ICC rulings may see the court complain to the UN security council, which ordered the Libya investigations two years ago.

Back then, Libya's rebels were desperate for international support for their uprising, requesting the UN to order the ICC into action. Now, a more confident government insists neither man will be sent to The Hague.

Marghani said he hoped the ICC would be patient with Libya, emphasising that all would depend on whether the world sees a fair trial. "It is very important for the Libyans now that all the conditions of a fair trial are met. It is how we will be judged by history," he said.

• This article was amended on 18 September 2013. An earlier version said the London School of Economics awarded Saif Gaddafi a doctorate after a charity foundation he controlled donated £1.5m to the university. Gaddafi was awarded the doctorate in 2008, and the donation from the foundation was pledged in 2009.

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« Reply #8806 on: Sep 18, 2013, 06:38 AM »

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman arrested in continuing Egypt crackdown

Gehad el-Haddad, face of the pro-Morsi movement in the international media, held on suspicion of incitement to violence

Patrick Kingsley in Cairo, Tuesday 17 September 2013 19.00 BST   

Egyptian authorities have arrested the Muslim Brotherhood's main English-language spokesman, state media reported on Tuesday, in a continuation of the military-backed government's crackdown on supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

Egypt's army and police have killed up to a thousand of Morsi's supporters since his 3 July overthrow and arrested thousands more in a campaign that polls suggest is supported by the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, who view Morsi's allies as terrorists.

Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad, who has spent part of his life in Britain, was the face of the pro-Morsi movement in the international media before his arrest on Tuesday. He is a hate figure for Morsi's opponents, who see him as an embodiment of the way the Brotherhood has, in their view, presented a favourable image to the west but a contradictory hard line to its own supporters.

Officials said Haddad – the son of one of Morsi's closest advisers – is being held on suspicion of incitement to violence, a charge Brotherhood supporters claim is purely political.

Elsewhere, secular activists fear the crackdown on Islamists will soon widen to critics of both the Brotherhood and the army, following a police raid on the offices of the 6 April group – the movement that helped lead the protests that forced the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 – and the arrest of a prominent labour lawyer regarded as a hero of the 2011 uprising.

The campaign against the Brotherhood has also taken place alongside a crackdown on journalists suspected of presenting information unfavourable to the army and its supporters. Ahmed Abu Deraa faces a military trial for his reporting on the army campaign in the Sinai peninsula.

A renowned Canadian film-maker, John Greyson, and his companion, Tarek Loubani, a doctor, have embarked on a hunger strike after they said they were arrested arbitrarily when asking at a police station for directions on 15 August.

Journalists and activists also faced oppression under Morsi, whose tenure was similarly characterised by a failure to curb or acknowledge police brutality.

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« Reply #8807 on: Sep 18, 2013, 06:51 AM »

U.N. report on Syria gas attack fuels calls for Assad's prosecution

September 17, 2013, 8:39 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A day after United Nations inspectors confirmed a nerve gas attack in Syria, the European Union's foreign policy chief joined many of America's closest allies in demanding that Syria's leaders be brought to justice for what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called a war crime.

That isn't likely to happen, however. In addition to Russian and Chinese objections, the Obama administration has withheld support, partly because it doesn't want to jeopardize any deal that might end the bloodshed in Syria.

One effect of the U.S.-Russian plan to require Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up all his chemical weapons is that the White House has become more invested in ensuring his future cooperation. The U.N. inspectors' report provided airtight evidence that Assad's forces fired rockets filled with sarin gas into Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, killing more than 1,000 people, U.S. officials said, but it did not change their calculus regarding prosecution.

DOCUMENT:  U.N. report on chemical weapons use in Syria

 An indictment on war crimes charges would turn Assad into an international pariah and restrict his ability to leave Syria without facing arrest. It thus would give him little incentive to ultimately give up power, President Obama's goal since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011.

Prosecution "is a long shot at best," Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Tuesday.

Instead, if Assad allows international inspectors to remove or destroy his poison gas stockpiles and related infrastructure, as the plan calls for, many diplomats and analysts believe the United States and other world powers eventually may offer him amnesty as part of negotiations to get him to leave office.

Any country can prosecute war crimes, genocide and torture under what's known as universal jurisdiction, meaning the crime could have occurred elsewhere. But the most direct route to prosecution would be for the U.N. Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court, an independent judicial body that is based in The Hague.

The United States isn't a signatory to the International Criminal Court, but it has cooperated with the tribunal and expressed support for some of its activities.

Six of the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council and 58 U.N. members, including France, Germany, Britain, Japan and South Korea, are on record as favoring a referral of Syria's leaders to the ICC, as the court is known.

Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said Tuesday that the 28-country bloc supports punishment for those behind the Aug. 21 attack.

"The EU stands united in condemning, in the strongest terms, this horrific attack which constitutes a violation of international law, a war crime, and a crime against humanity," Ashton said in a statement. "There can be no impunity and perpetrators of the attacks must be held accountable."

Russia, Syria's strongest international supporter, has signaled that it would block a referral to the international court.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said Tuesday that the U.N. report didn't convince him that Assad's forces were responsible for the Aug. 21 gas attack. Russian officials and the Syrian government accuse rebels of being responsible.

"The report proves that chemical weapons were used," Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow after meeting his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius. "There is no answer as to where the chemical round was manufactured, whether it was produced at a plant or homemade."

He made it clear that he was dissatisfied with the U.N. report, and called for a more thorough investigation. He also repeated Russia's objections to any Security Council censuring Syria for use of weapons banned under international treaty.

The White House position on prosecution can be awkward for U.S. diplomats.

On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, told reporters that Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir should forgo his plans to attend the U.N. General Assembly session in New York next week and instead surrender to the ICC, where he faces charges.

"We would suggest that given that he is under those charges, and that the ICC has indicted him, again, on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity charges, that it would be more appropriate for him to present himself to the ICC and travel to The Hague," said Power, a fervent human rights advocate.

But though she had just denounced Syria for "the largest mass casualty chemical weapons attack in 25 years," she was silent on how the Syrian perpetrators might be held accountable.

Besides Bashir, the International Criminal Court is prosecuting or seeking to prosecute other national leaders. It is demanding that Libya's new government hand over late leader Moammar Kadafi's son and his intelligence chief for trial. And in a case stemming from postelection violence in Kenya, the court has just begun its trial of a sitting government leader.

Frank Jannuzi, head of the Washington office of Amnesty International, which supports ICC consideration of Syrian use of chemical weapons, acknowledged that the case is unlikely to make it to the tribunal any time soon. But he said there are other benefits to international pressure for prosecution.

"It will make them think of the possible consequences of their actions, and maybe deter them from others," he said.

Even if prosecution isn't pursued now, the issue of poison gas use in Syria could come before the ICC or be handled through other judicial mechanisms in the future, as happened with war crimes cases related to wars in Somalia, the Balkans and elsewhere.

Jannuzi acknowledged that human rights advocates are worried that the United States and other world powers may be tempted to offer Assad amnesty if he allows inspectors to destroy his chemical weapons stockpiles, even though the culpability of the Syrian leader and his aides may be "painfully clear."

"Will the international community have the courage at that point to proceed with indictments, or will the goal be sacrificed to different political objectives?" he said. "They will face that question."

At the moment, some strong advocates of prosecution acknowledge that they are stumped on the best way forward.

Ban, in releasing the U.N. report Monday, described the Aug. 21 attack as a "war crime," and insisted that "there must be accountability" for any use of chemical weapons.

Asked how the world should proceed to ensure accountability, he replied, "I do not have a clear answer at this time."


September 17, 2013

U.N. Data on Gas Attack Points to Assad’s Top Forces


Details buried in the United Nations report on the Syrian chemical weapons attack point directly at elite military formations loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, some of the strongest findings to date that suggest the government gassed its own people.

The inspectors, instructed to investigate the attack but not to assign blame, nonetheless listed the precise compass directions of flight for two rocket strikes that appeared to lead back toward the government’s elite redoubt in Damascus, Mount Qasioun, which overlooks and protects neighborhoods and Mr. Assad’s presidential palace and where his Republican Guard and the army’s powerful Fourth Division are entrenched.

“It is the center of gravity of the regime,” said Elias Hanna, a retired general in the Lebanese Army and a lecturer on strategy and geopolitics at the American University of Beirut. “It is the core of the regime.”

In presenting the data concerning two rocket strikes — the significance of which was not commented upon by the United Nations itself — the report provides a stronger indication than the public statements of intelligence services of the United States, France or Britain that the Syrian military not only carried out the attack, but apparently did so brazenly, firing from the same neighborhoods or ridges from which it has been firing high-explosive conventional munitions for much of the war.

Looming over a tense capital and outlying neighborhoods bristling with anger and fear, Mount Qasioun is Damascus’s most prominent military position. It is also a complex inseparably linked to the Assad family’s rule, a network of compounds and positions occupied by elite units led by members of the president’s inner circle and clan.

The units based on the mountain are “as close to the Assad regime as it’s going to get,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Mr. Hokayem added that theories that the chemicals had been launched by a rebel mole seeking to discredit the government were unlikely because of the solidity and tight control of those units.

Mr. Assad’s government and its ally Russia have continued to claim publicly that Syrian rebels were responsible for the attacks, which killed hundreds of people, many of them children, in the most lethal chemical warfare attack in decades. But the United Nations data, if accurate, would undercut that claim and appear to erase some of the remaining ambiguity.

Rebel forces have never penetrated the major military installations of Mount Qasioun. In tactical and technical terms, they would almost certainly have been unable to organize and fire sustained and complex barrages of rockets from that location undetected.

The United Nations’ evidence was gathered through standard measurements and investigative techniques at the places where sarin-filled rockets struck on Aug. 21.

At one impact site, investigators found both the place where the rocket had passed through a “vegetal screen” above a wall just before it hit the ground, and the small impact crater itself.

They noted that “the line linking the crater and the piercing of the vegetal screen can be conclusively established and has a bearing of 35 degrees.”

At another impact area in another section of Damascus, a 330-millimeter rocket landed on what investigators described as “earthy, relatively soft ground, where the shaft/engine of the projectile remained dug in, undisturbed until investigated.”

The rocket’s shaft, the investigators noted, “pointed precisely in a bearing of 285 degrees.”

There the investigators’ public comments about their observations at impact sites essentially stopped, except for a parting explanation that shows how to reach a conclusion that the United Nations itself, in accordance with its mandate, did not say.

These azimuths, or compass bearings, they noted, can be reversed to show the direction from which the rockets had been fired. They point back toward the geographic source of the attack, which investigators on the ground presumably would have been able, with their own eyes, to see high above them in the city.

When taken together, the azimuths drawn from different neighborhoods lead back to and intersect at Mount Qasioun — so far an impregnable seat of Mr. Assad’s power — according to independent and separate calculations by both The New York Times and Human Rights Watch.

“Connecting the dots provided by these numbers allows us to see for ourselves where the rockets were likely launched from and who was responsible,” Josh Lyons, a satellite imagery analyst for Human Rights Watch, noted in a statement on Tuesday.

“This isn’t conclusive,” Mr. Lyons added. “But it is highly suggestive.”

The map that Mr. Lyons and Human Rights Watch prepared, and a similar map made by The Times with no consultation or exchange of information, suggested that gas-filled rockets, which sailed over central Damascus and landed in civilian neighborhoods, originated “from the direction of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade,” which occupies a large base on the mountain’s western side.

Depending on the degree of accuracy in the measurements, the flight path for at least one of the rockets could also be read to lead back to the government’s sprawling air base at Mezzeh, near the foot of Mount Qasioun.

A senior American intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States, via satellite, had confirmed rocket launches that corroborated the United Nations data and the Human Rights Watch analysis for one of the strikes.

American analysts said that the data for the other strike was less clear, but that the United States had stronger data indicating that another Syrian military installation — an air base — was also involved in the sarin attacks on Aug. 21.

Republican Guard units are responsible for maintaining control of the city and securing the presidential palace.

“When you fire it from such a place, it means that you don’t care if fingers will be pointed to you in some period of time,” General Hanna said.

Brownish by day, Mount Qasioun sparkles at night with the lights of neighborhoods climbing its slopes and, higher up, cafes where in normal times Damascus residents go in the evening to enjoy the view. In the midst of a civil war, Mount Qasioun is now largely off limits because it has become a government-controlled military zone.

On one shoulder of the mountain stands the presidential palace. On another, antennas sprout.

The government’s presence on the high ground includes elements of two brigades of the Republican Guard, a Special Forces headquarters and many artillery or rocket positions from which Syria’s military routinely fires barrages, rebels and city residents say.

Over the past year, shelling from Mount Qasioun has become the capital’s familiar soundtrack. At night, Syrian humanitarian workers say, they can see the streak of projectiles flying from the ridge over the city toward rebel-held neighborhoods and suburbs.

In recent weeks, one group of government supporters protesting the anticipated American strikes gathered on Mount Qasioun, vowing that the attack would happen “over our dead bodies.” But they eventually had to move because the military was firing another barrage from the area, residents said.

General Hanna and other military analysts said the reason for basing the Republican Guard in the area where the rockets appear to have originated is to prevent a military challenge to the government. The force is officially commanded by Mr. Assad’s brother, Maher, gravely wounded in a bombing last year.

The entire mountain has remained the most securely held government area on the outskirts of Damascus. If rebels ever managed to take the area, analysts said, it could spell the fall of the government, but they have yet to threaten it seriously.

Speaking on Tuesday in New York, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, took pains not to express publicly any conclusions about culpability that could be drawn from the report, noting that assigning blame was explicitly beyond the United Nations’ mandate. The investigators’ mission, Mr. Ban noted, “is to find out facts and whether or not chemical weapons were used; if used, to what extent.”

“It is,” he added, “for others to decide whether to pursue this matter further to determine responsibility and accountability.”

Pressed later about whether he thought those responsible should be referred to the International Criminal Court, Mr. Ban was unequivocal. “The international community is firm and I am firm that any perpetrators who have used these chemical weapons under any circumstances under any pretext must be brought to justice,” he said.

Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon; Eric Schmitt from Washington; and Karam Shoumali from Istanbul.


Syria tells Russia it has proof rebels used chemicals


Syria has given Russia new "material evidence" that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in an attack on 21 August, a Russian minister has said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also said a report by UN inspectors on the alleged use of chemical weapons was politicised, biased and one-sided.

He said the inspectors had only investigated the attack in Ghouta on 21 August, not three previous incidents.

The UN team found the nerve agent Sarin was used in the Ghouta attack.
Ake Sellstrom (centre), the head of a UN chemical weapons team in Damascus. Photo: 30 August 2013

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The report did not apportion blame for the attack but Western nations blame the government forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Damascus - backed by Russia - says opposition forces are to blame.

Meanwhile the chief UN weapons inspector, Ake Sellstrom, has told the BBC it will be difficult to find and destroy all of Syria's chemical weapons, but he believes it is "doable".

"Of course, it will be stressful work," he added.


The war of words over the use of chemical weapons in Syria - much of it aimed at saving face - was predictable.

But the fact is that Russia persuaded Syria to declare its weapons and let them be destroyed. What counts now is what actually happens, not what people say.

The first agreed deadline comes on Saturday, by which time Damascus is supposed to provide an inventory of its chemical arsenal. If that slides, doubts about its sincerity - and Moscow's credibility - will start to grow.

Before and since the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, Syria and Russia argued publicly that the rebels had used chemical weapons, either in the 21 August attack or elsewhere. But that did not prevent Syria agreeing to disarm at Moscow's behest.

Mr Sellstrom said much depended on whether the Syrian government and the opposition were willing to negotiate.

'Distorted' report

In an interview with Russian media, Mr Ryabkov said the Assad government had given him new evidence that rebel forces had used chemical weapons.

He did not give any details of what those weapons were.

"Just now we were given evidence. We need to analyse it," he told RT news organisation.

Mr Ryabkov also criticised the UN report, saying it was "distorted, it was one-sided, the basis of information upon which it is built is not sufficient, and in any case we would need to learn and know more on what happened beyond and above that incident of 21 August".

"We are disappointed, to put it mildly, about the approach taken by the UN secretariat and the UN inspectors, who prepared the report selectively and incompletely," he told the RIA news agency.

The UN inspectors were originally mandated to go to Syria to investigate three alleged chemical weapons attacks - at Khan al-Assal, Sheikh Maqsoud and Saraqeb.

But after the 21 August attack in Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, their instructions changed - and the report they produced was based purely on that incident.

In response to Mr Ryabkov's comments, Mr Sellstrom told the BBC he thought Russia was not criticising the report itself but the process, which he described a political matter and therefore not his remit

"What I think - as I interpret it - is that there are other allegations by the Syrian government which have to be looked into," Mr Sellstrom said.

A further UN report on the original locations of the mandate is due to be released in October.

The UN experts were not required to apportion blame in their report. But Human Rights Watch says the document reveals details of the attack that strongly suggest government forces were behind the attack.

Human Rights Watch used the details about the direction some of the rockets are thought to have come from, and worked out their trajectory. Their results indicated that the rockets were likely to have come from an area near a well-established military base. Estimated range and trajectories of rockets in 21 August chemical attack

UN divided

On Tuesday the five permanent UN Security Council members - France, the UK, the US, Russia and China - met in New York to discuss a resolution on Syria's chemical weapons.

They were discussing a draft resolution put forward by the UK, France and the US.

Such a document is seen as a key step in a US-Russia brokered plan under which Syria will disclose its arsenal within a week and eliminate it by mid-2014.

However, there have already been key disagreements over the wording.

France, the UK and US want a resolution containing the threat of military action but Russia opposes this.
Continue reading the main story   

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that any UN resolution on the Syrian chemicals issue should not contain the threat of military action.

A resolution under Chapter VII of the UN charter permits military action if other measures do not succeed. Chapter VI requires a purely negotiated solution.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford in Moscow says Russia has delivered a promise from Syria to give up its chemical weapons, and it seems that at this stage Moscow does not feel like giving the Western allies anything more.

Russia and China have three times blocked Western-backed Security Council resolutions against Mr Assad.

More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Assad began in 2011.

Millions of Syrians have fled the country, mostly to neighbouring nations. Millions more have been internally displaced.

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« Reply #8808 on: Sep 18, 2013, 06:53 AM »

September 17, 2013

In a Faded Literary Capital, Efforts at a Revival


KHARTOUM, Sudan — On the corner of an old colonial building in downtown Khartoum sits the city’s oldest bookstore, Sudan Bookshop. It was established in 1902, three years after Britain established control over Sudan, and for a long time it was a magnet for the city’s civil servants, politicians and intellectuals.

Today, however, it is a ghost of itself. It is dusty, cold and empty of buyers, and it displays books published mostly in the ’70s and ’80s.

Sudan Bookshop’s manager, El Tayeb Abdel-Rahman, 69, still comes to work every morning at 8:30. Dressed in a chic suit and tie, he awaits customers who rarely come.

“We used to order a shipping container of books every month or two,” he recalled sadly. “But now no one reads anymore.”

These are hard times for bookstores everywhere, of course. And as in other book-loving corners, Sudanese are quick to lament that technology and the Internet have been turning eyes away from pages and toward screens.

But there is more at work here, in a city long famous as a big market for Arabic writers. Books and reading are embedded profoundly in Khartoum’s self-image and the country’s history, and there is growing worry that the collapse of book culture is a direct mirror of the country’s overall decline.

Most Sudanese are more concerned with bread than books, and for good reason. Years of war, drought and economic privation have left deep marks. A once prestigious education system has crumbled, and the number of bookstores in Khartoum has fallen with it.

That sense of urgency and loss is driving a new wave of activism, with its sights on reviving Khartoum’s reputation as a literary city.

“We want to bring people back to books,” said Abdullah Al-Zain, 58, who started a project with friends called Mafroush — a Sudanese Arabic word meaning displayed.

In a monthly showcase held every first Tuesday, participating used-book sellers come to downtown Khartoum’s Etinay Square and lay their books on the ground over cloth sheets or flattened carbon boxes.

Hundreds of book lovers, including students, artists and writers, showed up on a recent afternoon, some gazing over the sprawl of covers, some flipping pages attentively. Others arrived with more books for the display.

“You see, we don’t like to call them ‘used’ books — rather, ‘rebated,’ ” Mr. Al-Zain said.

Al-Mutasim Hassan, 25, a graduate student, came searching for philosophy books. “I think Mafroush is a creative endeavor, and you meet other readers,” he said.

Mr. Hassan holds himself apart from others in his generation who think “Facebook and chat are the only expressions of progress,” he said.

“I find myself, however, that when I read a book, I feel alive,” he added.

For many who are trying to revive reading here, the Internet is turning into an ally.

“The Internet is not necessarily an enemy of books,” Mr. Al-Zain said. “It is so only for those who want it to be such. We use the Internet to promote our programs.”

Across town, in Khartoum’s Green Square, another group is also trying to encourage Sudanese to return to books.

Hundreds of Sudanese youths met in the square on another afternoon, each with a book in hand. For the next few hours, they sat on the grass and either individually read books quietly, or joined a discussion circle with others.

“We want to revive the habit of reading in public spaces,” said Raghda El-Fatih, 18, a volunteer with Education Without Borders, a group that called for a “Khartoum Is Reading” day.

Education Without Borders grew out of a discussion between two college graduates who wanted to tackle the many problems facing education in Sudan. They started a Facebook page, and now have thousands of members.

“One member suggested organizing a day for reading,” said Wisal Hassan, 25, one of the group’s founders. So far, the group has organized two reading days, including one that coincided with the United Nations’ World Book Day.

“It’s been a great success,” Mr. Hassan added.

A sense of Sudanese tradition infuses the revival efforts, and those of writers trying to fuel them.

“The founders of the nationalist movement were avid readers,” said one writer, Kamal El Gizouli. “In the ’30s, they established reading groups and they used to exchange books with each other.”

Back then, Mr. El Gizouli continued, Khartoum was having a cultural renaissance that included the publication of the first Sudanese magazine, Al-Fajr. The weekly train that arrived from Cairo to the north came with newspapers, magazines and books, both in Arabic and in English, which many Sudanese eagerly waited for.

The generation that followed inherited the love of reading, and built on it. “The ’60s was a period of optimism, ideological debates, and people were self-motivated,” Mr. El Gizouli said.

That period created an eclectic pantheon of writers revered in Khartoum, where Arabic authors like the native Sudanese Tayeb Salih, the Egyptian Abbas El-Aqqad and the Syrian Nizar Qabbani became vital inclusions on readers’ lists that also included writers like Chinua Achebe, George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway.

At the time, Khartoum had nearly 400 bookstores, publishers say, including one, the five-story Al-Dar Al-Sudaniya for Books, that once boasted of being the largest bookstore in the Arab world.

It survives. But others are struggling.

“Business has dropped by 90 percent in the past 20 years,” said Fahmi Iskander, 39, the manager of Marawi Bookshop, another historic and family-run store not far from Al-Dar Al-Sudaniya. “There have been days when daily sales were the equivalent of 10 U.S. dollars.”

Mr. Iskander came back to Sudan from England to run Marawi in 2005 after his father died, he said.

“Books by Egyptian writers dominated the market, but we also had translated novels, like ‘Lolita’ — which is now banned,” he said, laughing.

While a significant market still exists here for local writers, high-cost and low-quality printing, censorship and copyright issues have limited the reach of locally published books. And it is harder and harder to find imported books in Khartoum, Mr. Iskander said.

“Custom fees and the currency exchange rate of the Sudanese pound to the U.S. dollar are very high,” he said. “You wouldn’t be able to justify the price of an imported book to a buyer.”

But even more troubling to him is an influx of cheaper, but pirated, books from abroad.

“There is more money in the counterfeit books trade than the drug and counterfeit currency trades combined,” Mr. Iskander said.

He recalled how one Lebanese publisher had come to Khartoum and asked him why he had stopped ordering books from Beirut. “I took him down the street and showed him a counterfeit copy of one of his books,” he said. “He left depressed.”

Still, the stalwarts keep on. Back at Sudan Bookshop, Mr. Abdel-Rahman, the dapper manager, said that he had maintained his pride despite tough times.

 “I am working with a loss,” he said. “But it would be shameful to close down such an institution.”

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« Reply #8809 on: Sep 18, 2013, 06:55 AM »

September 17, 2013

Tanzania Says 15 Are Linked to Acid Attacks


ZANZIBAR, Tanzania — The police in Zanzibar said Tuesday that they had arrested 15 people in connection with a spate of acid attacks in recent months.

Police Commissioner Mussa Ali Mussa said some suspects had links to Al Qaeda and the Somali Islamist extremist group Shabab, but he offered no evidence to support that statement. When pressed for details, Commissioner Mussa hung up, and his cellphone was turned off.

Earlier, he said the police had seized 29 liters of acid from various people who were not legally entitled to have it.

Last week, a Catholic priest was badly injured in the fifth acid attack in Zanzibar since November. The attacks included one last month in which two young British women doing volunteer work were injured when acid was thrown in their faces.

Some analysts took issue with the assertion that terror groups have a presence in Zanzibar and may have been involved in the attacks.

Mohammed Hafidh, an economist, said he doubted the validity of the police commissioner’s statement.

Mr. Hafidh said the acid attacks did not bear the hallmarks of Qaeda and Shabab acts. Both groups are known for deadly and large-scale attacks.

The acid attacks are affecting tourism, Zanzibar’s main economic activity, Mr. Hafidh said.

Zanzibar, a melting pot of African, Indian and Arabian cultures and influences, draws visitors from around the world attracted by the archipelago’s natural beauty and powdery white sand beaches.

Ahmeid Rajab, the managing director of the Somali satellite television network Universal TV, said Zanzibar was unlikely to have a Shabab or Qaeda presence, adding, “After all, those radical groups never, ever use acid to advance their goals.” He said the police were looking for an excuse to escape blame for failing to arrest real suspects.
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« Reply #8810 on: Sep 18, 2013, 06:57 AM »

Obama to meet with Palestinian president before U.N. assembly

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 17:45 EDT

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is to meet US President Barack Obama next week, ahead of the opening of the UN General Assembly, Palestinian sources said on Tuesday.

At their September 23 meeting, the two men will discuss peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, which resumed earlier this year after a three year hiatus, the sources said.

The announcement came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would meet Obama on September 30 for talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, the negotiations with the Palestinians and other regional issues.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been holding talks in secret since August after marathon efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry brought them back to the table. The last round of direct talks between the two sides collapsed in September 2010.

Abbas won a diplomatic victory less than a year ago when on November 29 the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority to that of a “non-member observer state” despite US and Israeli objections.

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« Reply #8811 on: Sep 18, 2013, 07:01 AM »

September 17, 2013

China Finds Resistance to Oil Deals in Africa


NIAMEY, Niger — In Niger, government officials have fought a Chinese oil giant step by step, painfully undoing parts of a contract they call ruinous. In neighboring Chad, they have been even more forceful, shutting down the Chinese and accusing them of gross environmental negligence. In Gabon, they have seized major oil tracts from China, handing them over to the state company.

China wants Africa’s oil as much as ever. But instead of accepting the old terms, which many African officials call unconditional surrender, some cash-starved African states are pushing back, showing an assertiveness unthinkable until recently and suggesting that the days of unbridled influence by the African continent’s mega-investor may be waning.

For years, China has found eager partners across the continent, where governments of every ilk have welcomed the nation’s deep pockets and hands-off approach to local politics as an alternative to the West.

Now China’s major state oil companies are being challenged by African governments that have learned decades of hard lessons about heedless resource-grabs by outsiders and are looking anew at the deals they or their predecessors have signed. Where the Chinese companies are seen as gouging, polluting or hogging valuable tracts, African officials have started resisting, often at the risk of angering one of their most important trading partners.

“This is all we’ve got,” said Niger’s oil minister, Foumakoye Gado. “If our natural resources are given away, we’ll never get out of this.”

Below Mr. Gado’s seventh-floor office, reached through a dark stairwell because there is no working elevator, his fellow citizens are living in mud-brick houses without electricity and washing their clothes in the river. Oil production in Niger began nearly two years ago but has yet to make a dent in living standards.

“We’ve got to fight to get full value for these resources,” Mr. Gado said. “If they are valued correctly, we can hope to bring something to our people.”

Seven hundred miles away in the oil-producing region, Chinese refinery workers and engineers massed boisterously at a crumbling and otherwise unused airport for their quarterly holiday flights out, one of the many costs that Mr. Gado said Niger, at the bottom of the United Nations human development index, could not afford.

A private auditor hired by Niger recently found bloated costs and unfair charges by the China National Petroleum Corporation, providing Niger with ammunition for its next round of tense negotiations in Beijing, Mr. Gado suggested. Tens of millions of dollars have already been scored off the Chinese through such painstaking revisions.

Across the border in Chad, officials have taken a harder line with China National Petroleum, reflecting a growing confidence after 10 years of oil production that has brought the country new roads and public buildings, a revamped army, and a strengthening of the government’s grip on power, though little change in the country’s low poverty ranking.

The country’s oil minister shut down the Chinese operations in mid-August after discovering that they were dumping excess crude oil in ditches south of the capital, N’Djamena, then making Chadian workers remove it with no protection.

“Just dumped in the open,” said Antoine Doudjidingao, an economist who helps lead an oil watchdog group in N’Djamena. “This is a serious case, the first of its kind. You can’t just shut your eyes in the face of it. It’s a responsible reaction.”

Last month Chad’s oil minister refused to allow the Chinese to resume operations, even expelling the company’s local director-general and his assistant. There would be no resumption, the government said, until the Chinese built remediation and treatment facilities.

“Regardless of the actual spillage, which the Chadian government would normally not care much about, this seems to be a warning, which just goes to show that even the prototypical weak state in Africa can have serious leverage, and that African-Chinese relations are not as unbalanced as is sometimes argued,” said Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, a politics professor at Oxford and an expert on African oil.

In Gabon, the government has surprised the oil industry by withdrawing a permit for a significant oil field from a subsidiary of another Chinese state-owned company, Sinopec, turning it over to a newly created national oil company. Officials were quoted last month as threatening to cancel permits to other fields as well, accusing the Chinese of environmental missteps, as in Chad, and mismanagement. Some analysts said Gabon’s motive was merely to reap more of the rewards from these fields.

“The Chinese are genuinely unprepared for this degree of pushback,” Mr. Soares de Oliveira said.

China’s Foreign Ministry rejected the notion that its role had been anything but fruitful. In Niger, it said, it has improved the economy, has hired local residents and is building schools, digging wells and carrying out other “public welfare activities.” In Chad, it said, it has urged companies to protect the environment and will seek to resolve the dispute through “friendly negotiation.” In Gabon, as elsewhere, it said, it supports cooperation “on the basis of equality, amity and mutual benefit.”

Few nations in the world are as weak as Niger, where nearly half of the government budget comes from foreign donors. But the nation long had unfulfilled oil dreams that were largely ignored by major companies. In 2008, two partners came together secretively — the country’s autocratic ruler, Mamadou Tandja, and China National Petroleum — and signed an unpublicized deal that seemed to give both parties what they wanted.

But far less clear, then and now, was whether Niger — one of the world’s most impoverished countries, regularly threatened by famine — would substantially benefit from the deal.

Mr. Tandja got a costly oil refinery in an area of Niger that he needed to win over with the promise of development, but the need for such a project in this low-energy-consuming nation has been sharply questioned by experts, not to mention the mysterious $300 million “signing bonus” Mr. Tandja’s administration received.

In return, the Chinese got access to untapped oil reserves in the remote fields on Chad’s border on terms that still make Oil Ministry officials here wince. Beyond that, local residents have protested that the Chinese presence has brought few jobs, low pay and harsh working conditions.

Mr. Tandja is long gone, deposed in a 2010 coup by army officers suspicious of his grab for expansive powers, but the contract remains, as does the white-elephant oil refinery. It sits at the border with Nigeria, a nation awash in subsidized oil that crosses into Niger as contraband. The refinery has a capacity that is three times Niger’s consumption, and the overall cost should have been only $784 million, according to a United Nations expert. Niger must still pay 40 percent of the original cost, with money lent to it by the Chinese.

“In the context of this fight, we are revisiting these contracts to correct them,” said Mr. Gado, the oil minister in the new democratic government led by an opponent of Mr. Tandja. “In the future, we will pay closer attention, to not make the same mistakes.”

The fight has carried Mr. Gado, a soft-spoken chemist, to Beijing several times to haggle with the Chinese. “I wouldn’t say we are at daggers drawn,” he said carefully. “But we discuss, sometimes over long months. Every time we discover something, we make an adjustment.”

Already, the original loan for Niger’s portion of the refinery — 10 years, at commercial rates — has been knocked down to a more manageable 25 years at 1 percent, and deferred for seven years.

For Niger, the constant struggle with the Chinese is to keep costs down so it can sell its oil cheaply in a region where Nigeria’s subsidized oil is king. “We’ve got to recover what we’ve invested before the state can hope to gain something,” Mr. Gado said.

For a time, oil at the refinery was piling up because the high price kept buyers away. The Chinese wanted to charge for piping the crude from the oil fields to the refinery; Niger is refusing. The Chinese wanted to charge export-level prices for the crude oil at the refinery; again, Niger is balking. The Chinese maintain a substantial benefits-freighted payroll at the refinery, another cost Niger is expected to carry; it is rejecting that, too.

“This is a lesson we are giving to the Chinese: we are keeping a close lookout on them,” said Mahaman Gaya, the Oil Ministry’s secretary general. Mr. Gado has not made his last trip to Beijing.

Niger’s lesson is being applied elsewhere as well: African governments, grateful as they are for Chinese-built roads and ministry buildings, are no longer passive partners.

“Are we going to continue to ignore what the Chinese companies are doing?” asked Mr. Doudjidingao, the Chadian economist. “I think this is the beginning of a change between African states and the Chinese. It’s a consciousness-raising, so they won’t be guilty in the face of history.”

Grace Liu contributed research from Beijing.

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« Reply #8812 on: Sep 18, 2013, 07:04 AM »

Brazilian president postpones Washington visit over NSA spying

Dilma Rousseff snubs Barack Obama, saying planned visit cannot take place 'in the absence of a timely investigation'

Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro
The Guardian, Tuesday 17 September 2013 20.09 BST   

The Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, snubbed Barack Obama on Tuesday by postponing an official visit to Washington in protest at the spying activities of the US National Security Agency.

The row between the biggest economies in North and South America was the latest diplomatic fallout from the top-secret documents leaked by US whistleblower Edward Snowden. In August, Obama announced he was pulling out of a bilateral meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, over Moscow's decision to grant asylum to Snowden.

Despite a last-minute call from Obama, Rousseff's office released a statement saying the political environment was not amenable for the planned trip on 23 October.

"Given the proximity of the scheduled state visit to Washington and in the absence of a timely investigation … there aren't conditions for this trip to be made," the statement read. "The Brazilian government is confident that when the question is settled in an adequate manner, the state visit can quickly occur."

A statement from the White House said: "The president has said that he understands and regrets the concerns disclosures of alleged US intelligence activities have generated in Brazil and made clear that he is committed to working together with President Rousseff and her government in diplomatic channels to move beyond this issue as a source of tension in our bilateral relationship.

"As the president previously stated, he has directed a broad review of US intelligence posture, but the process will take several months to complete.

"For this reason, the presidents have agreed to postpone President Rousseff's state visit to Washington scheduled for October 23."

The postponement followed reports that the NSA has monitored Rousseff's telephone calls and emails, spied on communications by her aides and targeted Brazil's biggest company, Petrobras.

Rousseff had earlier requested an explanation from Obama, but his reassurances failed to satisfy her concerns.

The announcement is at least a setback to bilateral relations, which appeared to have been improving since Rousseff came to power in 2011. She was the only foreign leader this year to be invited to a state dinner at the White House and business executives planned to use the visit to sign deals on oil exploration and fighter jet sales.

But details of US spying activities in Brazil enraged public opinion. Based on leaked NSA files, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and Globo – Brazil's biggest news group – revealed earlier this month that the NSA ran surveillance programmes on Rousseff and her aides. A week later, Greenwald (who is based in Rio de Janeiro) and Globo disclosed slides showing that the US spy agency targets Petrobras, the state-run energy company that controls some of the world's biggest untapped oil supplies.

Earlier reports had shown that Brazil is among several countries that are subject to massive communications data monitoring by the US.

Unease about US activities has also been raised by the diversion of a plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales because it was suspected of carrying Snowden and the detention of Greenwald's Brazilian partner David Miranda at Heathrow airport.

Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said Obama should apologise to the world. Justice minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo said the reports, if confirmed, "should be considered very serious and constitute a clear violation of Brazilian sovereignty".

In response, US officials have adopted a softer tone. US national security adviser Susan Rice said the reports raised "legitimate questions for our friends and allies". But the White House has stopped short of the explanations and apologies requested by Brazil.


Brazil hackers accidentally attack NASA as payback for NSA surveillance

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 14:40 EDT

Hackers have hit back in retaliation for US cyber-spying on Brazil but mistook the US space agency NASA for the National Security Agency (NSA), a news website reported here Tuesday.

“Some activists decided to protest this US practice but it seems that they picked the wrong target,” a specialized blog of the Brazilian news portal Uol said.

“They hacked NASA’s web page and left the message: Stop spying on us,” it said.

The hackers’ message also called on the United States not to attack Syria.

A NASA spokesman confirmed that a Brazilian hacker group last week posted a political message on a number of NASA websites.

“At no point were any of the agency’s primary websites, missions or classified systems compromised,” said NASA spokesman Allard Beutel.

“We are diligently taking action to investigate and reconstitute the websites impacted during web defacement incident,” he said.

The attack followed recent disclosures that the NSA spied on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s email communications and on the state-run energy giant Petrobras.

The disclosures were based on documents obtained by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

Brasilia slammed the alleged spying as “unacceptable” and demanded explanations from Washington.

Rousseff, who spoke by telephone with US President Barack Obama about the affair late Monday, was expected to announce Tuesday whether she will go ahead with a state visit to Washington that had been planned for October 23.

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« Reply #8813 on: Sep 18, 2013, 07:35 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

Fisa court: no telecoms company has ever challenged phone records orders

Judge says requests for mass customer data have not been challenged 'despite the mechanism for doing so'

Spencer Ackerman in Washington, Tuesday 17 September 2013 23.29 BST   

No telecommunications company has ever challenged the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court's orders for bulk phone records under the Patriot Act, the court revealed on Tuesday.

The secretive Fisa court's disclosure came inside a declassification of its legal reasoning justifying the National Security Agency's ongoing bulk collection of Americans' phone records.

Citing the "unprecedented disclosures" and the "ongoing public interest in this program", Judge Claire V Eagan on 29 August not only approved the Obama administration's request for the bulk collection of data from an unidentified telecommunications firm, but ordered it declassified. Eagan wrote that despite the "lower threshold" for government bulk surveillance under Section 215 of the Patriot Act compared to other laws, the telephone companies who have received Fisa court orders for mass customer data have not challenged the law.

"To date, no holder of records who has received an Order to produce bulk telephony metadata has challenged the legality of such an Order," Eagan wrote. "Indeed, no recipient of any Section 215 Order has challenged the legality of such an order, despite the mechanism for doing so."

That complicity has not been total. Before the Bush administration moved the bulk phone records collection under the authority of the Fisa court, around 2006, Qwest Communications refused to participate in the effort.

Telecommunications company acquiescence to the bulk phone records collection orders also contrasts with the protestations of some internet companies regarding their relationship with the NSA. Yahoo is petitioning the Fisa court to disclose a 2008 incident in which it refused to comply with bulk NSA surveillance until the court demanded it turn over customer data.

While the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, in July declassified a Fisa court order underpinning the bulk phone records collection, the order declassified on Tuesday delved far deeper into the reasoning used by the court to justify the mass collection under Section 215, allowing the government to access data "relevant" to an "ongoing" terrorism investigation.

The disclosure is the third major court disclosure about bulk surveillance in a week. On Friday, the Fisa court – citing the public interest in surveillance generated by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – ordered the government to review for potential declassification post-2011 court opinions related to the phone records database.

Tuesday's ruling presented one such opinion – one that found the court in substantial agreement with the government's interpretation of its powers under the Patriot Act.

Citing a supreme court precedent, Eagan found that there are no Fourth Amendment protections around so-called "metadata", the records of phone numbers dialed and received or the times and durations of phone calls. While the precedent, Smith v Maryland, had to do with an individual case, Eagan wrote that the collection of metadata from millions of people does not, en masse, create a constitutional problem.

That contention is the subject of court challenges by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups.

Eagan's August 2013 order also shed light on how the court considers mass phone records from Americans not under suspicion of wrongdoing "relevant" to an "ongoing" terrorism investigation.

"The government's burden under Section 215 is not to prove that the records sought are, in fact, relevant to an ongoing investigation," Eagan wrote; merely that the government must have "reasonable grounds to believe that the information sought to be produced has some bearing on its investigations of the identified international terrorist organizations."

The judge assented to the government's argument that the necessity underpinning the bulk phone records collection was "to create a historical repository of metadata that enables NSA to find or identify known or unknown operatives", including inside the United States.

But Eagan recognized that "the concept of relevance here is in fact broad and amounts to a relatively low standard".

Civil libertarians found the Fisa court judge's reasoning alarming.

"It's problematic because it means the government is allowed to collect records merely in anticipation of investigations," said Patrick Toomey, a lawyer for the ACLU.

Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said: "There's not much daylight between what the government asserts and what the court determines."

While Opsahl hailed the court for disclosing more information about its inner workings, he said the ruling "shows the trouble with having a one-sided court process, where the court is only seeing arguments from one side and seems to adopt those arguments. It seems like a failure of the adversarial process."

The Fisa court does not hear from any petitioner aside from the government. Bills currently before Congress would create a privacy advocate to push back against the government's arguments before the Fisa court.

Sheldon Snook, a spokesman for the Fisa court, said Tuesday's disclosure marked the first time the secret court had decided on its own to reveal information related to the NSA's phone records database.

In a statement on Tuesday, Clapper said the August court opinion "affirms that the bulk telephony metadata collection is both lawful and constitutional".

"The release of this opinion is consistent with the president's call for more transparency on these valuable intelligence programs," Clapper said.


Secret terrorism court orders declassification of its own rulings

By George Chidi
Saturday, September 14, 2013 17:43 EDT

The Edward Snowden leaks may have helped the ACLU win a victory in America’s most secretive courtroom Friday.

Court cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the court that reviews requests by the NSA to wiretap suspected terrorists’ communications — are generally classified. But Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordered the government to review the court’s opinions on the meaning, scope, and constitutionality of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the government to obtain “any tangible things” relevant to foreign-intelligence or terrorism investigations.

Section 215 is the legal basis the NSA claims legitimizes its mass phone records collection program. The very arguments the NSA uses to justify the program are, currently, classified, which have caused incredible frustration among policy makers hoping to describe their objections to current practice.

“We are pleased that the surveillance court has recognized the importance of transparency to the ongoing public debate about the NSA’s spying,” said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, in a statement Friday.”For too long, the NSA’s sweeping surveillance of Americans has been shrouded in unjustified secrecy. Today’s ruling is an overdue rebuke of that practice. Secret law has no place in our democracy.”

Saylor gave the government until October 4 to identify court opinions on Section 215 and set a timetable for declassification review.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the NSA’s mass phone records collection program. Oral argument in the case is scheduled for November 1 in New York, the ACLU said.


America’s gun disease is a national security issue

By Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 7:50 EDT

The spate of shootings in the US and the lack of political will to tackle gun control shows the country as a basket case, not a model state

If this isn’t a matter of national security, what is? When 13 people end up dead at a US military base, that surely crosses the threshold – putting America’s problem with guns into the category reserved for threats to the mortal safety of the nation. At its narrowest, Monday’s massacre at the Washington navy yard is a national security issue because it involved hostile entry into what was meant to be a secure military facility. Plenty will now focus on how a man twice arrested in gun-related incidents was able to gain such easy access to the nerve centre of the US navy. There will be inquiries into the entry-pass system, use of contractors and the like.

But that would be to miss the wider point. America’s gun sickness – which has turned massacres of this kind into a fairly regular, rather than exceptionally rare occurrence – endangers the US not solely because it can lead military personnel to lose their lives, nor even because it can lead to the murder of schoolchildren, as it did at Sandy Hook elementary school last year, or the death of young movie-goers, as it did in Aurora, Colorado, also last year – dreadful though those losses are.

The foreign policy experts who gather in the thinktanks and congressional offices not far from the navy yard often define national security to encompass anything that touches on America’s standing in the world. That ranges from its ability to project military force across the globe to its attractiveness, its “soft power”. For decades, this latter quality has been seen as one of the US’s primary assets, central to its ability to lead and persuade other nations.

But America’s gun disease diminishes its soft power. It makes the country seem less like a model and more like a basket case, afflicted by a pathology other nations strive to avoid. When similar gun massacres have struck elsewhere – including in Britain – lawmakers have acted swiftly to tighten controls, watching as the gun crime statistics then fell. In the decade after the rules were toughened in Australia in 1996, for example, firearm-related homicides fell by 59%, while suicides involving guns fell by 65%.

But the US stays stubbornly where it is, refusing to act. When President Obama last tried, following the deaths of 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook at the end of 2012, his bill fell at the first senate hurdle. He had not proposed banning a single weapon or bullet – merely expanding the background checks required of someone wanting to buy a gun. But even that was too much. The national security pundits who worry how a US president is perceived when he is incapable of protecting the lives of innocent Syrians abroad should think how it looks when he is incapable of protecting the lives of innocent Americans at home.

On guns, the US – so often the world leader in innovation and endeavour – is the laggard, stuck at the bottom of the global class. Bill Clinton perfectly distilled the essence of soft power when he said in 2008, “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” He was right. But every time a disturbed or angry individual is able to vent his rage with an assault weapon, killing innocents with ease, the power of America’s example fades a little more.

@Freedland © Guardian News and Media 2013


Obama: Republicans promising economic chaos if they don’t get what they want

By Dominic Rushe, The Guardian
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 12:42 EDT

Barack Obama on Monday accused his Republican opponents of holding the economic recovery to ransom, as the US faces another deadline over its borrowing limits.

In a speech that was overshadowed by news from Syria and fatal shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, Obama said he would not negotiate over an extension of the US debt ceiling as part of an escalating budget battle in Congress.

“I cannot remember a time when one faction of one party promises economic chaos if it doesn’t get 100% of what it wants. That’s never happened before. But that’s what’s happening now,” said Obama.

In a speech marking five years since the start of the financial crisis that triggered the deepest recession in living memory, Obama said much progress had been made in rebuilding the US economy but much more remained to be done.

Republicans are attempting to force more spending cuts and remove funding for Obama’s 2010′s affordable healthcare act, known as Obamacare, as they negotiate an agreement on the 2014 fiscal budget that begins on 1 October.

In 2011, a similar row led to an historic downgrade of the US’s debt rating and caused panic on financial markets around the world. “I will not negotiate over whether or not America keeps its word and meets its obligations,” Obama said. “I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States.”

Obama said the financial crisis had “sent an economy already into recession, into a tailspin”. Five years after the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, which precipitated the financial meltdown, Obama said: “It’s hard sometimes to remember everything that happened during those months, but in a matter of a frightening few days and weeks some of the largest investment banks in the world failed, stock markets plunged, banks stopped lending to families and small businesses, our auto industry – the heartbeat of American manufacturing – was flat-lining.”

Obama said the US had “cleared away the rubble from the financial crisis and we’ve begun to lay a new foundation for economic growth and prosperity”.

In the last three and a half years, the economy has added 7.5m new jobs and the unemployment rate has come down, Obama said. “Our housing market is healing. Our financial system is safer,” he said.

He said more work needed to be done and the economy had to grow faster. “Because even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, the top 1% of Americans took home 20% of the nation’s income last year, while the average worker isn’t seeing a raise at all,” Obama said.

Obama said the fight over the US’s debt ceiling threatened that recovery. If Congress does not reach an agreement soon, treasury secretary Jack Lew has said the US will reach its borrowing limit in mid-October and will likely be unable to pay all its bills soon after. In a letter to Washington leaders last month, Lew warned such a situation would do “irreparable harm” to the US economy.

“After all the progress that we’ve made over these past four and a half years,” said Obama, “the idea of reversing that progress because of an unwillingness to compromise or because of some ideological agenda is the height of irresponsibility. It’s not what the American people need right now.”


September 17, 2013

Florida Among States Undercutting Health Care Enrollment


MIAMI — As many states prepare to introduce a linchpin of the 2010 health care law — the insurance exchanges designed to make health care more affordable — a handful of others are taking the opposite tack: They are complicating enrollment efforts and limiting information about the new program.

Chief among them is Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-dominated Legislature have made it more difficult for Floridians to obtain the cheapest insurance rates under the exchange and to get help from specially trained outreach counselors.

Missouri and Ohio, two other states troubled by the Affordable Care Act, have also moved to undercut the law and its insurance exchanges, set to open on Oct. 1. In Georgia, the state insurance commissioner, Ralph T. Hudgens, has said he will do “everything in our power to be an obstructionist.”

Alarmed by the resistance, the secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, and the Obama administration are intensifying their efforts to win public support for the exchanges in Florida and elsewhere and are confronting their critics head on.

On Tuesday, Ms. Sebelius capped a three-city visit to Florida — home to the country’s second largest uninsured population — with sharp words about the state’s unwillingness to embrace the law. She will do the same in Missouri later this week.

“It’s unfortunate that keeping information from people seems to be something of a pattern here in the state,” Ms. Sebelius said at a news conference in Miami, referring to restrictions on outreach counselors.

The online exchanges are designed to offer a variety of insurance plans at subsidized prices and are meant to make health care more affordable to lower-income people who do not have insurance. Outreach counselors, known as navigators, provide information about the plans and help enroll applicants.

Ms. Sebelius also criticized Florida’s rejection of $50 billion in federal money over 10 years to expand Medicaid, its concerns about privacy issues, which she said were unfounded, and its sudden unwillingness to grapple with insurance rates.

Even among states hostile to the law, Florida became an outlier this year when it passed a bill removing for two years the state insurance commissioner’s ability to approve insurance rates for new health plans, she said. This leaves Floridians vulnerable to higher rates at a time when the new health plans will be introduced.

In other states, insurance commissioners used the law to obtain better deals for consumers.

“To have the Florida Legislature pass a bill that for two years — 2014 and 2015 — removes rate-review authority really puts Florida consumers at great risk,” Ms. Sebelius said, adding, “No one else has done that.”

Ms. Sebelius’s criticism is unlikely to inspire cooperation in Florida or in the other states that vigorously oppose the law. Mr. Scott has been one of the law’s fiercest opponents, despite his decision to accept the $50 billion for Medicaid expansion. But the Florida House blocked that effort this year while Mr. Scott sat mostly on the sidelines, failing to lobby for the expansion, lawmakers said. The state also chose not to run its own health care exchange, leaving it to the federal government.

Democrats said Mr. Scott and Republican lawmakers continued to throw up roadblocks.

Last week, Florida’s deputy health secretary ordered county health facilities to bar navigators, or outreach counselors. The health department said it was following established policy: All outside groups are prohibited from using county health property to conduct nonstate business. Brochures, though, will be made available, according to a statement. No written requests for space have been made by navigators, a spokesman said.

County health offices are important in the campaign to reach potential applicants because they deal mostly with lower-income people who may not be insured.

And on Monday, in a letter to the top Republican and Democrat in Congress, Mr. Scott raised concerns about privacy, saying that navigators and others involved in the health care effort could use applicant information improperly. Attorneys general from 13 states have expressed similar worries about the release of financial and medical information — be it intentional or accidental.

Saying that Florida was “ground zero” in the Obama administration’s campaign to enroll people, Mr. Scott asked House Speaker John A. Boehner and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, “to thoroughly review what privacy rules and safeguards are in place.”

“Floridians should not have to exchange their privacy for insurance,” Mr. Scott wrote.

Ms. Sebelius said on Tuesday that she appreciated the governor’s concerns but that her office, which oversees Medicare, is used to dealing with privacy issues.

“I can guarantee you we take that very, very seriously, which is why nobody will be collecting personal health information at all at any point along the way,” she said. “Verifying, yes; storing it, no.”

Florida is not the only state complicating the Obama administration’s efforts to roll out the new exchanges.

A Missouri law adopted this year requires the licensing of navigators and also restricts their activities. Without that license, the Missouri law says, navigators cannot “provide advice concerning the benefits, terms and features of a particular health plan” or “advise consumers about which health plan to choose.”

Ohio has adopted a similar law, stating that navigators can distribute some information but cannot recommend a plan or offer advice about benefits in a particular plan.

In Georgia, the insurance commissioner, Mr. Hudgens, said his “job is to protect consumers.” To that end, Georgia mandates that health insurance counselors be licensed to become navigators, a process that requires criminal background checks and fingerprinting of applicants.

For Democrats, the new state laws and rules are just another way to throw up obstacles to try to defeat the Affordable Care Act.

“They couldn’t beat Obamacare in Congress, where they’ve tried 41 times to repeal it, they couldn’t beat it in the Supreme Court, so they are trying death by a thousand cuts,” said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Lizette Alvarez reported from Miami, and Robert Pear from Washington.


Wall Street Journal Warns GOP That Government Shutdown Could Give Democrats The House

By: Jason Easley
Sep. 17th, 2013

In a editorial that reeks of panic and desperation, the Wall Street Journal is warning House Republicans that a government shutdown could enrage voters to the point where they give Democrats back control of the House.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized:

    The defunders sketch out an alternative scenario in which Mr. Obama is blamed, and they say we can’t know unless Republicans try. But even they admit privately that they really won’t succeed in defunding ObamaCare. The best case seems to be that if all Republicans show resolve they’ll win over the public in a shutdown, and Democrats will eventually surrender, well, something.

    If this works it would be the first time. The evidence going back to the Newt Gingrich Congress is that no party can govern from the House, and the Republican Party can’t abide the outcry when flights are delayed, national parks close and direct deposits for military spouses stop. Sooner or later the GOP breaks.

    This all-or-nothing posture also usually results in worse policy. The most recent example was the failure of Mr. Boehner’s fiscal cliff “Plan B” in December 2012, which was the best the GOP could do because Mr. Obama had the whip hand of automatic tax increases. The fallback deal that was sealed in the Senate raised taxes by more and is now complicating the prospects for tax reform.

    The backbenchers are heading into another box canyon now. Mr. Boehner is undermined because the other side knows he lacks 218 GOP votes, which empowers House and Senate Democrats. They want to reverse the modest spending discipline of the sequester, and if the House GOP can’t hold together on the CR they will succeed. The only chance of any entitlement reform worth the name is if Mr. Boehner can hold his majority and negotiate from strength.


    The backbenchers might even look at the polls showing that the public is now tilting toward Republicans on issues including the economy, ensuring a strong national defense and even health care. Some Republicans think they are sure to hold the House in 2014 no matter what happens because of gerrymandering, but even those levees won’t hold if there’s a wave of revulsion against the GOP. Marginal seats still matter for controlling Congress. The kamikazes could end up ensuring the return of all-Democratic rule.

Beneath the typical misinformation and Republican talking points, the Wall Street Journal editors were desperately trying to stop House Republicans from completing their political suicide mission.

The WSJ was correct. The strategy that House Republicans are trying has never worked. President Obama is not going to back down, and a government shutdown that prevents the military and senior citizens from being paid will flip quite a few marginal districts House controlled districts into the Democratic column. There are 49 battleground seats that Republicans currently control. If House Republicans shutdown the government, many of those seats will be in jeopardy.

Republican House incumbents who are counting on the combination of gerrymandering and Citizens United dark money to keep them in office might be in for a huge surprise, because the public outrage over a government shutdown would create a climate where Democratic challengers could run on making sure that the troops get paid and Social Security checks get sent out. No amount of secret Koch dollars can defeat pocketbook issues.

The majority of Americans have long blamed congressional Republicans for the dysfunction in Washington. A Republican led government shutdown would push that blame over the edge. Fifty seven percent of the American people don’t support the Republican plan to defund Obamacare.

If Republicans shutdown the government, they will lose and lose badly. The best path to a Democratic House takeover in 2014 is for Republicans to keep doing exactly what they are currently doing.


Four Congressional Working Days Before a Shutdown, Time for Another 3 Benghazi Hearings!

By: Sarah Jones
Sep. 17th, 2013

Unless the House cancels their week off (they just got back from recess, they’re exhausted), they have just four Congressional working days left before a government shutdown. So what do they do?


Yes, buckle up patriots. Perhaps your House won’t even sit down for budget reconciliation and they had to delay their continuing resolution vote because, well, they didn’t have the votes. Mind you, the CR is sort of the morning-after pill of budget planning – it’s the oops stopgap, and they can’t even do that. Not good.

But one thing Republicans can really get behind is investigating our security clearance failures due to sequestration another Obama Hillary witch hunt obsessing over the horrible tragedy in Benghazi.

Your calendar of fun brings you:

On the 18th, your very important House Committee on Foreign Affairs brings you, “Hearing: Benghazi: Where is the State Department Accountability?” AKA: Let’s kill Hillary’s 2016 chances.

There are two shows planned for you on the 19th: The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform brings you “Reviews of the Benghazi Attack and Unanswered Questions” and House Armed Services Committee will bring you, “Defense Department’s posture for September 11, 2013: What are the Lessons of Benghazi?”

Nowhere in there is an explanation for why Darrell Issa won’t let the co-chairs of the Benghazi report testify in front of the TV cameras. There is also no investigation into the Republican-leaked and deliberately changed emails that implicated the White House and State Department. Oh, gosh, no, they’re just looking for the “truth” you see.

It’s a jolly good thing Putin saved the Republicans from having to vote on Syria, thus freeing up their time for more narrow politicization of one single embassy attack, while the scores of attacks under Bush were collateral damage we were expected to ignore.

Fund the government? Surely you jest. Not when there are shows to put on for the Tea Party base. Eric Cantor can’t seem to manage that House schedule to save his soul. It just keeps getting away from him. Or maybe it’s that they are working even less this year than they did last year. And poor Speaker John Boehner, the man with the second worse job in DC (hello, GOP whip), he is desperate to get out of defunding the government, but Obama’s not biting at his threats.

Still, the Speaker managed to toss the blame on the President, “It’s a shame that the president could not manage to rise above partisanship today. Instead, he should be working in a bipartisan way to address America’s spending problem — the way presidents of both parties have done before. He should work with us to delay his health care law for everyone.”

Too bad about that deficit hitting its lowest spot in five years, eh? Too bad that ObamaCare lowers the deficit. Oh, yes, it’s too bad. Too bad that the CBO estimated the Republican plan to repeal ObamaCare would boost the deficit by $109 billion from 2013 to 2022. Yes, ain’t it a shame.

How about we defund ObamaCare anyway, and for old time’s sake the President let’s us shutdown government but agrees to take the blame. Eh?

Tick tock. Four more days and the economy explodes. But, Benghazi!


Republicans Foolishly Try to Get People to Reject Paying $100 a Month for Healthcare

By: Sarah Jones
Sep. 17th, 2013

ObamaCare is coming. Or, as Elizabeth Hasselbeck quipped in an oh so not scripted totally planned way today on Fox today, “ObamaScare.” Yeah, they didn’t believe Sarah Palin’s lies, so we’ll get Elizabeth Hasselbeck to say them.

As Republicans crow that only 23% of Americans want them to destroy ObamaCare because they don’t understand it or like it, the big benefits are starting to roll in.

The latest benefit is a doozy, with the Department of Health and Human Services releasing a report today showing that nearly six in ten (56%) uninsured Americans can pay less than $100 per month for coverage.

Yep. Nearly six in ten people who don’t have health insurance may be able to get coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace for less than $100 per month, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

HHS explains that 23.2 million, which is 56% of the 41.3 million eligible uninsured,
may qualify for Medicaid, CHIP, or tax credits enabling them to get insurance at the exchanges for $100 or less a month.

So Republicans want Americans to reject being able to pay only $100 a month for coverage, so that they and their families can go uncovered in order to help Republicans appease a faction of their party. Seriously? The fail is huge on this.

Of course, Republicans have blocked the Medicaid expansion in some states (and you know they’ll blame Obama for that and their base will buy it), thereby keeping millions from affordable health insurance. In those states, Republicans are causing insurance rates to rise by denying Medicaid expansion. A RAND Health study found that premiums increase by 8 to 10% if states fail to expand Medicaid.

Tuesday’s HHS report shows “if all 50 states took advantage of new options to expand Medicaid coverage, nearly 8 out of every 10 people (78 percent) who currently do not have insurance could be paying less than $100 a month for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.”

Republicans can continue to ObamaScare the public, but only their base wants ObamaCare destroyed. The public is confused about ObamaCare. Not only have Republicans thrown all of their considerable corporate resources at demonizing the healthcare law, but in typical Democratic style, it has been presented long in policy specifics and short on bumper sticker slogans. Democrats are trying, but short and inaccurate is not their forte and every time they try it, then end up cringing in retreat as soon as they’re busted.

Democrats feel compelled to litter up any public notices with long winded statistical analysis, specific and accurate qualifiers and caveats. (e.g., “Republicans voted to end Medicare”– they got dinged for that, had to add “as we know it” when if it was not as we know it, it would no longer be Medicare. See Shakespeare and Plato.) President Obama is guilty of this; one of his biggest weaknesses is his failure to simplify things for the public. He routinely thinks that good policy makes good politics.

Democrats should learn from Bill Clinton.

Former President Bill Clinton cut through the fog of lies recently, “President Clinton said by not cooperating people in Republican states will be paying for the law, but the benefits will be going to people in other states.”

ObamaCare will no doubt have a bumpy roll out, as did Medicare and Social Security. But as people begin to enjoy the benefits, the polls will begin to shift. The only problem will be all of the Tea Partiers and Republicans who are on ObamaCare but don’t know it. When they are polled, no doubt they will bash it just like they demanded the government stay out of their Medicare.

Eventually even the most politically unaware will become dimly aware that Republicans are against millions of them getting access to affordable health insurance that is not a pick pocket sham for a corporate business.

Note: HHS defines Marketplace eligible as the eligible uninsured with incomes above 138% of the Federal Poverty Level in Medicaid expansion states or above 100% of the Federal Poverty Level in non-expansion states.


Boehner Angry GOP Did Not Get Free Pass on Day of Navy Yard Shooting

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Sep. 18th, 2013

boehner-faceHouse Speaker John Boehner, busily plotting three more pointless Benghanzi hearings, accusing Obama of partisanship in his response to the Washington Navy Yard shooting, his long orange face whining, “It’s a shame that the president could not manage to rise above partisanship today.”

You would think he was watching his investments in the Keystone XL Pipeline crash.

He was joined by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince “The GOP is a Religion” Priebus, who tweeted yesterday,

    Disappointing that POTUS couldn’t rise above partisanship yesterday…hours after #NavyYardShooting. @Morning_Joe:

    — Reince Priebus (@Reince) September 17, 2013

Serial adulterer Newt “Drop my Pants for my Country” Gingrich, congenitally incapable of being inoffensive, used his bully pulpit on CNN’s Crossfire:

    President Reagan, in the tragedy of the (space shuttle) Challenger, postponed the State of the Union address because he realized the country needed to be in mourning. President Obama should have recognized that an event this painful and tragic, in the nation’s capital, required being president rather than partisan, and being concerned about people rather than concerned about attacking.

Then there is Republican strategist and pundit Alex Castellanos who opined that,

    When there is a tragic event like this in the nation’s capital and the local baseball team expresses that it would be insensitive to participate in the national pastime, but the president proceeds with a self-congratulatory press conference to celebrate his miniscule economic accomplishments, it tells you the Obama administration has become tone-deaf. Bill Clinton, who ‘felt our pain,’ would never have made this mistake.

And if you watched Preibus’ tweeted video, you know that Morning Joe went after Obama too:

    It was props — he brought his props along and he had this political. And it was a harsh, partisan speech from the president of the United States on any day. But you know what? This president is frustrated and there is — he certainly has every right to do that. But on the day while people were hiding, while people were bleeding, while people were dying, while the nation was locked in on this — he’s talking about harsh partisanship and Republicans wanting to hurt people.

Let’s recap: What was Obama’s supposed mistake?

Addressing the economy and Republican obstructionism. You see, if there is a shooting taking place somewhere, Republicans get a free-pass from criticism.

The Republicans, busily plotting more Obamacare repeal votes and Benghanzi hearings forget, if they ever knew, that they have responsibilities as elected officials. That, not to put too fine a point on it, they have a country to run.

President Obama is aware of his responsibilities and having dealt with the Navy Yard Shootings, which were still taking place as he spoke about them, turned to those other responsibilities and dared to goad the Republicans.

    I cannot remember a time when one faction of one party promises economic chaos if it can’t get 100% of what it wants. That’s never happened before but that’s what’s happening right now.

He accused the Republicans of irresponsibility. He also, quite truthfully, pointed out to our do-nothing Congress that “what is also important to remember is that Congress has a lot of work to do right now” and that there isn’t a lot of time in which to do it.

Of course, the Republicans already know what they’re doing: plotting against Obama and figuring out ways of throwing our economy into chaos.

White House press secretary Jay Carney also knew what the Republicans were doing, and he said in defense of Obama, that,

    Far from being a partisan speech, the president made clear in his speech that many Republicans on Capitol Hill agree with him that we should not go down the road of threatening to shut down the government or defaulting on our obligations in the name of some partisan agenda item.

Yes, we know where the partisanship was truly lurking yesterday.

Instead of telling Republicans to do their jobs, these GOP drones wanted Obama to preach national unity, so they could get on with their business of destroying the country without attention being drawn to their treasonous actions.

Cockroaches do so hate the light to be turned on them.

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« Reply #8814 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:02 AM »

Greece moves to ban far-right Golden Dawn party

Government to table emergency legislation after murder of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas at ultra-nationalist rally

Helena Smith in Athens, Wednesday 18 September 2013 19.19 BST   

The Greek government has hinted that it will seek to ban Golden Dawn after the far-right party was linked to the murder of a leading leftwing musician in Athens.

As violence erupted on the streets and demonstrators protested after the fatal stabbing of Pavlos Fyssas, a prominent anti-fascist, the public order minister, Nikos Dendias, cancelled a trip abroad saying the government would table emergency legislation that would seek to outlaw the group.

Amid renewed political tensions between the extreme left and right, the new law would re-evaluate what constituted a criminal gang, he said.

"Neither the state will tolerate, nor society accept, acts and practices that undermine the legal system," the minister told reporters, adding that the attack showed "in the clearest way the [party's] intentions".

Earlier in the day, police raided Golden Dawn offices across the country, with media reporting running street battles outside branches in Crete, Thessaloniki and Patras.

Voted into the Greek parliament for the first time last June, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn has been widely accused of employing violence to further its ratings in the polls.

The socialist Pasok party, the junior member of Antonis Samaras's two-party coalition, has campaigned openly for it to be banned, saying it should be considered a criminal gang.

The 34-year-old rapper died within minutes of being stabbed in the chest when he and a group of seven friends were set upon by around 30 black-clad supporters of Golden Dawn in the working-class district of Keratsini.

Eyewitnesses said the singer was stabbed several times by a man who suddenly appeared in a car after being phoned by members of the mob. The attack bore all the hallmarks of a premeditated assault, they said.

The alleged perpetrator, a 45-year-old man who was arrested when police rushed to the scene, later confessed to being a member of Golden Dawn. His wife, who was also detained, admitted having attempted to hide incriminating evidence, including party credentials linking her husband to the extremist organisation, when he called her, panic stricken, after the murder. Greek media cited police as saying the man was not only a sympathiser of Golden Dawn but visited its offices in Keratsini "five or six times" a week.

With parties across Greece's entire political spectrum condemning the killing, the far-right group vehemently denied it had any connection with the crime or the alleged culprit. In a rare intervention, the president, Karolos Papoulias, warned: "It is our duty not to allow any space whatsoever to fascism – not even an inch."

Fyssas, who performed under the stage name Killah P, would be the first Greek to have died at the hands of Golden Dawn, which until recently reserved its venom exclusively for migrants. Within hours of his death sending shockwaves through Greek society, the killing was being described as an "assassination."

Greece's third largest party and fastest growing political force, Golden Dawn currently controls 18 seats in the 300-member parliament. It appears to have been emboldened by its soaring popularity on the back of economic desperation.

In an atmosphere brittle with anger, uncertainty and fear, politically motivated violence has escalated, with the ultra-nationalists being blamed for attacks on communist activists last week and on a rightwing mayor in the south over the weekend.

Speculation is rife that the leadership of Golden Dawn may have lost control over a party whose grassroots supporters view themselves as soldiers in an armed struggle aimed at overthrowing a political establishment they blame for the country's woes.

"It is up to the government now to deal with Golden Dawn once and for all," said Giorgos Kyrtsos, a prominent political commentator. "We know very little about the inner workings of Golden Dawn, and whether its leadership has lost control [over its members]. But what we do know is that, for the first time, the government has them in a corner."

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« Reply #8815 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:10 AM »

After a ride to parliament in golden carriage, Dutch king declares end to welfare state

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 18:15 EDT

The Dutch government heralded the end of the welfare state on Tuesday as the fifth-largest eurozone economy presented an austerity-driven budget for 2014.

“The classic welfare state is slowly but surely turning into a society of participation,” King Willem-Alexander told parliament, laying out the Liberal-led government’s plans for the year.

“It is asked of all those who can to take responsibility for their own life and that of those around them,” the king said in the speech written by Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

The king, who travelled through the streets of The Hague to address MPs and senators in an ornate horse-drawn golden carriage, said the transformation would be particularly noticeable in social security and long-term healthcare policies.

“The classic welfare state of the second half of the 20th century has ended up with practices in these domains that have become untenable in their current form,” said the king, whose country for decades symbolised the western European ideal of the welfare state.

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem later unveiled his budget in parliament, with the Netherlands economy still struggling to return to growth.

“Balance has not yet returned to our economy, and that can be seen from the figures,” Dijsselbloem, who also heads the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, told parliament.

The trade-dependent Dutch economy is in the fourth quarter of a recession and is struggling even as other European countries return to growth.

A growth prediction of 0.5 percent for 2014 is less than previous forecasts and unemployment, on the rise since June 2011, is expected to climb beyond 9 percent.

“A quick and painless solution does not exist,” Dijsselbloem said, referring to six billion euros in additional budget cuts for 2014.

Those savings come on top of austerity measures agreed by previous governments since the financial crisis started in 2008.

The government hopes that all of the cuts agreed since then will result in overall savings of 30 billion euros in 2014, rising to 50 billion euros in 2017.

Most of the additional measures announced Tuesday had already been leaked in the Dutch press, including lowering healthcare refunds and reducing ministries’ budgets.

A reported public sector wage freeze was however not announced.

The austerity measures will reduce Dutch households’ purchasing power by 0.25 percent in 2014, but at the same time bring the public deficit down to 3.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The Netherlands’ Central Planning Bureau (CPB), whose predictions the government uses to draw up its budget, said in June that without the additional measures the deficit would rise to 3.9 percent of GDP next year.

European Union rules mean that the Dutch deficit cannot be over 3 percent of GDP. It was 4.1 percent in 2012.

The budget announcement came with the government in free-fall in opinion polls.

A poll published Sunday said that the ruling Liberal-Labour coalition, in power for a year, would lose around half its seats in parliament were elections held now.

Eurozone growth in the second quarter of 2013 was 0.3 percent overall, while the Dutch economy shrank by 0.2 percent during the same period.

[Image via Agence France-Presse

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« Reply #8816 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:20 AM »

September 18, 2013

Germany’s Effort at Clean Energy Proves Complex


BERLIN — It is an audacious undertaking with wide and deep support in Germany: shut down the nation’s nuclear power plants, wean the country from coal and promote a wholesale shift to renewable energy sources.

But the plan, backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and opposition parties alike, is running into problems in execution that are forcing Germans to come face to face with the costs and complexities of sticking to their principles.

German families are being hit by rapidly increasing electricity rates, to the point where growing numbers of them can no longer afford to pay the bill. Businesses are more and more worried that their energy costs will put them at a disadvantage to competitors in nations with lower energy costs, and some energy-intensive industries have begun to shun the country because they fear steeper costs ahead.

Newly constructed offshore wind farms churn unconnected to an energy grid still in need of expansion. And despite all the costs, carbon emissions actually rose last year as reserve coal-burning plants were fired up to close gaps in energy supplies.

A new phrase, “energy poverty,” has entered the lexicon.

“Often, I don’t go into my living room in order to save electricity,” said Olaf Taeuber, 55, who manages a fleet of vehicles for a social services provider in Berlin. “You feel the pain in your pocketbook.”

Mr. Taeuber relies on just a single five-watt bulb that gives off what he calls a “cozy” glow to light his kitchen when he comes home at night. If in real need, he switches on a neon tube, which uses all of 25 watts.

Even so, with his bill growing rapidly, he found himself seeking help last week to fend off a threat from Berlin’s main power company to cut off his electricity. He is one of a growing number of Germans confronting the realities of trying to carry out Ms. Merkel’s most ambitious domestic project and one of the most sweeping energy transformation efforts undertaken by an industrialized country.

Because the program has the support of German political parties across the spectrum, there has been no highly visible backlash during the current election campaign. But continuing to put the program in place and maintaining public support for it will be among Ms. Merkel’s biggest challenges should she win a third term as chancellor in Sunday’s election.

Ms. Merkel, of the traditionally conservative and pro-business Christian Democrats, came up with her plan in 2011, in the emotional aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. It envisions shutting down all of Germany’s nuclear plants by 2022 and shifting almost entirely to wind and solar power by 2050.

The chancellor’s about-face not only seized the energy initiative from her center-left opponents, it also amounted to a gamble that could prove to be her most lasting domestic legacy — or a debacle whose consequences will be felt for generations.

The cost of the plan is expected to be about $735 billion, according to government estimates, and may eventually surpass even that of the euro zone bailouts that have received far more attention during Ms. Merkel’s tenure. Yet as the transition’s unknowns have grown, so have costs for the state, major companies and consumers.

Mr. Taeuber showed up last Friday, one of three “walk-ins” that day at one of two agencies in Berlin offering aid to people struggling to pay their energy bills. He arrived just as employees from the power company Vattenfall were on the way to his apartment.

Sven Gärtner, an agency employee, called Vattenfall with the promise of a payment plan, sparing Mr. Taeuber from being disconnected. “The boys were already in the basement, but they agreed to pull them back,” Mr. Gärtner said triumphantly.

Since January, Mr. Gärtner said, his group has intervened in more than 350 cases to prevent Vattenfall from leaving one family or another in the dark. In the first six months of this year, about 1,800 sought help, 200 more than in all of 2012.

With consumers having to pay about $270 each in surcharges this year to subsidize new operators of renewable power, the hardest hit are low-wage earners, retirees and people on welfare, Mr. Gärtner said. Government subsidies for the plan amounted to $22.7 billion in 2012 and could reach $40.5 billion by 2020, according to John Musk, a power analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

“The energy transformation makes sense, but its implementation has been sloppy and uncoordinated,” Mr. Gärtner said. “People can’t be expected to keep cutting more and more in other areas. They are not receiving enough for the basic costs to cover their energy needs.”

Part of the reason consumer prices have risen so sharply is that, for now, the government has shielded about 700 companies from increased energy costs, to protect their competitive position in the global economy.

Industrial users still pay substantially more for electricity here than do their counterparts in Britain or France, and almost three times as much as those in the United States, according to a study by the German industrial giant Siemens. The Cologne Institute for Economic Research said there had been a marked decline in the willingness of industrial companies to invest in Germany since 2000.

Already there are winners and losers. A third of electronics and automotive companies have increased profits with the plan, and 11 percent of those in the chemical and metal industries have had losses, the German Economic Institute reported.

“We are now coming to a critical stage, and all the politicians are aware of this,” said Udo Niehage, Siemens’s point person for the transition. “The costs are becoming high, maybe too high, and you have to look at the consequences for the competitiveness of our industry in Germany.”

Rivaling the costs are the logistical challenges of eventually shifting 80 percent of energy consumption to renewable sources, something that has never been tried on such a grand scale.

One of the first obstacles encountered involves the vagaries of electrical power generation that is dependent on sources as inconsistent and unpredictable as the wind and the sun.

And no one has invented a means of storing that energy for very long, which means overwhelming gluts on some days and crippling shortages on others that require firing up old oil- and coal-burning power plants. That, in turn, undercuts the goal of reducing fossil-fuel emissions that have been linked to climate change.

Last year, wind, solar and other nonfossil-fuel sources provided 22 percent of the power for Germany, but the country increased its carbon emissions over 2011 as oil- and coal-burning power plants had to close gaps in the evolving system, according to the German electricity association BDEW.

“It is great that we have achieved such a high percentage of renewable energy,” said Michael Hüther, director of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. “But there are negative repercussions that we are now beginning to feel and must be addressed by the next government.”

Large offshore wind farms that have been built in Germany’s less populated north generate energy that must then be transported to industries and sites in the south.

“We worked 24-hour days and weekends,” said Irina Lucke, who spent most of last year on the low sandy island of Borkum in the North Sea, supervising the assembly of 30 soaring turbines for the largest offshore wind farm. It is owned mostly by the utility EWE and was due to open last month.

Those turbines will probably not generate electricity until next year. Workers must still sweep the seafloor for abandoned World War II ordnance before a cable can be run to shore. “It’s really frustrating,” Ms. Lucke said. The delay threatens to add $27 million to the $608 million cost of the wind park.

Even without the energy the offshore turbines could produce, Germany’s power grid has been strained by new wind and solar projects on land, compelling the government to invest up to $27 billion over the next decade to build roughly 1,700 miles of high-capacity power lines and to upgrade lines.

The largely rural northern state of Schleswig-Holstein produces as much as 12,000 megawatts of power with new wind turbines and solar panels, but it can consume only about a sixth of that.

“Schleswig-Holstein is a microcosm for all of Germany,” said Markus Lieberknecht of the grid operator Tennet. “Where energy was previously brought into the state and distributed to small communities, these communities are now producing the power, and we need to find a way to transmit it to the larger urban areas. Everything has been stood on its head.”

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« Reply #8817 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:24 AM »

Silvio Berlusconi insists he will stay in politics

Former Italian prime minister says he will not give up leadership of centre-right despite expected expulsion from parliament

Reuters in Rome, Wednesday 18 September 2013 19.23 BST   

Silvio Berlusconi has vowed to stay at the centre of Italian politics despite his expected expulsion from parliament over a fraud conviction, and accused leftwing judges of plotting against him to pervert democracy.

In a long-awaited television address shortly before a Senate committee is expected to take the first step in expelling him, the media magnate made no mention of his previous threats to bring down the left-right coalition government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta because of the conviction.

"I will always be with you, at your side, expelled from parliament or not. It is not the parliamentary seat that makes a leader," the 76-year-old billionaire said. He called for centre-right voters to rally behind the relaunched Forza Italia party, with which he first stormed into politics in 1994.

The supreme court last month confirmed a four-year jail term, commuted to one year, on Berlusconi for a giant fraud at his Mediaset television empire. He is expected to go into house arrest or do community service instead of going to jail.

He seemed to be resigned to being ejected from parliament but said he would not give up his leadership of the centre right, calling for freedom-loving Italians to "wake up … rebel, become indignant, react and make yourself heard".

Berlusconi said he was "absolutely innocent" of tax fraud, and the judiciary had "transformed itself into a rival state power, capable of influencing the executive".

"They want to get rid of me by judicial means because they have been unable to do so with democracy," said Berlusconi, who was also ordered by the supreme court on Tuesday to pay almost half a million euros to a business rival over a disputed takeover battle.

Berlusconi wants to seize the initiative despite his conviction by replacing his current People of Freedom (PDL) party with Forza Italia to revitalise centre-right voters and appeal to young people.

He promised "less state power, less public spending, less taxes. With the left in power it would be the opposite."

Berlusconi did not mention the government, but PDL secretary Angelino Alfano has said his leader would make a final decision on its survival only after the vote in the Senate, where Letta's Democratic party (PD) says it will support his expulsion.

The Senate committee is expected on Wednesday night to reject a recommendation by a senior PDL member of the panel, Andrea Augello, to confirm Berlusconi as a senator.

It will then elect a leftwing replacement for Augello – there is an anti-Berlusconi majority in the committee – who will draw up a recommendation to expel him. That should be voted on by early October after which the case goes to the full Senate for a final decision expected by mid-October.

Political sources say Berlusconi appears to have listened for now to PDL doves, business allies and members of his family who believe a crisis would badly rebound on the centre-right and would also damage his media empire financially.

Italy is mired in its worst postwar recession and Berlusconi risks taking the blame for irresponsibly worsening the crisis if he provokes more instability over his legal problems. Opinion polls show a large majority of Italians against snap elections.

The depth of Letta's problems was underlined on Wednesday when a government source said the finance ministry was considering delaying the target of a balanced structural budget from 2013 to 2014.

The eurozone's third largest economy is lagging behind many of its peers in climbing out of recession, partly because Letta's government is too divided to pass vital reforms.

Any of the Senate votes could still trigger a political crisis although Berlusconi may be waiting until November, when he can paint it as a battle against moves by the centre-left to raise taxes as part of next year's budget discussions.

Berlusconi is also thought to be trying to find a way to blame the fractious PD, which is in turmoil in the runup to its party congress in the autumn, when charismatic Florence mayor Matteo Renzi is expected to be elected party leader.

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« Reply #8818 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:27 AM »

Sweden: ‘New minister wants to see stricter requirements’

Svenska Dagbladet,
19 September 2013

Following her appointment in a surprise cabinet reshuffle on September 17, the new minister for labour, Elisabeth Svantesson, told Svenska Dagbladet that she wants stricter conditions for welfare recipients, a longer trial period for new employees, which she intends to extend from six months to a year, and increased funding for employers who recruit foreigner workers.

With a year left to run before general elections, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt also replaced the minister for international development cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, whose position will now be taken by former labour minister, Hillevi Engström.

On September 18, Reinfeldt also presented a draft budget for 2014, which includes a total of 15 billion kronor (€1.7bn) in tax cuts.

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« Reply #8819 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:35 AM »

Why German election candidate risked ridicule on TV comedy show

To attract young voters Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück put himself in the firing line on streetwise show Circus Halligalli

Philip Oltermann in Berlin
Wednesday 18 September 2013 17.31 BST 

He had to answer if he would "legalise hashtags", drink a glass of beer even though he had sworn to stay teetotal on the campaign trail, and comment on whether Obama or Putin had "more swag".

In a bid to woo young voters, Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democrat who could theoreticallystill be Germany's next chancellor by the start ofnext week, made a guest appearance on Circus Halligalli, a self-consciously streetwise TV comedy show somewhere between Shooting Stars and Punk'd.

At one point it seemed as if the 30-something co-hosts in skinny jeans themselves couldn't quite believe that Steinbrück had agreed to appear on their show. "Why are you doing this to yourself?" one of them asked.

Many of Germany's 61.8 million voters are currently asking themselves the same question.Steinbrück's comic turn comes straight on the back of the 66-year-old being pictured on the cover of Süddeutsche Zeitung's weekend magazine giving the finger, a photograph he had personally signed off. A profile of him in the current issue of Der Spiegel is entitled "Views of a Clown", in a nod to the Heinrich Böll novel. His critics argue that he is not serious enough to represent Europe's largest economy.

In private, Steinbrück may argue that he is going through all this quite deliberately.While polls put the SPD a distant second to Angela Merkel's CDU, they also show that as many as 40% of voters still haven't made up their minds – and the SPD's strategy is evidently to wake up these potential voters with whatever shock tactic they can muster.

Steinbrück's remaining public appearances this week are billed as "Klartext Open Air" events – lack of spin, and the promise of "plain speaking" is how the Social Democrat candidate hopes to win back those too disillusioned to vote.

A high voter turnout is crucial for the party to maintain hopes of a red-green majority. In 1971, when the SPD celebrated its highest ever election victory under Willy Brandt, the voter turnout was a staggering 91.1%.

The party has been struggling recapture the inspirational message of that era ever since. During the Kohl era, voter participation dropped to 77% and the Social Democrats faded into obscurity. The last time the SPD won an election, in 1998, there was another spike, with 82%.

In 1998, with the first red-green government in history, there was change was in the air, the promise of a different kind of Germany. Instead, red-green delivered the unpopular Hartz IV labour market reforms, for which many traditional voters still haven't forgiven them.

Oskar Lafontaine's split from the party and the foundation of Die Linke, as well as the "social democratic phase" of the Christian Democrats under Merkel, has meant the party has been haemorrhaging voters to the left as well as the right. In 2009, it suffered its worst ever election defeat.

Today, the SPD is campaigning with a party programme that is considerably to the left of where it stood in the early noughties. It calls for the introduction of a minimum wage of €8.50 (£7.11), affordable housing for low earners and wants to curb the influence of lobbyists in parliament. The problem is that Steinbrück, seen by many as on the more centre-right, reformist wing of the party, may be the wrong face for the right programme.

As the election approaches, it increasingly looks like a grand coalition with Merkel's CDU will be the SPD's only way back into power.

Even beyond the election, the party faces grave challenges. The public faces of the party during the election campaign have been as overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged as its core membership. Hannelore Kraft, the president of North-Rhine Westphalia whose appeal has been likened to that of Merkel, has noticeably taken a back seat during the campaign.

Those who are too young to be disappointed by their last stint in power aren't joining the party in the first place – more than half of its members are over 60. Over the past 10 years union membership has been declining as steadily in Germany as it has elsewhere in Europe, and the SPD has so far neglected to appeal to non-unionised freelancers and part-timers.

On Circus Halligalli, Steinbrück eventually had to admit that he didn't know what "swag" meant. "Epic fail", howled the hosts and the studio in unison. It's possible he didn't know what that meant either. He may find out on 23 September.


09/19/2013 11:27 AM

Fringe Power: German Left Party a Would-Be Kingmaker

By Charles Hawley

Social Democratic candidate Peer Steinbrück could win Sunday's election, but he would have to partner with the Left Party in order to prevail. The leftists continue to be surprisingly strong, but their Communist roots make them an unpalatable partner.

As surprising as it might sound, there is a simple tactic that Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) could adopt for an excellent chance at toppling Chancellor Angela Merkel from her perch. Instead of pinning their (seemingly unrealistic) hopes on a center-left partnership with the ailing Greens, all the SPD would have to do is open itself to the left. A three-party alliance that included the Left Party would give the center right a run for its money.

Such an observation, of course, is hardly revolutionary. It is one the Left Party itself has been shouting from the rooftops for years. "Including us would mean the end of Angela Merkel's chancellorship," party co-head Bernd Riexinger said on Monday. "The SPD's exclusion-itis is Merkel's guarantee, her life insurance."

But leading Social Democrats have refused to consider the idea. And this despite the fact that the Left Party continues to earn surprisingly consistent support for a party that was supposed to fade as its already aged membership got older. In 2009, the average age of Left Party supporters was 62, four years older than for any other party. This year, at 60, the party's average age still remains higher than the others.

There are, of course, a handful of reasons why the SPD keeps the Left Party at arm's length. Situated at the far left of Germany's already left-leaning political spectrum, a significant chunk of Die Linke, as they are known in German, was born out of the remnants of the East German Communist party, leading mainstream politicians and pundits to view them with disdain.

Toxic Flirting

The western German half of the party, meanwhile, is a collection of Champagne socialists, new-age communists and, more significantly, former SPD voters who jettisoned the party when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder pushed through the package of labor market and welfare reforms known as Agenda 2010. Former SPD party boss Oskar Lafontaine departed as well in 2005 in an acrimonious divorce -- and took over the helm of the Left Party, adding to the antagonism.

Since then, flirting with the Left Party has proven dangerous for the SPD. Whereas SPD-Left Party coalitions have governed with little fuss in states belonging to former East Germany and in the city-state of Berlin, in western states, the mere suggestion that the SPD might be willing to work together with the Left, however loosely, has been toxic.

In statements made back in July, Social Democratic candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrück made clear his rejection of the Left Party. "The Left Party isn't reliable when it comes to foreign policy, Europe and (Germany's) alliances," he said in an interview with the daily Die Welt. "Their economic and finance policies follow the motto: Make a wish." He said the party was not fit for government. It is a sentiment he has often repeated since then.

But a large share of the German electorate would beg to differ. Recent polls indicate that support for the party is at 10 percent, the highest it has been in the last 12 months and within range of the 11.9 percent it received in the last general election in 2009. Whereas most of the other parties have experienced wild fluctuations in support, the Left Party has remained largely steady.

Different East-West Voting Patterns

To be sure, the party has stumbled recently over the five percent hurdle in several state elections in western Germany -- most recently last Sunday in Bavaria, where it received but 2.1 percent of the vote. It also continues to suffer from an ongoing power struggle between its co-leaders, Sahra Wagenknecht and Gregor Gysi -- one which mirrors the party's own east-west split.

But limited media coverage has shielded the party from the kind of meltdown experienced by the Pirate Party under similar circumstances. And its traditional strength in the east has shown no signs of eroding. In all five eastern German states, the party enjoys support ranging between 14 percent in Berlin and Saxony to 22 percent in Saxony-Anhalt, where the party is stronger than the SPD.

Oskar Niedermayer, a leading political pundit in Germany, noted in an interview last Saturday that much of the Left Party's success comes out of the different voting patterns in the eastern and western halves of the country that are still present almost 25 years after reunification. "Despite having spread out across all of Germany, the Left Party has still been able to act as a credible ambassador for the interests of eastern German citizens," Niedermayer told news agency DPA.

The party's focus on economic inequality has also helped it maintain support in recent years. It has campaigned heavily this election season on the establishment of a universal minimum wage of €10 per hour and a minimum pension of €1,050 per month, both of which sound good but would be extremely difficult to pay for. The party also supports jacking up taxes on the wealthy, something it calls the "millionaire tax," though the additional revenue would likely not be enough to pay for the party's other proposals, say analysts. Still, with all mainstream parties having thus far refused to cooperate with them, the Left Party's ability to compromise and forge policy from a position of responsibility has never been tested on the national level.

No Chance

Lately, though, another aspect of the party's platform has proven attractive. The Left is radically pacifist, opposed to any German involvement in overseas crises and demands that Berlin withdraw from NATO and the alliance be dissolved. With concern over the possibility of a Western intervention in Syria, it is a message that many Germans find reassuring.

"Support for the Left Party is partially attributable to its categorical rejection of any foreign adventures," says Olaf Böhnke, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "I can imagine that many of their new supporters think that the Left Party is the only party in Germany that is electable when it comes to foreign policy."

In addition to consistent support for the Left Party, current polls also reveal that, taken together, Germany's left and center-left parties are equal in strength to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in combination with her junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats. Each camp is currently polling at around 45 percent.

But without the Left Party, Steinbrück has no chance. And that is not likely to change.


09/18/2013 01:18 PM

Steinbrück's Failings: The Flawed Campaign of Merkel's Rival

By David Crossland

Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic chancellor candidate, is everything Angela Merkel isn't: He's cheeky and brash and he can't resist a joke. It's entertaining, but it can't mask what has been a poorly-run campaign that will likely end in failure.

A decade from now when, or rather if, Germans look back on Peer Steinbrück's 2013 campaign to oust Angela Merkel, most of them are likely to remember only one thing -- a photo of him showing his middle finger.

Published with his blessing on the front cover of a magazine last Friday, it was intended as a humorous response to media criticism of his many gaffes since he was picked almost a year ago as the Social Democratic candidate to run against the incumbent chancellor.

It neatly sums up his approach to campaigning: If you don't like me, screw you. The image also provides a fitting epitaph for a campaign that was poorly devised and ill-fated the moment Steinbrück was picked.

Some say the 66-year-old former finance minister, a trained economist, is aloof, arrogant, prone to facetiousness, biting sarcasm and outbursts of anger.

Others credit him with having at least tried to inject some life into a hopelessly dreary election against a bland incumbent who looks impossible to unseat because most voters simply don't want change at the top.

There's no doubt that he's quick-witted. Asked during a TV interview whether he was worried his age would show during the rigors of an election campaign, he patted his cheeks and said: "No, I've got a great night crème."

But his flippancy, delivered in the nasal brogue of Hamburg, the northern port city where he was born, also makes him seem indifferent at times. One analyst recalled that during one recent campaign appearance, a woman asked Steinbrück how the SPD proposed to increase people's desire to have children. He snickered and then asked to be excused from answering. It got him a laugh from the audience, but he missed a chance to explain the SPD's policies on an important topic.

Getting Laughs Rather Than Votes

Last week in the southern city of Würzburg, he said Merkel's conservatives were trying to demonize the SPD and to make people scared of a center-left government. To illustrate his point he started grimacing and hobbling about the stage like a headless ghoul haunting Germany, bent on "nationalizing hairdryers and shavers."

"His motto seems to be it's better to make a joke and lose a friend than to miss a laugh from the audience," Richard Schütze, head of a Berlin-based media and communications consultancy, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"Initially, his style has impact because it amuses the crowd, it has a certain beer hall appeal. But it leaves a bitter aftertaste, because people later think about it and decide 'he was showing us that we're intellectually inferior to him,'" said Schütze. "Merkel by contrast doesn't demand too much of people, she's says everything's OK, and she exudes calm."

Showing the finger wasn't a good idea, said Schütze. "It will remain as a kind of trademark. The gesture amounts to an attack, an accusation, an insult to an audience, in this case journalists, which makes it doubly unwise."

Throughout the campaign, Merkel has been able to sit back and look presidential. Her Christian Democratic Union party has plastered German cities with posters showing her flashing her famous enigmatic smile together with the vacuous slogan "Successful Together."

To be fair, Steinbrück, well known for his straight-talking style, had little choice but to run an aggressive campaign. It was the only way to distinguish himself from Merkel and to give voters the illusion that they faced a real political choice. In truth though, their policies aren't very far apart. On key issues like the euro crisis, Merkel's conservatives and Steinbrück's SPD have been in lockstep. And Steinbrück and Merkel worked well together when he was finance minister in her government between 2005 and 2009.

"He has to attack, and he tries to use a lot mimicry and emotion in his campaign appearances," said Schütze. "He responds very directly to questions and allows himself to be drawn in to discussions and pins himself down. Merkel is much more cautious."

Poor Start

Steinbrück, an experienced political administrator who was governor of Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, got off to a poor start after his selection as the party's candidate last October. First, he was dogged by revelations that he had earned over a million euros from corporate speaking engagements -- not the most appropriate resume item for an SPD candidate supposedly representing the working class.

He didn't help himself when he said he wouldn't buy a bottle of Pinot Grigio wine for less than €5. Then he made the mistake of saying in a newspaper interview last December that chancellors should be paid higher salaries. It all jarred with his promise to create more social justice and to fight for a minimum wage.

He kept on putting his foot in his mouth. After the Italian election in February, he offended Italians by calling Silvio Berlusconi and populist leader Beppe Grillo "clowns." He said: "To a certain degree, I am horrified that two clowns won the election." Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, in Germany for a visit, promptly cancelled a planned meeting with Steinbrück as a result of the comment.

The remark won him headlines but no kudos. "You don't say something like that if you're running for the most powerful office in an important country," Thomas Jäger, a political scientist at the University of Cologne, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

But Steinbrück has never been known for diplomatic finesse. In 2009, while he was finance minister in a Merkel-led coalition, he angered Switzerland during a drive to crack down on tax havens, comparing the country to "Indians" running from the cavalry. One irate member of the Swiss parliament responded by comparing him to the Nazis.

Germans credit Steinbrück with having done a good job steering them through the 2008 financial and banking crisis as finance minister. But his shoot-from-the-hip style, refreshingly different from Merkel's caution, doesn't chime with voters even though he has an impressive grasp of detail and policy complexities.

Plenty of Tactics, No Strategy

A Forsa poll released on Tuesday showed that 53 percent of Germans favored Merkel as chancellor, miles ahead of Steinbrück at 26 percent.

For Jäger, Steinbrück was always a poor fit. "Throughout the campaign I never understood what strategy the SPD and Steinbrück were pursuing. It was never clear what voters they wanted to reach."

The SPD has shifted sharply to the left in recent years in a bid to lure back the millions of voters who abandoned the party in disgust following its bold but unpopular "Agenda 2010" welfare cutbacks and labor reforms. Well-heeled Steinbrück, meanwhile, an unashamed backer of Agenda 2010, had been in political retirement since 2009, earning good money by lecturing captains of industry.

"It all started with a big misunderstanding," said Jäger. "The candidate who'd shifted to the right and the party that had shifted to the left entered into a campaign without really knowing how to get together," said Jäger.

"That explains a lot of what went wrong. Much of what Steinbrück did in the campaign was pure tactics. He tried to whip up sentiment, get on the front pages, get people interested in him, but all these tactical measures lacked a strategy."

So why did they choose him in the first place? Because the two other contenders, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel and parliamentary group leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, didn't want to run. Steinmeier was also damaged by his poor showing against Merkel in the 2009 election.

Party leaders put Steinbrück on a shorter leash in January, limiting his say in campaign strategy and insisting that his newspaper interviews be proofread by campaign headquarters to stop screw-ups like the chancellor salary comment.

Tears and French Lamps

But the gaffes kept on coming and Steinbrück's authority was damaged by more or less open criticism from SPD leaders. People began to wonder whether he was about to throw in the towel, which explains the astonishingly rapturous applause he got from delegates at a party conference in Augsburg in April when he opened his speech with what would seem a trite sentence for a chancellor candidate: "I want to be chancellor of Germany."

Then in June, the pressure seemed to be getting to him again. The tough political warhorse was reduced to tears at an SPD event after his wife Gertrud described how upset she was by the image of her husband being peddled in the German media. "It's hard to take," she said.

There's no denying that the media has had their knives out for Steinbrück and were always waiting for his next verbal slip-up. But they never had to wait long. The next gaffe came in July when he complained about EU regulations and said he was hoarding a hundred French lightbulbs in his cellar "because I don't know if I'll still get them in five years for my French lamp."

French lamps, pricey Pinot Grigio, speaking engagements for thousands of euros -- Steinbrück has struggled throughout to convince voters that he's a red-blooded Social Democrat.

Credibility Problem

"His problem is that he has to convey Social Democratic values but struggles to appeal to people's emotions in this respect," said Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst at Berlin's Free University. "He lacks proximity to the man in the street because he doesn't really know how he lives. And he has difficulty overcoming the burden of winning back voters who were put off by Agenda 2010, which he supported at the time. It's a credibility problem."

But Neugebauer said Steinbrück's campaign style has improved in recent months. Commentators said he gave a solid, if surprisingly low-key performance in his TV debate against Merkel in which he looked more dynamic and convincing than her. The SPD has inched up a few points since, possibly helped by the disastrous paedophilia debate engulfing the Greens, the SPD's partners of choice in the highly unlikely event that they will secure a parliamentary majority on Sunday.

Indeed, Merkel's own partner, the pro-business FDP, is looking so weak in polls that Merkel may end up having to form a so-called grand coalition with the SPD as junior partner.

Post-Election Turmoil Expected

What role would Steinbrück play in those talks? It's unclear. He has clearly stated that he doesn't want anything to do with a grand coalition. Unless he achieves a significantly better result for the SPD than than the 25 percent it got in 2009, he's likely to resume his political retirement quite soon, say analysts.

Either way, his clout is likely to be limited by his lack of a political legacy. He had after all abandoned high politics when he stopped being finance minister in 2009.

"The question is how the party will respond to the election outcome, " said Jäger. "I'm not so sure if the big names will still play a role. It could be that a lot of frustration will get vented in the SPD because so much has gone wrong."

The SPD, the grand old party that celebrated its 150th anniversary this year; the party that resisted Hitler; the party that promoted Cold War detente under Chancellor Willy Brandt; the party that has done so much to modernize Germany and keep its economy competitive -- is still being punished by the Agenda 2010.

Ironically, the economic strength that Merkel claims credit for stems in part from those reforms. And with its leftward lurch, the SPD has been unwilling to point out the fallacy.

More to the point, however, the SPD badly lacks a campaigner like former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder or Willy Brandt to give Merkel a run for her money. Steinbrück, say analysts, was simply the wrong man for the job despite his admirable qualities as a political administrator.

"He's been riding up and down the ranks on his white stallion trying to fire people up but he doesn't awaken solidarity or any revolutionary fervor like Willy Brandt could," says Schütze, the media consultant. "He doesn't make people think we'll flock to the flag and all march in the same direction."


09/18/2013 01:18 PM

New Poll Sees Euroskeptics in Parliament

Could the euroskeptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD) make it into parliament after all? A new poll released by tabloid Bild on Thursday seems to indicate just that. According to the survey, conducted by Erfurt-based polling institute INSA, 5 percent of those asked said they plan to vote for AfD on Sunday, which would be just enough to clear the threshold for sending representatives to the Bundestag.

Just as interesting, the survey found that fully six parties may receive enough votes on Sunday to send deputies to Berlin, which would be a record for Germany. INSA found that 38 percent were planning on voting for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and 28 percent for the center-left Social Democrats. The Green Party would seem to be continuing its long plunge, with a mere 8 percent of those taking part in the poll saying they planned to vote for them. The Left Party came out at 9 percent.

Even though the poll would seem to indicate that Merkel's camp has slipped slightly, it contained encouraging news for the chancellor. Her coalition partner, the Free Democrats, came in at 6 percent support, showing that it might manage to clear the 5 percent hurdle after all.

Still, were the AfD to enter parliament, it would make it all the more difficult for Merkel to form a continuation of her current two-party alliance with the FDP. She has ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition with the euroskeptics, meaning that her center-right camp will need much more than its current 44 percent to end up with more seats in the Bundestag than the opposition.

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