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« Reply #8820 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:39 AM »

Exclusive: 50,000 people are now facing eviction after bedroom tax

One council tenant in three has been pushed into rent arrears since April, while tens of thousands in housing association properties are also affected

The Independent
Emily Dugan
Thursday, 19 September 2013

More than 50,000 people affected by the so-called bedroom tax have fallen behind on rent and face eviction, figures given to The Independent show.

The statistics reveal the scale of debt created by the Government’s under-occupancy charge, as one council house tenant in three has been pushed into rent arrears since it was introduced in April.

Figures provided by 114 local authorities across Britain after Freedom of Information (FoI) requests by the campaign group False Economy show the impact of the bedroom tax over its first four months. The total number of affected council tenants across Britain is likely to be much higher than the 50,000 recorded in the sample of local authorities that responded to the FoI.

At least another 30,000 people living in housing association properties have also fallen behind on rent payments since the bedroom tax came in, with potentially tens of thousands more also affected, according to separate research by the National Housing Federation.

Barrow in Cumbria was the worst-affected area, where more than three-quarters of all council-house tenants have fallen into arrears since the bedroom tax started. In Clackmannanshire, Tamworth and South Kesteven more than half of all affected households have fallen behind on their rent since the charge was introduced.

The shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Liam Byrne, said: “These appalling figures prove that while this government stands up for a privileged few, a debt bombshell is exploding for a generation of people.

“While the nation’s millionaires get a huge tax cut, thousands more now confront arrears and eviction from which they’ll never recover. This is final proof that the hated tax must be dropped now.”

The bedroom tax penalises tenants if they have a “spare” bedroom by reducing their housing benefit by up to 25 per cent. As emergency funds from councils dry up, experts warn the situation is expected to deteriorate further over the coming months. The latest revelations are a further blow for the policy after a judge ruled last week that those with a smaller extra room would be exempt from the charge.

A smaller survey published last night found that one household in four hit by the bedroom tax has been pushed into rent arrears for the first time. Just over half of the 63,578 tenants of 51 housing associations were unable to meet their rent payments in the first months of the new system, according to research by the National Housing Federation.

The United Nations’ special rapporteur on housing Raquel Rolnik called for a rethink on the policy after finding the reform was causing “great stress and anxiety” to “very vulnerable” people.

Clifford Singer, campaign manager for False Economy, said: “Together with the raft of other benefits cuts the Government has forced through both this year and previously, the bedroom tax is driving tenants and families who were just making ends meet into arrears, and pushing those who were already struggling with the cost of living into a full-blown crisis.”

Only 16 of the 114 local authorities who responded to the FoI request have a “no-eviction” policy, meaning many thousands of families risk losing their homes as a result of the bedroom tax.

The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “The bedroom tax is not saving money. Instead it is pushing up rent arrears which will force councils to waste more cash on evictions, debt collection and emergency support for homeless families.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “The removal of the spare-room subsidy is a necessary reform to return fairness to housing benefit. Even after the reform we pay over 80 per cent of most claimants’ housing benefit – but the taxpayer can no longer afford to pay for people to live in properties larger than they need. It is right that people contribute to these costs, just as private renters do.”

Case Study

Toni Bloomfield, 25, lives in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, with her partner, Paul Bolton, 42, and his four children.

“I have to pay £98 extra a month since the bedroom tax came in,” she said. “We’ve got a four-bedroom house and Paul’s four children, aged between two and eight, live with us. Before the school holidays we were struggling and now we’re nearly three months behind on rent.

“The children get free school meals and feeding them through the holidays was tough. Paul and I are only eating in the evenings two or three nights a week to make sure we can put enough food on the table. We're not working, but not out of choice. Trying to find a full-time job here is a nightmare.”

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« Reply #8821 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:40 AM »

September 18, 2013

Extremists Take Syrian Town Near Turkey Border


BEIRUT, Lebanon — An extremist group linked to Al Qaeda routed Syrian rebel fighters and seized control of a gateway town near Syria’s northern border with Turkey on Wednesday, posting snipers on rooftops, erecting checkpoints and imposing a curfew on the local population.

The takeover of the town, Azaz, by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, reflected the rising strength of extremist fighters in northern and eastern Syria and their rapidly deteriorating relations with more mainline rebels.

By early Thursday, Islamist rebel leaders had intervened to stop the fighting, although most of the town appeared firmly in the hands of the extremists, opposition activists said. The extremists had not seized the nearby Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey. Azaz sits just south of the border crossing on the road to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and has served as an important artery for the rebellion in northern Syria, allowing arms, fighters and supplies to move in and refugees fleeing the violence to leave the country.

Its seizure is likely to alarm Syria’s neighbors. Turkey, which has vocally supported the fight against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and allowed fighters and arms to flow freely across its southern border, now faces a bold Qaeda affiliate.

Lebanon has sought information for more than a year about nine Lebanese Shiites held captive by rebels in Azaz. The town’s seizure by a group that considers Shiites heretics who deserve execution is sure to increase worries about their fate.

The takeover also signals a new low in relations between the rebels fighting a civil war against Mr. Assad’s forces and international jihadists who have flocked to rebel-controlled areas to lay the groundwork for an Islamic state.

For much of the 30-month-old conflict, the rebels welcomed jihadist fighters for the know-how and battlefield prowess they brought to the anti-Assad struggle. In recent months, however, jihadist groups have isolated local populations by imposing strict Islamic codes, carrying out public executions and clashing with rebel groups.

In the eastern city of Deir al-Zour on Wednesday, extremist fighters took dozens of rebels captive after a gunfight near a rebel base, activists said.

Reached by telephone, a rebel commander who gave only his first name, Khattab, said that Wednesday’s violence in Azaz began when ISIS fighters stormed the town and tried to detain German doctors who were visiting a hospital.

As local doctors tried to keep out the fighters, rebel brigades arrived and clashes erupted, Khattab said. At least three rebel fighters were killed, he said, as well as an opposition media activist, who was shot dead in the street by a sniper.

“He was left bleeding, and the ISIS fighters did not allow anyone to take his body,” he said.

Dr. Moayyad Qieto, also reached by phone, said the German doctors worked for a group that financed the Azaz hospital. They were evacuated, unharmed, to the nearby border with Turkey.

“The situation is so tense, like a volcano that might erupt at any time,” Dr. Qieto said.

Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and Karam Shoumali from Istanbul. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.

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« Reply #8822 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:45 AM »

Rouhani: Iran will never seek to build nuclear weapons

In interview with NBC, new president insists his country has no intention of developing weapons of mass destruction

Dan Roberts in Washington, Thursday 19 September 2013 08.28 BST    

Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani has told an American television audience he is hopeful of a diplomatic breakthrough over Tehran's nuclear weapons programme, insisting his country had no intention of developing weapons of mass destruction.

Speaking before a crucial visit to the United Nations in New York, Rouhani claimed his government had "full power and authority" from Iran's supreme leader to negotiate over the nuclear programme, which the US fears is close to creating a bomb.

"The problem won't be from our side," said Rouhani in his first interview with western journalists since coming to power. "We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem."

"Under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever," he added in initial clips of the interview with NBC aired on Wednesday night

"We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so. We are solely seeking peaceful nuclear technology."

Though Iran has long insisted it has only peaceful intentions for its nuclear programme, the reassurances of Rouhani on US television before his trip to New York will help foster hopes in the administration that more moderate political forces are prevailing in Tehran.

President Obama and Rouhani recently exchanged letters following Iranian elections and the two may meet on the sidelines of the UN general assembly next week.

Rouhani even appeared to pay tribute to Obama's handling of the Syria crisis, saying it was not a sign of weakness to seek diplomatic rather than military solutions in such cases.

"We consider war a weakness and any government that decides on peace we look on with respect," the Iranian president said.

He declined to comment on Iran's role in the deal over Syrian chemical weapons recently brokered by Moscow, but added: "We are one of the countries in the region that seeks peace and stability and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction."

Earlier, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama welcomed the recent positive noises from Tehran.

"I think it's fair to say that the president believes there is an opportunity for diplomacy when it comes to the issues that have presented challenges to the United States and our allies with regards to Iran," he said. "And we hope that the Iranian government takes advantage of this opportunity."

But Carney said the US will test Rouhani's assertions that he wants to improve relations with the international community.

In his letter, Obama indicated that the US was ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that would allow Iran to demonstrate that its program was exclusively for peaceful purposes, Carney said.

Rouhani said of the note he got from the White House congratulating him on his June election: "From my point of view, the tone of was positive and constructive."

"It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future. I believe the leaders in all countries could think in their national interest and they should not be under the influence of pressure groups. I hope to witness such an atmosphere in the future."


September 19, 2013

Through Diplomacy, Obama Finds a Pen Pal in Iran


WASHINGTON — Few American presidents have held a deeper belief in the power of the written word than President Obama. And in few ways has that belief been more tested than in his frustrating private correspondence with the leaders of Iran, a country with whom the United States has had no diplomatic ties for 34 years.

This week, Mr. Obama indicated that he might finally have found a pen pal in Tehran.

At the core of Iran’s recent diplomatic charm offensive — a process that has included the release of 11 prominent political prisoners and a series of conciliatory statements by top Iranian officials — is an exchange of letters, confirmed by both sides, between Mr. Obama and President Hassan Rouhani.

The election of Mr. Rouhani, a moderate, in June kindled hopes that diplomacy might end the chronic impasse with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. But the letters, and the cautious hope they have generated, suggest there is a genuine opportunity for change.

It is not the first time since entering the White House that Mr. Obama has put pen to paper to try to sway Iran’s leadership. Until now, he has had little to show for it: even under the pain of punishing economic sanctions, the Iranian government has shown little interest in negotiating a deal with Washington on its nuclear program.

This time, Mr. Rouhani said in an NBC News interview broadcast on Wednesday, the tone of Mr. Obama’s letter was “positive and constructive.” He added, “It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future.”

Mr. Obama, speaking to the Spanish-language network Telemundo on Tuesday, said there were indications that Mr. Rouhani “is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States, in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.”

The president has tested Iran before. Having promised as a candidate to extend an olive branch to old enemies, he sent a letter early in his first term to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proposing a new diplomatic chapter. Ayatollah Khamenei sent a reply, but failed to take Mr. Obama up on his offer.

Their correspondence was cut short after Iran’s disputed presidential election in June 2009 unleashed a popular uprising. The ensuing bloody crackdown all but snuffed out diplomacy for the next year. The re-elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote a lengthy letter to Mr. Obama in 2010, but it did nothing to break the diplomatic ice.

The White House declined to discuss the contents of Mr. Obama’s letter to Mr. Rouhani. But a senior administration official said it reflected the president’s judgment that Mr. Rouhani should be taken “very seriously,” in part because he appeared to have a broad mandate within Iran.

This is the first time that Mr. Obama has written directly to an Iranian president, and not the supreme leader. That suggests that the White House believes Ayatollah Khamenei has empowered Mr. Rouhani, at least for now, to seek an opening with the West.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, though not as hostile to a nuclear agreement as sometimes portrayed, was undermined by other senior officials and did not enjoy the supreme leader’s full confidence.

“The administration’s previous position was that we correspond with the person who makes decisions,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Now they’re sending them to Rouhani.”

Another major difference is that the new exchange of letters comes in the wake of the administration’s agreement with Russia to seek the peaceful transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons. To make that plan work, analysts said, it would be helpful for Iran, as the staunchest regional ally of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, to play a constructive role.

Whether that is possible is highly questionable, of course. But it gives Mr. Obama a broader diplomatic context in which to engage Mr. Rouhani. The United States has generally insisted on negotiating with Iran purely on its nuclear program, which has left both sides with little to talk about after the inevitable clashes over the number of centrifuges or the amount of enriched uranium that the Iranians are producing.

“At the end of the day, Obama stumbled into diplomacy because of what happened with Syria,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, who has written a book about Mr. Obama’s diplomatic efforts, “A Single Roll of the Dice.”

Iran’s news media has reported that Mr. Obama’s letter included a plea to re-engage in diplomacy; a suggestion — depending on how any talks went — that the United States would be willing to ease sanctions; and a request to initiate direct discussions between Washington and Tehran, something diplomats say is critical to striking a nuclear deal.

None of this should be a big surprise. The United States has long been eager for direct talks with Iran. The bigger question is whether Mr. Rouhani is in the position to make concessions on a nuclear program that Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes and that the United States suspects is aimed at achieving the ability to produce nuclear weapons.

If direct negotiations were to begin, Mr. Obama’s letter-writing skills might again be called into play. “Presidential correspondence,” said Dennis B. Ross, who advised Mr. Obama on Iran at the White House, “is used often in negotiations as a form of assurance or clarification.”

Mr. Ross said the president’s reliance on letters to Iranian leaders made sense because in the absence of a formal relationship, “There are few other fully authoritative ways to convey a message we completely control.” The letters, his advisers say, also reflect the value that Mr. Obama attaches to direct diplomacy.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani both plan to speak to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. Will they try an even more direct from of diplomacy: greeting each other in person? The White House says nothing is planned.

For now, though, Mr. Obama’s pen-pal diplomacy has accomplished the most basic goal of any letter. It got a reply.


September 18, 2013

Iran Frees Political Prisoners on Eve of President’s Visit to U.S.


TEHRAN — On the eve of a visit by Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, to the United States, the Iranian authorities on Wednesday unexpectedly freed 11 of Iran’s most prominent political prisoners, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer.

Analysts said the prisoner release was a significant step in Mr. Rouhani’s efforts to repair Iran’s relationship with the West, mired in a dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and criticism of its human rights policies. His visit to New York to attend the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly is part of a diplomatic offensive he began after his election in June.

Ms. Sotoudeh was serving six years in prison for endangering national security and misusing her profession as a lawyer. In a telephone interview after her release, she said: “I don’t know why they released me. I don’t know under what legal basis they released me. But I am free.”

Her husband, Reza Khandan, said: “I just drove her home. My wife is freed.”

Of the prisoners freed on Wednesday, eight are women and three are men. They include a journalist, Mahsa Amrabadi, whose husband and fellow journalist, Masoud Bastani, remains in prison. Some of them were taking part in Iran’s prison leave system, in which some prisoners are allowed to live at home but remain under the threat of imprisonment if they cross the authorities. But dozens of people remain in prison, especially those who have been sentenced for their roles in an antigovernment protest after the disputed 2009 election results.

Mr. Rouhani is scheduled to speak next Tuesday before the General Assembly, where he is expected to portray an Iran ready to engage with the West.

Analysts said the prisoner release could soften some of the criticisms over Iran’s human rights policies and allow for Mr. Rouhani to focus on finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

“Clearly these releases are related to Mr. Rouhani’s trip to New York,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the new president. “Iran wants to make a good impression on the eve of his trip.”

The release of Ms. Sotoudeh, 50, is especially significant. For a long time, she was the only lawyer in Iran taking on high-profile cases, defending children, activists and minorities. Unlike some activists, Ms. Sotoudeh never chose to leave Iran, despite constant pressure on her by Iran’s intelligence services, which arrested her in 2010. In addition to her jail sentence, she had been banned from practicing law for 20 years; it was unclear Wednesday whether the ban had been lifted.

In his annual message for Iranian New Year in 2011, President Obama specifically singled out Ms. Sotoudeh. “We have seen Nasrin Sotoudeh jailed for defending human rights,” he said.

Iranian officials deny that there are any political prisoners in Iran, saying that all those behind bars have been tried according to the country’s laws.

While in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, Ms. Sotoudeh went on two long hunger strikes after her 12-year-old daughter was denied permission to travel outside the country. In 2012, the European Union awarded her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Among the other prisoners released on Wednesday was former Commerce Minister Feizollah Arabsorkhi, a member of a reformist political party declared illegal after the 2009 antigovernment protests, which were triggered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election victory.

Mr. Arabsorkhi was in a hospital in Tehran undergoing a shoulder operation when he heard that he had been officially freed, his wife, Maryam Sharbatqods, said over the phone. “Rouhani’s election victory has forced the authorities to release the political prisoners,” Ms. Sharbatqods said.

Two presidential candidates in 2009 — former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, a former Parliament speaker — have been under house arrest since 2011, along with Mr. Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard. During his election campaign, Mr. Rouhani said he would work to secure their release.

Mehdi, 27, a university student who took part in the 2009 protests and asked that his surname not be published, said: “Today’s prisoner releases show that there are negotiations going on regarding their freedom. Maybe it will take some time to get them freed from house arrest. I am much more hopeful now.”

An imprisoned American of Iranian descent, Amir Hekmati, was not among those freed on Wednesday. Mr. Hekmati, 30, a former Marine, was arrested more than two years ago on espionage charges during what his family called an innocent visit to his grandmother. Mr. Hekmati’s family, who is from Flint, Mich., has been publicly pleading for his release, and American officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have been calling on Mr. Rouhani’s government to let Mr. Hekmati go home.

On Tuesday, Mr. Hekmati’s congressman, Daniel T. Kildee, sent a letter to Samantha Power, the new American ambassador to the United Nations, urging her to press the issue when Mr. Rouhani visits for the General Assembly session next week.

Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.

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« Reply #8823 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:47 AM »

September 18, 2013

Sectarian Violence Reignites in an Iraqi Town


MUQDADIYA, Iraq — The orange archway at the entrance to this farming community welcomes visitors in “peace.” The lush palm groves are heavy with ripe dates. For generations, Shiite and Sunni families worked the land, earning a living from their sheep and cows, their wheat fields and lemon trees.

On a recent morning, though, the only talk was of how to stop them from killing one another.

The latest strategy: new concrete walls with separate entryways for the different sects.

“So there’s a Sunni way in, and a Shiite way in,” Abu Jassim, a Sunni resident who recently fled his home after sectarian revenge killings by Shiite gunmen, explained to a local representative in Parliament.

During the worst of Iraq’s carnage over the last decade, this area of Diyala Province, a mixed region where Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds still compete for power, faced killings and displacement. But what is happening now, villagers say, is worse — what one Western diplomat described in an interview as “Balkans-style ethnic cleansing.”

Iraqi leaders worry that the violence here may be a sign of what awaits the rest of the country if the government cannot quell the growing mayhem that many trace to the civil war in Syria, which has inflamed sectarian divisions, with Sunnis supporting the rebels and Shiites backing the Assad government. Attacks have become more frequent this year, with major bombings becoming almost a daily occurrence. The violence countrywide has increased to a level not seen in five years, according to the United Nations, reinforcing fears that the type of sectarian warfare that gripped the country in 2006 and 2007 will reignite.

Here in Muqdadiya, perched in the Tigris River valley on the way from Baghdad to the Iranian border, it already has.

It started in mid-July, when a fragile tranquillity was shattered after a teenage boy, in a baggy T-shirt concealing a vest of explosives, walked into a Shiite funeral tent and detonated himself while mourners ate a dinner of lamb, rice and tomato soup.

A resurgent Al Qaeda in Iraq was blamed for the bombing, and the bomber, it emerged, was a member of the local Sunni tribe, inflaming not just sectarian hatreds but local tribal rivalries.

In the days after, locals say, Shiite gunmen, some with ties to militias, others out for tribal justice, terrorized Sunni neighborhoods, killing some and demanding that others leave.

“It’s worse than anything that ever happened before,” said Ali Jassim, another displaced resident, who, like others interviewed for this article, gave only an informal name, withholding his full name for safety reasons. “It was people attacking at night with machine guns, not considering if there were kids or women or old men.”

Mr. Jassim said he cowered in his chicken coop with his wife and children as gunmen fired on his home shouting: “You are Sunni, you don’t belong here. We will kill you if you don’t leave.” The next morning, he packed some clothes and mattresses into a minivan and fled to a safer place, leaving his chickens and sheep behind.

He had lived in that house since 1966, staying even during the worst days of the sectarian war, but now says he will never go back.

Other residents received fliers on their doorstep, under the name of a prominent Shiite militia and wrapped around a bullet, telling them to leave or be killed, according to residents, officials and a report by Human Rights Watch.

The increasing role of Shiite militias here is a potentially ominous barometer of the country’s stability, an indication that the Shiite majority may have decided it is time, once more, to fight back against the Sunnis.

Even after the Sunni insurgency was tamed in 2007, there was less violence but no reconciliation, and Al Qaeda kept up bombings aimed at restarting a sectarian war. But the Shiites, who are in charge of the government and security forces, mostly refrained from a violent response. The Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, claimed to be a leader of all Iraqis, burnishing his nationalist credentials by taking on the Shiite militias in several military operations.

But now that calculus is changing: the militias, some of which answer to Iran, are re-emerging to protect their sect, believing that the security forces are unable to do so.

And the events that have unfolded in Muqdadiya, while the most vicious episodes of sectarian bloodletting, are not isolated: Latifiya, for instance, a Sunni-dominated area in south Baghdad, has seen the slaughter of entire Shiite families recently. And on Wednesday night, the Baghdad office of the United Nations issued a statement saying it was “gravely concerned” about recent forced displacements of Sunnis in southern Iraq and ethnic Shabaks in Nineveh Province in the north.

As Sunni families have fled Muqdadiya — at least 365 families have left, according to a government official — locals say militiamen have burned agricultural lands, shut off electricity, killed farm animals and poured cement into irrigation canals, in an effort to assure they would not return. And the violence continues: according to a local official, bombs recently destroyed two vacant Sunni homes.

Nahada Daini, a Sunni member of Parliament, is trying to prevent her hometown from descending into a maelstrom of violence.

On a recent morning, a group of Sunni villagers gathered in her reception hall to tell their stories and ask for protection so they can return to their homes. In the background, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama appeared on a television screen, making their case to bomb Syria, whose war has increasingly destabilized Iraq. One man said his family had lived here for a century-and-a-half, since the days of the Ottoman Empire, but was now being told that this was Shiite land.

Since the bombing of the funeral in July, the Iraqi security forces have been raiding homes in Sunni neighborhoods, casting a wide net in search of Qaeda terrorists. They have restricted the movements of Sunni residents who stayed behind, making it especially difficult for them to drive vehicles from their neighborhoods, Ms. Daini said.

New blast walls have been put up around a central market that sits between Sunni and Shiite areas. She said local policemen that she suspects are members of a Shiite militia had tried to prevent Sunni men from even visiting the market, fearing they would set off bombs. The women are forced to walk long distances to shop.

In describing the situation, she invoked a potent symbol of Arab grievance.

“We call it Gaza,” she said.

In Ms. Daini’s reception hall, three women in black abayas sat off to the side. One said her son had disappeared; another’s husband was missing.

Through tears, one of the women, who called herself Umm Jozsef, recalled the worst times of the American occupation and the sectarian grievances it unleashed. “It’s exactly the same,” she said. “It’s the next episode, the continuation. But it’s getting even worse.”

She added, “Since the Americans left, it’s like wild dogs here.”

Days after their families fled their villages, a group of women went back to check on things, to see if their animals were alive, to water the crops. They were met at the edge of their village by a group of armed men, some of whom were young neighbors, the sons and grandsons of men who had once farmed next to the women’s fathers and grandfathers.

“Unfortunately, they forgot about all the old days,” said one of the woman, Umm Ahmed.

As the violence receded in recent years, local communities began a halting process of reconciliation. “We thought this was all behind us,” she said. “We had started healing and becoming friends again. We went to each other’s funerals and weddings.

“Until the suicide bombing happened, we were becoming friends again.”

Prominent members of the Shiite community, including Sheik Jathban Adnan al-Tameemi, attended the funeral that was struck by the suicide bomber, but he had left early. Sitting in his big meeting room recently, where he recalled once holding a “useless” meeting on reconciliation with Sunni tribal chiefs, Sheik Tameemi flipped through an album with photographs of him in his compound with friends from the American military. He still writes e-mails to them, his son translating.

“I’m so embarrassed to tell them what is going on here,” he said. “I still have hope that they might come visit me, so I don’t want to discourage them.”

For many young men over the last decade, sectarian identity has come to override tribal loyalties, eroding the authority of men like Sheik Tameemi and enabling the rise of militant groups.

On the Sunni side, the sheik said, “Qaeda is not able to control the heads of the tribes, but they control the young men.” On his side, he said, “they know it’s difficult for us to control our young people.”

Still, he would not disavow the actions of his tribesmen, explaining that notions of tribal justice demanded that action be taken. But he appealed for calm, and said that once several suspects in the bombing attack were turned over to the authorities, “then the families can go back.”

When asked about the involvement of militias, he said: “The sons of our tribes belong to many organizations. They have had their sons and fathers killed and were defending their tribe.”

He said that young men had become more radicalized in recent years, as losses and suffering mounted, and that the next generation of militants might be more extreme than those who fought the sectarian war, which he worried might be starting all over again in his backyard.

“The problem of Muqdadiya,” he said, “could spread through Diyala, to Baghdad, to all of Iraq.”

Yasir Ghazi contributed reporting from Muqdadiya and Baghdad, Duraid Adnan from Baghdad, and an employee of The New York Times from Diyala Province, Iraq.


September 19, 2013

Insight: Iraqis Hesitate on the Edge of Chaos


BAGHDAD — In Sadr City, an impoverished district of northeastern Baghdad, local people say the anger of Shi'ite Muslims against Sunni militants is ready to erupt into violence.

"Iraq today is boiling like a volcano and it could blow at any minute," said Ali al-Husseini, a 27-year-old cleric.

So far, Iraq's Shi'ite majority has stayed largely quiescent, despite the highest violence for five years, with car bombs and other attacks killing hundreds of people every month.

But officials have told Reuters the government is looking at plans to create a government-backed Shi'ite militia to counter al Qaeda, which is undergoing a resurgence in the country. The government hopes a unified force will help protect the population and prevent local Shi'ite militias taking matters into their own hands. Sunnis are not so sure.

Such a project could be helpful if prominent locals, such as tribal chiefs, are involved, said Qais al-Shathir, a senior Sunni lawmaker. "But if this project is adopted by political sides ... then this will certainly give official cover for the militias and this will negatively impact the security situation."

Three senior officials in the Shi'ite-dominated administration of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the government plans to combine at least three Shi'ite militias into a single force. "All Shi'ite factions have agreed with this plan," a senior official in Maliki's office said.

The idea is to combine elements from the Asaib al-Haq and Kata'ib Hezbollah militias, which ceased fighting in Iraq after 2011, as well as the Mehdi army, which is loyal to anti-U.S. preacher Moqtada al-Sadr and which stepped aside from the fighting in 2008.

The plan, said the official, is partly designed to boost Maliki's credentials ahead of elections in 2014. "Maliki will present himself as the Shi'ite defender," the official said.

It comes as the increase in violence, fed in part by the conflict in neighboring Syria where Islam's two main strands are also at odds, is raising fears that Iraq could return to the bloody days of 2006-2007 when tens of thousands of people died.

"The aim of al Qaeda is clearly to provoke a civil war," a Western diplomat in Baghdad said. It was remarkable, the diplomat added, that a Shi'ite backlash had not yet occurred.


Maliki's delicate cross-sectarian political alliance was supposed to share power between Shi'ites, who make up just over 60 percent of Iraq's 32 million people, and Sunnis and Kurds, who make up roughly 20 percent each. But it has been paralyzed since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, stalling legislation and policymaking in a country that still needs to rebuild its infrastructure after years of war and sanctions.

Tensions spilled onto the streets in December when thousands of Sunnis in the western provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin, in central Iraq, protested against Maliki, demanding he step down over what they saw as the marginalization of their sect.

Protesters were furious after state officials arrested the bodyguards of the Sunni Finance Minister, Rafie al-Esawi, on terrorism charges. Authorities denied the arrests were political, but Sunni leaders saw them as a crackdown. Esawi later resigned at an anti-Maliki rally.

Tareq al-Hashemi, Iraq's vice-president and one of the most senior Sunni politicians, has fled the country and been sentenced to death in absentia for running death squads, which he denies. Many Iraqi Sunnis say they see a sectarian hand behind Hashemi's case.

These steps have undermined the power-sharing pact, forged after elections in 2010, between Iraq's different sectarian and ethnic groups.

After the protests the government made some concessions, such as releasing hundreds of detainees and granting pensions to former army officers and members of the Baath Party that dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But seven months on from the unrest, day-laborer Mohammed Abdullah said Sunni demands had still not been met. "The government does not recognize us, we do not recognize it and we will work to topple it because we are facing a crucial battle to prove the Iraqi identity," the 54-year-old said in the city of Fallujah, 70 km (43 miles) west of Baghdad. "As a last option, maybe we will carry arms against the government."

Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut, believes Maliki's response in the run-up to next year's elections will be crucial. "A heavy-handed Baghdad response toward the Sunni population will inflame sectarian tensions even further and play into al Qaeda's hands."


Tensions are already inflamed by the fighting in Syria, which is spilling over its border with western Iraq.

A 15-minute video posted on jihadi forums in August showed an al Qaeda fighter backed up by dozens of militants in pickup trucks blocking a desert highway in western Iraq. The attackers interrogate three Syrian drivers about their religion, then gun them down outside the town of Rutba, 360 km west of Baghdad.

On the video, the assassins identify the dead drivers as Alawites - members of the offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that rules Syria under President Bashar al-Assad. The militants accuse the drivers of transporting supplies from Iraq to Assad's forces, who are fighting al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria.

Fighters and supplies are passing back and forth through Iraq's porous 680-km border with Syria - which locals now call "Death Valley" - especially in the western Anbar province.

The al Qaeda cell which claimed the highway attack, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has said it is behind this year's wave of bombings, as well as a mass jail break in July. The Iraqi-based operation has expanded into Syria.

It's a combustible mix. Maliki, whose government is close to Shi'ite-ruled Iran, Assad's staunchest ally, sees rebel forces in Syria as a far greater problem than Assad. The jihadists say they want to carve out an Islamist "emirate" from eastern Syria and western Iraq.

In Iraq, al Qaeda has strengthened its presence around Baghdad and in some northern regions. Fighters now control most of the villages and towns in an area known as the Hamrin Mountains basin, which links the northern provinces of Diyala, Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Mosul, say security officials, residents and local lawmakers.

Many al Qaeda members are former officers of Saddam Hussein's intelligence services or army. Baathists may offer support to al Qaeda even if they have not joined it, said Amer al-Khuzaei, an adviser to Maliki.

"They do not wear an explosive belt or blow themselves up, but they are planning, providing intelligence, nominating the targets and providing all kinds of logistical support," he said.

Members of Sunni militia groups are buying farms and houses to hide militants, and prepare suicide bombers and explosives, a senior security official in Baghdad said, citing reports from police and military officers working on the ground.

"The same coalition of jihadi interests in Iraq seems to have been recreated as existed in 2006 and 2007," said Crispin Hawes, director of Middle East and North Africa analysis at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.


As well as blaming Iraq's increased violence on the Syrian conflict, the Maliki government also says al Qaeda in Iraq is receiving more funds from Arab countries in the Gulf.

"Withdraw your hands with their black fingers and leave us as Iraqis to live in peace and love," Maliki said in a televised speech on August 14 in which he called on Arab countries to "stop earning the enmity" of Iraq by funding insurgents.

Saudi Arabia has not commented publicly on accusations about such funding and did not respond to request for comment for this report. Diplomats in the Gulf say that Saudi Arabia works hard to prevent private funds going to militant groups, but that money still gets through.

Western diplomats and some junior Iraqi intelligence officials believe al Qaeda has also thrived in part because of mistakes by Maliki's government.

Since militants staged the daring jail break in July - in which more than 500 al Qaeda fighters are believed to have escaped - the government has arrested hundreds of Sunnis in a campaign called "Avenge the Martyrs." To the north west of Baghdad, residents in Tarmiya town said special forces had angered Sunnis when searching the area as part of the campaign.

"They provoked people by burning down one of the (palm) groves for no reason," said a man who gave his name as Abu Mustafa. "They destroyed the furniture of some of the houses they raided," he added. He said police had stolen items from homes.

Other critics accuse the government of incompetence. One senior Shi'ite politician who lives in Diyala province, to the east of Baghdad, said: "The real problem, entirely, is the mismanagement of the security file (operation)."

Raids in Diyala were publicized in the media ahead of time, allowing militants to escape, he said, voicing frustration with the security forces for not targeting the right areas because of lack of local knowledge.

Families of Sunnis who were arrested or killed in previous raids have been abandoned, stoking resentment, he said. "They are all in dire need of financial support and the government ... is not trying to take care of them. So they become hotbeds for terrorism."


Iraq is not at the level of a civil war yet, according to Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Massoud Barzani, leader of Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish region, which tries to stay out of the Sunni-Shi'ite battles. "But those fighting each other express themselves (as) belonging to these ideologies and this is very dangerous."

Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is based in both the Iraqi holy city of Najaf and the Lebanese capital Beirut, has repeatedly declined to comment on any of his followers' recent activities. But a visit to Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad goes some way to explaining why a backlash has not yet emerged - and why it still could.

The district is named after Sadr's late father, who was also a cleric. Portraits of both men dominate squares and street corners. Residents of the neighborhood are outraged by the number of bomb attacks by the Iraqi arm of al Qaeda. But so far, they say, they have not fought back because this would set off a new cycle of retributive killings that most want to avoid.

Husseini, the 27-year-old follower of Sadr, said he had decided against taking up arms, at least for now, because insurgents were spread among the wider community.

"The enemy here is hidden, I cannot target everyone in order to reach the enemy," Husseini said.

Ali, a 32-year-old former member of Sadr's Mehdi army, said the violence in 2006-2007 was driven by Shi'ite reprisals against the Sunni community and such a situation was unlikely to happen again. But he added that if Sadr called his followers to arms, the fighters were ready.

"We still have our weapons and are ready to respond in any minute," he said.

(Additional reporting by Kareem Raheem in Baghdad, Kamal Na'ama in Ramadi and Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Simon Robinson and Richard Woods)

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« Reply #8824 on: Sep 19, 2013, 06:53 AM »

Four charged over Mumbai photographer’s gang-rape

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, September 19, 2013 7:25 EDT

Four men were formally charged Thursday in a Mumbai court over the gang rape of a young photographer in the city — a case that reignited anger about women’s safety across India.

Crime branch officers filed a chargesheet laying out their case against the men at the Esplanade Court in south Mumbai over the attack on August 22.

A fifth suspect, who was under 18 at the time of the offence, is expected to be charged separately in a juvenile court.


Couple killed, man beheaded in India ‘honor killing’

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, September 19, 2013 7:31 EDT

A man was beheaded and his girlfriend beaten to death in an “honour killing” in northern India after they eloped, police said Thursday.

The woman’s mother, father and uncle were arrested after the gruesome murders carried out in a village in the state of Haryana on Wednesday, police said.

The couple were tracked down and brought back to their village in Rohtak district after they fled to the capital New Delhi, local police chief Anil Kumar said.

The woman, 20, was allegedly beaten to death and then relatives, angry about their decision to leave, turned on her 22-year-old boyfriend, attacking him with sticks, Inspector-General Kumar told AFP.

“While murdering the boy they also beheaded him,” Kumar said.

The family had tried to burn the woman’s body but were stopped by police, Kumar told AFP by telephone.

The pair had been in a relationship for three years. The woman was studying to be an art teacher while her boyfriend was also a student at a local college, Kumar said.

“We have arrested her father, mother and uncle and we are looking for her brother, a friend and driver of the car in which the couple were brought back to her home in Gharnavati village,” the police chief said.

“Both belonged to the same village and the same caste.

“It is an honour killing but the murder was not approved by society.”

India has for centuries seen killings that often target young couples who have relationships of which their families, clans or communities, particularly in traditional rural areas, disapprove.

Reasons for disapproval are numerous, but they sometimes include having relationships outside of their caste or religion.

The killings are carried out by relatives to protect the family’s reputation and pride.

Police in Haryana have been conducting a campaign against honour killings in the state, where the sex-gender ratio is skewed in favour of men because of an outlawed but still existing tradition of female infanticide.

“We hold seminars and our women officers visit villages but the ultimate weapon against the scourge of honour killings is (more) education,” Kumar said.

India’s Supreme Court said in 2010 that the death penalty should be given to those found guilty of honour killings, calling the crime a barbaric “slur” on the nation.

There are no official figures on honour killings in India, but the All India Democratic Women’s Association says its research shows about 1,000 such cases nationwide a year.


September 18, 2013

Uncertain Times in India, but Not for a Deity


MUMBAI, India — As this year’s monsoon season receded, onions were selling for an eye-popping 58 cents a pound, and inflation had accelerated to a six-month high. It has been a period of belt-tightening in India’s financial capital, a slow but sure blunting of hopes.

But you would hardly have known that if you were standing under a 25-foot, gemstone-encrusted statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, who is believed to have the power to remove obstacles.

The idol, necklaces cascading from its neck, was unloaded at the edge of the Arabian Sea on Wednesday to be submerged in the water alongside its brethren: the Ganesh laden with 145 pounds of gold ornaments; the Ganesh that was fitted with a new satin loincloth each day of the 10-day festival marking his birthday; the Ganesh lounging under strobe lights and crystal chandeliers, one plump foot resting on a gold-dusted globe.

This year’s crop of Ganeshes — about 13,000 of them, according to the evening news — stood out for its gaudiness.

Narendra Dahibawkar, who heads an umbrella organization overseeing the city’s idol-producing groups, said spending on this year’s Ganeshes was up 10 percent over 2012. The number of visitors during the festival had reportedly risen between 10 percent and 30 percent across the city, with five- and six-hour waits to make a wish. Mr. Dahibawkar said he thought the underlying reason was worry.

“People are coming because they are insecure — about rising prices, about the way ladies are treated,” Mr. Dahibawkar said. “The government is not just to them. Only God.”

At midafternoon, the idols began trundling past the graceful, derelict facades of Marine Drive, past the King of Kings Printers, to the edge of the sea. Prancing beside them were men and women dusted with vermilion powder, so they looked like red ghosts.

Nikita Trevedi, 27, a pharmacist, watched dreamily as boys poled a raft heavy with idols out to the open sea and slid them below the surface of the water. It was a grander display than she had seen growing up in the 1980s.

“Belief is growing,” she said happily. “It’s like going back in time.”

The annual immersion of Ganesh became popular in the early 20th century as part of the Indian independence movement. It provided a way to bridge the gap between castes, and it served as a pretext for gathering without the interference of British forces.

But in recent years, with corporate sponsors offering huge donations, Mumbai’s mandals — neighborhood organizations that sponsor and build idols — began a competition in grandiosity. City authorities had to set a 25-foot height limit, lest the idols slam into bridges and overpasses on their way to the ocean.

Equally lavish are the offerings left for idols by wealthy devotees, typically out of gratitude that a wish has been fulfilled — a gold cradle, a gold soccer ball, a gold house. One year, a diamond-encrusted cellphone. In most cases, offerings to idols go to the mandal to be used for construction of the next year’s idol, though a portion is used to finance social programs.

Social scientists have criticized lavish spending on temple rituals, arguing that a relatively small percentage of donations reach the truly needy.

Nandini Sardesai, a sociology professor who grew up in Mumbai, said she had watched the gathering turn gradually from “private feast” into a public display of wealth that demands offerings from “people who can barely say where their next meal is coming from.”

Still, the streets of Mumbai were thronged and joyful on Wednesday night, and many on the beach said the ritual offered a respite during uncertain times.

Prakash Kumar, a pharmacy branch manager, said he had traveled almost 400 miles with his wife and baby to see an idol called Lalbaugcha Raja. With the arrival of Western culture in India, Mr. Kumar said, “physical things are more with us.” Events like Wednesday’s immersion, he said, offered him some freedom from the relentless pressure to earn.

“Everyone is looking for peace now,” he said.

Atam Mukhaya, 53, who works at a metal factory, said he would wish to be free from financial anxiety. “The government doesn’t care about the common man,” he said. “Onions cost 80 rupees a kilogram. How can I afford a good meal? Even God can’t do anything about it.”

A Popsicle in his hand was dripping in the heat, and he glared at it. “All he can do is give me ice cream,” he said.

Dinesh Sundakar, 44, sat with his family as they burned incense in a brass dish. He looked sour. His embroidery business had lost four big clients, he said, and he had spent the last year idle.

“Ganesh doesn’t sort anything out for you, in my personal experience,” he said. “Last year, I didn’t bring an idol, and I had a good job. This year, I brought an idol and I am unemployed.” A relative intervened, pointing out that he had had too much to drink to draw such conclusions, but Mr. Sundakar went on.

“I don’t like Ganesh,” he said. “Maybe it’s random chance. But I think he is bad luck for me.”

Mansi Choksi contributed reporting.

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« Reply #8825 on: Sep 19, 2013, 07:01 AM »

China family planning officials levied £160m in fines in three years

Chinese audit reinforces suspicions that officials reaped financial gains from China's one-child policy

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing, Thursday 19 September 2013 12.24 BST   

Chinese family planning officials illegally levied more than £160m in fines between 2009 and 2012, Chinese auditors have revealed, reinforcing widespread suspicions that government officials have reaped financial gains from the country's one-child policy.

The controversial policy, introduced in 1979 to keep population growth in check, has been relaxed in recent years. While most Chinese people are still only allowed to have one child, some groups, including ethnic minorities and only-child couples, are allowed to have two.

Violating the policy can incur heavy fines – officially called "social compensation fees" – which, even for impoverished farmers, can amount to thousands of pounds.

An investigation by China's National Audit Office covering 45 counties in nine provinces from early 2009 through to May 2012 identified 1.6bn yuan (£162m) in "misappropriated" family planning fees, state media reported on Thursday. In response, the country's National Health and Family Planning Commission has "vowed to clamp down on birth control fines" reported Xinhua, China's state newswire.

"The office revealed various problems in the handling of fines, including inaccurate reports relating to the number of extra children parents had, fees not successfully collected and local officials handing out higher fines than what they should have," Xinhua reported. Central government regulations require the funds to be allocated towards public services. Yet the state-run broadcaster China Radio International said that some were used as "hospitality expenditures" and "allowance paid for government staff".

"Maybe curbing these abuses would be one way of progressively relaxing the system," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong-Kong-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Because this is the hard edge of population planning – it's not constructive to say the least, it's a factor of social unrest, it's deeply unpopular, and deeply unequal, because it disproportionately targets people in the countryside and migrant women in cities."

In July, a lawyer in Zhejiang province shed light on the family planning system's notoriously opaque finances when he obtained records from family planning offices in 17 provinces. In 2012, the offices collectively levied 16.5bn yuan (£1.7bn) in fines, he found. None detailed how the money was spent.

Critics have called the one-child policy archaic and cruel. They say it has fuelled a rise in sex-selective abortions, as many rural families prefer boys to girls, and a latent demographic crunch, whereby only children must financially support a large cohort of ageing relatives.

It has also engendered a host of human rights violations. Abductions, forced abortions, and extra-legal detentions are still common in rural areas where family planning officials wield enormous power.

"I think there is a perception that population planning doesn't really matter any more in China – that people don't really care, and that people who do care can just pay the fines," said Bequelin. "I think this is a mistaken view. It might be true for the majority of the urban population, but it's certainly not true for a large part of the rural population, especially in the poorest parts of the country."

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« Reply #8826 on: Sep 19, 2013, 07:09 AM »

Syria will give its chemical weapons away, Bashar al-Assad tells Fox News

Country would give the deadly substances to whatever nation was willing to take them, leader of regime says

Agencies, Thursday 19 September 2013 01.58 BST   

Link to video: Syria will get rid of chemical weapons, says Assad

Syria would stand by an agreement to dispose of its chemical weapons and give them to whatever nation was willing to take them, the country's president said on Wednesday night in a TV interview.

Bashar al-Assad said his government was bound to get rid of its weapons but maintained that it was not responsible for deadly gas attacks that killed hundreds outside Damascus on 21 August.

In an interview on the Fox News channel, the Syrian president said the destruction of the country's chemical weapons would take about a year, and would cost $1bn (£600m).

"I think it is a very complicated technically and it needs a lot of money. Some estimated about a billion for the Syrian stockpile," he said.

Asked whether he would be willing to hand over chemical weapons to the US government, Assad said: "It is very detrimental to the environment. If the American administration is ready to pay this money and take the responsibility of bringing toxic materials to the United States, why don't they do it?"

Assad also added that he had never spoken to Barack Obama. When asked whether he was interested in speaking to the US president, one of his harshest critics, he said: "That depends on the content. It is not a chat."

The interview was conducted in Damascus by former Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich, a Fox News contributor, and Fox News channel senior correspondent Greg Palkot.

Meanwhile in Syria the violence continued as a rebel group affiliated with al-Qaida overran a Syrian town near the border with Turkey after fighting broke out with units of the Arab – and Western-backed Free Syrian Army, opposition activists said.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant stormed the town of Azaz, 2 miles from the Syrian-Turkish border and killed at least five Free Syrian Army members, they said.

The fighting was the most severe since tensions mounted earlier this year between the rebel factions fighting to overthrow Assad.

It could pose a dilemma for the Turkish government, which has been allowing militant Islamist fighters to cross into Syria from its territory, but may not be keen to see a formidable al-Qaida presence so close to its border.

Azaz is 20 miles north of Aleppo, once Syria's commercial and industrial hub. A frequent target for air raids and missile strikes by Assad's forces, Azaz is also adjacent to al-Salamah, a border crossing with Turkey.

Activist Abu Louay al-Halabi said the fighting broke out after the Storm of the North Brigade, a Free Syrian Army unit, resisted attempts by the Islamic State fighters to abduct a German doctor working as a volunteer at a private hospital in Azaz.

"By taking Azaz, the Islamic State is a step closer to controlling the crossing. Its objective seems to be taking over the whole countryside north of Aleppo," he said.

Opposition sources said two Free Syrian Army units, Liwa al-Fath and Liwa al-Tawhid, based in Aleppo, had sent reinforcements to the Salamah crossing to defend it against a possible al-Qaida strike.
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« Reply #8827 on: Sep 19, 2013, 07:11 AM »

Egyptian police storm second Islamist stronghold

Senior police officer killed in clashes between armed groups in Kerdasa and security forces backed by tanks and helicopters

Patrick Kingsley in Cairo, Thursday 19 September 2013 08.22 BST   

Egyptian police have stormed a town on the edge of Cairo, the second Islamist stronghold to be retaken by Egyptian authorities in a week.

A senior police officer was killed in the clashes between armed groups in Kerdasa and security forces backed by tanks and helicopters early on Thursday, state media reported.

Situated on Cairo's western fringes, Kerdasa was one of several Egyptian towns overrun by Islamist hardliners on 14 August, as supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi took revenge on police after the massacre by security forces of around 1,000 pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo earlier that day.

Kerdasa experienced some of the worst revenge attacks, in which the local police station was stormed, and 11 officers killed and mutilated. Mobile phone footage apparently taken by bystanders appeared to show one of the murdered officers stripped to his underwear, and others with their throats cut.

Thursday's police assault on the town marks an attempt to reimpose order and round up some of the perpetrators. It also follows Monday's retaking of Delga, a central Egyptian town that had been under Islamist control since 3 July, and where the local Christian minority had been subjected to a campaign of terror.

The Egyptian army is already fighting an extremist insurgency in the eastern Sinai peninsula, and some officials have painted this week's assaults as an attempt to ward off the possibility of similar problems on the Egyptian mainland.

In recent weeks, terrorists unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Egypt's interior minister in a bomb attack that injured more than 20 people. Security officials also claim to have thwarted several other bomb threats across the country.

On Thursday, parts of Cairo's subway system were shut down after police said they had discovered a bomb on a line in the north-east of the capital.

In return, some Morsi supporters have condemned the anti-state violence, while others claim it is exaggerated – or at the very least provoked by the new government's brutal crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo. In Delga, local Islamists claimed the violence was carried out by apolitical criminals, and that the arrests of more than 50 Islamists following the re-taking of the town were made arbitrarily, without proper evidence.

Morsi's ousting at the hands of the army on 3 July, and the subsequent crackdown on his supporters, has broad support across Egypt. But he is still backed by a significant minority of the population, particularly outside Cairo, while a small bloc of activists have voiced their opposition to both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.

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« Reply #8828 on: Sep 19, 2013, 07:14 AM »

Eritrea gets underground newspaper 12 years after ban on private media

On anniversary of press curbs and journalist arrests, reform group Freedom Friday Movement launches illicit publication

Meron Estefanos for African Arguments, part of the Guardian Africa Network, Thursday 19 September 2013 12.37 BST   
An underground newspaper was circulated on the streets of Asmara yesterday, 12 years after the Eritrean government banned all privately owned media and arrested journalists and proprietors, Freedom Friday Movement (Arbi Harnet) has announced.

MeqaleH Forto, which means Echoes of Forto, is said to have been inspired by the attempted coup on 21 January this year. The paper is produced by a small team both inside Eritrea and in the diaspora, and is distributed using informal links and networks.

Freedom Friday activists say that while their pilot circulations have been limited, there is plenty of room for expansion.

In its inaugural edition, MeqaleH Forto included Tigrigna and Arabic articles about Freedom Friday and the other diaspora based resistance movements, in line with the objectives of the movement to link the resistance inside the country to those in the diaspora.

The paper is financed by supporters of the movement, who have are mainly been mobilised via Facebook and other social media platforms.

"The date is significant for us as the very last editions of Eritrea's fledgling private newspapers ran last 12 years ago today," the team said. "While we are aware that one underground newsletter with extremely limited circulation isn't the answer to freedom of press in a secretive country such as Eritrea, it is our contribution to keeping that hope alive for us and others to build on."

Initial reactions to the inaugural issue were said to be generally positive and Freedom Friday is now looking for media professionals and those with links and networks inside the country to support in the production and distribution of subsequent issues.

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« Reply #8829 on: Sep 19, 2013, 07:15 AM »

Gaddafi's son, intelligence chief and PM among defendants in crucial trial

Most important trial in Libya's post-Gaddafi era switched to maximum security prison in Tripoli over fears of violence

Chris Stephen in Tripoli, Thursday 19 September 2013 07.00 BST      

Libya embarks on its most important trial in the post-Gaddafi era on Thursday as the former ruler's son, his intelligence chief and his prime minister face charges that could see them executed.

They are among a total of 38 defendants, representing much of the former regime's upper echelon, who face accusations ranging from murder and incitement to rape to kidnapping, torture and theft of state assets.

Fears of violence from Gaddafi loyalists saw the authorities switch the trial venue at the eleventh hour, with the case to open within Tripoli's maximum security Hadba prison, where most are incarcerated.

"We have to take precautions," said the secretary of the indictment hearing, who declined to give his name on security grounds. "Libyan society has strong [tribal] relationships – there are loyalties to some of these men, no matter that bad things happened."

The exception is Saif al-Islam, 41, Muammar Gaddafi's son, who remains in the mountain town of Zintan with the powerful militia which captured him two years ago refusing to hand him over to government custody.

For the moment, say officials, Gaddafi will stay where he is. "Saif is the first defendant on the list. He is still there in Zintan, the problem of being brought here has not been solved," said prosecution official Siddiq Ahmed Issour.

Of the others. Abdullah al-Senussi, the regime's former intelligence chief, is accused of masterminding decades of terror, at home and abroad.

Gaddafi's former prime minister Baghdadi Mahmuti, 68, extradited from Tunisia last year, faces accusations of massive fraud at the helm of the Libyan Investment Authority, one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds.

On Wednesday evening prosecutors displayed the evidence against the men packed into innocuous cardboard photocopy paper boxes stacked by a desk in the attorney general's office. Inside, say officials, are four thousand separate statements detailing alleged crimes from Libya's Arab spring uprising and the decades of oppression that went before.

A single prosecutor will outline the case before the judge, with the defendants represented by 12 court-appointed lawyers, each responsible for three or four of the accused.

Officials say if the indictments are confirmed each man will get his own lawyer. The defendants have been promised a transparent process.

"It's a single judge who will examine the evidence and will decide whether they should go to trial," justice minister Salah Marghani told the Guardian. "What is good about all this – if I may use the world 'good' – is that we're trying things [accusations], we're doing things on the ground."

Senussi, 63, was chief hatchet-man to one of the world's most brutal and idiosyncratic regimes. 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. 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.

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 Saif al-Islam Gaddafi explores the excesses and wild years of the former ruler's children.

Gaddafi was 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. When he was presented to the world in November 2011, after being captured in the Sahara trying to flee Libya, that finger was missing.

The trial puts Libya in violation of demands by the international criminal court that Gaddafi and Senussi be handed over to the Hague where they are accused of crimes against humanity.

And it takes place with much of the country in chaos, with striking army units blockading oil ports, militia violence common and jihadists blamed for a wave of bombings and kidnappings.

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« Reply #8830 on: Sep 19, 2013, 07:16 AM »

September 18, 2013

Brazilian Court Allows Appeals for Political Figures Convicted of Corruption


RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s highest court on Wednesday allowed a new round of appeals in a trial over a vast vote-buying scheme, a decision that may allow senior political figures in the ruling Workers Party to maneuver out of hard jail time for their actions in what may be Brazil’s biggest corruption scandal.

Ending months of suspense, after defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison by the same court in November 2012 in what had been celebrated then as a watershed moment, the justices ruled by 6-5 to reopen crucial aspects of the trial. So far, no one has gone to prison in the scandal, which emerged in 2005.

“The move sets a troubling precedent by raising concerns over a domino effect in many other corruption cases involving powerful figures,” said Ivar Hartmann, a professor of law at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a top Brazilian university.

Even before the trial, it was remarkably rare for politicians in Brazil to go to prison after being found guilty of crimes like corruption, kidnapping and employing slave labor, partly because of the special judicial standing enjoyed by about 700 political figures, including senior cabinet ministers and all 594 members of Congress. This standing requires their cases to be heard only in the high court, which is already bogged down by thousands of other cases each year.

The system produces years of delays in judging politicians charged with serious crimes. Legal experts said such cases could now drag on indefinitely after a ruling by the high court justices on Wednesday, which allowed appeals of their own votes in these trials.

The televised debate over the appeals within the court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal, produced heated moments in recent weeks. Justice Gilmar Mendes said the court was inviting mockery as a “juvenile tribunal of irresponsible people,” while another justice, Ricardo Lewandowski, argued that the court was merely giving defendants the right to a new appeal.

Given the delays that have already characterized the trial, the court’s discussion of the appeals could realistically drag on for years, Helenita Acioli, the interim prosecutor general, said this month.

That may benefit figures like José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva, who was chief of staff for Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison for his role in orchestrating the vote-buying scheme, called the mensalão, or big monthly allowance, after the regular payments made to legislators in exchange for their votes.

The appeals involve a rare legal procedure in which close votes on the high court can be held again. The appeals, which are thought to have originated in the 16th-century legal system of Portugal, Brazil’s former colonial ruler, were abolished there in the 1930s. Few Brazilians had even heard of the appeals until the high court considered them in the mensalão trial.

While few convictions are expected to be overturned, defendants are seeking less stringent prison conditions, including arrangements that allow convicts to leave prison during the day to work. Some legal experts held open the possibility that some defendants could avoid jail time altogether if the trial endured long; crimes committed about a decade ago could be exceeded by the statute of limitations.

“The stain on their reputations remains,” said Matthew M. Taylor, a scholar at American University in Washington who specializes in Brazil’s legal system. He said the latest twist in their trial was “more troubling for what it says about Brazil’s courts and their inability to effectively and expeditiously tackle widespread corruption within the political system.”


Rio archaeologists unearth Emperor Pedro II's toothbrush

Brazilian archaeologists find 200,000 items dating back as far as 17th century in site being used for subway expansion

Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro, Thursday 19 September 2013 11.28 BST   

An ivory toothbrush thought to have belonged to Brazil's Emperor Pedro II, and a minty toothpaste made by a European chemist for the Portuguese queen, are among more than 200,000 objects dating from the 17th to 19th centuries that archeologists have unearthed from a site in Rio de Janeiro being used for an extension of the city's subway lines.

A team of more than two dozen archeologists, historians and others began excavating the plot in northern Rio last March. The plot, once the site of a slaughterhouse, is near the former imperial palace and is thought to have once been used as a landfill by the imperial family and others, team members said on Wednesday.

The area, now a construction site for Rio's massive subway expansion project, has not only yielded an impressive number of objects but also pieces in remarkably good condition, the team leader Claudio Prado de Mello said.

"What is the most impressive is the intact state" of many objects, said Mello. "In archeology we usually find very fragmented pieces, but this time we're finding whole objects."

The ivory toothbrush, thought to have belonged to Dom Pedro II, who ruled over Brazil from 1831 to 1889, has turned brown with age. Its boar bristles are long gone, but the inscription remains legible: "His Majesty the Emperor of Brazil." A round white porcelain pot emblazoned with "to the Queen of Portugal Maria of Saboia" is thought to have contained mint-flavoured toothpaste made specially for the queen by a chemist with offices in London and Paris.

The site has also yielded dozens of intact glass and ceramic bottles thought to have once contained water imported from Europe for the imperial family. Six sealed bottles still contain unidentified liquids that the team plans to send to a laboratory for analysis. Dozens of coins and pipes were also found, along with a golden ring and a tie tack.

The excavation area has been covered up pending the subway expansion project, which is scheduled to be ready before the 2016 Olympic Games that Rio is hosting. Excavations are to resume after the project's completion, Mello said.

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« Reply #8831 on: Sep 19, 2013, 07:23 AM »

Orbital Sciences Corp sends its first rocket to the International Space Station

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 12:07 EDT

Orbital Sciences Corp launched the first flight of its unmanned Antares rocket Wednesday to the International Space Station, as NASA forges ahead with its plan to privatize US space missions.

The Cygnus capsule, hitched to Orbital Science’s Antares rocket, blasted off at 10:58 am (1458 GMT) from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility off Virginia’s eastern coast, for a Sunday rendezvous with the ISS.

The first stage functioned a little more than four minutes before separating, after which the second-stage motors functioned for about two minutes and a half.

Cygnus then separated to reach Earth’s orbit, marking the success of the launch.

The payload separation was successful, a NASA commentator said on the US space agency’s live television feed. Cheers could be heard at mission control.

“That was just a beautiful launch,” a NASA commentator said.

Cygnus will ferry about 1,600 pounds (725 kilograms) of food, clothing and cargo for the crew aboard the space station. It will remain docked to the ISS for a month.

“All going very smoothly with the continuing health of the spacecraft,” a NASA commentator said, adding that solar rays had been fully deployed to supply power to the spacecraft.

Orbital Sciences has a $1.9-billion contract with NASA that requires the company to deliver freight to the ISS over the course of eight flights by the beginning of 2016.

The company is one of just two private US firms enlisted by NASA to carry payloads to the ISS. The other is California-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.

NASA is eager to give private industry the job of carrying cargo and crews, in hopes of cutting costs, now that its space shuttle fleet has been retired.

The US space agency plans to focus its attention on deep-space missions to land probes on asteroids and Mars.

Wednesday’s demonstration flight — the first to the ISS by the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences — is meant to show that Cygnus can successfully deliver cargo to the space station.

If the test is successful, it could lead to regularly scheduled missions within months. Another Cygnus capsule is set to launch in December.

Orbital first launched its Antares rocket, carrying a dummy payload, on a successful trial flight in April.

Cygnus’s docking with the ISS will mark the fourth of a private vessel to the orbiting outpost.

The first was SpaceX’s Dragon capsule in May 2012. Dragon later made two more trips to deliver cargo to the ISS.

Unlike the Dragon capsule, Cygnus cannot return to Earth and will be destroyed upon re-entry after its mission is complete.

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« Reply #8832 on: Sep 19, 2013, 07:26 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

Robot snakes on Mars? Serpentine probe could explore Red Planet.

By Elizabeth Barber, Contributor / September 18, 2013 at 11:26 am EDT

Last month, fans of the Curiosity rover’s images spotted something unusual in one of its snapshots from Mars: a rat.

Now, the European Space Agency (ESA) is sending something to the planet to take care of the problem: a snake.

Well, sort of. There is no rat – it’s a rock – but the ESA is, in fact, hoping to put a (robotic) snake on the Red Planet.

A Norwegian institute, Stiftelsen for Industriell og Teknisk Forskning (SINTEF), is collaborating with the ESA to develop a new, snake-shaped robot that will slither on Mars, collecting details from the hard-to-reach places that the four rovers that have so far successfully visited the planet have been unable to access.

The Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, even while filing back to Earth unprecedented amounts of information about Mars, are limited in what they can do and where they can go, the SINTEF scientists say. That’s because these rovers have wheels; and wheels, as any backroads driver knows, are liable to sticking.

That point was all too clear in the spring of 2009, when the Spirit rover became stuck in soft, Martian soil. Two year later, in March 2011, NASA gave up on trying to resuscitate the rover, after some 1,300 commands sent to the craft elicited no response.

"The vehicles just cannot get to many of the places from which samples have to be taken,” the project scientists, Pål Liljebäck and Aksel Transeth, said, in a SINTEF release.

A “snake,” though, would be able to do and see things that a six-wheeled rover cannot do or see. In a video, the snake, called Wheeko glides through an emptied room, debuting as a fast, dexterous animal probing its environment at the ground-level for information. Made of ten connected round metal parts, and with a camera for a snout, Wheeko might look more like a benign caterpillar than a snake, were it not for its exaggerated “S” shape movements.

The serpentine robot is not expected to replace the rover; it’s designed to be one of its arms. The snake, the scientists say, would be a peculiarly-jointed appendage that is able to dislodge itself from the rover and slither off on its own. The snake, slipping into small crevices that its parent rover otherwise wouldn’t be able to access, would remain tethered via power cable to the rover, juicing up on its power source, the scientists said.

That’s right – if the idea of a loose, metal snake was not already worrisome enough, what we now have is a severed, independent-minded appendage that doubles as a snake.

Of course, unless you are planning a trip to Mars, this is not something you need to worry about.

The plan, though it sounds a bit like a curious hybrid of the 2006 film “Snakes on a Plane” and the Doctor Who episode, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” is in fact grounded in some serious nonfictional scientific precedent. Animals have for years been proposed as inspiration for robotic prototypes. Snakes, in particular, are the model for a roster of robotics project developing versatile robots that will be deployed in search and rescue missions.

Click to watch:

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« Reply #8833 on: Sep 19, 2013, 07:53 AM »

In the USA..United Surveillance America...

Will Eric Holder guarantee NSA reporters' first amendment rights?

The US attorney general vows not to prosecute journalists, but his criminalisation of whistleblowers undermines that assurance

John Cusack, Wednesday 18 September 2013 13.30 BST   
Another week and another wave of stories on the NSA and the unconstitutional out-of-control surveillance state hit the digital newsstands, showing once again why the tide is turning. Some revelations are so surreal, it's hard not to assume they're satire. NSA chief Keith Alexander seems to be modeling his ambitions and visions for international spying after General Curtis LeMay's views on nuclear war.

Meanwhile, despite the massive smear campaign against Edward Snowden, opinion polls stand clearly with the truth-tellers. People know they have a right to know what the government is doing in their names. State secrecy is on the run, while American privacy, long rumored dead, is alive and kicking and wants the fight out in the open – in the sunlight and in the public square.

Last month, though, Glenn Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, was detained at Heathrow airport for almost nine hours, while on a journalistic mission paid for by the Guardian. His electronics were seized, and he was forced to hand over his social media passwords under the threat of imprisonment. He was detained under the UK Terrorism Act – for an act of journalism. This was an assault on press freedom that should make every reporter shudder no matter their opinion on the NSA.

The message was sent. It gave a whole new meaning to "Miranda rights". A Miranda warning, in effect.

Perhaps worse, we learned a few days later that the United States had been given a "heads up" by their British counterparts that they were planning on detaining Miranda. The US government didn't lift a finger to stop this blatant attack on journalism and press freedom – even as it has been moving heaven and earth to bring Edward Snowden back to the US. That should be a scandal in its own right.

Now, the US owes its citizens and the international community another "heads up": on whether the United States will do the same to journalists working on NSA stories who are entering the United States. Put simply, will Attorney General Eric Holder, the US State Department, and the FBI promise safe passage to journalists, their spouses and loved ones, and vow not to interfere with their reporting on these NSA stories?

So far, the answer has been far from clear.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two American journalists at the center of these stories, have been doing their reporting from Brazil and Germany respectively. The US government has not, so far, stated publicly whether they can enter the country without receiving the same outrageous treatment that Miranda received. Or worse.

Can they practice journalism in the United States, without their hard drives being confiscated, without an unconstitutional search-and-seizure taking place at the border? Are they free to enter the United States without being served a subpoena, or even jailed? Unlike the UK, the United States is supposed to be bound by the first amendment of the constitution, which exists to bar such treatment of journalists.

Poitras, a filmmaker and journalist universally respected in her field, has already been a victim of the ever-expanding surveillance state: since her widely praised film My Country, My Country debuted in 2006, she has been detained while crossing the US border over 40 times. She is editing her upcoming film on whistleblowers in Berlin, because of fears her footage will be seized in the United States

She's not alone. Jacob Appelbaum, a security researcher, a Tor developer and journalist in his own right, has been harassed while going over the border for years, simply by virtue of his association with WikiLeaks, whose "crime", apparently, is publishing government secrets in the public interest – something we know established newspapers do all the time.

I should note that I consider both Glenn and Laura friends, as we all sit on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) together. But the reason this should concern not only me and the FPF, but everyone in the US, is not because of any specific people; we must look at these assaults from a broader perspective.

We care about the individual journalists under attack – Greenwald, Poitras, Appelbaum, Miranda, Julian Assange, James Risen – and the whistleblowers themselves – Snowden, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, Julia Davis, Russ Tice – in all these fights. But it's not just the risk and courage of the individuals that inspire and call us to action.

We recognize that when the individual rights are being violated, that means my rights, our rights, are being violated too. What happens to individuals in the US happens to the first amendment. Our politicians must have forgotten the basics we all learned in high school civics class.

That's what the FPF was founded for: we needed a movement protecting the first amendment in its broadest reach.

As FPF co-founder and iconic whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg told me last week:

    I've been waiting 40 years for Edward Snowden, and his revelations are the most important in US history, including the Pentagon Papers.

Despite the importance of his revelations, the US purposefully stranded Snowden in Russia by canceling his passport while he was in transit from Hong Kong to Russia, essentially forcing him into exile.

We already know the government will attempt to intimidate and crush whistleblowers who challenge national security state orthodoxy. Genuflect and get in line – or pay the heavy cost. Look no further than Thomas Drake, Bill Binney, and J Kirk Wiebe, three NSA whistleblowers whose homes were raided and lives were destroyed for the cardinal sin of informing the American public about crimes committed by their government.

It's hard to blame Snowden for not wanting to come back and rot in a US jail. Chelsea Manning spent three years in jail awaiting trial, nearly a year of it in torturous conditions. She has now been sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaks exposing war crimes, which have been almost universally acknowledged as having caused no real harm to the US, while those recorded in the "Collateral Murder" video have gone uncharged.

Mr Snowden may have the faint suspicion that his rights would not be protected – given that a prosecution under the Espionage Act would leave him no way to mount a public interest defense if he came back to stand trial. Often, we export our US ideals, sometimes rightfully, sometimes tragically. Now, our action is drenched in irony: Russia is providing safe haven to our American whistleblower, and East Berlin, where the Stasi once roamed, is now where journalists and privacy rights advocates feel safe to work.

Not so in the US these days, it seems. Whether whistleblower, source or journalist: expose crimes, become the hunted. What must students think when they see some of the brightest minds – and the fiercest watchdogs – of a generation unable to practice journalism in America?

Hunter S Thompson once said:

    History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody understands at the time– and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

He spoke of the end of something – a great wave and the attendant forces and counterforces at play. Now one can feel the rising tide and a see a new wave forming on the edge of the break. Perhaps, soon we can paraphrase the Good Doctor: and with the right kind of eyes almost see the high-water mark of the surveillance state… that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

If we want that moment, we need to stand with those brave enough to confront the crimes of our current national security state. Just two months before the UK gave the US its absurd "heads up" about David Miranda's detention, Eric Holder vowed not to prosecute journalists, saying:

    The Department [of Justice] has not prosecuted, and as long as I'm attorney general, will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.

That begs the question: will the attorney general, as chief law enforcement officer of the country, now go on record that he will guarantee the safe return and safe passage of journalists who have exercised their rights under the first amendment?

Or would we accept the creation of a generation of exiled watchdogs, who are trying to hold their government accountable from afar?

• This article received some minor editorial amendments at the request of the author, at 1pm (ET) on 18 September


House Judiciary chair on NSA surveillance: ‘Further protections are necessary’

By Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 21:38 EDT

Republican congressman Bob Goodlatte calls for ‘robust oversight’ of NSA programs and that ‘further protections are necessary’

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said on Wednesday that he believed “further protections are necessary” to protect Americans’ civil liberties from the nation’s surveillance programs.

After a classified hearing with senior intelligence officials, Republican congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) called for “robust oversight” of intelligence programs.

“Over the past few months, the House Judiciary Committee has conducted vigorous oversight of our nation’s foreign surveillance programs, including today’s classified hearing,” Goodlatte said.

“I appreciate the witnesses’ testimony today further detailing these programs and the current practices employed by the agencies to protect US citizens’ civil liberties.

However, I am convinced that further protections are necessary.”

At the classified hearing on Wednesday, members of the committee questioned a number of officials from the NSA, FBI, Department of Justice and the office of the director of national intelligence.

Goodlatte’s call for further protections is a sign of the dissatisfaction in Congress over the NSA’s surveillance programs. In July, an amendment calling for stricter controls over the administration’s use of phone call data failed by only 12 votes in Congress.

“I am committed to working with members of the committee, House leaders, and other members of Congress to ensure our nation’s intelligence collection programs include robust oversight, additional transparency, and protections for Americans’ civil liberties,” Goodlatte said on Wednesday.

He added that any enhanced protections should maintain “a workable legal framework for national security officials to keep our country safe from foreign enemies”.

Goodlatte urged his fellow members of Congress to vote no on an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act in July. That amendment was introduced by Michigan Republican Justin Amash, who said his aim was to “defend the Fourth Amendment, to defend the privacy of each and every American.”

The final vote was 205 in favor and 217, with the measure only failing after an unlikely bipartisan coalition including Democrat Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Republican House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) rallied party members against it.

Goodlatte suggested at the time that he thought the Amash amendment too gung-ho but insisted he was supportive of stricter controls on surveillance.

“While many members have legitimate questions about the NSA metadata program, including whether there are sufficient protections for Americans’ civil liberties, eliminating this program altogether without careful deliberation would not reflect our duty, under article I of the constitution, to provide for the common defense,” he said.

“We are committed to assisting all of our colleagues in reviewing this program, and we will continue to develop appropriate additional protections.

“We believe such changes should recognize both the privacy interests and security needs of every American, while reflecting actual intelligence and law enforcement operations.”

© Guardian News and Media 2013


September 18, 2013

Pressed From His Right, Speaker Yields on a Budget Showdown


WASHINGTON — After three years of cajoling, finessing and occasionally strong-arming his fitful conservative majority, Speaker John A. Boehner waved the white flag on Wednesday, surrendering to demands from his right flank that he tie money to keep the government open after Sept. 30 to stripping President Obama’s health care law of any financing.

Mr. Boehner knows that the plan he unveiled cannot pass the Senate, and that it may prove unwise politically and economically. His leadership team pressed just last week for an alternative. But with conservative forces uniting against him, he ultimately saw no alternative but to capitulate — and few good options to stop a government shutdown in two weeks.

“Today was a step forward, and a win for the American people,” said Representative Tom Graves, the Georgia Republican whose “defund Obamacare” push had amassed 80 House supporters, a bloc large enough to dictate the outcome.

With much of the government set to run out of money at the end of the month — and run out of borrowing authority by mid-October — Mr. Boehner faced a choice: he could steer a middle ground and find a way out of his fiscal dead end with Republican and Democratic votes, or he could yield to a conservative movement to strip the Affordable Care Act of financing, unite his Republican majority around that war cry, and hope for the best.

House conservatives let Mr. Boehner know that any solution that could not attract a majority of the Republican conference could cost him his speakership. Divided Senate Republicans made clear that linking further government spending or a debt ceiling increase to gutting the health care law would never get through the Senate.

In March, the speaker himself said: “Do you want to risk the full faith and credit of the U.S. government over Obamacare? That’s a very tough argument to make.”

On Wednesday, the speaker announced his choice.

“The law’s a train wreck,” he said. “It’s time to protect American families from this unworkable law.”

The House’s stopgap spending measure would finance the government through Dec. 15 at the current spending levels, which reflect the automatic spending cuts that took effect in March, known as sequestration, while blocking the health care law, under which the uninsured will be enrolled beginning on Oct. 1.

If the bill clears the House on Friday, Republican leaders could put forward a measure as soon as next week that would raise the government’s statutory borrowing limit. That bill would also take aim at the Affordable Care Act, with a one-year delay of its provisions coupled with a one-year increase in the debt ceiling. It would also expedite the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Louisiana and set a timeline for an overhaul of the federal tax code, and possibly include some other Republican wishes, like specific spending cuts and regulatory changes.

For Mr. Boehner, the announcement Wednesday was a humbling moment, and possibly a defining one. Since the Tea Party wave swept Republicans to power in 2010, the beleaguered speaker has often found himself at odds with the most conservative wing of his conference. In late 2011, he famously put his fractious conference on mute as he explained via telephone how it had to give up its opposition to extending a cut in the payroll tax.

Three times this year, on major pieces of legislation, the speaker has put what he believed to be the greater needs of his country and his national party over those of his recalcitrant right wing. In January, the House passed legislation to avert huge and sudden tax increases on virtually every American — but let taxes rise on the wealthy — with Democratic votes and a minority of votes by Republicans. The same math passed relief for Hurricane Sandy and a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

This time around he was contrite, quoting a plaque that graced the speaker’s office of Newt Gingrich: Listen, Learn, Help and Lead.

“The key to any leadership job is to listen,” Mr. Boehner said.

Mr. Gingrich, of course, was deposed by an angry coup after Republicans lost seats in midterm elections during the second term of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. This time, the ground troops simply got their way with Mr. Boehner, providing new evidence that the Tea Party has changed Washington, not the other way around.

As has been the case with each fiscal crisis since the Republicans took control of the House, Mr. Boehner’s decision was an embrace of short-term tactics over long-term strategy. How either the spending or the debt limit measures will become law is anybody’s guess.

“Look, I think you could get all of us in the Senate to support it,” Senator John Hoeven, Republican of North Dakota, said of his Senate Republican colleagues. “The problem is, what is the Democrat majority going to do with it? That’s the challenge.”

Even the man who started the “defund Obamacare” boomlet, Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, seemed to accept Senate reality on Wednesday, putting the onus on House Republicans to stand and fight.

“Harry Reid will no doubt try to strip the defund language from the continuing resolution, and right now he likely has the votes to do so,” Mr. Cruz said. “At that point, House Republicans must stand firm.”

Mr. Obama was visibly irked by the speaker’s decision. “You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt ceiling being used to extort a president or a governing party, and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and have nothing to do with the debt,” he said at the Business Roundtable, which represents the chief executives of the nation’s largest companies.

Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a consistent ally of the Republican majority, questioned the House’s course.

Democrats were gleeful at the potential political consequences. Representative Steve Israel of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said House Republicans set off Wednesday on a kamikaze mission, with their speaker in the pilot’s seat. “They’re living in right-wing fantasy land” if they expect Democrats to take the blame for the chaos that could ensue, he said.

But victorious House conservatives did their end-zone dance and evinced no worries about the final outcome.

“Even the best coaches in the N.F.L. only script out the first two series of plays,” said Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, when asked how the speaker would play out the sequence of events. “They don’t script the whole game. We’ve got to play the game. We’ve got to see how it all shakes out.”

Ashley Parker contributed reporting.


September 18, 2013

Obama Highlights Fiscal Risks in Addressing Business Group


WASHINGTON — President Obama tried to raise the pressure on Republicans in Congress on Wednesday, telling a national business group that threats of a fiscal default by his political adversaries risk throwing the United States economy back into crisis.

Mr. Obama used an appearance before the group, the Business Roundtable, to call out House Republicans who have said they will not raise the nation’s debt ceiling unless they succeeded in repealing Mr. Obama’s signature health care law.

In his remarks, Mr. Obama accused what he called “a faction” of Republicans in the House of trying to “extort” him by refusing to raise the nation’s debt ceiling unless the president’s health care plan is repealed.

“You have never in the history of the United States seen the threat of not raising the debt ceiling to extort a president or a governing party,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s irresponsible.”

Mr. Obama called upon the business leaders to try to convince lawmakers to avoid the kind of “brinksmanship” that would lead to promises of “apocalypse” every few months.

“What I will not do is to create a habit, a pattern whereby the full faith and credit of the united states ends up being a bargaining chip to make policy,” he said.

“I’m tired of it,” he added. “And I suspect you are too.”

Congress will soon face two major budget deadlines. The stopgap “continuing resolution” that finances the federal government runs out at the end of September, and the Treasury Department has said that unless Congress raises the debt ceiling, it expects to lose the ability to pay the government’s bills in mid-October.

The Republican House speaker, John A. Boehner, has argued that the debt limit should be increased only as part of broader concessions by the president to reduce the deficit and make other spending reforms.

But a group of conservative Tea Party Republicans want to go further by explicitly refusing to raise the debt ceiling without repealing the health care law. Mr. Obama made it clear on Wednesday that he had no intention of negotiating over the debt limit.

Mr. Obama also raised the specter of another economic downturn if Republicans do not raise the debt ceiling, aides said, and he noted that in 2011 — the last time Washington clashed over a debt ceiling increase — the stock market dropped 17 percent, the country’s credit rating was downgraded and consumer confidence dropped.

So far, the two sides are far apart and barely talking. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday that conversations between the White House and Capitol Hill were continuing. But he did not offer any concrete evidence of high-level efforts to reach a compromise on fiscal issues.

“We have made clear our willingness to be reasonable and compromise,” Mr. Carney told reporters. “What we haven’t seen thus far is anything from the Republicans that represents a similar willingness to compromise when it comes to a broader, more comprehensive budget agreement.”

Mr. Boehner said that presidents and Congress had negotiated over the debt limit for decades, mentioning agreements under several former presidents. He also noted that Mr. Obama himself reached a deal with Republicans to increase the debt ceiling in exchange for concessions.

“No one is threatening to default,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner. “The president only uses these scare tactics to avoid having to show the courage needed to deal with our coming debt crisis. Every major deficit deal in the last 30 years has been tied to a debt-limit increase, and this time should be no different.”


In surprise move, Federal Reserve to continue bond-buying program

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 15:52 EDT

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday left its $85 billion a month stimulus program in place, against broad expectations that it would reduce it as the economy grows.

Fed policy makers instead cut their growth forecast for this year and next, suggesting the economy is feeling the impact of government spending cuts and continues to struggle to break free from the Great Recession.

The Federal Open Market Committee said that although the economy appears to be holding up amid government “sequester” spending cuts, it “decided to await more evidence that progress will be sustained before adjusting the pace of its purchases.”

In addition, it pointed to the impact of a sharp rise in interest rates since May as possibly already slowing the economy.

“The committee sees the downside risks to the outlook for the economy and the labor market as having diminished, on net, since last fall,” it said in a statement at the end of a two-day monetary policy meeting.

“But the tightening of financial conditions observed in recent months, if sustained, could slow the pace of improvement in the economy and labor market.”

The Fed had been widely expected to begin reducing the bond-purchase program, aimed at pulling down long-term interest rates, after Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke predicted in May that the stimulus operation could be tapered late this year.

For most analysts, the debate was only over how much the quantitative easing (QE) bond purchases would be cut — with the guesses from $5 billion a month to $25 billion a month.

But the FOMC decision was not a departure from what Bernanke has stated publicly. He has consistently said the taper of the QE program could begin sometime late this year, if the economy continued to gain broadly.

The FOMC acknowledged that the economy is still expanding “at a moderate pace,” and that labor market conditions — a central focus of current Fed policy — have improved in recent months.

However, it noted, the jobless rate at 7.3 percent in August “remains elevated.”

The FOMC reduced its growth forecasts for the US economy, cutting the 2013 outlook by 0.3 percentage points to a range of 2.0-2.3 percent, and lowering the prediction for next year to 2.9-3.1 percent.

It slightly improved its prediction for the fall in the jobless rate, to 6.4-6.8 percent by the end of 2014.

Yet, even though that put labor market conditions at the FOMC’s threshold for tightening monetary policy, the large majority of FOMC members continued to see the Fed’s benchmark interest rate being increased only in 2015.

The federal funds rate has been locked at an ultra-low 0.0-0.25 percent level since the end of 2008.


Consumed By Hunger Lust, House Republicans Are Literally Trying To Starve The Needy

By: Rmuse
Sep. 18th, 2013

It is astounding that allegedly intelligent politicians can be so deficient in informed judgment, or deceived to the point of delusion, that their well-meaning statements inadvertently misinform their audience. It is unclear why many politicians are reticent to speak bluntly about why Republicans in Congress are wreaking havoc on the American people, but whatever their reason and motivation, they are doing more harm than good and Republicans are taking advantage to the detriment of the people. Over the weekend, well-respected former Senate Majority Leaders from each party co-authored an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, and although their message was prescient to a dangerous situation facing Americans, they completely missed a very important point.

Former Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole (R-Kan.), and  former Senate majority leader (D-S.D.) and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Tom Daschle appealed to House Republicans to “put aside partisan bickering and stop playing politics with hunger.” There is little doubt the distinguished representatives from each party had the best of intentions in citing the horrendous damage House Republicans are wreaking on  Americans struggling to put food on the table. House Republicans are preparing to vote to slash $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition and  Assistance Program (SNAP, food stamps), but to pretend Republicans are playing politics is the height of naiveté. What House Republicans are doing has nothing whatsoever to do with politics and everything to do with increasing hunger for working families, senior citizens, and children, and nothing else.

The men made very impassioned arguments about the danger of eliminating the ability of millions of Americans struggling in this economy to provide adequate and healthy meals for their families, and they decried House Republicans “unprecedented move to strip SNAP from the farm bill.” They also noted the reason Republicans eliminated SNAP from the farm bill was to pass a separate nutrition bill with more devastating cuts to programs that fight hunger. However, the Republicans’ intent is founded in ideology and not politics, and it is surprising Dole and Daschle failed to acknowledge that Republicans have nothing to gain by withholding food from the poor except the satisfaction of seeing millions of Americans go hungry.

The two former Senate leaders did their best to cite the economic benefits to the economy by keeping SNAP spending levels where they are, and noted a 2008 Moody’s Analytics study that showed every dollar spent reducing hunger returns $1.70 in economic activity. Have the men not noticed that Republicans have been on a tear to inflict as much damage to  the economy as they have the  American people? They were smart enough to cite that the food stamp program lifted 47 million Americans out of poverty and how slashing the program adversely affects farmers, families and the economy, but they were remiss to note Republicans two-and-a-half year crusade to take any and everything away from the people regardless how unpopular or damaging to the economy. In fact, Republicans have attempted to slash Social Security despite it does not affect the deficit, and regardless that Americans overwhelmingly support expanding the program. Their lust to cut Social Security informs that ideology and not politics drives the current iteration of the Republican Party.

Sociologists loosely define ideology as a system of thought and conscious ideas that constitute a person’s goals, and since Barack Obama has been President Republicans’ goals have been destroying social programs despite the political blowback, damage to the people, or the nation’s economy. Eliminating social programs are long-standing Republican goals that began after the New Deal, re-emerged during the Reagan administration, and became the Republican raison d’être over the past four-and-a-half years. Last month during his 5 week vacation, Speaker John Boehner said as much when he told a cheering crowd that his primary target in upcoming budget and debt ceiling negotiations is enacting harsh Social Security cuts he said Republicans have kicked down the road for the past 30 years. Boehner and Republicans know cutting Social Security will not reduce the nation’s debt or deficit, create jobs, or grow the economy, but it will force senior citizens into poverty and according to Republican ideology, the more Americans living with hunger the happier they are.

Dole and Daschle’s hearts were in the right place, but by citing the Republicans’ lust to take food away from hungry Americans as political and not inhumane, they legitimize what any decent human being considers barbaric and cruel. There has been too much emphasis on the politics of cruelty and not enough outrage at the ideology behind the Republican drive to deliberately cause suffering and misery for the people they were elected to serve. The current crop of Republicans are driven by ideology that celebrates causing pain and suffering, and it gives Republicans a feeling of joyous satisfaction. It is noteworthy that after Republicans killed a million jobs, cost the nation $18.9 billion, caused a credit downgrade, and created the sequester that slashed domestic and social programs, Speaker of the House John Boehner said “I got 98% of what I wanted. I’m pretty happy.” Sadly, there were many Republicans who were not happy at all because the damage to the people was not nearly harsh enough.

Democrats and President Obama must start citing the sheer cruelty inherent in every policy and piece of legislation Republicans propose and stop citing politics as their motivation. There is nothing political in withholding food from 4 – 6 million American families any more than cutting Meals on  Wheels, housing assistance, or healthcare for poor mothers and their children is. It is sheer cruelty, and long past time for decent politicians, Republicans and Democrats, to tell the American people they are losing everything they have because Republican ideology is founded on inhumanity; not politics.


John Boehner Promises To Protect American Families By Taking Away Their Healthcare

By: Jason Easley
Sep. 18th, 2013

In a speakership that has been full of blunders, this one takes the cake. At a press conference today, Speaker John Boehner promised to protect America’s families by denying them healthcare.

At a press conference today, Boehner said, “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to repeal the president’s failed health care law. This week, the House will pass a CR that locks the sequester savings in, and defunds ObamaCare. The president has signed seven bills over the last two and a half years to make changes to ObamaCare, and I sincerely hope our friends in the Senate have plans to make this an eighth time. The law is a train wreck. The president has protected American big business, it’s time to protect American families from this unworkable law.”

John Boehner is currently under federal investigation for taking illegal campaign contributions from corporations in 2012, but he is trying to convince the American people that he is fighting for them. More odious than Boehner’s claims of middle class hero are the tactics that he is using to “protect America’s families.” Speaker Boehner is fighting tooth and nail so that the American people never have to know the horror of being able to go to the doctor. Boehner is battling hard so that the American people never have to fear the trauma of not being buried in a lifetime of medical debt.

As a member of Congress, John Boehner has really good healthcare. He knows from personal experience the dangers and temptations that come with being able to go to the doctor when you are sick. Boehner wouldn’t wish this on anyone, which is why he is fighting for you.

The idea that Speaker Boehner is a champion of America’s families because he doesn’t want them to have healthcare is absurd.

John Boehner isn’t fighting for America’s families. He is fighting to make sure that if you get sick, insurance company death panels will decide whether you get to live or die based on how much you life saving medical treatment would cost them.

In case you didn’t understand what the Speaker was really saying today, John Boehner went on the record as promising to takeaway healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans. He is also promising to deny people with preexisting conditions coverage, and to put the insurance companies back in charge of your medical decisions.

John Boehner’s leadership of the House majority has been a historic disaster, but vowing to take away the healthcare of the American people might be the biggest and final mistake of his tenure as speaker.


MSNBC’s Chuck Todd Says It’s Not His Job To Challenge Republican Lies

By: Jason Easley
Sep. 18th, 2013

NBC News political director and MSNBC host Chuck Todd is claiming that it is not his job to correct the constant Republican lies that he gives airtime to.

During a panel discussion on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Chuck Todd casually made the shocking statement that correcting Republican lies in pursuit of the truth is not his job.


    Ed Rendell: Chuck. I think you are dead right. I think the biggest problem with Obamacare. It’s not a perfect bill by any means was the messaging. If you took ten people from different parts of the country who say they’re against a bill and sat them down. I’d love to have ten minutes with them and say, tell me why you are against the bill. If they told you anything, it would be stuff that’s incorrect.

    Chuck Todd: That’s right.

    Rendell: Incorrect.

    Todd: But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged.

    Rendell: Absolutely.

    Todd: Against it. And they won’t have even heard. they don’t repeat the other stuff. because they haven’t heard the Democratic message. What I always love, people say it’s your folks’ fault in the media. it’s the President of the United States fault for not selling it.

Todd’s logic falls apart, because he is missing the point of what people are trying to tell him. People aren’t saying to the mainstream media that they want them to support Democrats. The message is that the media should be interested first and only in facts. People get frustrated with the media, because they give lies the same weight as facts. As a journalist, Chuck Todd shouldn’t be evaluating messaging. He should be only interested in communicating truth and facts.

One of the main reasons why Obamacare is misunderstood is that the mainstream media shares the the same attitude as Chuck Todd. Facts aren’t our business. Todd’s point is that he is only here to let each side put their message out there, and the best message wins. What Todd described isn’t journalistic neutrality. It’s laziness and indifference to factual reporting.

Maybe people would understand Obamacare better if media did their job and focused on facts. The media is supposed to inform the public, not willingly enable the dissemination misinformation and propaganda.

If Chuck Todd was just a host on MSNBC, his comments would have been bad. However, Todd’s is the political director for NBC News. His attitude about the letting Republican lies slide guides the political coverage at NBC News.

Todd is the perfect example of why Democrats can’t expect to win policy debates with just facts. The truth is that facts don’t matter to the media. The mainstream media is looking for a juicy story to sell. They don’t care if it true or not.

Real journalism is dead, because people like Chuck Todd think that facts no longer matter.


September 19, 2013 08:00 AM

An Open Letter to Deborah Turness, President of NBC News

By Nicole Belle

Dear Deborah Turness, President of NBC News:

I know you're new to NBC News and there's a lot to adjust to, especially as a foreigner. But I had to write to you as a regular viewer, a politically- and journalistically-engaged person and as an American, deeply concerned by the dumbing down and willful ignorance of the country I love.

I also know that a lot of your employees read this site regularly, so I'm hoping that you'll actually be informed about this open letter to you. Hell, I know they steal video clips and tips from us; it's really the least they could do to bring our concerns to you. Maybe they could pass it on to Phil Griffin of MSNBC as well.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you have really failed in the most basic of job descriptions for your news department staff and you need to step it up and make sure that they understand what their job entails.

Please tell me how you have managed to keep someone the Political Director of your news department and have him actually refuse to be responsible to provide facts to your viewership? Sure, maybe Chuck Todd didn't graduate from journalism school (or any university--honorary degrees don't count, Deb), so maybe he can be excused from knowing what a news department employee does. But ultimately, you're his boss, and you have clearly failed him (and the consumers of NBC News) by not providing him with a clear and unambiguous job description.

It's not hard. A journalist informs his/her readership of facts. When non-facts are provided for partisan purposes, it is not "doing the job of the White House to sell" a government program to say that these are LIES. That's reporting. That's journalism. Someone who just repeats what's said to him without placing it in context is called a stenographer. And that is beyond the poor little pea brain of your political director to understand.

Actually, that's not fair. It's not only Chuck Todd who can't grasp that simple concept. David Gregory doesn't, either. Which points, once again, to a systemic issue that your new stewardship of NBC News must address.

Don't believe me? I have link after link after link after link after link after link after link after link that prove I'm right and you are now heading a miserable failure of a major news department.

Now you may pooh-pooh that as hyperbole, but let me make this perfectly clear: this particular case that Chuck Todd didn't think was his job to provide factual and contextual information is quite literally a matter of life and death, and studies have shown that SEVENTY PERCENT of Americans don't understand what Obamacare actually does or how it impacts them. Now Chuck thinks that it's the White House's job to "sell" the program, but make no mistake, if Chuck Todd and all his other colleagues at NBC News actually fact-checked all the lies that Republicans tell about Obamacare, that number would be much, much lower. So you must accept your culpability in the ignorance of the country. If your job is to provide information, by any metric, this shows that news organizations have failed the American people massively.

Now it may be the case that you've studied the business model of Fox News and decided to emulate it because you want that oh-so-coveted demographic of "one foot in the grave" and feel like factual information and context are not necessary to a successful news organization.

Certainly, that's your prerogative, and I'm sure you have a lot of pressure from the suits higher up in the NBC Universal/Comcast hierarchy to do so. But let me clue you in: your viewers aren't Fox News viewers who only watch to have their authoritarian tendencies and fears confirmed. They are younger, more factually-based and most importantly, not willing to be patient with pathetic excuses for journalists like Chuck Todd and David Gregory.

Here's the other thing you should know: We've spent the last nine years documenting the lies of Fox News. Why do you think John Amato named the site Crooks and Liars? We don't take them seriously as a news source and every day, we show why no one should. If you don't act quickly to make sure that your journalists understand the parameters of journalism (maybe have Rachel Maddow train them?), then we'll be forced to do the same for you. We will treat NBC News as a joke. We will scorn politicos who go on NBC News. We'll actively advocate for viewers to seek their information elsewhere, because they can't rely on NBC News to provide accurate and factual information.

And I don't think you want that to happen so early in your tenure. So think about it, and maybe have a little heart-to-heart with Chuck Todd (and David Gregory, while you're at it).


Bachmann and McConnell make watchdog group’s ‘Most Corrupt’ lawmakers list

By Arturo Garcia
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 22:58 EDT

Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) were among the more prominent names on a list of the “most corrupt” members of Congress released by a congressional watchdog group on Wednesday.

The report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) names 13 lawmakers in all — six Democrats and 11 Republicans — for allegedly breaking campaign laws or congressional ethics regulations. Six of the people named in the report, including McConnell, have been cited by CREW at least three times for possible violations.

“Why are we still talking about these six? If the Department of Justice (DOJ), the House and Senate ethics committees, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) were doing their jobs, we wouldn’t be,” CREW said in a statement accompanying the annual report. “The glacial pace of investigations into misconduct means many cases have dragged on for years and some have been dropped entirely with no explanation, despite strong evidence.”

Bachmann, who announced in May 2013 she would not seek re-election, was named to CREW’s list as a result of ongoing investigations by the Federal Election Commission, House Ethics Committee, and Federal Bureau of Investigation for allegedly using funds from her superPAC to pay campaign staffers, a violation of campaign finance laws.

McConnell was named in the report for the fourth time following the discovery of secret audio from a February 2013 meeting in which members of his staff used official resources to put together research on prospective political opponents, which would break Senate rules.

Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), Michael Grimm (R-NY), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Don Young (R-AK) were the other repeat members of the list. Also named in the report were Reps. Paul Broun (R-GA), Scott Desjarlais (R-TN) Michael Grimm (R-NY), Hal Rogers (R-KY) and David Valadao (R-CA), as well as Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ).

Four other House members — Reps. Bill Owens (D-NY), Peter Roskam (R-IL), Aaron Schock (R-IL), and John Tierney (D-MA) were given “dishonorable mention” status for allegedly using their office for personal gain.

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« Last Edit: Sep 19, 2013, 09:55 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #8834 on: Sep 20, 2013, 05:40 AM »

09/20/2013 10:02 AM

Belgacom Attack: Britain's GCHQ Hacked Belgian Telecoms Firm

A cyber attack on Belgacom raised considerable attention last week. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden and seen by SPIEGEL indicate that Britain's GCHQ intelligence agency was responsible for the attack.

Documents from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that Britain's GCHQ intelligence service was behind a cyber attack against Belgacom, a partly state-owned Belgian telecoms company. A "top secret" Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) presentation seen by SPIEGEL indicate that the goal of project, conducted under the codename "Operation Socialist," was "to enable better exploitation of Belgacom" and to improve understanding of the provider's infrastructure.

The presentation is undated, but another document indicates that access has been possible since 2010. The document shows that the Belgacom subsidiary Bics, a joint venture between Swisscom and South Africa's MTN, was on the radar of the British spies.

Belgacom, whose major customers include institutions like the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament, ordered an internal investigation following the recent revelations about spying by the United States' National Security Agency (NSA) and determined it had been the subject of an attack. The company then referred the incident to Belgian prosecutors. Last week, Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo spoke of a "violation of the public firm's integrity."

When news first emerged of the cyber attack, suspicions in Belgium were initially directed at the NSA. But the presentation suggests that it was Belgium's own European Union partner Britain that is behind "Operation Socialist," even though the presentation indicates that the British used spying technology for the operation that the NSA had developed.

According to the slides in the GCHQ presentation, the attack was directed at several Belgacom employees and involved the planting of a highly developed attack technology referred to as a "Quantum Insert" ("QI"). It appears to be a method with which the person being targeted, without their knowledge, is redirected to websites that then plant malware on their computers that can then manipulate them. Some of the employees whose computers were infiltrated had "good access" to important parts of Belgacom's infrastructure, and this seemed to please the British spies, according to the slides.

The documents also suggest that GCHQ continued to probe the areas of infrastructure to which the targeted employees had access. The undated presentation states that they were on the verge of accessing the Belgians' central roaming router. The router is used to process international traffic. According to the presentation, the British wanted to use this access for complex attacks ("Man in the Middle" attacks) on smartphone users. The head of GCHQ's Network Analysis Centre (NAC) described Operation Socialist in the presentation as a "success."

When contacted by SPIEGEL reporters, GCHQ provided no comment.

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