In the USA...United Surveillance America...
Edward Snowden has raised 'real issues', says head of UK spy watchdog
Sir Malcolm Rifkind defends UK intelligence agencies' techniques but appears to concede laws may need review
Nick Hopkins and Matthew Taylor
The Guardian, Friday 20 September 2013 18.09 BST
The head of the watchdog responsible for scrutinising Britain's intelligence agencies has defended their spying techniques but admitted that the whistleblower Edward Snowden has raised "real issues" about safeguarding privacy in the 21st century.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind argued that the UK had an "effective and extensive system of independent oversight" of the three services – GCHQ, MI5 and MI6.
He also claimed people were "well aware British intelligence agencies have neither the time nor the remotest interest in the emails or telephone conversations of well over 99% of the population".
However, he appeared to concede that the laws governing the agencies may need to be refreshed in the light of revelations about the intelligence-gathering programmes run by GCHQ and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency.
"There are real issues that do arise out of the Snowden affair in Britain, as elsewhere," said Rifkind, who chairs the parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC).
"Even if the intelligence agencies always act within the law it must be right for that law to be reviewed from time to time to see whether the safeguards are adequate. Sometimes they are not."
The ISC is currently reviewing the three laws governing Britain's spy services – the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
His concession came amid further claims about GCHQ published in the German magazine Spiegel Online. In a piece published on Friday, it said GCHQ had been targeting the Belgian telecoms giant Belgacom, whose major customers include the European parliament and the European commission. The operation, codenamed "Socialist", had given GCHQ the ability to secretly hack into Belgacom for at least three years.
Rifkind wrote to the Guardian in response to a comment piece by Simon Jenkins, who condemned the lack of proper debate in the UK about the Snowden disclosures.
Highly classified files have revealed secret capabilities to undertake mass surveillance of the web and mobile phone networks. This is done by trawling the servers of internet companies and collecting raw data from the undersea cables that carry web traffic.
These programmes, called Prism and Tempora, revealed GCHQ and the NSA can sweep up and store vast amounts of personal data. The Guardian recently revealed how GCHQ and the NSA have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect their privacy.
Jenkins accused Rifkind of having a grovelling attitude towards GCHQ and said the ISC was incapable of providing proper levels of scrutiny in the face of such ambitious spying projects.
He described Rifkind and the foreign secretary, William Hague, as "the useful idiots of the security classes" and added: "We have created a monster that has overwhelmed the defences put in place to regulate it."
In his riposte Rifkind said it was "absolute rubbish" to suggest Britain's intelligence services could spy on people without regard to their privacy. He also defended the ISC, saying it had more powers and a bigger budget to provide more effective scrutiny.
"Our system is not perfect," said Rifkind. "There are occasions when the intelligence obtained may be of such little value as not to justify the diminution in privacy associated with obtaining it. But I have yet to hear of any other country, either democratic or authoritarian, that has both significant intelligence agencies and a more effective and extensive system of independent oversight than the UK and the US."
Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, said Rifkind and his committee were part of the problem, not the solution. "Stating that British intelligence agencies have "neither the time nor the remotest interest" in the communications of the 99% of the public, but acknowledging that regardless those communications are swept up and monitored, should not offer any comfort to the public whose fundamental right to privacy remains violated. Intelligence agencies are there to protect citizens, but in placing those same citizens under suspicion-less surveillance and inserting back doors in the very security standards we rely on to communicate with confidence, the agencies have lost the trust of those they are meant to serve."
King said that mass surveillance "must never be accepted as legitimate in a democratic society.
"The current legal framework is not fit for purpose, and the ISC's credibility as an independent oversight committee will continue to decline until this fundamental fact is accepted."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "Sir Malcolm's personal attack on Simon Jenkins was unbecoming. That critics of blanket surveillance have touched such a raw nerve highlights the woeful inadequacy of checks and balances, including the ISC itself."
Human Rights Watch said governments had to "aggressively protect online privacy through stronger laws and policies". Without this, the internet could be severely compromised.
"The shocking revelations of mass monitoring by the US and UK show how privacy protections have not kept pace with technology," said Cynthia Wong, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"As our lives become more digitised, unchecked surveillance can corrode everyone's rights and the rule of law."
The organisation has endorsed a set of international principles on the application of human rights to communications surveillance.
NSA issues letter of ‘reassurance’ directing employees to share it with friends, family and co-workers
Saturday, September 21, 2013 8:04 EDT
Think all these stories about the NSA's surveillance overreach and abuses are getting to the folks there? Kevin Gosztola at Firedoglake has the details on a letter the NSA has given to all of its employees and contractors, which it tells them they can print out to share with "loved ones" to reassure them that their NSA-working spouse/parent/child/best friend isn't, technically, evil. Or at least I think that's the idea. The letter suggests no self-reflection. It suggests no recognition of why people are concerned about both the breadth of the surveillance, as well as the thousands of reported abuses. It's very much a circling of the wagons approach, insisting that the coverage has been unfair and biased. Gosztola has a thorough debunking of pretty much the entire letter at the link above (go read it), but I wanted to highlight a couple sections:
In concert with our mission, NSA/CSS employees are trained from the first day on the job, and regularly thereafter, to respect the privacy and civil liberties of US citizens. We go to great lengths to achieve our goal of no mistakes. However, we are human and, because the environment of law and technology within which we operate is so complex and dynamic, mistakes sometimes do occur. That's where the unique aspect of our culture comes into play. We self-report those mistakes, analyze them, and take action to correct the root causes.
First off, being trained to respect privacy and civil liberties and actually doing so are separate things. And the NSA doesn't have a good track record there at all. Gosztola highlights many historical examples of blatant abuse by the NSA. But I'd highlight a different point. Yes, they self-report mistakes, but they are assuming (almost certainly incorrectly) that they are catching and reporting every mistake. Considering, as has been stated repeatedly, that it's taken them months to figure out what Snowden himself did, then it's pretty clear that the NSA is not catching, self-reporting and analyzing every mistake -- and it's highly likely that many more are occurring without anyone noticing.
Furthermore, the fact that their system requires "self-reporting" to guarantee compliance shows the lack of real oversight here. Yes, it's great when they do self-report those mistakes. But that doesn't excuse the abuses, and there are a lot of abuses. Furthermore, the fact that the NSA then bent over backwards to keep the reports of those abuses (and the overreaches) classified to keep it all out of public scrutiny speaks volumes.
But, more importantly, there's no denying that this letter flat out lies about the NSA's activities:
The other big story being missed by many in the media is how effective NSA/CSS is in accomplishing its mission. In open hearings this year, we spoke to Congress about how NSA/CSS actions contributed to keeping the Nation and its allies safe from 54 different terrorist plots.
That's not true. Not only is it not true, it was admitted to be not true by John Inglis, Deputy Director of the NSA and the guy who co-signed this letter with Keith Alexander. As we had just recently discussed that "54" number is highly misleading. First off, it is not, as the letter states, 54 plots. Rather, it was "potential terrorist events" and they include providing "material support to terrorists." In other words, some of those 54 include things like someone trying to send some money to groups designated as a terrorist group. While it's great that this was stopped, it's quite misleading to claim that's a terrorist "plot." Furthermore, when push came to shove, Inglis admitted under oath that the NSA's efforts "made a contribution" to the efforts against those plots but was only "critical" in one actual plot -- the Zazi NYC subway case. And, as others have pointed out, the details suggest that the NSA's involvement there wasn't that important and traditional police work did the real heavy lifting.
But, it appears, the NSA has committed itself to repeating the myth of stopping 54 "plots" even though their own statements show that's not true.
And really, that's what this all comes back to. The NSA can't seem to stop misrepresenting the truth. And that's even when sending a letter to their loved ones. Yes, the intelligence community is one in which misdirection, half-truths and outright lies are how you do your job -- but that's antithetical to the concept of oversight. And that's where the problem lies. Sure, the NSA believes it's "unique" in that it self-confesses certain abuses -- the ones it catches -- but it works very hard to misrepresent its own activities to pretty much everyone. It misrepresents to Congressional oversight committees, to the FISA Court, to the general public and now to their loved ones as well.
Private prisons demand states maintain maximum capacity or pay fees
By Travis Gettys
Friday, September 20, 2013 12:44 EDT
Falling crime rates are bad for business at privately run prisons, and a new report shows the companies that own them require them to be filled near capacity to maintain their profit margin.
A new report from the advocacy group In the Public Interest shows private prison companies mandate high inmate occupancy rates through their contracts with states – in some cases, up to 100 percent.
The report, “Criminal: How Lockup Quotas and ‘Low-Crime Taxes’ Guarantee Profits for Private Prison Corporations,” finds three Arizona prisons must be filled to capacity under terms of its contract with Management and Training Corporation.
If those beds aren’t filled, the state must compensate the company.
The report found that occupancy requirements were standard language in contracts drawn up by big private prison companies.
One of those, The Corrections Corporation of America, made an offer last year to the governors of 48 states to operate their prisons on 20-year contracts.
That offer included a demand that those prisons remain 90 percent full for the duration of the operating agreement.
The report found 41 of the 62 contracts reviewed contained occupancy requirements, with the highest occupancy rates found in Arizona, Oklahoma and Virginia.
Private prison companies have also backed measures such as “three-strike” laws to maintain high prison occupancy.
When the crime rate drops so low that the occupancy requirements can’t be met, taxpayers are left footing the bill for unused facilities.
In Colorado, for example, Democratic Gov. John Hinklooper agreed to close down five state-run prisons and instead send inmates to CCA’s three corrections facilities.
That cost taxpayers at least $2 million to maintain the unused facilities.
It’s more difficult to quantify the societal cost of filling prisons to satisfy private investors.
September 20, 2013
House Bill Links Health Care Law and Budget Plan
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — House Republicans muscled through a stopgap bill Friday that would fund the government only if all spending for President Obama’s health care law is eliminated. Senate Democrats and President Obama quickly made it clear they had no intention of going along, putting the government on a course toward a shutdown unless one side relents.
The 230-to-189 party-line vote in a bitterly divided House set in motion a fiscal confrontation with significant implications — politically and economically — but with an uncertain ending. Without a resolution, large parts of the government could shut down Oct. 1, and a first-ever default on federal debt could follow weeks later.
Each side predicted that the other would be held responsible, but determined House Republicans knew they were taking a risk even as leaders of the party’s establishment warned about the threat of destructive political consequences.
Mr. Obama called House Speaker John A. Boehner on Friday evening but only to reiterate that he would not negotiate with him on raising the federal debt limit and said it was Congress’s constitutional obligation to pay the nation’s bills. Both sides described the call as brief and fruitless.
Senate Democratic leaders prepared to answer the House’s move with a vote in the coming days — possibly on the eve of government funding expiring — to strip the health care provision from the spending bill and send it back to the House with little time for Republicans to change it. Mr. Boehner would then face a decision on how to respond.
After the House vote, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, called out by name Democratic senators running for re-election in Republican states, daring them to stand by the health care law.
“We’re in this fight and we want the Senate to join us,” Mr. Cantor said at a Republican rally celebrating passage of the spending bill.
Visiting Missouri, Mr. Obama struck back at Republicans a few hours after the vote.
“They’re focused on politics,” Mr. Obama told autoworkers at a Ford plant in Liberty. “They’re focused on trying to mess with me; they’re not focused on you.”
In a searing criticism of those threatening to refuse to raise the debt ceiling next month, causing the United States to default on its debts, Mr. Obama called the potential action “profoundly destructive.” If it happens, he said, “America becomes a deadbeat.”
The events left Washington staring at the first government shutdown since 1996. Lawmakers brushed up on the lessons of the five days of November 1995, when 800,000 federal workers were sent home, and the 21-day partial shutdown from that December to January, when half the government closed.
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the White House budget director, told executive branch officials to begin preparing by updating their contingency plans and determining what would go offline.
The relevant laws have provisions to ensure a shutdown is “orderly,” and to protect “the safety of human life or the protection of property,” she wrote to agencies. But otherwise, much of the government that is paid for through the Congressional appropriations process would close shop. Soldiers would report for duty, but would not be paid. National parks and monuments would shut down, with any tourists told to vacate within 48 hours. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers would go on unpaid furloughs.
That said, many government functions would continue because of how they are paid for or because they are deemed vital. Air traffic controllers, border security officials and other public safety officers would remain at work. Social Security checks would continue to go out. Medicare would keep paying doctors and hospitals, though its claims processing systems might be disrupted. The self-financed Postal Service would remain operating as well.
Officials from both parties involved in past shutdowns warned that House Republicans stand to come out on the losing end.
Michael Horowitz, who was general counsel for President Ronald Reagan’s budget office during a brief government shutdown, said the White House would have broad latitude to decide which workers were considered essential, which agencies to close entirely and how chaotic the closings would be.
In a twist, President Obama could easily declare the workings of the Affordable Care Act essential to life and property, keeping open the one effort Republicans are targeting while shutting down other parts of the government they support.
“For Congress to ask for a shutdown when the opposite political party is in charge of the White House is my definition of insanity,” Mr. Horowitz said.
Both sides dug in for battle. Senate Democrats released a letter from Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary, saying the House bill would raise the costs of preventive health care and prescription drugs for millions of older Americans while cutting off insurance for children across the country.
House Republicans insisted Friday that the Senate would acquiesce to their demands at least to delay significant parts of the health care law.
“The American people will have a chance to influence their senators, and this is a great time for the American people to get engaged and let their voices be heard,” said Representative Tom Graves, Republican of Georgia, who led the push to link further government financing to ending the health care law.
Even as the House pushed through its spending bill, House Republican leaders met behind closed doors with their rank and file Friday to lay out the next step in the budget battle — a bill that would raise the government’s statutory borrowing limit for a year, delay implementation of the health care law over that year, and push a grab-bag of Republican initiatives, from binding instructions to overhaul the tax code to mandatory construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
All of the measures tied to the debt-ceiling increase have passed the Republican-controlled House before, only to be ignored by the Senate. But until now, said Representative John Fleming, Republican of Louisiana, “we haven’t applied it to a must-pass piece of legislation.”
A government shutdown would be unsightly and could harm the economy, directly through the furloughs of government workers and indirectly by undermining confidence in the nation’s governance. But Democrats, economists and some Republicans warn that a debt default would likely be worse, shaking the world’s faith in Treasury debt, widely seen as the safest investment possible, and roiling the global economy.
Holding the federal funding bill hostage “is bad enough, but the debt ceiling is cataclysmic,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.
The House-passed spending bill would keep the government operating at the current funding level, which reflects the automatic across-the-board spending cuts that took effect in March. It would also block spending on the health care law, days before the uninsured begin signing up to purchase private insurance policies through state exchanges.
Mr. Obama has already issued a veto threat on the bill, but it will never reach his desk. Even Senate Republican supporters say it cannot make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate. Senate leaders are likely to wait as long as they can to send a clean spending plan back to the House.
Mr. Boehner would then face a choice: put a spending bill on the floor, unencumbered by other policy measures, and allow it to pass primarily with Democratic votes, or attach some other Republican measure and return it to the Senate with the shutdown clock ticking.
Senior Republicans say Mr. Boehner will likely choose the latter course, possibly attaching a provision to delay tax penalties on uninsured Americans who decline to purchase insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
John Eligon contributed reporting from Liberty, Mo., and Annie Lowrey and Ashley Parker from Washington.
September 20, 2013
Zeal That Threatens Both Parties
By JOHN HARWOOD
WASHINGTON — The extraordinary zeal of the Tea Party has been a signature development during Barack Obama’s presidency — with dangers for both Republicans and Democrats.
Its white-hot opposition to Mr. Obama, seen first in lawmakers’ town hall meetings and then in the 2010 midterm election campaign, helped cost Democrats control of the House. It could yet help Republicans hold their majority in 2014.
The downside for Republican leaders occurs when that political energy propels the party to places that make it harder to win general elections and to govern. Just as Mitt Romney struggled to avoid getting dragged too far right in the 2012 presidential race, Speaker John A. Boehner struggled this week to steer his caucus away from what could be an economically and politically catastrophic government shutdown.
But some Republican politicians display an ability to absorb the heat and reflect it back in more politically promising directions. That’s why 2016 presidential hopefuls and House leaders could learn from recent town meetings conducted by Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
Mr. Cole, a House deputy whip and a former chief of staff for the Republican National Committee, represents a district that voted two-to-one Republican in the last three presidential elections. Since first winning his southwest Oklahoma seat in 2002, he has never drawn less than 60 percent of the vote.
What dominated his sessions with constituents was, as one man in Midwest City described it, “a sense of outrage about our government.” Mr. Cole embraced the ideological touchstones of his constituents: He said he was “violently opposed” to the new health care law, extolled his National Rifle Association membership and noted that “I’ve never voted for Planned Parenthood in my life.”
Yet Mr. Cole also challenged unhappy constituents on tactics, tone and spirit. If replicated effectively on Capitol Hill and the 2016 presidential campaign trail, those three guideposts could be a path toward expanding the party’s appeal:
■ Realism. Some Congressional colleagues indulge the illusions of the party’s most fervent activists, producing legislative demands that Mr. Boehner simply cannot meet. Mr. Cole did not.
For constituents urging a government shutdown over the health care law, he warned that it would doubly backfire by hurting local residents like the workers at nearby Tinker Air Force Base, and by heaping blame on Republicans. A party controlling neither the White House nor the Senate, he said, lacks the power to reverse a White House incumbent’s foremost domestic achievement, no matter how often the House votes to do so.
“It’s awfully hard to repeal Obamacare when a guy named Obama is president of the United States,” he said. “We’re in a position to stop a lot of what he wants to do. We’re not in a position to undo.”
On the nation’s long-term budget woes, he encouraged constituents to refocus their concerns away from emotion-charged but comparatively tiny accounts like foreign aid and toward the vast entitlement programs benefiting them and their friends and neighbors.
At a meeting in Moore, one elderly man complained about the idea of reining in Social Security by applying the “chained Consumer Price Index” to benefit calculations. Instead, the man asked, “Why don’t you put that chain on the spending?”
That, of course, is exactly what the chained-C.P.I. proposal would do. “Those things are going to be on the table,” Mr. Cole told him, noting that popular programs like Social Security and Medicare make up 60 percent of the budget.
“It’s pretty easy to tell people what they want to hear,” Mr. Cole said in Midwest City, adding a barb for some of his colleagues: “There’s a certain amount of that going on in the Republican Party right now, at a very high level.”
■ Respect. A recurrent theme on the Republican right is the illegitimacy of opponents. Some accuse Democrats of profiting from vote fraud. Others, like Mr. Romney in his famous “47 percent” remarks, insist that large numbers of Democrats have grown enfeebled by reliance on government programs.
Mr. Cole sounded different notes. Instead of deriding political adversaries, he acknowledged their strength and grit.
Mr. Obama, as one of only a handful of American presidents who have twice topped 50 percent of the vote, “won fair and square,” Mr. Cole said. He saluted the resilience of Democratic partisans whose ability to win the presidency appeared in doubt a generation ago — as it does for Republicans now.
“They didn’t quit,” Mr. Cole said. “They kept coming back election after election. Republicans have got to have that same kind of patience, that same kind of dedication, that same kind of respect for the process.”
And to like-minded constituents befuddled by conservatives’ national defeats recently, he invoked electoral math.
“California is 10 Oklahomas,” he said. “New York is about 5. Those people are as passionate about what they believe as people in this room.”
■ Optimism. By associating changes coursing through American society with a sense of irreversible decline, some older white conservatives impede Republicans’ ability to connect with young and minority voters.
But Mr. Cole described the nation’s trajectory — and the attitude required to alter it — in a different way. “I’m not one of these people who thinks the country is going to hell in a handbasket,” he said. His own son, he added, finds the pre-civil-rights society he has read about hard to imagine.
“Americans are freer today than they were, and more of them are free,” Mr. Cole said. “The country does make a lot of progress. It does move in the right direction.
“We’ll get there. But the thing is not to quit, and not to lose faith in the country.”
Mr. Cole, in his sixth term in Congress, offered disgruntled Republicans a tough-love exhortation to invest the political sweat-equity required to gain power and enact their agenda.
Invoking his late father, a military veteran, Mr. Cole said: “He would have looked at this stuff — a pretty tough old master sergeant — and said: ‘You guys are wimps. Just get up and go to work.’
“Let’s go win some elections.”
Get Angry: The House Votes and Millions Are Threatened With Starvation
By: Dennis S
Sep. 20th, 2013
I’m angry. No, make that beyond angry. I’m also embarrassed for my country and the percentage of inhuman cretins who shore up the most unfeeling millionaire House of Representatives in modern history. A pox on the frigid House, meeting place of dumb-ass monsters of God love or whatever grand light of virtue members purport to follow.
What joy the day must bring to right-wingers knowing that nearly 4 million children (those not slaughtered in school shootings) and the elderly (those who don’t commit suicide with a gun) and potentially all demographics (those not slaughtered in mass shootings) in between may starve so huge corporations and serial polluters can be subsidized with the billions brutally slashed from the nation’s food stamp (SNAP) program.
How proud you patriotic Sunday warriors must feel shutting off taxpayer funding to the aforementioned and the few who would abuse the system, handy foils so as to further marginalize (societal imprisonment?) the poor among us who seem to annoy you so much. I guess your judge, jury and executioner thinking is “Starve the bastards out” while doing the same to the vast majority of innocents who play by the rules.
I’ve been thinking about what kind of people you must be; you cretins with the thick armor of indifference toward those who are suffering. Let’s start with what we know. You love the idea that there is a percentage of the population that is particularly vulnerable. Millions of the economically deprived, through circumstances often beyond their control over whom you can feel superior.
You want the poor to jump through every conceivable work hoop to earn their supper and their children’s supper. Modern day field n*****s (though a majority are white) is how you would describe those in need of a hand. All the while your beloved giant multi-national American corporations take that work you demand of the poor overseas to equally desperate pennies-per-hour peasant populations. And while there are more whites on food stamps than blacks, the unemployment figures skew heavily in the reverse.
Then there’s the drug testing demand to qualify in the first place. Great idea. No food for an addict. Exploding crime rates anyone? Of course, Medicaid, hated by Republicans who block expansion wherever possible, is a special vehicle for the poor to help pay for drug rehab, off-times the whole tab.
So, as the moneyed classes of Congress are fully aware, the demand for work for food and drug testing is purely punitive. Something right-wingers seem to get off on. How proud you must feel. I know your mailboxes, the ones you want to hand to FedEx and UPS so all of our rates can go up and inconveniences will increase ten-fold and many of the nearly quarter-of- a-million veterans working for the Postal Service will lose their jobs, are chock full of brightly colored brochures and mailers from local Hearing Centers for behind the ear, in the ear, over the ear, digital, analog and all manner of mechanisms to boost your audio capabilities. That way you can absorb with even greater clarity the hateful remarks directed at the poor by your favorite idiot talk show hosts and the overwhelmingly Republican millionaire Congressman or woman.
Politically, life is good for the bad. While there is no chance to pass the legislation in its current crappy House form, it will, nonetheless, still be conferenced into something obscene and damaging to human beings.
Whattayuh say we vote out these extreme Republican demigogs and a few DINOs who are making this country into something that is sorely in need of a total makeover. Are such detestable initiatives as starvation, corporate rule, destruction of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and public education, killing the environment, letting infrastructure rot, embracing racism, a huge differential between the haves and have-nots and guns as God, really what you envision as a country to leave to your children?
I didn’t think so. One answer and it’s the one put in place for just such an emergency: Vote!!! Every last one of you Democrats and thinking Independents. And make sure every office is filled with well-meaning, committed, informed, humane and sensible candidates.
Otherwise, we’ve crafted our own version of Don McClain’s 1971 ‘American Pie’ open to any interpretation you want to give it.
John Boehner Disgustingly Celebrates Denying 30 Million Americans Healthcare
By: Jason Easley
Sep. 20th, 2013
If yesterday’s vote to throw 3.8 million people off of food stamps was cruelty, today’s vote to defund Obamacare was an exercise in idiocy.
By a vote of 230-189, House Republicans passed a bill that would keep the government funded for three months, but it also defunds Obamacare. Boehner was in a delusional state as he said the vote was what the American people wanted.
John Boehner and the House Republicans celebrated their 42nd vote to deny healthcare to 30 million Americans, but while they party, the Republican Party is dying.
The Speaker said:
You know, we had a victory today for the American people. And frankly, we also had a victory for commonsense.
Listen, Sen. Baucus said it right several months ago when he said that this law is a ‘train wreck.’ And it is a train wreck. You know, the president said, you know, if we pass this law health care costs will go down. Well, now we find out that health care costs are going up for most Americans. The president said if you like the health insurance policy that you have, you can keep it. Well, we found out that’s not quite accurate either, and in the coming months millions of Americans are going to find out it’s just not quite true.
Listen, this is hurting our constituents. It’s hurting the American people. At a time when the economy is barely eking along, wages aren’t increasing, new jobs aren’t available, and what are we doing? We’re putting more costs and more inconvenience on the American people.
It’s time for us to say no. It’s time to stop this before it causes any more damage to American families and American businesses. You’ve got businesses all over the country who are not hiring because of the impact of this law. You’ve got other businesses that are reducing the hours for their employees because of this law.
And so our message to the United States Senate is real simple: The American people don’t want the government shut down, and they don’t want ObamaCare.
The House has listened to the American people, now it’s time for the United States Senate to listen to them as well.
If House Republicans were listening to the American people, they would know that a majority of the people don’t want Obamacare defunded. If they cared about what the American people wanted, they would pass a jobs bill. The nearly 4 dozen House votes against Obamacare are killing the Republican Party. The House obsession with Obamacare has turned the GOP into a one issue party, and they are wrong on that issue.
Fifty seven percent of the American people don’t want Republicans to defund Obamacare, yet here is John Boehner celebrating his latest pointless vote to get rid of Obamacare. What House Republicans actually voted for today was to not give 30 million Americans access to healthcare. Republicans are applauding the fact that if they were successful, people with preexisting conditions would be denied healthcare. They are celebrating the tyranny of insurance company benefit caps, and denial of needed treatment based on costs.
Boehner and his House Republicans are sending the message that the GOP doesn’t care about you. It’s not just about hurry up and die, the message is that you don’t deserve to live.
Ironically, what House Republicans were celebrating was a progression of the terminal illness that is killing the Republican Party.
210 Republicans Who make Nearly $175,000 a Year Said Poor People Should Starve to Death
By: Trevor LaFauci
Sep. 20th, 2013
Two-hundred and ten Republicans who make nearly $175,000 a year said that poor people should starve to death.
Not figuratively. Literally.
With the recent vote in the House, Republicans again showcased their disdain and utter indifference to nearly four million Americans who depend on the SNAP program for their weekly survival. Representatives from throughout the country cast their vote today and gave many thousands of people in their home districts a giant middle finger. They didn’t even pretend to care about them. They simply said that $39 billion is too steep a price to keep them alive.
It’s not just people of color that are on food stamps, although that would be ideal for Republicans if that were the case. No, the majority of people on food stamps are actually White. Republicans are saying they don’t care about the rural poor of the south and whether or not their children get school lunch. They are also saying they don’t care about the nearly 175,000 veterans who depend on the SNAP program after fighting abroad to defend our freedoms. The Republicans are essentially alienating the rural south and veterans with this vote, two key voting blocs they’ll need for any future national elections. But, who cares when the groups you alienate don’t have a lot of political power?
In fact, when you think about the core Republican beliefs of today, you can see exactly why they DID vote to cut the SNAP program. You see, Republicans want our country to be in chaos. Time and time again, they have put party before country. They have done this because they know their ideas are out-of-tune with the majority of the American population today. They know that the average Fox News viewer is 65 years old. They know that 80 percent of millennials support gay marriage. They know that their ideas alone cannot win another national election.
So what do you do? You sabotage the country. You distort the facts. You lie, cheat, and steal. You vote to cut the SNAP program and then bitch and moan about how poverty rates have skyrocketed under Barack Obama. You show the areas of extreme poverty on Fox News. If families can’t eat of course there will be tension in the communities. If kids are hungry at school, of course they will commit petty crimes to feed themselves and their families. If veterans cannot support themselves of course they will be on street corners begging for food and money. And what better image sums up a failed president than 175,000 veterans who served us proudly who can no longer even afford to eat?
In addition, with all the chaos that would ensue there would be a strain put on local law enforcement. You remember, those union “thugs” that keep our communities safe? Well, thanks to Republican governors a la Scott “Imperial” Walker, many of these police forces have been gutted. What you will have will be unrest in the local communities and a police force spread so thin that they won’t be able to properly deal with any issues that may arise as a result of the nearly four million people who will be struggling to survive. Chaos will ensue. Families will fear for their lives and the lives of their children.
Who’s that on line one? Why yes, that’s Republican folk hero Wayne LaPierre. You see, as Mr. LaPierre believes, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. And, unfortunately with all this unrest, there will be a few bad guys who will be able to legally get their hands on a gun. But, fear not! Mr. LaPierre has a few connections here and there with the gun manufacturers and I’m sure he and the NRA would be more than willing to sell you an assault weapon or ten to defend your home. Just say the word and you can have an arsenal at your fingertips, even if you have recently been relieved from your government job for being mentally unstable!
Guns. Violence. Destruction. Civil unrest. A country thrown into complete chaos by the callous actions of one single political party. A bad George Orwell novel? No, this is the exact world that today’s Republicans envision for one reason and one reason only: Spite. Republicans today are hellbent on ruining the presidency of Barack Obama that they are willing to destroy our nation to do so. Today’s SNAP vote isn’t just a warning shot across the bow. It is an act symbolic of just how low this political party will go in order to make our president look bad.
Remember today. Remember the day when two-hundred and ten elected representatives voted on the floor of the House of Representatives and put a price tag on human lives. Today, two-hundred and ten Republicans said that a little over $10,200 is too much money for the government to pay per person to feed 3.8 million people. This vote came from people who make $175,000 a year who will never have to worry about how and when their next meal will arrive. The only thing that they do have to worry about in the foreseeable future is the 2014 midterm elections.
With their vote on record today, if I were them, I’d be very, very afraid.
66% of Republicans Want Their Representatives to Cause an Economic Catastrophe
Sep. 20th, 2013
There is a political movement led by anti-tax and anti-government crusader Grover Norquist that yearns for the day they can bankrupt the United States government and “drown it in a bathtub” because of their sheer hatred for America and its people. Most Americans may not agree with the way the nation is governed, but it seems unreasonable that very many voters want their representatives to deliberately cause near and long term damage to the government’s ability to function. In fact, other than die-hard teabaggers and libertarians, one would think that the idea of deliberately crashing the economy would not garner much support among the population, but the truth is that an overwhelming majority of Republican voters want their representatives to cause an economic catastrophe.
According to a recent WaPo/ABC poll, if the nation does face a crisis over raising the debt limit, it will be because Republicans follow the will of their supporters who assessed the disastrous economic consequences of a credit default and concluded it is an acceptable alternative to raising the debt ceiling. Doubtless, most Americans are ignorant of what the debt limit is, because overall only 46% of Americans believe the nation should meets its debt obligations and 43% want to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States. Even though 73% of Americans understand a credit default will create serious economic damage, 61% of Republican voters are in favor of default and 66% are aware that not raising the debt limit will cause serious harm to the economy and still think it is a good idea.
It is likely that in their dysfunctional minds, Republican voters look at the debt ceiling crisis of 2011 and the million jobs lost, credit downgrade, $18.9 billion cost to the nation, and devastating sequester from SpeakerJohn Boehner’s point of view and are “pretty happy” they got 98% of what they wanted. However, economic experts warn that not raising the debt ceiling will be catastrophic and result in another credit downgrade, a stock market crash, higher interest rates, and a new financial crisis that will dwarf the 2008 economic meltdown.
For the record, America has never defaulted on its debt, and it is due to the 14th Amendment that says “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” Section 5 of the amendment says “the Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article,” but as Americans have learned over the past three years, Republicans do not accept any provision of the U.S. Constitution save the 2nd and 10th Amendments; at least since Americans elected an African American as President.
During the Bush Administration, Republicans took their constitutional obligation to pay the debt they incurred very seriously, and current leaders voted 19 times to raise the debt ceiling unconditionally because they viewed increasing the limit as vital to keeping America’s economy running. In fact in May 2003, the Republican-controlled Senate raised the debt limit the same day they gave $350 billion in Bush tax cuts to the rich that had nothing to do with keeping the economy running. Republican concern for keeping the economy running ceased in January 2009 when destroying it became their raison d’être. In 2011 Republicans seriously assaulted the economy when they claimed their default threat was to extract Draconian spending cuts for their phony deficit crisis, and now it is founded in their lust to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. Regardless the outcome, Republicans are intent on assaulting the economy with support from their voters despite the outcome is definitely not in any Americans’ best interests.
Over nearly five years, ignorant Republicans have persisted in voting against their own self-interests whether it is racist southern conservatives opposing domestic programs they benefit from, or retired Republicans voting for candidates promising to slash their Social Security and Medicare benefits they paid for. The fact that 44% of Americans do not believe Congress should raise the debt limit means they either fail to understand the consequences are economic devastation, or they do understand and want the nation to go through a financial meltdown; according to a new WSJ/NBC poll, 66% of Republican voters want a more devastating recession than Bush Republicans presided over in 2008. It is possible that the 44% are still unaware the debt limit is to pay for legislation, two wars, and tax cuts for the rich Republicans incurred when Bush was president, but it is incomprehensible they know not raising the limit is devastating and still think it is prudent.
There are hardly any establishment Republicans who think America should not raise the debt ceiling because they understand the consequences would be catastrophic to the economy even though they will use it as a threat to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. However, that 66% of Republican voters support deliberately defaulting on the nation’s debt with full knowledge it will seriously damage the economy informs that they are just as anti-government and anti-American as Grover Norquist libertarians who lust to destroy the government whether by drowning it in a bathtub or creating an economic disaster by not raising the debt limit.
It is irrelevant exactly why a majority of Republicans think creating a financial crisis is a good idea, and whether it is because they are ignorant of what raising the debt limit means, or if they just hate doing anything the President wants, they are insane. In part the blame falls on Republicans’ 4 year campaign to convince their supporters a non-existent Obama spending crisis poses an existential threat to the United States. It is impossible to believe such a large percentage of Republicans support a credit default out of confusion because they know not raising it invites financial ruin.
Likely the 66% of Republicans who know a default will create economic calamity are expressing their racial hostility towards anything President Obama wants combined with their blatant disregard for the Constitution’s mandate that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, shall not be questioned.” Whatever drives Republican voters to support a credit default, they are sincere in their insanely stupid belief that to prevent a non-existent Obama spending crisis they claim is destroying America’s economy, they support a credit default that will destroy America’s economy. All the while, the anti-government cabal led by Grover Norquist and the Koch brothers are sitting patiently and waiting for the dust to settle to drown what is left of the government in a bathtub.
In the Most Epic GOP Smack Down of his Presidency Obama Obliterates House Republicans
By: Jason Easley
Sep. 20th, 2013
President Obama isn’t fighting with House Republicans on the debt ceiling. He is wiping the floor with them. Today in Missouri, the president said, ‘They want to threaten default just to make sure that tens of millions of Americans continue not to have health care.’
THE PRESIDENT: Unfortunately, there is a faction on the far right of the Republican Party right now — it’s not everybody, but it’s a pretty big faction — who convinced their leadership to threaten a government shutdown and potentially threaten to not raise the debt ceiling if they can’t shut off the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Now, think about this. They’re not talking now about spending cuts. They’re not talking about entitlement reform. They’re not talking about any of that. Now they’re talking about something that has nothing to do with the budget — right? They’re actually willing to plunge America into default if we can’t defund the Affordable Care Act.
Now, let’s put this in perspective. The Affordable Care Act has been in law for three and a half years. It passed both houses of Congress. The Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. It was an issue in last year’s elections. The guy who was running against me said he was going to repeal it. We won. So the voters were pretty clear on this.
They want to repeal all that, and they’re saying, we’re going to hold our breath, and if you don’t repeal it — which I’ve already said I’m not going to do — we’re going to send the economy into default. They will send our economy into a tailspin, just like Speaker Boehner said. They want to threaten default just to make sure that tens of millions of Americans continue not to have health care.
Defunding Affordable Health Care would rob 25 million Americans of the chance to get health care coverage. It would cut basic health care services for tens of millions of seniors on Medicare already. That’s what House Republicans are fighting for.
And now they’ve gone beyond just holding Congress hostage, they’re holding the whole country hostage. One Republican senator called shutting down the government over the Affordable Care Act “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” I agree with him. But that’s the strategy they’re pursuing. House of Representatives just voted on it today.
Now, I tell you what, Missouri. The American people have worked too hard for too long, digging out of a real crisis just to let politicians in Washington cause another crisis.
This is the United States of America. We’re not some banana republic. This is not a deadbeat nation. We don’t run out on our tab. We’re the world’s bedrock investment. The entire world looks to us to make sure the world economy is stable. We can’t just not pay our bills. And even threatening something like that is the height of irresponsibility.
So what I’ve said is I will not negotiate over the full faith and credit of the United States. I am not going to allow anyone to harm this country’s reputation. I’m not going to allow them to inflict economic pain on millions of our own people just so they can make an ideological point.
Republicans don’t get it. This isn’t 2009-2010 anymore. People can see the benefits that they are getting from Obamacare. Republicans can’t get away with only telling lies anymore. The president’s whole speech is worth watching because Obama broke down all of the issues in easy to understand terms. The president was able to boil his point down to one important sentence. When Obama said, “They want to threaten default just to make sure that tens of millions of Americans continue not to have health care,” he shifted the discussion away from Obamacare and towards the morality of denying people access to healthcare.
President Obama is taking the Republicans apart piece by piece on the debt ceiling. Republicans are going to regret ever tying the debt ceiling to defunding Obamacare. Unlike the last debt ceiling fight, this won’t be about debt and numbers. The president can use the ACA to make the argument on human terms. The debate isn’t about debt anymore. It’s about preexisting conditions, kids staying on their parents’ health insurance, and access to healthcare for tens of millions of Americans.
Obama is dominating over both the fiscally responsible argument, and the moral argument. Republicans have nothing to stand on, except their usual Obamacare tantrums. President Obama is routing the Republicans on both the debt ceiling and Obamacare.
The early signs are that this is not going to end well for the Republican Party.
Ted Cruz Embarrasses Himself By Calling 2 Dems Strong Bipartisan Opposition to Obamacare
By: Jason Easley
Sep. 20th, 2013
Sen. Ted Cruz has embarrassed himself again on Obamacare by claiming that two Democrats voting to defund the ACA equals stong bipartisan opposition.
In a statement, Sen. Cruz said:
Today, the House of Representatives did what Washington pundits only a few weeks ago said was impossible: a strong bipartisan majority voted to defund Obamacare. This is a victory for House conservatives, and it is a victory for Speaker Boehner and Republican leadership. The American people overwhelmingly oppose Obamacare — a program which is killing jobs, dragging down the economy, and harming the most vulnerable among us. They deserve a fight — and House Republicans are leading that charge.
But the House was just step one. Step two is the Senate, where all accounts suggest Harry Reid plans to use procedural gimmicks to try to add funding back in for Obamacare.
If Reid pursues this plan — if he insists on using a 50-vote threshold to fund Obamacare with a partisan vote of only Democrats — then I hope that every Senate Republican will stand together and oppose cloture on the bill in order to keep the House bill intact and not let Harry Reid add Obamacare funding back in. Now is a time for party unity; Senate Republicans should stand side-by-side with courageous House Republicans. The fight to save America from Obamacare is just beginning — it may well go back and forth from the House and Senate several times — and a united Republican front means that Harry Reid and the President cannot ignore the American people.
Cruz is excited because after 42 votes to kill Obamacare, the House finally got two Democrats to vote for defunding the ACA. The two Democrats Reps. Jim Matheson (UT) and Mike McIntyre (NC) are 32 fewer Democrats than voted against the original legislation in 2010. Just think, maybe by the House’s 84 vote to repeal or defund Obamacare 4 Democrats might support it. Instead of bipartisan opposition growing against Obamacare, it’s actually shrinking. By any measure, Ted Cruz’s math was completely wrong.
Maple Leaf Teddy is trying to pull a fast one here. Everyone expected the House bill to pass, just like the other 41 attempts to get rid of Obamacare have passed. After earning the wrath of Republicans who called him “ball less” for trying to bail on supporting his own plan to use funding the government to defund Obamacare, Sen. Cruz was trying to dig himself out of the hole. He was trying to sound like a party leader, but notice that Cruz still hasn’t promised that he will go to the mat and fight for the House bill.
Ted Cruz wants to be president, but much like Sarah Palin, he can’t even do basic math.
House Republican: Ted Cruz is a ‘fraud,’ and ‘bad for the party’
By Travis Gettys
Friday, September 20, 2013 16:36 EDT
A top House Republican said he hoped Friday’s vote to keep the government running but strip funding for Obamacare would expose Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz as “a fraud.”
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said he hoped the likely doomed Senate vote to defund the Affordable Care Act would show Republicans that Cruz is “bad for the party,” reported NBC News.
The tea party-backed freshman senator pressured fellow Republicans to use the threat of a government shutdown to repeal President Barack Obama’s landmark legislation.
Cruz and his Senate ally, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) angered House Republicans on Wednesday when they signaled they wouldn’t filibuster when the Senate’s Democratic majority added Obamacare funding back to the budget bill.
Although Democrats need five Republican votes to begin and end debate, the Democratic Senate majority has vowed not to defund the health care law and the president has said he’d veto any budget legislation that does.
That leaves Cruz and Lee with little more than hope to strip funding for Obamacare –- and to House Republicans, that’s not nearly enough.
“It’s pretty clear they had no plan all along,” a senior House Republican aide told Talking Points Memo after Friday’s vote. “They already let Senate Democrats leave for the weekend. Where is the action?”
After spending the summer pressuring fellow Republicans to shut down the government unless a budget was passed without funding to implement the health care law, some of whose major provisions go into effect next month, some members of his own party appear willing to hang Cruz out to dry.
“It is a step in the right direction, and hopefully it will be a major step in letting people know that Ted Cruz is a fraud and will no longer have any influence in the Republican Party,” King said.
09/21/2013 01:32 PM
Mutti Knows Best: Merkel Delivers What Germans Want
By Charles Hawley
Chancellor Merkel has run a bland re-election campaign. But that is exactly what voters were looking for. There are many reasons why she will win a third term on Sunday, but the primary one is her deep understanding of what the German electorate wants.
Germans like their quiet. Should a couple raise their voices such that they can be heard in the courtyard of a city apartment building, it is a sure bet that before long, the phrase "Ruhe da!" ("Quiet!") will come ringing out of an open window. Even in big metropolises like Berlin, most flat seekers yearn for silence and tranquillity, far removed from the chaotic noise emanating from the busy streets.
Angela Merkel, more than any other politician on the campaign trail this year, has understood her flock's desire for calm. Even during the one televised debate on Sept. 1, the only time the chancellor became animated was to fend off the sometimes pointed thrusts delivered by her primary challenger, the Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück. She had to defend her policies after all -- policies aimed primarily at keeping the peace.
That, more than anything, explains why she is now perfectly positioned to win a third term in the Chancellery in Sunday's general election.
The chancellor has even gone so far as to directly appeal to the electorate's longing for quiet. As Reuters correspondent Alexandra Hudson noted in a recent article, the election manifesto for Merkel's party includes the assertion: "One in two Germans feels troubled by noise" and suggests that her party would seek to improve the situation.
Merkel's campaign, in short, has been masterful, custom designed to appeal to as many German voters as possible. Whereas Steinbrück, no slouch when it comes to understanding and explaining complex issues, has often resorted to brash humor in an attempt to win over his fellow citizens, Merkel has successfully managed to remain above the fray with her promise of continuity and a steady hand.
Indeed, she hardly ever mentions Steinbrück's name on the campaign trail and one would be hard pressed to find a recent political race anywhere that has been as devoid of personal attacks and mudslinging as this one. Her posters proclaim simply "Merkel: Chancellor for Germany" or "Successful Together." And in recent weeks, she has even taken to using a slogan once pioneered by Germany's first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer: "No experiments."
It is tempting to ascribe some of Merkel's political personality and low-key campaigning style to two aspects of her persona that are unprecedented for a German chancellor: that she is a woman and that she grew up in former East Germany. Doing so, however, runs the risk of underselling her prodigious political acumen.
One must only look at her ascent to the pinnacle of the center-rightChristian Democratic Union (CDU). In December 1999, with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl embroiled in a campaign finance scandal, Merkel publicly broke with him in an open letter published in the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It was a move that sealed the end of Kohl, her political mentor, and allowed her to quickly rise above all of Kohl's loyal followers in the CDU pecking order. She was made party chair just two months later.
The 2005 campaign provided her with another important lesson. Even as Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) was struggling in the polls, Merkel came within a whisker of losing that year by running on a campaign of "honesty" -- including a pledge to raise the sales tax by two percentage points and promises of reform.
She gave voice to the lessons she learned during a 2007 speech delivered on the occasion of long-time German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher's 80th birthday party. "From my perspective," she said, "the indeterminacy in his comments on the issues he addressed and the concurrent satisfaction with which journalists received those comments left behind, to be honest, a lasting effect on my political education."
The result has been a chancellor who prefers to wait before making decisions and a leader who is sometimes difficult to pin down. It has also helped propel her popularity to dizzying heights. Her followers have taken to affectionately calling her "Angie." The German press has dubbed her "Mutti," the word children in Germany use to address their mothers.
Merkel's understanding of her voters' need for quiet has informed her policies as well. During her stint as party chair, the CDU has moved significantly to the left -- to the point that calling her party conservative is something of a misnomer. Following the tsunami and subsequent meltdowns in Fukushima, Japan in March of 2011, Merkel quickly abandoned nuclear power and embraced alternative energies. It was a move that ended the country's decades-long acrimonious debate over atomic energy and allowed her to appropriate one of the central platforms of the Green Party.
She has done the same to the Social Democrats by significantly increasing social benefits to German families, pursuing minimum wage deals (albeit on a sector-by-sector basis), saying that she wants to control rapidly rising rents and, though tepidly, encouraging voluntary measures to improve gender equality.
Difficult for Her Challengers
Finally, the chancellor has proven adept at keeping the euro crisis at bay. Germans are eternally grateful that, even as Merkel has made life painful for many in crisis-stricken countries in southern Europe, the economy at home has remained strong. Hardly surprising, then, that her party -- together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) -- is likely to rake in 40 percent of the votes on Sunday.
Merkel's cautious, consensus-based centrism has made it extraordinarily difficult on her political opponents. One of the primary messages Steinbrück has sought to deliver in his campaign is a warning that the chancellor is attempting to lull Germany to sleep. He would seem not to have recognized that German voters like nothing better than a good lullaby.
Instead, with Merkel solidly occupying the center of Germany's political spectrum, the best Steinbrück's party can hope for on Sunday is to be able to put an end to the chancellor's current center-right coalition.
With the tendency for German voters to lean left -- and their apparent need this election season to avoid surprises -- it looks as though the SPD might achieve that modest goal. Though Steinbrück himself has said he would not take part in a so-called "grand coalition" pairing the SPD with the conservatives, the electorate would seem to want just that.
The End of Her Current Coalition?
Merkel's current coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), is partially to blame. Following its record 14.6 percent showing in the 2009 general election, then FDP leader Guido Westerwelle -- Germany's current foreign minister -- boisterously sought to take advantage of his party's popularity by forcing Merkel to adopt some of the FDP's pet positions. It didn't work; the chancellor was not to be moved. On the contrary, her junior partner's chest pounding poisoned the atmosphere for the first two years of her second term and led to Westerwelle being toppled by fellow party member Philipp Rösler as leader of the party.
That is a significant reason why the FDP is in danger on Sunday of not crossing the five percent threshold for representation in German parliament. And even if it does, it may not be enough to grant the center-right coalition more seats in parliament than the opposition. It is as if the German electorate shouted in unison: "Ruhe da!"
The irony of Sunday's election is that Merkel won't be able to guarantee quiet for long. There are a number of issues begging for attention, with the euro crisis first among them. From the EU banking union to a new aid package for Greece, Merkel's repeated intimations that the crisis is largely under control will likely soon be exposed. At home, energy costs are spiralling, expenditures on infrastructure are lagging and the business community is demanding action on a host of issues.
Germans, though, remain certain that Mutti will take care of it, no matter who her coalition partner ends up being. Her leitmotiv, after all, is one that fits her country like a glove. "Everyone has their own way of making their point," she said in March 2009 on a television talk show. "Silence can work too."
Angela Merkel poised for record poll win and historic third term
Her success remains a mystery for many, but victory could see the German chancellor beat Thatcher's record
Kate Connolly in Berlin and Josie Le Blond in Fulda
The Observer, Saturday 21 September 2013 22.35 BST
The excitement on Fulda's University Square hinted at the imminent arrival of an A-list celebrity. Crowds jostled impatiently to pass through a security check, a total of 5,000 gathering in front of two big screens, some on picnic benches, others standing, while hundreds more watched from the roofs and windows of offices and apartment blocks.
When Angela Merkel appeared, waving and smiling amid a sea of orange balloons and "Angie" placards, camera phones shot into the air and a rousing cheer went up.
After five hard weeks of campaigning ahead of Sunday's election, it might have been expected that the German chancellor would look exhausted at one of her final rallies in the western state of Hesse last week. But she was in fighting mood. "I was back in my constituency today and tanked up a bit of the Baltic sea breeze," she told the crowds. "After that I feel ready for anything."
If, as widely expected, the 59-year old German leader is re-elected for a third term, she will be on course to become Europe's longest-serving female leader, outstripping Margaret Thatcher's claim to the title.
Since first coming to power in 2005, Merkel has rejected the comparisons between herself and Britain's "Iron Lady". Indeed, apart from a few biographical details, the similarities between the conservative social democrat and the free marketeer are few and far between. Germans, at least, have long stopped making the comparison.
But comparisons there are. Both female and scientists, able to survive on little sleep, the two women suffered from image problems at the start of their leaderships. Advisers to Thatcher suggested she carry a handbag and soften her voice, while Merkel got highlights, a more relaxed hairstyle and learned to deal with the issue of how to look in control by holding her hands in a rhombus shape in front of her stomach, now her trademark gesture. But the differences between them, not least politically, are far bigger than the similarities. One revealing example is that, while Thatcher sold off council houses, Merkel is in favour of rent controls.
Fascination with the Protestant pastor's daughter is on a par with that of the grocer's daughter. Merkel's has been the extraordinary rise of a girl who grew up in small-town communist East Germany to become arguably the most powerful woman in the world. Among Germans, her appeal lies as much in her misfit status on the political scene, including the questions as to how a childless, female Protestant managed to make it to the helm of a political party dominated by Catholic west German males, and from there to become a towering figure on the international stage.
Summing up the anomaly, Berthold Kohler, one of the publishers of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ), says: "Twelve years ago, when she was elected as the head of the Christian Democrats, no one imagined she'd still be in the driver's seat in 2013, let alone that she would be looking back having spent seven years in the chancellery."
The former German chancellor Helmut Kohl was the first to discover Merkel, recognising her potential when she was 35, and the press officer of the GDR's Democratic Awakening party. He awarded her her first ministerial role in 1990. Just nine years later she effectively turned against him, using a comment piece in the FAZ to tell the rest of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) they should distance themselves from him, after a funding scandal that nearly sank the party.
He was the first of the many males whose political corpses have strewn her career path. Though they have almost all fallen on their own swords (for taking backhanders, plagiarising PhDs), their demise under her leadership has earned her one of her many nicknames, Männermörderin (men murderer). She has often forged better relationships with women. Indeed, her office manager and closest adviser is Beate Baumann, who is said to know her almost as well as her husband, shy chemistry professor Joachim Sauer. She has also forged lasting friendships with Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde.
And while having learned to work with her male counterparts, including George W Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, and to a lesser extent Vladimir Putin, she has let it be known that she despises their displays of overblown machismo. It has been she – the first to admit she dislikes conflict – who has stood up and literally rearranged the chairs at conferences in a last-ditch, and arguably maternal, intervention to forge better communication.
But still she remains a mystery to many Germans. "You know me," has been her frequent mantra at election rallies, accompanied by remarks about how well the German economy is doing – by which she means "a vote for me is a vote for the continuity of these good times".
But, says Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, whose biography of Merkel, The Chancellor and Her World, was published on Saturday, to many Germans "this politician who rose almost unnoticed to lead the leaders of Europe" still remains a conundrum. "The Germans have been pondering the mystery of Merkel for many years, trying to interpret her character and the inner workings of her mind," he says.
In interviews over the years, and in the runup to this election, there has been a drip feed of stories, largely from Merkel herself, accompanied by the release of 22 pictures from her childhood to the present, that have helped to build up something of a picture. Almost every German knows that her favourite foods, which she enjoys making herself, are plum cake and potato soup. We recently learned that she first got drunk on cherry wine and that a Soviet soldier once stole her bicycle.
Applying pragmatism to her desire to learn English under communism, she devoured technical manuals and copies of the Morning Star. A favourite anecdote is how she was in a sauna, a weekly date she kept with a girlfriend, when she heard that the Berlin Wall had come down in 1989. Rather than rush out on to the streets of the divided city, the two stayed until the end of their session, only later heading out into the November night to join the crowds crossing into the west before heading home to bed.
She also let it be known in the last couple of weeks, how, when she separated from her first husband, Ulrich Merkel, after just five years of marriage, she took refuge in a Berlin squat recommended by friends. (We also know from previous tellings of their separation, that, ever the pragmatist, she took the washing machine with her when she left.)
Asked at a citizens' forum earlier this month just how much the chancellorship had changed her, Merkel readily admitted that she had lost her confidence to drive a car, "except on small country roads", having enjoyed the luxury over the past few years of being chauffeur-driven everywhere. Opponents might seize on that to say she is detached from ordinary people. Except there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. After a recent Brussels summit that went through the night, she was seen in her local supermarket, buying a leek, a bottle of wine and some olive oil, dressed in the same suit in which she had negotiated a major deal some few hours previously.
While those close to her will cite her mental rigour and her pragmatism as being at the heart of her winning formula, her secret, say an increasing number, lies in her ability to "send voters to sleep": of maintaining her support base through what political scientists have described as "asymmetric demobilisation" – a deliberate dulling of the issues and defusing conflicts with her opponents by absorbing their positions, so that, according to one expert, "they have no oxygen to breathe". To make the point, the general secretary of the Social Democrats, Andrea Nahles, went so far as to sing a song from her favourite children's book character, Pippi Longstocking, to argue that Merkel was grossly simplifying the issues. "I'll shape my world … just the way I like it," she intoned, slightly off-key, in front of a stunned Bundestag audience.
The CDU's response was to thank Nahles in a letter for her "perhaps unintended compliment", saying it appreciated the comparison between Merkel and Pippi who, like the chancellor, "has lots of fans in Germany … lives independently and is very courageous … a girl who broke loose from the gender role prescribed for her by society".
German election: eurozone crisis could hinder Angela Merkel's re-election
Economic bailouts for struggling eurozone countries are high on the agenda as Germany goes to the polls on Sunday
Philip Oltermann in Berlin
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 September 2013 07.00 BST
Germany goes to the polls on Sunday in elections whose outcome will be vital for Europe's future. From 8am this morning, 61.8m voters will be able to decide if chancellor Angela Merkel will get a third term in office.
While Merkel's party is expected to once again emerge as the most powerful force in the new Bundestag, the German chancellor will be anxiously watching the performance of the anti-euro Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which could enter parliament for the first time if it gains more than 5% of the vote.
Any gains for the AfD is likely to come at a cost for Merkel's old coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP). If they fail to get 5%, Merkel would lose her current coalition partner. In three of the latest polls, Alternative für Deutschland had polled at 4-4.5%, the FDP at 5-6%.
In a poll commissioned by tabloid Bild am Sonntag, the CDU-FDP retain their majority by the narrowest of margins. Another poll, by Forsa, has the coalition in a perfect stalemate with a three-way coalition between the Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Party.
In her final public appearance before the election, Merkel made a point of distancing herself from critics of the common currency: "The stabilisation of the euro is not only good for Europe, but also in Germany's elemental interest," she said at a rally in Berlin on Saturday afternoon.
Some of her party members have been more ambiguous. In the state of Hesse, where a regional election will take place at the same time as the general election, the CDU's candidate had originally refused to rule out a coalition with the AfD, but has since promised that such a solution would not be an option.
The Social Democrats have been calling for a "Marshall Plan for Europe" directed at struggling Mediterranean countries, and would be expected to make demands in these areas in a grand coalition. If the anti-euro AfD were to enter parliament, however, Merkel may find herself with limited manoeuvring space regarding further bailouts.
Dissident republican weapons hoard uncovered in Ireland
Gardaí in Meelick, County Clare, seize weapons, explosives and circuit boards used to trigger massive bombs
Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 September 2013 12.24 BST
Technical components used to trigger massive bombs have been found among a hidden arsenal belonging to republican dissidents, it has emerged.
Time Power Unit (TPU) circuit boards deployed in the past by the Provisional IRA to detonate large explosive devices were discovered during a garda search operation over the weekend in the south-west of the Irish Republic.
The gardaí seized guns and several hundred rounds of ammunition in a planned search of Glenagross Wood, in Meelick, County Clare.
Explosives, the TPU components and documentation were also discovered during the operation to disrupt the activities of armed republicans still opposed to the ceasefire and the power-sharing settlement in Northern Ireland.
The seizure of the TPU units is particularly significant given the role of this technology in previous bombing campaigns both in Northern Ireland and in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s. The ability of gardaí to go directly to the hidden weapons haul also indicates the level of intelligence the force is receiving from within the various dissident republican factions who, particularly in the Irish Republic, appear to have been heavily infiltrated by agents.
A spokesman for the Garda Síochána said the firearms and explosives had been taken away for examination but that no arrests had been made during the operation.
Jeffrey Donaldson, the Democratic Unionist MP for Lagan Valley, pointed out that this was just the latest blow to dissident republicans by the Garda Síochána.
Praising the Republic's police force, the DUP MP said: "We must give credit to the garda who have had a number of successes recently in disrupting and in apprehending weapons caches. This undoubtedly helps to save life in Northern Ireland and is an indication of the level of co-operation between the two police services and this is something to be welcomed."
During the summer the garda uncovered the largest ever dissident republican arsenal buried on land at the Old Airport Road in north Dublin. It included explosives and guns that the Provisional IRA should have decommissioned years earlier.
The haul in July included 15kg of semtex explosive that the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had supplied in the 1980s. The buried weaponry also included handguns, shotguns, an Uzi submachine gun, electronic devices to disrupt mobile phones and more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition.
U.S. ‘blackmailing’ Russia over Syria resolution: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 22, 2013 8:08 EDT
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday accused the United States of blackmailing Russia over a tough UN resolution against Syria, and said the West is blinded by the idea of regime change in the war-torn country.
“Our American partners are beginning to blackmail us: if Russia won’t support a resolution under Chapter VII in the UN Security Council, then we will stop the work in the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” Lavrov said in a Channel One interview, according to Russian agencies.
He said the OPCW is “about to make a decision” on Syria but the process is threatened by the “arrogant position of some Western partners”.
“They need Chapter VII, which presumes applying pressure on violators of international law, including sanctions and the possibility of using force,” he said.
Lavrov added that Russia would be willing to send troops to Syria as part of an international presence to secure the work of experts on chemical weapons sites.
“We are ready to allocate our servicemen, military police, to participate in such efforts,” he said, though adding that he doesn’t “think that large contingents are necessary… military observers would be enough.”
Washington, Paris and London want a strongly worded resolution to ensure compliance, possibly under the UN Charter’s Chapter VII — a move Lavrov said contradicts the landmark agreement on Syria’s chemical disarmament he reached with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva on September 14.
“Our partners are now blinded by their ideological goal of regime change (in Syria)” Lavrov added. “All they talk about is that Bashar al-Assad must leave.”
“They are only interested in proving their own superiority. Not in the goal that is guiding us, to solve the problem of chemical weapons in Syria,” Lavrov said.
Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Thursday that Russia would be unlikely to send elite special forces to Syria, but would readily provide “specialists” for securing chemical stockpiles.
Lavrov on Sunday also contested Assad’s claim that the disarmament programme requires $1 billion (740 million euros). “In Geneva we discussed the possible cost of this programme. The figures were much less substantial,” he said.
Don't follow France's burqa ban. It has curbed liberty and justice
There's a sorry parade of women being fined for wearing the veil – and the people who attack them
The Observer, Saturday 21 September 2013 20.30 BST
Join me in a criminal court in suburban Paris on almost any weekday and I'll show you exactly where national debates about female face coverings end up.
Ever since France introduced its "burqa ban" in 2011, there has been a constant stream of wretched cases involving the handful of Muslims who choose to wear such garments. Not only are perfectly upstanding women being fined for their choice of dress, principally the full-body niqab, which leaves a slit for the eyes, but an increasing number of defendants are being tried for attacking them.
One case involves two self-styled "patriotic vigilantes" who targeted a pregnant 21-year-old in the commuter town of Argenteuil, north-west of Paris, in June. The new law persuaded the men to shout racist insults before putting the woman in hospital, where she lost her baby. Another three reported cases on the same council estate over the course of just one month this summer saw full-veil wearers assaulted as their attackers shouted: "Dirty Arab, dirty Muslim."
Those calling for a veil ban in Britain have clearly ignored such depressingly routine cases. They do not realise how the legislation introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has not only stigmatised Muslim women, but somehow legitimised physical attacks on them. The ban in France is a hateful assault on basic freedoms, one that has been seized on by an unlikely alliance of rightwing politicians and feminists.
The myth around which France's burqa ban was formulated is hugely offensive. It suggests that a cartel of faceless bogeywomen dressed in medieval black personify an alien religion, one whose values threaten those of the secular French republic and, by implication, those of all civilised nation states. There is no evidence for such a deceit. Just as no one in Britain can produce a veiled woman in the National Health Service who has unsettled patients, or teacher who refuses to take off her niqab in front of children when asked, so there is not a single French Muslim who deserves to be criminalised for covering up in public.
The reality is that the vast majority of niqab-wearers can be as sensibly pragmatic as anyone else when it comes to dealing with day-to-day objections to their face covering. If it upsets anyone reasonably, which usually means in an official context, they will remove it. Unreasonable objections, from louts in the street for example, should not be entertained under any circumstances.
Feminists who preach freedom for all women except for Muslims claim that their sisters are intimidated into wearing veils. In fact, of the 354 women "controlled" for covering up in the first year of the French ban, all said it was their own decision to do so. Men caught forcing women to wear veils face prison under the burqa ban, but such harassment was always covered by the criminal justice system anyway.
The truth is that it is mainly "patriotic" men who rally around the burqa ban, viewing it as a legitimate reason to persecute a religious minority.
As Britain faces up to a wide range of divisive issues involving allegedly alien groups, it would do well to beware a French-style burqa ban. The legislation has done nothing for liberty and justice. As an increasingly sorry caseload within France's court system testifies, it is a petty issue blown out of all proportion, one that ultimately creates nothing but hatred and violence.
Hardliners hold back as Iran waits for Rouhani and Obama to make history
Landmark meeting between US president and his Iranian counterpart could allow for direct talks on nuclear programme
Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Julian Borger
The Observer, Saturday 21 September 2013 20.25 BST
Iranian hardliners appear to have given their tacit support to president Hassan Rouhani as the moderate cleric prepares to travel to New York on what could be a critically important visit to the United Nations, which may include a historic meeting with his American counterpart.
Hawkish fundamentalists, including the elite Revolutionary Guards close to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have refrained from demonstrating opposition to Rouhani's new bid to pursue "constructive engagement" with the international community. This could include talks over Iran's controversial nuclear programme and the Syrian conflict. The Iranian president is keen to show the world that he has a united country behind him.
Khamenei, long a fierce critic of the US, has thrown his weight behind Rouhani, apparently giving his blessing for direct talks between Rouhani and President Barack Obama, which could take place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week. And Iran's opposition activists and politicians, given new heart after Rouhani's victory in June, appear to share support for the new president in his attempt to improve relations with the west.
Saturday's headlines in Tehran reflected the mood of growing optimism in Iran, where even the hardline press such as Keyhan, an ultra-conservative newspaper whose director is directly appointed by Khamenei, appears to be welcoming the possibility of a historic meeting that can put an end to Tehran and Washington's three decades of animosity. "I have no plans, but it's possible," was Keyhan's headline, quoting Rouhani on the possibility of a meeting with Obama. In a further sign that Rouhani has full authority, the Revolutionary Guard issued a statement offering support for his administration.
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the former vice-president of Iran under the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, told the Observer that he saw Rouhani's trip as "the most important visit" to the UN by an Iranian president in "the most exceptional circumstances". "On one hand, Rouhani has the support of the supreme leader, on the other, the US has to come to terms with its mistakes in dealing with Iran in the past," he said. By mentioning mistakes, Abtahi was referring particularly to the time, under Khatami, when President George Bush labelled Iran as part of "an axis of evil" along with North Korea and Iraq, despite Khatami's reformist administration.
Rouhani's visit contrasts with those made by his predecessors, Abtahi said, because "conservatives are not sabotaging and not expressing opposing views".
Zahra Eshraghi, a reformist politician and a granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, echoed Abtahi, saying that conservatives have come to the realisation that Iran needs constructive relations with the international community. "Given our experience with sanctions recently, especially our difficulties with importing medicines, hardliners have also come to terms with the need for dialogue with the United States," she told the Observer.
"The events in the region in the past two years [a reference to Syria] shows that Iran remains as a regional power and the US, too, needs to have dialogue with Iran" she added. "The time has come for the two countries to put aside the mutual distrust and act on their national interests."
On Monday morning in New York, the stage management and hype gives way to bargaining, as Mohammad Javad Zarif sits down for the first time as Iran's foreign minister with Lady (Catherine) Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief to gauge how far Iran has really come in from the cold. Zarif is to meet William Hague, the British foreign secretary, as well, and may have a staged brief encounter with the US secretary of state, John Kerry, in some UN corridor during the week-long general assembly. Whatever happens, the atmosphere will almost certainly be an improvement on what has gone before.
Zarif's predecessor as Iran's delegate, Saeed Jalili, was a dry bureaucrat inclined to read out convoluted didacticpresentations, apparently scared to stray from the script written in Tehran. Any hint of ambiguity or spontaneity sprouted long delays while he phoned for instructions.
Zarif could not be more different; he is a skilled diplomat and is fluent in English. Moreover, everything that Zarif and Rouhani have said suggests that he, unlike Jalili, has full authority to negotiate, while Rouhani will paint the bigger picture at the general assembly of an Iranian republic trying to break free of its pariah status.
The question now is how these experienced diplomats play their hand. At the lower end of expectations, the Iranians will spread bonhomie and make a date for serious nuclear negotiations in the coming weeks, involving the cumbersome format of the past few years that has kept the international community more or less on the same page, but with little real progress. That format puts diplomats from six powers – US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – on one side of the negotiating table with Ashton, acting as their convenor. Iran sits opposite them, wary and combative.
However, there is some reason to believe that the main players will aim for something more imaginative. Rouhani and Obama are both in a hurry to score a success. Rouhani is at the start of a honeymoon period in Tehran that will be measured in months, not years. Obama, at the other end of his presidency, faces a slide into lame duck status.
Both men know, as do all the other players in this tortuous game, that if there is to be a deal it will ultimately be hammered out between Washington and Tehran with the other five nations acting as facilitators. If they sense an opening, they could cut out the middle men – and woman – and head straight to bilateral talks. If that is in the air, expect to see an historic handshake this week – which would be the first between a US president and a leader from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
However, there will be bumps along the way. Informal bilateral contacts could proceed in tandem with the multilateral negotiations, if only to keep Russia and China engaged. Or the multilateral track might give way at some point to a bilateral endgame. Whichever route is taken, it is a negotiation in which everyone at the table has a fairly clear and widely shared vision, of the outcome: an Iran empowered to continue its nuclear programme but under internationally dictated limits.
The country would be allowed to enrich uranium without the burden of sanctions, but only up to a maximum of 5% purity – enough to make reactor fuel, not weapons. The world's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would have a stronger inspection mandate, allowing it to examine not just the facilities Iran declares it has but also sites it suspects could be harbouring secret weapons work. Iran would also have to give up its stock of 20% uranium, currently the main proliferation concern because of the ease with which it could be further spun into weapons-grade fissile material.
There could also be some understanding on what happens at Arak, where a heavy water reactor is under construction that could produce plutonium, another possible fuel for a bomb. But that might be left for another day. Slow progress at the site has meant it will not be opening early next year as planned, giving the negotiators some breathing space.
Even if the parties to the talks have a shared sense of where they are going, getting there will be complicated. Rouhani will want sanctions relief up front so that he can return to Tehran in triumph and widen his own political window of opportunity. If not, the loose leash that Khamenei has allowed the president could be yanked back. Khamenei is making the right noises, but there is still no certainty he has made the strategic decision to bottle up the nuclear programme.
TROUBLED HISTORY OF US-IRANIAN RELATIONS
The CIA engineered a coup against Iran's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, who had nationalised the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
1979 Islamic revolution
In February, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran, deposing the Shah.
American hostage crisis
In November 1979, months after the establishment of the Islamic republic under Khomeini, students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days.
In the hope that Iran's post-revolution state would be fragile, Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, triggering the longest conventional war of the last century. The US supported Iraq, and Iran complains that the Americans turned a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein's forces.
Iran Air Flight 655
In July 1988, 290 passengers on board an Iranian flight from Tehran to Dubai were killed after the plane was shot down by a missile fired from the USS Vincennes. The US has maintained that it was a mistake.
Iran's nuclear programme
Since 2003 the US has expressed concerns that Iran's nuclear programme might have military dimensions. In 2003, Iran halted its enrichment of uranium and allowed more scrutiny of its nuclear activities.
The Ahmadinejad era
Concerns over Iran's nuclear programme heightened after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.
The new Iran under Rouhani
Barack Obama exchanges letters with Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani.
Iran: Rouhani's courage offers cause for real hope
The Iranian president's desire for talks with the US suggests rapprochement is a possibility
The Observer, Sunday 22 September 2013
Today, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, elected three months ago on a platform of "prudence and hope", arrives in New York to address the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, a few hours after the traditional opening speech by the host, President Obama. "Go and wake up your luck" is a traditional Persian proverb. In the latest of a series of surprise moves, on Friday Rouhani woke up the international community with an article in the Washington Post that hinted at a possible end to the nuclear standoff that has acted as a tinderbox in the Middle East for years. "A zero sum cold war mentality leads to everyone's loss," Rouhani wrote. His goal, he explained, was "constructive engagement". Over the coming days, Obama and Rouhani will engage in a delicate dance of diplomacy – perhaps even meeting face to face to demonstrate signs of an accord – not least so that the latter can return home with the beginning of an American-Iranian entente that even diehard Middle East pessimists say has the promise of something historic, a milestone for the region.
In the 34-year history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the pace of change since Rouhani's unexpected victory in the summer has been unprecedented. In his first news conference, the centrist Shia cleric promised that "if the United States shows good will and mutual respect, the way for interaction will be open".
Last week, as further proof of his intent, 11 prominent political prisoners were freed, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. More releases are rumoured. Friendly letters have been exchanged between Obama and Rouhani. Rouhani recently tweeted new year's greetings to Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah and he arrives in New York today accompanied by Siamak Moreh Sedgh, the sole Jewish member of the majlis, the Iranian parliament.
In a recent television interview with an American channel, another first, Mr Rouhani said that Iran would never "seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons" and that he had "full power and complete authority" to strike a nuclear deal. Ultimate power lies with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Observers say his support for this new diplomatic offensive is apparent in the transfer of authority over the nuclear issue from the hawkish national security council to the foreign ministry, now led by Mohammad Javad Zarif. American educated, he spent five years until 2007 as Iran's ambassador at the United Nations. Zarif is said to welcome the signs that "the drums of war in the region" are going silent. Tomorrow, he is due to meet William Hague, the foreign secretary, and the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, who has been a party to the nuclear talks.
In spite of these positive manoeuvres, the memory of the bloody reprisals exacted on the Iranian opposition, the green movement, following the surge for change in 2009, is still fresh. And so are the images of Mr Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the UN General Assembly, denouncing "uncivilised Zionists", suggesting the Holocaust was a myth and accusing the US of an "international policy of bullying". Still, Obama has his best chance yet to make good his 2008 campaign promise to explore the possibility of improved relations and a nuclear rapprochement with Iran.
The three key questions at this juncture are: why is Iran making overtures now? Has Rouhani the time and the clout to keep his country's hardliners in check in the face of Israel's insistence that the "mad mullahs" still rule and Iran's nuclear programme continues to advance? And what might a rapprochement, however fragile, look like? Why now is a question in part answered by the state of the Iranian economy since sanctions were tightened still further last year. Financial restrictions prevent Iran selling goods for hard currency. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, oil revenue has dropped by 45%, costing the economy about $150m a day in lost earnings; industrial production has fallen by 40%; unemployment has risen by a third and consumer prices have shot up by 87%. All of which adds up to major public discontent. Recent events in Syria have also added leverage. Iran has strenuously backed Assad. As a result, a poll in March revealed that Iran was viewed unfavourably in 14 out of 20 Arab and Muslim countries. Russia's proactive involvement now may open up a resolution to the Syrian debacle.
Rouhani has a short-term tactical advantage in that Iranian hardliners have been left in disarray since his shock election. However, any sign of an American reprimand, rejection or humiliation and, domestically, Rouhani will be wounded; second chances are rare. So what shape might negotiations take? On Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, addresses the UN General Assembly. If the US keeps him in line, optimism may grow. For months, however, "Bibi" has been repeating his demand of a four-step formula. Iran must stop enriching uranium; remove enriched uranium from the country; close its nuclear plant near Qom; and stop "the plutonium track", the path to nuclear weapons. For his part, Mr Rouhani has asserted his country's right to have a peaceful nuclear energy programme, including the right to enrich uranium for fuel. The contours of a potential nuclear deal are visible, says IISS analyst Dina Esfandiary.
It includes greater transparency, ensured by international inspections (inspections that Israel continues to refuse). Der Spiegel has reported that Rouhani is also prepared to shut down the Fordow nuclear-enrichment plant in return for a relaxation of sanctions.
Rouhani is an establishment man, not a radical. A protege of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, he has been an influential fixer since the revolution, becoming a former head of the national security council, central to Iran's foreign and nuclear policy. Educated in part at Glasgow's Caledonian University, he appears to be interpreting Khamenei's instructions on "heroic leniency" as a call to pragmatism at an opportune time.
Now aged 64, Rouhani is also propelled by another powerful force for change – a young population well connected digitally to the outside world despite the regime's best efforts. It was the young who voted him in as a representative of the opposition. "A strong government," Mr Rouhani has observed, heeding the import of that endorsement, "is not a government that limits the lives of people."
It is early days. Iran remains an Islamic theocracy with a tight hold on its citizens. However, Mr Rouhani has exercised considerable courage and conciliation. Obama must respond with tact, sound offers and good faith. The impact for Iran, not so long ago seen as a continual threat to world peace, and for the rest of the Middle East, could be momentous. For now is a time for hope.
Suicide attack on Pakistani church leaves dozens dead
Officials say worshippers were targeted as they left church in Peshawar
Associated Press in Peshawar
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 September 2013 10.09 BST
A suicide bomb attack on a historic church in north-western Pakistan has killed at least 60 people and wounded more than 120, officials said, in one of the worst assaults on the country's Christian minority in years.
The bombing underlines the threat posed by Islamic extremists as the government seeks a peace deal with domestic Taliban militants.
It occurred as worshippers were coming out of the church service in Peshawar city to get a free meal of rice offered on the front lawn, said a top government administrator, Sahibzada Anees.
"There were blasts and there was hell for all of us," said Nazir John, who was at the church with at least 400 other worshippers. "When I got my senses back, I found nothing but smoke, dust, blood and screaming people. I saw severed body parts and blood all around."
Survivors wailed and hugged each other in the wake of the blasts. The white walls of the All Saints church were pockmarked with holes probably caused by ball bearings or other metal objects contained in the bombs to cause maximum damage. Blood stained the floor and was splashed on the walls. Plates of rice were scattered across the ground.
The attack was carried out by a pair of suicide bombers, said the police officer Shafqat Malik. Authorities found their body parts and were trying to determine their age, he said.
The number of casualties from the blasts was so high that the hospital was running out of caskets for the dead and beds for the wounded, said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a former information minister for the surrounding Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, who was on the scene.
"What have we done wrong to these people?" asked one of the wounded, John Tariq, referring to the attackers. "Why are we being killed?"
The dead included several women and children, said Sher Ali Khan, a doctor at a hospital in Peshawar where the victims were being treated.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion is likely to fall on one of the country's many Islamic militant groups. Islamic militants have been blamed for previous attacks on the Muslim country's Christian minority, as well as Muslim groups they consider heretics.
Islamic militants have carried out dozens of attacks across the country since Nawaz Sharif became prime minister in June, even though he has made clear that he believes a peace deal with the largest group, the Taliban, is the best way to tamp down violence in the country.
Pakistan's major political parties endorsed Sharif's call for negotiations earlier this month. But the Taliban have said the government must release militant prisoners and begin pulling troops out of the north-west tribal region that serves as their sanctuary before they will begin talks.
China tries to draw line under political scandal with life sentence for Bo Xilai
Disgraced leader is handed lengthy prison term for bribery, corruption and abuses of power
Tania Branigan in Jinan
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 September 2013 11.39 BST
A Chinese court has jailed the disgraced leader Bo Xilai for life for bribery, corruption and power abuses, handing out a relatively tough sentence as leaders attempt to turn the page on an unsavoury political scandal.
Bo's conviction on the charges, which included interfering with the investigation into his wife's murder of a British businessman, was a foregone conclusion given the Communist party's tight control of the legal system. But he refused to go quietly and analysts suggested his cocksure defence in his five-day trial prompted the relatively harsh ruling on Sunday.
Judges at the Jinan intermediate people's court in eastern China said the former Chongqing party boss had "gravely damaged the country and the people's interests" as they handed him sentences of life for bribery, 15 years for embezzlement and seven years for abuse of power, to run concurrently. The ruling also deprived him of political rights for life and confiscated his personal assets.
Before the hearings, experts had predicted that as a former politburo member with powerful family connections he was likely to face 15 to 20 years in jail.
Authorities provided unusual detail of last month's trial, issuing transcripts of key exchanges.
"Officials wanted to increase the acceptance of the verdict and support for [Chinese president] Xi [Jinping]'s leadership and make a good start for his anti-corruption campaign," said the political analyst Wu Qiang.
"However, Bo's defence of himself meant the situation changed, so the verdict was quite tricky in the end."
A shot released by officials showed the 64-year-old smiling as he faced the judges, handcuffed and wearing an open-necked white shirt, black trousers and black running shoes.
He has 10 days to launch an appeal, but did not tell the court whether he would do so; in any case, it would be unlikely to succeed.
"He didn't admit his crime in the first trial, so he will definitely appeal," said Gu Yushu, a lawyer who was appointed by Bo's sister but not permitted to represent the politician.
"[The verdict] is entirely unjustified. The evidence is insufficient … Key witnesses, such as Gu Kailai [Bo's wife], did not appear in court."
Medical parole may well win Bo an early release. The difference between a life sentence and lengthy set term is more symbolic than substantive, noted one scholar.
The judges dismissed the defence argument that Bo's initial testimony was given under duress and that Gu's evidence was inadmissible due to mental illness.
They ruled that Bo embezzled 5m yuan (£500,000) and received the equivalent of more than 20m yuan in bribes from two businessmen, either directly or via his family – rejecting his defence that he did not know about the gifts, which included a luxurious French villa. They found a small section of the bribery charges against him unproven.
The case steered well clear of what most regarded as the significant issues: the brutality of his tenure in Chongqing, which alarmed liberals for its ruthlessness, and tussles within the leadership. Bo polarised people inside and outside the party.
"We all know Bo's real crime was to do with 'striking the black' [his anti-gang crackdown, which saw the widespread use of torture]. To not mention this crime, while mentioning corruption and bribery – it is pointless. It is aimed at destroying his reputation," said the political scientist Zhang Ming, who added that it had not been very successful in that regard.
Three of Bo's family members were among the 116 people present to hear the verdict, announced on the court microblog account and by the state news agency Xinhua.
Hundreds of police guarded the closed-off streets around the courthouse, allowing only residents and accredited reporters to enter and ensuring no protesters could approach.
Li Xiaolin, a lawyer close to the Bo family, said he believed Bo would be sent to Qincheng prison – a relatively luxurious facility near Beijing where ousted senior officials usually serve their sentence.
The verdict is intended to draw a line under a messy affair that cast an unflattering and unwelcome light on the country's political elite, clearing the way for a key party meeting this autumn. The scandal was triggered by Bo's row with his police chief Wang Lijun, who fled to the US consulate in Chengdu and accused Gu of murdering Neil Heywood. She was convicted and jailed last year.
In the hours before the judgment, the Jinan court's microblog published a quote which it misattributed to the British jurist Lord Denning: "Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done."
Neither Bo's supporters nor his critics are likely to take that remark at face value.
Kong Qingdong, a high-profile leftwinger, wrote on his microblog that in light of the judgment he urged the trial of all officials who were corrupt or abused power.
The verdict was "the outcome of a political trial, one that failed to provide due process to Bo, failed to provide justice to his victims, and failed to provide the truth about his abuses of power to the Chinese public", wrote Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch.
• Additional research by Cecily Huang
September 22, 2013Gunmen Kill Dozens in Terror Attack at Kenyan Mall
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN and NICHOLAS KULISH
NAIROBI, Kenya — Masked gunmen stormed into a fancy, crowded mall in Nairobi on Saturday and shot dead at least 59 people and wounded 175, according to the cabinet secretary for the interior, in one of the most chilling terrorist attacks in East Africa since Al Qaeda blew up two American embassies in 1998.
Parents hurled their bodies over their children, people jumped into ventilation shafts to save themselves, and shoppers huddled behind the plastic mannequins of designer clothing stores as two squads of gunmen believed to be linked to a Somali terrorist group moved through the mall, shooting shoppers in the head. Hours later, the mall’s gleaming floors were smeared with blood as police officers dashed through the corpse-strewn corridors, trying to find the assailants.
Joseph Ole Lenku, the cabinet secretary for the interior, said on Sunday that the death toll in the attack had risen to 59 and that number of wounded had risen to 175, though many had been treated and discharged.
“Overnight more people were evacuated from the mall but a number still remain,” he said. “The government will go out of its way to make sure we do not lose lives.”
A standoff with the attackers, who were reported to be heavily armed and holding an unknown number of hostages, continued as the sun rose on Sunday.
Mr. Ole Lenku seemed to tamp down expectations of an imminent assault on the militants in the mall, urging caution and stressing the need for safety. He said that the number of attackers ranged “between 10 and 15 people.”
As the morning wore on helicopters continued to circle above the mall and the sound of intermittent gunfire crackled. Medical personnel loaded a wounded member of the security forces dressed in camouflage into an ambulance in the garage of a nearby community complex.
The mall, called Westgate, is a symbol of Kenya’s rising prosperity, an impressive five-story building where Kenyans can buy expensive cups of frozen yogurt and plates of sushi. On Saturdays, it is especially crowded, and American officials have long warned that Nairobi’s malls were ripe targets for terrorists, especially Westgate, because a cafe on the ground floor, right off the street, is owned by Israelis.
Fred Ngoga Gateretse, an official with the African Union, was having coffee at that cafe around noon when he heard two deafening blasts. He cowered on the floor and watched eight gunmen with scarves twisted over their faces firing at shoppers and then up at Kenyan police officers who were shooting down from a balcony as panicked shoppers dashed for cover. “Believe me, these guys were good shooters,” Mr. Gateretse said. “You could tell they were trained.”
Several witnesses said the attackers had shouted for Muslims to run away while they picked off other shoppers, executing them one by one. The mall, one of Nairobi’s most luxurious, with glass elevators and some of the most expensive shops in town, is also popular with expatriates. It has served as the place for a power lunch, to catch a movie, to bring children for ice cream.
As the siege crept toward the 24-hour mark, a sense of tense stalemate had developed. The attackers were still inside — as were an uncertain number of people either trapped or in hiding — but surrounded by a large force of Kenyan military and police.
The question facing President Uhuru Kenyatta and his advisers on Sunday was whether to storm the mall and try to root out the militants by force or methodically rescue the remaining people who could not yet be evacuated.
But the prospect of more violence could not be ruled out. The Red Cross said in a Twitter message Sunday afternoon that it had disaster response teams standing by.
The identities of several victims began to come out Sunday, and with it the public mourning of a national tragedy had begun. The local news media reported that a popular radio host was among those killed, as was an elderly poet and professor from Ghana.
Ruhila Adatia-Sood, a radio host, was in the parking lot of the Westgate mall where she was hosting a cooking competition, according to reports. She had posted several photos on her Instagram account before the attack.
Kofi Awoonor, 78, was a Ghanaian poet and former professor at the University of Ghana. He was also the former chairman of the Council of State.
Four Americans were believed to have been injured in the attack, American officials said, and none were reported killed. Secretary of State John Kerry, who called the attack “a heartbreaking reminder that there exists unspeakable evil in our world,” said the wife of a local employee of the American government was among the dead. Two Canadians, one of them a diplomat based in Nairobi, and two French citizens were killed, their governments said.
The Daily Nation newspaper reported that four women had been rescued from the mall Sunday morning.
A confidential United Nations security report on Saturday described the attack as “a complex, two-pronged assault” with two squads of gunmen dashing into the mall from different floors at the same time and opening fire.
The Shabab, an Islamist militant group based in Somalia, took responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for Kenya’s military operations in Somalia, which began nearly two years ago. “Kenya will not get peace unless they pull their military out of Somalia,” said Ali Mohamoud Rage, the Shabab’s spokesman, in a radio address. The Shabab also sent out a barrage of buoyant Twitter messages, bragging about the prowess of their fighters before Twitter abruptly suspended the account late Saturday. Later, a new one was set up.
Mr. Kenyatta called the terrorists cowards and said Kenya would remain “as brave and invincible as the lions on our coat of arms.” He also sounded a somber note, pleading with Kenyans to give blood, and said he had lost “very close family members in this attack,” though he did not specify further.
In addition to the 39 people killed, who included women and children, Mr. Kenyatta said, more than 150 were wounded. Government officials said the wounded ranged in age from 2 to 78.
By Saturday night, Kenyan commandos had cornered several of the assailants on the third floor of the mall, witnesses said. Western officials said they expected that the assailants would fight to the death, though the Kenyan news media reported that one wounded gunman had been captured and died in a hospital. Several witnesses also said one of the assailants was a woman.
Throughout the day, as the police cleared sections of the mall, terrified shoppers emerged with their hands up and collapsed in each other’s arms.
Early Sunday, the government said that the mall’s upper levels had been secured and the gunmen contained in one place, but that hostages remained in several locations.
Witnesses described attackers using AK-47 and G-3 assault rifles and throwing grenades.
Vivian Atieno, 26, who works on the first floor of the mall, described “intense shooting,” starting around 11 a.m., before she escaped through a fire exit.
Haron Mwachia, 20, a cleaner at the mall, said he had survived by climbing over a wall. “I heard several gunshots and managed to run away,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Hundreds of relatives and friends of the victims of the attack journeyed to various hospitals around the city that were treating the wounded, trying to ascertain the fate of their loved ones.
At the MP Shah Hospital, a few miles away from the mall, distressed relatives milled around a tent erected for them outside the hospital as volunteers worked around the clock to provide necessary assistance.
Ruth Nyambura, 26, whose uncle worked at the Nakumatt Supermarket in Westgate at the time of the attack, said she was terrified.
“I have come along with my family just to find out how he’s doing. He was shot in the head, suffered severe wounds on his one of his eyes and his arms,” said Ms. Nyambura. “He was operated yesterday and we’ve come to see him again. We are being told to wait because the queue is too long.”
Yvonne Mueni, 23, also waited to see her adopted sister, Shantel Mcharo. Ms. Mcharo, 23, worked at the Artcaffe at Westgate. According to Ms. Mueni, doctors operated on her hip and she was recovering.
Police sealed off access in the immediate vicinity of Westgate, and urged city residents to steer clear of the area. Onlookers clustered at checkpoints and in a few instances even climbed trees for a better view of the besieged shopping mall.
Kenya serves as the economic engine of East Africa, and while it has been mostly spared the violence and turmoil of many of its neighbors, it has had other terrorist attacks. In 1998, Al Qaeda killed more than 200 people in an enormous truck bombing that nearly leveled the American Embassy in downtown Nairobi, while simultaneously attacking the American Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Islamist terrorists also struck an Israeli-owned hotel on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast in 2002 and fired missiles at an Israeli airliner.
More recently, the Shabab have put Kenya in its cross hairs, especially after Kenya sent thousands of troops into Somalia in 2011 to chase the Shabab away from its borders and then kept those troops there as part of a larger African Union mission to pacify Somalia. The Shabab have attacked churches in eastern Kenya, mosques in Nairobi and government outposts along the Kenya-Somalia border.
But this was the boldest attack yet. Within minutes, as the gunmen opened fire with assault rifles, Westgate was plunged into mayhem and carnage. People ran out screaming, and victims soaking in their own blood were wheeled out in shopping carts. Bodies were still sprawled on the mall’s front steps hours afterward, and woozy shoppers continued to emerge from the stores where they had been hiding.
“This is such a shock,” said Preeyam Sehmi, an artist, as she stumbled out of the mall, past a phalanx of Kenyan soldiers, after five hours of hiding. “Westgate was such a social place.”
Ilana Stein, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the attack took place near the ArtCaffe, an Israeli-owned coffee shop and bakery popular with foreigners that is one of 80 businesses in the mall. Ms. Stein said that one Israeli had been lightly injured, that three others had escaped unharmed and that Israelis had not been specifically targeted. “This time, the story is not about Israel,” Ms. Stein said.
As night fell, hours after the attack began, Kenyan police helicopters hovered overhead while soldiers in flak jackets and helmets jogged single file into the mall, faces grim, guns cocked. The flashing lights of ambulances lighted up the mall’s facade. Gunshots continued to ring out well past dark, though the Kenyan authorities did not provide much information about what was happening inside the mall. Several Kenyan soldiers were later brought out grimacing from what appeared to be gunshot wounds.
Before its Twitter account was shut down, the Shabab sent out a message, saying the fighters in the mall would never give up.
“There will be no negotiations whatsoever at #Westgate,” the message said.
The Shabab, who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, used to control large parts of Somalia, imposing a harsh and often brutal version of Islam in their territory. They have beheaded civilians and buried teenage girls up to their necks in sand and stoned them to death. But in the past two years, the African Union forces, including the Kenyans, have pushed the Shabab out of most of their strongholds. The worry now, current and former American officials said Saturday, is that this attack could be the start of a comeback.
“I think this is just the beginning,” said Rudy Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism for the Pentagon. “An attack like this gives them the capability to recruit, it shows off their abilities, and it demonstrates to Al Qaeda central that they are not dead.”
Reporting was contributed by Reuben Kyama and Tyler Hicks from Nairobi; Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem; Mark Mazzetti from Washington; and Mohamed Ibrahim from Mogadishu, Somalia.
*************Kenya mall attack: Somalia's al-Shabaab group claims responsibility
At least 30 people dead after attack on mall that began at noon with bursts of gunfire and grenades
Associated Press in Nairobi
theguardian.com, Saturday 21 September 2013 20.50 BST
Somalia's militant group al-Shabaab is claiming responsibility for the attack on a Nairobi mall on Saturday that has killed at least 30 people, saying it was retribution for Kenyan forces' 2011 push into Somalia. The group threatened more attacks.
As night fell in the Kenyan city, hostages remained inside the mall, but officials didn't or couldn't say how many. Two groups of army special forces troops had moved inside as the stand-off stretched into its ninth hour.
Police and military surrounded the huge complex as helicopters buzzed overhead. A reporter said he saw a wounded Kenyan soldier put into an ambulance at nightfall, an indication, perhaps, of a final shoot-out inside.
Witnesses said at least five gunmen including at least one woman first attacked an outdoor cafe at Nairobi's Westgate mall, a new shopping centre that hosts Nike, Adidas and Bose stores. The mall's ownership is Israeli, and security experts have long said the structure made an attractive terrorist target.
The attack began shortly after noon with bursts of gunfire and grenades. Shoppers expatriates and rich Kenyans fled in any direction that might be safe: into back corners of stores, back service hallways and bank vaults. Over the next several hours, pockets of people poured out of the mall as undercover police moved in. Some of the wounded were being transported in shopping carts.
"We started by hearing gunshots downstairs and outside. Later we heard them come inside. We took cover. Then we saw two gunmen wearing black turbans. I saw them shoot," said Patrick Kuria, an employee at Artcaffe, the restaurant with shady outdoor seating.
Frank Mugungu, an off-duty army sergeant major, said he saw four male attackers and one female attacker. "One was Somali. The others were black," he said.
Al-Shabaab, on its Twitter feed, said that it has many times warned Kenya's government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia "would have severe consequences". The group claimed that its gunmen had killed 100 people, but its claims are frequently exaggerated.
"The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders," al-Shabaab said. Another tweet said: "For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it's time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land #Westgate."
Al-Shabaab threatened in late 2011 to unleash a large-scale attack in Nairobi. Kenya has seen a regular spate of grenade attacks since then but never such a large terrorist assault.
A Kenya Red Cross official says 30 people have been killed in Saturday's attack, and Nairobi's mortuary superintendent said Africans, Asians and Caucasians were among the dead.
The US State Department said it had reports of American citizens injured in the attack but had no further details. It condemned "this senseless act of violence that has resulted in death and injury for many innocent men, women, and children".
The US embassy said it was in contact with local authorities and offered assistance. Some British security personnel assisted in the response.
The gunmen told hostages that non-Muslims would be targeted, said Elijah Kamau, who was at the mall at the time of the midday attack.
"The gunmen told Muslims to stand up and leave. They were safe, and non-Muslims would be targeted," he said.
Jay Patel, who sought cover on an upper floor in the mall when shooting began, said that when he looked out of a window onto the upper parking deck of the mall he saw the gunmen with a group of people. Patel said that as the attackers were talking, some of the people stood up and left and the others were shot.
The attack was carried out by terrorists, said police chief Benson Kibue. He did not specify a group. He said it was likely that no more than 10 attackers were involved.
Somalia's president – the leader of a country familiar with terrorist attacks – said his country knows "only too well the human costs of violence like this" as he extended prayers to those in Kenya.
"These heartless acts against defenceless civilians, including innocent children, are beyond the pale and cannot be tolerated. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Kenya in its time of grief for these lives lost and the many injured," President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said.
The gunmen carried AK-47s and wore vests with hand grenades on them, said Manish Turohit, 18, who hid in a parking garage for two hours.
"They just came in and threw a grenade. We were running and they opened fire. They were shouting and firing," he said after marching out of the mall in a line of 15 people who all held their hands in the air.
A local hospital was overwhelmed with the number of wounded being brought in hours after the attack, so they had to divert them to a second facility. Dozens of people were wounded. Officials said Kenyans turned out in droves to donate blood.
The United Nations secretary general's office said that Ban Ki-moon has spoken with President Uhuru Kenyatta and expressed his concern. British prime minister David Cameron also called Kenyatta and offered assistance.
Kenyan authorities said they have thwarted other large-scale attacks targeting public spaces. Kenyan police said in September 2012 they disrupted a major terrorist attack in its final stages of planning, arresting two people with explosive devices and a cache of weapons and ammunition.
Anti-terror police unit boss Boniface Mwaniki said vests found were similar to those used in attacks that killed 76 people in Uganda who gathered to watch the soccer World Cup finals on TV in July 2010. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for those bombings, saying the attack was in retaliation for Uganda's participation in the African Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Lens - Photography, Video, and Visual Journalism
September 21, 2013, 6:40 pm Witness to a Massacre in a Nairobi Mall
By JAMES ESTRIN
Click here: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/21/witness-to-a-massacre-in-a-nairobi-mall/?ref=world
***************Renowned Ghanaian poet and statesman Kofi Awoonor killed in Kenya mall attack
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 22, 2013 7:59 EDT
Renowned Ghanaian poet and statesman Kofi Awoonor was among the 59 people confirmed dead so far in an attack by Somali Islamist militants on a Nairobi shopping mall, Ghana’s president said Sunday.
John Dramani Mahama said in a statement: “I am shocked to hear the death of Prof. Kofi Awoonor in Nairobi mall terrorist attack. Such a sad twist of fate…”
Awoonor, 78, was killed while shopping with his son in the Westgate Mall, Ghana’s Deputy Information Minister Felix Kwakye Ofosu said.
His son was injured and has been discharged from the hospital, Ofosu said.
Awoonor was Ghana’s representative to the United Nations under the presidency of Jerry Rawlings from 1990 to 1994, and was also president of the Council of State, an advisory body to the president, under former president John Atta Mills. He stepped down from that role earlier this year.
He was a renowned writer, most notably for his poetry inspired by the oral tradition of the Ewe people, to which he belonged.
Much of his best work was published in Ghana’s immediate post-independence period, part of which he spent in exile outside of the country after the first president Kwame Nkrumah, whom Awoonor was close to, was overthrown in a coup.
His books included “Rediscovery and Other Poems,” published in 1964.
****************Kenyan forces locked in standoff with militants as death toll rises to 59
Unknown number of hostages are being held after attack on Westgate shopping centre leaves dozens dead
Guy Alexander in Nairobi and agencies
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 September 2013 10.12 BST
Link to video: Nairobi shopping centre attack: injured customers escape gunmenhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/sep/21/nairobi-shopping-centre-attack-injured-customers-escape-gunmen-video
Kenyan security forces are locked in a standoff with gunmen who killed at least 59 people in a shopping mall in Nairobi, where the al-Qaida-linked militants are holding an unknown number of hostages.
Gunfire was heard on Sunday and the Kenyan government, which raised the death toll from 39 overnight, said it had evacuated more than 1,000 people. It would not say how many hostages were still in the mall but believed there were 10 to 15 attackers.
The Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack on the Kenyan capital's Westgate mall, which is frequented by westerners as well as Kenyans. Several foreigners, including a Canadian diplomat, were among the dead.
The Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, facing his first major security challenge since his election in March, said the dead included close members of his family.
The heavily armed attackers pulled up in several cars and shot their way into the most upmarket shopping centre in Nairobi, ordering Muslims out if they could prove their religion by reciting a prayer or answering a question on Islam. They started killing those who failed the test.
Shoppers, expatriates and rich Kenyans fled in any direction that might be safe: into back corners of stores, back service hallways and bank vaults. Over the next several hours, pockets of people poured out of the mall as undercover police moved in. Some of the wounded were being transported in shopping trolleys.
Following similar methods to the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, the assailants barricaded themselves in different shops in the multistorey centre. One wounded gunman was arrested, but later died in hospital.
Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility via a Twitter account. The spokesperson claimed the atrocity was in response to the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia: "The attack at #WestgateMall is just a very tiny fraction of what Muslims in Somalia experience at the hands of Kenyan invaders," the account stated. "For long we have waged war against the Kenyans in our land, now it's time to shift the battleground and take the war to their land." It continued by saying that the Kenyan government was "pleading with our mujahideen inside the mall for negotiations. There will be no negotiations whatsoever."
A senior government official said on his Twitter feed that more than 300 people had been wounded in the attack, which could prove a major setback for the east African nation, which relies heavily on tourism.
The dead included children, and the wounded ranged in age from two to 78. Many victims were at a cooking competition when assailants stormed in with automatic rifles, witnesses said. Blood lay in pools in the mall. Shop windows were shattered.
More than 20 hours after the attack began, an unknown number of people were believed to still be inside, held by the attackers. The focus was on Nakumatt supermarket, one of Kenya's biggest chains.
As shoppers inside the mall made their way to safety, witness accounts of the attack began to emerge. The gunmen carried AK-47s and wore vests with hand grenades on them, said Manish Turohit, 18, who hid in a parking garage for two hours.
"They just came in and threw a grenade. We were running and they opened fire. They were shouting and firing," he said after marching out of the mall in a line of 15 people who all held their hands in the air.
Frank Mugungu, an off-duty army sergeant major, said he saw four male attackers and one female attacker. "One was Somali. The others were black," he said.
"We started by hearing gunshots downstairs and outside. Later we heard them come inside. We took cover. Then we saw two gunmen wearing black turbans. I saw them shoot," said Patrick Kuria, an employee at Artcaffe, a restaurant with shady outdoor seating.
Hannah Chisholm, a Briton visiting Nairobi, told the BBC she and dozens of others barricaded themselves into a large storeroom. "We kept running to different places but the shots were getting louder so we barricaded ourselves along with about 60 others into a large storeroom," she said. "There were children with us as well as someone who had been shot. The gunfire was loud and we were scared but at that point we thought the gunmen were thieves so we assumed they wouldn't try to reach the storeroom."
Kenyatta said security forces were engaged in a "delicate operation," adding: "Our top priority remains to safeguard the lives of innocent people held up in this unfortunate incident."
Sporadic shooting continued for several hours after the attack, which began at around 12.30pm (10.30am BST) on Saturday but had become a tense calm by the evening. Soldiers had joined the security operation backed by armoured personnel carriers.
"It's been quiet. They will be arranging how to attack," one paramilitary officer in green camouflage fatigues, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, told Reuters close to the mall.
One woman emerged on Sunday morning after she said she had been hiding under a car in the basement. She was holding one shoe and looked dazed, and was making a frantic phone call to her husband who later met her, a Reuters witness said.
Trucks brought a fresh contingent of soldiers from the Kenya Defence Forces to the mall shortly after dawn on Sunday morning.
Kenya has been braced for an attack of this kind since it intervened in the war against al-Shabaab in Somalia by sending an expeditionary force in 2011. Since then Kenyan troops have succeeded in expelling the jihadists from the southern Somali port city of Kismayo and installing a former warlord friendly to the government in Nairobi.
The mall's ownership is Israeli, and security experts have long said the structure would make an attractive terrorist target.
Hospitals in Nairobi were overwhelmed by the number of wounded being brought in following the attack. However, officials said that Kenyans turned out in droves to donate blood and long queues had formed with further volunteers.
Kenyan authorities said they have thwarted other large-scale attacks targeting public spaces, including, in September 2012, the disruption of a major terrorist attack in its final stages of planning. They arrested two people with explosive devices and a cache of weapons and ammunition.
The anti-terror police unit boss Boniface Mwaniki said vests found were similar to those used in attacks that killed 76 people in Uganda who gathered to watch the soccer World Cup finals on TV in July 2010. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for those bombings, saying the attack was in retaliation for Uganda's participation in the African Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
**************Kenyan mall shooting: 'They threw grenades like maize to chickens'
Nairobi's most upmarket retail centre became a scene of carnage as terrorist gangs armed with AK-47s and grenades singled out victims. Guy Alexander reports
The Observer, Sunday 22 September 2013
The top floor car park at Westgate, Nairobi's swankiest shopping centre, was busier than usual on Saturday. A film crew was recording MasterChef Junior and the play area's bouncy castle and trampolines were packed with dozens of children. Inside, the multistorey mall was crowded with shoppers.
Karani Nyemo was walking to his car with his two daughters when the shooting started. They began to run. There were short bursts of automatic rifle fire punctuated by grenade blasts. "They were throwing grenades like maize to chickens," said the software engineer. He pushed his girls under the car as people around him were hit by bullets. One of my girls kept calling out to me, 'I want to go', but there was nothing I could do." A grenade landed right next to his car, only a few feet from one of his daughters, Nyemo said, but it didn't explode.
Minutes earlier two vehicles had screeched up outside the front of Westgate and a dozen gunmen, and at least one woman, jumped out. Jomo, who was in the outdoor car park opposite the centre saw 10 attackers split into two groups, one running up the steps and into the main pedestrian entrance. The other team opened fire and ran around to the vehicle entrance at the side of the building, hurling grenades. On Saturday night, after a day of bloody horror, there were reports that one suspected gunman had been wounded and detained.
Peter Churchman, his wife and their young niece had been in the popular Art Caffe on the ground floor when the attack began. The first he knew of it was when a plate glass window shattered. More gunshots followed and a loud blast. "I think it was a grenade, it made a lot of sound. We ran to the entrance."
With people running in all directions, Churchman was separated from his wife, Eva. Hours later, carrying his niece, he was still wandering amid the ambulances, police and crowds outside asking if anyone had seen a Filipina woman.
Dozens of customers in the cafe, a hangout for well-off Kenyans, diplomats and expats, found themselves running towards the attackers in the main hall. Among them was a Kenyan-Indian woman who asked not to be named. When she realised her error she turned around, but had been separated from her sister. The cavernous interior, criss-crossed by escalators, was reverberating to the sound of gunfire and explosions. On the second floor Joshua Hakim, who had stopped for a snack on his way to watch a rugby match, saw gunmen, some of whom looked to be teenagers, strapped with ammunition belts, carrying AK-47 assault rifles. "They were firing indiscriminately, they shot a lot of people," he said. During a lull in the firing the attackers called out in Swahili, a language widely spoken in Kenya and the rest of east Africa, for Muslims to identify themselves and leave.
Covering the Christian name on his ID with his thumb he approached one of the attackers, whom he described as Somali, and showed them the plastic card. "They told me to go. Then an Indian man came forward and they said, 'What is the name of Muhammad's mother?' When he couldn't answer they just shot him."
Many of the shocked survivors mingling with the crowds that gathered outside Westgate said there was little surprise at the choice of target. Since Kenya's invasion of neighbouring Somalia two years ago there has been a wave of small grenade attacks blamed on Somalis living in Kenya. There has also been a constant rumble of warnings from Somali Islamists, al-Shabaab, who have threatened to bring down "the skyscrapers" of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. On Saturday night al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Westgate mall, 10 minutes from the city centre in the Westlands district, has long been talked about as a potential terror target. Boasting upmarket patisseries, jewellery stores, a sushi restaurant and cinemas, it is a magnet for the well-off in a city characterised by sharp social divisions. The outside walls are draped with giant smartphone and tablet ads.
Over the road a small group of squatters camp out and make a living selling everything from puppies to knocked-off football shirts, bananas and flowers to the passing drivers in their 4x4s. Before sunset hundreds of the hawkers had gathered to watch the drama unfold. One man drew a storm of laughter when, after climbing on to an advertising hoarding to get a better view, he electrocuted himself on an overhead power line.
The Israeli-owned mall was well aware of the security warnings and had precautions similar to an airport; cars are checked with mirrors for bombs and pedestrians are frisked. Michael, one of the 40 or so private security guards, was in the parking lot that faces the mall. He described feeling helpless, adding: "We tried to help as many people as possible but I'm not going back in there. I don't have a gun and they have so many. I have a family to think about."
Frank Musunga, an off-duty soldier, had been shopping with a friend when the attack began. The attackers were wearing civilian clothes, he said, and were using high-calibre weapons. He said: "They were carrying a lot of guns with them, they were shooting, shooting, shooting. I saw bodies in the corridors."
By mid-afternoon, four hours after the attack, survivors were still trickling out from the building. Slumped on the pavement near an ambulance was Hilda. Dressed in a silver jumpsuit, with her face covered in little stars, she and her friends had been doing a cosmetics promotion. "When the shooting started we ran into the pharmacy and hid. There were people running everywhere."
She described hiding behind the counter for three hours while the shooting continued. Eventually an armed police unit came and rescued them, leading them out of the building.
Next to her was Mary Mulwa, who worked in the supermarket where hundreds of people had tried to hide. Shaking from the shock, she had to be carried away on a stretcher by paramedics. One of her colleagues, who gave his name as Joseph, said that customers had poured into the second-floor store seeking shelter when the firing had started. Along with dozens of customers and shop staff he hid in the storeroom. "If you tried to move that's when the firing started."
After two hours, one of the store workers gathered the courage to make for the exit. "We just went slowly, slowly feeling our way along the walls." There were people with guns everywhere, he said, adding: "You didn't know who were the policemen and who weren't."
**************Israeli forces enter Nairobi mall: security source
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 22, 2013 8:01 EDT
Israeli forces on Sunday joined Kenyan efforts to end a deadly siege by Somali militants at a Nairobi shopping mall, a security source told AFP.
“The Israelis have just entered and they are rescuing the hostages and the injured,” the source told AFP on condition he not be named.
In Israel, foreign ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson refused to confirm or deny that its forces were involved.
“We don’t make a habit of commenting on security cooperation of any kind that there may or may not be,” he told AFP.
The attack on the part Israeli-owned upmarket mall has left at least 59 dead and around 200 wounded, Kenyan officials said.
The intervention came 26 hours after gunmen walked into the complex, tossing grenades and spraying gunfire at shoppers and staff.
Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked Shebab rebels have claimed responsibility for the attack.
*******************Al-Shabaab: the rise of a youth-led Islamist movement
Fighters from Somali's al-Shabaab have continually surprised observers, who predicted their downfall early on
The Observer, Saturday 21 September 2013 23.08 BST
It is only seven years since Ethiopian forces swept into Somalia with the political and military backing of the US to topple the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist movement that had taken control of much of south and central Somalia after years of disastrous feuding between warlords. Ethiopia's vastly superior forces routed the youth militias loyal to the courts with hundreds killed or driven from the cities.
However, the Ethiopian intervention was the cue for the emergence of what had been the unheralded youth wing of the courts movement, "the shabaab" – meaning "youth" in Somali. These young fighters regrouped and took the war to the Ethiopians, who wearied of the guerrilla conflict and withdrew.
In their absence another force under the command of the African Union – made up of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and latterly Sierra Leone, as well as Kenyans in the south – attempted to hold al-Shabaab, or Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, to give the group its full name, at bay.
By 2010 the Islamic extremists held sway over much of south and central Somalia and appeared set to take the capital, Mogadishu, itself, where an appalling urban war was being fought. The future of the weak internationally backed transitional government appeared bleak until the arrival in 2010 of a devastating drought and famine that eroded support for the movement after it opposed foreign aid.
A year later al-Shabaab surprised many observers by withdrawing from Mogadishu in what it called a "tactical retreat" into the southern hinterlands of Somalia. Then, it lost its economic lifeline in the southern port city of Kismayo when Kenyan forces, fighting alongside a former warlord Ahmed Madobe, overran the city last year.
Since then there have been many predictions of the collapse of the movement but it has proved adept at managing the divisions between Somalia's fractious clans and disrupting attempts to form an effective government in Mogadishu in a series of terror attacks.
Many of those attacks follow a similar formula to that in Nairobi, with gunmen following in the wake of car bombs or grenades to inflict the maximum number of casualties. In the past fortnight there was an attack on a popular restaurant in the Somali capital, the owner of which has suffered repeated assaults on his businesses.
The Islamists have long been split between Somali nationalists, who see their jihad in local terms, and foreign fighters who see the conflict in the Horn of Africa as part of a global struggle. The international jihadists showed their influence when they conducted bombings in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, on the night of the 2010 World Cup, killing more than 70.
A spate of grenade attacks in Kenya followed the country's decision in late 2011 to intervene in the war to the north of its borders. Most of the casualties, until Saturday, suffered in the remote frontier towns of Kenya's north-eastern province and in the poorer immigrant neighbourhoods of Nairobi. However, there have been at least four plots to attack affluent targets such as the Westgate mall, thwarted by intelligence agencies, sources told the Observer.
There were fears on Saturday night that anger over the assault would spill over into attacks on the large Somali minority in Nairobi. The New York-based monitor Human Rights Watch reported earlier this year that Kenyan police and security services had carried out widespread abuses of Somali refugees under the cover of responding to terrorist threats. Kenya hosts nearly 750,000 Somali refugees, many of whom live in the complex of camps at Dadaab just inside the country's border with Somalia.
September 21, 2013
Jews Challenge Rules to Claim Heart of Jerusalem
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — Small groups of Jews are increasingly ascending the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, a sacred site controlled for centuries by Muslims, who see the visits as a provocation that could undermine the fragile peace talks started this summer.
For decades the Israelis drawn to the site were mainly a fringe of hard-core zealots, but now more mainstream Jews are lining up to enter, as a widening group of Israeli politicians and rabbis challenge the longstanding rules constraining Jewish access and conduct. Brides go on their wedding days, synagogue and religious-school groups make regular outings, and many surreptitiously skirt the ban on non-Muslim prayer, like a Russian immigrant who daily recites the morning liturgy in his mind, as he did decades ago in the Soviet Union.
Palestinian leaders say the new activity has created the worst tension in memory around the landmark Al Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, and have called on Muslims to defend the site from “incursions.” A spate of stone-throwing clashes erupted this month: on Wednesday, three Muslims were arrested and an Israeli police officer wounded in the face. And on Friday thousands of Arab citizens of Israel rallied in the north, warning that Al Aksa is in danger.
“We reject these religious visits,” Sheik Ekrima Sa’eed Sabri, who oversees Muslim affairs in Jerusalem, said in an interview. “Our duty is to warn,” he added. “If they want to make peace in this region, they should stay away from Al Aksa.”
The 37-acre site is perhaps the most religiously contested place on earth. Jews revere it as the home of the First and Second Temples 2,000 years ago. For Muslims, who call the site the Noble Sanctuary, it is the world’s third holiest spot, from which Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. More than 300,000 foreign tourists also flock there annually, many of them Christians drawn to the ruins of the temple Jesus attended.
Politically, the competing claims to the area are the nut around which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict revolves, the symbolic heart of each side’s religious and historical attachment to Jerusalem that has made its governance one of the thorniest issues in peace negotiations.
Israel captured the site along with the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, with a general declaring dramatically, “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” But the government immediately returned control to the Muslim authorities, and ever since, a de facto accommodation has prevailed in which Muslims worship at Al Aksa above and Jews at the Western Wall below, a remnant of the retaining wall around the ancient Second Temple.
There have been flare-ups before. In 2000, a visit by Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, accompanied by 1,000 police officers, prompted a violent outbreak and, many argue, set off the second intifada.
Over the last few years, a cause long taken up by only a fringe group of far right-wingers has increasingly been embraced by the modern Orthodox — known here as religious Zionists — who have also gained political power. At three recent Parliament hearings, religious lawmakers and cabinet ministers questioned the status quo, in which non-Muslims can enter the site only for a few hours five days a week, and those identified by the police as Jews are separated, escorted by police officers and admonished not to dance, sing, bow down or even move their lips in prayer.
“The Temple Mount is in our hands — but is it really?” asked Michael Freund, a Jerusalem Post columnist who visited the site as a child in 1977 and returned for the first time last year, with 50 members of his synagogue. “It particularly offends me that the Israeli government puts into place restrictions which prevent Jews from fulfilling their basic right to freedom of worship.”
Jack Stroh, a cardiologist from East Brunswick, N.J., who visited on Wednesday, has been bringing friends for five years before the holidays of Sukkot and Passover — two of three pilgrimage festivals when ancient Jews were required to pray at the temples.
“My cousin said that if Jews don’t go up to the mountain there is an increased chance that the government will say Jews are not interested and will give it away,” he said as his group waited to enter. “I’m taking them up. Someone took me up. They’ll take other people up; it’s a growing phenomenon.”
Amid the religious pilgrims on Wednesday was Michal Berdugo, 25, a secular Israeli who said it had been her “dream for three years” to visit. “It’s part of who we are,” she said.
The recent shift has many roots. For years, most authorities on Jewish law said Jews should not enter the complex for fear of treading on the ancient temple’s holiest spots, but recent archaeological work has led some moderate and even liberal Orthodox rabbis to lift those bans. At the same time, activists have stepped up their campaign for access and prayer at the Temple Mount, part of a broader push to cement Jewish control of all of Jerusalem.
Experts who have observed the phenomenon also see it as a reaction to Israel’s evacuation of Jews from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a redirection of Messianic energy once devoted to West Bank settlements that many fear could soon succumb to the same fate to make way for a Palestinian state.
“The war for the land of Israel is not just political, but essentially spiritual,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, author of a new book that traces the lives of paratroopers who seized the Mount in 1967. “Given that the Temple Mount is the focal point of holiness in the Holy Land, the thinking is that we need to go to the source in order to prevent the further partition of the land.”
Israel Police statistics show visits by people identified as Jews rose to 8,247 in 2011 from 5,792 in 2010, then dipped slightly last year. The figure is on track to top 2011’s total this year, with 5,609 Israelis coming through July. Crowds — and clashes — are expected Sunday and Monday for Sukkot.
While the numbers remain tiny compared with the 10 million annual visitors to the Western Wall below, Palestinian officials say what used to be a trickle of individuals has given way to groups of 40, 60, 90. They were particularly alarmed that the Israeli police commissioner told a newspaper this month that “every Jew who wishes to pray at the Temple Mount can pray on the Temple Mount,” though his subordinates said afterward that did not change the police policy on the ground preventing non-Muslim prayer. A recent visit by the right-wing housing minister also stirred outrage.
“Before, it was some settlers from here, some extremists from there; now we start to hear it from the real officials,” said Adnan Husseini, the Palestinian governor of Jerusalem. “When they get inside with this big number, it’s sure that they will make some kind of religious activities and there will be more friction between them and the people inside the mosque.”
The Palestinians have complained to the United Nations, the Arab League and Secretary of State John Kerry, most recently after Wednesday’s clash, when the chief Palestinian negotiator wrote to Mr. Kerry saying the issue “could inflame the situation and undermine the current opportunity to move toward peace.”
Israel’s chief rabbinate still maintains the Mount is off limits to Jews — a sign saying so is posted at the gate. But a senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the government supports “in principle” Jews’ rights to pray there, adding, “we’ve got to do it in a measured way, a sensitive way.”
As visiting the Mount has become more mainstream — one Israeli newspaper has since December 2011 devoted a full page weekly to news and columns about the site — the original hard core has been emboldened. A group formed last year calls for building a small synagogue on the plaza. Yehuda Etzion, who was arrested in 1984 for plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, and a team of architects are designing a “future Jerusalem” plan with a new temple at its heart. An activist group’s Web site devoted to the Mount unveiled a virtual tour this summer with a Third Temple where the Dome stands.
“We’re talking about something much deeper than visiting the place, we’re talking about a movement that wants to change the status quo from its roots,” said Yedidia Z. Stern, a vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an Orthodox Jew with liberal leanings who has watched the change with concern. “You’re dealing with the ultimate TNT in our national existence here.”
For Max Freidzon, the Russian immigrant, visiting the site has become a daily ritual: he stands still several times on his stroll around the Mount, and goes through the morning prayers — including a plea to rebuild the temple — without moving his lips.
“The situation is the same like it was in the Soviet Union,” said Mr. Freidzon, 46, citing the police escorts, the identification checks, and the ban on religious texts and on a minyan, the 10-person quorum required for public communal prayer. “Step by step, the situation will change. It’s necessary to pray here, and to make here minyan, and to build here temple.”
Said Ghazali, Tamir Elterman and Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.
Heat, dust and history in the sand as the riddle of Masada was uncovered
Fifty years ago, the Observer helped to recruit volunteers to excavate a symbol of Jewish history – King Herod's remote desert fortress
Harriet Sherwood in Tel Aviv
The Observer, Sunday 22 September 2013
Not exactly a call to arms perhaps, but it was a call for muscular arms, strong backs and sturdy legs, along with energy, commitment and a readiness to rough it. On 11 August 1963, under the headline "New siege of Herod's fort", the Observer published an appeal for international volunteers to join the excavation of Masada, an ancient fortress in the Judean desert. Interested parties had to be available for a minimum of two weeks, fund their own travel to and from Israel, be prepared for harsh conditions, and apply in writing to PO Box 7041, Jerusalem.
"One of the greatest surprises – and delights – of the enterprise, long before we had put scoop to rubble, was the response," wrote Yigael Yadin, the former Israeli military chief of staff turned archaeologist, who was the mastermind, driving force and public face of the dig, in his 1966 book Masada. "We were flooded with applications."
According to Ronald Harker, an Observer journalist who introduced a book on Masada produced by the paper, the applicants were "men and women, rich and poor, young and old, and from 28 countries. None was under any illusion about the nature of the task ... It was made clear that the work would be hard and often boring, the food adequate but not appetising, that the heat of the day would be severe and the nights cold, the comforts (with 10 beds to a tent) would be limited, and recreation primitive if not minimal. Yet ... pleas to join from all parts of the world continued to flow in."
Almost 10,000 people responded to the appeal; many were turned away by overwhelmed organisers. By mid-October the first batch assembled at the desert town of Arad, to be taken by truck to the base of the majestic 2,000-year-old clifftop fortress that was waiting to be uncovered. "They arrived by bus, or hitch-hiked, with rucksacks, suitcases, banjos and typewriters, in shorts, jeans, slacks and skirts," according to a contemporary account in the Jerusalem Post. "Bearded and bespectacled, clean-shaven and clear-eyed, they came from all over Israel and all over the world.
It was the biggest archaeological dig in the world. Masada had become the magnificent fortified home of Herod the Great, built on cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea – an extraordinary feat of architecture, construction and engineering. It was also the setting of one of the most powerful moments – or myths – in Jewish history. According to the account of the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, 960 Jewish rebels committed suicide at Masada rather than be captured by the Romans following a siege. The story of heroic resistance, and the choice of death over enslavement, became a powerful symbol in the nascent state of Israel.
The site had been discovered 125 years earlier, but it was not until the 1950s that two archaeological surveys led to the decision to launch the excavation and Yadin was persuaded to lead it. At the time, Masada was isolated at the southern end of the Dead Sea with no paved roads near the site. A major dig would require not just the leadership Yadin could provide, but also his logistical expertise and leverage with the army in creating a camp and keeping it supplied.
"Only Yadin could arrange such a project," said Guy Stiebel, doctor of archaeology at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and a Masada expert. "People regard archaeologists as Indiana Jones figures, but managing an excavation such as Masada is like a jigsaw puzzle. You're out in the desert, you have to make sure there's enough water and food for a camp of 300 excavators. It's not just a scientific achievement, but an administrative and logistical achievement."
Some of the volunteers had a brutal induction into camp life. "We were trucked to the foot of the snake path on the eastern side of the mountain," recalled David Stacey, now 70, in a memoir. "Yadin's idea was that the best way to introduce the volunteers to the rugged grandeur and isolation of the site was for us to have to climb the mountain and drop down to the campsite below its western scarp."
But the group's arrival coincided with torrential winter rains. "We were soaked. The trucks had not been able to negotiate the swamped desert track from Arad, so our luggage had not arrived and we were without a change of clothing ... The continued rain had turned the campsite into a running stream. I remember sitting, cold and wet, on a no longer dry bed, watching as the weight of the tent slowly dragged the pegs through the sodden ground towards me until the tent finally collapsed. Welcome to Masada."
It was a tough start to a harsh existence: up at 5am, eight hours of hard slog on the site, a diet mainly of bread, margarine, boiled eggs and processed cheese, army tents crowded with volunteers. "But we were young, and it was perfectly acceptable," Stacey told the Observer. "And the work grabbed our attention, it made the spartan conditions acceptable. It was physically very hard – an enormous amount of heavy rock lifting."
The attraction of the dig, said Stiebel, was not just the "joy, mystery and riddle of archaeology", but also the geographical setting and political context. "Israel was conceived differently than it is now. The kibbutz ethos was tremendously attractive, and Israel – a newly created country — was considered an underdog surrounded by enemies. Plus there was the charm of the east, sun, desert, isolation, the Dead Sea: the most beautiful scenery in the world." By the time darkness fell, the evenings stretched ahead with little to do except clean shards of pottery and listen to the occasional lecture on archaeology. The volunteers created their own entertainment with music, singing, dancing — and illicit activities.
Among them was an Irish musician named Joe Dolan. "He and his guitar soon became the centre of many an evening's entertainment, to which I could add an occasional English folk song," wrote Stacey. "Joe determinedly drank to excess. If the party was away from our tent, it was essential at the start of the evening to ensure that a barrow was on hand in which he could be unceremoniously wheeled home at the end of the night. Occasionally he remained in the barrow till the loudspeakers woke the camp with the call Boker Tov [Good morning]."
Dolan composed a song about his travels entitled Trip to Jerusalem: "I came from Dublin to Jerusalem town/Had a drink or two on the way down... Down to the desert then I went/Diggin' up history, livin' in a tent." It was later recorded by Christy Moore. Another evening pastime involved treacherous journeys in the dark for romantic liaisons. "There were no 'married' quarters, so assignations ... usually took place 'up the wadi' [riverbed] where snakes and scorpions proliferated. Late returners to the tent would be asked how successful their 'wadying' had been, and there was no point in claiming you'd been out to admire the desert stars, no matter how truly magnificent they were!" wrote Stacey.
Archives from the dig later revealed that the camp authorities believed Stacey to be a "wild guy and bad influence on the impressionable Israeli youth". But he was also acknowledged to be a good worker so – unlike a handful of fellow volunteers – he was not thrown out.
By the end of his allocated fortnight, Stacey was hooked. He stayed for around three months, but by the end "the magic had gone", he said. "The halutz [pioneer] spirit was no longer dominant; it was like working on a building site." But he went on to study archaeology and work on other excavations. Much of the credit for Stacey's and other volunteers' lifelong interest in archaeology was due to Yadin, who died in 1984. "He was an inspiration, charismatic, very good at informally explaining to people what they were doing and what we could expect to find," said Stacey. "He remembered all our names – and there were a lot of us – and showed us respect." But he seemed detached, with no sense of humour. "He took himself extraordinarily seriously."
Yadin had recruited David Astor, the Observer's editor, to the Masada cause, and the paper carried exclusive dispatches from the dig, some by "a special correspondent" believed to be Yadin himself. "There was careful news management," said Stiebel. "It created a stir, and rightly so."
In 1966, the Observer co-sponsored a three-week exhibition on the dig at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and published an accompanying commemorative book, telling the story of the rock fortress and its excavation.
Masada is now the biggest tourist attraction in Israel outside Jerusalem, drawing 800,000 visitors each year to view the fortress's remains and its stunning vistas. "It's a very powerful place," said Stiebel. "To this very day we are discovering new elements: there are still riddles to be solved. The nature of our science is such that, when we discover something new, it's not only that you find an answer, it leads you to the next question. I've been at Masada since 1995, and I still have light in my eyes when I speak about it."
Eretz magazine is attempting to contact those who took part in the Masada excavations of 1963 and 1964. If you took part, please contact Yadin Roman at Eretz magazine: firstname.lastname@example.org
Masada is an ancient fortification in the South District of Israel, built by Herod I in the first century AD.
Masada is situated on a high rock plateau on the edge of the Judaean desert. It overlooks the Dead Sea and has a sophisticated water collection system.
During the first century AD, a group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii launched a rebellion against the Roman empire which culminated in an extended siege, ending in the mass suicide of hundreds of rebels and their families inside the Masada fort.
The siege of Masada was part of the Great Jewish Revolt (AD73-74), which was chronicled by the Jewish rebel leader and historian Flavius Josephus (33-c100), who wrote The Jewish War.
The Masada site was declared a Unesco world heritage site in 2001.
Ghana economy grows with help of technology and targeted aid
A grassroots revolution, spreading out from Accra and involving support from the west, digital start-ups and a commitment to open government, is helping to weed out corruption in Ghana
Tim Adams, in Accra
The Observer, Sunday 22 September 2013
Driving through the streets of Ghana's capital, Accra, a couple of weeks ago, on the way from the urban centre to the slum district of Ashaiman, a trick question nagged in my head. It was a question that had popped up a few times in the previous days on a visit that had taken in fact-finding meetings with politicians, pressure groups, donor organisations and entrepreneurs, journalists and professors all talking about Ghana's future. The question was this: "What does transparency look like?"
One answer, it seemed, on that journey through Accra, at midday on 29 August, was: empty streets. The normally clogged and inch-forward roads to Ashaiman were traffic-free. There was a reason for this. It was, as Accra's Daily Graphic had it, the Hour of Judgment, high noon.
Last year Ghana narrowly re-elected its incumbent centre-left president John Dramani Mahama. For the past 10 months, however, that result has been the subject of a legal challenge by the opposition centre-right party because of alleged voting irregularities. The unprecedented court case to determine the truth has been shown live on television most afternoons, a painstaking democratic drama with a cliffhanger ending. The previous evening everyone I met in Accra told me two things: first that they have no idea which of three ways it will go – ratification, a re-run, or victory for the opposition. Second that I should not go out in the markets the following day in case of violence after the result. Some people, remembering contested elections of the past, have stocked up on food and locked the doors. Hence the empty streets.
In Ashaiman the verdict eventually crackles through on the car radio tuned to Joy FM. After considering the evidence the 11 judges have decided that the technical problems with the vote helped neither party and the original result should stand. The opposition leader, Nana Akufo-Adda, who has fought the most determined of battles to remove the president, immediately comes out to endorse the judicial verdict. President Mahama himself suggests that the waiting is over and his term of office can finally begin. And then: nothing. No protest, no unrest. People slowly come out to the markets, to go shopping. Ghana gets on with business.
Inside the Ashaiman regional assembly hall, a room with bare walls and floors, and a broken ceiling fan, local people – representatives of the assembly, leaders of women's groups and youth groups, farmers and small businessmen – are gathered round a TV, whooping and cheering at the result. They are, they explain, cheering not for any partisan cause, but for the openness of the process itself, of justice for once being seen to be done. "Ghana is the winner!" "Ghana has won!" You might say it is a triumph for transparency.
When that excitement has died down the people in that assembly hall sit to discuss another form of transparency, this one somewhat more opaque. The headline story of Ghana is of growth and transformation – in the financial pages the country is one of the "lions" of sub-Saharan Africa, with an economy expanding at 7% or more and, after the discovery of major offshore oil reserves, promises of prosperity and an aid-free future in the pipeline. Still, in a place such as Ashaiman, home to 200,000 people with non-existent roads, squalid housing and drainage, brutally under-resourced education and healthcare, that promise seems a long way off. Ghana has recently become one of the first countries to sign up to the Open Government Initiative. The theory is that the government provides open access to its data on revenue, spending and outcomes, and that, seeing for the first time what they are entitled to, the electorate will use that data to demand better services. In this assembly hall the practice of that theory is tested.
The first problem raised seems quite a crucial one: Ashaiman district authority has apparently received not a cent of the money due to it from the central government capital fund this year. Nothing for road maintenance, schools or drains. One response to the long-broken promise to surface the main road has been a demonstration which shut down Ashaiman in June, residents making burning roadblock barricades. The local radio called it, with a nod to Tahrir Square, the Ashaiman Spring. Work on the road commenced the following week.
A man who introduces himself as the Hon BB Abdulai, who runs his own local NGO for women's health issues, and who is on the independent monitoring committee of the assembly, proves to be a master of understatement. "There are," he says, "cash irregularities. Accounting for money is a big problem here."
To counter such irregularities the monitoring committee of the assembly puts its faith in a simple idea: more data. The worse the situation, we are told, the stronger the resolve to collect true information and make it public, an open government initiative of a different kind. The monitoring group is part of the Social Enterprise Development Foundation (Send), which has 11 members in each district of the 53 poorest regions of Accra. The network goes out into the community, fills in questionnaires, gathers reality, gives that information to the public in accessible reports online and – set against the government's promises – campaigns for justice. Siapha Kamara is the CEO of Send. The stated vision on his business card reads: "A West Africa where people's rights and well-being are guaranteed." It is slow work.
It is also, however, just possible that the future in this part of the world may belong to people such as Siapha Kamara and his grassroots team. They are, you might say, transparency revolutionaries, engaged in the hard grind of finding reliable facts in a place where knowledge has always been hard to come by, facts that can be leveraged for change. Sanjay Pradhan, formerly the World Bank's director of governance, and long a pioneer of what is called the Open Agenda for development, has in the past called people such as Kamara "lonely warriors". The good news is they are no longer quite so alone.
The ONE organisation with whom I have been travelling in Ghana has a more upbeat name for people like Kamara: "factivists". ONE, led by Bono, is in Ghana on a dual mission. The first part of it is related to the organisation's efforts to hold western governments to their promises on development spending, in particular their commitments to the Global Fund against HIV/Aids which continues to save millions of lives on the continent.
The previous morning we had visited Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, which Bono had first come to in 2002, before the Global Fund was established, in the company of then US secretary of the treasury, Paul O'Neill, on a tour that helped to convince the Bush administration of its commitment to the cause. Bono is back here again now with a delegation from RED, corporate leaders who also commit a proportion of revenue. The hospital's programme manager, Dr Nii Akwei Addo, extends his welcome: "We started 10 years ago from zero, and all we used to do was counsel and talk and watch people die. Now we have 72,000 people on anti-retroviral treatment, all with support from the Global Fund. We have spread the money as far as we can spread it."
The Global Fund is due a $15bn replenishment in the coming weeks of which 10% should come from Britain. Progress has been spectacular; in Ghana alone the crucial rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/Aids has been reduced by 75% since the advent of the fund. Still, you only have to spend some time speaking to Adane Nsure, who has lived with HIV for 14 years, and whose third, healthy child, a daughter, Happy, is asleep on her lap, to believe it is money well spent.
The commitment to combat HIV/Aids was one of the Millennium Development Goals, envisaged 13 years ago now, by Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian, as a blueprint for a new relationship between the developed and the developing world. The targets were to be achieved within 15 years, that is to say, by 31 December 2015, a date which, particularly when viewed from Accra, now seems very close. It has long been the fashionable cynic's view that the goals – "the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger", and so on – were hopelessly resistant to scrutiny. Jamie Drummond, who was an architect of the Drop the Debt and Make Poverty History campaigns, and who is now director of ONE.org, would not subscribe to that argument. Along with ONE's Africa director, Dr Sipho Moyo, who is with us in Accra, he is quick to reel off some of the statistics about Ghana to back up his point; among them that life expectancy has risen by six years to 64 since 2000, child mortality has fallen by 22%, and Ghana has more than halved extreme poverty levels in that period.
Still, as both Drummond and Moyo accept, one of the valid criticisms of the original MDGs was that they gave the impression of being the imposed solution of rich countries on this part of the world. A new post-2015 framework, which is currently being debated, should clearly be more representative of the demands of Africans. To this end, Dr Moyo, based in Johannesburg for ONE, has developed an initiative called You Choose that has canvassed 200,000 Africans in the south of the continent and invited them to outline their priorities. The answers emphasised jobs, inclusive growth (in particular measures to keep a bigger proportion of wealth from the extractive industries – of the $2bn earned from Ghana's gold mines annually, for example, only $38m stays in Ghana), more open accountability of corporations and government and donors, and an end to corruption. If the original MDGs asked for an "aid revolution", this time around, therefore, they may well demand a "transparency revolution".
ONE, along with many other organisations, has lately been working to understand and nurture what that revolution might involve. Having lobbied, successfully, over the past two years for legislation that requires American and European mining and oil companies to publish their contracts for concessions in Africa – the secrecy of which was previously the source of enormous corruption – Drummond and Moyo are in Ghana to examine the progress of the other half of that transparency compact. That's the one which demands African governments be transparent democracies, open both about the money they receive from all sources, and accountable for where it is spent. Hence the importance of "factivists" such as Kamara, people who are slowly building and reinforcing the idea of civil society, demanding more robust and well-scrutinised institutions.
Over the course of a few days in Ghana we have met a lot of these people, heroically trying to piece together data that might hold governments and corporations to account, to follow in detail the millions that come in from mining concessions and donor organisations and to discover exactly where the money goes. Some are representatives of organisations such as Revenue Watch, who have been at this for a long time. Some are individuals such as Professor Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi at the University of Accra, whose Afrobarometer has long been a scourge of Ghanaian governments (he sees progress in the fact that this year the ruling party asked for his analysis and data in advance). Some, like Imani, are smart thinktanks, and some are old-fashioned muck-raking journalists. If the transparency revolution has a Che Guevara figure in Ghana it is Anas, an undercover reporter who keeps his identity a close-guarded secret as he works to expose corruption in business and public service. He is one of the few contemporary journalists whose legend and exploits are retold by local rappers. In a recent interview he described his anti-corruption mission as a war. "Corruption must be engaged in direct and full-frontal attack," he said. "Institutions in Africa and other developing countries are not well developed … It's a challenge. But we are all on board developing this country – or, better, this continent."
If Anas is the military wing of this engagement then its most effective secret weapon is technology. After the visit to the hospital, the ONE delegation pitches up at a "tech hub" called Meltwater. A privately funded incubator of digital start-ups, it is the silicon valley of Accra, and offers 20 places a year for budding software designers from more than 1,000 applicants. Gathered together at the institute for the afternoon are many of the young tech entrepreneurs who are already transforming the country's digital economy, developing platforms that understand the local market. As one delegate says: "We are not going to see the next Twitter or Facebook come from here, but we are going to see African versions of those things."
The exciting part for factivists is that a lot of these apps and ideas serve to connect and inform and provide smart services in a myriad number of ways, empowering those not used to being able to control elements of their lives. Bright Simons, for example, is the founder of mPedigree, an app that allows patients to verify the authenticity of drugs, invaluable in countries where there might be 20 generic options, allowing a "smart regulatory system" and saving lives through the reduction in circulation of fake and substandard medicines. Herman Chinery-Hesse, widely known as the Bill Gates of Accra, has developed a cheap and transparent payroll platform, democratising accounting, and is working on a security network for poor neighbourhoods that uses the spare capacity of private security firms allied to a network of friends and family. An organisation called MoTech sends voice messages to pregnant women in rural areas, particularly in the largely impoverished north of Ghana, reducing the necessity for them to travel to clinics, and providing advice in their local language that reduces the still alarming rates of maternal mortality. (The project was set up by the Gates foundation, but is engaged with mobile companies, which offer the service for free, and win the loyalty of whole communities in return.) Others point to the growth of platforms such as Ipaidabribe.com, and WhereMyMoneyDey?, which are creating a network of whistleblowers across the continent, or to GCNet, which crowdsources instances of corruption at ports in Ghana.
These are all small steps towards a more robust and open democracy in a country like Ghana, but taken together they perhaps begin to spread not only a notion of accountability, but a spirit of engagement.
At one point, later, walking the lecture rooms at Meltwater, where students are coding their business ideas, Bono asks the question of Dr Moyo's You Choose campaign of a particular cohort: "What do you think we should be working on for the next 15 years?" The consensus is pretty clear: corruption. "We are the e-generation," one student says, "we will not behave like them." "Openness, access to good information, accountability," as Bono suggests in reply, "seems to me to be a unifying theme that we can all gather around." The how and the where of such a gathering is not yet remotely clear – but you guess, to answer that opening trick question, it is exactly what transparency might look like.
IN NEW REVIEW
5The number of years ahead of the 2015 deadline that the target of reducing extreme poverty by half was reached.
2012 The year by which the target of halving the number of people without proper access to clean and safe sources of drinking water was met.
200mThe number of people in slums who saw their living conditions improved - double the target set for 2020.
2012The year that the number of girls enrolling in primary school equalled the number of boys. There has been progress in reducing the number of children and mothers who die from preventable causes. The number of people dying around the world from tuberculosis and malaria has fallen and there is now more treatment available for people living with HIV.
2013 The year that the Maldives displaced Cambodia as the top-performing country – on track to meet all of the core millennium targets.
30 The number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa that appear to have accelerated progress in the past three years. At the same time some countries with very large populations, such as Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are failing in many areas and are showing slowing progress in the regions.
49 The number of poor countries that have improved their overall goal scores since 2010. A total of 17 have declined and 10 have stayed the same. A 2013 report said this reflects "a general trend of accelerated progress, albeit with remaining pockets of lagging performance".
Neil deGrasse Tyson disproves idea of ‘the speed of dark’
By Arturo Garcia
Friday, September 20, 2013 21:43 EDT
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson shot down the idea of the “speed of dark” on his StarTalk podcast while recognizing that the idea does have a literary appeal.
“What is the speed of dark? If darkness is the absence of light, dark has no speed at all,” deGrasse Tyson explained to co-host Eugene Mirman.
deGrasse Tyson pointed out that philosophers like to ask that kind of question, but he argued that while the question sounds gramatically correct if one properly aligns “the words and nouns,” that does not make it scientifically legitimate.
“It’s like saying, ‘What flavor cheese is the Moon made of?’ deGrasse mused.
“So the answer is zero,” Mirman offered. “While the Moon is not brie.”
“Just because we have a word for something that is the absence of light doesn’t mean the absence of light is a thing, then, to ask questions about, physically,” deGrasse Tyson responded.
Watch deGrasse Tyson break down his reasoning, as posted by StarTalk Radio on YouTube on Friday, below.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_FFjYSkkpA
Rotating moon filmed in space by Nasa
Nasa video footage shows what the moon looks like as it rotates. The images are impossible to witness from Earth. Nasa video footage shows what the moon would look like as it rotates. The images are impossible to witness from Earth, because the moon is 'tidally locked' to it, meaning only one of its faces ever points toward the planet. These timelapse pictures were captured using Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which circles the moon at an altitude of 50km
Click to watch:http://www.theguardian.com/science/video/2013/sep/20/rotating-moon-space-nasa-video
In the USA...United Surveillance America ...New FBI director James Comey defends Obama’s surveillance program
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, September 21, 2013 6:00 EDT
The FBI’s new director says he supports the government’s electronic surveillance program as a useful, “legal” tool, even though he opposed eavesdropping activities under ex-president George W. Bush.
Two weeks after taking over at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey said in an interview with AFP and several other news outlets that President Barack Obama’s controversial spying policies were needed to counter a “metastasizing” threat from Al-Qaeda.
With the network’s core leadership weakened in Pakistan, the threat posed by Al-Qaeda had evolved, he said, with affiliate groups cropping up around the world and “self-radicalized lonewolves” — homegrown extremists feeding off internet propaganda — posing a threat within the United States.
The former federal prosecutor and Republican, who towers at six feet eight inches (two meters) tall, comes to the job amid a firestorm over far-reaching surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) and concerns over privacy rights, following dramatic leaks by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
“It is both a useful tool and a tool that is circumscribed by all kinds of checks and balances,” Comey said.
“Its challenge is to find a space in the American public life to talk about how those things work.”
He called for public discussion to address the role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews the spying, and “all the fences that are around this, why this is lawful and appropriate” under the US Constitution.
During his time in the Justice Department under the Bush administration, Comey clashed with the White House in a now famous showdown over the legality of a domestic eavesdropping program.
According to Comey’s account to lawmakers and The New York Times, White House officials tried to persuade the then attorney general, John Ashcroft, to approve the program while he was ill and undergoing treatment in a hospital, even though he had already decided to reject it.
Comey got word and raced to the hospital, and managed to prevent White House officials from pressuring the attorney general into approval.
The program, created in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, authorized the NSA to eavesdrop — without a court warrant — on telephone and online communications outside America even if the other end of the communication was located inside the United States.
The program was suspended in 2007 after a public outcry and oversight by the surveillance court was restored. Revelations from Snowden have shown the NSA has since overstepped its authority for domestic spying in numerous cases, but the agency insists those were unintentional mistakes.
“I’m comfortable with it,” Comey said.
“It’s important to find the right balance when the government needs to collect information when it’s lawful and appropriate, with public concern about privacy.”
It was vital to have a public debate on the issue, said Comey, adding “I think that’s healthy.”
He predicted the issue will inevitably makes its way to the Supreme Court, but Comey said he believes the surveillance and data collection does not violate the privacy rights enshrined in the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
Comey said recent moves to declassify NSA documents on data collection were useful as “people can actually see” and understand what the government is doing.
But, agreeing with statements from US intelligence chief James Clapper, he said there was also the danger that it could cause extremists to change the way they communicate.
“I share those concerns, it’s a very big deal,” he said.
Sitting in the office of his predecessor Robert Mueller, who served for 12 years as head of the vast law enforcement agency, Comey said without a doubt his “top priority” was tackling terrorist threats.
“I wake up every morning with it. I go to bed at night with it,” he said, adding that he would continue Mueller’s work transforming the bureau into an “intelligence” agency to detect terror plots.
Not long after starting as director, Comey was in the spotlight as his agency carries out an investigation into Monday’s shooting rampage at the Navy Yard in the heart of Washington, which left 13 dead.
Gunman Aaron Alexis, a former Navy sailor turned defense contractor, died in an exchange of fire with police and so far authorities have found no link to terrorism or extremist groups.
*************Tiny North Dakota town braces against neo-Nazi plans for all-white community
Town of Leith, population 24, has sought outside help amid news that a white supremacist group plans to call it home
Ed Pilkington in New York
theguardian.com, Saturday 21 September 2013 15.32 BST
The tiny town of Leith in North Dakota is bracing itself for a potentially turbulent weekend. Its 24-strong population is set to be overrun by opposing busloads of neo-Nazis attempting to create a white supremacist community there and their anti-racist detractors.
Jeff Schoep, commander of the American National Socialist Movement (NSM), is preparing to travel from Detroit to Leith to hold a town-hall meeting and press conference on Sunday afternoon. On the NSM website, he describes the trip as a "gesture of goodwill", but goes on to say ominously that the aim is to "plant the seeds of National Socialism in North Dakota".
Anti-racist activists are also expected to descend on Leith from other parts of North Dakota and neighbouring Minnesota. "We cannot accept this racist hatred they are bringing here – Leith is in crisis and is crying out for help," one of the organisers, Jeremy Kelly, told the Bismarck Tribune.
For the residents of Leith, the prospect of a weekend filled with white supremacist grandstanding is highly unwelcome. The town mayor, Ryan Schock, told the Guardian "people are very concerned. They do not want people to come to this town who have hate in them."
Leith's conundrum began when a newcomer called Paul Craig Cobb began buying up deserted plots of land two years ago, accumulating 12 plots in total. Last month it was revealed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors right-wing extremism, that Cobb, 61, is in fact a white supremacist wanted in Canada for promoting hatred in a blog.
It was also disclosed that he had moved to Leith in the hope of quietly constructing a neo-Nazi community along with allies in the National Socialist Movement and White Aryan Resistance (WAR). He is in the process of transferring some of the properties to Schoep, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard called Tom Metzger, and to April Gaede, founder of the neo-Nazi group National Vanguard.
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center said Cobb's attempt to form an extremist community was in line with previous efforts to set up such collectives in Idaho and Montana. "Cobb has probably gone further than anyone before him in pursuing this white supremacist dream," she said.
The publicity surrounding Cobb's plans in Leith is likely to put a stop to his acquisition of any further land in the area, as local property owners are now wary of dealing with him. But there is little that can be done, Beirich said, to force him to give up the plots he already owns.
Leith residents are trying a variety of different moves to encourage him to leave town and have created a defence fund to pay for legal fees. One potential tactic is to have his house condemned under local amenity laws – Cobb's property is not linked up to water or sewer services.
A more extreme move that is being discussed would be to abandon Leith's status as a town before neo-Nazi supporters get close to outnumbering the other residents and thus controlling the town hall.
In a statement, Schoep accused "far left extremists" of trying to drive Cobb from his home. "Craig Cobb is not alone," he said, "and will not be driven out, or forced to leave. Legal paperwork is being drafted to insure the civil rights of Mr Cobb, and other new residents of Leith will not be violated."
*************Conservatives Reduced To Telling Young People Not To Get Medical Care At All
By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, September 20, 2013 9:59 EDT
Not history’s greatest monsters.
It’s been really funny, if also deeply disturbing, to see conservatives desperately cast around for any opportunity they can find to derail Obamacare as October 1st, the day the health care exchanges start, comes nearer. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Republicans realize that once people start to use the exchanges, they are going to be enthusiastic about it, and so they’re trying to keep as many people as possible from getting to the exchanges to begin with. That’s because, at this point, Republicans aren’t even trying to hide the fact that they straight up don’t think that certain people deserve health insurance. The efforts to make sure as few uninsured people as possible get health insurance include attacks on the navigator programs to help people sign up for insurance (apparently, nothing—nothing—is worse to Republicans than the idea of some uninsured person getting an hour’s worth of help getting signed up for health insurance) and, of course, propaganda trying to scare people into not even looking at the websites where you can sign up for insurance. The Koch brothers especially have been aiming ads specifically at young people that are trying to make young people think that getting into an health insurance plan is like, the worst thing that could ever happen to you. They want young people especially out of it, because they know that getting young people into insurance plans is expected to lower the overall premiums for everyone, and because the Koch brothers are Batman villain-level evil, they’ve decided it’s important that people pay more for health care because that’s why.
Which is how we got this ad:http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/09/19/uncle_sam_obamacare_gynecologist_ad.html
And one for the gents:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsN75nt1aUU
I’ve watched these ads a few times, and while there’s some sort of weak attempt to suggest that there’s a metaphor going on, in reality the message of the ads seems awfully straightforward: “Hey, young people! You might think getting health insurance so you can go see a doctor is a good thing! But if you actually go in to see a doctor, they will do invasive medical tests that are physically unpleasant. Why not just skip the whole thing? You don’t really want someone putting a speculum in your hoo-haa or a finger up your butt, do you? Health insurance is just a scam so that doctors can touch your private bits.”
There’s just no other way this ad works. It’s about trying to make the experience of going to the doctor seem so miserable that the viewer just decides to hell with all that. The clownish Uncle Sam and the tagline seem to be groping towards an incoherent government-in-your-business message, but the emotional ploy—i.e. the real point of the ad—is all about making medical care seem too scary to be bothered with.
That’s where we are in this country: Conservative activists, actively trying to keep people from seeing a doctor. Because, that’s why.
It won’t work, of course. As Matt Yglesias says:
The advertisement, I think, underscores the conceptual problem with the boycott movement. I’m not the world’s leading expert in the field but (perhaps unlike conservative movement leaders), I have spoken to young women in my life. And in my experience they already regard gynecological exams as a not-exactly-awesome way to spend the afternoon. They’re not light entertainment, they’re medically necessary health care. And yet if you lack health insurance, you may not be able to afford the health care you need. That’s really bad.
It’s true that men might be slightly more amendable to the idea that it’s better just to never see doctors at all, but I don’t think that’s true of young men in America, who are less taken in by the message that the emasculation of having a doctor see you naked is worse than, say, dying in a ditch somewhere. And the male ad is aimed at young men: The whole idea of the ad is that if you don’t get a health care plan, no one will be sticking a finger up your butt. I just don’t think they care that much. Young people these days are actually more invested in being healthy than their elders probably were at their age. They show strong interest in having health insurance. They eat better and exercise more. They’re a lot less homophobic and sexually uptight, which I suspect means they’re not as susceptible to these kinds of ads that prey on shame about your private parts in order to discourage you from getting health care. I just don’t think this sort of thing is going to work.
Like Matt says, this is about trying to sell the idea that buying insurance through the exchange is “actually worse than having no health insurance at all.” That’s really the corner they’ve painted themselves into, so it makes sense that anti-Obamacare people are trying to sell young people on the idea that having access to check-ups is some kind of terrible torture that they should avoid. But man, that shit is dark.
**************Choice, for women, is not about biology. It’s about basic equality
By Ana Marie Cox, The Guardian
Saturday, September 21, 2013 9:04 EDT
The battle over abortion rights is simply a flashpoint in women’s pervasive experience of being deprived of control of our destinies
One of the most frustrating things about being “pro-choice” is the assumption that the only choice we care about has to do with our bodies. Really, the choices we’re talking about have to do with preserving, or expanding, all of the choices available to women. The choices we make about our bodies, yes, but also choices about our time, our minds, our emotions, our money, our thoughts, our votes and our voices.
There is not a woman reading this right now that hasn’t experienced a reminder, probably quite recently, maybe even today, that her choices are more limited than a man’s. This week, I asked the Twitter universe for examples of this – examples of how women don’t have the options that men do in all kinds of situations. Some of the answers were funny, a lot were serious, all of them meant something. A few favorites:
@anamariecox not always on hairstyles, try wearing hardhat w/ponytail, but don’t have to worry about shaving for respirator fit (beards bad)
— Geeky Girl Engineer (@gkygirlengineer) September 18, 2013
@soonergrunt @anamariecox I would have been a flight medic, would have made a sniper both closed at time. Men aren’t thrilled with 11bravo.
— JessicaRRG (@Mumaroo1) September 18, 2013
@lechatsavant @anamariecox not diagnosed with adhd until my 40′s because everybody knows only boys have adhd
— Knuck (@knck1es) September 18, 2013
@anamariecox when you see a woman executive, chances are she’s in HR because, you know, vagina means soft skills, right?
— Lois Lipstick Long (@LipstickLong) September 18, 2013
And a last one, kind of meta and very sad:
@anamariecox Not wanting to share incidents here to avoid dealing with potential backlash when colleagues/professional contacts see it
— Teresa Genaro (@BklynBckstretch) September 18, 2013
My own first clear memory of realizing that my future would be different than a boy with the same dreams was in high school. I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and, like most 15 year-olds who read On the Road, I immediately wanted to take off across the country myself. That Kerouac was sexist I don’t think I realized or maybe chose to ignore. But what I knew in my gut was that I probably would never be able to make that trip, certainly not by myself.
Since then, there have been other reminders. As I said, almost daily ones. But my own experience is less important than the fact that I even something that specific didn’t just happen to me.
When I asked the Twitterverse for those examples, in fact, one of the very first responses was from another journalist, who shared her frustration over not being able to safely take the same assignments as male colleagues – which is the adult, professional version of my own frustrated Kerouacian dream, and one I share today. I have male colleagues who have reported from war zones, profiled Somali pirates, gone undercover in secret societies, and they’ve written amazing pieces – stories that I will never get the chance to add to myself.
It’s true that you or I could do any one of those stories. What’s different for me, for us is the effort, the support needed, and the danger involved.
In the implicit closing down of options, in the subtle way power is exerted over our choices, in the diffuse and invisible discouragement, the lack of any one person to blame … that narrowing of choices in the assignments I can take or in the places you can go or the sports our daughters can play – all of these are minor analogues to the more intensely personal and dramatically physical shutting-down of women’s choices about their bodies.
Yes, there are villains in the story of needless access restrictions and “safety” regulations; yes, there are specific lawmakers and activists. There are people we can rally against. But what makes the battle for reproductive choice so tricky is that while it’s easy to defeat or expose the obvious assholes (Todd Akin), the rhetoric and tactics of our opposition draw on the existing and pervasive forms of institutionalized sexism that don’t have an obvious connections to pregnancy or contraception. Some examples of what I mean:
• Laws that require practioners to have hospital privileges or that bar the use of telemedicine in reproductive health, but allow it for non-gendered procedures, draw on the idea that women’s bodies are inherently more mysterious and delicate, and that they must be protected against imaginary threats.
• Laws that mandate ultrasounds (pdf) or counseling (pdf), or both, draw on the idea that women don’t know their own bodies, or don’t realize the consequences of their decisions. This despite the fact that today most women seeking abortions – up to 72% – are already mothers. They know what’s happening to them, the connection between what’s happening to them and the potential for a child.
• Barring abortion in all cases except for when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest relates to the belief that in any other situation, a woman’s unwanted pregnancy is “her fault”, that a woman who decides of her own free will to have sex is tacitly agreeing to become pregnant – because the only real reason for a woman to have sex is, of course, to get pregnant.
• Waiting periods, and multiple clinic visits, hinge on the underlying belief that women are prone to hasty, “emotional” decisions, that they must be protected from their own hysterical behavior. This despite surveys that show almost 90% of women who seek abortions are “highly confident” about their decision before they contact a provider.
This assumption of flightiness, that women who want to end their pregnancies haven’t made a rational decision, underlies almost all the justifications for limiting women’s access to providers of reproductive healthcare. The decision to end a pregnancy involves emotions, it generates emotions, but it’s not an emotional decision. People who are anti-choice disparage the abortion decision as one made to “get out of” being pregnant, as one made out of selfishness or hedonism. But any woman who’s faced an unwanted pregnancy knows that the decision to end it carries its own negative consequences. I’m not talking about pseudo-scientific warnings about “post-abortion syndrome” or any permanent mental or spiritual or physical impairment, but just a weight of knowledge that inevitably follows the decision to refuse what we know to be a gift, in exchange for a different kind of gift.
Any real choice also has consequences; any freedom worth having has a cost. When we argue for choice, choice of any kind, we are not arguing that we want something for nothing. We are arguing for the right to pay the cost that men pay, and get the same benefit in return. To do the same work that men do, and get the same pay. To achieve what they’ve achieved and not have it taken away.
When I opened up that conversation on Twitter, I knew that there would be pushback.
A lot of the pushback took the form of “men suffer too!” I have some sympathy for this argument. Gender roles constrain men, though they usually constrain men only when they want to exercise a behavior that’s considered feminine. Men don’t suffer when they act like men; they experience bias when they want to do something that women do. What’s more, the gender bias is rarely (not never, but rarely) enshrined in law. Imagine if there was a waiting period for Viagra.
Also, I would gladly trade some of the so-called “advantages” women have for, say, equal representation in politics. You can have my Jimmy Choos. Give me Governor Wendy Davis.
Most of the negative commentary on Twitter was just sarcasm and mockery – laughing at the idea that having to pay more for alterations was part of the “war on women”. Two things on that: first, any time women are reminded that they don’t have the same freedoms and benefits that men have matters; and second, invalidating the discussion as trivial kind of proves the point that we need to have it.
That mockery and pushback are also a hint at the most powerful tool we have in claiming the choices we’ve been denied: to speak out about them. To call out the sexism we experience as sexism. This can be exhausting, I admit. I think most of us choose to not do it all the time; it could turn into a full-time job. (That’s mine!)
Everyone can choose their own limits about these things, pick her own battles. It helps to have a sense of humor. But we do have to talk about it.
Not talking about institutionalized, invisible and everyday, “trivial” sexism allows it not just to persist, but persist in ways that other women (and men!) don’t even recognize. I give credit to a lot of the men who watched that Twitter discussion unfold and wrote that they “didn’t realize” what we faced. Didn’t realize that, yes, we notice when there aren’t women’s teams on television, or women’s names on the ballot, or that our pants don’t fit, or that garage mechanics overcharge us.
I worry that some women might not realize that those forms of sexism are pervasive but not permanent. Things can change. Things do change. But we have to talk about them first.
• This column is a version of a speech the author gave at NARAL-Pro-Choice Minnesota’s “The Power of Choice” event on 19 September
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
September 22, 2013 09:00 AMWhy We Fight: Holding Journalists' Feet to the Fire
By Nicole Belle
This is what David Gregory, Chuck Todd and NBC News think is journalism. They cover politics as if it was sports. They report stats, they list plays in the game and the players. It's dispassionate and focuses not on the policies themselves, but the dance of politicos.
It's also fundamentally dishonest. Politics is not a game and shouldn't be treated like a sporting event. At no point during that little cheerful recitation of polling results does either Gregory or Todd actually point out that the raising of the debt ceiling has never been a point of extortion until President Obama took office. Nor did they bother to mention that the debt ceiling has nothing to do with cutting costs, as it only reflect already-committed budgetary items. Do any of the people who they poll understand that the GOP is essentially refusing to actually pay for items they've already approved spending on?
And that's not even getting into the real world impact of this political gamesmanship. Lee Fang at The Nation shames NBC News pathetic excuse for political coverage of GOP obstructionism of Obamacare with just four photographs. Photographs that will never be broadcast on NBC News.
Dan Froomkin took it further, and castigated the heartlessness that masks as "neutral" journalism covering the House Republicans vote cutting SNAP benefits:
The Republican-led House yesterday voted to make deep cuts to the food stamps program that has kept millions of American families from going hungry since the recession hit, saying its response to growing need was instead a sign of bloat and abuse.
The New York Times editorial board this morning said the vote "can be seen only as an act of supreme indifference."
But that's not the way the paper's own reporters covered it. Like those at essentially every other mainstream news organization, they wrote it straight. They focused on procedure. They quoted both sides. And they called it a day.
I decided to closely examine this morning's coverage of the vote because such a blatantly absurd and cruel move struck me as a good test of whether the Washington press corps could ever bring itself to call things as they so obviously are -- or whether they would check their very good brains at the door and just write triangulating mush that leaves readers to fend for themselves. It was no contest.
That's the key, isn't it? This may seem like some intellectual exercise of strategy and positioning to Todd and Gregory, but these are actions that affect real lives. Maybe they'd care if defaulting on the full faith and credit of the country causes another global economic collapse, but even that is a fairly esoteric thought exercise for them. But take it down to the personal level. What does a "win" for conservatism do for the single mother struggling to feed and house her kids on a minimum wage job? How does it impact the stateside family of a military person stationed in Afghanistan when paychecks don't come? Does Chuck and David spend a moment of thought for the family teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because of recission saved by the restrictions placed on insurance companies, thanks to Obamacare?
Of course they don't. And while I totally admit that Chuck Todd isn't the only, or even the most egregious, transgressor in the Beltway Bubble, he is the one who vocalized the prevailing attitude amongst the DC journalists. Charlie Pierce:
And this is what is really goddamn dangerous about what my man Chuck Todd said the other day. (Chuck's feeling a bit put upon these days. Tough.) According to Chuck's notion of what his job is, when conservative politicians latch onto a phony Fox News story in order to make policy, it is the job of the Democrats -- or, perhaps, of the SNAP recipients themselves, who have, as we know, virtually unlimited access to the airwaves -- to correct the arrant bullshit. Or, when politicians of both parties latch onto a phony "scandal" in the SSI program, it is the job of the embattled people running the program -- or, perhaps, of Marcus Stephens's parents, both of whom were, of course, important newspaper columnists of the day -- to get out the truth. Chuck's just the messenger. Thus does the oligarchy tell stories to itself.
And of course, what Digby said:
I suspect that much of this blasé journalistic attitude stems from the fact that these cuts will not become law due to the Democratic Senate and White House. And that's correct. But the problem is that in doing so, they are normalizing this nihilistic argument. And when the Republicans once again obtain power, they will have persuaded a good many Americans that the food stamp program is a form of welfare that creates dependency on government. A lot of their own people already believe that, despite the fact that just a few years ago there was a bipartisan consensus that we shouldn't allow people to go without food in America. Just as welfare took years of propagandizing to become unpopular among a majority, so too will cutting food stamps. And a lot of the reason it could ultimately succeed will be the media's failure to take it seriously as a policy when it had no chance of being signed into law.
This is why we fight. This is why we need to call out hacks like Chuck Todd and David Gregory and make sure that they know we think they need to do their job much, much better.