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« Reply #9690 on: Nov 01, 2013, 05:57 AM »

Germany may invite Edward Snowden as witness in NSA inquiry

Green politician meets US whistleblower in Moscow to discuss possibility of helping parliamentary investigation into US spying

Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Friday 1 November 2013 08.25 GMT   

Edward Snowden may be invited to Germany as a witness against the US National Security Agency.

Action is under way in the Bundestag to commission a parliamentary investigation into US intelligence service spying and a German politician met Snowden in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the matter.

Hans-Christian Ströbele, the veteran Green party candidate for Berlin's Kreuzberg district, reported that the US whistleblower was prepared in principle to assist a parliamentary inquiry.

But Ströbele warned of the legal complications that would come with Snowden leaving Russia, where he has been granted asylum after leaking documents on mass NSA surveillance. Witnesses to parliamentary enquiries are usually given the financial support and legal protection required for them to travel to Germany.

During the meeting, Snowden handed Ströbele a letter addressed to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, which will be read out publicly on Friday afternoon.

The latest developments will encourage those who hope Germany may eventually grant political asylum to Snowden. In June, his application for asylum there was rejected by the foreign ministry because, legally, he had to apply for asylum in person and on German soil. If Snowden was brought to Germany as a witness, he could meet these requirements.

Activists are said to be considering other means of getting Snowden to Germany. Under paragraph 22 of the German residence law, Snowden could be granted a residence permit "if the interior ministry declares it to be in Germany's political interest". After reports of Merkel's mobile phone being hacked by the NSA, such conditions could be said to apply.

Some German politicians and newspaper columnists have backed calls for Snowden to be invited as a witness. The justice minister, Sabine Leuheusser-Schnarrenberger, told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper: "If the allegations build up and lead to an investigation, one could think about calling in Snowden as a witness."

Thomas Oppermann, of the Social Democrats, said: "Snowden's claims appear to be credible, while the US government has blatantly lied to us on this matter. That's why Snowden could be an important witness, also in clearing up the surveillance of the chancellor's mobile."

In Süddeutsche Zeitung, the columnist Heribert Prantl wrote: "Granting asylum to Snowden could be a way of restoring Germany's damaged sovereignty."

The Bundestag will hold a special session to discuss NSA spying on 18 November. The Green party and the leftwing Die Linke have been leading calls for that session to result in a parliamentary investigation. Latest reports indicate that the Social Democratic party will support such a move, which would mean it would most likely go ahead.


10/31/2013 06:04 PM

NSA Blowback: Counterespionage Pushed to Step Up

By Jörg Diehl

Amid the continuing NSA scandal, the German intelligence community is being pushed to do more to counter US spying. But with limited resources and a complex bureaucracy, that may not be easy.

Perhaps the proudest moment in the recent history of German counterespionage was a stealth operation conducted in October 2011, when an elite GSG 9 unit crept into an unremarkable, white-painted house in the city of Marburg and caught a housewife operating a short-wave radio. The woman was so startled, she fell off her chair.

The 47-year-old, who went by the name Heidrun Anschlag, and her husband Andreas, allegedly 53, were agents working for the Russian foreign intelligence agency SVR. For years, they lived a quiet, inconspicuous life in Germany, all the while reporting back to Moscow. In July 2013, the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court sentenced the couple, who have a daughter, to five and a half years and six years in prison, respectively. Since then, the Anschlags have been left hoping a proposed exchange of agents will go through, and complaining about the prison food in Germany's federal state of Baden-Württemberg.

US Is Frequent Source of Intelligence

As much as the successful search that led to the Anschlags' arrest pleased German authorities, a great deal of the credit for the operation actually goes to Germany's ally, the United States. As is so often the case, Germany's big brother provided the crucial intelligence that led to the operation. Similarly, in the case of Manfred K., currently on trial at the Koblenz Higher Regional Court for treason and espionage, it was NATO that alerted German authorities.

One could easily get the impression that German counterespionage agents aren't entirely capable of doing their jobs without outside help.

Primary responsibility for counterespionage in Germany lies with Division Four of the country's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BFV). The division's staff of around 100 specialized agents, who mostly work out of a gray-brown concrete building in the Chorweiler district of Cologne, are considered time-tested experts on Russian intelligence agencies.

A current report from Division Four reads, "The primary nations currently conducting espionage against Germany are the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China," as well as countries in the Middle East -- meaning Syria, Iran and Pakistan. It is unknown exactly how many spies, agents and informers in total are currently active in Germany, but it may well be thousands.

Intelligence agencies from allied nations, such as the US, however, have hardly been on the BFV's radar. Systematic surveillance of "allied intelligence agencies" is not performed, the report states, explaining that only if indications of espionage emerge does Germany act upon these suspicions. It is that approach that is now drawing criticism.

Fragmented System

The assertion on the part of Germany's counterintelligence agencies that they knew nothing of the US' spying has met with disbelief. Some are now calling for these authorities to step up their counterespionage efforts and take a close look at what their allies' intelligence agencies are doing. This begs the question, however, of where exactly to find the staff and funding for such measures. Budgets are limited and there is already a high priority -- also a result of considerable political pressure -- placed on the target areas of terrorism and right-wing extremism.

Another aspect that experts find problematic is the fragmented, federal structure of German counterintelligence. In addition to the BFV, the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) -- Germany's foreign intelligence agency -- and the country's 16 state-level counterparts to the BFV likewise have areas of nominal jurisdiction. But these latter organizations in particular rarely have enough personnel to put up much resistance to enemy agencies.

German federal-level counterintelligence agents have tried to deal with this chaos by holding regular conferences. In late 2012, the various agencies agreed to meet and make joint decisions four times a year, either at the BFV's headquarters in Cologne or at the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) in nearby Meckenheim. So far, though, not much has come of that plan, says one person who was present when the agreement was reached.

Need for Internal Discussion

"It's inexplicable in any case why state-level authorities are allowed to get involved in counterespionage," one federal-level agent with the BND criticizes. The intelligence-gathering interests of enemy agents, the agent points out, concern not individual states such as Bremen or Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, but rather the interests of Germany as a whole. "But of course no state-level interior minister would voluntarily give up authority, and the positions that go with it," the agent says.

Still, it seems likely that the BFV will engage in internal discussions on where exactly German counterespionage should go from here. Officially, there has been no word on this subject. But President Hans-Georg Maassen announced plans a while ago to considerably improve his agency's protections against cyber attacks, an issue that touches on the subject of espionage as well, since foreign agencies are increasingly attacking computer networks as a way to access the information they seek.

"Due to its geopolitical position, its economic strength, its level of scientific and technological development and its increasing international significance, Germany is likely to be and remain a favorite target for foreign intelligence agencies," reads a classified BfV report. This makes cyber attacks on government computers likely, the report continues. It makes no mention, however, of telephones.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


10/31/2013 02:21 PM

Washington Talks: Envoys Push for Spying Concessions

By Sebastian Fischer and Gregor Peter Schmitz

German diplomats have traveled to Washington to express anger over surveillance of Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone -- but they have yet to make headway. The Obama administration seems "almost helpless" in the face of continued leaks, says one diplomat.

Both groups sit together in a White House conference room for about 90 minutes. On one side are a half a dozen members of the European Parliament. Facing them is an equally-sized American delegation, including Karen Donfried, senior director for European affairs in the National Security Council (NSC) and a fluent German speaker.

The agenda is full of issues that have become day-to-day business in trans-Atlantic relations: the scandal surrounding US monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone, NSA espionage and accusations of spying. They're all uncomfortable topics that diplomats of allied nations usually prefer to keep quiet about. But shortly before the meeting's end, the Americans appear to look inward. How should we proceed, they ask contemplatively.

"They seemed almost helpless, as if they'd become obsessed," says Jan Philipp Albrecht, a Green Party MEP and one of the participants in the meeting. "The US government representatives honestly looked like they didn't know what to do. And they left no room for doubt that more spying revelations are to be expected." The odd exchange is an accurate reflection of the mood in Washington.

The White House appears uncertain of how to respond to the almost weekly barrage of embarassing spying scandals, most of them arising from the trove of secret NSA documents leaked by former agency contractor Edward Snowden. Heather Conley, director of the European program at the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says trans-Atlantic relations are facing a new test just a few years after the dispute over the Iraq War: "It's a bad sign when both sides break the tradition of silence and confront each other on intelligence infringements."

'Everybody Does It'

US representatives have made repeated accusations that Germany has also spied on Americans. The Washington Post reported on a case from 2008 when the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence service, inadvertently sent American officials a list of 300 phone numbers belonging to US citizens and residents -- raising suspicions that the numbers had been tapped. A former deputy secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush also described French and German intelligence agencies as "good" at spying on American officials. And US National Intelligence Director James Clapper on Tuesday testified before Congress that European allies are guilty of the same kind of spying that the US does.

Chancellor Merkel sent a delegation to the White House on Wednesday to address the cell phone monitoring, intending to send a clear signal of disapproval and demand concrete promises of change, like a mutual no-spying agreement akin to the "Five Eyes" pact that covers the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

But the meeting produced no announcement of any concrete agreements. The German embassy said the meeting was merely a "working discussion," and that neither side would publicly discuss the results. Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the NSC, said the meetings were part of an agreement between Obama and Merkel to "intensify further the cooperation between US and German intelligence services." She had nothing to announce after the Wednesday evening meeting, but said the dialogue would continue over the coming days and weeks.

'Power Struggle' within United States

Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, was part of the European delegation that visited Washington shortly before the German group. Brok later talked of a "power struggle" going on in the United States between civil rights advocates and defenders of the intelligence services.

It remains to be seen if the current situation indeed amounts to a power struggle. What is clear is that the stakeholders involved -- the NSA, the White House and individual members of Congress -- are all following their own strategies, inevitably leading to tension in Washington.

Partnerships 'More Important' than Spying

NSA director Keith Alexander's brash performance before Congress was principally aimed at reassuring his own colleagues, as the NSA comes under increasing pressure. Alexander isn't going to allow the Germans, the Europeans or even the president turn him into a scapegoat.

However by Wednesday, Alexander took on a more conciliatory approach. Alluding to the Merkel cell phone scandal, he said that limiting some NSA programs may become necessary because, "in some cases the partnerships are more important." Alexander's tactic seems to be providing a show of strength while at the same time leaving the door open to future changes of course.

President Obama now seems willing to end alleged surveillance of allied leaders, carefully distancing himself from the intelligence services. Obama's inner circle has let it be known informally that the president learned of the surveillance only this summer, and ended it immediately. However members of previous administrations, chiefly that of George W. Bush, have been quoted in the press contradicting this version of events, claiming that Obama must have known about the surveillance earlier.

All the while, new details of NSA activities are constantly being revealed. The "Washington Post" reports that the NSA gained access to Google and Yahoo networks, an allegation which NSA director Alexander flatly denied. "I can tell you factually we do not have access to Google servers, Yahoo servers," he said, adding that any access would come through a court order.

Congress Takes Over

The NSA is now suddenly coming under pressure from Congress, whose members had largely ignored the Snowden revelations until recently. Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, criticized the intelligence community with unusual force and called for a "total review of all intelligence programs." The following day, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican, introduced a bill aimed at curtailing the NSA's ability to collect telephone metadata.

It increasingly seems that the Obama administration is no longer playing the lead role in the investigation of the surveillance scandal, according to MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht. Instead, he says, "the debate about NSA surveillance is being taken up by Congress and the media."

Anecdotal evidence seems to bear this out: On their recent visit to Washington, the European Parliament delegation was overwhelmed by media interest, not something that happens every day. Albrecht says of his meeting with Congressman Sensenbrenner: "He was irate, he said that surveillance had developed in a way that he had never thought possible."


NSA files: MI5 chief criticised by Tory MP over attack on Guardian

Security adviser says no lives were put at risk by Guardian's publication of Edward Snowden's surveillance leaks

Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent
The Guardian, Thursday 31 October 2013 21.08 GMT   

The director general of MI5, Andrew Parker, was criticised on Thursday by a Conservative MP and former Foreign Office lawyer for suggesting that the Guardian's reporting of the National Security Agency files has provided a gift to terrorists.

Dominic Raab said the files leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden had highlighted the reach of British and US intelligence agencies and had not disclosed interception techniques or sources.

The criticisms of MI5 were voiced in a parliamentary debate on surveillance in which MPs were told that the secretary of the DA notice committee, the voluntary body which advises the press when revelations could threaten national security, has said that the Guardian reports have not posed a threat to anyone's life.

Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, who secured the debate with Raab, said: "The secretary who looks at the D notices has confirmed that he has seen nothing published in the Guardian that would present a risk to life."

The DA notice system says it defines national security as circumstances when human life is at risk. On 9 September, on a visit to the Guardian, the DA notice secretary, Andrew Vallance, told a meeting that he had to date not seen anything the Guardian had published that put anyone's life at risk.

Julian Smith, a Conservative MP, who recently wrote to the Metropolitan Police to call for a criminal investigation into the Guardian, accused the newspaper of potential treason. He told MPs: "The Guardian, which had every right to report on this issue, which has raised important topics of debate, which has done so in a digital and global way and an interesting way – with good journalism – has threatened the security of our country and which today stands guilty potentially of treasonous behaviour."

Raab opened his speech by praising the work of MI5 and GCHQ, with whom he worked as a Foreign Office lawyer. But he took issue with Parker's claim that the disclosures about the work of GCHQ in the NSA files had helped terrorists and suggested that the authorities were invoking national security to "muzzle" embarrassing disclosures.

The Tory MP said: "In his speech the MI5 director general lambasted the Guardian for handing terrorists a gift – a very potent word he used. Ministers have more recently claimed that the disclosures have put lives at risk.

"I want to take that seriously because Mr Parker claimed that making public 'the reach and limits of GCHQ breaches national security'. Let us be very clear about what was being talked of here – not disclosing interception techniques, not the technical aspect, not the revelation of source or operatives – clearly a major cause of concern if that were to happen. Simply revealing our intelligence reach. I find this assertion difficult to take at face value. It may be true but it is not on the mere assertion."

Raab questioned whether national security had been breached because terrorists knew their communications were routinely monitored. He said: "Any serious terrorist group assumes their phones, emails and internet use will be monitored. That is no secret. Learning that western spies drain the swamp of their own citizens' data in the process does not help terrorists in any tangible way.

"If national security were materially breached why hasn't anyone at the Guardian been charged or even arrested since the search of their offices back in July? Why wasn't David Miranda, detained for several hours, arrested and then bailed following his detention at Heathrow in August? Either UK law enforcement is surprisingly slow, given these assertions that have been made, or national security is being used as a fig leaf to muzzle disclosures that are plain embarrassing."

Huppert told MPs the Guardian had handled the NSA leaks in a "deeply responsible way". He said: "It is clear that the Guardian has been in touch with the security services, they have spoken to the D notice committee since 17 June and that is the assurance they have. The Guardian has been deeply responsible. What would be irresponsible would be if the Guardian had refused to have any role in this and allowed the information to be passed down by other people who may not have the same regard for our security and for our staff."

Huppert disclosed the assessment of the DA notice secretary after Smith said the newspaper had put members of the intelligence agencies under "grave threat". Huppert told Smith, who recently published pictures of staff from RAF Menwith Hill on his website: "And of course the Guardian haven't published photos of anybody who works in this sort of area on their website without faces pixelated."

Smith singled out a Guardian report on 4 October that the NSA has tried without success to develop attacks against users of Tor, a tool designed to protect online anonymity. "Many people feel in the police world [that report] is going to cause major issues of picking up those people engaged in organised crime," he said.

The Tory MP accused the Guardian of having failed to discuss the documents with the government even though its editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, held a meeting with the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood. This led the Guardian to agree to destroy hard drives after Heywood threatened to block further publication of details of the files using a high court injunction.

Smith said: "I urge Mr Rusbridger today to begin an open dialogue with the government, to tell the government where these dumps of data are, to come clean on whether they can contain information that could lead to the identification of our security agents and I urge also Mr Rusbridger, his board, his editorial team to talk to the government before publishing and further report on our security services, on our intelligence gathering.".

Martin Horwood, the Lib Dem MP for Cheltenham where GCHQ is based, voiced concerns about the dangers of exposing intelligence gathering. Horwood, whose parents worked at GCHQ and at Bletchley Park where his father helped to build the Colossus network, said: "If you do cast too much sunlight on some of these things they actually stop working. It is not so much about endangering the lives of agents as talking too much in public about the very precise techniques and sources actually makes those sources disappear and makes those techniques more difficult to apply. That endangers people in different ways.

"I would love to think we have now entered some kind of safe postwar world where this level of secrecy is unnecessary. But that is simply not the case. We do still face some hostile states and some hostile state intelligence services."

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Tory foreign secretary who chairs parliament's security and intelligence committee, confirmed that his committee would be launching an inquiry to assess whether the oversight of the intelligence agencies has kept pace with developing technology. But he declined to say whether he knew about the Tempora programme, which gives GCHQ access to the network of cables carrying the world's phone calls and internet traffic, when the veteran Labour MP Michael Meacher asked him why he did not know about it. "[You] haven't got the faintest idea whether the committee was aware of programmes of any kind. When we are dealing with classified information, the whole point of the independent committee which has access to top secret information – whatever that information is – we don't announce it.

"If [you] can devise a system whereby secret information can be made available to all law-abiding British citizens without being made available to the rest of the world simultaneously, then I'd be interested in hearing it. But I don't actually think he is likely to be able to meet that requirement."

MPs heard that parliament's intelligence and security committee only investigated the PRISM programme after the Guardian revelations. The Guardian reported in June that the programme allows officials from the NSA to collect material including search history and the content of emails from Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet firms.

"It was after the Guardian revelations," George Howarth, a former Labour Home Office minister who is a member of parliament's intelligence and security committee, said when he was asked by his fellow Labour MP Tom Watson when the ISC started to investigate the PRISM programme. Howarth added: "It is not that we did not have any concerns or any interest in what GCHQ was capable of. That is an ongoing process, but inevitably, when something new emerges, it is appropriate that, as a committee, we look into it."

Watson, one of the co-sponsors of the debate, told MPs: "An individual's data are just like his or her vote – almost insignificant by itself, privately expressed but massively powerful when aggregated. We should no more unnecessarily tamper with our citizens' data than we should impede their ability to vote. The capacity to deduce human behaviour and activity in the modern world of big data is impacting on our daily lives, from insurance premiums and health prevention through to online advertising and traffic management. Corporations are crunching data to learn about the way we live our lives."


US surveillance has gone too far, John Kerry admits

Kerry says certain practices occurred 'on autopilot' and vows to meet allies to repair damage caused by NSA spying revelations

Dan Roberts and Spencer Ackerman in Washington and Paul Lewis in Baltimore, Friday 1 November 2013 09.54 GMT    

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, conceded on Thursday that some of the country's surveillance activities had gone too far, saying that certain practices had occurred "on autopilot" without the knowledge of senior officials in the Obama administration.

In the most stark comments yet by a senior administration official, Kerry promised that a previously announced review of surveillance practices would be thorough and that some activities would end altogether.

"The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there," he told a conference in London via video link.

"In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."

In recent days, the Obama administration has put some distance between it and the National Security Agency (NSA). Kerry's comments are a reflection in particular of a concern about the diplomatic fallout from the revelation that the US monitored the cellphone of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

The tactic has irritated senior intelligence officials. On Thursday evening, the director of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, blamed US diplomats for requests to place foreign leaders under surveillance.

During a pointed exchange with a former US ambassador to Romania, James Carew Rosapepe, Alexander said: "We, the intelligence agencies, don't come up with the requirements. The policy-makers come up with the requirements."

He added: "One of those groups would have been, let me think, hold on, oh: ambassadors."

Alexander said that the NSA collected information when it was asked by policy officials to discover the "leadership intentions" of foreign countries. "If you want to know leadership intentions, these are the issues," he said at a discussion hosted by the Baltimore Council on Foreign Relations.

Earlier in Washington, the debate continued about whether further legal constraints should be placed on the NSA. The Senate intelligence committee approved a bill that placed largely cosmetic restrictions on the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance programme.

The bill, sponsored by committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, allows the NSA continue to collect phone metadata of millions of Americans for renewable 90-day periods, but orders it to be more transparent about the practice.

"I think there's huge misunderstanding about this NSA database programme, and how vital I think it is to protecting this country," Feinstein told reporters.

The bill, which is competing with more restrictive measures from other committees, now moves forward to a full Senate vote. The stage is now set for a showdown with the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan bill that would prohibit bulk collection of Americans' telephone records.

Senator Mark Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate intelligence committee and a supporter of NSA reform, said it did not go far enough.

"The NSA's invasive surveillance of Americans' private information does not respect our constitutional values and needs fundamental reform, not incidental changes," he said.

In a separate development on Thursday, a group of technology giants called for substantial reforms to the US government's surveillance programmes. The companies were furious about revelations this week – the latest to emerge from documents leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – that the agency had intercepted the cables that link the worldwide data centres belonging to Google and Yahoo.

It was also reported that Obama had ordered the NSA to stop eavesdropping on the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Reuters cited a US official as saying the president had ordered the halt in the past few weeks.

The NSA's surveillance of the IMF and World Bank has not previously been disclosed.

In response to Reuters inquiries, a senior Obama administration official said, "The United States is not conducting electronic surveillance targeting the headquarters of the World Bank or IMF in Washington." The Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not address whether the NSA had eavesdropped on the two entities in the past.

Kerry, in his comments to a conference organised by the Open Government Partnership, acknowledged that trust needed to be restored. "There is an effort to try to gather information, yes, in same cases inappropriately, and the president is now doing a thorough review, in order that nobody will have a sense of abuse," he said.

Despte the cracks between the administration and the spy community, Kerry was careful to defended the motives of US intelligence agencies, insisting no "innocent people" were being abused and saying surveillance by several countries had prevented many terrorist plots.

After the 9/11 attacks, he said, the "US and others – I emphasise to you, others – realised that we are dealing with a new world where people are willing to blow themselves up. There are countless examples. Look at Nairobi. What if you were able to intercept that? We have prevented airplanes from going down and buildings from being blown up because we have learned ahead of time of such plans."

Kerry also criticised what he said was an "enormous amount of exaggeration and misreporting" about the extent of the surveillance programmes, appearing to single out recent European reports that millions of French and Spanish citizens had been targeted by the US.

Kerry will leave Washington this weekend for Saudi Arabia, Poland, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Morocco. With tensions between the US and many of its allies rising, the department acknowledged that at least parts of the nine-day trip might be difficult.

"The secretary believes that rolling up his sleeves and having personal diplomacy is the way that we should continue to approach either issues we work together on, global challenges, or issues where there may be concerns as it relates to the intel-gathering reports," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

A German MP said he met Snowden in Moscow on Thursday, and said the NSA whistelblower was prepared in principle to help Germany investigate allegations of surveillance by US intelligence.

Hans-Christian Stroebele, a lawmaker with Germany's opposition Greens and a prominent critic of the NSA's alleged actions, told ARD television that Snowden "made clear he knows a great deal."

He said Snowden would be prepared to travel to Germany and testify, "but the circumstances would have to be cleared up".


Apple, Facebook and Google call for 'substantial' reform of NSA surveillance

Firms call for 'substantial enhancements to privacy protections' and 'appropriate oversight' in letter to Senate committee

Dominic Rushe in New York, Thursday 31 October 2013 22.22 GMT

Tech giants including Apple, Facebook and Google called for substantial reforms to the US government's surveillance programmes Thursday in a letter to the Senate judiciary committee.

In the wake of more revelations about the lengths to which the National Security Agency has gone to intercept data, the companies have called for more transparency and "substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms for those programs."

The letter, also signed by AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo, follows the release of more documents obtained by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that reveal the US authorities were secretly tapping in to the tech firm's main communications links.

The letter "applauds" the USA Freedom Act, a bill sponsored by Democrat senator Patrick Leahy and Republican congressman James Sensenbrenner that would end the bulk collection of data from millions of Americans and set up a privacy advocate to monitor the Fisa court, which oversees the NSA's US activities.

"Recent disclosures regarding surveillance activity raise important concerns in the United States and abroad. The volume and complexity of the information that has been disclosed in recent months has created significant confusion here and around the world, making it more difficult to identify appropriate policy prescriptions," the letter states.

"Our companies have consistently made clear that we only respond to legal demands for customer and user information that are targeted and specific.

"Allowing companies to be transparent about the number and nature of requests will help the public better understand the facts about the government's authority to compel technology companies to disclose user data and how technology companies respond to the targeted legal demands we receive," they write.

In a recent report the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) said the US tech firms could end up losing out on tens of billions of dollars in the cloud-based computing space in the wake of Snowden's revelations. Cloud computing is a rapidly growing area and revelations that the US authorities have been scooping up the personal data of millions of users, particularly outside the US, could cost them business.

"On the low end, US cloud computing providers might lose $21.5bn over the next three years," ITIF concluded. On the high end the report put the figure at $35bn.

"We urge the administration to work with Congress in addressing these critical reforms that would provide much needed transparency and help rebuild the trust of Internet users around the world," the letter said.


NSA giving 'a lot of thought' to privacy rights of overseas citizens – top lawyer

Robert Litt's acknowledgment comes a day after NSA chief says agency is open to scaling back surveillance on foreign leaders

Spencer Ackerman in Washington, Thursday 31 October 2013 22.02 GMT   

The top lawyer for the US intelligence community and the National Security Agency said on Wednesday that the spy agencies are giving new consideration to the privacy rights of non-Americans in the wake of a diplomatic row over the surveillance of foreign leaders.

Speaking at a conference on national security law sponsored by the American Bar Association on Thursday, the general counsel for the office of the director of national intelligence, Robert Litt, said intelligence chiefs were giving "a lot of thought" to the issue.

His comments came a day after General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, stated that the spy agency is open to scaling back some of its operations on foreign leaders, following an unfolding diplomatic crisis sparked by revelations that the NSA spied on German chancellor Angela Merkel.

US law provides greater legal protection to those defined as "US persons", which includes American citizens and foreigners living in the US. "On the issue of US person versus non-US person, that’s an issue we’re giving a lot of thought to now,” said Litt.

“It’s not surprising that the law gives more protections to US citizens or persons who are in this country,” Litt added. “That doesn’t mean that we have no protection for non-US persons, and the principal protection we have is the requirement that the collection, retention and dissemination of information has to be for a valid foreign intelligence purpose.”

Litt said the intelligence agencies were “giving some thought to whether there are ways that we can both introduce a little more rigor into that requirement and perhaps a little more transparency into how we enforce that requirement.”

Litt and NSA general counsel Rajesh De would not answer a question from the Guardian about the legal basis for a different, unfolding NSA controversy: the new allegation that the NSA intercepts data transiting between the foreign data centers of Google and Yahoo, two longtime NSA partners, published in the Washington Post.

But De took issue with a suggestion that the Post story prompted that the NSA interception would at times rely on a seminal executive order that defines basic powers and operations of the intelligence agencies, known as Executive Order 12333, rather than the relatively restrictive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or Fisa.

“The implication, the insinuation, the suggestion or the outright statement that an agency like NSA would use authority under Executive Order 12333 to evade, skirt or go around Fisa is simply inaccurate,” De said.

On Tuesday, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, testified to the House intelligence panel that they considered US corporations to be “US persons,” meaning their communications and associated data enjoyed legal privileges associated with citizenship. But neither Litt nor De would explain whether that category protected communications data transiting between the data centers of US companies.

Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, said on Wednesday that the company was “outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform."

Google and Yahoo are two major technology partners of NSA. They participate in NSA’s Prism program, which provides foreign communications to the agency, ostensibly at the compulsion of a court order. NSA has yet to explain why it also siphons data between its partners’ datacenters, and neither Litt nor De added any legal justification for the practice on Thursday.

Both Litt and De spoke hours before the Senate intelligence committee was due to begin a second day of considering chairwoman Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to increase transparency around the NSA’s surveillance activities. A Tuesday afternoon markup session of the bill – whose text is not yet public – went uncompleted.

Feinstein, previously an unequivocal supporter of the NSA, unexpectedly criticized the agency’s surveillance on foreign leaders, a relatively traditional surveillance function. Feinstein on Monday declared herself “totally opposed” to the collection and suggested her oversight committee was not “fully informed” of the practice.

A similar rift has emerged between NSA and the White House over how much President Obama knew about the spying, which US officials have said does not currently take place and will not resume. Litt appeared to concede that Obama himself may not have known about spying on Merkel, but contended that the White House and Senate intelligence committee had all the information necessary to understand it was taking place.

“I completely disagree with the proposition that the fact that the president and the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee didn’t know every single one of these selectors the NSA was tasking means there is ineffective oversight,” Litt said.

“What the president knew and what the Senate intelligence committee knows: they know what our intelligence priorities are. Those are set annually through the interagency process. That says, here’s the kind of information we need to collect. And that gets sent out to the intelligence community and then the intelligence community, through a process that works down through the ranks, figures out what’s the best way to select that.

“It’s very easy in hindsight to say, well, this particular selector was sensitive and so the president should have been told that,” Litt continued. “That’s always true in hindsight. Virtually everything we do, if it comes out, is going to be embarrassing.”


Senate committee backs bill that would allow NSA data collection to continue

Legislation would provide increased transparency but NSA critics in Congress say proposals don't go far enough

Spencer Ackerman and Dan Roberts in Washington, Thursday 31 October 2013 21.10 GMT   

The Senate intelligence committee approved a bill on Thursday that would provide for increased transparency of the National Security Agency's bulk collection of US phone records but allow the controversial practice to continue.

Sponsored by chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, the bill lets the NSA continue to collect phone metadata of millions of Americans for renewable 90-day periods, and allows the government to retain it. Some legislators have alternatively proposed letting phone companies hold the metadata. It passed the committee by an 11-4 vote Thursday afternoon, paving the way for a full Senate vote.

Further codifying current practice, the bill allows analysts to search through the data when if they suspect there is a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a suspect is associated with international terrorism.

Additionally the bill adds new leeway for the NSA to continue surveillance begun on foreigners outside the US if they enter the country "for a transitory period not to exceed 72 hours".

The bill is a direct challenge to one introduced Tuesday by senator Patrick Leahy that would end domestic phone-records collection. It was also opposed by leading intelligence committee member Mark Udall, who said it did not go far enough.

"The NSA's invasive surveillance of Americans' private information does not respect our constitutional values and needs fundamental reform, not incidental changes. Unfortunately, the bill passed by the Senate intelligence committee does not go far enough to address the NSA's overreaching domestic surveillance programs," Udall said.

Another Democratic member of the committee, Ron Wyden, said the bill maintains "business as usual" and "remains far from anything that could be considered meaningful reform".

Feinstein defended the NSA bulk collection program, but said there was a need to rebuild public trust. “The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security,” she said in a statement. “But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place.”

In her statement, Feinstein said the bill would also make a number of improvements to transparency and oversight on the NSA, including:

• Requiring an annual public report of the total number of queries of NSA's telephone metadata database and the number of times the program leads to an FBI investigation or probable cause order.

• Requiring that the foreign intelligence surveillance court impose limits on the number of people at NSA who may authorise or query the call-records database.

• Establishing criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison for intentional unauthorized access to data acquired under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) by the United States.

• Mandating the Fisa court impose a limit on the number of contacts (or “hops”) an analyst can receive in response to a query of bulk communication records.

After the committee's hearing had ended, Feinstein strongly endorsed the NSA's main domestic program. "I think there's huge misunderstanding about this NSA database program, and how vital I think it is to protecting this country," she told reporters.

Concern over the intelligence committee’s bill was expressed by independent legal experts who said the stage was now set for a showdown with the USA Freedom Act, a bill introduced by Leahy and Jim Sensenbrenner that would prohibit bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records.

Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice said: “The intelligence committee bill and the USA Freedom Act present two opposing visions of the relationship between law-abiding Americans and the national security state. The fundamental question is: should the government have some reason to suspect wrongdoing before sweeping up Americans’ most personal information to feed into its databases? Leahy and Sensenbrenner say yes; Feinstein says no.”

Wyden suggested that recent concern about NSA spying on foreign leaders had distracted from the real focus on mass domestic surveillance in the US. “The statements that American intelligence officials have made this week about collecting on the intentions of foreign leadership, that’s consistent with the understanding I’ve had for years, as a member of the intelligence committee,” he said.

“That has implications for foreign policy. My top priority is ending the mass surveillance, digital surveillance, on millions and millions of law-abiding Americans.”

Feinstein unexpectedly announced on Monday that she was “totally opposed” to the foreign leader spying of the sort the NSA conducts of German chancellor Angela Merkel. Feinstein has been a staunch supporter of the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.

“Americans are making it clear, that they never – repeat never – agreed to give up their constitutional liberties for the appearance of security,” Wyden said. “We’re just going to keep fighting this battle. It’s going to be a long one.”

Separately, Feinstein said that James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, had agreed to provide her in writing with a statement about a Washington Post story that alleged the NSA had intercepted data in transmission between Google and Yahoo data centers. She said she was withholding judgment on the story until she saw Clapper's rebuttal.

Her strong endorsement of the domestic phone records collection indicates that the powerful Senate Democrat is not yet prepared to expand the criticism of the NSA she launched on Monday, when she "totally opposed" its surveillance of foreign allied leaders – a more traditional intelligence activity than bulk phone metadata surveillance.

Wyden would not comment on the Washington Post report on the Google and Yahoo intercepts. But the senators suggested it had implications for the privacy of Americans’ communication.

“Decades ago, countries had their own kinds of communication systems. Now that you’ve had the merger of global communications, I think you’re going to have a lot more challenges spying on foreigners with implications for US citizens,” Wyden said.

Following the markup of the bill, the intelligence panel held a classified hearing. Clapper and his chief counsel, Robert Litt, were seen entering the Hart Senate office building ahead of the markup and the hearing. Clapper refused to comment.


Whether it's hacking or the NSA, some of us don't accept that privacy is dead

The common threat here is a massive, digitally enabled erosion of the individual citizen's private life

Timothy Garton Ash   
The Guardian, Thursday 31 October 2013 19.59 GMT   

What a week this was. It has seen David Cameron's former communications director, Andy Coulson, going on trial in connection with phone hacking by journalists during his time as editor of the News of the World, German officials storming off to Washington to read the riot act about the bugging of Angela Merkel's phone, the medieval mumbo-jumbo of the Queen accepting a royal charter underpinning a system of press self-regulation that much of the press doesn't accept, and the EU threatening internet giants like Google and Facebook with a data protection directive that could end up splitting the internet into separate US and European clouds. One thing unites these apparently disparate stories: the revolutionary development of technologies that massively increase our power to communicate with each other, and as massively erode our privacy.

"Privacy is dead. Get over it," a Silicon Valley boss once reportedly remarked. Some of us don't accept that. We still want to keep a few clothes on. We believe that preserving individual privacy is essential, not just to basic human dignity but also to freedom and security.

The trouble is that privacy is at once essential to, and in tension with, both freedom and security. A cabinet minister who keeps his mistress in satin sheets at the French taxpayer's expense cannot justly object when the press exposes his misuse of public funds. Our freedom to scrutinise the conduct of public figures trumps that minister's claim to privacy. The question is: where and how do we draw the line between a genuine public interest and that which is merely what interests the public? Equally, if we are to be protected from terrorist bombs on our daily commute, some potentially dangerous people must have their phones bugged and emails read. The question is: who, how many, with what controls?

What the reporting of Edward Snowden's leaks by the Guardian, the New York Times and other organisations has revealed is that those checks and balances were not working properly in the US and Britain. So a free press has struck a blow for our privacy, when legal and parliamentary controls had fallen short. But state-employed spooks are not the only ones illegitimately snooping on us. Private Eye captures this brilliantly. Under the headline "Merkel Fury at Obama Phone Hacking", it shows a photo of the German chancellor grimly clasping her mobile. Her speech bubble says: "Who do you think you are? Rupert Murdoch?"

So a free press is needed to check the secret surveillance excesses of the state, but opinion polling shows that a clear majority of the British public also wants to see curbs on the secret surveillance excesses of a free press. As clearly, their main reason is the concern for privacy. Without the scandal of tabloid journalists hacking into the phones of everyone from the deputy prime minister to a murdered teenager, we would not have had this push for more press regulation.

Today's Daily Telegraph displays a wonderful piece of double-think, or cognitive dissonance. In its leading article it warns, with some reason, against the possibility of future political curbing of the press under the provisions of the royal charter approved by the Queen in privy council on Wednesday afternoon, but then continues: "The Guardian's recent investigation into state spying is exactly the kind of reporting that could spark a moral panic among politicians and give them cause to limit what the press can publish." Meanwhile, its own front page splashes the opening of the phone-hacking trial involving, among others, two former editors of Murdoch's News of the World. A simple, chronological reading of back numbers of the Daily Telegraph will show that it was that phone hacking by Murdoch's journalists, not the more recent Guardian reporting about the NSA and GCHQ, which sparked "moral panic" (interesting phrase) among the British public – not just politicians – and led to calls for more regulation of the press.

But opinion polls also show that the public don't want these regulatory powers put into the hands of politicians. And the public are right: witness the recent attempt by the Conservative party chairman, Grant Shapps, to whip the BBC into line in the runup to the next general election.

Now we have ended up with an almighty mess. Where the US has its magnificent, clear and simple First Amendment, we have Queen Elizabeth II declaring: "Now know ye that we by our prerogative royal and of our especial grace, certain knowledge and mere motion" do create "a body corporate known as the recognition panel". But all Her Majesty's mere motion does is to establish a mechanism for officially recognising a press self-regulation body that many leading newspapers (including the Murdoch group and the Telegraph) are currently saying they won't set up for recognition in the royally approved form. Meanwhile, press dog continues to savage press dog, and long-time fellow-campaigners for freedom of expression and human rights are all at sixes and sevens. Even today's Washington could barely make such a mess of things.

What is more, while Britain's journalists wrangle and politicians fumble, the very idea of regulating something called "the press" in a purely national framework is becoming anachronistic. Where does "the press" end and an individual speaking on Twitter or Facebook begin? Data, words and pictures are spilling not just across platforms but across national frontiers. So the EU aims to enforce stronger protection for the privacy of all Europeans, against US giants, through a new data protection directive. But that in turn brings the danger of fragmenting the internet into multiple sovereign patches – something authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia would welcome. Privacy for some could then be enhanced at the cost of online freedom of expression for all.

There are no easy answers in this dense, transnational triangle between freedom, security and privacy, but let's at least keep our eyes on the main threat that runs through these stories. That threat is the massive, digitally enabled erosion of privacy – your privacy.


Edward Snowden to start work at Russian website

Former NSA contractor who was granted temporary asylum in June finds job providing support for unnamed site

Reuters in Moscow, Thursday 31 October 2013 12.36 GMT

The former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has found a job working for a website in Russia, where he was granted asylum after fleeing the US, a Russian lawyer who is helping him has said.

"Edward starts work in November," lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said on Thursday, according to state-run news agency RIA. "He will provide support for a large Russian site," he said, adding that he would not name the site "for security reasons".

Snowden, 30, who disclosed secret US internet and telephone surveillance programmes, fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia in June.

President Vladimir Putin has rejected US pleas to send Snowden home to face charges including espionage.

Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia's leading social network Vkontakte, has extended an invitation to Snowden to work at the company, but earlier this week said the American had not replied to his offer. A spokesperson for Vkontakte yesterday refused to comment on whether Snowden has now taken up a job at the company, which is headquartered in St Petersburg.

Snowden's location in Russia has not been disclosed and since July he has appeared only in a handful of photographs and video clips from a meeting this month with visiting former US national security officials who support his cause.

Putin, a former KGB spy, has said repeatedly that Russia would only shelter Snowden if he stopped harming the United States. The temporary asylum Snowden was granted in early August can be extended annually.

Putin has also dismissed the widespread assumption that Russian intelligence officers grilled Snowden for information after he arrived, and Kucherena has portrayed him as trying to live as normal a life as possible under the circumstances.

He said earlier that he hoped Snowden would find a job because he was living on scant funds, mostly from donations.

A news site on Thursday published what it said was a photo of Snowden on a Moscow river cruise this summer; the same site earlier published a photo of a man who looked like Snowden pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket car park.

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« Reply #9691 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:11 AM »


Russian court shuts news site down over Pussy Riot prison video

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, October 31, 2013 16:24 EDT

A Moscow court on Thursday stripped a news site of its licence for posting a raunchy video by female punks from the Pussy Riot band that has two of its members in jail.

The tough ruling sparked protests from both Russian reporters and a top global watchdog that warned of a further deterioration of media freedoms under President Vladimir Putin’s 13-year rule.

The Rosbalt web-based news agency vowed to challenge the verdict in Russia’s constitutional court and defiantly refused to shut down its site.

Rosbalt director Larisa Afinova called the decision a “precedent-setting” warning to other independent reporters operating under increasingly restrictive conditions set by Putin’s government.

“This is not good for our readers, and this is not good for the government,” she told the Interfax news agency.

The Moscow city court sided with the Roskomnadzor state media watchdog’s request to shut down Rosbalt for its alleged disregard for Russian media laws.

Roskomnadzor said the Pussy Riot video and another clip obtained by Rosbalt off YouTube contained foul language that could be heard by impressionable minors.

Two members of Pussy Riot are currently serving terms in penal colonies for staging a protest performance inside Moscow’s main cathedral in February 2012.

They were convicted of hooliganism “motivated by religious hatred” and are not due for release until March. Several other members are still wanted by Moscow police.

The Pussy Riot video in question — posted in July on the website of America’s cult Rolling Stone magazine — has seen since been removed by Rosbalt.

But the Rolling Stone version of the “Like A Red Prison” clip shows band members wearing their traditional balaclavas and tight neon dresses while protesting the Kremlin’s political dependence on big oil firms.

One part of the video shows the punks climbing the roof of a petrol stationed operated by Russia’s government-owned crude producer Rosneft.

The clip also features band members splashing buckets of oil on huge black-and-white photos of Pig Putin and Rosneft chief Igor Sechin.

Rosbalt argued that it was not responsible for the videos’ content and that it bleeped out the offensive language as soon as state regulators voiced their concern.

The Pig's  Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that “it would be wrong to say that the government is putting any sort of pressure” on the media.

But he added that it would be right “for the government to put pressure on media that break the law or use expletives”.

The decision shocked many Russian reporters and drew the attention of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) global media protection group.

“This grave decision sets an extremely dangerous precedent for freedom of information in Russia and we urge the judicial system to overturn it on appeal,” RSF said in a statement.

Moscow Union of Journalists chief Pavel Gusev called the ruling “a potentially very dangerous precedent for media development”.

And the Kremlin’s own human rights council head Mikhail Fedotov said that “with all due respect for the court, unfortunately, I cannot agree with this decision.”

The perilous state of freedom of speech in Russia has been under the spotlight ever since Putin first rose to power as prime minister in 1999.

Russia’s main national television stations then quickly fell under the government’s influence and began to bar Kremlin critics from airtime.

The Rosbalt website was founded in 2001 and now claims to have five million unique visitors a month.

Afinova said she did not view Rosbalt as an opposition news source.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]


Russia still planning Syria international peace conference, says Medvedev

Prime minister calls for opposing sides of conflict to compromise and says Russia is continues to push towards peace talks

Reuters in Moscow, Friday 1 November 2013 09.50 GMT   

Russia hopes an international peace conference on Syria will be held before the end of this year, the prime inister, Dmitry Medvedev has said, despite reported differences with the United States over how the Syrian opposition should be represented.

Medvedev appealed to both sides in Syria's civil war to compromise and criticised the opposition for demanding assurances of President Bashar al-Assad's departure as a condition for the talks.

"I hope it will be possible to hold the conference by the end of this year but we understand that the influence of all sides taking part is limited," Medvedev said on Thursday evening.

"It depends to a great extent on the positions of the Syrian sides. We're pushing them towards this, and I hope everyone who talks to different circles in Syria will do the same," he said.

"It's a difficult process and everyone must compromise, including opposition leaders and the Syrian government, of course."

Russia has been Assad's most powerful backer during the two-and-a-half-year conflict, delivering weapons, blocking three UN Security Council resolutions meant to pressure him and saying his exit cannot be a precondition for peace talks.

US, Russian and UN envoys are to meet in Geneva on Tuesday as part of preparations for the long-delayed conference, which Russia and the United States first proposed in May.

The latest target date for the talks on 23 November looks likely to be pushed back and sources close to the negotiations say a main point of contention is the role of the western-backed opposition coalition.

Western and Gulf Arab countries opposed to Assad say the Geneva talks should be between a "single delegation of the Syrian regime and a single delegation of the opposition" led by the coalition.

Russia sees the coalition as just one part of the opposition and has suggested that several delegations, including Damascus-based figures tolerated by the government, could represent Assad's enemies.

"I think that the ideas that are sometimes put forward – let's exclude President Assad and then agree on everything – are unrealistic as long as Assad is in power," Medvedev said.

"He's not mad. He must receive some kind of guarantees or, in any case, some kind of proposals on the development of political dialogue in Syria itself, on possible elections, on his personal fate."

Assad suggested last month that he could seek re-election in a vote scheduled for next year.

Medvedev said Assad might be worried by the fates suffered by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – who was overthrown and put on trial – and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who met a grisly death after being ousted from power.

"You have to agree that when he recalls the fate of President Mubarak or Colonel Muammar Gaddafi … his mood probably doesn't get any better," Medvedev said. "So you can't just say 'get out and then we'll agree everything'."

Gaddafi's overthrow came after Medvedev, then president, ordered Russia not to block a UN Security Council vote that paved the way for Nato intervention. He and Vladimir Putin have vowed not to let the same thing happen in Syria.

Medvedev expressed indignation that Russia had been forced to evacuate its embassy in Tripoli after it was attacked by an angry crowd in October.

"What kind of a state is it that cannot guarantee diplomats even basic security?" he said. "I said when I was still president that we could not allow events to develop in such a way in Syria."


Russia protests after Treasury Dept. puts rock star and Pig Putin ally on ‘black list’

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, October 31, 2013 21:07 EDT

Russia on Thursday dismissed as unacceptable a US decision to blacklist a rock star who counts President Pig Putin among his fans, for allegedly working for a transnational criminal group.

Raspy-voiced rocker Grigory Leps, one of the country’s top-earning stars, was one of six people named by the US Treasury Department on Wednesday as “acting for or on behalf of” members of the Brothers’ Circle criminal group.

It said that he “couriers money on behalf of Vladislav Leontyev,” named as a key member involved in drugs trafficking.

Leps is one of Russia’s most popular stars with his tough-guy image and hits including “Glass of Vodka on the Table” and “Cupolas”.

The Treasury Department action bans US citizens from doing business with the crime group suspects and freezes their US assets.

“We hope that American authorities will give us detailed explanations,” foreign ministry human rights representative Konstantin Dolgov said in a statement on Thursday.

“Russia’s foreign minister insists on the fact that the question of whether Russian citizens are guilty or not must be resolved in our country within the Russian justice system,” the statement read.

“It is unacceptable that the United States take this role on their own by putting arbitrary labels on people and violating the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence.”

Leps, who is touring far eastern Russia, dismissed the accusation.

“For me all of this sounds ridiculous, delusional and of course unexpected,” he said in a statement on his website.

“I am a law-abiding citizen.”

The Treasury Department report says the Brothers’ Circle is made up of high-level members of several Eurasian criminal groups that are largely based in the former Soviet Union but also operate in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

Its latest action brings to 28 the total number of people and entities sanctioned for alleged ties to the group.

The Treasury Department’s statement uses Leps’ real name, Grigory Lepsveridze.

Leps has been awarded the honorific title of “distinguished artist of Russia” by the government. The Russian edition of Forbes magazine this year put him as the second highest earning Russian star, with latest annual earnings of $15 million.

In February last year, he performed at a stadium rally for tens of thousands of Pig Putin supporters in Moscow. He was also one of a number of stars to make a campaign video explaining why he would vote for the Pig in the presidential poll.

The Pig's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Life News television that the Kremlin was aware of the statement and would monitor the situation.

Leps is not the only Russian popular singer to be viewed with suspicion by the US authorities.

Washington has repeatedly refused to grant visas to ruling party lawmaker and crooner Iosif Kobzon, who is often compared in Russia to Frank Sinatra and has long been rumoured to have links to mobsters.

« Last Edit: Nov 01, 2013, 06:48 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #9692 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:13 AM »

Six leading central banks to share currency supplies

Federal Reserve and Bank of England among six offering mutual supply of currency to steady global financial system

Associated Press, Thursday 31 October 2013 11.31 GMT   

Six of the world's leading central banks, including the US Federal Reserve, say they will provide each other with ready supplies of their currencies on a standing basis, extending arrangements set up to steady the global financial system during post-2007 turbulence.

The decision, announced on Thursday, extends currency swap arrangements that until now had been considered temporary measures.

The central banks are: the Fed, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England, the Bank of Canada and the Swiss National Bank.

The so-called swap lines enable those central banks to make sure banks in their home countries can always borrow ready cash from them in any of the currencies involved, should they need it.

The ECB said the arrangements "have helped to ease strains in financial markets" and "will continue to serve as a prudent liquidity backstop".

The Fed and the ECB started their first dollar-euro swap arrangement in December 2007 as the losses on mortgage-backed bonds began to shake the banking system. Subsequent bilateral deals between the different banks were added during the financial turbulence that followed, which included the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008, sudden extreme falls on stock markets, the subsequent recession and Europe's crisis over too much government debt in several countries.

Central banks serve as custodians of their countries' currencies and play an important role in supporting the stability of banks so companies can do business and the economy can function properly.

They typically provide liquidity – ready cash to meet the demands of everyday business – to their banks, even when banks may be having trouble borrowing elsewhere due to market trouble. With the new currency arrangements, they can do this in currencies other than their own.

For example, the European Central Bank holds credit offerings in US dollars for periods of seven days and three months, offering as much in dollars as European banks may want in return for collateral such as bonds or other securities.

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« Reply #9693 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:21 AM »

Hamburg's answer to climate change

The German city is planning a green network that will cover 40% of the city area, contributing to resilience and allowing biking, swimming and nature watching in the city

Elisabeth Braw   
Guardian Professional, Thursday 31 October 2013 14.33 GMT   

Boris Johnson, don't read this: there's a European commercial hub that promotes bicycling as the main mode of transportation. It is, in fact, embarking on a plan to build a network around bikes and pedestrians, linking car-free roads to parks and playgrounds, from the city centre to the suburbs.

Welcome to Hamburg, an environmental pioneer in the mould of its regional neighbour Copenhagen. Its planned green network will cover 40% of the city's area. "It will connect parks, recreational areas, playgrounds, gardens and cemeteries through green paths", Angelika Fritsch, a spokeswoman for the city's department of urban planning and the environment, tells Guardian Sustainable Business. "Other cities, including London, have green rings, but the green network will be unique in covering an area from the outskirts to the city centre. In 15 to 20 years you'll be able to explore the city exclusively on bike and foot." The green network will even connect animal habitats, enabling critters to crisscross the city without risk of being run over. Perhaps more importantly, the network will absorb CO2 emissions and help prevent floods when inevitable superstorms strike.

"Hamburg has always been a green city with lots of parks", notes Jens Kerstan, leader of the Green Party in Hamburg's state parliament. "The green network makes sense from a climate change adaptation perspective, especially since our residents are quite progressive when it comes to climate change adaptation. Many Hamburgers are willing to give up their cars, which is very unusual in Germany."

Climate change will, in fact, leave cities little choice but to develop plans like the green network. Fritsch points out that thanks to its sea winds, Hamburg is better positioned to combat warmer temperatures than, say, Berlin. But increasing temperatures are already affecting this North Sea metropolis as well. "Today the average annual temperature is nine degrees Celsius, 1.2 degrees more than it was 60 years ago", reports Dr Insa Meinke, director of the North German Climate Bureau at the Institut für Küstenforschung (Institute of Coastal Research). "When we have a cold winter there are always people saying, 'so where's your climate change now?', but the cold winters are simply fluctuations." According to data from the Institute for Coastal Research, Hamburg had five hot (above 30 degrees Celsius) summer days last year, compared to two in 1952.

Climate change is already affecting the port city's water level as well. "Compared to 60 years ago, the sea level here has risen by 20 centimetres", explains Meinke. "As a large city, Hamburg is truly at risk. Storm surges could rise by another 30 to 110 centimetres by 2100." Hamburg, in other words, needs its green network because it will help limit the effects of floods.

There are benefits to tackling climate change early on. Cities know that if they make themselves greener and more pedestrian-and-bike-friendly, they'll attract more of the people they need to remain competitive. According to Fritsch, given that residents – especially children, the elderly and the ill – will suffer when temperatures rise, making the city climate as comfortable as possible is "very important in order to provide quality of life for our residents looking ahead to 2050". Dr Sven Schulze, an analyst at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWI), notes that the green network could take up space that's needed for housing and businesses, but "on the other hand, it brings economic advantages because it attracts highly educated and competent people to the city."

That's, of course, a recipe successfully pioneered by Copenhagen. But unlike Copenhagen, Hamburg hasn't got very far in implementing its grand design. "The green network is an excellent idea, but we're still in the early stages", notes Kerstan. "The visionary thinking is done by the civil servants, not by the politicians currently in charge. Ever since Fukushima, the focus in Germany has been on moving away from nuclear power, not on climate change adaptation."

Currently some 30 city staff are developing the green network, aided by personnel in the city's seven districts. When politicians make the green web a priority, it will be an extensive network indeed, covering some 7,000 hectares. And Fritsch's team envisions a network that doesn't just help residents get from point A to point B in a sustainable fashion. "It will offer people opportunities to hike, swim, do water sports, enjoy picnics and restaurants, experience calm and watch nature and wildlife right in the city", she explains. "That reduces the need to take the car for weekend outings outside the city, which further reduces the damage to the environment."

Modern city life: walking, biking, watching nature right where you live. Climate change is already generating a surprising mix of futuristic and back-to-nature solutions.


10/31/2013 02:34 PM

Benevolent Protector: Vattenfall Overpowers Coal Critics

By Sven Becker

Swedish energy giant Vattenfall dominates life in the Lausitz region of eastern Germany. Now it wants to expand its coal mining operations there -- but opposition to the plans is being drowned out by the company's importance to the local economy.

To get an idea of the power wielded by Swedish energy giant Vattenfall in the Lausitz region of eastern Germany, leave the Autobahn at the Cottbus South exit. You'll see a big sign with the company's name alongside the highway and, on the horizon, the cooling towers of the Schwarze Pumpe power plant spewing steam into the sky. The route to the center of town passes by the energy provider's 13-storey high-rise office building. But if you want to stop there and talk about the power that one company can have in a region, think again: SPIEGEL was not granted an interview, despite numerous requests.

The alternative was to meet with the mayor of Cottbus, Frank Szymanski, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and a staunch supporter of the local coal mining industry. His position on the coal issue may be based on firm convictions, but there's no doubt that it also boils down to simple math: There are 30,000 fewer people living in his city than there were in the days of communist East Germany, and Vattenfall is the last large employer offering job security.

"I wouldn't want to imagine what the future would look like if we also lost the coal," says the mayor. "Where are the alternative jobs? There is no Plan B."

Now Vattenfall wants to expand its opencast mining operations in a number of places in the Lausitz. Once again, thousands of people may lose their homes. The mining of lignite, also known as brown coal, could continue for decades. The plans are controversial, though. Critics have collected over 100,000 signatures nationwide for petitions against expanding the Welzow South opencast mine. Politicians in the state of Brandenburg have also expressed cautious doubts. Two years ago, the Brandenburg Environment Ministry drew up a schedule that would make it possible to phase out the use of environmentally hazardous lignite for power generation by the year 2050.

Vattenfall Everywhere in the Lausitz

But climate activists and affected individuals are up against a powerful opponent. Vattenfall is everywhere in the Lausitz. Some 25,000 jobs in the region depend on the brown coal industry, and the company has one of the largest corporate training programs in eastern Germany. And there wouldn't be many recreational activities without Vattenfall. The second division soccer team Energie Cottbus, the Lausitzer Füchse ice hockey team, the film festival and the orchestra are all sponsored by the company -- and the politicians who support Vattenfall are well aware of this.

Mayor Szymanski was among the founders of the Pro Lausitz Brown Coal Association, a lobbying group established in Dec. 2011 that is campaigning for the opencast mines to be expanded. "We want to give the silent majority a voice," says Szymanski. He argues that only the opponents of brown coal have been allowed to express their views over the past few years. Szymanski contends that the association is an initiative launched by private individuals -- and not by the company. Vattenfall also puts great store on the fact that it did not take part in establishing the group.

Pro Lausitz Brown Coal is supposed to look like a grassroots movement. But the fact of the matter is that the association is also bankrolled by Vattenfall, which is one of its sponsors. The amount of financial support remains confidential, though. Neither the association nor Vattenfall is prepared to comment on the issue. In any case, this group of pro-mining activists has no lack of cash. It has its own office, open for a number of hours every day, in the Cottbus "Commerce Building." Recently, it organized a petition with the slogan "My Vote for the Mines."

The association ran a number of large ads in local newspapers and was given its own radio show to present itself to the public. The pro-coal activists collected signatures at a second division football match between Energie Cottbus and Cologne and managed to gain the support of Brandenburg governor Dietmar Woidke (SPD).

Petitions on Hospital Wards

The Cottbus city hospital was also helpful. Pro Lausitz Brown Coal was allowed to distribute its petitions on the hospital wards. There were also collection boxes in government buildings. When the environmental organization Greenpeace balked at this practice, the Brandenburg Interior Ministry went into action and pointed out that the state administration had to remain neutral. The petitions subsequently disappeared from government offices.

The association ultimately collected over 60,000 signatures. What's more, the IG BCE mining union commissioned an opinion poll, which came to the conclusion that the majority of the population in the region supports new open-pit mines. In a bid to win over its opponents, Vattenfall offers to build new housing tracts for people who have to leave their homes -- and the company tries to influence opinion with an informational campaign.

For the past few years, Vattenfall has been distributing in the small towns around the Nochten mine a complementary magazine called Struga, named after a local stream. The publication is managed by a journalist named Gerhard Fugmann, who is a former editor at the Lausitzer Rundschau newspaper. Before German reunification, Fugmann spied on his colleagues as an informant for the former East Germany's notorious secret police, the Stasi. His codename was Erich Fuchs.

The 73-year-old writes stories about people whose homes have to be torn down to make way for the mines. Under the headline "The Difficult Path," for example, he reported on the village of Rohne, which was slated for demolition. Instead of giving up, the "respectable" residents sought out "compromise solutions" with Vattenfall.

'Proven Journalistic Qualities'

When it comes to climate research, Fugmann does his best to appear well-informed. Climate change is taking place, he writes, "but according to the rules of nature," adding that there is nothing that people in Germany can do to change that. It seems "somewhat naïve" to him to attempt to balance out "disappearing jungles in South America" or "climate experiments in outer space" with the Energiewende, Germany's push to abandon nuclear energy and promote renewable sources.

During a meeting at the door to his apartment, Fugmann declined to comment on his role. When his Stasi past was brought up, he abruptly ended the conversation. In response to a query from SPIEGEL, Vattenfall said that it knew nothing about the author's past activity as a Stasi informant. According to the energy provider, Fugmann has now "offered" to terminate his collaboration with the company, which noted that their business relationship had been primarily based on his "proven journalistic qualities."

It is indeed legitimate for a company to lobby in favor of its own interests. But is Vattenfall too powerful in the Lausitz? Is everyone too afraid to voice any criticism because just about everyone has friends or family who work for Vattenfall? Have some skeptics already given up because they believe that they are powerless in the face of an alliance of business and politics?

"This company is like a monster that has the entire region in its stranglehold," says sociologist Wolfgang Schluchter, who has taught at Cottbus University for many years. Former federal judge Wolfgang Neškovi, who recently served as an independent representative in the German parliament, the Bundestag, is also concerned: "Democracy is being undermined because there is no equality of firepower between opponents and proponents," he argues.

Plans Set to Be Approved

It currently looks as if Vattenfall may succeed in pushing through its plans. In mid-October, the Lignite Committee in the state of Saxony gave its approval to the expansion plans in Nochten. In early 2014, the state government of Saxony will make the final decision on the issue. Meanwhile, on the Brandenburg side of the border, governor Woidke recently made an agreement with Vattenfall in which he explicitly came out in favor of the "Lausitz energy region." There was no more talk of phasing out brown coal, as members of the state government had debated just a few years ago.

Lignite opponents can now only hope that they receive support from Berlin and Stockholm. On Nov. 3, the people of Berlin are voting on a referendum to decide whether to return the city's power grid to public ownership, a move that could make life more difficult for Vattenfall on the German market. For months now, there has been speculation over the possible sale of the brown coal business. Vattenfall has rather halfheartedly denied the rumors. In Stockholm the Green Party has criticized that the state company, which relies on environmentally-friendly energy in its home country, wants to mine lignite abroad. The Swedish government said on Friday, however, that it had no intention of preventing Vattenfall from developing new opencast mines in the Lausitz.

This is further disappointing news for critics. Hagen Rösch, 34, lives with his family in Proschim, a town on the outskirts of the South Welzow mine. His community is also slated to be bulldozed to provide access to the coal seam. Rösch sells solar panels, and he has a biogas plant on his farm that he says produces enough electricity for 5,000 people. On top of that, there are the products from his farm, a butcher shop and a catering service. The family employs some 85 people. He says that his family lost thousands of acres to earlier expansions of the Welzow mine, but now their very livelihood is threatened: "According to the plans, the office where we are sitting will no longer exist in a few years," he says. Rösch has decided to fight the enlargement scheme for the open-pit mine. He has publicly criticized Vattenfall on numerous occasions, and his mother, who is a member of the town council, opposes the expansion plans.

That doesn't please everyone in the Lausitz. Rösch and his fellow activists are branded online as "village idiots" whose "whining" has become unbearable. Rösch tells the story of how a customer recently came into his butcher shop and said: "You're destroying our jobs. I'm no longer going to shop here." People tell him to stop resisting the opencast mine, he says, because you don't have a chance against Vattenfall anyway.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


10/31/2013 06:26 PM

Raw Nerve: Germany Seethes at US Economic Criticism

By Christopher Alessi

German policymakers are striking back at the United States, after a US Treasury report blasted the country's massive trade surplus. Sensitivities in Berlin are still high over US spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A day after a US Treasury Department report bluntly denounced Germany's economic model, accusing it of hampering the euro zone recovery and hurting global growth, Germany called the conclusions "incomprehensible" and challenged the US to "analyze its own economic situation."

The Treasury's semiannual currency report criticized Germany's overreliance on exports, a high current-account surplus and weak domestic demand. These factors "have hampered rebalancing at a time when many other euro-area countries have been under severe pressure," the report concluded, citing budget tightening in the euro-zone periphery. "The net result has been a deflationary bias for the euro area, as well as for the world economy."

The German Economics Ministry responded in a statement with equally harsh words, saying that Germany's surplus is "a sign of the competitiveness of the German economy and global demand for quality products from Germany."

Germany to Blame?

The report -- traditionally a forum for ridiculing alleged Chinese currency manipulation -- noted that Germany's nominal current account surplus for 2012 was greater than that of China. Germany's surplus rose to $238.5 billion in 2012, compared to China's $193.1 billion, according to the World Bank.

German experts largely agree with the Treasury's assessment of Germany's export-fueled economy, and suggest that increased investment could spur domestic demand. But some question the emphasis on Germany's role in creating the euro zone's economic imbalances.

"The point about the huge current account surplus is accurate. It's nothing new, but they are being a bit more aggressive," Simon Juncker, an economist at the German Institute for Economic Research, said of the Treasury report.

However Stormy-Annika Mildner, an expert on trans-Atlantic economic relations at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, cautioned that the Treasury may be saddling Germany with too much of the blame. "The report could have been more balanced in pointing the finger," she said.

Germany's dependence on exports is only one piece of the puzzle, Mildner said. Structural problems in other European countries, including limited labor market flexibility in Mediterranean countries and the lack of fiscal union in the euro zone, also add to the continent's economic imbalances.

Still, Mildner acknowledged that limited German domestic demand in Germany continues to hamper overall euro-zone growth. She suggested that increased government investment in infrastructure could facilitate new production and services, thereby boosting consumer spending.

A Time for 'Tough Language'

"Increased public investment could be financed by deficits where interest rates are close to zero," said Guntram Wolff, director of Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. On the corporate side, he says, the government could provide tax credits to businesses to incentivize investment.

Despite rising wages over the past few years, German household consumption remains relatively weak. Demand is also strangled by a heavy tax burden. "High taxes, fees and social contributions are weighing on households' disposable income," said Junker.

But a shift in German economic policy may be on the horizon, as the country's main political parties negotiate a new "grand coalition" government between the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right Christian Democrats. And this could be just the right moment in German politics for "tough language" from the US, Juncker said.

On a trans-Atlantic level, however, the Treasury report may only complicate relations between Germany and the US, which were strained earlier this month following allegations that the US spied on Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone.

The Treasury's strong words could also undermine EU-US free trade negotiations set to resume next month, said Mildner. She added: "The skin is getting thinner on this side of the Atlantic."


10/31/2013 11:46 AM

Nazi Scandal: Gestapo Chief Reportedly Buried in Jewish Cemetery

As head of the feared Gestapo secret police, Heinrich Müller perpetrated some of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime. His fate was unconfirmed -- but now a newspaper claims he was buried in a Berlin Jewish cemetery in 1945.

The body of Heinrich Müller, one of the men responsible for the Holocaust and the most senior Nazi figure whose fate was never conclusively established, is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Berlin, according to a newspaper report.

As head of the Gestapo, Hitler's infamous secret police, from 1939, Müller was personally involved in the extermination of Jews and was present at the Wannsee Conference in 1942 when the so-called Final Solution was laid out.

Now an article in the German mass-circulation daily Bild claims Müller has been buried in a cemetery in Berlin's Mitte district since the end of World War II. According to the head of the Memorial to the German Resistance, Johannes Tuchel, Müller did not survive the war, as has been claimed by many, including his notorious subordinate, Adolf Eichmann. "His body was interred in a mass grave in 1945 at the Jewish cemetery in Berlin-Mitte," Tuchel told the newspaper.

These claims are backed up by documents that Tuchel has uncovered in various archives, Bild reports. How a prominent Nazi could come to be buried in a Jewish cemetery is so far unclear.

After Eichmann, a key architect of the Holocaust, was captured in Argentina in 1960 and taken to Israel to stand trial, he told his interrogators that he believed Müller was still alive. Documents from Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND) apparently show that Western intelligence agencies, too, long believed that Müller survived the war. In the summer of 1949, it was thought he was hiding in the Czech city of Karlovy Vary, and SPIEGEL reported in the 1960s on speculation that he was alive.

Western Intel Was 'Completely Wrong'

"The intelligence agencies were completely wrong," Tuchel told Bild. Tuchel went on to say that Müller's body was actually found in August 1945 by allied forces in a makeshift grave near the Third Reich's Ministry of Aviation.

According to historical documents, the Nazi war criminal was positively identified at the time. Tuchel added that Müller "was wearing a general's uniform. On the inside, his service ID with a photo was in the left breast pocket, among other things."

Dieter Graumann, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said he was outraged by the discovery. "The fact that one of the most brutal Nazi sadists is buried in a Jewish cemetery of all places is a distasteful monstrosity," he told Bild. "The memories of the victims are being grossly violated here."

Welcome to Hamburg, an environmental pioneer in the mould of its regional neighbour Copenhagen. Its planned green network will cover 40% of the city's area. "It will connect parks, recreational areas, playgrounds, gardens and cemeteries through green paths", Angelika Fritsch, a spokeswoman for the city's department of urban planning and the environment, tells Guardian Sustainable Business. "Other cities, including London, have green rings, but the green network will be unique in covering an area from the outskirts to the city centre. In 15 to 20 years you'll be able to explore the city exclusively on bike and foot." The green network will even connect animal habitats, enabling critters to crisscross the city without risk of being run over. Perhaps more importantly, the network will absorb CO2 emissions and help prevent floods when inevitable superstorms strike.

"Hamburg has always been a green city with lots of parks", notes Jens Kerstan, leader of the Green Party in Hamburg's state parliament. "The green network makes sense from a climate change adaptation perspective, especially since our residents are quite progressive when it comes to climate change adaptation. Many Hamburgers are willing to give up their cars, which is very unusual in Germany."

Climate change will, in fact, leave cities little choice but to develop plans like the green network. Fritsch points out that thanks to its sea winds, Hamburg is better positioned to combat warmer temperatures than, say, Berlin. But increasing temperatures are already affecting this North Sea metropolis as well. "Today the average annual temperature is nine degrees Celsius, 1.2 degrees more than it was 60 years ago", reports Dr Insa Meinke, director of the North German Climate Bureau at the Institut für Küstenforschung (Institute of Coastal Research). "When we have a cold winter there are always people saying, 'so where's your climate change now?', but the cold winters are simply fluctuations." According to data from the Institute for Coastal Research, Hamburg had five hot (above 30 degrees Celsius) summer days last year, compared to two in 1952.

Climate change is already affecting the port city's water level as well. "Compared to 60 years ago, the sea level here has risen by 20 centimetres", explains Meinke. "As a large city, Hamburg is truly at risk. Storm surges could rise by another 30 to 110 centimetres by 2100." Hamburg, in other words, needs its green network because it will help limit the effects of floods.

There are benefits to tackling climate change early on. Cities know that if they make themselves greener and more pedestrian-and-bike-friendly, they'll attract more of the people they need to remain competitive. According to Fritsch, given that residents – especially children, the elderly and the ill – will suffer when temperatures rise, making the city climate as comfortable as possible is "very important in order to provide quality of life for our residents looking ahead to 2050". Dr Sven Schulze, an analyst at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWI), notes that the green network could take up space that's needed for housing and businesses, but "on the other hand, it brings economic advantages because it attracts highly educated and competent people to the city."

That's, of course, a recipe successfully pioneered by Copenhagen. But unlike Copenhagen, Hamburg hasn't got very far in implementing its grand design. "The green network is an excellent idea, but we're still in the early stages", notes Kerstan. "The visionary thinking is done by the civil servants, not by the politicians currently in charge. Ever since Fukushima, the focus in Germany has been on moving away from nuclear power, not on climate change adaptation."

Currently some 30 city staff are developing the green network, aided by personnel in the city's seven districts. When politicians make the green web a priority, it will be an extensive network indeed, covering some 7,000 hectares. And Fritsch's team envisions a network that doesn't just help residents get from point A to point B in a sustainable fashion. "It will offer people opportunities to hike, swim, do water sports, enjoy picnics and restaurants, experience calm and watch nature and wildlife right in the city", she explains. "That reduces the need to take the car for weekend outings outside the city, which further reduces the damage to the environment."

Modern city life: walking, biking, watching nature right where you live. Climate change is already generating a surprising mix of futuristic and back-to-nature solutions.

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« Last Edit: Nov 01, 2013, 06:37 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #9694 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:38 AM »

Swedish children complain their parents spend too long on phones

Doctors warn offspring may be suffering emotional damage, as one in five parents in Stockholm admit losing sight of children

Richard Orange in Malmö, Thursday 31 October 2013 18.03 GMT   

More than a third of children in Sweden's cities complain that their parents spend too much time staring at phones and tablet computers, leading doctors in the country to warn that children may be suffering emotional and cognitive damage.

According to a survey by YouGov, 33% of parents in Sweden's major towns and cities have received complaints from their children about their excessive phone use.

The survey also found that more than one in five parents in Stockholm and its suburbs admit to having lost sight of their children while out after being distracted by their phones.

"Of course it will affect their emotional development," said Dr Roland Sennerstam, one of several paediatricians in the country to warn of the phenomenon. "I sometimes see children tapping their parents on the back to get attention, but the parents give them no time."

Sweden now boasts the second highest smartphone usage in western Europe after Norway. According to data from Google, 63% of adults own an iPhone, Android phone or Windows phone.

Hanna Grönborg, 36, has seen the phenomenon first hand at the playground in Malmö where she regularly takes her three-year-old son. "I saw this terrible thing," she said. "There was a dad there with his daughter and he just couldn't take his eyes off the screen. And his daughter was just walking around, calling for her dad. She stood by the swing, looking meaningfully up at him, and seemed really lonely and he just totally ignored her, and this went on for ages."

Sennerstam believes parental distraction could also be affecting children's language development. "Even in the first year, I encourage parents to use language during their daily activities, and give their children new words all the time," he said. "If parents are more interested in using their mobile phones, I think it will have a bad effect on the language development of their children."

Barwin Kuchak, 28, who was dropping her son Karam off at day care on Thursday, agreed that mobile phone addiction was depriving her family of quality time. "We lose meals together, because I'm on my phone and he is too," she said. "When we are together, everybody has to play on the internet or Facebook. I think it's a shame it's become like this. Everyone is preoccupied." Karam, who is five, said that if his mother and father were too absorbed, he often tried to speak to his own friends over the internet.

However, some experts suggest the problem is exaggerated. Paediatrician and author Lars Gustafsson, who was extensively quoted in Swedish media earlier this week warning of the dangers of phone addiction, later qualified his remarks in a blog post.

"Children have experienced parents who are absent in spirit at all times and in all families," he wrote. "Adults have the right to occasionally get a brief moment for themselves. You just have to find the proper balance, and the question is whether mobiles have shifted the balance in the wrong direction. Yes, maybe."

YouGov surveyed 521 parents across Sweden for the survey.

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« Reply #9695 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:40 AM »

Turkey's female MPs wear headscarves in parliament for the first time

Four female MPs mark the end of a ban imposed since the early days of the Turkish Republic

Associated Press, Thursday 31 October 2013 19.04 GMT   

Four female MPs wearing headscarves walked into Turkey's parliament in Ankara on Thursday, marking the end of a ban emphatically imposed since the early days of the Turkish Republic.

The issue of where women can wear headscarves remains highly charged in the Muslim-majority country, founded in 1923 under strictly secular principles, but where a public cry for freedom of religious expression is growing louder.

Restrictions on the wearing of headscarves in government buildings were loosened in recent reforms by the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, aimed at promoting democracy. The ban remains in place for judges, prosecutors and military and security personnel.

The four MPs who took advantage of the relaxed legislation are members of Erdogan's Justice and Development party, abbreviated as AKP, which has Islamist roots and has gained a strong following.

The reforms have been criticised by many Turks who fear a rise of political Islam, but politicians from the main secular opposition party, CHP, reacted coolly to the appearance of the headscarved MPs.

In 1999 an MP, Merve Kavakci, tried to take her oath wearing a headscarf. The then prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, told MPs to "put this woman in her place". Kavakci left while some of her colleagues chanted "get out". Kavakci lost her seat in 2001.

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« Reply #9696 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:41 AM »

EU must unite against sceptics and populists, says Italian prime minister

Enrico Letta fears next year's European elections will lead to 'most anti-European parliament in history'

Lizzy Davies in Rome
The Guardian, Thursday 31 October 2013 23.00 GMT   

The EU's political mainstream must go into battle against a rise in populism that next year threatens to usher in the "most Eurosceptic, most anti-European parliament in history" and scupper hopes of long-term economic recovery, the Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta, has warned.

Calling on leaders to confront the issue with less than seven months to go until the European elections, Letta said that the growing popularity of parties such as the UK Independence party, France's National Front (FN) and Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) was the "most dangerous phenomenon" facing the European Union.

If they were to win more than 25% of the vote next May, he warned, it would be the start of "very negative" trend that could have a potentially devastating impact on the continent's potential for growth.

"I believe the risk of having the most anti-European European parliament in history is being greatly underestimated," Letta told the Guardian and five other European newspapers, characterising the challenge as a "great battle" between "the Europe of the people and the Europe of populism".

The underlying issue facing the next parliament would be how to press ahead with continent-wide economic recovery, he said. "But if we want to move from the legislature of austerity to a legislature of growth, and we find ourselves with the most Eurosceptic, most anti-European parliament in history, this goal will be immediately crippled, halted."

After an unprecedented period of financial, currency and debt crises which has seen Euroscepticism soar in some of the EU's major countries, voters in all 28 member states will go to the polls between 22 and 25 May to elect a new European parliament that will sit until 2019.

But fears are mounting among Europhiles that, rather than the start of a new era of recovery, the election could saddle the parliament with its biggest ever bloc of MEPs who have, to varying degrees, anti-EU or anti-euro leanings.

One of the major focuses of pro-European concern is Nigel Farage's Ukip, which has hopes of becoming the biggest British party, alongside Marine Le Pen's FN, predicted by a French poll this month to win 24%, five points ahead of François Hollande's Socialists. Far-right parties in Poland, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria are expected to perform better than 2009's election. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders's anti-Islamic populism is doing well in the polls. Both the anti-euro Alternative for Germany party and the anti-establishment M5S are expected to win their first European seats.

Speaking from his grand office in the Palazzo Chigi, with a globe beside his desk and a miniature model of the leaning tower of Pisa on a side table, Letta said he had chosen to "sound the alarm" over the elections because he could not see any coordinated action aimed at tackling the rise in anti-EU populism. "I see that, yes, it's being talked about in European countries, but timidly," he said. "And above all I do not see a European initiative to combat this trend, this phenomenon, which seems to me to be the most obvious and most dangerous phenomenon."

For arguably the first time, he said, he and others in Europe would be looking closely at the results in Britain in May to see how Ukip performs. "A success of Nigel Farage's party would have very negative effects on the debate about Britain's exit from the EU," he said. "If one of the messages to come out of May's elections were that this party had placed first, it would certainly be seen as a step towards Britain's exit," he said, adding that he was "ferociously against" such a scenario. "On this issue [Britain's exit] there is a bit of superficiality in Europe … This time, I believe, it could really happen."

Letta, a committed Europhile who often speaks of his desire for a "United States of Europe", said that, rather than retreating from the EU, the best way to avoid further crises would be to reform European institutions to make them stronger.

"European citizens have to feel they are being represented by Europe and at the moment there is clearly a problem. This, I believe, is the winning issue for [M5S's Beppe] Grillo, for Farage, for Marine Le Pen, for all European populism – that, to the question 'Who represents Europe? Who represents us in it?' the response, unfortunately, is stuttering," he said, blaming the fragmented nature of European institutions.

He said the lack of institutional infrastructure, especially for eurozone countries, was an enormous problem and that the 17 – soon to be 18 – member states should have their own economy minister. He also said that if he had a magic wand he would merge the presidencies of the European commission and European Council into one unified role.

In the months leading up to the election, said Letta – who is a former MEP – member states needed to unite to fight youth unemployment, which in Italy rose to a new record of 40.4% in September, according to official figures released on Thursday.

But it was the handling of the ever-thorny immigration debate that the centre-left prime minister said could prove most decisive. "In many European countries an ill-judged handling of the immigration issue will mean the European elections will be lost," he warned.

Hitting out at Grillo, the former comedian and figurehead of M5S whose anti-establishment politics lean to the right on some immigration issues, Letta added: "It is not by chance that, in Italy, Grillo, who on many issues does not take rightwing positions, has completely sent his compass spinning on this issue … dividing his own MPs and a good part of his electorate because he knows that Italy is a sympathetic and generous country with a very humanitarian spirit, but in which the fear of difference is still a very big problem in opinion polls."

Earlier this month, Grillo rebuked two of his senators for having put forward an amendment to Italy's immigration laws after the Lampedusa boat tragedy in which hundreds of African migrants died. The M5S is also against the reform of citizenship laws that would make it easier for immigrants' children who were born in Italy to officially become Italian.

The M5S has never taken part in the European elections before, but in February's Italian election it made a spectacular breakthrough, winning 25% of the vote for the lower house of parliament. Grillo has repeatedly called for a referendum on Italy's membership of the single European currency, though it is unclear to what extent that sentiment is shared by his MPs and voters.

Letta, whose Democratic party (PD) was dealt a rude awakening by Grillo at the polls in February, admitted that mainstream parties could not absolve themselves of blame when confronted with the rising tide of populism. "I know that among the eight million people who voted for the M5S there are many voters who used to vote PD and the moderate centre-right groupings," he said.

"If many voters who used to vote for our parties made populist choices, I think we should be the first to question ourselves. In my opinion, 90% of the success of populist parties in Italy is not down to European issues or economic policies, but to a politics that took too much time renewing itself and cutting costs."

To bring back voters from the M5S, he said, the Italian mainstream needed to show it was "capable of reforming itself, and that [a storming of] the Bastille is not necessary".

Letta – the head of a shaky grand coalition with Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right grouping whose very creation was a cause of revulsion among many former PD voters – said constitutional reform was essential in Italy to change an electoral system he said would only serve to increase populism if it continued.

Mario Calabresi and Fabio Martini from La Stampa, Philippe Ridet from Le Monde, Andrea Bachstein from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Pablo Ordaz from El País and Tomasz Bielecki from Gazeta Wyborcza contributed to this interview.

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« Reply #9697 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:50 AM »

October 31, 2013

Former Premier Can Be Charged, Czech Court Rules


PARIS — The Czech Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that former Prime Minister Petr Necas was not entitled to immunity from prosecution for the period when he was head of government, clearing the way for prosecutors who have been seeking to charge him with corruption.

If prosecutors proceed as expected, he will be the highest Czech official to face such charges since the overthrow of Communism in 1989.

A bespectacled, churchgoing father of four, Mr. Necas became prime minister in 2010 after vowing to sweep away a culture of graft and corruption that has blighted the country. But he resigned in June after his chief of staff, Jana Nagyova, was accused in a bribery and illegal spying scandal.

Ms. Nagyova, with whom Mr. Necas was having an affair, was charged with misuse of office after prosecutors said she used the intelligence services to spy on Mr. Necas’s wife, whom he has since divorced. Ms. Nagyova is also accused of trying to bribe three rebellious members of Parliament with jobs in state-owned companies. Ms. Nagyova, who has denied the charges, subsequently married Mr. Necas.

Prosecutors have been investigating whether Mr. Necas was involved in the granting of the state jobs, which Mr. Necas has characterized as legitimate political deal-making. He has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime.

Until Thursday’s ruling it was unclear whether Mr. Necas was immune from prosecution, because the bribery was said to have taken place while he was prime minister.

The court ruled that Mr. Necas could be charged for actions committed when he was prime minister, and indicated that he had lost his immunity when Parliament was dissolved on Aug. 28 after the government collapsed. Petr Knotig, a spokesman for the court, said by telephone from Prague that Mr. Necas’s immunity could not be applied retroactively.

“Petr Necas is no longer covered by immunity as a prime minister or member of Parliament,” he said. “As such, he can be subject to criminal proceedings. Immunity is not retroactive and Mr. Necas can be charged for any action he took as a member of Parliament in the past years.”

Mr. Necas declined to comment on Thursday.

In the past, he has insisted that the job offers for members of Parliament violated no laws and that prosecutors were trying to criminalize the cut-and-thrust of daily politics. Prosecutors counter that offering a lawmaker a state job with the aim of securing his or her resignation is no different from offering envelopes stuffed with cash.

The fallout from the corruption scandal was evident in parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic on Saturday, in which Mr. Necas’s Civic Democratic Party was trounced and voters turned to protest parties to vent their discontent. The center-left Social Democrats won the most votes in a slim victory but fell well short of securing enough seats to form a government.

Intense squabbling in the days since the election indicates that the country is likely to face weeks of protracted negotiations and political instability.

Hana de Goeij contributed reporting from Prague.
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« Reply #9698 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:52 AM »

October 31, 2013

British Tabloid Editors Charged in Hacking Scandal Had Affair, Prosecutors Say


LONDON — A high-profile phone hacking trial in Britain turned considerably seamier on Thursday when the prosecution revealed in court that the two most senior editors of the tabloid The News of the World had an affair lasting more than six years — during the period at issue in the trial, and also while both of them married other people.

The two editors, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, are defendants in the case surrounding the British newspapers controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire, including The News of the World, a weekly that the company shut down in 2011 after the hacking scandal broke.

Ms. Brooks was the editor of The News of the World from 2000 to 2003 and then moved to its sister daily tabloid, The Sun; Mr. Coulson was her deputy at the weekly and succeeded her as its editor, running the paper until 2007.

Andrew Edis, a prosecutor in the case, said in open court that the two began their six-year affair in 1998; Mr. Coulson married in 2000, and Ms. Brooks married in 2002. Mr. Coulson remains married; Ms. Brooks was divorced in 2009, and then she married her current husband, Charlie Brooks, who is also a defendant in the case.

The prosecutor said the Brooks-Coulson affair ended long before Mr. Coulson went to work for Prime Minister David Cameron after his election in 2010.

The prosecutor’s revelation made it legally permissible to publish reports of the affair, which had been widely discussed in private by journalists. Mr. Edis justified the revelation by saying it demonstrated the closeness of the two, who are charged with overseeing a pattern of phone hacking and other illegal efforts to obtain details of the lives of prominent people.

The targets of the hacking ranged from politicians and socialites to Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old who was abducted in 2002 and later found dead. The paper broke into her voice mail account while she was missing, to listen to messages left for her by her parents. The paper also hacked the phones of competing journalists.

“Throughout the relevant period, what Mr. Coulson knew, Mrs. Brooks knew, too,” Mr. Edis said. “What Mrs. Brooks knew, Mr. Coulson knew, too. That’s the point.” He argued that none of the illegal acts undertaken by the paper’s journalists or the freelancers it hired were likely to have been unknown to the top editors, and that they were unlikely to have kept such secrets from one another.

The relationship came to the attention of the police when investigators found a letter addressed to Mr. Coulson at Ms. Brooks’s home, written in February 2004 when Mr. Coulson was trying to end the affair. “The fact is you are my very best friend, I tell you everything, I confide in you, I seek your advice, I love you, care about you, worry about you, we laugh and cry together,” the letter said, as Mr. Edis read it in court. “Without our relationship in my life, I am not sure I will cope.”

Mr. Edis asserted that he was not trying to embarrass the two defendants, to intrude into their private lives or to make a moral judgment.

“Mrs. Brooks and Mr. Coulson are charged with conspiracy and, when people are charged with conspiracy, the first question a jury has to answer is, How well did they know each other? How much did they trust each other?” he said. “And the fact that they were in this relationship, which was a secret, means that they trusted each other quite a lot with at least that secret, and that’s why we are telling you about it.”

The trial, with a total of eight defendants, is expected to last many months. Ms. Brooks and Mr. Coulson are accused of conspiring with others to hack phones and of conspiring with others to commit misconduct in public office, a reference to payoffs made to the police and other officials. Ms. Brooks also faces charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Her husband is accused of helping her to hide evidence.

All eight defendants deny the charges against them.

On Wednesday, Mr. Edis revealed that four other people had pleaded guilty to having hacked phone accounts on behalf of The News of the World. He argued that the jury should consider those pleas as evidence of a conspiracy, and that senior editors must have been aware of the acts of underlings.

“They must have known where these stories came from, or they never would have got in the paper,” he said.

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« Reply #9699 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:57 AM »

October 31, 2013

As Security Deteriorates at Home, Iraqi Leader Arrives in U.S. Seeking Aid


WASHINGTON — When Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq last visited the White House, he and his host painted a glowing picture of the situation in Iraq after the withdrawal of American forces.

“The prime minister leads Iraq’s most inclusive government yet,” President Obama said in a joint news conference with Mr. Maliki in December 2011. “Violence remains at record lows.”

Nearly two years later, however, many of the political and security gains that Mr. Obama acclaimed have been reversed. Bombings in Iraq have drastically increased. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been rejuvenated, and the terrorist group in Iraq has expanded into Syria to fuel the civil war there.

As Mr. Maliki prepares to meet with Mr. Obama on Friday he is appealing for military aid — Apache helicopter gunships, more American intelligence and other forms of counterterrorism support like reconnaissance drones that would be operated by Americans.

And to win over a Congress and an American public reluctant to revisit the past in Iraq, he is being helped by a prominent Washington lobbying firm: the Podesta Group, which the Iraqi government is paying $960,000 a year. An Iraqi embassy official said that the group has provided advice on how to get Iraq’s message across to American lawmakers as well as “feedback” on a recent Op-Ed article Mr. Maliki wrote for The New York Times.

In their public comments, Mr. Maliki and senior American officials have portrayed Iraq largely as a victim of circumstances — mainly the disorder that is spilling over from neighboring Syria. To be sure, many jihadists who have come to Syria to wage war against the government of President Bashar al-Assad have been repurposed by Al Qaeda’s regional affiliates to serve as suicide bombers in Iraq. But experts say that ambivalent policies in Washington and Baghdad have also contributed to the rapidly deteriorating security situation.

Until now, Mr. Maliki was reluctant to openly ask for United States support. A former American official said that in 2012 Mr. Maliki was on the verge of asking the United States to fly reconnaissance drones over Iraq to help pinpoint the growing terrorist threat but backed off at the last moment when the request became public.

Mr. Maliki’s reluctance to share power with a Sunni minority and his authoritarian bent, critics say, have also made fertile ground for Al Qaeda’s appeals.

“He has not done enough to rein in efforts by other Shiite politicians and by certain state organs to freeze out many Sunnis,” said James Jeffrey, a former American ambassador to Iraq in the Obama administration.

Another factor, according to a classified C.I.A. analysis, is corruption with Iraq’s security forces and Justice Ministry. That has helped Qaeda operatives bribe their way their checkpoints and carry out prison breaks.

But the Obama administration’s ambivalence about being drawn deeply into Iraq’s affairs has also been a factor, experts say. Administration officials insist that the State and Defense Departments as well as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is Mr. Obama’s point man on Iraq, have not lost their focus on the country. But some former officials said the administration’s involvement has been episodic at best.

“We just haven’t been engaged with Iraq at a high level,” said Ryan C. Crocker, the former American ambassador to Iraq from March 2007 to February 2009. “Kerry made the one visit, and that was the first secretary of state visit in four years and there hasn’t been another one.”

Since the withdrawal of American forces, the United States Embassy in Baghdad has maintained an office of security cooperation, which has had the mission of facilitating arms sales and, significantly, mentoring Iraqi officers. But under budgetary pressure, it is shrinking its staff size to 59 by fiscal year 2015 from its original 260.

A September report by the Defense Department’s inspector general said the office has been plagued by disagreements between the State and Defense Departments on its mission and questioned whether security cooperation could be adequately carried out with a staff of 59.

Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently returned from a trip to Iraq, said security there had seriously deteriorated. In 2010, he said, there was a multicity synchronized bombing attack about every four months; now, he said one occurs about every 10 days.

The growing presence of Qaeda affiliates in Iraq’s western province, he said, makes them an inviting target for American drone strikes. But any serious consideration of that option has been precluded by the administration’s reluctance to re-engage militarily, though some Iraqi officials have indicated they would not be opposed.

However, the White House is weighing Mr. Maliki’s requests for additional counterterrorism and military aid at time when a resurgent Al Qaeda affiliate is building new camps, training facilities and staging areas in western Iraq, administration officials said.

American intelligence and counterterrorism officials say they have effectively mapped the locations and origins of these new Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant networks, and are sharing that information with Iraqis.

“As this threat has really accelerated over the last, say, six to eight months, we’ve tried to work even more closely with the Iraqis to develop their sight picture in a better way,” a senior administration official said without elaborating.

With terrorist violence rising in the country, Iraq has also stepped up its request for a range of weapons from the United States, including Apache helicopters and the Hellfire missiles they fire — weapons that American officials say are not effective against insurgents without detailed intelligence of the enemy’s location.

Mr. Maliki has urged Congress to expedite the sale of many of the weapons, include the Apaches. But in meetings on Capitol Hill this week, influential senators sharply questioned the Iraqi prime minister over what they said was his failure to adequately incorporate Sunnis and Kurds into the country’s Shiite-dominated government, as well as acquiescing to Iran’s use of Iraqi airspace to fly weapons and supplies to the Syrian government.

An hourlong meeting on Wednesday with the two top senators on the Foreign Relations Committee went badly, and the lawmakers refrained from endorsing the Apache sale.

“It felt like we were talking past each other,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the panel. “I did not feel like he seemed to internalize at all the concerns that we had, and was somewhat dismissive.”

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who heads the committee, said he was “extremely disappointed” in the meeting, adding, “I got a sense there was no acknowledgment of any of the challenges facing Iraqi society today.”

Mr. Maliki’s speech at the United States Institute of Peace on Thursday did little to assuage his critics.

The prime minister expressed alarm about the growth of terrorism in Iraq but did not acknowledge that political tensions in Iraq or that his own autocratic governing style had contributed to the problem.

“There is no problem between Sunnis and Shiites,” he said. “The Constitution is ruling in Iraq.”

Among many Iraq analysts, it is a foregone conclusion that Mr. Maliki is seeking to consolidate power and continue as prime minister. In fact, some saw his visit to Washington as an attempt to secure American political support before he campaigns.

During a question-and-answer session after his speech, the prime minister said he would seek a third term if the public wanted him to stay on the job.

“This is something that is up to the Iraqi people,” he said. “It is a very, very difficult job.”


Saddam's former Basra palace faces new life as Iraqi cultural hub

Work nears completion on Basra Museum, which will display antiquities from Iraq's Assyrian, Babylonian and Arabic past

Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer
The Guardian, Thursday 31 October 2013 19.30 GMT      

"I used to look at it and think of Ozymandias," said Lieutenant General Sir Barney White-Spunner, recalling the sight of Saddam Hussein's riverside palace in Basra. "It was designed to overpower, for the greater glory of the regime." It had, he said, ghastly gauche decoration and "vulgar, awful imitation rococo interiors".

But now Saddam's vainglorious stronghold is to be turned over to a different use. Work is nearing completion on the new Basra Museum, relocated from a wrecked and squatted historic building in the centre of the city with the help of British army engineers. John Curtis, a curator at the British Museum who has advised on the project, said: "It will be the principal museum in southern Iraq and we hope people will look to it as the model museum in the region."

When it comes to the protection of Iraq's cultural heritage, the history of the US-led coalition's invasion is not a happy one. Baghdad Museum was looted in 2003 under the eyes of American troops and archaeological sites have been robbed. Over the past decade, only 4,310 objects out of 16,000 stolen from the Baghdad Museum have been recovered. Meanwhile, 133,000 antiquities (including 80,000 coins) from illicit digging have been handed in, which could be a fraction of the total lost.

When White-Spunner was preparing to take command of the allied forces in south-eastern Iraq, he began to consider the looting's catastrophic effect on the coalition's reputation. His primary task was re-establishing stability, he said, but it was also important to start thinking about the legacy of the British invasion.

And so in 2007 the general, who has since left the army and is now executive chairman of the Countryside Alliance, contacted Curtis and Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. On their advice, he formulated a plan to help assess damage to archaeological sites in southern Iraq (Operation Heritage) and re-establish the museum (Operation Bell, after Gertrude Bell, the writer, traveller and archaeologist who helped found the Iraqi state).

Once in Iraq in spring 2008, they contacted Dr Qahtan al-Abeed, the director of Basra Museum, who, according to Major Hugo Clarke, White-Spunner's then assistant, visited them at the base at great risk to himself. They decided the old museum was unsuitable. "It was pretty much destroyed," said Clarke. "And there were people living in it."

They turned their attention to the palace complex on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab. There were, said Clarke, questions over whether buildings so associated with the former leader would be acceptable. "His moniker was inscribed over everything in bas-relief."

But it won out, Abeed said, thanks to its spacious rooms, waterside position and good view. There were proposals to turn all five palaces in the complex into museums. "The plan is for it to be like a cultural centre. A museums island, like the one in Berlin." There were agreements for a technology museum, and work had started on a natural history museum.

Clarke said the Royal Engineers were sent in to survey the palace and do the initial work and found the task far more interesting than the other things they were doing. A committee was set up in charge of fundraising. He said that within the army there was at first some resistance to the operational focus on the museum. "Some people immediately got it, others asked why we were doing it – why we needed to release a helicopter for two days, or why we had to deal with these academics."

Now retired from the army, Clarke works with Professor Peter Stone of Newcastle University on UK Blue Shield, which aims to train the military to protect cultural heritage in conflict zones.

Abeed is clear on his view of the future purpose of the museum: "It is about education, research, teaching and students." If all goes to plan it should open late next year.

But in the long term, there are hopes that the number of tourists coming to the city will grow. Curtis said: "It is very strategically placed between Iran and the Gulf States." Abeed said he was optimistic. "It is a good situation in Basra. It is in the best state of any part of Iraq after Kurdistan. We had bombs yesterday but we don't have kidnappings."

For White-Spunner, it is also political: it is about telling a long, deep story about Iraq's past that shows the diverse riches of its Assyrian, Babylonian, Sasanian and Arabic heritage. "It's important to affirm Mesopotamian ideas and culture in the face of aggressive Shia Islam, which puts about that there is nothing before or after Shia Islam," he said. "In fact, the story of Iraq goes back before the pyramids. This is the garden of Eden; the land of the great flood."

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« Reply #9700 on: Nov 01, 2013, 06:58 AM »

October 31, 2013

Easing Tensions on the India-China Border


The border between India and China converges along a largely uninhabited region in the high reaches of the Himalayas. Where exactly the border lies is a matter of bitter disagreement. In 1962, the dispute led to outright war, with China seizing territory it claimed to rightfully own. Sparring has continued in the decades since. In April, Chinese troops set up camp in territory occupied and claimed by India. Though the incident was peacefully resolved and the Chinese troops retreated, the incursion was a reminder that the issue remains a potential spark for more serious confrontations.

Last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, signed a Border Defense Cooperation Agreement. It would prevent minor incidents from escalating into more dangerous confrontations and also provides the potential for crossborder trade that could further reduce tensions. The agreement does not, however, remove the major source of conflict: China’s claims to territory occupied and claimed by India.

The agreement takes some immediate practical steps to ease tensions, including hot-line communications between senior officers from the two sides and an end to border patrols tailing each other.

In recent years, both India and China have moved to build roads, railroads and airfields along the border. Clearly, one goal of these transportation networks is to facilitate the rapid movement of troops and artillery to the border zone. The roads can also increase crossborder trade.

Trade between India and China grew to $66 billion in 2012, but India’s slowing economy has saddled it with a trade deficit with China of $30 billion. Increased exports to China could help India’s economy get back on track and lift more people out of poverty. China would also benefit from investment in India and greater access to India’s consumer market.

Meanwhile, both China and India continue to enlarge their military capacities. India has announced that a 40,000-man Mountain Strike Corps will be installed along the border. And China, as India surely knows, is not about to abandon its claim to territory that it views as part of a reunited One China. Still, the agreement gives both sides an incentive to review their now very different maps of the region and settle on a permanent border. Until that happens, the possibility of serious conflict remains very real.
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« Reply #9701 on: Nov 01, 2013, 07:01 AM »

Thai parliament approves amnesty for former premier after 19-hour debate

By Arturo Garcia
Thursday, October 31, 2013 23:22 EDT

Thailand’s lower house of parliament on Friday passed a controversial political amnesty bill that has sparked mass anti-government protests.

Lawmakers voted 310-0 in the early hours of the morning to pass the legislation, with four abstentions, according to a parliamentary official.

Opponents fear the bill — which still needs approval by the upper house — will “whitewash” past abuses and allow ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra to return.

Government whip Amnuay Khangpha said the opposition Democrat Party — which opposes the amnesty — refused to take part in the vote, which came after about 19 hours of heated debate.

“The bill sailed through the second and third readings early this morning,” he told AFP.

“The bill will now be submitted to the Senate,” he said.

Thousands of people joined a rally against the planned amnesty in Bangkok on Thursday evening, some wearing bandanas reading “Fight” and waving clappers with the slogan “Stop the amnesty for corrupt people”.

“If a murderer kills someone and later he gets an amnesty, then the country will not be peaceful,” said Surapol Srimawong, 56, from the northeastern province of Korat.

“It would mean any leader can kill whoever and after killing he can issue the amnesty bill, then it would be terrible.”

According to national police spokesman Piya Uthayo, around 6,500 people joined the rally organised by the opposition.

The ruling Puea Thai Party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — Thaksin’s sister — had ordered all its lawmakers to support the amnesty bill, which would cover crimes related to political unrest since 2004.

Supporters of the legislation say it will draw a line under years of turmoil culminating in mass pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” protests in 2010 that left dozens of civilians dead in a military crackdown.

But human rights groups have said a blanket amnesty would allow officials and protest leaders to go unpunished for alleged abuses.

“By passing a whitewash blanket amnesty bill, Pheu Thai Party turns Thailand into pariah state that doesn’t respect justice and human rights,” Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk warned.

In 2010, mass rallies by the Red Shirts against the previous government ended in the kingdom’s worst civil violence in decades, with more than 90 people killed and nearly 1,900 wounded in street clashes and a military crackdown.

Thaksin, the former owner of Manchester City football club, lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid prison for a corruption conviction imposed in his absence in 2008.

He contends that the jail term — linked to a controversial purchase of state-owned land by his wife — was politically motivated.

As well as pardoning people involved in political protests, the amnesty would also cover those accused by organisations set up after the 2006 coup, according to a copy of the bill seen by AFP.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9702 on: Nov 01, 2013, 07:04 AM »

Indonesia says it's 'not cricket' for Australia to spy for the US in Asia

Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has candid discussion with counterpart Julie Bishop on the 'issue of trust'

Katharine Murphy, deputy political editor, Friday 1 November 2013 04.26 GMT   

Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa says it is "not cricket" for Australia to spy on the region at the behest of the United States, adding he has sought clarification from his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop on an important issue of "trust".

Natalegawa spoke to reporters in Perth after discussions with Bishop that he characterised as frank and candid.

"If Australia was itself subjected to such an activity do you consider it as being a friendly act or not? We are deeply concerned and it's something we cannot accept," he said.

Natalegawa is in Perth for the annual Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation meeting.

Friday's "please explain" with Bishop was sparked by media reports that Australia was using its regional diplomatic posts to carry out covert surveillance in Asia. Indonesia on Friday also called in the Australian ambassador in Jakarta, Greg Moriarty, for an explanation.

"Trust is a process," Natalegawa said on Friday. "What we are simply seeking now is clarification and explanation.

"This is not an Indonesia-focus situation. I'm told there are such facilities elsewhere. At least United States facilities," he said. "It's about trust, isn't it? Most countries will have technical capacities to intercept and carry out the activities that have been reported."

A Fairfax report this week alleges intelligence collection has been carried out from Australian embassies in Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi, Beijing and Dili; and high commissions in Kuala Lumpur and Port Moresby, as well as other diplomatic posts, under an American-led program codenamed Stateroom.

The Fairfax report drew on a leaked US National Security Agency document from whistleblower Edward Snowden, published by German publication Der Spiegel.

Subsequent to the reports, the prime minister, Tony Abbott, declined to comment on any specifics regarding intelligence activities – but he insisted any activity carried out by Australian officials was within the law.

"Well, the thing about every Australian governmental agency is that we all operate in accordance with the law," Abbott told reporters on Thursday.

"Every Australian governmental agency, every Australian official, at home and abroad, operates in accordance with the law and that's the assurance that I can give people at home and abroad – our people operate in accordance with the law," he said. "Now, as for the precise workings of our intelligence organisations, it's been a long-standing practice not to comment on them."

The Abbott government has invested considerable effort in soothing diplomatic relations with Jakarta, which were strained during the recent election because of the Coalition's policies regarding asylum seeker boats.


Sex assaults at Manus Island centre appear likely to go unpunished

Review suggests that while some charges have been laid, detainees have been transferred and cannot be prosecuted

Paul Farrell and Oliver Laughland, Friday 1 November 2013 06.39 GMT   

Any substantiated allegations of sexual assault and criminality within the regional processing centre on Manus Island are unlikely to lead to criminal prosecutions.

An independent review appears to suggest that while some charges have been laid, the detainees at the facility have all since been transferred from Papua New Guinea, placing them “beyond the jurisdiction” of the country.

The review was commissioned after an ex-G4S guard on Manus said that detainees had been raped and abused in the centre with full knowledge of staff members and it investigated 15 criminal allegations made within the detention centre.

The report found that detainees were not sexually abused with the full knowledge of staff or that victims were returned to the compound to be raped again. Allegations about knives being held and a man having solvent poured in his ear were also not substantiated.

But the report did confirm there had been lip sewing, transferees trying to swim from the facility, self-harm incidents and protests at the facility. It said some of these claims were "exaggerated or misunderstood" by SBS.

It identifies the most serious incidents related to the alleged sexual assault of a young male detainee named “Mr A”.

The report summary said multiple accounts alleged Mr A was raped twice in the centre. It said staff had considered moving the detainee to the family compound on Manus, following the allegations, but these suggestions were deemed inappropriate by the Department for Immigration as “single adult males could not live in a compound with families and children and appropriate medical treatment was available at the centre”.

It said Mr A returned to the single adult male compound “of his own volition” and refused to speak to the police, despite the matter being reported. Mr A also declined to speak to the independent review.

The report, written by a senior public servant, Robert Cornall, also concluded that “there is a strong view that reports of sexual assault should only be made with the consent of the alleged victim”. The public version of the report has been heavily redacted.

The Manus facility is currently holding 1,137 people, almost double the permanent capacity that is outlined in the contract with G4S. The report recommended that a separate area in the centre be created to house “vulnerable” people and said "as the number of transferees accommodated at the centre increases, this limitation on open space could contribute to friction, disturbance and other forms of protest”.

When asked at the weekly press conference about whether it was appropriate to be expanding the facility following the findings of the report, the minister for immigration and border protection, Scott Morrison said: "That report is based on an incident that took place some months ago – we've been taking the necessary steps to ensure proper security arrangements in that facility and that’s why we were able to expand the capacity and expand its operations."

When previous independent reviews have been conducted, the Immigration Department has released responses to the reports on its website.

When Morrison was asked what the department's response had been to the report he said: "Any advice I might have received from the department on those matters is a matter between myself and the department.

"But what I can tell you is the arrangements at those centres are continually being reviewed through the various agreements of those facilities to ensure that people are treated with dignity and respect."

Mark Davis, the SBS journalist who aired the Dateline program, said the call for a separate facility was a positive step but questioned the findings of the report.

“Why do they need a separate facility if the allegations [about staff having full knowledge] are not correct?”

David said the department’s failure to release the entire report was not appropriate given the seriousness of the claims.

"This whole facility and everyone around it is now shrouded in such obsessive secrecy," he said.

In response to the allegations that the SBS program "exaggerated or misunderstood" some claims, Davis said: "If they say the events happened I'll accept that, they can put it any way they like."

The review concedes that any substantiated criminal allegations made on Manus in the time period covered would be unlikely to result in prosecution “as nearly all of the transferees who were accommodated at Manus RPC have now left PNG, they are beyond the jurisdiction of the PNG criminal law and nothing further can be done. Offences committed in PNG cannot be tried in another jurisdiction.”

Morrison also said that no boats had arrived in this reporting period. He said there had been a 70% decrease in boat arrivals since operation sovereign border had begun.

Lieutenant General Angus Campbell said Australian Federal Police officers had extradited an Iraqi man from Kuala Lumpur this week who was allegedly involved in taking 763 people from Indonesia to Australia in 2001.

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« Reply #9703 on: Nov 01, 2013, 07:10 AM »

China blames East Turkestan Islamic Movement for Beijing attack

Alleged terrorist group has not claimed responsibility and critics accuse China of using its name to excuse repression of Uighurs

Associated Press in Beijing, Friday 1 November 2013 05.04 GMT   

China's top security official has blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for organising the suicidal vehicle attack that killed five people in the heart of Beijing this week.

Meng Jianzhu, chief of the commission for political and legal affairs of the ruling Communist party, named the group in an interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television when he was in the capital of Uzbekistan attending a regional security summit and seeking co-operation on counter-terrorism.

"The violent terrorist incident that happened in Beijing is an organised and plotted act. Behind the instigation is the terrorist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement entrenched in central and west Asian regions," Meng said, in video footage aired on Thursday by Phoenix.

Meng gave no further detail, and the alleged terrorist group has not claimed responsibility.

China believes the East Turkestan Islamic Movement aims to establish an independent East Turkestan in Xinjiang, and blames the group for the low-intensity insurgency in the region.

The United States placed the movement on a terrorist watch list after the September 11, 2001, attacks, but quietly removed it amid doubts that it existed in any organised manner.

An four-wheel-drive ploughed through bystanders, crashed and burst into flames near the Tiananmen Gate on Monday, killing three in the car and two tourists, including a Filipino woman, and injuring dozens.

Beijing police said the perpetrators were a man with an ethnic Uighur name, his wife and his mother. Police have arrested five people on suspicion of conspiring in the attack and called it a planned terrorism strike – the city's first in recent history.

Knives, iron rods, petrol and a flag imprinted with religious slogans were found in the vehicle, police said.

Uighurs live mainly in China's north-west region of Xinjiang and have close cultural and language ties to Turkic peoples of central Asia.

Human rights groups have questioned whether China uses the security threat as an excuse to suppress the Uighurs and say Uighur extremism has been fuelled by China's heavy-handed policies in Xinjiang and discrimination against Uighurs by the country's ethnic Han majorities.

Uighurs say they have seen little benefit from the exploitation of Xinjiang's natural resources while good jobs tend to flow to ethnic Han migrants. The 9 million Uighurs now make up about 43% of the population in a region where they used to dominate.

Since Monday's attack police have set up checkpoints and stepped up security in Xinjiang , according to various reports.


Tiananmen Square crash: five held over 'terrorist' incident

Police say they found machetes and flag with 'extreme religious content' in vehicle that crashed through crowds in Beijing

Tania Branigan in Beijing, Wednesday 30 October 2013 12.46 GMT   

Chinese police have detained five suspects in connection with what they are now calling a terrorist attack in Tiananmen Square.

They seized the men within hours of the "carefully planned, organised and premeditated" incident on Monday, according to a statement on the Beijing police microblog.

State media said the occupants of an SUV that crashed through crowds and burst into flames were a husband and wife and the man's mother, all of whom died after igniting petrol in their Xinjiang-registered vehicle.

Police found petrol containers, two machetes and metal rods in the car, Xinhua news agency said, along with a flag with "extreme religious content".

The others were detained with the help of police from Xinjiang and other areas, it said, adding that police found long knives and what it described as jihadi flags in the unspecified place where they were staying.

"After the preliminary investigation [the suspects] confessed that they knew the criminals, and conspired [with them] and carried out the terror attack, and said they did not expect that in only 10 hours the police would capture them," Xinhua said.

All eight of those connected with the incident appeared to have Uighur names.

Officials had previously declined to comment publicly on whether they thought it a deliberate attack or an accident, let alone a terrorism-related offence, which experts say would be unprecedented in the heart of Beijing. Tiananmen Square is the political centre of the capital.

Xinjiang, the troubled north-western region, has seen repeated outbreaks of violence. Beijing argues that it has invested heavily in the region, but Uighur Muslims have grown increasingly frustrated at controls on their religion and culture and an influx of Han Chinese migrants, which they argue has left them economically marginalised. Some seek autonomy for what they call East Turkestan.

In 2009 almost 200 people were killed when ethnic riots broke out in Urumqi, the region's capital. This year clashes between officials and Uighurs have left scores dead, and last year two men died in hospital after they reportedly attempted to hijack a plane flying between two cities in Xinjiang. Officials said this year that attacks could spread outside the region.

Exiles and human rights groups have said a lack of transparency makes it hard to assess exactly what happened in many cases. They say that while radicalism appears to be increasing, the government often fails to distinguish between frustration at Chinese policies, expression of Uighur identity, separatism and terrorism. They argue that suggestions of links to foreign radicals have been exaggerated in the past.

Michael Clarke, a professor at Griffith University in Australia who has studied the region, told Reuters: "There has been an acceleration of Uighur unrest and most of it stems from Chinese policy. "The extension of economic modernisation to Xinjiang has gone hand in hand with marginalisation of the Uighurs. There really needs to be a reassessment of China's approach to Xinjiang."

Uighur activists have said they fear a public backlash in the wake of the case and are concerned that authorities could further tighten policies in the region. Alim Seytoff, spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress, said: "We are not exactly sure what took place on Monday … Every time something like this happens, the Chinese government is quick to find some kind of religious extremist material to paint any Uighur who is not happy with Chinese rule as either an extremist or a terrorist.

"Uighur people are, just like the Tibetans, fed up with the Chinese government's brutal rule in their homeland. Therefore some people unfortunately take matters into their own hands out of desperation and decide to express their resistance to Chinese rule by violent means."


Jeep crash in China's Tiananmen Square leaves five dead

Tourists and police among dozens injured as vehicle hits crowd and bursts into flames outside Forbidden City in Beijing

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
The Guardian, Tuesday 29 October 2013   

Five people were killed and dozens injured when a jeep ploughed through a crowd, crashed and caught fire in Tiananmen Square, central Beijing, the site of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989.

Police evacuated and sealed off the square, which lies across a broad thoroughfare from the main gate of the Forbidden City, soon after the vehicle crashed at around midday on Monday. A police officer at its north-east corner told a crowd of flustered tourists that there was an "activity" in the square and that it would be closed indefinitely.

Three people in the jeep, the driver and two passengers, died in the crash, according to Xinhua. A female tourist from the Philippines and a man from southern Guandgdong province were also killed.

Of the 38 people injured in the incident, several were tourists from the Philippines and Japan. The cause of the crash, and the reasons behind it, are still unknown.

Pictures of the crash were posted online but quickly deleted by censors. One showed the charred shell of a four-wheel drive vehicle engulfed in flames on the pavement between the square and the Forbidden City, below a large portrait of Mao Zedong. Another, taken at a distance, showed a plume of grey smoke rising above the high red walls of the historic imperial palace.

The state-run Global Times newspaper reported on Tuesday that Beijing police had sought information on two people from Xinjiang whom they identified as likely suspects in a "major case [that] had taken place on Monday".

It said the notice, sent late on Monday night to hotels in Beijing, asked management to pass on information on suspicious guests or vehicles who had visited since 1 October. It named two residents of Pishan and Shanshan counties as likely suspects and described a light-coloured SUV and four Xinjiang-issued licence plates.

Zhu Yan, a contact person with the hotel supervision squad in the Beijing Police, confirmed that his team issued the notice but told Global Times he could not comment further.

The north-western region has seen repeated outbreaks of violence, including vicious ethnic riots in 2009 that killed almost 200 in its capital, Urumqi, and at least two major fatal incidents this year.

There are long-running tensions between the state and the large Uighur Muslim population, with many in the community chafing at cultural and religious restrictions and some aspiring to independence.

Authorities have blamed separatist groups for stirring up trouble, but exiles and human right groups argue that the government has been too quick to identify violent incidents as the work of terrorists.

In 2009 three people from Xinjiang set themselves on fire in a car at Wangfujing, not far from Tiananmen. Authorities said they were protesting over a land seizure dispute.

A young European woman living in Beijing said she had witnessed the aftermath of the crash as she left a nearby underground station shortly after midday. "What I immediately saw was a man on the ground, in his mid-60s. He didn't look like he was from the city, quite rural, maybe," she said. "He was unconscious, potentially not alive any more, very pale and discoloured. His head and his upper body were in a pool of blood.

"A couple of metres further, there was a woman sitting on the ground who was conscious. She was bent over and clutching her left thigh, and I could see that she was bleeding a lot."

The woman, who did not witness the crash itself, said a fire engine, an ambulance and a police car had sped past her as she walked away from the square. "I walked on a bit, and then saw a civilian and a security guard rushing towards the unconscious man on the ground," she said. "It looked like the civilian man was crying. He was really distressed."

Tiananmen Square has been one of China's most politically sensitive locations since 4 June 1989, when People's Liberation army soldiers fired on unarmed pro-democracy protesters, killing hundreds of people.

The square, now a popular tourist site, is dotted with security cameras and closely watched by scattered crowds of uniformed and plainclothes security agents.

Two reporters from AFP were detained on the scene "with images deleted from their digital equipment", the newswire reported. A BBC team was also briefly detained, according to a tweet by one of the corporation's reporters.

Within minutes of the crash, authorities erected high blue and green barriers around the site and temporarily blocked roads to the square. Transport authorities said that the underground station on Tiananmen's east side had also been closed.

By late afternoon the wreckage had been cleared and parts of the square reopened.

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« Reply #9704 on: Nov 01, 2013, 07:17 AM »

Israel strikes Russian weapons shipment in Syria

US security official says attack occurred in port city of Latakia and that target was Russian-made SA-125 missiles

Associated Press in Beirut, Friday 1 November 2013 00.47 GMT   

Israeli warplanes have attacked a shipment of Russian missiles inside a Syrian government stronghold, officials say, a development that threatened to add another volatile layer to regional tensions from the Syrian civil war.

The revelation came as the government of President Bashar al-Assad met a key deadline in an ambitious plan to eliminate Syria's entire chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014 and avoid international military action.

The announcement by a global chemical weapons watchdog that the country has completed the destruction of equipment used to produce the deadly agents highlights Assad's willingness to cooperate, and puts more pressure on the divided and outgunned rebels to attend a planned peace conference.

An Obama administration official confirmed the Israeli airstrike overnight, but provided no details. Another security official said the attack occurred late on Wednesday in the Syrian port city of Latakia and that the target was Russian-made SA-125 missiles.

There was no immediate confirmation from Syria.

Since the civil war in Syria began in March 2011, Israel has carefully avoided taking sides, but has struck shipments of missiles inside Syria at least twice this year.

The Syrian military, overstretched by the civil war, has not retaliated, and it was not clear whether the embattled Syrian leader would choose to take action this time. Assad may decide to again let the Israeli attack slide, particularly when his army has the upper hand on the battlefield inside Syria.

Israel has repeatedly declared a series of red lines that could trigger military intervention, including the delivery of "game-changing" weapons to the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Israel has never officially confirmed taking action inside Syria to avoid embarrassing Assad and sparking a potential response. But foreign officials say it has done so several times when Israeli intelligence determined that sophisticated missiles were on the move.

In January, an Israeli airstrike in Syria destroyed a shipment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah, according to US officials. And in May, it was said to have acted again, taking out a shipment of Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles at a Damascus airport.

The Fateh-110s have advanced guidance systems that allow them to travel up to 200 miles per hour with great precision. Their solid-fuel propellant allows them to be launched at short notice, making them hard to detect and neutralise.

Israel has identified several other weapons systems as game changers, including chemical weapons, Russian-made Yakhont missiles that can be fired from land and destroy ships at sea, and Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. Israel's January airstrike is believed to have destroyed a shipment of SA-17s.

Syrian activists and opposition groups reported strong explosions on Wednesday night that appeared to come from inside an air defence facility in Latakia. They said the cause of the blasts was not known.


October 31, 2013

Syria Destroys Chemical Sites, Inspectors Say


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s ability to produce chemical weapons has been destroyed and its remaining toxic armaments secured, weapons inspectors said Thursday, as President Bashar al-Assad has offered unexpectedly robust cooperation, at least so far, with a Russian-United States accord to dismantle his arsenal.

Elimination of Mr. Assad’s manufacturing ability is the most significant milestone yet in a process that still faces a monumental task: destroying the government’s 1,290 tons of declared chemical weapons in the midst of a bloody civil war that has killed well over 100,000 people and carved up control of the country.

Weapons inspectors who have been in the country just one month say that despite battles raging across the country, deep international disagreement over how to stop the war and even what United States officials say was an Israeli strike on a Syrian Army base late Wednesday night, Syria has so far met all of its commitments and deadlines.

By doing so, Mr. Assad’s government can claim success in what it said would be a key benefit of the accord — seizing a new measure of credibility and portraying itself not as an outlaw regime but as a reliable and legitimate international player. But opponents of Mr. Assad, including the rebels, are deeply critical of the deal for that very reason — it has helped buttress his position but done nothing to stop the war.

“They want to tell you, ‘It’s not because you put a deadline — when we say something, we do it before the time,’ ” a pro-government Syrian journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said of Syrian officials. “The main problem with the West, until now it never understood how the Syrian regime works. Whenever you threaten them you won’t get anything.”

Mr. Assad’s opponents have bitterly denounced the accord as a distraction, and they were dismayed that the chemical weapons attack in August that American officials say killed 1,400 men, women and children near Damascus led not to American military intervention, as President Obama initially threatened, but to an agreement that allows Mr. Assad’s supporters to portray him as a statesman.

The deal also created a de facto expectation that Mr. Assad would remain in office at least until mid-2014, when the elimination of the weapons is supposed to be complete under the agreement, critics say. And Syrians — supporters and opponents of the government alike — widely considered chemical weapons a side issue that global leaders were focusing on, rather than finding ways to end the war and its humanitarian disaster.

The government’s international opponents emphasized on Thursday that the deal was still incomplete and that they still hold Mr. Assad accountable for the suffering of Syrians. The British Foreign Office said in a statement that while the destruction of chemical facilities was “an important first milestone, it brings no relief to the Syrian people,” since the government continues to use artillery, air power and “siege tactics” against civilians.

In a statement on Thursday, the international chemical weapons watchdog group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said Syria had disabled all of the chemical weapons production and mixing facilities it declared to inspectors, rendering them inoperable, ahead of the deadline of Friday.

The organization said that its inspectors and United Nations officials had visited 39 of the 41 facilities at 21 of the 23 sites that Syria had declared to them. While the two remaining sites — where chemical weapons are developed, stored and tested — were too hazardous to visit because of fighting, chemical-making equipment had been moved to other sites that the inspectors could visit, the statement said.

“The joint mission is now satisfied that it has verified — and seen destroyed — all of Syria’s declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment,” the weapons organization’s statement said. “Given the progress made, no further inspection activities are currently planned.”

In Washington, at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questions were raised about why only 23 sites were mentioned in the statement as opposed to the 45 that American officials had said existed. Thomas M. Countryman, the State Department’s assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, said that the discrepancy might stem from how sites were defined, but that other details were classified and that there would be a subsequent hearing on the matter.

The weapons organization’s statements throughout the process have consistently suggested that the Syrian government was putting up no apparent resistance. Some government supporters — and indeed, some rebel fighters — have criticized the deal as giving up weapons that belong to the Syrian people and are needed as a deterrent against Israel, which maintains an undeclared nuclear arsenal.

But Syrian officials said that the weapons were of little practical use and that giving them up allowed them to claim new moral standing and draw attention to the push for the elimination of Israel’s nuclear weapons.

They have blamed the rebels for the deadly chemical attacks while independent experts analyzing a United Nations report on the attacks have said the evidence points to government culpability and to the weapons having been fired from government bases overlooking Damascus.

In a recent interview in Damascus, the deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, portrayed the Syrian government as restrained and pragmatic.

“We behaved responsibly against a potential attack by the U.S., which could really endanger the situation in Syria and in the region and beyond,” he said. “We have fulfilled our responsibility. It shows once again the success of Syrian diplomacy and the care it gives to the interests of the people and the region and world peace.”

He added that those concerned about nuclear and chemical weapons in the Middle East “should only focus their eyes on the Israeli arsenal.”

On Thursday, the Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that senior Israeli officials had met in Switzerland recently with representatives of all the Arab states to discuss holding a conference on disarming weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. It was the first time Arab and Israeli officials had met to discuss such a proposal, Maariv said.

The article quoted “American sources” as saying the United States would not pressure Israel to give up its nuclear weapons before reaching a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, which Iran says is peaceful but which Israel believes is aimed at building nuclear weapons.

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.

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