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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1006980 times)
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« Reply #9825 on: Nov 07, 2013, 07:49 AM »

November 6, 2013

In Fractured Nepal, Plans for National Elections Provide a Series of Subplots


KATMANDU, Nepal — Nepal’s former first lady insisted that she was not a crook.

“If you read the newspapers, you’d think I was the most corrupt woman in Nepal,” said Hisila Yami, a Maoist leader and the wife of a former prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai.

Now that the Maoists have given up bank robbery, kidnapping and extortion, money is harder to come by, she acknowledged as she peeled off bills from a huge wad in her purse to give to campaign workers.

“People gave us money earlier out of fear, but they don’t do that now,” she said with a shrug. “We have to be appealing now. We have to be nice. We can’t afford to antagonize people now.”

So Ms. Yami was squinting at shadows recently as she held campaign gatherings in living rooms darkened by routine power failures. She insisted to those gathered about her feet that all the stories of hidden wealth and secret efforts to undermine her husband when he was in office were just vicious rumors.

“People think I had a lot of money, cars and homes, but that is not true,” she said, exuding an energetic charisma that lit up the room like a flashlight. “When my husband was prime minister, I tried to help him. But people think I tried to overtake him.”

After decades of political upheaval and paralysis, Nepal is scheduled to hold national elections on Nov. 19. Yet, with more than a dozen political parties — including an important Maoist group — boycotting the vote, there is some doubt that they will occur, but top officials say the country has no choice.

“There is no Plan B,” said Madhab Paudel, Nepal’s minister of information and communication. “We have no option except conducting the election.”

There is a growing consensus here that the only way to arrest the country’s disastrous economic spiral is through elections. More than 120 political parties have registered to compete, and hope — long in as short supply as oxygen on nearby Mount Everest — is flourishing. Some of the most colorful candidates in the world are now crisscrossing this mountainous nation.

Nepal, ruled for centuries by monarchs, has 125 ethnic groups, 127 spoken languages, scores of castes and three distinct ecosystems that have long divided its 27 million people into a blinding array of feuding communities, making political consensus difficult.

A 10-year civil war between the Maoists and the government ended in 2006, but the resulting Constituent Assembly spent four years trying to write a constitution without success, leading to political paralysis. This month’s election is intended to create a second Constituent Assembly to finish the constitution.

The election’s most intriguing subplot is among the Maoists, who divided last year over whether war is still an acceptable political strategy. The hard-line faction, widely referred to as Dashist because of a dash in its name (Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist), is boycotting the elections and has called for a 10-day strike beginning Nov. 11.

“Our intention is to prevent people from participating in the election,” said Pampha Bhusal, a Dashist politburo member.

Just how far Ms. Bhusal’s group will go to prevent voting is the season’s great mystery. Ms. Bhusal insisted that her party will not resort to violence again, but instead will seek to “convince” people not to vote.

“Everybody’s one concern is security, which is unpredictable,” said Ila Sharma, a commissioner on Nepal’s Election Commission. One candidate has already been killed.

And then there is Ms. Yami’s party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), whose nickname is the Cashist party because of the vast sums of money, cars, houses and property its leaders are rumored to have stolen during the country’s 10-year insurgency. Like rich Communists elsewhere, Cashists have become deeply attached to capitalism. “Even in China, capitalism is thriving in its own way,” Ms. Yami said.

While Nepal’s main parties disagree fiercely over many things, Ms. Yami said, the embrace of democracy is now widely shared. “Usually the hard-core Communists don’t go for things like bourgeois elections,” she said with a laugh. “We were just in the jungle four or five years ago, and now we’re sounding more democratic than the democrats.”

But the tentative nature of Nepal’s democracy means that bribery and extortion, common tools during the insurgency, have not disappeared. In interviews, businessmen in Nepal said they routinely received letters demanding money from political parties, some of which still maintain private armies. If they refuse to pay — required donations range from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the size of the business — they are told they will suffer serious vandalism or violence, they said.

“The consequence is as simple as it is dramatic,” said one top Nepali businessman who asked to remain anonymous for fear of spurring further violence. “They will disrupt your business, damage your property and perhaps do violence to you and your employees. They’re fairly open about it when they need to be.”

Neel Kantha Uprety, the country’s chief election commissioner, said that vote buying was widely accepted in Nepal, and that eliminating the practice would take time and education. “We do not have a culture of democracy,” Mr. Uprety said.

The principal disagreements among the parties are whether to adopt the American, French or British governance models and how to split the country into states.

The Cashists want an executive presidency similar to that in the United States, although none would admit to copying the United States since, well, they are Maoists. The Marxist-Leninists want a French system with shared power between a president and prime minister, but they, too, denied any hint of foreign influence.

“We don’t call it a French model,” said Pramesh Hamal, a leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist). “But you can explain it yourself as near to the French model.”

Whether the parties will reconcile these divergent visions in the next Constituent Assembly after failing to do so in the last is anybody’s guess. In multiple interviews, Nepalis expressed a mixture of hope and despair about their future.

“It’s all a mess,” Sajan Shakya, 22, said as he sat with a friend near one of Nepal’s ancient Hindu temples.

But Gopal Tamkakar, a 58-year-old merchant, said he was optimistic. “Things will be calmer once they draft a constitution,” he said. “You have to have hope.”

A struggle for influence between India and China is another of the election’s subtexts. The Maoists, who had the most seats in the previous assembly, favor China. The Nepali Congress party favors India. In a wide-ranging interview, Ms. Bhusal of the Dashists repeatedly denounced India’s influence over the coming elections.

“Every decision now is being made by an international power,” she said with some fervor. Which power? “India! They are all acting on behalf of India!”

Nepal has enormous potential as a source of hydroelectric power, something both India and China covet. But the country has been in disarray for so long that diplomats in Katmandu rolled their eyes at the oft-expressed fear that some foreign power is itching to take Nepal over.

Nonetheless, India plays a dominant role. Bollywood movies are wildly popular, tens of millions of ethnic Nepalis live in India and the country depends entirely on India for fuel and other necessities. But Nepal’s time zone is 15 minutes ahead of India’s, a telling indicator of the country’s fierce attachment to its own independence.

International aid organizations have poured into Nepal in recent months, hoping this election may finally serve as a national turning point. On any given day, the traffic circle in front of the Nepal Election Commission is clogged with giant S.U.V.s sporting the emblems of many national aid agencies — including China’s.

Many of these organizations have helped resolve significant technical challenges. Quickly retrieving ballot boxes from the highest elevations in the world will be no small feat. And since half of Nepalis are illiterate, paper ballots have become poster-sized collections of symbols: rabbit, butterfly, flashlight and soccer ball, among more than 100 others.

The Chinese have not provided technical assistance, “since their own experience with elections is limited,” Mr. Uprety said with only the barest smile. “But we are getting their best wishes along with their logistical support.”

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« Reply #9826 on: Nov 07, 2013, 07:50 AM »

November 6, 2013

India Gives Foreign Banks New Door Into Local Market


MUMBAI — India’s central bank unveiled late Wednesday a far-reaching set of regulations to allow foreign banks into the country’s long-protected domestic market. But it demanded that they do so through subsidiaries incorporated in India and said that eligibility would be limited to banks from countries that reciprocate by letting in Indian banks.

Despite those two conditions, the new regulations are significant in that they allow greater competition in a country with a reputation for being difficult for foreign companies. The shift in direction is all the more notable because India has a history of opposing demands from wealthy countries for more open trade in goods and service and has even organized campaigns by developing countries against such demands during negotiations at the World Trade Organization and other multilateral organizations.

New rules for foreign banks have been under discussion here for years. The abrupt release of the latest regulations after the close of trading on Wednesday represents the most recent in a series of moves to increase competition in financial services by Raghuram Rajan, the prominent economist who became the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, the central bank, on Sept. 4.

Mr. Rajan said in an interview at the bank’s headquarters that the net effect of the new rules would be to let foreign banks, including American banks, compete on a nearly equal footing with domestic banks.

“They will have access, provided they come through the wholly owned subsidiary route and abide by the guidelines,” he said.

“There will be a lot more freedom for foreign banks here,” he said, sitting next to a window with a sweeping view of south Mumbai. “On net, it will be a tremendous opening to them, so I think they should be happy.”

A paper released by the central bank in late August said the main goal in allowing foreign banks in was to increase competition and efficiency in the local banking sector. The central bank wants to spur Indian banks to adopt more sophisticated financial services and risk management techniques.

But the push to attract foreign banks that form subsidiaries — and perhaps take over small Indian banks — has drawn criticism in some quarters in India. After Mr. Rajan mentioned during a visit to Washington last month that he wanted to act on the issue, a spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party complained that such overtures should be discussed in Parliament before being adopted.

The spokesman, Prakash Javadekar, said there was no evidence that foreign banks would deliver banking services to the poor.

“The experience of foreign banks in India is that they only compete with Indian banks in creamy business segments, and their contribution as far as financial inclusion is concerned is minimal and below expectations,” Mr. Javadekar told The Indian Express, a daily newspaper. “Such a major announcement should have been first debated here taking into account the global experience.”

In the interview, Mr. Rajan anticipated that issue, saying the new guidelines will require foreign banks to lend to the underprivileged in India, as domestic banks are required to do. “With that will come domestic responsibilities, the same responsibilities that the Indian banks have, to lend toward the underserved areas of the economy and the underserved sectors,” he said, “but they have that anyway. The large foreign banks already have those requirements.”

Some foreign banks have been lukewarm toward setting up full subsidiaries in India. Global institutions like Citibank and HSBC do business here using small branches or representative offices from their operations in other countries.

The regulatory framework issued Wednesday requires that foreign banks invest a hefty minimum of 5 billion rupees ($80 million) in equity capital in each subsidiary.

The new rules also require separate boards for each subsidiary. Two-thirds of the directors must not be executives of the bank and at least half of the directors must be Indian citizens.

Such boards will not only require additional expense and organization for the foreign banks, compared with operating through branches, but will also force the banks to open their books to outside directors, raising the possibility that business secrets would leak.

Regulations already allow foreign banks to convert their branches in India into wholly owned subsidiaries. Foreign banks have not done so because they had little incentive. The new rules create that incentive by allowing foreign banks to open branches all over the country with few limits if they set up subsidiaries. India currently allows just 15 or so new branches a year to be opened by all foreign banks combined.

The central bank said it would impose limits if foreign banks gained too large a share of the domestic market through the subsidiaries, but did not specify the threshold for this.

Sujan Hajra, the chief economist at AnandRathi, a financial services company based in Mumbai, said that setting up local subsidiaries in India would probably force foreign banks to lend considerably more to the country’s agricultural sector under rules that apply to domestic banks.

India has just one branch of a foreign bank for every three million people and has allowed these branches to open only under pressure from the W.T.O. The branches are almost entirely in a few big cities like New Delhi and Mumbai.

Neha Thirani Bagri contributed reporting.

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« Reply #9827 on: Nov 07, 2013, 07:56 AM »

November 6, 2013

Chinese Leader’s Economic Plan Tests Goal to Fortify Party Power


HONG KONG — China’s president, Xi Jinping, is about to plunge the country and himself into a risky experiment: an attempt to carry out market-driven economic overhauls while reinforcing the Communist Party’s pillars of political and ideological control. This mixed agenda has magnified doubts about whether he can deliver on his promises of transformation.

At a meeting, or plenum, of the party’s Central Committee that starts Saturday, Mr. Xi will enumerate his plans for an economic overhaul, and state-run news media has promoted the event as a turning point. Mr. Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang have indicated that they want to nurture healthy, sustained growth by encouraging more market competition, private business, financial liberalization and individual consumption, leaning away from the state-focused policies of the past decade.

Yet, Mr. Xi wants to achieve this economic shift away from the state while strengthening the ruling party, which derives power and wealth from its extensive role in the economy. Many analysts say a fundamental overhaul would require a top-down campaign to change prevailing notions about state control over crucial sectors like finance that Mr. Xi shows no signs of embracing.

In fact, for much of this year, he has pursued campaigns to reinforce ideological conformity, tighten censorship of the Internet and mass media, and expunge liberal political ideas.

“There are inescapable contradictions that Xi Jinping will have to face,” said Wu Wei, a former aide to central party leaders who was involved in planning China’s market overhauls in the 1980s.

“In one hand, they’re holding up the leftist banner. On the other hand, they say there must be reform,” Mr. Wu said. “They don’t show any desire to take on political issues, but if you don’t take on issues at the political level, most of these economic reform measures will fall apart before they’re completed.”

Mr. Xi and Mr. Li do appear eager to reconfigure China’s economy. Their predecessors — the party leader Hu Jintao and his prime minister, Wen Jiabao — made similar pledges a decade ago, but many economists say they failed to make enough headway. Rapid growth has been accompanied by choking pollution, worrisome local government debt, inefficient and corrupt monopolies, and residency and landholding rules that make it hard for rural residents to share in the nation’s urban-centered prosperity.

Since Deng Xiaoping’s time as party leader in the 1980s, the economy has expanded rapidly under a mixture of state sponsorship and market opportunities. But Chinese society is now much more diverse and divided than it was under Mr. Deng. Big bureaucracies, state-owned conglomerates and their patrons in the Communist Party elite derive enormous wealth and influence from a more state-centered system of power, and they tend to be wary of proposals to open protected industries to market competition.

If Mr. Xi is serious about remaking the economy, his hard-line political positions will stand in the way of attracting ideas and support, said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies Chinese politics.

“I don’t see a political strategy,” Mr. Pei said. “If there is one, it is counterproductive. It is to limit the voices of the liberals; it is to limit grass-roots pressure for reform.”

The Central Committee meeting is likely to endorse broad objectives to loosen government controls over capital flows, interest rates, natural resource prices, the leasing and development of farmland, and the settlement of people from villages in towns and cities, according to several investment analysts’ reports and Chinese newspaper articles.

“It’s really fundamentally about the role of the state in a modern economy,” said Fred Z. Hu, the chairman of Primavera Capital Group, who has advised the Chinese government. “The Chinese state is still just way too powerful, with too much excessive, unchecked, opaque power occupying the commanding heights.”

The goals endorsed at the meeting will be made public only after it ends on Tuesday. The government will then begin to formulate policies to accomplish those ideas. The reaction to the meeting will essentially be a referendum on whether officials, investors and citizens believe that Mr. Xi can achieve measured economic liberalization in the coming years.

Some think the need for change will overcome political misgivings and resistance.

“I think some optimism is warranted, but there’s always the risk that these guys will get captured by the vested interests,” said Christopher K. Johnson, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr. Xi has at times indicated that he would like to be seen as the next Mr. Deng, an audacious pioneer. Doubters say he risks following the example of his more cautious immediate predecessor, Mr. Hu.

The party has emphasized the significance of the coming Central Committee meeting for setting Mr. Xi’s agenda. One of his colleagues, Yu Zhengsheng, said Mr. Xi would unveil “unprecedented” overhauls to an assembly of hundreds of central and provincial officials.

Under Mr. Hu, the Chinese economy, previously the world’s sixth largest, grew to the second largest. Yet, many economists said, Mr. Hu shrank from making the changes needed to sustain that growth and to address worsening environmental and social problems.

To overcome these challenges, Mr. Xi and Mr. Li plan to expand cities and towns to absorb more rural people into urban life. They want to stop relying on heavy industry and low-end manufacturing to provide most jobs for rural migrants. By encouraging cleaner industries and the service sector, they hope to generate relatively more jobs, as well as clearer skies and waterways. But that transition will require channeling more bank loans, opportunities and policy support to smaller, private businesses.

“Transformation of economic growth is entirely interlocked,” said Yuan Xucheng, a former official who is now deputy secretary general of the China Society of Economic Reform, a think tank in Beijing. “You can’t transform one part without transforming the others.”

Because the proposed changes entail subduing state-owned companies, ministries, local governments and even urban residents who want to preserve their privileges, they are likely to encounter political resistance.

Giving rural migrants a firm foothold in urban society will require a bigger, more costly social safety net, and privileged city residents will have to share their schools and hospitals with newcomers. Persuading farmers to move permanently into cities will require changes in land policy that allow the farmers to sublease their land more easily and to earn more when it is taken for development. That, in turn, will require new sources of revenue for local governments, which depend on taking farmland for little compensation and selling it to developers.

State-owned companies and their government patrons, which have benefited from cheap, free-flowing loans from state-owned banks and privileged access to land and natural resources, are likely to resist shifts that would expose them and the banks to stronger competition from the private sector, experts said.

It is this thicket of interests, not ideological conservatism or elite factional rifts, that poses the biggest obstacle to economic change, said Mr. Wu, the former aide who helped design market reforms in the 1980s. “Perhaps outwardly they’ll declare their support for reform,” he said, “but in reality they’ll resist reforms that involve them.”

As the meeting approaches, signs have already emerged of how contention and compromises could limit proposals for far-reaching economic change. Researchers at a government think tank, the State Council Development Research Center, who favor bolder liberalization, issued their own proposal called Plan 383. But officials and commentators in several Chinese newspapers said the ideas were unlikely to win top support.

Central ministries and local governments have resisted initiatives that would give farmers a bigger share of land taken for development, said Tao Ran, director of the China Center for Public Economics and Governance at Renmin University in Beijing, who supports such changes.

“Many local government officials and central officials, they know this is not sustainable,” Professor Tao said. “But reform would finally, maybe, reduce their power. You know what is good, but you may not want to do it.”

Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting from Beijing.


November 6, 2013

China Wants Its Movies to Be Big in the U.S., Too


LOS ANGELES — Investment capital? They’re loaded.

Film studios? They are promising to build the world’s fanciest.

As for movie stars, few are more dazzling than Li Bingbing, who was an honored guest here on Tuesday at the annual U.S.-China Film Summit.

But China’s ambitious new film entrepreneurs, dozens of whom gathered in the Los Angeles area this week for the summit meeting, the American Film Market and other events, are still searching for something that has largely eluded them: a homemade global hit.

“We have 5,000 years of history. We have lots of stories,” said Yang Buting, the chairman of the China Film Distribution and Exhibition Association, who spoke on a panel at the gathering on Tuesday.

But, Mr. Yang added, “to create movies that are universally appealing, that is an issue for us.”

China’s domestic box office is now the world’s second-largest, behind the United States, with an expected $3.5 billion in sales this year. That growing market has been pursued aggressively, and with considerable success, by Hollywood, whose studios — to capture a mainland audience for films like “Iron Man 3” or “Pacific Rim”— have worked with Chinese partners, added Chinese subplots and bent over backward to satisfy China’s watchful censors.

But a perhaps tougher struggle confronts Chinese film executives who dream of making movies that will be seen not just at home, but also by a measurable number of viewers in the United States and elsewhere.

“We lack international experience, in general,” said Yu Dong, the chief executive of China’s Bona Film Group, which is about 20 percent owned by 21st Century Fox.

Mr. Yu, who spoke over coffee at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills this week, referred to a growing group of film companies that are smaller than the giant state-owned China Film Group, but share ambitions to play on the world stage.

“Every producer I’ve met has told me they want to reach the world audience,” said Rob Cain, a film consultant who is working with Chinese companies that hope to crack the global market, despite robust growth at home.

At home, ticket sales have been rising about 35 percent annually. And they show no sign of letting up, as the number of movie screens, which has been rising at a similar rate and promises to reach about 18,000 this year, continues its expansion into smaller markets. Also, China’s domestic box office has recently tilted toward Chinese films rather than foreign imports.

But the urge to export movies, Mr. Cain said, has much to do with the Chinese government’s promotion of what is often called “soft power”— the ability to project influence through nonmilitary means, including, of course, the film business.

“If you’re trying to score points with the Communist Party and the central government, you want to support their soft-power agenda, to help spread the culture,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, staged a remarkable show of such strength in September, when he hosted Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood luminaries at his company’s celebration of a planned studio and entertainment complex in the beach city of Qingdao.

Styled the “Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis,” Wanda’s proposed development is projected to cost as much as $8.2 billion, and would match or surpass the capacity of studios in the United States.

But nothing would speak louder than a globe-spanning hit.

In the United States, the best-selling Chinese-language film to date remains “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which had about $128 million in North American ticket sales after its release by Sony Pictures Classics in 2000. Since then, some international blockbusters have had Chinese backers, co-stars and settings; but they mostly have been Hollywood products with a Chinese veneer.

In a next wave, China’s emerging film companies are proposing to reverse the equation, by finding Chinese stories with global appeal and just enough American content or backing to attract viewers who have grown comfortable with Hollywood-style movies.

As Mr. Yu puts it, any Chinese film with international ambitions must be rooted what he called “an American way of looking at China.”

His own company’s best bet, Mr. Yu said, is a planned action thriller, called “Moscow Mission,” about six Chinese police officers who tackle crime on the Beijing-to-Moscow train. “There will be a lot of English dialogue, but with a Chinese story,” he said of the film, which is still in the script stage.

Still, the difficulty of marketing such hybrids was underscored last weekend by the modest performance of “Man of Tai Chi,” a Chinese-American co-production that starred Keanu Reeves.

The film, which has dialogue in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, sold few tickets when it was released on a handful of screens in the United States by Radius-TWC. It was nonetheless featured as a model Chinese-American co-production in a Monday night presentation at Universal Studios by Chinese officials and filmmakers, as well as Christopher J. Dodd, the chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America.

An enduring challenge for Chinese filmmakers who want to go global is their own government’s insistence on tight control of film content through a still-rigorous censorship apparatus.

“We want to see positive Chinese images,” Zhang Xun, president of the China Film Co-Production Corporation, told those assembled at the film conference on Tuesday. To underscore her point, Ms. Zhang ticked off “hot spots” to be avoided, including excessive violence and horror, scenes that might offend third countries and potentially volatile religious references.

Some executives have concluded that the fantasy or historical adventure genres, which largely sidestep those concerns, are likely to spawn the next real Chinese global blockbuster.

Zhang Zhao, the chief executive of Le Vision Pictures, for instance, said in a Tuesday interview that his company was developing what it hoped would be a universal hit, based on the classic Chinese novel “Water Margin,” about outlaws and spirits during the Song Dynasty, a thousand years ago.

Mr. Zhang said he believed the global breakthrough for China would come “very soon,” though, earlier in the day, he sounded a cautious note on the subject.

“I don’t think Chinese films can travel the world all that well,” he warned peers during a panel discussion.

But, Mr. Yu, of the Bona Film Group, contended that to conquer the movie universe, it is really only necessary to prevail in two places, the United States and China.

“If we are able to play a part in these two markets, we pretty much control a majority of the world,” he said.


China cracks down on emissions to combat choking smog

New guidelines call for traffic and factory restrictions amid public outcry over severe smog and air pollution

Reuters in Beijing, Wednesday 6 November 2013 12.40 GMT      

Chinese cities should close schools, cut working hours and stop outdoor activities during the most severe spells of air pollution, the ministry of environmental protection has said.

"Every possible compulsory measure" must be taken to cut emissions during the heaviest smog – including suspending factory production and imposing traffic restrictions.

The ministry's guidelines, issued in a circular, come as China grapples with frequent choking smog in its big cities, a consequence of years of breakneck economic growth that has fuelled public anger.

State media recently reported that an eight-year-old girl who lived near a busy thoroughfare in the coastal province of Jiangsu had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The case of the girl, believed to be the country's youngest lung cancer patient, has sparked a public outcry.

Despite frequent calls for cutting pollution over recent years, and growing public anger, the problem has only got worse. Schools and workplaces typically operate as normal in all but the most severe smog, even when it reaches hazardous levels.

Primary and middle schools suspended classes last month in the north-east city of Harbin during a smog emergency. The airport and some bus routes were also closed.

China must also toughen anti-pollution measures on industry and reduce its dependence on coal, which produces more than three-quarters of the country's electricity, the environment ministry said.

Public security departments should also toughen checks on vehicles, including phasing out older ones, and ensure there are not too many on the roads, it said.

China said in September it would slash coal consumption and shut down polluting mills, factories and smelters, though experts have said implementing the measures would prove difficult.

Air pollution is expected to worsen this winter because of a chronic natural gas shortage.

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« Reply #9828 on: Nov 07, 2013, 08:04 AM »

Japanese politician causes uproar by giving letter on Fukushima to emperor

Taro Yamamoto faces criticism after handing note to Emperor Akihito at garden party in breach of strict protocol

Associated Press in Tokyo, Thursday 7 November 2013 09.24 GMT   

A novice Japanese lawmaker who wanted to draw attention to the Fukushima nuclear crisis has caused an uproar by doing something taboo: handing a letter to the emperor.

It began at an annual autumn Imperial Palace garden party last week. As Emperor Akihito and his wife, Michiko, greeted a line of guests, the outspoken actor-turned-lawmaker Taro Yamamoto gave the emperor the letter – a gesture considered both impolite and inappropriate.

Video of the encounter, repeatedly aired on television, shows the 79-year-old emperor calmly taking the letter, written on a folded "washi" paper with ink and brush, and briefly talking with Yamamoto. An apparently wary Empress Michiko gently pulled her husband's elbow from behind. The chief steward, who was standing next to Akihito, grabbed the letter the instant the emperor turned to him.

Yamamoto's action drew criticism from both ends of the ideological spectrum and left many Japanese baffled by what they consider to be a major breach of protocol: reaching out to the emperor in an unscripted act.

The controversy shows how the role of Japan's emperor remains a sensitive issue, nearly 70 years after Akihito's father, Emperor Hirohito, renounced his divinity following Japan's defeat in the second world war and became a symbol of the state.

Many conservatives still consider the emperor and his family divine – "the people above the clouds" – and believe a commoner should not even talk to him. Decades ago, commoners were not even allowed to look directly at the emperor, but today Akihito does meet ordinary people, including those in disaster-hit areas in northern Japan.

There is no specific law, but people are not supposed to talk freely to the emperor, touch him or hand him something without permission. Taking a mobile phone picture of the emperor or his family is also considered impolite.

An upper house committee is discussing whether to discipline Yamamoto and a decision is expected this week. The 38-year-old lawmaker, who was elected in July as an independent, has apologised for troubling the emperor but rejected calls to step down.

Yamamoto, an anti-nuclear activist, said he wanted to make an appeal to the emperor about the crisis in Fukushima and its possible health impact on residents and workers cleaning up the power plant, which suffered three meltdowns after it was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Neither Yamamoto nor the palace has released the letter's contents. If Yamamoto sought the emperor's assistance, he may have violated a law requiring cabinet approval for such requests.

Yamamoto denied any intention to use the emperor for political purposes – a possible infringement of the postwar constitution, which relegates the emperor to a non-political, ceremonial role.

"My behaviour was indiscreet for a place like the garden party," Yamamoto said at a news conference on Tuesday. "I just wanted the emperor to know the reality. I was frustrated by not being able to achieve any of my campaign promises yet."

Liberals criticise Yamamoto for turning to the emperor for help rather than upholding democratic principles as an elected lawmaker. Some worry that Yamamoto's ploy reinforced the idea that the emperor is Japan's most trusted public figure, and fear that could play into conservative efforts to give the emperor more powers.

Others criticise Yamamoto as an amateur and populist politician who has set back the anti-nuclear movement, said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo.

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« Reply #9829 on: Nov 07, 2013, 08:07 AM »

New Zealand government orders new investigation into online ‘rape club’

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 6, 2013 20:14 EST

The New Zealand government ordered an independent inquiry Thursday into allegations that police botched an investigation into an online “rape club” that preyed on underage girls.

Police Minister Anne Tolley said the case, which has sparked outrage in New Zealand, had been “poorly handled” and she had asked the police watchdog to conduct an inquiry.

“I believe this is the right course of action to ensure the public has confidence in the police on this matter,” she said after meeting Police Commissioner Peter Marshall on Thursday.

The case centres on a gang of young males calling themselves “Roast Busters”, who boasted online about plying girls as young as 13 with alcohol then having group sex with them.

The Auckland-based group, most believed to be aged in their late teens, reportedly used Facebook to meet the girls then posted comments and videos on the social media site bragging about their exploits and humiliating their victims.

When the story broke earlier this week, Prime Minister John Key called the group’s alleged actions “abhorrent” but said it was difficult for authorities to prosecute them due to a lack of hard evidence.

Police at the time said they had been aware of the group for two years but took no action because none of its alleged victims was willing to testify against them.

But it has since emerged that four girls complained to police as far back as 2011, including one who made a formal statement featuring video testimony about what she endured.

That girl, her identity obscured, told TV3 on Wednesday evening that she did not feel police were supportive and they focused on why she wore a skirt when she met members of the group in 2011.

“They said that I didn’t have enough evidence to show, because I went out in clothes that was pretty much asking for it,” said the girl, who was aged 13 at the time.

Tolley said the police treatment of the girl would be part of the Independent Police Conduct Authority inquiry.

“Parents of young girls need to have confidence that complaints to police about sexual assault are investigated thoroughly and appropriately,” she said.

Victims’ rights advocates such as Greens MP and former sexual abuse counsellor Jan Logie have said that if the claims made by Roast Busters members are true then it amounts to a “rape club” and they should be charged accordingly.

Police superintendent Bill Searle said officers were now reviewing evidence and hoping to speak to victims again to see if a prosecution was possible.

“We will look at the whole evidence, at the time, to make a proper assessment,” he told Radio New Zealand.

Searle said investigators were aware “very early on” that one of the alleged gang members was the son of a police officer but the fact had no bearing on how the case was handled.

Watch a report on the police’s failure to investigate the “Roast Busters,” as posted online on Monday, below.

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« Reply #9830 on: Nov 07, 2013, 08:13 AM »

Yasser Arafat may have been poisoned with polonium, tests show

Swiss scientists find levels of polonium 18 times higher than normal in first forensic tests on former Palestinian leader's body

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris and Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Wednesday 6 November 2013 18.34 GMT   

Link to video: Palestinian leaders react to Yasser Arafat alleged poisoning

The first forensic tests on samples taken from Yasser Arafat's corpse have shown unexpectedly high levels of radioactive polonium-210, suggesting the Palestinian leader could have been poisoned with the rare and lethal substance.

The Swiss scientists who tested Arafat's remains after the exhumation of his body in November 2012 discovered levels of polonium at least 18 times higher than usual in Arafat's ribs, pelvis and in soil that absorbed his bodily fluids.

The Swiss forensic report was handed to representatives of Arafat's widow, Suha Arafat, as well as representatives of the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday. A copy of the report was obtained exclusively by the al-Jazeera TV network, which shared it with the Guardian before publication.

The Swiss report said that even taking into account the eight years since Arafat's death and the quality of specimens taken from bone fragments and tissue scraped from his body and shroud, the results "moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210".

Suha Arafat said the evidence in the report suggested that her then healthy 75-year-old husband, who died in 2004 four weeks after he first fell ill following a meal, was almost certainly murdered by poisoning. She told al-Jazeera: "This is the crime of the century."

Speaking to the Guardian after receiving the report, she said she would press for answers on who was responsible. "It's shocking … I remember how Yasser was shrinking at the hospital, how in his eyes there were a lot of questions. Death is a fate in life, it is everybody's fate, but when it's poison it's terrible. We are mourning him again now."

With Zahwa, 18, her daughter by Arafat, she said she suspected a "conspiracy to get rid of him", adding: "My daughter and I have to know who did it. We will not stop in our quest to find out. I hope the Palestinian Authority goes further on it, searching every single aspect of it. It is of course a political crime." She said: "This is separate from the peace process or talks. Any judicial investigation is separate from the peace process."

David Barclay, a British forensic scientist who had studied the report, told al-Jazeera: "The report contains strong evidence, in my view conclusive evidence, that there's at least 18 times the level of polonium in Arafat's exhumed body than there should be."

He said the report represented "a smoking gun". Barclay said: "It's what killed him. Now we need to find out who was holding the gun at that time," adding: "I would point to him being given a fatal dose. I don't think there's any doubt at all."

The Israeli government, however, dismissed the report. "The Swiss findings are not conclusive," said Yigal Palmor, a foreign ministry spokesman.

"Even if they did find traces of polonium that could indicate poisoning, there's no evidence of how that poisoning occurred. Before the Palestinian Authority jumps to conclusions, there are many questions still to be answered.

"Israel is not involved in any way. There's no way the Palestinians can stick this on us. It's unreasonable and unsupported by facts. We will see yet another round of accusations, but there's no proof."

Dov Weissglass, a former aide to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister at the time of Arafat's death, also denied Israeli involvement. "To the best of my knowledge, we had no hand in this," he said, adding that neither the prime minister nor the Israeli security services had played any part in the Palestinian leader's demise.

"By the end of 2004, we had no interest in harming him. By then, Arafat was marginalised, his control over Palestinian life was minimal. So there was no logic, no reason."

Danny Rubinstein, a journalist and author of a book about Arafat, had a different memory of events. In the weeks and months before Arafat's death, he said, people in Sharon's inner circle talked constantly about how to get rid of him. "For me, it was very clear from the beginning. Every day this was the topic – should we expel him, or kill him, or bomb the Muqata [Arafat's HQ]. It was obvious to me that they would find a way."

Palmor said that among the scientists who tested Arafat's remains only the French team were independent. The Swiss were commissioned by Suha Arafat, and the Russians by the Palestinian Authority, he said. "These results should be taken with a few grains of salt. This story is still as mysterious as it was on day one."

Tawfik Tirawi, head of the Palestinian committee investigating Arafat's death, did not respond to a request from comment. But a senior Palestinian leader, Hanan Ashrawi, said: "This report confirms the suspicions that we've had all along. We know Arafat was killed, now we know how. And we know who had the means, the opportunity and the motive. Justice must now take its course."

Arafat died in a French military hospital on 11 November 2004,. He had been transferred there from his headquarters in the West Bank after his health deteriorated over weeks, beginning with severe nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea around four hours after eating dinner on 12 October. French doctors have said he died of a massive stroke and had suffered from a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC. But the records were inconclusive about what brought about the DIC. No autopsy was carried out.

Allegations that Arafat may have been poisoned emerged immediately after his death and the claim was raised again by al-Jazeera TV last summer, following a nine-month investigation culminating in the film What Killed Arafat?

Al-Jazeera said it was given access to a duffel bag of Arafat's personal effects by his widow, which it passed to a Swiss institute. Swiss toxicological tests on those samples including hair from a hat, saliva from a toothbrush, urine droplets on underpants and blood on a hospital hat found that the belongings had elevated traces of polonium-210, the lethal substance used to kill the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko.

The Swiss institute said Arafat's bones would have to be tested to get a clearer answer, warning that polonium decayed fast and an autopsy needed to be done quickly. In August last year, French prosecutors opened a murder inquiry into Arafat's death. In November, Arafat's corpse was exhumed from its mausoleum in Ramallah in the presence of three international teams of scientists: the Swiss team, a French team that was part of the Paris judicial investigation and a Russian team.

The Swiss team's report states that they carried out toxicological tests on Arafat's "almost skeletonised body along with residues from his shroud". The samples, including fragments of bones taken from his left ribs and pelvis as well as remnants of tissue from the abdominal cavity and grave soil, showed "unexpectedly high" activity of polonium-210.

Suha Arafat's lawyer, Saad Djebbar, told the Guardian the Swiss report was "evidence that there was a crime committed". He said he had handed the Swiss report to French investigators, whose inquiry is ongoing. French scientists conducted their own tests as part of the legal investigation but have not published findings as the inquiry continues.

Arafat's daughter, Zahwa, a student of international relations in Malta, told the Guardian: "I want to find out who did it and their motive for doing it." She said she trusted the French investigation to shed light on that.


Yasser Arafat: what the report shows

Swiss scientists discovered unexpectedly high levels of polonium despite fears body would not yield much evidence

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris, Wednesday 6 November 2013 16.07 GMT   

When Palestinian officials opened up Yasser Arafat's grave in November last year, the international scientists standing by were not sure whether the naturally decayed corpse would yield many secrets. The Swiss team present had already found that biological samples on Arafat's final belongings, including urine-stained underwear and blood from a hospital hat, showed "significant quantities" of polonium-210, the lethal substance used to assassinate the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko.

The scientists now wanted to test Arafat's remains for traces of the radioactive substance to establish whether he might have been poisoned by polonium, which he would have to have ingested – perhaps administered to him in food or drink. But polonium decays rapidly. Eight years after burial, it was unclear what state the corpse was in. Certainly, the soft tissue of the liver and kidneys – which would have been best able to show any alleged polonium poisoning had there been an autopsy at the time of death – would now have decomposed. So the teams would have to rely on bone fragments and scraps of tissue still present around bones and on the death shroud.

Despite worries about decomposition, the Swiss team's report, which was obtained by al-Jazeera and shared with the Guardian prior to publication, found the bone and tissue fragments from the corpse showed "unexpectedly high" levels of radioactive polonium-210. David Barclay, a British forensic scientist who had studied the report, said it contained strong evidence of levels of polonium at least 18 times higher than the norm in Arafat's ribs, pelvis and in soil that absorbed his leaked bodily fluids. Barclay called the report's findings "a smoking gun".

The 108-page report describes how Arafat's corpse was located at a depth of around four metres below his mausoleum in Ramallah. With high relative humidity of 70% and temperatures of 17C, the body, which was lying facing upwards, with the left lower leg slightly bent over the right, was "almost skeletonised". All the bones showed a dark-brown discolouration but there were remnants of some soft tissue material, such from the abdominal cavity, as well as some hair in the cranial area. A Palestinian medical investigator collected 20 specimens from Arafat's corpse and grave during the exhumation and handed samples of each to three international teams – Swiss, French and Russian – in the presence of additional representatives from the French justice system which is conducting a murder inquiry. The specimens included a tooth, fragments from the scalp, bones such as rib and pelvis bones and remnants of the death shroud. Also collected was soil from the grave, some of which bore a black stain where bodily fluid had seeped. Some tissue matter was able to be scraped from bones.

The Swiss report concluded that even taking into account the eight years since Arafat's death and the quality of specimens taken from bone fragments and tissue scraped from his decayed corpse and shroud, the results "moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210".

The scientists examined at the length what they called the "pros and cons" of the theory that Arafat's death was caused by polonium-210 poisoning. They list a number of points that support the notion that Arafat could have been poisoned by polonium, especially the "sudden and brutal onset" of his stomach complaints following a meal "in a patient who was otherwise in general good health".

First, the scientists felt that the acute onset of gastro-intestinal symptoms in Arafat, who first fell ill four hours after eating dinner in October 2004, as well as the progressive deterioration of his state in the following weeks were "compatible with ingestion of a large quantity of radioactivity". That Arafat died one month after the onset of symptoms also supported the idea of an acute intoxication. Similarly, the development of Arafat's final symptoms, and his death from a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC, was "compatible with an acute toxin pathology, possibly the radiosotope polonium-210".

The scientists first found "significant" quantities of polonium-210 on Arafat's final clothing and belongings which they analysed in early 2012. They then found "unexpectedly high" polonium-210 activity in the specimens collected during the exhumation in November 2012.

The team also pointed out and analysed in depth the presence of lead in the specimens from the corpse. They said this was likely to be compatible with lead impurities measured in sources of polonium-210. Barclay, after studying the report, explained that lead may be present when polonium is made in a reactor. The report found that the presence and distribution of the lead and polonium were compatible with "an acute intake" occurring just before Arafat's clinical symptoms began, four hours after his dinner on 12 October. The scientists stated: "No other cause to explain the onset of the symptoms could be identified." The negative results of initial toxicology tests three weeks after Arafat first fell ill and shortly before he died could be explained by "metabolism or elimination of some toxic agents" over the course of those weeks, they said. They also pointed out that those tests could not have eliminated every possible toxic substance. They added that at the time of those tests in 2004, polonium-210 poisoning was not documented except that it was known to be toxic.

Examining the case against the theory of possible polonium poisoning, the team said that the "acute radiation syndrome" that polonium poisoning would have caused often includes hair-loss and decreased bone marrow activity, while Arafat had not lost his hair or displayed the bone marrow symptoms. But the team said those two factors were not always found in poisoning cases. They were more often associated with external radiation exposure, not always with internal exposure. For Arafat to have been killed by polonium-210, he would have need to have ingested the poison and would have been exposed internally.


Palestinian officials demand investigation into Arafat ‘killing’ after Al-Jazeera’s polonium poison report

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 7, 2013 7:21 EST

Palestinian officials demanded a global probe into the “killing” of Yasser Arafat on Thursday, a day after it emerged that Swiss forensic tests showed he probably died from polonium poisoning.

With the scientific analysis purportedly showing how the Palestinian leader had died mysteriously, a senior figure in the Palestine Liberation Organisation called for an international inquiry to determine who was behind it.

“The (test) results proved Arafat was poisoned by polonium, and this substance is owned by states, not people, meaning that the crime was committed by a state,” said Wasel Abu Yusef of the PLO’s executive committee.

“Just as a committee was formed to investigate the killing of (slain Lebanese prime minister) Rafiq Hariri, there must be a international committee to investigate the killing of president Arafat.”

His remarks came a day after Al-Jazeera published a report by Swiss scientists that said the results of tests on Arafat’s remains “moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium-210″.

Arafat died in France on November 11, 2004 at the age of 75, but doctors were unable to specify the cause of death. No autopsy was carried out at the time, in line with his widow Suha’s request.

Officials from Fatah, which dominates both the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, were scheduled to meet at 1100 GMT to discuss the findings, a senior party member told AFP.

And Tawfiq Tirawi, head of the Palestinian committee for investigating Arafat’s death, was to hold a news conference on Friday morning to discuss the Swiss findings, officials said.

Meanwhile in Lausanne, the Swiss team which carried out the analysis was preparing to hold its own press conference at 1245 GMT to expound on their report.

Patrice Mangin and Francois Bochud “will answer questions linked to the expert report handed Tuesday to representatives for Mrs Suha Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority,” a statement said.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera on Wednesday, Suha charged that the poisoning amounted to “the assassination of a great leader” and a “political crime”.

Arafat’s remains were exhumed in November 2012 and samples taken, partly to investigate whether he had been poisoned — a suspicion that grew after the assassination of Russian ex-spy and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

‘Soap opera’

“New toxicological and radio-toxicological investigations were performed, demonstrating unexpectedly high levels of polonium-210 and lead-210 activity in many of the analysed specimens,” according to the November 5 report by 10 Swiss experts quoted by Al-Jazeera.

It said polonium levels in “bones and soft tissues were up to 20 times larger than references in the literature”, firmly ruling out the possibility previously reported in some media that cigarette smoke had caused greater than normal polonium levels among Arafat’s personal effects.

Following Arafat’s sudden demise and death, rumours exploded across the Palestinian spectrum that Israel was responsible, a charge Israeli officials have repeatedly rejected.

Israel’s foreign ministry on Wednesday scoffed at the notion that Arafat had been poisoned, describing the matters as a long-running “soap opera” and suggesting the various investigations were not impartial.

On Thursday a top aide to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who was in power when Arafat died, insisted the premier had done everything to prevent any harm to the Palestinian leader.

“Ariel Sharon insisted that everything be done to ensure that Arafat, who was at the time living inside his besieged Muqataa compound, was not killed by our soldiers,” Raanan Gissin told AFP.

“His instructions were to take every precaution to avoid Israel being accused of Arafat’s death.

“Instead of launching baseless accusations against Israel, the Palestinians would be better to question those in Arafat’s entourage who had an interest in his death and above all getting their hands on the money he controlled,” said Gissin.

The Palestinians received the Swiss report on November 2, Tirawi told AFP, and the official WAFA news agency said a separate Russian team appointed by the Palestinian Authority also handed in its report on the same day.

Some 60 samples were taken from Arafat’s remains in November last year and were divided between the Swiss and Russian investigators and a French team carrying out a probe at his widow’s request.

Last month, The Lancet medical journal said Swiss scientists had found traces of polonium in separate tests on Arafat’s clothing which “support the possibility” he was poisoned.


November 6, 2013

Kerry’s Path Steepens in Israeli-Palestinian Talks


BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Secretary of State John Kerry’s uphill path to a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians seemed ever steeper on Wednesday, as the two sides clashed bitterly over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the exoneration of a right-wing Israeli politician threatened to inject a volatile element into the talks.

The developments could portend a harder line from Israel toward the Palestinians, and increase the pressure on Mr. Kerry to play a more muscular mediating role, three months after his intense personal campaign lured the adversaries back to negotiations after years of impasse.

On Wednesday, Mr. Kerry pressed Israel more forcefully than he had before to limit new construction of settlements “in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively.” But his own effort to cool temperatures came amid growing signs of a poisoned atmosphere, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel bluntly accusing the Palestinian leadership of fomenting distrust and evading difficult decisions.

The acquittal of Avigdor Lieberman, the former Israeli foreign minister who is among Israel’s most powerful and polarizing politicians, of corruption charges could further complicate matters. Mr. Lieberman is an outspoken nationalist and a West Bank settler, though his views on the peace process are not sharply different from Mr. Netanyahu’s. But his triumphant return to power — likely again as foreign minister — makes Mr. Lieberman an unpredictable force.

Mr. Kerry, who came to Jerusalem to recapture the initiative in the moribund talks, struggled to keep them from slipping into a familiar cycle of recrimination on Wednesday. Under pressure from President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, he declared that the Palestinians had not accepted continued building in settlements as an Israeli condition for restarting talks, despite what Israeli leaders had indicated.

“That is not to say that they weren’t aware, or we weren’t aware, that there would be construction,” Mr. Kerry said after meeting with Mr. Abbas in Bethlehem, in the West Bank.

He emphasized that the United States considers the settlements to be “illegitimate.”

But hours before in Jerusalem, Mr. Kerry had sat stone-faced as Mr. Netanyahu said he was concerned about the prospect for progress in the talks “because I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are necessary to make a genuine peace.”

The dispute over settlements, officials said, led to a shouting match between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on Tuesday at their 16th session, as Mr. Kerry arrived here. While increasing expressions of outrage, particularly by the Palestinians, may be as much an effort to appease constituents as a reflection of what is happening at the negotiating table, the need to show steadfastness on both sides is a hint of the hurdles Mr. Kerry faces.

Add to that delicate and complex equation Mr. Lieberman, 55, an immigrant from the Soviet Union and a populist hard-liner who has alienated international diplomats with undiplomatic outbursts and been both an important partner and an occasional rival to Mr. Netanyahu. Although he will not play a direct role in the peace talks even if he returns as foreign minister, he has embarrassed the prime minister by declaring, at inopportune times, that any agreement is decades away and by accusing Mr. Abbas of “diplomatic terrorism.”

For Israel’s governing coalition, already deeply fractured over the Palestinian issue, the question now is whether Mr. Lieberman will join those challenging Mr. Netanyahu from the right, making a peace deal even more remote, or shift toward the center to expand his political base for a future campaign to become prime minister. An indication may come at the end of this month when the party he founded in 1999, Yisrael Beiteinu, decides whether to solidify the alliance it forged with Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party for this year’s elections and fully merge into a single faction, or break apart and operate independently again.

“This is a man who works long-term: he’s not a tactician only, he’s a good strategist,” said Prof. Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “I don’t know whether he will split away from Netanyahu and say, ‘I’m the replacement from outside,’ or whether he will say, ‘O.K., I’ll try and support Netanyahu and one day be his successor.’ ”

The corruption case against Mr. Lieberman began 17 years ago with sweeping accusations that he had received millions of dollars from international tycoons with business interests in Israel through companies formally led by relatives or friends. But the fraud and breach of trust charges ultimately filed against him were much narrower, focusing on Mr. Lieberman’s support of a new post for an ambassador who had improperly given him confidential information regarding the investigation.

A three-judge panel ruled Wednesday that his handling of the matter was “inappropriate” but not criminal.

Though staunchly secular, Mr. Lieberman went from the courtroom to the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, where he donned a skullcap and offered a prayer. “This chapter is behind me,” he said earlier. “I’m focusing on the challenges that await us — and there are plenty of challenges.”

Mr. Netanyahu was among a chorus of politicians offering congratulations, and he is expected to win cabinet and parliamentary approvals for Mr. Lieberman’s reappointment as foreign minister by Monday. “We have been friends for many years,” the prime minister said in a statement. “I am pleased that Avigdor will be coming back to work with me at the cabinet table.”

Israeli political analysts said Mr. Lieberman’s return would at least distract Mr. Netanyahu from the peace process as he worked to shore up his political house. Before his meeting with Mr. Kerry on Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu made clear that the nuclear talks with Iran, which resume Thursday in Geneva, remain his top priority. He reiterated his call for the world to tighten, not ease, sanctions against Iran while the talks proceed, and Mr. Kerry, in turn, repeated his pledge that the West would not make a bad deal with Iran, saying no deal was preferable.

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said the mounting criticism of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, and the Arab world’s preoccupation with issues other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only intensified the challenge Mr. Kerry faced.

“The sense of urgency is less acute than it was,” said Mr. Rabinovich, who is also a former president of Tel Aviv University. “I’m not saying negotiations are doomed to fail; I’m saying I’m not surprised that there is no progress. It definitely will take more time and will require not just tenacity but also ingenuity on the part of the secretary of state.”

Mr. Kerry, standing next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Wednesday afternoon, announced $75 million in American aid to build roads, hospitals and schools in the West Bank, a program intended to create jobs and build Palestinian support for the peace process.

Halfway through the first of what may be three days of talks, Mr. Kerry professed to be undaunted. “There are always difficulties, always tensions,” he said. “I’m very confident of our ability to work through them. That’s why I’m here.”

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« Reply #9831 on: Nov 07, 2013, 08:16 AM »

Shell made false claims about Niger delta oil pollution, says Amnesty

Report cites discrepancies between evidence of environmental damage from Nigeria spills and claims made by oil company

John Vidal, Thursday 7 November 2013 00.01 GMT   

Amnesty International accuses Shell of false claims about its environmental impact in the Niger delta, saying that the oil company cannot be trusted and that there are "serious discrepancies" between the evidence of pollution and what Shell claims.

"[Its] claims about its environmental impact in the Niger delta are frequently untrue. Shell has claimed that the oil spill investigations are sound when they are not, that sites are cleaned up when they are not, and that the company is transparent when, in reality, it maintains very tight control over every piece of information – deciding what to disclose and what to withhold," a report into oil spills in the Nigerian region says. "Shell is being disingenuous about the devastation caused by its Niger delta operations. Shell's claims about the oil spills cannot be trusted."

According to official figures, there are several hundred oil spills a year in the delta, many of which involve Shell pipelines. "Instead of being in the dock when there is an oil spill in Nigeria, Shell gets to act as judge and jury," says the Nobel prize-winning human rights organisation. "It is the communities that suffer a life sentence, with their land and livelihoods destroyed by the pollution. The Niger delta is the only place in the world where companies brazenly admit to massive oil pollution from their operations and claim it is not their fault. Almost anywhere else they would be challenged on why they have done so little to prevent it."

The report argues that the investigations oil companies must conduct into spills are seriously flawed. "So-called official investigation reports into the cause of oil spills in the Niger delta can be very subjective, misleading and downright false. This is a system that is wide open to abuse – and abuse happens. There is no one to challenge the oil companies and almost no way to independently verify what they say. In effect it's 'trust us – we're big oil'," said Audrey Gaughran, director of global thematic issues at Amnesty and lead researcher on the report.

The report, which was shown to Shell before publication and includes the company's denials, refutations and explanations, is likely to be explosive in Nigeria, where the company is a major employer and one of the biggest generators of foreign currency.

A Shell spokesman in London said: "The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) firmly rejects unsubstantiated assertions that they have exaggerated the impact of crude oil theft and sabotage to distract attention from operational performance. We seek to bring greater transparency and independent oversight to the issue of oil spills, and will continue to find ways to enhance this. These efforts include publishing spill data online since January 2011 and working with Bureau Veritas, an independent third party, to find ways to improve the immediate response to a spill. It must be emphasised that the joint investigation process is a federal process that SPDC cannot unilaterally change, involving as it does representatives of regulatory bodies, the ministry of environment, the Nigerian police force, state government and impacted communities."

The company called on the Nigerian government and civil society to end the theft of oil, which regularly forces its pipelines to close. "Solutions to the terrible tragedy of oil pollution in the Niger delta need to be found. Crude theft continues to affect people, the environment and the economy. Co-ordinated action from the industry, government, security forces, civil society and others is needed to end this criminality. SPDC regrets that some NGOs continue to take a campaigning approach rather than focusing on on-the-ground solutions that bring societal benefits."

The report voices particular concern about Shell's activities in Ogoniland, the 400-sq-mile region in the delta whose people led a revolt against Shell's pollution in the 1990s and forced the company to withdraw. "When Shell left Ogoniland it did not properly decommission its facilities, leaving them open to interference, and communities exposed to the associated risks," it says. "This is completely contrary to international oil industry standards as well as international standards on business and human rights, both of which require that Shell exercise adequate due diligence in relation to prevention of sabotage, theft and the associated human rights and environmental risks.

"Shell has claimed that the reason that it never properly decommissioned its Ogoniland facilities and made them safe over the last 18 years was lack of access. This is not the case. Shell has had access to Ogoniland over the last 18 years, including to carry out the highly inadequate clean-ups that Unep [the UN Environment Programme] documented. Shell's access to Ogoniland is undoubtedly restricted at times, but Shell cannot defend its failure to properly decommission facilities in Ogoniland over 18 years by reference to problems of access."

Amnesty International and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development in Nigeria claim to have found evidence of Shell having changed the officially recorded cause of a spill after an investigation had taken place at Bodo. In one incident, secretly filmed video of an investigation shows how officials from Shell and the regulator tried to subvert the evidence by persuading community members on the investigation team not to attribute the cause to equipment failure.

Footage of an oil leak in Bodo from 2008 reviewed by a US spill-monitoring company suggests that Shell seriously under-recorded the volume shed. "Shell's official investigation report claims only 1,640 barrels of oil were spilt in total, but other evidence points to the amount being at least 60 times higher. Shell has repeatedly claimed to its investors, customers and the media that sabotage and theft were behind the vast majority of spills – but the facts do not support this assertion," the report says.

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« Reply #9832 on: Nov 07, 2013, 08:20 AM »

November 6, 2013

Russians Meet With an Uncle of Assad in an Effort to Jump-Start Peace Talks


BEIRUT, Lebanon — As American diplomacy on the war in Syria flounders, unable to deliver the main exile opposition group to proposed peace talks, Russian officials on Wednesday stepped up their efforts to promote alternate opposition figures, meeting in Geneva with Rifaat al-Assad, an uncle of President Bashar al-Assad who was forced out of the country in 1984 after attempting to lead a coup.

Siwar al-Assad, a son of Rifaat, said in a telephone interview from Geneva that his father wanted to attend the proposed peace talks, known as Geneva II, as an opposition figure whose presence would reassure government supporters and help bring about a compromise.

He said his father did not insist that President Assad step down as a prerequisite for talks, a demand of the Western-backed exile opposition coalition that critics see as increasingly unrealistic. Attempts to set a November date for the talks have been scuttled by the persistent gulf between the government, backed by Russia and Iran, and its opponents — principally backed by the United States, France, Britain and Saudi Arabia — over who will attend and whether Mr. Assad can have a role in a transitional government.

“By putting preconditions, nothing will change, and every day people are dying,” Siwar al-Assad said, calling President Assad’s imminent departure “a fantasy” and adding, “I’m not pro-Bashar, but I’m a person who is realistic.”

It was unclear whether other parties would accept even sitting with Rifaat al-Assad at talks, much less whether talks will take place. But the Russian move was a sign of casting about for new ways to break the impasse.

The meeting between Rifaat al-Assad and Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, drew scorn from many opponents of the president. They call Rifaat al-Assad the Butcher of Hama, a reference to his role in the bloody suppression of a violent uprising in that Syrian city in 1982. Smoldering resentments from the uprising and the crackdown help fuel the current conflict.

Critics of American policy on Syria — including regional analysts, government supporters and some opponents of President Assad — say it is time for United States officials to admit that he is staying at least for the early phases of any transition, and to broaden the range of figures involved in talks. They say American officials should also reassure Syrian government and security officials whose help would be needed to end the violence that has killed more than 110,000 people and displaced nine million. “Since we’re not having much luck bringing together regime and opposition figures who count, then it probably makes sense for us to broaden our range of contacts in both camps,” said Ryan C. Crocker, a former American ambassador to Syria who is now dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Yet Mr. Crocker expressed doubt that the diplomatic impasse would be solved by the participation of Rifaat al-Assad, who he said is despised by both sides. The president’s supporters mistrust him for attempting to depose the president’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. The president’s opponents loathe him over the Hama legacy.

Still, the Russian overture was quietly welcomed by some Syrians. One influential Syrian, who supports the government but not Mr. Assad’s presidency, and who was in close touch with senior security and military officials, said some of them wanted to end the war but would only move toward compromise if figures like Rifaat al-Assad were involved.

“Someone is finally thinking on the right track,” said the Syrian, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Siwar al-Assad said his father did not want to be president and advocated a gradual handover of power under a transition council including government and opposition members, a new constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press and an independent judiciary, and transparent elections in which anyone, including Bashar al-Assad, could run. Asked if Rifaat al-Assad expected to meet soon with American officials, Siwar al-Assad said, “maybe.”

He said he believed that behind the scenes, American officials were gradually accepting that Mr. Assad’s immediate ouster was increasingly unlikely and, with the rise of extremist jihadist groups fighting him, undesirable.

“The Americans want a stable Syria,” he said. “Everyone is tired of this — the Russians, the Syrians, the Americans.”

In Syria on Wednesday, bombings hit the landmark Hijaz train station in the heart of Damascus, and a military intelligence office in what had been a largely peaceful southeastern city, the Syrian state news media reported, reminders that war can hit hard in areas where life remains relatively normal.

SANA, the official news agency of Syria, said that women and children were among the eight dead and 50 wounded in the Damascus blast, which the agency said had been caused by an explosive device planted near the entrance to the Hijaz train station, a graceful Ottoman-era structure that houses the national railway authority. Other news accounts said the explosion shattered part of the station’s roof and the windows of nearby buildings. The Hijaz train station, which briefly served as the city’s main railway terminus and has long drawn tourists with its towering stained-glass windows, is the latest of many historical landmarks damaged by violence.

The second bombing was in Sweida, a city mostly populated by the Druse, a small sect that has largely stayed out of the war, which had helped spare the city from violence. The bombing targeted the air force intelligence branch facility there, the Syrian state news media and antigovernment activists reported.

The Syrian state news media said 34 people were killed and 41 were wounded in the Sweida bombing. Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese television channel sympathetic to the Syrian government, reported 35 dead — the head of the air force intelligence branch, seven air force members and 27 civilians, while opposition activists reported three civilian deaths, discrepancies common in casualty reporting from Syria.

Hwaida Saad and Mohammad Ghannam contributed reporting from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

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« Reply #9833 on: Nov 07, 2013, 08:22 AM »

Farc rebels and Colombian government reach deal over political participation

Rebels have agreed to give up use of violence to reach political ends in major breakthrough in peace talks

Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá, Wednesday 6 November 2013 23.34 GMT      

For the first time in their 50-year struggle, Colombia's leftist Farc rebels have agreed to give up the use of violence to reach their political ends in exchange for full participation in democratic politics – a major breakthrough in peace talks between one of the oldest guerrilla movements in the world and the government of Juan Manuel Santos.

Farc and government negotiators, who have been meeting in Havana for a year, announced the partial agreement on Wednesday on the political participation of the guerrillas, which would take effect only once a broader agreement to end the country's conflict was reached.

"Never again [will] politics and weapons [act] together," the chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said. The leading Farc negotiator Iván Márquez said the agreement was an important step to end the conflict. "If we continue on the path of transformation … the signing of a peace treaty will be a reality," he said.

Jorge Restrepo, director of the Conflict Analysis Resource Center, a Bogotá thinktank, said the text of the agreement – which says a final accord would imply a ban on using "violence as a method of political action" – marks a fundamental shift for the negotiations . "The exchange of violence for political participation is a fundamental manifestation of the Farc's intention to end the conflict," he said.

"Never before had we come so far in peace talks with the guerrillas."

The talks in Havana are the fourth attempt during the Farc's half-century of fighting to negotiate an end to the conflict, which has left 220,000 people dead. In May, the two sides announced agreement on rural development and land reform to deal with the grossly uneven distribution of land, which is seen as one of the root causes of the conflict.

The agreement on political participation calls for the creation of temporary special congressional districts for areas hardest hit by the conflict, which generally overlap with the areas where the Farc have the most influence over the civilian population. The statement did not lay out details of which areas would be included nor how many seats it could add to the legislature.

The agreement also establishes mechanisms to ensure the security of members of any political party that emerges from a final peace deal. This is particularly significant because the Farc's previous foray into electoral politics – the Patriotic Union party in the 1990s – resulted in the murder of as many as 3,000 members. During that experiment, the Farc continued to act at the same time as an armed insurgency.

However, the agreement stops short of tackling the knotted issue of exactly who from the Farc may have a political future. Under the Colombian constitution, anyone convicted of a crime against humanity is barred from holding public office. So far, none of the Farc leaders have been, according to the attorney general.

Whether the commanders will serve any prison time for the thousands of kidnappings and killings committed under their leadership will be an issue dealt with as part of the transitional justice chapter of the negotiations. Other items still on the agenda include drug trafficking, reparations to victims and implementation of the accord.

Despite the long road ahead, Christian Voekel, of the International Crisis Group, said it was hard to overstate the importance of the new agreement because ensuring the political participation of a demobilised Farc was the "backbone for constructing a sustainable peace".

It is important, too, for President Santos. The announcement came just days before he must announce whether he will seek a new four-year term in elections next May. With approval ratings falling to a low of 21% in the past months, in large measure because of the slow pace of the talks, the announcement of progress should give him a much needed boost.

His main opponent will be Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a former finance minister, representing the ultra-conservative movement known as Democratic Centre and founded by former president Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe, who is constitutionally barred from running, has become Santos' harshest critic for negotiating with the Farc. Zuluaga has vowed to end the talks with the Farc if he wins, arguing that the guerrillas are a terrorist movement that must be crushed militarily.

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« Reply #9834 on: Nov 07, 2013, 08:26 AM »

Mexican Supreme Court overturns release for drug kingpin Caro Quintero

by Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 6, 2013 18:05 EST

Mexico’s Supreme Court overturned Wednesday a lower court decision to free drug kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero, whose sentence for the killing of a US agent was cut short in August.

Caro Quintero, considered a forefather of Mexico’s modern drug cartels, has vanished since walking out of prison on a legal technicality with 12 years left to run on his 40-year sentence.

The federal government, which was apparently caught off guard by the veteran drug trafficker’s release, had challenged the lower court decision, calling it an “absurd” ruling, and sought his re-arrest.

US authorities, who were outraged by the release of the 61-year-old founder of the Guadalajara drug cartel, are seeking his extradition.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration offered on Tuesday a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture, saying Caro Quintero faces charges in California for the 1985 abduction, torture and murder of its agent Enrique Camarena.

The court that freed him ruled Caro Quintero should have been tried by state, not federal, court. But the Supreme Court disagreed.

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« Reply #9835 on: Nov 07, 2013, 08:28 AM »

November 6, 2013

Mannequins Give Shape to a Venezuelan Fantasy


VALENCIA, Venezuela — Frustrated with the modest sales at his small mannequin factory, Eliezer Álvarez made a simple observation: Venezuelan women were increasingly using plastic surgery to transform their bodies, yet the mannequins in clothing stores did not reflect these new, often extreme proportions.

So he went back to his workshop and created the kind of woman he thought the public wanted — one with a bulging bosom and cantilevered buttocks, a wasp waist and long legs, a fiberglass fantasy, Venezuelan style.

The shape was augmented, and so were sales. Now his mannequins, and others like them, have become the standard in stores across Venezuela, serving as an exaggerated, sometimes polarizing, vision of the female form that calls out from the doorways of tiny shops selling cheap clothes to working-class women and the display windows of fancy boutiques in multilevel shopping malls.

Mr. Álvarez’s art may have been meant to imitate life. But in a culture saturated with such images, life is returning the compliment.

“You see a woman like this and you say, ‘Wow, I want to look like her,’ ” said Reina Parada, as she sanded a mannequin torso in the workshop. Although she cannot afford it, she said, she would like to get implant surgery someday. “It gives you better self-esteem.”

Cosmetic procedures are so fashionable here that a woman with implants is often casually referred to as “an operated woman.” Women freely talk about their surgeries, and mannequin makers jokingly refer to the creations as being “operated” as well. Mr. Álvarez’s wife and business partner, Nereida Corro, calls her best-selling mannequin, with its inflated proportions, the “normal” model.

The embrace of plastic surgery clashes with the government’s socialist ideology and frequent talk of creating a society free of the taint of commercialism. Venezuela’s longtime leader, Hugo Chávez, who died in March after 14 years in office, railed against the procedures, saying it was “monstrous” that poor women were spending money on breast surgeries when they had trouble making ends meet.

But the same resource that the government relies on — the world’s largest estimated petroleum reserves — has long fed a culture of easy money and consumerism here, along with a penchant for the quick fix and instant gratification.

“Venezuela is known for its oil, and it’s known for its beauty,” said Lauren Gulbas, a feminist scholar and anthropologist at Dartmouth College, who has studied attitudes toward plastic surgery in Venezuela. “That ties into why it’s perceived as so important to Venezuelans.”

Beauty took on a particularly important role in the late 1970s and ’80s when the country’s beauty queens, already a national obsession, were crowned Miss Universe three times. Their success on the international stage took on special resonance. It came as the country was grappling with the frustrated expectations of the 1970s oil boom and the deep economic downturn that followed, bringing with it a crisis of national confidence.

And the beauty queens’ fame helped fuel a fascination with cosmetic surgery and procedures like breast implants, tummy tucks, nose jobs and injections to firm the buttocks.

Osmel Sousa, the longtime head of the Miss Venezuela pageant, takes credit for the trend. He recommended a nose job for Venezuela’s first Miss Universe, which he says made her victory possible more than three decades ago.

“When there is a defect, I correct it,” Mr. Sousa said. “If it can be easily fixed with surgery, then why not do it?”

For Mr. Sousa, beauty really is skin deep: “I say that inner beauty doesn’t exist. That’s something that unpretty women invented to justify themselves.”

Naturally, not everyone sees it that way. Several women’s groups protested against the Miss Venezuela beauty pageant last month, criticizing pressures on women to conform to the artificial aesthetic.

The little data available indicates that Venezuelan women do not get plastic surgery more than their counterparts in many other countries. But Ms. Gulbas, the anthropologist, said the surgeries take on an elevated status thanks to the importance of beauty here and a belief that cosmetic procedures will help project a successful image.

“There’s this notion in Venezuela of ‘buena presencia,’ ‘good presence,’ ” she said. “That communicates that you have certain aspects that say you are a hard worker, a good worker, an honest person.” She added, “There’s a virtue associated with looking a certain way.”

Each day, Yaritza Molina arranges several mannequins at the entrance to the small clothing shop she manages in Coro, a city in western Venezuela, always careful to place two ahead of the others. “These are the princesses,” she said, “because they have the best bust.”

“I have lots of clients that come here and say, ‘I want to look like that mannequin,’ ” Ms. Molina said. “I tell them, ‘O.K., then get an operation.’ ”

As in many countries, there are dangers to the obsession. Over the last two years, the local news media has reported several cases in which women died after receiving faulty injections meant to firm up their buttocks, often in unlicensed clinics.

The jump in sales provided by the large-busted mannequins allowed Ms. Corro and Mr. Álvarez to build a new workshop this year, where they are made by hand in a surprisingly low-tech process.

Dozens of partly finished mannequins stood in neat rows, like silent robots with overblown chests, taking the exaggerated female aesthetic that predominates here and pushing it to its furthest limits.

On a recent day, about a dozen people were at work. Some applied a thin coating of a brown pasty resin and fiberglass strips inside molds, left it to dry and then pried out the artificial torsos, arms, and the fronts and backs of plastic bodies. Others glued the mannequin parts together, spray-painted them or set finished mannequins ready for delivery in the back of a pickup truck, with the words “Jesus is my peace” written in large letters on the windshield.

Yucca and corn grew in small farm patches nearby. From a house across the street, the face of Mr. Chávez peered out from a poster left over from last year’s election. It seemed to peep over the wall at the inflated female forms inside the workshop.

Ms. Corro, the co-owner, explained the changes in the mannequins over just a few years: bigger breasts, bigger buttocks, svelte waists. Until recently, “the mannequins were natural, just like the women were natural,” she said. “The transformation has been both of the woman and of the mannequin.”

Mary Angola, another mannequin maker in Valencia, said that older styles came from Europe or the United States, and hardly reflected the physiques of real women around her.

“They make them so skinny,” she said.

A few miles from Ms. Corro’s workshop, workers used a similar process to build mannequins in a small rooftop workshop run by Daniela Mieles, 25, and her family.

While Ms. Corro’s mannequins took a quantum leap in body shape several years ago, Ms. Mieles said that the busts and buttocks of her family’s mannequins had grown gradually to keep up with the trends in plastic surgery.

Now they have reached a shape that her husband, Trino Colmenarez, 32, calls “estrambótico,” a word that may be best translated as “extravagant.”

Sales are good, and Ms. Mieles said that she and her husband had started saving money so that she could get breast implants herself. An operation at a private clinic can cost about $6,350, Ms. Mieles said, an amount equivalent to about three months of basic expenses for her household, including food, utilities and other living costs.

The goal is to look more like the artificial ideal projected by her family’s mannequins.

“Beauty is perfection, to try to perfect yourself more and more every day,” Ms. Mieles said. “That’s how people see it here.”

María Eugenia Díaz, Paula Ramón and Jimmy Chalk contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.

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« Reply #9836 on: Nov 07, 2013, 08:32 AM »

Scientists reveal the full power of the Chelyabinsk meteor explosion

At its most intense, meteor fireball glowed 30 times brighter than the sun causing skin and retinal burns, say researchers

Ian Sample, science correspondent
The Guardian, Thursday 7 November 2013   
Link to video: 570kg Chelyabinsk meteorite chunk pulled from Lake Chebarkul in Russia's Ural mountains

Scientists have published the most complete picture yet of the devastation caused by the meteor that exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk in Russia this year.

The 20-metre-wide space rock hurtled into the skies over the city in February and began to tear apart at an altitude of 28 miles. Travelling at a speed of 12 miles per second, the rock exploded with the energy of around 500 kilotonnes of TNT, researchers found.

Directly beneath the meteor's path, the shockwave was powerful enough to knock people off their feet. Windows were shattered in more than 3,600 apartment blocks, and a factory roof collapsed.

In the local library in Yemanzhelinsk, 30 miles away, a statue of Pushkin cracked when it was struck by a blown-out window frame. At least 1,210 people were treated for injuries, most from falling building debris and flying glass.

At its most intense, the streaking fireball glowed 30 times brighter than the sun, leaving people on the ground below with skin and retinal burns. One resident in Korkino, 18 miles from the point of peak brightness, lost skin from their face after being burned by radiation. The intense heat evaporated three quarters of the meteor. Around four to six tonnes reached the ground as meteorites, representing just 0.05% of the original rock.

Link to video: Meteor explodes in the sky over Russia

The Chelyabinsk airburst was the largest since Tunguska in 1908, but unlike that and other historic events, the strike was recorded by a full suite of modern technology: satellites photographed the meteor from space; security and personal video cameras filmed the rock's violent path across the sky; and sensors picked up infrasound waves as lumps hit the ground.

The largest single piece, weighing around 650kg, punched a 7 metre-wide hole in ice 70cm thick on Lake Chebarkul, and was recovered from the lakebed in October.

An international team of researchers, led by Olga Popova at the Russian Academy of Sciences, visited Chelyabinsk and 50 nearby villages in the weeks after the event to map the extent of the destruction. The shockwave left a trail of damage 55 miles on either side of the rock's trajectory, according to a report in the journal, Science.

"Our goal was to understand all circumstances that resulted in the damaging shockwave that sent over 1,200 people to hospitals in the Chelyabinsk Oblast area that day," said Peter Jenniskens at Nasa's Ames Research Centre in California.

The unforeseen arrival of the meteor and the violence of its impact were a wake-up call, according to Qing-Zhu Yin, an author on the study at the University of California, Davis. "If humanity does not want to go the way of the dinosaurs, we need to study an event like this in detail," he said.

Further details of the Chelyabinsk strike appear in two reports in the journal Nature. The first, led by Jirí Borovicka at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, traces the orbit of the meteor back to another object, known as asteroid 86039. This asteroid has also orbited close to Earth and was probably once part of the same rock as the Chelyabinsk meteor.

The second Nature study, led by Peter Brown at the University of Western Ontario, calculated the energy of the Chelyabinsk airbust at 400 to 600 kilotonnes of TNT, but found that scientists' models for estimating damage from airbursts were off the mark. The glitch in the models means that the number of space rocks with sizes of the order of tens of metres, which pose a threat, may be ten times greater than previously thought.


Earth may be more vulnerable to asteroids than thought

Scientists are suggesting that the Earth is vulnerable to many more Chelyabinsk-size space rocks than was previously thought.

The New York Times and The Washington Post

A meteorite contrail is shown over the Ural Mountains' city of Chelyabinsk, about 930 miles east of Moscow. A surprise meteor hit Earth at 43,000 mph and exploded over a Russian city in February.

Donated by a collector, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago received nearly 2 pounds of small meteorite pieces from the explosion over Russia.

There are scads of building-size, potentially hazardous asteroids lurking in Earth’s immediate neighborhood, according to studies that examined the airburst of a 25 million-pound asteroid this year over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.

When the asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk in February, shattering windows for miles and injuring more than 1,200 people, experts said it was a rare event — of a magnitude that might occur once every 100 to 200 years, on average.

But a team of scientists is suggesting that the Earth is vulnerable to many more Chelyabinsk-size space rocks than was previously thought. In research published Wednesday in the journal Nature, scientists estimate such strikes could occur as often as every decade or two.

The prospect “really makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” said Peter Brown, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Western Ontario and an author of two studies in Nature. A third paper by other scientists describing the Chelyabinsk explosion was published online this week by the journal Science.

Meteors about the size of the one that burst over Chelyabinsk — and ones even larger and more dangerous — are probably four, five or even seven times more likely to hit the planet than scientists believed before the fireball, according to the three studies.

That means about 20 million space rocks the size of the Chelyabinsk one may be zipping around the solar system, instead of 3 million, NASA scientist Paul Chodas said at a news conference.

The findings are helping to elevate the topic of planetary defense — identifying dangerous asteroids and deflecting them if necessary — from Hollywood fantasy to real-world concern.

A U.N. committee has been studying the issue, and next month the General Assembly is expected to adopt two of its recommendations: establishing an International Asteroid Warning Network for countries to share information; and calling on the world’s space agencies to set up an advisory group to explore technologies for deflecting an asteroid.

Sky surveys have already detected about 95 percent of the big near-Earth asteroids, those that are at least 1 kilometer wide, or 0.6 miles, and none are in danger of hitting Earth anytime soon.

But those are not the only ones to worry about.

“One kilometer is more than just dangerous,” said Edward Lu, a former NASA space-shuttle astronaut who heads the B612 Foundation, a private effort to launch a space telescope that could find smaller asteroids. “One kilometer is end-of-human-civilization kind of dangerous.”

The Chelyabinsk asteroid was about 65 feet wide. Undetected by astronomers, the rock came out of the glare of the sun and hit the atmosphere at 43,000 mph.

As it descended through the atmosphere, it broke into fragments, creating a series of explosions with the combined energy of about 500,000 tons of TNT, making it more than 30 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, although the energy in this case was spread out over a much broader area.

The shock wave blew out windows in nearly half the buildings in Chelyabinsk. It knocked people off their feet; dozens were sunburned by the blinding flash, which at its peak was 30 times brighter than the sun.

Most of the people who were injured were hit by broken and flying glass; no one was killed.

One chunk the size of love seat landed in frozen Lake Chebarkul, leaving a circular hole, as if shot with a bullet from space. Thousands of smaller pieces have also been recovered.

The new information on Chelyabinsk does not suggest the sky is falling, but it shifts the risk profile of asteroids, making Chelyabinsk-size events look more probable.

Brown re-examined decades of data compiled by scientific and military sensors. The scientific orthodoxy said a Chelyabinsk-size event ought to happen every 140 years or so, but Brown saw several such events in the historical record.

“Any one of these taken separately I think you can dismiss as a one-off. But now when we look at it as a whole, over a hundred years, we see these large impactors more frequently than we would expect,” said Brown.

The paper in Science hypothesized that the Chelyabinsk asteroid is a piece of “rubble” from a larger body that had been broken apart by tidal forces from an earlier near-Earth encounter. “The rest of that rubble could still be part of the near-Earth object population,” the authors wrote.

A proposed B612 telescope, to be called Sentinel, is designed to find asteroids about 450 feet wide, although it will also find many that are smaller. Lu, the former shuttle astronaut, said the mission would cost $450 million: $250 million to build the spacecraft and $200 million to operate it for a decade.

Many of the Chelyabinsk-size asteroids would elude detection by Sentinel. Still, the residents of Chelyabinsk would have benefited from a warning Feb. 15 to stay away from the window.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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« Reply #9837 on: Nov 07, 2013, 09:03 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

Al Gore: Snowden 'revealed evidence' of crimes against US constitution

Speaking at McGill University in Montreal, Gore said the NSA's efforts to monitor communications had gone to 'absurd' lengths

Adam Gabbatt in New York, Wednesday 6 November 2013 23.12 GMT    

Former US vice-president Al Gore has described the activities of the National Security Agency as "outrageous" and "completely unacceptable" and said whistleblower Edward Snowden has "revealed evidence" of crimes against the US constitution.

Gore, speaking Tuesday night at McGill University in Montreal, said he was in favour of using surveillance to ensure national security, but Snowden's revelations showed that those measures had gone too far.

"I say that as someone who was a member of the National Security Council working in the White House and getting daily briefings from the CIA," Gore said, in comments reported by the Canadian Press.

Gore had previously said he believed the practice of the NSA collecting US citizens phone records was unlawful and "not really the American way", but his comments on Tuesday represent his strongest criticism yet.

Asked about Snowden, the NSA whistleblower whose revelations have been reported extensively by the Guardian, Gore said the leaks had revealed uncovered unconstitutional practices.

"He has revealed evidence of what appears to be crimes against the Constitution of the United States," Gore said.

Snowden faces criminal charges for leaking classified information to The Guardian and other media outlets. He remains in exile in Russia.

Gore, the former vice-president, 2000 Democratic presidential nominee and 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, said the NSA's efforts to monitor communications had gone to "absurd" lengths, the Canadian Press reported.

"When you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it's not always wise to pile more hay on the haystack," he said.

Gore said he doubted the far-reaching scope of the NSA's surveillance would be allowed to continue.

"I think they will have to pull this back," he said. "I think you will see a reining in."


November 7, 2013

C.I.A. Is Said to Pay AT&T for Call Data


WASHINGTON — The C.I.A. is paying AT&T more than $10 million a year to assist with overseas counterterrorism investigations by exploiting the company’s vast database of phone records, which includes Americans’ international calls, according to government officials.

The cooperation is conducted under a voluntary contract, not under subpoenas or court orders compelling the company to participate, according to the officials. The C.I.A. supplies phone numbers of overseas terrorism suspects, and AT&T searches its database and provides records of calls that may help identify foreign associates, the officials said. The company has a huge archive of data on phone calls, both foreign and domestic, that were handled by its network equipment, not just those of its own customers.

The program adds a new dimension to the debate over government spying and the privacy of communications records, which has been focused on National Security Agency programs in recent months. The disclosure sheds further light on the ties between intelligence officials and communications service providers. And it shows how agencies beyond the N.S.A. use metadata — logs of the date, duration and phone numbers involved in a call, but not the content — to analyze links between people through programs regulated by an inconsistent patchwork of legal standards, procedures and oversight.

Because the C.I.A. is prohibited from spying on the domestic activities of Americans, the agency imposes privacy safeguards on the program, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because it is classified. Most of the call logs provided by AT&T involve foreign-to-foreign calls, but when the company produces records of international calls with one end in the United States, it does not disclose the identity of the Americans and “masks” several digits of their phone numbers, the officials said.

Still, the agency can refer such masked numbers to the F.B.I., which can issue an administrative subpoena requiring AT&T to provide the uncensored data. The bureau handles any domestic investigation, but sometimes shares with the C.I.A. the information about the American participant in those calls, the officials said.

Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the C.I.A., declined to confirm the program. But he said the agency’s intelligence collection activities were lawful and “subject to extensive oversight.”

“The C.I.A. protects the nation and upholds privacy rights of Americans by ensuring that its intelligence collection activities are focused on acquiring foreign intelligence and counterintelligence in accordance with U.S. laws,” he said. “The C.I.A. is expressly forbidden from undertaking intelligence collection activities inside the United States ‘for the purpose of acquiring information concerning the domestic activities of U.S. persons,’ and the C.I.A. does not do so.”

Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, said: “We value our customers’ privacy and work hard to protect it by ensuring compliance with the law in all respects. We do not comment on questions concerning national security.”

The C.I.A. program appears to duplicate work performed by the N.S.A. But a senior American intelligence official, while declining to address whether the AT&T alliance exists, suggested that it would be rational for the C.I.A. to have its own program to check calling patterns linked to overseas terrorism suspects.

With on-the-ground operatives abroad seeking to disrupt terrorist activities in “time-sensitive threat situations,” the official said, the C.I.A. requires “a certain speed, agility and tactical responsiveness that differs” from that of other agencies. “That need to act without delay is often best met when C.I.A. has developed its own capabilities to lawfully acquire necessary foreign intelligence information,” the official said.

Since June, when documents leaked by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden began to surface, an international debate has erupted over the scope of N.S.A. surveillance and the agency’s relationships with American companies that operate networks or provide Internet communications services. Many of the companies have protested that they are legally compelled to cooperate. The AT&T-C.I.A. arrangement illustrates that such activities are not limited to the N.S.A., and that cooperation sometimes is voluntary.

While officials in Washington are discussing whether to rein in the N.S.A. on American soil, governments in Europe are demanding more transparency from the companies and threatening greater restraints. AT&T is exploring a purchase of Vodafone, a European cellphone service provider, and European regulators and politicians have vowed to intensely scrutinize such a deal.

AT&T has a history of working with the government. It helped facilitate the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program by allowing the N.S.A. to install secret equipment in its phone and Internet switching facilities, according to an account by a former AT&T technician made public in a lawsuit.

It was also one of three phone companies that embedded employees from 2003 to around 2007 in an F.B.I. facility, where they used company databases to provide quick analysis of call records. The embedding was shut down amid criticism by the Justice Department’s inspector general that officers were obtaining Americans’ call data without issuing subpoenas.

And, for at least the past six years, AT&T has embedded its employees in federally funded drug investigation offices to analyze call records, in response to subpoenas, to track drug dealers who switch phones. A briefing document for that program said AT&T had records of calls handled by its switches — including “a tremendous amount of international numbers that place calls through or roam on the AT&T network” — dating back to 1987, and described efforts to keep its existence “under the radar.”

The history of the C.I.A. program remains murky. It began sometime before 2010, and was stopped at some point but then was resumed, according to the officials. They said the House and Senate Intelligence Committees had been briefed about it.

While the N.S.A. is separately vacuuming up call metadata abroad, most scrutiny in the United States has focused on its once-secret program that uses court orders to domestic phone companies under the Patriot Act to assemble a comprehensive database of Americans’ calls.

Some lawmakers have proposed modifying it to have the phone companies, not the N.S.A., control the data, similar to how the C.I.A. has been operating.

Still, there may be limits to comparisons. The N.S.A. is subject to court-imposed rules about the standard that must be met before its analysts may gain access to its database, which contains records from multiple providers. The C.I.A. appears to have a freer hand, and officials said it had submitted significantly more queries to AT&T for data.

In addition, while both programs analyze cross-border calls of Americans, the N.S.A.’s Patriot Act database does not include purely foreign calls, while AT&T does not use purely domestic calls in analyzing links for the C.I.A., officials said.

Absent an emergency, phone companies are usually legally forbidden to provide customers’ calling records to the government except in response to a subpoena or a court order, and the C.I.A. has a mandate to focus overseas. Lawyers who reviewed the program, officials said, concluded that AT&T’s partial masking of American phone numbers satisfied those restrictions, citing a statutory exception to data privacy laws covering “the acquisition by the United States government of foreign intelligence information from international or foreign communications.”

That same exception has come to public attention before. It was apparently invoked by a still-secret Jan. 8, 2010, memo written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. A 2010 inspector general’s report described the memo as allowing the F.B.I. to obtain call records “on a voluntary basis from providers, without any legal process or a qualifying emergency.”

While the bureau said it would not use that memo, the report warned that the existence of the government’s still-classified legal theory created a “significant gap” in “accountability and oversight” and urged Congress to modify the statute. Lawmakers have not acted on that recommendation.


Senate conservatives object as McCain pushes for ratification of UN disability-rights treaty

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 7, 2013 8:09 EST

The United States has lagged behind other nations in ratifying a global disability-rights treaty, but the Senate may yet approve the international measure this year, defying conservative opponents.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), adopted in 2006 by the United Nations, was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. To date it has been ratified by 137 countries, including China, Pakistan, and most of Europe.

The convention sets fundamental rights for the disabled, including education and health care rights equal to those enjoyed by able-bodied people.

It also invokes freedom from employment discrimination and access to transport and public buildings, committing signatory nations to uphold such principles.

The CRPD fell six votes short in the 100-member Senate, where a two-thirds majority is required for passage of international treaties.

Some Republicans said it was a case of bad timing; the treaty’s introduction violated a principle of not debating major measures just before inauguration of a new Congress in January.

Even though it was modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — the landmark legislation which enshrined disability rights in the country and helped improve conditions around the world — critics said the treaty would infringe on US sovereignty.

Senator Orrin Hatch went so far as to warn on the Senate floor in July that ratifying CRPD “would endorse an official ongoing role for the United Nations in evaluating virtually every aspect of American life.”

But supporters said they sense renewed momentum, and one of the treaty’s main Republican proponents, Senator John McCain, said some in his party who opposed it last year “are giving it consideration.”

“We’re talking to a lot of people about it,” McCain told AFP Wednesday. “We are working the issue.”

The committee on Tuesday held the first of two hearings on the measure, with its Democratic chairman Senator Robert Menendez saying he hopes for a vote by year’s end.

“It won’t be easy, but if we can get the Senate to listen to the facts instead of the fear-mongering, I’m confident we can get there,” Menendez told the hearing.

“We’re making an all-out effort to try to achieve success this time.”

He said ratification was a matter of maintaining US leadership on the issue.

But social conservatives warn it would merely invite interference in domestic affairs, even though proponents say the basic treaty includes no enforcement mechanism or penalties.

Home-schooling controversy

If the treaty has no impact on US law, and the ADA already has the most sweeping protections in the world, “Then why do it?” Michael Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, told AFP before addressing Tuesday’s hearing.

“It’s creating a universal standard that all nations including the US have to comply with.”

Christian conservative activists launched a campaign last year against the convention’s Article 7 which states that in action concerning children with disabilities, “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

Farris interprets that as yielding power to Washington to compel a disabled child to attend school, even if his parents want him taught at home.

Right-to-life conservatives have also warned that the convention would open the door toward expanded abortion rights, something experts said was unlikely.

Richard Thornburgh, a Republican former attorney general, dismissed as “alarmist” the claims that the convention could trump US law on American soil.

“This is not a country that’s going to submit to any worldwide body,” he said.

Elizabeth MacNairn, executive director of Handicap International USA, said ratification would give Washington a crucial “place at the table” for establishing rights worldwide.

“It adds heft to the kind of work we’re doing with our partners in Nepal, to say that we too have ratified this instrument, we too work on making services accessible, we too are part of this international dialogue,” MacNairn said.

Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, a military veteran who lost both legs in Iraq, said she had “egg on my face” because she could not tell disability-rights advocates in Asia that the United States is leading on the issue.

“We have what should be the gold standard in disability access, yet our legitimacy to lead other nations is weakened, because we have not yet ratified the CRPD,” she testified.

“We should be at the head of the table, and we’re not.”


The Poverty Line

A Gathering Movement Tries to Expand Social Security Instead of Cutting It

By Joshua Holland, Moyers & Company
Thursday, November 7, 2013 6:55 EST

In our nation’s capitol, calls for cutting Social Security benefits and shifting the ever-rising costs of health care from Medicare onto the backs of American seniors are ubiquitous. But context matters, and these ideas are nothing short of perverse given the depths of the massively painful retirement crisis that working America faces today.

Social Security was never designed to provide real retirement security. It was conceived as one leg of a three-legged stool, supplementing pensions and personal savings. But traditional pensions are becoming a thing of the past, replaced by 401(K) plans — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of private sector workers responsible for their own retirement savings increased nearly four-fold between 1980 and 2008. And while Americans socked away almost ten percent of their incomes back in 1970, decades of stagnant middle-class wages has made saving up for retirement much harder – by 2010, we were only saving around four percent of what we made.

Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research, says that, as a result of these trends, “75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts.” Two-thirds of Americans over age 65 rely on Social Security for over half their income, and for over a third of all seniors, those checks make up more than 90 percent of their income. “The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers,” says Ghilarducci, and “almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day.”

This sorry state of affairs isn’t only hurting America’s seniors. It’s forcing many of them to remain in the workforce longer than they would otherwise, which is, in turn, hurting the job prospects of younger workers, who face a sky-high unemployment rate.

This is the backdrop for calls to cut benefits, which averaged just $14,760 last year. But a coalition of progressive groups are now coalescing around a proposal by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to increase Social Security payments by an average of $70 per month.

And while the Obama administration has floated the idea of adopting a new way of calculating cost-of-living increases that would gradually decrease benefits over time, Harkin’s plan would create a new formula which would capture increases in the real-world costs that seniors pay, including higher health care costs.

Finally, Harkin’s plan would make an already solvent program more so, by scrapping the cap on earnings subject to payroll taxes. A study conducted in January by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that this was the most popular of 12 options for shoring up America’s last remaining defined-benefit pension system.

A growing coalition of progressive groups and seniors’ organizations are gathering behind Harkin’s bill. On a conference call announcing his co-sponsorship of the bill, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was asked by a supporter whether such a measure would stand a chance in a Congress that can’t seem to come together to pass any constructive legislation. “It depends on the pressure that you all put on them,” he said. GOP lawmakers, he added, are “always concerned about a right-wing tea party challenge, but the public is clearly with us on this, and I think the more they hear about this the better our chances of winning some of our Republican colleagues over.”


Money & Politics

Inside the Dark Money-Fueled, 50-State Campaign Against American Workers

November 5, 2013
by Joshua Holland

In 2010, a wave election propelled tea party-endorsed candidates into statehouses across the country. Last week, the Economic Policy Institute issued the first comprehensive report surveying the impact that conservative legislation has had on workers’ rights in the past two years.

“The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012” reveals the existence of a multifaceted, nationwide campaign to not only deprive working people of the right to join a union, but also keep wages low and make it harder for people to take their employers to court when they’ve been wronged. Moyers & Company caught up with the report’s author Gordon Lafer – a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center – to discuss his findings. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Joshua Holland: Your report looks at a wide array of state laws — passed or proposed — that undermined workers’ rights in 2011 and 2012. You say that this is an unprecedented assault on working people.

Reading your report, it struck me that this is exactly what people mean when they say that political inequality follows economic inequality: You have these growing fortunes on the one hand and then declining political clout on the other hand. It just seems like this is a cycle that keeps continuing.

To what degree is this a result of the 2010 wave election, when Republicans took a number of statehouses?

Gordon Lafer: What you’re saying is very important, and what’s even more important than just thinking about the wave election is that 2010 was the year that the Supreme Court said that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money on politics [in its Citizens United decision].

The laws that I’m reporting on — and this is the first comprehensive report that looks at all 50 state legislatures over those two years — were passed by the first set of state legislators elected under the new laws where corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money. There were 11 states where Republicans took control of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature in 2011. But we didn’t see this campaign only there, and it’s not strictly a partisan issue. We’ve seen a tremendous influence of a flood of outside money, particularly because the federal government has been more or less stuck on a lot of issues, deadlocked. A lot of the corporate money flooded into the states.

You can buy a state legislative race for $50,000 in a lot of places. Most people don’t know who their state legislator is. And so we’ve seen a lot of laws passed that are unpopular with the public, but are being passed by legislators who are backed by corporate lobbies. People have heard more about attacks on unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but what this report shows is that the attacks on public employee unions are really just a smaller part of an agenda that is an attack on all American workers. That includes trying to lower minimum wage, substituting child labor or teenage labor for adult workers, doing away with the right to sick pay, decreasing wages for waiters and waitresses, decreasing the right to sue over sex and race discrimination. It’s really a very broad agenda that is being pushed in almost every state, and it’s being pushed in a coordinated way by the most powerful political organizations in the country.

Holland: This isn’t just about unions and organized labor. It’s really about the 93.5 percent of private sector workers who are not protected by a union contract. They’re the ones who are really exposed to these laws, aren’t they?

Lafer: Well, that’s right. Look at minimum wage or sick leave. Those things have nothing to do with unions, because if you have a union, you have that in your contract. The people who are dependent on the laws to protect them — and who are affected by the laws being changed — are just who you said, the 93 percent of Americans in the private sector who don’t have a union.

One of the things I think is striking is that, for instance, in Wisconsin, when there was a very prominent attack on public employees, a bunch of the politicians presented themselves as if they’re attacking public employees because they’re on the side of hard-working non-union taxpayers in the private sector. In the research is, we ask, ‘What are those same people actually doing for non-union hard-working taxpayers in the private sector?’ They are trying to cut minimum wage, cut the right to overtime, classify people as independent contractors so they lose their rights under labor law, replace adult labor with teenager workers, and all kinds of things that are not about unions but that are going to make it much, much harder for normal working Americans who don’t have college degrees, who are not professionals, who are trying not to get rich but just to make a decent living and support their families.

Holland: Now, I want to go back a moment, because you made another important point, which is that a lot of people in these states think that these laws are being pushed by their local lawmakers. And in fact, when you dug into this issue, you saw the same legislation popping up in state after state after state. Who is behind this?

Lafer: Right. The American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, writes model laws. They’ll have five or six different model laws about the same thing that are kind of calibrated to see what can pass in a given state at a given time. So on minimum wage, their end goal is to have there be no minimum wage at all, and they have a bill that says abolish the minimum wage, but, well, if you can’t pass that, at least don’t increase it in a way that’s linked to the rate of inflation and goes up every year. So we see, in every state, people experience these as if they come from their local legislator or as if they’re a response to the particular problems in their state, and in fact, the laws are being written largely by ALEC.

And if you look behind ALEC — and all of this stuff is available to the public because there is a member of ALEC who was a whistle-blower and dumped a lot of the information that was supposed to be kept secret from the public out in the public domain — there’s a website called where you can see all the model bills. But if you look at the member companies behind them, it’s a bunch of the biggest and most powerful corporations in the country. They work through ALEC, but they also work through the Chamber of Commerce and the Restaurant Association and a bunch of other business lobbies. And what we see is the same corporations are helping write the law, are funding the campaigns of the candidates, are funding state-level corporate-backed think tanks that put out white papers and talking points and offer talking heads to go on TV, and then they spend the unlimited money on ads on radio and TV. It’s a very well-coordinated campaign.

Now, one of the things that I think is important to point out is that much of this is very unpopular when people have a chance to vote on the actual laws. So in places where people have a chance to vote, not for candidates, but on the actual laws — on minimum wage, on sick leave — there’s very broad support for those measures — among Republicans and Democrats, among conservatives and liberals. So recently, one of the big agendas of the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC and the rest of them has been trying to deny us the right to vote. They’ve passed legislation in 10 states that says that cities are not allowed to vote on establishing a right to paid sick leave or on establishing a higher minimum wage. Because there are now six cities where people voted to say everybody has a right to at least five days of paid sick leave a year, and the business lobby’s response has been to take away the right to vote wherever they can.

Holland: Right. Democracy is not in their interest. Let’s dig into a couple of these areas of the law. You spoke earlier about substituting child and teen labor. I remember during the 2011 GOP primaries, Newt Gingrich said that it was a tragedy that poor kids are trapped in these child labor laws,and that schools ought to get rid of unionized janitors and pay the students to take care of the schools. He said this would be like a bootstrap thing. They would have some cash in their pockets, they would have pride. That’s not the kind of thing you’re finding out there, is it?

Lafer: Yes it is, in fact. Idaho is the first state to basically adopt Gingrich’s vision. In Idaho, as of last year, it is now legal for kids as young as 12 to work up to 10 hours a week as custodians in their schools. And the school district says, ‘Oh, this is great, because we can pay them less than we have to pay adults and they learn the skills of following behavior, following orders.’

But also, in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, they raised the limits of how many hours a week teenagers can work during the school week. You can see the hypocrisy: Part of ALEC’s argument against raising the minimum wage is, they say ‘Well, if you raise the minimum wage, it encourages more high school kids to work more, and we all know that leads to more dropouts and is bad for education, so keep the minimum wage low.’ But in Michigan, the Restaurant Association, which is a major player in ALEC, went into the legislature when there was 10.6 percent unemployment, and said, ‘We cannot find enough adult labor to work in restaurants. We need you to increase the number of hours that high school kids can work during the school week. And it’ll be good for them because they’ll learn teamwork skills and customer service.’ But at 10.6 percent unemployment, it’s just not economically credible to think you can’t find adults to work in restaurants. But this is them saying, ‘We want to cut everything down,’ and one of the ways of cutting things down is to substitute teenagers for adult workers because they’re cheaper, and if it makes it harder for them to do well in school, well that’s too bad.

Holland: Gordon, how pervasive is wage theft?

Lafer: We have in America an epidemic of wage theft, which is when people are not paid wages that they’ve earned, where there’s no debate that they’ve earned it. And it has nothing to do with unions. It’s when you’re not paid minimum wage, you’re not paid overtime, or somebody comes and says, ‘Hey, can you work on this construction project for me?’ and then they don’t pay you.

This came to a head in Florida. Florida has a conservative legislature, and in 2002 they abolished their department of labor. So there’s not a single labor department inspector to police this in Florida, the attorney general’s office hasn’t filed a case about wage theft in recent memory, and the only recourse you have is to go to legal aid, which is all volunteer, so they’re overwhelmed.

But in 2010, Miami/Dade County established a model wage theft procedure. It works kind of like small claims court: It’s very streamlined. The employer pays the cost, so there’s no cost to the taxpayer. And in the first year, they found 600 people who had had money stolen out of their paychecks and they recovered almost $2 million in stolen wages. The response of the Chamber of Commerce and the restaurant industry — and Disney and Office Depot and Home Depot and a bunch of other companies — was to try to pass a law, and it’s come close to passing, that would make it illegal for any county or city to have a wage theft recovery procedure. And they say this explicitly — this is their goal: No city or county within the state should be allowed to have a wage theft procedure. It passed the House, and then it died in the Senate, but a similar bill passed in Tennessee. So if you are a normal worker, if you don’t have the money to go hire a big lawyer, and the amount of money that has been stolen from you is $250 or $1,000, which is a lot of money in the life of low-wage workers but is not enough money to go to a lawyer and say, ‘Hey, take a third of this as a contingency so it’ll be worth your while to take the case,’ they’re working hard to make sure you have absolutely no recourse in the system of justice to recover wages that everybody agrees were stolen out of your paycheck.

When we measure it, the total amount of money stolen out of American workers’ paychecks every year is far bigger than the total amount stolen in all the bank robberies, gas station robberies and convenience store robberies combined. It’s shocking how big it is and how much it impacts the low-wage labor market, and the corporate lobbies are working to see that it stays that way and that there’s no recourse for people who suffer from this.


November 6, 2013

Iowa Town’s Vote Delivers Rebuke to Kochs’ Group


The mayoral and City Council candidates in an Iowa town who were most closely aligned with the message promoted by Americans for Prosperity, the deep-pocketed conservative political group, were roundly defeated on Tuesday in a sharp rebuke of outside influence in local politics.

The group, founded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, did not back specific candidates, but it targeted incumbents in the town, Coralville, for their role in running up a $280 million debt. Yet the involvement of an outside group provoked so much anger that the race became as much a referendum on the group’s involvement as on the issues themselves, and it captured national attention, including from the White House. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. called the newly elected mayor, John A. Lundell, who was a City Council incumbent, on election night to congratulate him for overcoming the outside influence.

If anything, people in Coralville said, Americans for Prosperity’s efforts backfired and helped the candidates whose positions it was criticizing.

“The intrusion of the Americans for Prosperity pretty much poisoned the water of what we were trying to do for the last couple of years,” said Douglas Paul, a member of Citizens for Responsible Growth and Taxation, a group made up mostly of area business owners that also spoke out against the debt and the town’s economic development strategy.

Although his group agreed with Americans for Prosperity on many of the issues, Mr. Paul said, their positions came off as frightening.

“They were pretty much like bringing a loose cannon into the room,” Mr. Paul said. “They pretty much were a benefit to the incumbents.”

All three incumbents who ran won. Bill Hoeft and Thomas J. Gill kept their seats on the five-member Council. (Only three seats were up for election.) The one nonincumbent who won a seat on the Council, Laurie Goodrich, was seen as having an outside shot — she was a supporter of the current Council and garnered much attention for a meeting she had with members of the citizens’ group in which she said she was offered $20,000 to run as its candidate, an allegation the group denies.

During his celebration at a Mexican restaurant in Coralville on Tuesday night, Mr. Lundell said his cellphone buzzed with a number bearing the 202 area code. The voice on the other end was Mr. Biden’s, and he said he could tell it was not a prank. (A spokeswoman for the vice president confirmed that he had called Mr. Lundell.)

“He says that the Coralville race has become a race they began following very carefully,” Mr. Lundell said. The vice president went on to congratulate him and the town, Mr. Lundell said, “for stepping up against this well-funded group, outside influence.”

Mark J. Lucas, the president of Americans for Prosperity’s Iowa chapter, said he was pleased with his organization’s efforts in Coralville; it ran newspaper ads, knocked on doors and mailed out fliers. He credited that work for drawing a record turnout — 2,820 people, or nearly a quarter of registered voters — in a town of fewer than 20,000 people, and setting the conversation.

“I think all these people who got elected, they know that the deficit is now an issue, and people are talking about it,” he said.


Tea Party Steals our Money, Wants to Sell National Parks to Subsidize their Greed

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Thursday, November, 7th, 2013, 8:13 am   

So remember how upset the tea partiers were when the shutdown closed the national parks? It smacked even then of false outrage. After all, these are the people who support the Keystone XL Pipeline which , according to the Department of the Interior, “has the potential to affect resources and values at seven units of the National Park System,” but did you know at the time that they want to sell our national parks?

Small government anarchists like Alaska’s Joe Miller want their states to control (and be free to develop) federal lands within their states. “The ultimate goal has to be state control over the (resource) base,” Miller said in 2010. Michele Bachmann wanted to drill for oil in the Everglades in 2011. Anti-Semite Ron Paul (R-TX) echoed these calls in 2012, saying he wanted to disband the Department of the Interior.

This is a broad enough attack on our national parks. But in the Environment News Service reported in 2005 that Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) wanted to allow “foreign and U.S. mining corporations to buy millions of acres of public lands in the West, including land in national parks, wilderness and other protected areas.”

Since 2005 we’ve been afflicted with the anarchists of the tea party, and we’ve seen these calls renewed. In 2011, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) wanted to sell 3.3 million acres of our land (and not share the profits with us, of course). ClimateProgress reported,

    His “Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2011” would force the Interior Department to sell 3.3 million acres of lands in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming to the highest bidder.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) said in February of this year, “we don’t need more national parks in this country, we need to actually sell off some of our national parks…”

Grover Norquist followed suit:

    It may be time to discuss how many federal gov parks should be handed over to states that are more competent to run them. Or privatized.

    — Grover Norquist (@GroverNorquist) October 6, 2013

Our National Parks are lucrative. Some 278 million people visit national parks yearly (the population of the United States is 317 million), and local communities benefit economically by proximity to the parks.

I have visited Yellowstone National Park numerous times, and other parks as well. The town of Cody, Wyoming, would always get my money as a result of my visits. Jackson Hole got more of my money than I would have liked when I visited Grand Teton National Park and Wall Drug always benefits from my visits to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. ThinkProgress reported in March, “In 2010, Florida’s Everglades National Park generated 2,364 jobs and over $140 million in visitor spending, and Florida’s 11 national parks in total provided $582 million in economic benefits.”

And we get all these benefits for a miniscule National Park Service budget of $2.98 billion (2012 enacted). Remember, the Republicans squandered $24 billion on their shutdown.

Cliff Stearns claimed they are too expensive and we should just “try and do what a normal family would do” and live within our means. Chaffetz said selling our parks would reduce the deficit, that “It is neither logical nor responsible for the federal government to own or manage surplus lands.”

But for what Ted Cruz spent on his antics, we could have funded the entire National Park Service for almost a decade, albeit at current, underfunded rates.

As Deener Shanker wrote at Salon earlier this month, “since 2010, Congress has cut the parks budget by 13%, leading to the seasonal closure of national parks including the Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon.” It is not unfair to say that the Republican Party is waging not only a war on women, on the Postal Service, on education, on the environment, and so forth, but on the national park system.

But the national park system is not a commodity to be bought and sold. It is part of America’s heritage and it is held in trust for future generations. It belongs to all of us, not merely to a few plutocrats in Washington who stand to make millions by stealing and then selling that heritage.

We should be selling Ted Cruz, not the National Parks. He’s far more expensive and accomplishes a great deal less, or as British Prime Minister Lloyd George said of Britain’s ruling class, who like America’s plutocrats also wanted things they didn’t want to pay for, “A fully-equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnaughts – and they are just as great a terror.”

Shanker pointed to the problem: It’s not how much the park system costs but how much the park system could make if it were privatized and put into the hands of the same sort of people who are enriching themselves by privatizing our education system.

    For Congress, though, it’s not enough just to defund our parks so they slowly fall into total, unusable ruin. In this country, it’s also important that we “Drill, baby, drill,” not to mention, “Log, baby, log” and “Mine, baby, mine.” All of these efforts create serious threats to our parks.

You can be sure that the redistributive wealth messiah, Ted Cruz, will see to these economic disparities when he seizes power and turns the United States into a huge banana republic. After all, the rich are getting screwed; we are depriving them of all sorts of potential revenue by insisting like a bunch of commies that the national park system belongs to all of us.

How dare we?

“We the People” doesn’t mean much to the tea party, though they like to use the phrase a lot. just like they like to invoke Jesus without having a clue what Jesus actually said. Not only does the government belong to the people (we established it, after all) but so do the federal lands held in trust by the government and managed by it on our behalf. They do not belong to any tea party anarchist to sell and to profit by.

The tea party wants to sell what doesn’t belong to them, stealing our heritage to enrich themselves and the corporations that own them. We can’t let that happen and we can’t let their excuses to unanswered.

If they are genuinely concerned about reducing the deficit, they will keep their greedy paws off our public lands and dig down dip to restore that $24 billion they stole from We the People during their shutdown. That would be a good start.


Winners and Losers From Last Night’s Off-Off Year Elections

By: Michael A Maynard
Wednesday, November, 6th, 2013, 3:43 pm      

Most off-off year elections are of little interest nationally. Last night’s elections were different.

There were many winners and losers (and one who won and lost)  in last night’s elections,  but the biggest winner was liberalism. In the major governor (except 1) and mayor races and ballot questions throughout the country, the liberal side won. Here are the results:

Winner – 2014 and 2016 Democratic Party. The Democrats now have mayors in New York City (for the first time in 20 years), Boston, Atlanta, Seattle, Minneapolis and Detroit. Mayors are valuable foot soldiers in national and state elections and their political machines will remain mostly intact for next year’s and 2016′s elections.

Winner – Bill De Blasio, elected Mayor of New York City. The public advocate, Bill De Blasio, won in a landslide – 73% to 24% – over Joe Lhota, long -time political advisor to former NYC mayor Rudy Guiliani. De Blasio, with his mixed race family very much in public purview, ran on a progressive/liberal platform of reducing the wealth gap, providing affordable housing to the lower middle class and the poor, expanding funding for pre-Kindergarden through raising taxes, and stopping the controversial “stop and firisk” policing policy of  current major, Michael Bloomberg.

Winner – Martin Walsh, elected Mayor of Boston.  Walsh beat fellow Democrat City-Councilor at Large John Connolly by 52% to 48% Walsh will take over City Hall from beloved 20 year mayor, Thomas Menino. But Mayor Menino’s relationship with the Boston school  labor unions was not so beloved. Walsh’s campaign focused on school reform and job growth, two positions that earned the school labor unions support.  Expanding education and increasing funding for schools was a big winning issue throughout most of last night’s races.

Winner (sort 0f) – Terry McAuliffe, elected Governor of Virginia.  Former national Democratic Party chairman and BFF of Bill and Hillary Clinton won by a closer margin than expected,  47.1% – 46%, to state Attorney General and Tea Party favorite, Ken Cuccinelli. Polls leading up to election showed McAuliffe winning from 5% to 15%. The “Cooch” shifted tactics in the last week focusing on hammering away at the problems of the Affordable Care Act’s implementation.  Throughout the campaign, Cuccinelli’s radical conservative social views against woman’s reproductive rights, restrictions on divorce and same-sex marriage turned off women voters, who were the difference in the race voting 50% to 42% for McAuliffe. Since many of northern Virginia voters work in Washington D.C. and are employees of the federal government, Cuccinelli’s support of the federal government shutdown also hurt his campaign.

Despite the financial and advertising backing of the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity political organization, McAuliffe handily outspent his opponent.  McAuliffe’s new Lieutenant Governor, Democrat Ralph Nordstrom, easily defeated Tea Party crazy extraordinaire, E.W. Jackson, 55% to 45%. That Nordstrom’s margin of victory was greater than McAuliffe’s may not bode well with the new governor’s efforts to work with the Republican dominated legislature.

Winner – Liberal Social Issues -  Most of the candidates that supported gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights, increased spending on education and other social issues won. Colorado voters were in favor of taxing marijuana sales at 25% and using the increased revenues for regulating marijuana sales and building schools. In New Jersey, an initiative to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 passed. In Colorado, initiatives to suspend or stop fracking were passed or just narrowly defeated despite the Colorado Oil and Gas Association spending $870,000 to defeat them in the four town’s voting.

For a list of all the state ballot initiatives, visit

Loser: The Tea Party - In addition to Cuccinelli and Jackson losing in Virginia, the Tea Party candidate in a special House of Representative Republican primary run-off election lost. Former Alabama state senator, Republican moderate Bradley Byrne, beat Dean Young 53% to 47%.  In December, Byrne is favored to win election against Democrat Burton LeFlore and Independents James Hall and Curtis Railey.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie celebrates his election night victory with supporters in Asbury Park, New Jersey


New Jersey Governor Chris Christie - Yes, Christie won re-election easily beating Democratic State Senator Barbara Buono, 60% to 38%. Christie was expected to win re-election easily, in part because of the national media focus on this race. Buono could never gain traction in the race because of the constant spotlight on the huge, often abrasive  Christie and the questions about his national political interests. She also got little help from the Democratic Governor’s Association, getting only $5,000 where McAuliffe received $6 million.

Christie now becomes the Republican Party front runner for the 2016 President election, if he chooses to run. In listening to Christie’s victory speech last night, it was apparent to me that Christie is going to run. He’s a political animal and is limited to two-terms as governor. Given his personality, I doubt that he would run for the U.S. Senate, a race it is not certain he’d win against newly elected Cory Booker.  At New Jersey’s expense, Christie moved his election race so that it would not be held at the same time as Booker’s.

Christie suffers from Willard Romney syndrome. He’s nationally perceived as a moderate Republican who would have to change his views in order to win the Republican Presidential nomination.

Christie’s bipartisan appeal does not sit well with GOP conservatives, who are the party’s most passionate voters and wield outsize influence in Republican presidential politics. But in a Tuesday interview with CNN, even before his victory was official, Christie appeared to be looking ahead.

Asked if he was a moderate, Christie used a word rarely uttered on the campaign trail in recent days: “I’m a conservative,” he said.”

But Christie is not a moderate. He supported Tea Party stooge, Steve Lonegan, for the Senate against Cory Booker. Christie’s ties to the Koch Brothers will be nationally exposed.

    “With security extraordinary on the seminar’s opening night—audio speakers around the periphery of the outdoor dining pavilion blasted out static to thwart eavesdroppers—David Koch introduced Gov. Christie as “my kind of guy.” (The two had previously met in private at Koch’s New York City office, he revealed.) Before long, seminar attendees were roaring with laughter as Christie regaled them over dessert, telling them how, in his first weeks in office, he’d exercised extraordinary executive powers to impound billions of dollars in planned spending. (“The good news for all of you and for me,” he said, “is that the governorship in New Jersey is the most powerful constitutional governorship in America.”)”

New Jersey’s unemployment rate is at 8.5%, much higher than the national average of 7.3%. When Christie first took office, he commandeered  capital gains and business tax cuts through his legislature, proven standard conservative ineffective economic measures, which has led to record budget deficits, a 2013 $848.8 million revenue shortfall, and the still high unemployment rate. So he is not credible as a capable fiscal steward, which will not play well in the early New Hampshire and Midwest primaries. His stated views on social issues will not play well nationally, especially on the East and West Coasts.

Reaching the magic 60% election number may make him the new darling of the Fox News Network, which has called him a RINO in the past (Republican In Name Only, not the other kind of rhino, which it may have called him, too.)  But his record and “moderate image” also leaves Christie at a target for the other Republican Presidential wanna-be’s: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, et al.  This election has done either Christie or the country any favors. He won, but  he lost, and meanwhile the rest of the country loses, too..


Bad News for Republicans :The Youth Vote Grew in 2013 and They Voted Democrat

By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, November, 6th, 2013, 2:03 pm   

Republicans should be very worried. The youth vote grew in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections, and those young people voted Democrat.

In Virginia, the youth vote as a share of the overall electorate increased by 3 points. The Democratic share of the youth vote increased by one percent, while the Republican share of dropped by 14%. Terry McAuliffe beat Ken Cuccinelli 45%-40% among younger voters. In New Jersey, Chris Christie was piling up big overall numbers, but he lost with young voters 51%-49%.

Republicans should be very afraid. Young voters are becoming solidly Democratic. The only demographic that Chris Christie lost in New Jersey was voters age 18-29. It doesn’t appear to matter who is at the top of the ticket, the Republican Party is a major turnoff to young voters right now.

It appears that Christie’s margin of victory had less to do with him being a different kind of Republican than Hurricane Sandy. The goodwill that Gov. Christie generated with his Sandy leadership was one of the biggest factors in his impressive showing. The fact that the Democratic Party refused to challenge Christie very hard also helped him run up a big win.

The election of 2013 revealed that Republicans have done nothing to correct their problems. On the other side, the new Democratic coalition that has grown up around President Obama took another step towards becoming the driving force behind the Democratic Party in all election years.

Republicans still don’t have a clue when it comes to appealing to young voters, women, and minorities. There is some wishful thinking in Republican circles that young voters will stop voting when Barack Obama is not on the ballot anymore. Hillary Clinton has been accepted and embraced by the Obama coalition, and young voters aren’t going to turn their backs on Democrats because Obama is no longer at the top of the ticket.

Democrats understand that issues matter to their new coalition. These voters are demonstrating that they aren’t voting for the candidate. They’re voting for the ideas. Since the Republicans have no appealing ideas, these voters aren’t persuadable I think New Jersey was a special circumstance. I don’t think Chris Christie can win 21% African-American support and 51% Hispanic support in a presidential election. Christie is pulling a page from the Guiliani playbook by using a the moment that brought him to national prominence as a springboard for his White House ambitions.

Young voters showed that they will show up to vote in an off off year election. No one should be surprised if young voters across the country turn out in 2014 to take House back from the Republican Party.

Young voters are here. They’ve voting, and they are supporting the Democratic Party.

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« Reply #9838 on: Nov 08, 2013, 06:07 AM »

Germany and Brazil call on the U.N. to act against data spying

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 7, 2013 18:20 EST

Germany and Brazil on Thursday called on the United Nations to back action to limit cyber snooping amid a backlash against US spying on its allies.

The two proposed a UN General Assembly resolution which seeks special monitoring for “ensuring transparency and accountability of state surveillance of communications.”

The resolution does not mention the United States but German and Brazilian envoys made clear the anger at allegations of US snooping on their leaders.

“Reports about mass surveillance of private communication and the collection of personal data have alarmed people all over the world,” Germany’s UN ambassador Peter Wittig told a General Assembly rights committee as he presented the resolution.

“They ask a legitimate question: is their right to privacy still protected effectively in our digital world?”

“Where do we draw the line between legitimate security concerns and the individual right to privacy?” Wittig added.

The US National Security Agency has been accused of monitoring the mobile phone of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and the office communications of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff.

Antionio Patriota, Brazil’s UN envoy, reaffirmed Roussef’s accusations of “grave” breaches of privacy “as a result of mass surveillance of personal communications and data.”

“Brazil believes it is crucial for the international community to engage in a serious, in-depth debate on how to uphold certain fundamental rights of human beings in the digital age,” Patriota added.

“Privacy is of the essence in safeguarding individuals against the abuse from power,” the envoy said.

The resolution, expected to be voted on this month and would be non-binding, expresses deep concern at “human rights violations and abuses that may result from the conduct of any surveillance of communications, including extraterritorial surveillance of communications.”

It calls on UN human rights chief Navi Pillay to produce a report on data surveillance and for states to extend protections under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to communications surveillance.

It says states should “review their procedures, practices and legislation regarding the surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data, including massive surveillance, interception and collection.”

The Brazil-German draft says governments should “establish independent national oversight mechanisms” for “ensuring transparency and accountability of state surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data.”

Austria, France, Bolivia, Uruguay, Liechtenstein, Peru and Uruguay were among early co-sponsors of the resolution which could be amended before the final vote.

North Korea, one of the world’s most tightly-controlled states, also co-sponsored the text.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]


11/08/2013 12:07 PM

Spying Fallout: German Trust in United States Plummets

The NSA spying scandals have taken a toll on Germans' opinion of their longtime ally, according to a new survey. Mistrust in the United States has skyrocketed, and more Germans are viewing whistleblower Edward Snowden as a hero.

A string of NSA spying scandals has sent Germans' trust in the United States plummeting, with only a third saying they view their longtime ally as a trustworthy partner, a recent opinion poll has found.

The survey, commissioned by public broadcaster ARD and daily newspaper Die Welt, found that only 35 percent of Germans considered the US government trustworthy -- numbers not seen since the times of highly unpopular President George W. Bush. Forty-three percent said they were satisfied with the work of US President Barack Obama. Just a year ago, he enjoyed the backing of 75 percent of Germans.

The results appear to be a strong indictment of the pervasive US surveillance programs uncovered through classified documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden -- whom 60 percent of respondents consider a hero. Despite that strong majority support, Germans were evenly split over the question of whether their country should offer Snowden asylum, with 46 percent saying "yes" and 48 percent saying "no."

Germans were scandalized when they learned that the NSA had targeted the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel and has used the US Embassy in central Berlin as a base of operations for eavesdropping. In the wake of the German government's furious response, Washington has reportedly offered to negotiate with Berlin over a mutual no-spying agreement akin to the "Five Eyes" deal it has with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. However no such deal has been publicly announced, and 92 percent of respondents in the poll said they expect the US would break the agreement and continue secret intelligence operations on German soil.

The survey also found that Germans' trust in the British government had also deteriorated to 50 percent, down from 80 percent four years ago. The Snowden leaks also revealed a number of heavy-handed espionage practices by the GCHQ, the UK counterpart to the NSA, as well as a suspected interception post on its embassy grounds in Berlin.

The computer-guided telephone survey was conducted by Infratest dimap on Nov. 4 and 5 and questioned 1,002 German residents. The sampling margin of error is 1.4 to 3.1 percentage points.

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« Reply #9839 on: Nov 08, 2013, 06:19 AM »

NSA and GCHQ mass surveillance is violation of European law, report finds

Authors of study warn of 'systematic breach of people's fundamental rights' and call for EU parliament to take action

Andrew Rettman in Brussels, Thursday 7 November 2013 15.31 GMT      

The authors of a new study on mass-scale surveillance have accused the intelligence services of the US and EU countries of violating European law and urged the European parliament to take action.

Sergio Carrera, a Spanish jurist, and Francesco Ragazzi, a professor of international relations at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who co-wrote the paper, made the appeal for European action at a hearing in the EU parliament in Brussels on Thursday.

They said the US National Security Agency (NSA), the UK's GCHQ and equivalent bodies in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden had breached basic articles of the EU treaty, such as article 4.3 on "sincere co-operation", as well as privacy clauses in the EU charter of fundamental values and in the European charter of fundamental rights.

They also noted that EU agencies such as the joint police body, Europol, and the EU foreign service's intelligence-sharing branch, IntCen, were in all likelihood using data "stolen" from European citizens.

"It's no longer credible to say the EU has no legal competence and should do nothing on this. Sorry, we don't think this is acceptable," Carrera said.

"We are witnessing a systematic breach of people's fundamental rights," he added.

Ragazzi said: "The bigger the crisis, the more the system of checks and balances should be reinforced. This is what distinguishes democracies from police states."

The idea that espionage is a national prerogative has been widely used to deflect EU queries into the scandal.

The British ambassador to the EU, Sir John Cunliffe, in a letter to the EU parliament last month said the GCHQ chief, Sir Iain Lobban, had no obligation to answer MEPs' questions because "national security is the sole responsibility of member states".

But Carrera and Ragazzi urged MEPs to use "all the powers at their disposal" to break the wall of silence.

They said the EU parliament should threaten to block an EU-US free trade agreement unless the NSA and GCHQ disclose the full nature of their surveillance programmes.

They said MEPs should push EU countries to draft a "professional code for the transnational management of data".

They also called for new EU laws to stop internet companies giving information to intelligence services, to protect whistleblowers such as the NSA leaker Edward Snowden, and to form a permanent oversight body on intelligence matters.

Snowden's revelations show that GCHQ alone hoovers up 21 petabytes of internet data each day, while the NSA has forced private companies such as Facebook to hand over customers' files.

A senior Facebook executive, Erika Mann, was due to attend the EU hearing on Thursday but cancelled at the last minute citing agenda problems.

The head of IntCen, the former Finnish spy chief Ilkka Salmi, spoke in a closed session on Thursday morning, but said only – according to one MEP – that it was "natural" that intelligence services intercepted their own citizens' emails and phone calls.


NSA leaks: UK's enemies are 'rubbing their hands with glee', says MI6 chief

Sir John Sawers makes claim in first ever joint public hearing by heads of UK's three intelligence agencies

Patrick Wintour, political editor, Friday 8 November 2013 01.25 GMT   
Britain's three senior spy chiefs came into the public glare for the first time to claim that leaks by the former NSA analyst Edward Snowden were being "lapped up" by the country's adversaries, but also to concede that the disclosures had prompted discussion with the government over how to be more transparent about their methods.

Despite an often gentle first public cross-examination of the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, some members of the intelligence and security committee, including the former head of the civil service Lord Butler, expressed their concern at the legal oversight of the intelligence agencies.

Butler said it was hardly credible that the legislation governing the agencies was "still fit for purpose for the modern world". After the session, Sir Menzies Campbell, a Liberal Democrat member of the ISC, also called for a review of the law, "not least to provide the public with a sense of reassurance and confidence that there is a substantial legal framework".

A third ISC member, the Tory MP Mark Field, also revealed that members felt they had not been told about the intricacies of GCHQ's capabilities, demanding in private "at the earliest opportunity a comprehensive update on collaborations that are taking place with overseas intelligence agencies" – including, by implication, the US National Security Agency. Sir Iain Lobban, the head of GCHQ, agreed to do so.

The 90-minute session came most alive when the spy chiefs expressed their cold fury at the Edward Snowden disclosures in the Guardian and other papers, claiming that they would lead for years to an "inexorable darkening" of their knowledge of those threatening the country.

Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, said: "The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging. They have put our operations at risk. It is clear our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaida is lapping it up."

Lobban told MPs there had been a gradual but inexorable deterioration of GCHQ's knowledge of its targets after five months of near daily chat by potential terrorists about how to adapt their methods of communication in the light of the disclosures about GCHQ's modus operandi. He asserted: "The cumulative effect of the media coverage, the global media coverage, will make the job that we have far, far harder for years to come." Success, he in effect argued, required Britain's enemies to be unaware or uncertain of GCHQ's methods. He added: "There is a complex and fragile mosaic of strategic capability which allows us to discover, to process, to investigate and then to take action. That includes terrorist cells, it reveals people shipping secrets or expertise or materials to do with chemical, biological, nuclear around the world. It allows us to reveal the identities of those involved in online sexual exploitation of children. Those people are very active users of encryption and of anonymisation tools. That mosaic is in a far, far weaker place than it was five months ago."

Neither Sawers nor Lobban was willing to give the committee any specific detail about the compromise of intelligence capability in public, but they promised to be "very, very specific" in a future private session.

Lobban also expressed fears that he was going to lose the co-operation of internet service providers in conducting telephone and internet monitoring. "I am concerned about the access that we can lawfully require of communications companies, which is very difficult if they are based overseas," he said.

He hotly denied that GCHQ delved into "innocent emails and calls", but said the agencies needed to have access to "the enormous hayfield" if they were to find the needles.

Lobban promised: "We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority, the vast majority – that would not be proportionate, it would not be legal. We do not do it. We can only look at the content of communications where there are very specific legal thresholds and requirements which have been met. So that's the reality. We don't want to delve into innocent emails and phonecalls."

But the GCHQ boss said there were some people who would be monitored, and it was the job of the intelligence agency to monitor "a terrorist, a serious criminal, a proliferator, a target or if your activities pose a genuine threat to the national or economic security of the UK".

On Thursday night, one of the members of the ISC said that the committee knew GCHQ was able to secretly access vast quantities of data. Labour's former counter-terrorism minister Hazel Blears told BBC's Newsnight that the ISC was fully aware of "what they were doing in terms of being able to collect information".

Former cabinet minister Chris Huhne had said top government figures were kept in the dark about GCHQ's ability to access data, in an operation codenamed Tempora. But in what appears to be the first admission to the contrary, Blears said: "The committee did have a broad understanding of what the capabilities of GCHQ were."

Pressed on whether it had been aware of the existence of the Tempora programme, she said: "We didn't know the names of these projects, and I'm sure the exact same situation applies in America. But in terms of broad capabilities, yes we did," said Blears.

"We have been looking at them now for several years, we have been on several visits to GCHQ, we've had very, very confidential briefings about what the capabilities were and obviously we were satisfied that they were operating within our legal framework."

At Thursday's hearing, Sawers criticised newspapers for claiming they could judge whether disclosures would compromise national security, saying they were not particularly well placed to make such decisions. But pressed to accept that the disclosures had raised issues about the line between secrecy and openness, however, Lobban acknowledged the urgency of the issue, saying: "Clearly with the situation we are in, we are actively considering that with government."

The spies used their public outing to defend their £2bn budget, and to claim that the security threat facing Britain was growing. Andrew Parker, director of MI5, said that since 2005 and the 7/7 attacks, 34 separate plots had been foiled, including one that would have created mass casualties.

He said the numbers sympathetic to violent extremism were in the low thousands, saying "terrorism tourism" was now a serious problem as Britons, numbered in the low hundreds, travelling to fight in Syria had made the crisis worse.

Sawers also rejected allegations that intelligence agencies had been complicit in torture or have mistreated individuals. Parker added: "We do not participate in, incite, encourage or condone mistreatment or torture, and that is absolute."

A spokesperson for Guardian News and Media, publisher of the Guardian, said: "We welcome the fact that the intelligence chiefs acknowledged that they need to be more open as a result of the Snowden disclosures, but were surprised that unlike in the US and Europe there was no substantive discussion at all about anything Snowden revealed."


Questioning of spy agency chiefs 'wouldn't have scared a puppy'

Civil liberties groups say intelligence and security committee failed to ask heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ searching questions

Peter Walker, Thursday 7 November 2013 18.52 GMT   

Civil liberties groups have described the first public questioning of Britain's spy agency chiefs as disappointing and far from illuminating, saying the committee of MPs who quizzed the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ failed to ask searching questions.

During the 90-minute intelligence and security committee hearing, MI5's Andrew Parker, the MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers, and Sir Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, were questioned on subjects including whether the agencies' interception of electronic communication was excessive, if there was a need for greater oversight of their work, and the effects of stories by the Guardian and others based on the revelations of Edward Snowden.

On the latter subject, Sawers said the Snowden stories had been very damaging and that "our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee".

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said the promised inquisition had proved extremely tame. "These public servants presided over blanket surveillance of the entire population without public, parliamentary or democratic mandate. Yet they faced a grilling that wouldn't have scared a puppy," she said.

"Broad, friendly questions were easily batted away and little was said that isn't already on public record. A real inquiry into this grand breach of trust must now begin."

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, contrasted the spy chiefs' reaction with the response to the Snowden revelations in other countries.

"As the US president, world leaders and international experts express concern about the scale of surveillance and the need to review the laws and policies involved, today was perhaps unique for the fact parliament found three people who think there is no need for reform."

His organisation has published a poll showing two-thirds of people believe the government should publish more data about the way surveillance powers are used.

Among omissions in the questioning, Pickles said, was explanations as to why Snowden was among 850,000 people with access to secret files, and the condemnation by Tim Berners-Lee, the internet's creator, of spy agencies' actions.

He said: "Many people will find it is surprising that the head of GCHQ was not even asked about how a 29-year-old contractor in Hawaii gained access to so much information about his organisation, or that the concerns of Sir Tim Berners-Lee about weakening encryption were not addressed in any meaningful way.

"Senior figures in the UK and US have all said that the Snowden revelations have not damaged national security, but the committee seemed uninterested in challenging the now familiar well rehearsed soundbites from officials.

"A public hearing is a welcome step towards long overdue transparency and a genuine debate about the legal framework is clearly in the public interest. However, on today's evidence there is still a long way to go."

Thomas Hughes, executive director of Article 19, said the hearing showed how any new public knowledge was being led by media reports.

"Without Snowden's revelations, the intelligence and security committee seemingly wouldn't have known the extent of the mass surveillance of our personal communications.

"Today's hearing has highlighted the need for the creation of a fully independent, effective and accountable oversight mechanism for the UK intelligence agencies."

A spokesman for the Open Rights Group said the committee had "failed to ask the difficult questions".

He said: "For instance, who decided that mass data trawling did not need an explicit parliamentary vote? How do they square data trawls with repeated human right judgments showing such harvests are going too far? Why is undermining internet security alright and why is it fine to break into potentially millions of accounts at Google and Yahoo! when there are legal routes to the same data?

"By concentrating on generalities the ISC failed to bite, which is extremely worrying as their main argument is that oversight makes us safe."


Key questions the chief spooks were asked, and those they did not hear

We analyse the questions the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ faced from MPs and how they performed

Matthew Weaver, Friday 8 November 2013 01.00 GMT   

Ahead of Thursday's appearance of Britain's three chief spooks before the Commons intelligence and security committee, the Guardian set out 10 questions that they should be asked.

Only three of the key questions were directly asked by the committee. Some of the questions were broadly alluded to, but the MPs favoured general soft questions rather than forensic probing.

The MPs' performance on the key questions is detailed below, with the response from Sir Iain Lobban, director of GCHQ; Sir John Sawers head of MI6, and Andrew Parker head of MI5.

1 Should Britain's intelligence agencies become more transparent to encourage greater public confidence, and if so how?

Former Labour minister Hazel Blears asked: "Is there the possibility to have a more informed dialogue with the public?"

Lobban replied: "The pat answer is that there are very good safeguards in place … If your activities pose a genuine threat to the national or economic security of the United Kingdom there is a possibility that your communications will be monitored, as in we will seek to read, we will seek to listen to you. If you are not, and you are not in contact with one of those people, then you won't be, and we are not entitled to."

Parker added: "The issue about balancing powers and transparency … are matters principally for ministers to lead on and for parliament to set law about, that we then abide by."

2 Why weren't the cabinet and the National Security Council allowed to know about GCHQ's mass surveillance programmes?

Not asked

3 Why have the agencies resisted calls for an overhaul and updating of surveillance laws?

Sir Menzies Campbell asked: "Is the existing legal framework adequate to deal with the enormous consequences of the revolution in technology?"

Lobban replied: "The laws were drafted to be technology neutral. I think the draftsmen did a pretty good job. [The law] insists upon necessity and proportionality. They are as relevant now as when the laws were drafted. They guide the way that we work … But if Parliament chooses to have a debate, that's fine by me … I want to stress the role of [intelligence] commissioners. As technology moves on, we talk to them about our methods."

4 What action, if any, has been taken to reduce the number of people (estimated to be 850,000 employees and contractors) who have access to the secret material uncovered by the Guardian?

Committee chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind asked: "Can we assume that you are having discussions with the your American colleagues about the hundreds of thousands of people who appear to have access to your information?"

Parker said: "All three of us are involved in those discussions."

He added: "We have very tightly controlled IT access, and arrangements for who can download what."

5 How many people are working on GCHQ's Tempora program which analyses calls, emails and Google search traffic coming in and out of the UK?

The Tempora program was not mentioned once by name during the session, and the Tory MP Mark Field suggested the committee was not aware of it until Edward Snowden's disclosure. He said: "We were very much aware of your capabilities in the past, but we weren't aware of the intricacies."

Field went on to ask: "While we appreciate that a lot of this is confidential about the sort of co-operation you have with other overseas agencies, will you give us an assurance that at the earliest opportunity in a closed session of this committee you will give us a comprehensive update on collaborations that were taking place with overseas intelligence agencies?"

Lobban replied: "I would be very happy to do so."

Rifkind asked: "Why do you think it is necessary to collect information on the majority of the public in order to protect us from the minority of potential evil-doers."

Lobban replied: "We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the vast majority. That would not be proportionate. It would not be legal, we do not do it. We can only look at the content of communications, where there are very specific legal thresholds that have been met.

"We don't want to delve into innocent emails and phone calls. I don't employ the kind of people who would. My people are motivated by saving the lives of British forces on the battlefield. They are motivated by finding terrorists and serious criminals. If they were asked to snoop, I wouldn't have the workforce, they would leave the building."

6 Why is Britain's legal framework deemed to be so attractive to the US?

Not asked

7 Did GCHQ have legal authority to hack into Google fibre optic cables in the UK?

This was not asked specifically, but Blears put this general question: "Can you give us a guarantee that you do not conduct operations which were outwith the British legal framework."

Lobban replied: "Yes I can give you that guarantee."

8 Did Britain's intelligence agencies receive any transcripts of the mobile phone calls of Angela Merkel and other world leaders?

This was not asked but Tory MP Julian Lewis did question whether Britain's allies were spied on.

Sawers replied: "Everything we do is in response to priorities laid down by government. We have limited resources, of course we don't spy on everyone. There are very few countries where we actively have operations. I'm not going to go into the details."

9 Do Britain's intelligence agencies need warrants for information offered or gifted by another agency such as the NSA?

Not asked

10 Former home secretary David Blunkett said this week the intelligence agencies tended to "get carried away" and their claims needed to be treated with a "breath of scepticism". What do you think he meant? Should Britain's intelligence agencies face stronger oversight?

Rifkind alluded to such concerns by asking: "Very often the agencies themselves seem over-nervous about insisting that something cannot be said in public. Have you sometimes taken that argument too far?"

Parker replied: "The reason why things are secret is not because we are embarrassed about them, it is because we want to keep them from the people that we are investigating."


Intelligence and transparency: nothing to see here

There was no Bond villain, no white cat, no steel-rimmed bowler hats – just a gentle 90 minutes of polite questioning in which little was demanded or gleaned

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The Guardian, Thursday 7 November 2013 22.43 GMT   
Spies are, by profession and training, required to keep their cool in tight corners. The three security chiefs who appeared before parliament's intelligence and security committee today did not break into sweat. But the session – the first to be televised – was by no stretch of the imagination a tight corner. There was no Bond villain, no white cat, no steel-rimmed bowler hats – just a gentle 90 minutes of polite questioning in which little was demanded or gleaned. The afternoon came briefly to life only when the spies united to identify the real bad guys: the media.

The fact that the intelligence chiefs are now required to come out in public and speak about what they do is obviously a step in the right direction. And it is only fair to acknowledge that the ISC has more powers and resources than once it had. But, as a genuine exercise in transparency, the event seemed stilted, restricted, sometimes coded and more than a little stage-managed.

There were many reassurances offered: the agencies are excellent value for money; they operate within the law; they are successfully adapting to changing technologies; and they reject any accusations of intelligence failures or improper behaviour. No MP or peer seriously tested any of these assertions. Nor – in public at least – was it possible to query the eye-catching claim that terrorists were "rubbing their hands in glee" at the Snowden allegations. In private, some members of the committee voice concern about the scope and interpretation of laws under which the services operate and their limited knowledge of specific programmes which have recently made front-page news around the world. But these worries were, at best, hinted at.

An American or European visitor would have been most struck by what the committee did not ask: it barely touched on the substantive issues raised by the Snowden documents. It skated over any serious questioning about the complex issues to do with mass surveillance, civil liberties or privacy. There were no questions about GCHQ's reported involvement in agencies helping themselves to traffic between Google data servers. There was nothing on the bugging of world leaders who might be considered allies, not enemies. Nothing on the reliance on corporate partners – "well beyond" what they are legally required to do. And nothing on the issue raised by Sir Tim Berners-Lee – the "appalling and foolish" weakening of internet encryption with potentially terrible consequences for individuals and businesses. These matters have been widely discussed in this country, including in such subversive journals as the FT and the Economist. Indeed, they have been debated in every serious newspaper and legislature in the world. They will become manifest in reformed laws, treaties and alliances. But there was little suggestion today that much of this was of true concern.

Instead there was a kick at the "global media". Let us be clear. The loss of Snowden's material was plainly damaging for western intelligence. The disaster was that the US agencies have, for the second time in three years, proved incapable of keeping enormous secret databases secure. After WikiLeaks it is astonishing that 850,000 people worldwide were able to peer into the heart of secret operations in Cheltenham. No NSA official has apologised or resigned for this devastating failure and there were only the mildest questions today as to why GCHQ went along with these bizarre arrangements. The intelligence agencies were saved from true catastrophe by only one thing: the fact that Snowden didn't dump the material on to the web, but handed it instead to journalists. Together with the New York Times and Washington Post, we have worked carefully and responsibly (in consultation with governments and agencies) to disclose a small proportion of what he leaked. Some would like newspapers gagged or prosecuted. Be careful what you wish for. Kick newspapers by all means, but, without them, be prepared for something much worse.


Britain's spy chiefs make daylight debut like a trio of Draculas in winter sun

The intelligence and security committee's questioning made Sir David Frost's gentle sofa technique look like Klaus Barbie

Michael White   
The Guardian, Thursday 7 November 2013 23.46 GMT   

Another historic milestone in the battle for parliamentary oversight was passed when Britain's spy chiefs summoned a committee of MPs and peers to justify their behaviour and reassure the public they are not a threat to national security.

To the average Ukip voter watching on almost-live TV, the nine members of the intelligence and security committee (ISC) must have looked a shifty bunch. The chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, is a Scot, so he must be some kind of traitor. Labour's George Howarth sports a beard (communist?). Tory Mark Field was born in Germany (Hun?).

As for that Hazel Blears ( "His and Hers" as Sir Malcolm called her in his rough Edinburgh accent), she rides a motorbike. Yes, there is plenty there for the spook community to get their digital teeth into.

Obviously it would have been more appropriate if the committee had been kitted out in orange jump suits and taken to M16 HQ at Vauxhall Cross or to GCHQ in Cheltenham for their interrogation. But constitutional niceties must be respected, so the three intelligence chiefs came to Westminster's Boothroyd Room and pretended to be grilled by the ISC. Even then they insisted on a two-minute TV pause button in case anyone blurted out a SECRET.

Fat chance. A slice of the session was devoted to the sensitive question of whether or not any of Britain's "security partners" – a more comforting label than "Pakistani intelligence" – ever mistreat or even torture suspects arrested on MI6's say-so. Not these days, the squeamish politicians were assured, although hints were dropped that things weren't perfect after 9/11.

It can be more confidently stated that no one was mistreated or tortured during Thursday's chat, which made Sir David Frost's gentle sofa technique look like the Gestapo's Klaus Barbie. "Sir John, do you want to say anything?" Sir Malcolm asked Sir John Sawers of M16. "Just to add my support to what Sir Iain [Lobban of GCHQ] and Andrew [M15's Parker] have said." It was like listening to old BBC output: "Is there anything you'd like to tell us, Mr Attlee?" "No."

Sawers, Lobban and Parker were what TV crews called "doughnutted" by a wholesome cross-section of citizens who looked as if they were up from Cheltenham for the day. Like ordinary members of the public (the cunning of it) all wore poppies believed to be able to fire 1,700 rounds a minute if anyone blurted out a SECRET or even hurled a pie, as happened to Rupert Murdoch.

No one did either as the spooks made their daylight debut, a trio of Draculas in the winter sun. Sir Malcolm may have dreamed of appearing with a long-haired white cat in his lap ("this committee has ways of making you talk, Mr Parker. My associate, Sir Ming Campbell, is not as sweet as he looks"), but thought better of it, though he did prod them a bit. So did Ming and Biker Blears. No, no, no, the chiefs replied to every prod.

In this very British tea and crumpets atmosphere opacity was all. The whistleblower Edward Snowden was not mentioned until 3.09 (long after James Bond's namecheck), the Guardian not at all, though Sawers put the boot in over media leaks ("al-Qaida are lapping it up" he said) and Lobban, the one you might not want to meet after dark, got quietly angry about it. Parker was more sorrowful, perhaps because his knighthood has been lost in the post.

Watching voters must have noticed that the trio slid over past intelligence gaffes, their failure to predict 9/11 or the Arab spring. "Why did you fail to notice the second world war until 1943, Sir John?" "We are not crystal ball gazers."

They also felt sorry for themselves. Digital technology has made their carpeted lives and £2bn budget so much harder than it has for bearded Islamist boys in their stinking caves. Politicians make the rules, we just obey them, they said.

OK, if you say so, though it sounded like buck-passing. But Sir Malcolm won't tell: it's a SECRET.


Spy chiefs can give evidence without the sky falling in – so let's reform oversight

Thursday's intelligence and security committee hearing established a principle that open debate over security issues is possible and necessary

Julian Huppert   
The Guardian, Thursday 7 November 2013 20.16 GMT          

It wasn't only the security chiefs being scrutinised, but those conducting the scrutiny. Now that we have been granted a glimpse into the activity of the intelligence and security committee, do we feel reassured they were doing the job that we need them to do, to assure ourselves that oversight worked? Many of us could reasonably be sceptical of a committee handpicked by the prime minister, and which made mistakes over extraordinary rendition.

It is of course welcome that this session happened at all: 38 years after the CIA director first gave public evidence to Congress, we are finally catching up. However, from my own select committee experience, what occurred on Thursday seemed more like a cosy chat. Nevertheless, it ought to establish the principle that security chiefs can give evidence in public without the sky falling in, and I look forward to them appearing before the home affairs select committee in our counter-terrorism work.

But this initial session has been useful. Journalists, commentators and bloggers will be poring over each sentence uttered. This sort of public scrutiny is exactly what we need to restore confidence in our intelligence service, whose work keeps us safe. It does make you wonder why this should have been such a massive event: shouldn't public scrutiny be at the heart of the way our intelligence and security service operates anyway?

Of course, sometimes it will be necessary to hold private sessions but this should be the exception. Some have argued that the very nature of the intelligence and security services means that there has to be a great deal of secrecy, but I am not asking for details to be discussed, just principles. Should we be spying on our own citizens? Is it reasonable and proportionate that every click we make online is monitored and saved for an eventuality that may never come? Is it right and proper that we spy on our allies, tapping into their personal phones? Can our embassies be used as listening posts? These questions can be debated at length and should be debated in public.

I recently held a parliamentary debate on oversight of the intelligence and security services. It was incredibly well attended and views from every side were represented. I did not agree with all of them, and some of the things that were suggested were frankly ridiculous. But one key point that did emerge was a general agreement from across the divide of opinions that the Snowden leaks demonstrate the NSA is insecure and can't protect its own information. If it is true that what was leaked contained information that was directly damaging to our security, as opposed to just being very embarrassing, why were hundreds of thousands of contractors able to access it all? Why were names of UK agents so widely available?

We should be relieved that this information went to the Guardian, which has made a point of publishing carefully and responsibly. The NSA and British agencies should be thanking the Guardian for its hard work.

What we need now is substantial reform of our oversight mechanisms. The ISC must become a creature of parliament, not the executive, and be furnished with the resources needed. But we also need an independent body – perhaps like President Obama's privacy and oversight board, which includes civil society representatives. We need more transparency about what sort of information companies are required to provide, and the legal basis for the actions of the intelligence and security agencies. We are also dealing with outdated, over-broad and excessively complex legislation – this needs an independent review.

On Thursday the agency heads said: "You set the law. We will work within the framework of the law." So let us work to ensure we can have confidence in the laws we have put in place.

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