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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1079263 times)
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« Reply #2685 on: Oct 13, 2012, 07:39 AM »

NASA rover Curiosity finds a rock not seen before on Mars (+video)


Using a laser and X-rays, the NASA rover Curiosity identified a rock named Jake as a form of basalt, similar to volcanic rocks found in ocean-island settings on Earth.

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / October 11, 2012

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has indentified a type of rock scientists have never seen on Mars before, but it's one familiar to geologists on Earth.   

Tribute to Jake. NASA's Curiosity heads to rock target 'Jake,' named in honor of Mars Science Laboratory engineer Jacob Matijevic. Narrated by Jessica Samuels, Mars Science Laboratory Flight Director.

The Martian rock, a form of basalt, has a composition very similar to volcanic rocks found in ocean-island settings such as Hawaii and the Azores, as well as in rift zones – regions where Earth's continents split and begin separating into separate land masses.

The rock, named Jake Matijevic for a key member of the rover engineering team who passed away shortly after Curiosity arrived on the red planet, can form in a number of ways, says Edward Stolper, provost of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and a member of Curiosity's science team.

On Earth, this kind of rock forms as magma cools and crystallizes under relatively high pressure and with relatively high concentrations of water dissolved in the magma, he explains, adding that when the molten leftovers erupt, they tend to erupt explosively.

The release, during volcanic eruptions, of water dissolved in magma is one pathway for water vapor – a greenhouse gas – to enrich and warm a planet's atmosphere. Indeed, Curiosity's mission aims to see if Gale Crater ever could have hosted microbial life – a prospect that would have required the presence of liquid water in the crater.

On Mars, the process that formed “Jake” is unclear.

"We have one rock," Dr. Stolper said at a briefing Thursday. Sitting on the floor of Gale Crater, where fine soils and layered, sedimentary rocks seem to be the norm, Jake appears to be an interloper, removed from its original geologic setting.

If Curiosity finds more rocks like Jake in its travels to Mt. Sharp, the crater's central summit and the rover's ultimate destination, "we'll be able to evaluate the differences between them and what processes seem to relate them," he said. But if Jake is "a one-off,” he added, “we're not going to find out the details" of how it formed.

The analysis of Jake's chemical composition comes from data gathered in late September by two tools mounted on Curiosity: ChemCam and an X-ray spectrometer on an instrument turret at the end of the rover’s seven-foot-long arm.

ChemCam, which sits atop Curiosity's mast, consists of a laser that sends a thin, pulsed beam to vaporize tiny patches of rock, each pulse generating what looks like a brief spark on the rock surface. ChemCam's mini-telescope captures the light from the sparks – light whose spectrum carries the signatures of the chemical elements the rock contains.

ChemCam examined two small areas of the football-sized rock. In one, it laid down a short track of five strike marks, each about a third of a millimeter across. In the second, the laser put down a grid of nine spots. Each got 30 pulses – the first four of which clear the rock surface of dust.

The X-ray spectrometer, known as APXS, uses a radioactive source to expose the rock sample in question to X-rays. When the X-rays interact with atoms in the rock, those atoms release X-rays of their own, which carry the element's signature. APXS detects these back-atchya X-rays to tease out information about the sample's composition.

Each instrument detects some chemical elements better than others, but together, they form a powerful team while crosschecking each other's results. The time spent zapping Jake was APXS's first live-fire exercise on Mars and the first time the two were used to analyze the same rock.

Because other rovers and landers have carried X-ray spectrometers, researchers were able to determine that Jake was unique among the basaltic rocks scientists have analyzed so far on the red planet.

While researchers analyzed the results from Jake, engineers have started to clean out the hardware needed to feed rock and soil samples into two key instruments housed in Curiosity's chassis. On Mars, it seems, clean hardware is dusty hardware.

Essentially, engineers used Martian soil scooped, vibrated, and sieved, to clean unavoidable terrestrial residue from the inside walls of the sample-delivery system.

"We don't want to measure something we brought with us, we want to measure something that came from Mars," says Luther Beegle, the rover's sampling-system scientist as NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

The way to tell that the scrub-down is working? Dust clings to the inside surfaces of the sample-delivery system, known as CHIMRA.

Where else but on Mars would a custodian's nightmare turn into an engineer’s dream?

Click to watch video:

A patch of windblown sand and dust downhill from a cluster of dark rocks at the 'Rocknest' site on Mars is shown in this September 28 photo.

* Mars-via-AFP1.jpg (91.44 KB, 615x345 - viewed 78 times.)
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« Reply #2686 on: Oct 13, 2012, 07:53 AM »

In the USA...

October 12, 2012

After Benghazi Attack, Private Security Hovers as an Issue


WASHINGTON — Lost amid the election-year wrangling over the militants’ attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya, is a complex back story involving growing regional resentment against heavily armed American private security contractors, increased demands on State Department resources and mounting frustration among diplomats over ever-tighter protections that they say make it more difficult to do their jobs.

The Benghazi attacks, in which the United States ambassador and three other Americans were killed, comes at the end of a 10-year period in which the State Department — sending its employees into a lengthening list of war zones and volatile regions — has regularly ratcheted up security for its diplomats. The aggressive measures used by private contractors eventually led to shootings in Afghanistan and Iraq that provoked protests, including an episode involving guards from an American security company, Blackwater, that left at least 17 Iraqis dead in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.

The ghosts of that shooting clearly hung over Benghazi. Earlier this year, the new Libyan government had expressly barred Blackwater-style armed contractors from flooding into the country. “The Libyans were not keen to have boots on the ground,” one senior State Department official said.

That forced the State Department to rely largely on its own diplomatic security arm, which officials have said lacks the resources to provide adequate protection in war zones.

On Capitol Hill this week, Democrats and Republicans sparred at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing over what happened in Benghazi, whether security at the mission was adequate, and what — if anything — could have been done to prevent the tragedy.

But amid calls for more protection for diplomats overseas, some current and former State Department officials cautioned about the risks of going too far. “The answer cannot be to operate from a bunker,” Eric A. Nordstrom, who until earlier this year served as the chief security officer at the United States Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, told the committee.

Barbara K. Bodine, who served as ambassador to Yemen when the destroyer Cole was bombed in 2000, said: “What we need is a policy of risk management, but what we have now is a policy of risk avoidance. Nobody wants to take responsibility in case something happens, so nobody is willing to have a debate over what is reasonable security and what is excessive.”

For the State Department, the security situation in Libya came down in part to the question of whether it was a war zone or just another African outpost.

Even though the country was still volatile in the wake of the bloody rebellion that ousted Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the State Department did not include Libya on a list of dangerous postings that are high priority for extra security resources.

Only the American Embassies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are exempted from awarding security contracts to the lowest bidder. Dangerous posts are allowed to consider “best value” contracting instead, according to a State Department inspector general’s report in February.  

The large private security firms that have protected American diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan sought State Department contracts in Libya, and at least one made a personal pitch to the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the militants’ attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, according to a senior official at one firm.

But given the Libyan edict banning the contractors, the Obama administration was eager to reduce the American footprint there. After initially soliciting bids from major security companies for work in Libya, State Department officials never followed through.

“We went in to make a pitch, and nothing happened,” said the security firm official. He said the State Department could have found a way around the Libyans’ objections if it had wanted to.

Instead, the department relied on a small British company to provide several unarmed Libyan guards for security at the mission in Benghazi. For the personal protection of the diplomats, the department largely depended on its Diplomatic Security Service.

The wrangling over protection is part of a larger debate that has been under way for years within the State Department over how to balance security with the need of American diplomats to move freely.

Many diplomats rankle at the constraints imposed on them by security officials, who demand that they travel around foreign capitals in heavily armored convoys that local civilians find insulting and that make it nearly impossible for the envoys to meet discreetly with foreign officials. Many American diplomats have also grown deeply frustrated by the constraints imposed on them by working in the new, highly secure embassies that have been constructed around the world over the past decade.

After the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa by Al Qaeda, the State Department began a multibillion-dollar program to replace many embassies with hardened and highly secure facilities. American construction companies with experience in building prisons and military barracks won many of the contracts to build cookie-cutter buildings that look more like fortresses than diplomatic outposts. Between 2001 and 2010, 52 embassies were built, and many others are now under construction or being designed.

Often located in remote suburban areas far from crowded streets, the buildings are designed to withstand truck bombs, but they also require local security forces and heavily armed guards to resist the type of attack that the militants staged in Benghazi.

But many diplomats say the fortified embassies make it difficult for them to do their jobs, forcing them to find ways around them. Ronald E. Neumann, who served as the ambassador in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, and who worked in Baghdad before that, said that many foreign officials refuse to come into American Embassies because they are insulted by the intrusive security measures, and they do not want American officials coming to their homes with huge convoys.

“So you meet people in hotels,” said Mr. Neumann, now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington. The security “has forced you to get more creative.”

That can mean taking more risks. “A lot of people are simply violating the security regulations to do their jobs,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. “They have to find ways to get out, and sometimes they end-run the security officer, or sometimes the security officer will turn a blind eye.”

In fact, just as the Benghazi attack occurred, the State Department’s building department was beginning to address some of the frustrations by proposing more open and accessible designs for embassies. Under the new policy, embassies will still have to meet the same security standards, but the State Department will require that a higher priority be given to the visual appearance of buildings and will try to situate them in more central locations so that they are not so isolated. It is unclear whether the Benghazi crisis will force the State Department to abandon the new design policy.

“The problem is that embassies no longer function as public buildings,” said Jane Loefller, the author of “The Architecture of Diplomacy,” a history of the design and construction of American embassies. “They used to be public, but no longer.”

For the State Department, finding the right balance between security and diplomacy has become increasingly difficult in a political environment. Perhaps no one understands that as well as Patrick F. Kennedy.

Five years ago, Mr. Kennedy, then the under secretary of state for management in the Bush administration, was caught up in a high-profile Congressional investigation of the episode in Nisour Square. Democratic lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee criticized the department for lax management of overly aggressive security contractors.

This week, Mr. Kennedy, who has the same job in the Obama administration, faced Republicans on the same House committee, who criticized the State Department for lax management and failing to provide more aggressive security in Benghazi.


October 12, 2012

Focus Was on Tripoli in Requests for Security in Libya


WASHINGTON — In the weeks leading up to the attack last month on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, diplomats on the ground sounded increasingly urgent alarms. In a stream of diplomatic cables, embassy security officers warned their superiors at the State Department of a worsening threat from Islamic extremists, and requested that the teams of military personnel and State Department security guards who were already on duty be kept in service.

The requests were denied, but they were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the American Embassy in Tripoli — not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away. And State Department officials testified this week during a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that extending the tour of additional guards — a 16-member military security team — through mid-September would not have changed the bloody outcome because they were based in Tripoli, not Benghazi.

The handling of these requests has now been caught up in a sharply partisan debate over whether the Obama administration underestimated the terrorist threat in Libya. In a debate with Representative Paul D. Ryan on Thursday night, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said White House officials were not told about requests for any additional security. “We weren’t told they wanted more security again,” Mr. Biden said.

The Romney campaign on Friday pounced on the conflicting statements, accusing Mr. Biden of continuing to deny the nature of the attack. The White House scrambled to explain the apparent contradiction between Mr. Biden’s statement and the testimony from State Department officials at the House hearing.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said Friday that security issues related to diplomatic posts in Libya and other countries were dealt with at the State Department, not the White House. Based on interviews with administration officials, as well as in diplomatic cables, and Congressional testimony, those security decisions appear to have been made largely by midlevel State Department security officials, and did not involve Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or her top aides.

While it is unclear what impact a handful of highly trained additional guards might have had in Benghazi were they able to deploy there, some State Department officials said it would probably not have made any difference in blunting the Sept. 11 assault from several dozen heavily armed militants.

“An attack of that kind of lethality, we’re never going to have enough guns,” Patrick F. Kennedy, under secretary of state for management, said at Wednesday’s hearing. “We are not an armed camp ready to fight it out.”

A senior administration official said that the military team, which was authorized by a directive from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, was never intended to have an open-ended or Libya-wide mission.

“This was not a SWAT team with a DC-3 on alert to jet them off to other cities in Libya to respond to security issues,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.

Security in Benghazi had been a growing concern for American diplomats this year. In April, the convoy of the United Nations special envoy for Libya was attacked there. In early June, a two-vehicle convoy carrying the British ambassador came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades. Militants struck the American mission with a homemade bomb, but no one was hurt. In late June, the Red Cross was attacked and the organization pulled out.

“We were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi,” Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who was deployed in Tripoli as the leader of the American military security unit, told the House committee.

But friends and colleagues of Ambassador Stevens said he was adamant about maintaining an American presence in Benghazi, the heart of the opposition to the Qaddafi government.

“Our people can’t live in bunkers and do their jobs,” Mrs. Clinton said Friday. “But it is our solemn responsibility to constantly improve, to reduce the risks our people face and make sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs.”

At American diplomatic facilities overseas, the host nation is primarily responsible for providing security outside the compound’s walls. Inside the compound, the State Department is in charge, relying on a mix of diplomatic security officers, local contract guards and Marines. The Marines are responsible for guarding classified documents, which they are instructed to destroy if there is a breach of the compound. Senior diplomats are protected by diplomatic security officers, not a detachment of Marines, as Mr. Ryan asserted in Thursday night’s debate.

In deciding whether to extend a military security team, the State Department often faces a difficult financial decision at a time when its security budget is under severe pressure. The department must reimburse the Pentagon for the cost of these soldiers, an expense that can quickly run into the millions of dollars. For that reason, the State Department typically pushes to make the transition to local contractors, who are much cheaper.

In their debate, Mr. Biden responded to Mr. Ryan’s attacks by accusing him and his fellow Republicans of cutting the administration’s request for embassy security and construction. House Republicans this year voted to cut back the administration’s request, but still approved more than was spent last year.

In an agreement between the Pentagon and the State Department, the military team was extended twice — December 2011 and March 2012 — but when it came to a third extension, Eric A. Nordstrom, the former chief security officer in Libya, said he was told he could not request another extension beyond August.

Charlene Lamb, a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said at the hearing that a request from Mr. Nordstrom to extend the military team was only a recommendation and that the State Department had been right not to heed it. Ms. Lamb also testified that budget considerations played no part in considering additional security. Decisions on diplomatic security went no higher than Ms. Lamb and, in limited cases, Mr. Kennedy, officials said.

The broader strategy, Ms. Lamb said, was to phase out the American military team and rely more on the Libyan militiamen who were protecting the compound along with a small number of American security officers. Ms. Lamb said this model of relying on locally hired guards had worked at the United States Embassy in Yemen.

In a July 9 cable signed by Ambassador Stevens, the embassy requested that the State Department extend the tours for a minimum of three security personnel in Benghazi. The department had earlier approved a request for five guards for the mission, which was still in effect at the time of the July 9 cable.

Five American security agents were at the compound at the time of the assault, Ms. Lamb said, though it was later noted that only three were based at the compound and that two had accompanied Mr. Stevens from Tripoli. She said there were also three members of a Libyan militia who were helping to protect the compound.

Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting.


October 12, 2012

U.S. Rethinks a Drug War After Deaths in Honduras


TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The Honduran Air Force pilot did not know what to do. It was the dead of night, and he was chasing a small, suspected drug plane at a dangerously low altitude, just a few hundred feet above the Caribbean. He fired warning shots, but instead of landing, the plane flew lower and closer to the sea.

“So the pilot made a decision, thinking it was the best thing to do,” said Arturo Corrales, Honduras’s foreign minister, one of several officials to give the first detailed account of the episode. “He shot down the plane.”

Four days later, on July 31, it happened again. Another flight departed from a small town on the Venezuelan coast, and using American radar intelligence, a Honduran fighter pilot shot it down over the water.

How many people were killed? Were drugs aboard, or innocent civilians? Officials here and in Washington say they do not know. The planes were never found. But the two episodes — clear violations of international law and established protocols — have ignited outrage in the United States, bringing one of its most ambitious international offensives against drug traffickers to a sudden halt just months after it started.

All joint operations in Honduras are now suspended. Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, expressing the concerns of several Democrats in Congress, is holding up tens of millions of dollars in security assistance, not just because of the planes, but also over suspected human rights abuses by the Honduran police and three shootings in which commandos with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration effectively led raids when they were only supposed to act as advisers.

The downed aircraft, in particular, reminded veteran officials of an American missionary plane that was shot down in 2001 by Peruvian authorities using American intelligence. It was only a matter of time, they said, before another plane with the supposedly guilty turned out to be filled with the innocent.

But the clash between the Obama administration and lawmakers had been building for months. Fearful that Central America was becoming overrun by organized crime, perhaps worse than in the worst parts of Mexico, the State Department, the D.E.A. and the Pentagon rushed ahead this year with a muscular antidrug program with several Latin American nations, hoping to protect Honduras and use it as a chokepoint to cut off the flow of drugs heading north.

Then the series of fatal enforcement actions — some by the Honduran military, others involving shootings by American agents — quickly turned the antidrug cooperation, often promoted as a model of international teamwork, into a case study of what can go wrong when the tactics of war are used to fight a crime problem that goes well beyond drugs.

“You can’t cure the whole body by just treating the arm,” said Edmundo Orellana, Honduras’s former defense minister and attorney general. “You have to heal the whole thing.”

A sweeping new plan for Honduras, focused more on judicial reform and institution-building, is now being jointly developed by Honduras and the United States. But State Department officials must first reassure Congress that the deaths have been investigated and that new safeguards, like limits on the role of American forces, will be put in place.

“We are trying to see what to do differently or better,” said Lisa J. Kubiske, the American ambassador in Honduras.

The challenge is dizzying, and the new plan, according to a recent draft shown to The New York Times, is more aspirational than anything aimed at combating drugs and impunity in Mexico, or Colombia before that. It includes not just boats and helicopters, but also broad restructuring: several new investigative entities, an expanded vetting program for the police, more power for prosecutors, and a network of safe houses for witnesses.

Officials from both countries have often failed to fully grasp the weakness of the Honduran institutions deployed to turn the country around. But the need to act is obvious. The country’s homicide rate is among the highest in the world, and corruption has chewed through government from top to bottom.

“We know that unless we really help these governments and address the complexities of these challenges they face, their people and societies would be further endangered,” said Maria Otero, under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

“Honduras,” she added, “is the most vulnerable and threatened of them all.”

A Country’s Cry for Help

The foreign minister, Mr. Corrales, a hulk of a man with a loud laugh and a degree in engineering, said he visited Washington in early 2011 with a request for help in four areas: investigation, impunity, organized crime and corruption. President Porfirio Lobo, in meetings with the Americans, put it more bluntly: “We’re drowning.”

In 2010, a year after a military coup eventually brought the conservative Lobo government to power, drug flights to Honduras spiked to 82, from six in 2006. Half the country, which is only a little bigger than Tennessee, was out of government control. Then last October, the mingling of corruption and impunity hit the front pages here with the murder of Rafael Alejandro Vargas, the 22-year-old son of Julieta Castellanos, the rector of Honduras’s largest university.

Mr. Vargas’s death stood out not just because he was the son of a prominent academic; he was killed by police officers, who appeared to have kidnapped him as he left a birthday party, and then killed him when they realized who he was. Many of the officers were not arrested.

“It was a wake-up call for all of Honduras of just how corrupt and infiltrated the police were,” Ms. Otero said.

Another State Department official said the killing — along with the soaring homicide rate and the increased trafficking — sounded alarms in Washington: “It raised for us the specter of Honduras becoming another northern Mexico.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton demanded a strong response, and William R. Brownfield, the assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, became the point man for what was created: a broad security program centered on rapid-response law enforcement activities organized by the D.E.A. and the Pentagon.

Known as Anvil, it was meant to work alongside efforts like outreach to youth and training for some police officers, prosecutors and judges. But the interdiction of cocaine was the immediate focus. Mr. Brownfield and other officials wanted to test whether they could keep drug planes from landing on Honduras’s isolated Caribbean coast.

The plan was for American and Colombian radar intelligence to guide D.E.A. agents working with the Honduran police. They would intercept drug planes once they landed, using State Department helicopters flown by Guatemalan pilots. “It was the most multinational law enforcement operation we have ever conducted,” Mr. Brownfield said.

They started in the spring, and several officials, including Ambassador Kubiske, said the program had succeeded in many ways. From April 24 to July 3, 4.7 tons of cocaine were seized, and the number of drug flights coming into Honduras fell significantly.

But the operation had evident procedural flaws. It was started without some simple measures that could have prevented deaths or allowed for swift investigations and a full public accounting when things went wrong.

According to a senior American official who was not authorized to speak on the record, there were no detailed rules governing American participation in law enforcement operations. Honduran officials also described cases in which the rules of engagement for the D.E.A. and the police were vague and ad hoc.

“In these kinds of situations, who can really say how the decision to shoot is made?” said Héctor Iván Mejía, a spokesman for the Honduran National Police.

And for a law enforcement program, investigations seemed to be an afterthought. On several occasions, crime scenes were left unsecured for more than 12 hours, until an investigator could be flown to them. After episodes in which suspects were injured or killed, it often took days — and significant public pressure — to begin inquiries about whether deadly force was justified, too late to create a full and credible account.

The Honduran authorities were not much help. After one previously undisclosed interdiction raid in July, soldiers refused to board an American military helicopter that had come to collect reinforcements.

More broadly, it was often unclear who was in charge. Sometimes neither Honduran nor American authorities seemed to know who was ultimately responsible for the policy.

The D.E.A.’s role was especially contentious. Its commandos were part of a tactical assault program known as FAST, for Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Team, which has been credited with victories against drug traffickers from Peru to Afghanistan. But a May 11 shooting in a town called Ahuas, in which gunfire killed four people whom neighbors said were innocent, led to concerns in Congress that the D.E.A.’s commandos were operating with impunity.

The agents were supposed to act as trainers. “During our operations in Honduras, Honduran law enforcement is always in the lead, and we play a support and mentorship role,” said Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for the D.E.A.

But American officials overseeing Anvil now acknowledge that turned out not to be the case. Members of the Honduran police teams told government investigators that they took their orders from the D.E.A. Americans officials said that the FAST teams, deploying tactics honed in Afghanistan, did not feel confident in the Hondurans’ abilities to take the lead.

Three of the five joint interdiction operations during Anvil included deadly shootings. In Ahuas, officials said the gunfire came from the Honduran police. In late June, D.E.A. agents shot and killed the pilot of a plane bearing drugs, and another pilot who landed farther inland on July 3. Anvil ended soon afterward, several days ahead of schedule.

“This operation was bungled in its conception, in its implementation and in its aftermath,” said Mr. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s panel on the State Department and foreign operations.

Representative Howard L. Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Mrs. Clinton, “Unfortunately, this is not the first time the United States has come perilously close to an overmilitarized strategy toward a country too small and institutionally weak for its citizens to challenge the policy.”

Mr. Brownfield, the assistant secretary, said it was impossible to “offer a zero risk program for interdicting drugs in Central America.” He noted that the shootings during interdiction raids happened in the middle of the night, in remote locations that were hard for investigators to reach. Despite these challenges, he said that investigations were conducted and that he was “basically satisfied” that he knew what had happened.

But an aide to Mr. Leahy said members of Congress were not reassured. “One of several reasons funds currently are being withheld is that we have yet to see the results of any investigation, and there is little confidence that the next time would be any better,” the aide said.

Military Justice Gone Awry

When the Honduran Air Force pilot took off from his base at La Ceiba on July 26, tracking a plane without a flight plan, the State Department helicopters used for interdiction had already returned to Guatemala. The D.E.A. agents were gone. Anvil had ended, but the broader mission of joint enforcement and the sharing of American intelligence had not.

From the moment the Honduran pilot departed in his aging Tucano turboprop, just before midnight, he was in radio contact with Colombian authorities, who regularly receive radar intelligence from the American military’s Southern Command.

Intelligence-sharing is a major component of the American approach to fighting drugs regionally, and military commanders said they were not especially worried about any mistakes as they watched the suspicious flight on their radar screens. Nearly a decade earlier, Honduran military commanders signed an agreement with the United States to abide by laws that prohibit firing on civilian aircraft. After all, small single-engine planes are used by local airlines, courier services and missionaries all over Honduras’s remote northeastern coast.

Yet Honduran and American officials said the Honduran pilots did not seem to be aware of the rules.

Mr. Corrales, the foreign minister, and some American officials have concluded that the downed planes amounted to misapplied military justice, urged on by societal anger and the broader weaknesses of Honduras’s institutions.

“It reflects a lot of frustration in the country, that they think this is a tool they need to use,” Ambassador Kubiske said. “If you had a law enforcement system and then a justice system that could reliably detain suspected narcos when they land — if they could seize the goods and put together a strong case.” She added, “If they had a strong functioning system, then this would look like a less attractive alternative.”

Creating a stronger system is at the core of what some officials are now calling Anvil II. A draft of the plan provided by Mr. Corrales shows a major shift toward shoring up judicial institutions with new entities focused on organized and financial crime.

Mr. Corrales said the plan was closer to what he had hoped for before Anvil, with a few protective fixes: each vetted investigative unit will include up to three embedded prosecutors, who will direct the activities of Honduran police officers and D.E.A. agents.

The D.E.A.’s role will also probably change. American officials say they are discussing how to keep it more limited, possibly by requiring FAST agents to stay on helicopters during raids, “more like a coach on the sidelines,” one American military official said.

Much of what is being proposed would be paid for with a national security tax Honduras recently established. The Americans have agreed to help Honduras determine how the money will be spent, and if Congress releases its hold on American contributions, joint security programs will accelerate quickly.

But many Hondurans worry that the pull of the familiar — of muscular, military-style interdiction — may be difficult to resist. In the handwritten notes on Mr. Corrales’s draft, he placed a No. 1 next to two items: intelligence-sharing, and a reference to training for 20 Honduran helicopter pilots.

Honduran officials have also resisted demands from Congress for a more thorough investigation of Juan Carlos Bonilla, the head of the Honduran police, who has been accused of running a death squad that killed at least three people from 1998 to 2002. (He was acquitted of a single murder charge in 2004, though critics say the case was hindered by corruption.)

Dr. Castellanos, the university rector, said the challenge for Honduras and the Americans would be staying focused on long-term problems like corruption. “It’s a tragedy; there is no confidence in the state,” she said, wearing black in her university office.

The old game of cocaine cat-and-mouse tends to look like a quicker fix, she said, with its obvious targets and clear victories measured in tons seized. Since Anvil ended, officials have seen a revival of suspicious planes heading to Honduras, with many landing inland, along rivers.

“This moment presents us with an opportunity for institutional reform,” Dr. Castellanos said. But that will depend on whether the new effort goes after more than just drugs and uproots the criminal networks that have already burrowed into Honduran society.

“There’s infiltration everywhere,” she said. “There is no guarantee it can be stopped.”


October 12, 2012

Last-Ditch Bid in Texas to Try to Stop Oil Pipeline


WINNSBORO, Tex. — Deep within the oak and pine forests that blanket this stretch of East Texas, the chug of machinery drones on late into the day, broken only by the sounds of a band of activists who have vowed to stop it.

Here, among the woods and farmland, what might be one of the last pitched battles over the Keystone XL oil pipeline has been unfolding for weeks now, since construction of the controversial project’s southern leg began in August.

As bulldozers and diggers churn up a 50-foot-wide path for the pipeline — this portion will run from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast — a small group of environmental activists have taken to the towering trees in its way.

And with the blessing of some landowners who live here, and whose property the pipeline will cross, the protesters have fashioned a web of tree houses, structures and pulleys in a last-ditch effort to keep the enormous project from rumbling forward.

“Initially, a lot of the environmental movement on a national scale had kind of written this fight off,” said Ron Seifert, a spokesman for the Tar Sands Blockade, a group of environmental activists who have gathered near Winnsboro and contend that the oil sands crude that the pipeline will carry is especially toxic.

“But we have awakened folks from that slumber,” he said. “I think now there is an understanding that people are not going to give this up.”

TransCanada, the company behind the project, said construction had not been impeded in most cases, proceeding safely around where some activists have remained perched in the oaks for nearly three weeks. The tree sitters, as they are known, have survived on canned food and water and spent much of their time reading.

But at times, the company acknowledged, the situation has become dangerous. “In one case, protesters jumped underneath a truck and tied themselves to the rear axle with plastic,” Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, said by e-mail. “They were fortunate that the driver saw them go under — if he had not, it could have had very serious consequences for everyone.”

Mr. Howard said the company was making sure that work sites were safe, “even for those who are breaking the law and trespassing on these locations.”

Still, as protesters have staked out positions in tree platforms 70 feet high and along a 100-foot-long wall lashed together with timber, tensions in East Texas have risen along the route of the pipeline — slated for completion next year.

Off-duty police officers, hired by a TransCanada contractor, patrol the perimeter of construction sites day and night. This month, one man chained himself to a concrete capsule buried in the dirt before police managed to disconnect and arrest him, Mr. Seifert said.

And on Oct. 4, the actress Daryl Hannah was arrested alongside a local landowner, Eleanor Fairchild, 78, after they blocked heavy equipment clearing a path through Ms. Fairchild’s property.

Both women were taken to the Wood County Jail on criminal trespassing charges and released, according to jail records. Ms. Hannah also faces resisting arrest charges.

Sheriff Bill Wansley of Wood County did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Seifert said 21 protesters had been arrested since the end of August.

It is not by accident that environmental activists chose Winnsboro, about 100 miles east of Dallas, to make their stand. They have found an unlikely ally in the battle-weary Texas families here who have fought the project for years.

One landowner, Susan Scott, said she had no idea the pipeline would carry oil sands crude, and signed over a right of way to TransCanada only because she feared a lawsuit.

Ms. Scott, 62, has since taken the $22,000 she was compensated and buried it in a fruit jar on her 60-acre property.

“I don’t care if it rots. It’s tainted money,” she said, staring at a thick scar that now skirts her land. “I felt like I was guilty of destroying my farm.”

Mr. Howard said TransCanada understood that some landowners were not in favor of the pipeline and that the company was respectful of those people whose land it needed.

“We have always been up front about the materials that are going into the pipeline,” he said.

At some level, the standoff also belies a deeper sense of inevitability around Keystone XL.

This year, after saying TransCanada must reroute the project around environmentally delicate areas in Nebraska, President Obama encouraged the company to submit a fresh application to the State Department.

And he embraced the less controversial southern portion of Keystone XL, which received final permits from the Army Corps of Engineers this summer.

A particularly crushing blow for opponents came in August, when a Lamar County judge ruled that TransCanada could use eminent domain to condemn private land to build the pipeline.

In another setback, TransCanada recently sued a leading pipeline opponent, a Texas landowner, David Daniel, for refusing to recognize a 2010 easement agreement he reached with the company, his lawyer said.

Mr. Daniel, 45, a soft-spoken carpenter, has since settled the lawsuit and asked the protesters to leave his property.

“It’s actually out of respect for David Daniel that we stay,” Mr. Seifert said. “I stand by the fact that protecting his forest is the best thing for him, the best thing for the community, the best thing for the Planet Earth.”

On a recent day on Mr. Daniel’s land, off-duty police officers warmed themselves by a campfire, as a protester used a rope to shimmy from platform to platform through the oak canopy above them.

Mr. Daniel was there, too. He gazed up at a tree house he built — now being used by the protesters — turned around and walked quietly back toward his home.


October 12, 2012

Ex-Workers at Firm Tied to Pharmacy Had Safety Fears


BOSTON — One pharmacist said she quit because she was worried that unqualified people were helping prepare dangerous narcotics for use by hospitals. A quality control technician said he tried to stop the production line when he noticed that some labels were missing, but was overruled by management. A salesman said he and his colleagues were brought into the sterile lab to help out with packaging and labeling during rush orders, something they were not trained for.

They all used to work at Ameridose, a drug manufacturing company with many of the same owners as the New England Compounding Center, the pharmacy at the center of a national investigation into a meningitis outbreak now in 12 states.

State and federal health officials say they have no reason to believe that Ameridose sent out contaminated products, and have not recalled any. But regulators asked the company on Wednesday to suspend production to allow them to conduct an on-site investigation, because their inquiry “includes concerns for quality and safety across the corporate entity,” the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said.

Paul Cirel, a lawyer representing Ameridose, declined to discuss the statements made by the former employees. “What some anonymous, maybe disgruntled, ex-employees say to you that is not said to us by the F.D.A. or any regulator, I just can’t go there right now,” he said. “If it becomes a claim that a regulator puts to us, then we will address it.”

Mr. Cirel, of Boston-based Collora L.L.P., added that the suspension was voluntary and would be in place until Oct. 22.

In all, eight former employees were interviewed, three from New England Compounding and five from Ameridose. Three of those former workers said the companies were run with good attention to safety.

Thomas DiAdamo, who was a salesman for New England Compounding for about two years, said, “When I heard about this I was shocked, because they were meticulous about safety.”

He said Barry Cadden, New England Compounding’s chief pharmacist, who is also a shareholder in Ameridose and who lost his pharmacist license this week, told him, “ ‘We do not make mistakes.’ Something must have happened that was out of his control.”

Most former employees declined to speak for attribution because they did not want to be implicated in the current case. Some said they had signed legal agreements not to speak about the company. All left before the current outbreak, which the authorities have traced to thousands of contaminated vials of a steroid made by the New England Compounding Center. All of its products have been recalled, including the steroid, methylprednisolone acetate, that is the source of the current trouble.

New England Compounding declined to comment on specific accusations, saying in a statement that its “intent has always been to operate in compliance with our licenses in the states where we do business, and we have made our best efforts to be in compliance with all governing laws and regulations.”

The investigation into New England Compounding and its associated companies is happening as the number of deaths climbed to 14 in the meningitis outbreak linked to its tainted medicine. Health officials estimate that 14,000 patients across the country might have been exposed to the drug, and announced this week that they had contacted about 12,000 of them.

The sheer magnitude of the potential exposure has drawn attention to the large-scale compounding pharmacies, many of which have become mini-drug companies, overstepping the bounds of traditional pharmacy activity and taking advantage of a legal no-man’s land between state and federal authorities. Lawmakers and federal regulators called this week for stronger rules.

“It is really unfortunate that it takes a crisis to bring this kind of change, but that is often the case,” said Deborah Autor, a Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner. Ameridose has F.D.A. approval as a manufacturer, but it also produces compounded drugs, the Massachusetts health department said. It has emphasized that it a separate entity from New England Compounding.

Six former employees, five from Ameridose and one from New England Compounding, described a corporate culture that encouraged shortcuts, even when that meant compromising safety. The former Ameridose pharmacist said she was concerned about a pilot project in which quality control workers, rather than trained pharmacists, did preliminary checks to make sure the correct drugs were present and the pumps were set correctly before filling intravenous bags.

“I expressed my concern to the management,” said the pharmacist, who worked there in 2008 and 2009. “I said: ‘This isn’t right. These people don’t even know anything about the drugs.’ ”

She also said that because of pressure to increase output, there were a couple of “near misses.” One was when hydromorphone, a powerful narcotic, was made at twice the potency by a pharmacist who was working late to try to achieve production numbers for the day. The error was caught, however, before the bags left the plant.

“The emphasis was always on speed, not on doing the job right,” said the quality control technician who tried to stop the production line and who said he was eventually fired over disagreements about safety. “One of their favorite phrases was ‘This line is worth more than all your lives combined, so don’t stop it.’ ”

Both employees attributed the pressure to increase production speed to an aggressive new operations manager focused on the bottom line.

In 2008, an F.D.A. inspector found that Ameridose did not do appropriate testing to determine potency of a drug, according to a 2010 summary of the inspection report in an industry newsletter, Validation Times. The company was also shipping drugs without waiting the 14 days it took for the sterility test results to come back from an outside lab, the newsletter said.

Not long after that inspection, Ameridose issued a recall of 155 bags of the powerful drug fentanyl from five states because the doses were too potent, according to the F.D.A. Web site.

Another Ameridose worker, Anwar Kabir, said the company followed strict safety rules. Hired in 2008 to help develop a quality control lab, he said the people he worked with on that project were all experts in their field. “They were very nice people, very qualified,” he said.

A former New England Compounding salesman was less charitable. The man, who worked for the company from 2008 to 2011, said it was standard practice to sell large quantities of medicine to buyers without patients’ names. Buyers would later fax the names as the medicine was dispensed, and the names would be put in their file, he said. According to state law, compounding pharmacies are permitted to ship medicines only for specific patients. “Honestly, there’s no way you could sell anything of quantity otherwise,” he said.

But some potential clients, like a pharmacy director from a Nevada hospital, balked at working that way. “He said, ‘I’m on the pharmacy board in Nevada, and that won’t fly here,’ ” he said.

Sabrina Tavernise reported from Boston and Andrew Pollack from Los Angeles. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research from New York.


October 12, 2012

Voter Registration Rolls in 2 States Are Called Vulnerable to Hackers


Computer security experts have identified vulnerabilities in the voter registration databases in two states, raising concerns about the ability of hackers and others to disenfranchise voters.

In the last five years, Maryland and Washington State have set up voter registration systems that make it easy for people to register to vote and update their address information online. The problem is that in both states, all the information required from voters to log in to the system is publicly available.

It took The New York Times less than three minutes to track down the information online needed to update the registrations of several prominent executives in Washington State. Complete voter lists, which include a name, birth date, addresses and party affiliation, can be easily bought — and are, right now, in the hands of thousands of campaign volunteers.

Computer security experts and voting rights activists argue that a hacker could use that information to, say, change a person’s address online to ensure that the voter never receives a ballot in Washington, where voting is now done entirely by mail. In Maryland, hackers could ensure that a voter is not listed on the precinct register at a designated polling station. In that case, the voter would be redirected to another precinct, or asked to fill out a provisional ballot. In both cases, the person would not be able to vote in local, or possibly, Congressional races.

But the real concern, critics say, is that large numbers of voters from one political party, or demographic, could have their information changed by automated computer programs. A program that could change tens of thousands of voter records at once, they say, would require only a dozen lines of code.

Rebecca Wilson, co-director of Save Our Votes, a voting rights nonprofit, said her organization did not initially track how states set up their online systems. “We thought, ‘How badly could you mess that up?’ Well, we learned,” Ms. Wilson said. “Now, anyone in the world can write a computer program that commits absentee ballot fraud on a mass scale.”

Maryland and Washington are not considered swing states in next month’s election, but as other states move to online registration systems, security experts worry that they will follow Maryland and Washington’s example.

Officials in the two states say that concerns of a widespread cyberattack are exaggerated. Washington officials point out that voters who do not receive their ballots can still print them online, and they say, they have never received a complaint about an address being unknowingly changed.

In Maryland, officials say they consult with their own security experts to pick up unusual patterns in online traffic, like an effort to change thousands of addresses from a single Internet address. They point out that address changes require a confirmation letter be sent to the new address. If that bounces back, the change is deemed invalid.

Washington officials also cite their use of “captchas,” which are meant to help weed out humans from computer programs. Captchas — those puzzles used by e-commerce sites that require people to type in a set of distorted letters and numbers — are easy for humans to read and retype but difficult for machines to decipher.

“What is technically possible and what realistically could happen are very different,” said Ross Goldstein, the deputy administrator for Maryland’s Board of Elections.

But security experts say that these measures are not enough to prevent a determined hacker from disenfranchising scores of voters and influencing an election. Critics say that hackers could use botnets, networks of infected computers, to change voters’ addresses. And new machine learning technologies can beat captchas, or people can be paid to type them in, in real time, for as a little as a penny per captcha or less.

“They could influence an election with 20,000 votes for less than a penny a head,” said J. Alex Halderman, one of the computer scientists who first discovered Washington’s loophole. “That would be a great return on investment for them.”

In Florida last month, Republican state officials paid a company $1.3 million to register voters, but county election officials noticed several registrations contained unauthorized address changes and names of dead people. Laws in the state make it difficult to vote if an address is recently changed.

“In theory, the same scenario is possible online, where it is much easier to do,” said Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Last week, Mr. Halderman, David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, and Barbara Simons, a retired IBM computer scientist, sent a letter to Washington and Maryland election officials with seven recommendations for security, including authenticating voters with nonpublic information like the last four digits of their Social Security numbers and setting up disaster plans that would let them shut down their systems during an attack.

Shane Hamlin, Washington’s co-director of elections, said that the state’s registration closed last week, but that his team planned to review transaction logs for unusual activity. “Their suggestions are all reasonable and doable,” Mr. Hamlin said. “Some we have in place and can build on, some are longer term.”

The computer scientists say that they have yet to receive a response from Mr. Hamlin’s counterparts in Maryland, where online registration remains open.

“We want to make voting as accessible as possible,” Mr. Goldstein said. But “there’s always risk in all systems.”


>b>U.S. fiscal deficit takes a sharp drop in 2012

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, October 12, 2012 19:00 EDT

The US budget deficit fell sharply in just-ended fiscal 2012 to $1.1 trillion, but remained at an uncomfortably high ratio to the size of the economy, the Treasury reported Friday.

The fiscal shortfall topped $1 trillion for the fourth straight year, but dropped from $1.3 trillion in 2011, as the Obama administration answered deep pressure to narrow the shortfall.

Government receipts for the year through September 30 were up 6.4 percent to $2.45 trillion, the largest gains made from higher payroll deduction returns and a better corporate tax take.

Actual spending, $3.54 trillion, was down just 1.7 percent, with some of the largest savings, $95 billion, coming from reduced interest payments on the public debt, though much of that is paid back to the government itself.

The deficit came in at 7.0 percent of gross domestic product, a level economists say is unsafe, but down from 8.7 percent of GDP in fiscal 2011.

The figures came as President Barack Obama, fighting to keep his job in next month’s election, fends off criticism from Republicans that he has been too spendthrift, piling up the national debt, and from fellow Democrats that he has been too cautious about spending to power the economy back from the deep 2008-2009 recession.

The Treasury said the Obama administration “remains committed to enacting proposals to help create jobs and promote economic growth while adopting a balanced deficit reduction package that puts the budget on a sustainable path over the long term.”

Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, challenged politicians to endorse Obama’s proposed spending plans.

“Congress needs to work with the Administration to enact balanced deficit reduction that includes further spending cuts and additional revenue from asking the wealthiest to contribute their fair share,” he said in a statement.

“This deficit reduction can and must be achieved without sacrificing investments in education, infrastructure, and research and development that are so critical to creating jobs and securing our nation’s long-term economic growth and competitiveness.”


Los Angeles Mayor proposing ‘City ID’ for undocumented immigrants

By Arturo Garcia
Friday, October 12, 2012 22:06 EDT

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has proposed offering undocumented immigrants a “City ID” photo-identification card in an effort to help them open bank accounts.

The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that Villaraigosa wants the city to develop an ID program similar to cities like San Francisco, which offers photo identification to anyone who can prove residence, regardless of immigration status.

The proposal will be discussed in more detail during the Los Angeles City Council’s Oct. 16 meeting, but city officials said the proposed cards would include the same information found on a driver’s license — the resident’s name, photo, street address, birthday, hair and eye color. However, it would not act as a substitute for a driver’s license and recipients would not be able to use it for airline travel. Authorities would also have discretion on whether to recognize the card.

Villaraigosa has already said he intends for the IDs to also act as a pre-paid ATM card for the city’s 4.3 million undocumented immigrants. His proposal comes about a month after he expressed support for a proposal enabling local library cards to be used as a form of identification.

Last week, the city’s police chief, Charlie Beck, announced that his department would no longer hand over immigrants arrested for “low-level” crimes to federal authorities.


Gallup Poll Shows Unemployment Down To 7.3%

By: Ray Medeiros October 12th, 2012

Gallup’s 30 day moving average poll finds unemployment has dropped to 7.3%. While not an official jobs number in the sense that the BLS numbers are, it obviously correlates to the recent BLS numbers that had the right wing in a frenzy of conspiracy talk. Also correlating to the improving BLS numbers are the facts that recent jobless claims numbers are dropping dramatically and today’s consumer confidence number hit a 5 year pre recession high.

So, all this new information should put the conservative conspiracy theorists to rest and they can take off the tin foil hat. This isn’t a conspiracy to re-elect President Obama; rather, it is a mandate that he should be re-elected considering the economic indicators. He has handled the economy well and has continued to be a steady hand at the wheel of history.

Will the news media pick up stories like this? No, of course not. If the American people knew this information readily, the race would be blown wide open by President Obama and nobody would tune into their stations.

The media needs a horse race — one that increases ad revenue from the campaigns and causes viewers to tune in more often and attracts more commercials.

The bottom line is that the economy is on the mend. This is similar to Morning in America under Reagan, except back then the Democrats weren’t rooting for failure as the GOP is doing today.

« Last Edit: Oct 13, 2012, 08:10 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #2687 on: Oct 13, 2012, 09:37 AM »

The Republican Vision for Government is Corporate Owned and Operated

By: Rmuse October 13th, 2012

Government is one of mankind’s oldest institutions that, in the modern era, affects every human activity in important ways.  America’s government is the means by which state policy is enforced according to laws voted on by the populace within the confines of the U.S. Constitution, and one of its primary functions is protecting the people. During the early 1980′s, Republicans made a conscious decision to oppose the current form of government in their drive to transform America’s constitutional republic into a plutocracy, and they have worked diligently to deliver control of the country’s policies to corporations and financial institutions.

A means of giving corporations and financial institutions power to govern is ceding control of the nation’s resources, and eliminating regulatory agencies tasked with enforcing policies that protect the people and guarantee the nation survives according to the Constitution. After thirty years, Republicans are blatantly campaigning for voters’ permission to give the wealth of the nation directly to the rich, and allow banks and corporations to dictate policies advanced by groups such as the Koch brothers, Heritage Foundation, and Willard Romney.

Romney travels the country promising that if he is elected president, he will give job creators more tax dollars and “get government out of the way” to allow corporations and financial institutions the freedom to conduct business without regulation or oversight. It is a libertarian dream and, coupled with his party’s aspiration to charge for the privilege of living in this country, effectively changes America into a nation of peasants subsisting to enrich wealthy industrialists and bankers. The past few years provided a glimpse of the America Romney yearns for that means more wealth for the rich, and more bodies from the lack of regulations.

Republicans hate regulations because they hold big business accountable for their actions and protect the people from malfeasance in the pursuit of profits. In their drive to kill regulations, Republicans slashed funding for regulatory agencies  and took the savings to fund tax breaks and subsidies for corporations and the wealthy; in the process Americans are left at the mercy of big business. A deadly meningitis outbreak that shows no signs of abating is a direct result of no oversight and a company flouting state laws, and it is a precautionary tale that plays out often when businesses police themselves which is Romney and his libertarian cohort’s preferred business model.

The notion that businesses police themselves is in itself a dangerous proposition, and Americans saw it play out when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform blew up killing twelve men while spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico; the well is still leaking oil. Several investigations blamed BP and its partners, Halliburton and Transocean, for making cost-cutting measures, and warned that without effective government oversight, the offshore oil and gas industry will not reduce the risk of accidents, nor prepare to respond in emergencies because their motivation is maximizing profits, not protecting workers or the environment. The final report also concluded that government oversight must be accompanied by sweeping reforms that accomplish no less than a fundamental transformation of the industry’s safety culture, but Republicans objected strenuously to reforms and slashed funding for regulators.

A similar tragedy occurred in West Virginia in 2010 when an explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine claimed the lives of 29 miners as a result of flagrant safety violations according to an independent investigation that found Massey Energy was directly responsible for the blast. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued 369 citations, assessed $10.8 million in penalties, and is still investigating criminal liability as one former superintendent plead guilty and confessed to conspiring to impede the MSHA’s enforcement efforts. Republicans objected to safety reforms and slashed funding for regulators.

Over a month ago, the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi Libya came under attack from terrorists that claimed the lives of four American diplomats, and just a year earlier, Republicans led by vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan defunded security for consulates. The cuts prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to warn that the Republican cuts would be “detrimental to America’s national security,” but Republicans rejected her assertion.  The Obama administration requested $2.15 billion for the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program for fiscal 2013, but Republicans in the House proposed spending $1.934 billion as they fought valiantly to maintain Bush-era tax cuts for the rich. Republicans are wont to claim America is broke and cannot possibly afford one penny to protect Americans at home or abroad, but they always find money to provide more tax cuts for the rich and their corporations.

Over the past year and eight months, Republicans proposed cuts to FEMA, the CDC, Weather Service, OSHA, FDA, USDA, and myriad regulatory agencies that exist to protect the American people, and throughout it all they fought for deeper tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. Willard Romney proposes cuts to regulatory agencies as the means of “getting government out of the way” of big business, while proposing $5 trillion in tax cuts and reducing corporate taxes. All the while he touts education, law enforcement, and Medicare cuts to pay for the wealthy’s entitlements,  and is peddling coupons for Medicare, education, and Veterans Health Administration in the latest privatization scam to enrich corporations.

The government Romney and Republicans propose is not business friendly, it is business-owned and operated, and the people are expendable assets. The American people depend on regulatory agencies to ensure the food supply, medicine, air travel, and workplace are safe, and their tax dollars support disaster relief, early warning systems, education, law enforcement and fire protection that Republicans pant to eliminate to fund more tax breaks. The GOP is well aware their plans for corporate- government are not a popular proposition among most Americans, and it is why Romney and Republicans support voter suppression tactics and ALEC’s voter ID laws to eliminate opposition to their corporatist agenda.

Ronald Reagan first proposed the idea that government is bad, and now thirty years later, the Republican presidential candidate and his running mate are openly campaigning to transform government to benefit corporations with full support of the Republican establishment. Their goal is American people at the mercy of unregulated manufacturing, banking, pharmaceutical, and food industry, and their remedy for disastrous outcomes is tort reform to limit damage claims against big business.  It has taken Republicans three decades, but they are one election away from transforming American government into a deregulated corporate plutocracy to ensure a few hundred families prosper beyond their wildest dreams. However, for the great majority of Americans, what awaits them is environmental, natural, and man-made disasters and knowledge that their only recourse is a coupon redeemable at the local company store.
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« Reply #2688 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:11 AM »

October 13, 2012

Libya Struggles to Curb Militias, the Only Police


BENGHAZI, Libya — A month after the killing of the American ambassador ignited a public outcry for civilian control of Libya’s fractious militias, that hope has been all but lost in a tangle of grudges, rivalries and egos.

Scores of disparate militias remain Libya’s only effective police force but have stubbornly resisted government control, a dynamic that is making it difficult for either the Libyan authorities or the United States to catch the attackers who killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Shocked by that assault, tens of thousands of people filled the streets last month to demand the dismantling of all the militias. But the country’s interim president, Mohamed Magariaf, warned them to back off as leaders of the largest brigades threatened to cut off the vital services they provide, like patrolling the borders and putting out fires.

“We feel hurt, we feel underappreciated,” said Ismail el-Salabi, one of several brigade leaders who warned that public security had deteriorated because their forces had pulled back.

Taming the militias has been the threshold test of Libya’s attempt to build a democracy after four decades of dictatorship under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. But how to bring them to heel while depending on them for security has eluded the weak transitional government, trapping Libya in a state of lawlessness.

Now that problem has become entangled in the American presidential race as well, with Republicans arguing that the Obama administration’s failure to protect Mr. Stevens illustrates the breakdown of its policy in the region. Mounting pressure on the administration to act against the perpetrators carries its own risks: an American strike on Libyan soil could produce a popular and potentially violent backlash in the only Arab country whose people largely have warm feelings toward Washington.

The militias’ power is evident. In one of Tripoli’s finest hotels, the Waddan, about two dozen militiamen from the western city of Misurata continue to help themselves to rooms without paying, just as they have for more than a year; the interim interior minister, also from Misurata, protects them.

In Benghazi, independent brigades are using tapped telephones to hunt down suspected loyalists of Colonel Qaddafi, with the help of his former intelligence services. Even the huge anti-militia protest here last month became cover for a group of armed men to attack one of the largest brigades, possibly for revenge.

“Nothing changes,” shrugged Fathi al-Obeidi, the militia commander who led a contingent of fighters that helped rescue the Americans in the besieged diplomatic mission here last month.

Some Benghazi residents even say that the militia seen carrying out the attack, Ansar al-Shariah, did a better job than the paralytic government at providing security and even some social services. “They are very nice people,” said Ashraf Bujwary, 40, an administrator at a hospital where Ansar al-Shariah men had served as guards. Security has been “on shaky ground” since the militia fled, he said.

In some ways Ansar al-Shariah exemplifies the twilight world of post-Qaddafi Libya, in which residents with looted weapons have organized themselves into regional, tribal or Islamist brigades to keep the peace and defend differing visions of Libya. In Bani Walid, near Misurata, the dominant militia is made up of former Qaddafi loyalists who have embraced a local strongman and rejected the new government. Some brigades provide public security or services; others oppose democracy as contrary to Islam. Ansar al-Shariah did both.

In a Congressional hearing last week, Eric A. Nordstrom, the former chief of security at the American Embassy in Libya, said that he had tracked Ansar al-Shariah as a potential threat “for quite some time.” He characterized the brigade as both “extremist” and, in his view, an informal arm of the Libyan government.

Wissam Bin Hamid, the 35-year-old leader of a major Benghazi militia, Libya Shield, said he considered Ansar al-Shariah more of an Islamic “social club” than a fighting brigade. “Families come to them when they have a problem with a son,” he said, like drug use or bad behavior. Like other Benghazi militia leaders, he said he wanted to see evidence before blaming Ansar al-Shariah for the attack.

Organizers of the march against the militias nonetheless insisted they had achieved at least a subtle change. The big turnout showed that supporters of a civilian government were in fact “the force on the ground,” insisted Abu Janash Mohamed Abu Janash, 26, one of the organizers.

But he also acknowledged that Ansar al-Shariah was not chased from its headquarters, as had been reported. He said the protest organizers had given Ansar al-Shariah a warning to evacuate. “They were friendly,” Mr. Abu Janash said. “We had lunch together.”

Only after the fact did Mr. Abu Janash learn that armed men had led the march several miles away to attack a larger militia known for defending the government. “The march was hijacked,” said Mr. Salabi, the brigade leader, who was wounded in the attack.

The civilian government responded to the outcry by assigning military officers to help oversee the biggest militias. But the brigade leaders said that they, not the government, would choose their new officers, and that the current commanders would not yet give up control. The militia leaders say they refuse to submit to the national army or the police because so many of the officers used to work for Colonel Qaddafi.

“Some fought with us, some fought against us, some stayed in their homes,” Mr. Bin Hamid of Libya Shield said.

“The whole government is infiltrated,” Mr. Salabi said.

Others say egos are also at play. “You have militia commanders who love the prestige, who have more power than they could ever imagine,” said Zeidoun bin Hamid, the director of operations for Libya Shield. “People like the glorification, and it is hard to take it away from them.”

Even Benghazi militias that work with the government are aligned with rival power bases within it, like the defense minister, military chief of staff and the interior minister.

The interim interior minister, Fawzi Abdel Aali, formerly of the Misurata militia, organized a militia with national pretensions, the Supreme Security Committee. But in an interview at its headquarters in Tripoli, a militia spokesman criticized his ostensible boss. “I will be frank,” said the spokesman, Abdel Moneim al-Hur, “He is not doing his job.”

Mr. Hur accused the interior minister of failing to pay the militia’s fighters, who had policed Benghazi, leading them to walk out months ago. And he accused the minister of using the militia as a “pressure group” to squeeze the Parliament by asking its fighters to stop their police work.

As for the militiamen in the luxury hotel, the spokesman noted that the freeloaders and the interior minister were all from Misurata. “He turns a blind eye to what his cousins do,” Mr. Hur said.

Some militias are eagerly rounding up suspected Qaddafi loyalists. A few weeks ago, fighters from Benghazi’s Feb. 17 Brigade detained a dental student, Firas Ali el-Warfalli, whose father had been on one of Colonel Qaddafi’s revolutionary committees. When Mr. Warfalli’s family and fellow students put up billboards calling for his release, an ally of the militia posted to the Internet a recording of a telephone call on which Mr. Warfalli referred to supporters of Colonel Qaddafi’s green flag as “seaweed like us.” A brigade officer confirmed that the recording came from the Intelligence Ministry.

Telephone surveillance in the hands of independent militias suggests a lack of oversight and raises concerns about eavesdropping on political rivals, said Anwar Fekini, a prominent lawyer. “No government that is worthy of being called a government would allow this,” he said. “But we have a government that exists only on paper.”

Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting.
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« Reply #2689 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:16 AM »

October 13, 2012

Upheaval Grips South Africa as Hopes for Its Workers Fade


TEMBISA, South Africa — When Morris Sello arrived in Johannesburg from his home province of Limpopo in 1994, his horizons seemed limitless. Apartheid, the oppressive hand that smothered opportunity for black people for decades, was gone. He dreamed of a slice of the life white South Africans had enjoyed for years: a good job, a house, a car, good schools for his children.

He found a job as a truck driver. But nothing else has worked out the way he planned. Instead of a house, he lives with his wife and four children in a fetid shack in this sprawling township. A car is unthinkable. The local schools are abysmal, and his faith that his children will do better in life is ebbing.

“I hope they can do better,” he said, a mix of resignation and despair in his voice. “I hope.”

Mr. Sello was among tens of thousands of workers to walk off the job in the biggest wave of labor unrest to hit South Africa since the end of apartheid. Wildcat strikes by gold, platinum and iron ore miners have crippled one of South Africa’s most important industries, prompting the nation’s first credit rating downgrade in nearly two decades and a slide in the country’s currency, the rand, to a three-year low.

And the troubles are far from over. The truck drivers have ended their nearly three-week strike, but not before causing food and fuel shortages that sent shudders through an already struggling economy. The mine strikes have dragged on, and some municipal workers have announced plans to join the picket lines as well.

South Africa’s economy was already ailing. The crisis in Europe, its largest trading partner, has taken a grim toll. Amid the slump, hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared. Economists are cutting their already anemic growth forecasts for South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy.

Infighting among leaders of the ruling African National Congress has all but paralyzed the government’s response. Much of South Africa’s political elite are focusing on whether President Jacob Zuma’s deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, or another rival will challenge him as head of the party and president of the country. In explaining its downgrade of South Africa, Moody’s said that it acted in part because of “increased concerns about South Africa’s future political stability.”

South African employers and unions have long had rancorous relations, and strikes are a common feature of life here. But this time seems to be different. While the unrest is specifically about pay, it has tapped a deep well of anger among the employed, who are frustrated with the African National Congress, which came to power in 1994 at the end of white rule promising “a better life for all.”

Nowadays, the party is increasingly seen as interested mainly in self-enrichment, an impression underscored by reports that the government is paying for $27 million in renovations to Mr. Zuma’s private village home, ostensibly for security reasons. The project is the subject of multiple investigations.

Altogether, the labor unrest, broad disillusionment, dimming economic prospects and political inertia represent perhaps the most serious crisis South Africa’s young democracy has faced.

“In 1994 there were massive problems, but there was also a massive amount of hope,” said William Gumede, a political analyst. “Now people feel hopeless. People have lost confidence in all of these institutions they trusted will make a difference, like the unions and the A.N.C. The new institutions of democracy — Parliament, the courts — people have also lost confidence that those can protect them and help them. That is why they go for violence and take law into own hands.”

South Africa’s peaceful transformation from brutal white rule to a nonracial democracy has been called a miracle, but in reality it was something more pragmatic and, its architects hoped, more durable: a grand bargain. Full voting rights for all would end white political rule. White-dominated capitalism remained in place, but aggressive programs to include blacks were created. Workers were given the right to strike, but unions linked arms with the A.N.C.

Now the terms of that bargain are increasingly unacceptable to South Africa’s poor, threatening to unravel the fragile consensus that kept Africa’s richest economy going through a tumultuous transition.

According to the Afrobarometer, a survey completed last year, 47 percent of South Africans rated the country’s economic condition as “very bad” or “fairly bad.” The survey found that 41 percent said their living conditions were at least “fairly bad.” Asked whether the country was headed in the right direction, 46 percent said “yes,” and the same percentage said “no.”

These frustrations have boiled into violence in the past two months as illegal strikes have roiled the mining industry. It began when rock drill operators at a platinum mine in Marikana walked off the job in August, and spiraled out of control when the police opened fire on them, killing 34. The workers ultimately won a hefty pay increase, and other miners have adopted their tactics. Reuters reported that about 1,000 protesters were dispersed by police using tear gas and rubber bullets near Rustenburg on Friday night. No injuries were reported.

Carrying traditional weapons like clubs, spears and machetes, the workers have provided a menacing spectacle on the news and frightened international investors. Most of the strikers were not members of the National Union of Mineworkers, the country’s largest union and part of the trade union group that is allied with the A.N.C. They had left the union for more radical upstarts, painting the old-line unions as too complacent with power and wealth.

The crisis has prompted mainstream unions to take a tougher line. “We don’t want cowards in the struggle, comrades,” declared one transport union leader at a rally in Johannesburg.

The A.N.C.’s actions since the end of apartheid are notable. A government program to give houses to the poor has put roofs over the heads of 2.5 million families. More than 15 million South Africans get small but essential welfare grants to stay afloat. Electricity and running water have become available to millions of black South Africans for the first time.

But schools in townships and rural areas are a shambles. Hunger and disease still gnaw at the poorest. Unemployment is rife. And the misery is not equally shared: South Africa also has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality. A tiny, wealthy black elite has emerged, while millions more remain in poverty.

Workers like Mr. Sello are supposed to be the lucky ones. They have jobs, unlike more than a quarter of their fellow citizens (the jobless rate is even higher among young black people). Still, Mr. Sello struggles to live on his take-home pay of about $650 a month. There are the usual expenses — rent and food — plus many costs resulting from the government’s failure to provide basic services.

The schools in Tembisa, a black township that dates to apartheid, are so bad that he sends his children to distant suburban schools. With no reliable public transportation there, Mr. Sello spends as much as a quarter of his salary on minibus fares for his children. His younger brother is unemployed and has a child, and his mother depends on him, too. Crime is a constant worry — three times his cellphone was stolen; his house was broken into and all of his clothing taken.

“The money I get is never enough,” Mr. Sello said.

His salary is too high to qualify for a free government house, too low to qualify for a mortgage. His eldest son, Kgomotso, hopes to become a doctor, but Mr. Sello said he had nothing saved for tuition. “I tell him, study hard, don’t end up like me,” Mr. Sello said. “But I don’t know where the money for varsity will come from.”

His early hopes have disappeared. He voted in 1994’s euphoric election, and again in 1999. But he did not vote in the last election, in 2008, and has no plans to do so in the next presidential election, in 2014.

“I am very disappointed in this government,” Mr. Sello said. “I lost faith in them. They are stealing too much and leaving us with nothing.”

Mukelwa Hlatshwayo contributed reporting.

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« Reply #2690 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:20 AM »

October 12, 2012

Fighting for Women in the ‘Dark Heaven’ of Gaza



ANDALIB ADWAN SHEHADA has lived all but two of her 47 years here in the Gaza Strip, yet the neighbors along the alley where she and her family built a three-story home in 1998 have taken to calling them “the foreigners.”

Maybe it is because her 13-year-old son attends the American International School. Maybe it is because drummers escorted a mixed-gender crowd into the courtyard for her daughter’s recent wedding celebration. Maybe it is because Ms. Adwan, a Muslim who fasts on Ramadan but rarely enters a mosque, does not cover her dark shoulder-length hair.

Or maybe it is because she has spent her life speaking boldly about the plight of women in this male-dominated society, challenging its attitudes toward rape and honor killing and divorce, spotlighting the abuse of women in a community that traditionally keeps it locked inside families and homes.

“I think life in Gaza is not suitable for a human — now it’s worse than yesterday,” she said in a recent interview, describing a “psychological siege” imposed by a combination of Israeli restrictions on travel and trade and the hegemony of the militant Hamas faction over local government and society. “If I accept that I deserve this kind of life, I will be losing the hope. I believe I deserve a better life than this, so I’ll still fight.”

Ms. Adwan, who goes by her original last name — which when combined with her first name means “aggressive nightingale” — lost a personal battle last month when Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition by her and three other women to study in the West Bank. Ms. Adwan began a master’s degree in gender studies at Birzeit University in 1999 but was blocked from attending classes after two semesters because of the second intifada.

Her larger crusade, though, continues here in Gaza, where she established the Community Media Center in 2007 to train Palestinians in using documentary films and other techniques to expose the difficulties of daily life. The center, whose $200,000 annual budget comes from Western organizations including Catholic Relief Services and the United States Agency for International Development, is the latest in a series of groups that Ms. Adwan has helped start or run since 1991.

Her activism dates to her childhood in the Rafah refugee camp, where she was the only girl to make announcements over the school public address system and to participate in the student movement of the early 1980s, which led to a two-day suspension. By 16, she published the first of many short stories about what is universally known here as “the situation.”

The 10th of 13 children born to a woman married off at age 12, Ms. Adwan was groomed for a distinct path by her father. He was the mukhtar — akin to mayor — of the village of Barbara, north of the Gaza Strip, and then of the Rafah camp, where his family landed after Israel’s establishment in 1948. Ms. Adwan remembers tagging along to meetings of the Rafah municipality and with Israeli officials.

SO, though she is the rare Gaza woman who has traveled to European and Arab capitals, Ms. Adwan “is more connected with people on the ground,” said Issam Younis, the director of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, a Gaza group whose board Ms. Adwan has been on for three years. “She’s not the kind of elite woman.”

Indeed, Ms. Adwan dismissed questions like whether women should be seen in public without a head scarf or be allowed to smoke shisha at cafes — both largely taboo in this conservative area — as bourgeois, saying: “How many women go to these cafes and want to have shisha? You can count the women who don’t cover their hair.”

But critics denounce her as a leftist who refused to cooperate with government efforts on women or to invite Hamas officials to her events. Amira Haron, an Islamic women’s rights advocate, said she was effectively wasting time promoting a “different, Western agenda.”

“The work should be based, derived and inspired from the national agenda,” Ms. Haron said. “My agenda should mainly be the resistance of the Israeli occupation as a priority, because occupation is the source of all troubles.”

Rema Hammami, a professor at Birzeit who has known Ms. Adwan for two decades, noted that many other Gazan feminists had fled in frustration, but that she had stayed because she was “stubbornly in love with Gaza.”

Ms. Adwan herself described Gaza as a “dark heaven.” Living in Cairo for two years because of her husband’s work as a television news producer, she said they were treated “as foreigners” and were compelled to return home, despite the difficulties.

“We have to be here,” she said. “Our family lives here, our house is here, our memories, our history.”

Still, she was desperate to study in the West Bank, where she said “the minds are different because they haven’t the siege.” But the Israeli court ruled, 2 to 1, against the four women on Sept. 24, accepting the state’s position that giving them travel permits would “undermine the ‘separation’ policy, which is based on both security and political considerations.”

Instead, Ms. Adwan is finishing a master’s in Middle Eastern studies — her thesis is on how the print news media dealt with women’s issues during and after the Gaza war in 2008-9 — at Al Azhar University here. Her Community Media Center, with eight employees, has published two newspapers highlighting prison conditions for women and youths, and it plans to host a film festival about human rights on Oct. 21.

Her agenda is topped by improving women’s standing in divorce and custody proceedings, and strengthening penalties against rapists and honor killers. But she is equally concerned about daily struggles like the electricity here, which is on for eight hours, then off for eight.

“I don’t know if you can imagine the situation in darkness,” she said. “It’s very, very difficult to just sit and wait for the electricity to come. It’s very difficult to walk on the streets while the generators are running. I cannot breathe from the pollution. I cannot hear the person walking with me.”

HER daughter’s recent wedding, to a Gazan who works at a car dealership in New Jersey, was the first time in six years that the entire family was together here at their home. The salmon-color walls remain pockmarked by shrapnel from 2009, when an Israeli warplane hit an apartment building nearby; $3,000 from the United Nations refugee agency was not enough to fix them after the blown-out windows were replaced. The large first-floor kitchen is open to the salon, in the style of an American great room, something else seen as foreign in Gaza, where women cooking are usually shielded from guests’ view.

On the coffee table is a menagerie of 13 elephant figurines, wooden and china and metal, from travels in Cyprus, Egypt, Spain, Morocco and France. On the floor, a stone elephant missing a tusk stands guard.

“They are peaceful animals; they are not hurting anyone, even though they are big and can hurt,” Ms. Adwan said to explain her collection. “It’s the top of morals, to have the power and not use it against anyone.”

Fares Akram contributed reporting.

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« Reply #2691 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:25 AM »

October 13, 2012

U.S. Suspects Iran Was Behind a Wave of Cyber attacks


WASHINGTON — American intelligence officials are increasingly convinced that Iran was the origin of a serious wave of network attacks that crippled computers across the Saudi oil industry and breached financial institutions in the United States, episodes that contributed to a warning last week from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta that the United States was at risk of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor.”

After Mr. Panetta’s remarks on Thursday night, American officials described an emerging shadow war of attacks and counterattacks already under way between the United States and Iran in cyberspace.

Among American officials, suspicion has focused on the “cybercorps” that Iran’s military created in 2011 — partly in response to American and Israeli cyberattacks on the Iranian nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz — though there is no hard evidence that the attacks were sanctioned by the Iranian government.

The attacks emanating from Iran have inflicted only modest damage. Iran’s cyberwarfare capabilities are considerably weaker than those in China and Russia, which intelligence officials believe are the sources of a significant number of probes, thefts of intellectual property and attacks on American companies and government agencies.

The attack under closest scrutiny hit Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, in August. Saudi Arabia is Iran’s main rival in the region and is among the Arab states that have argued privately for the toughest actions against Iran. Aramco, the Saudi state oil company, has been bolstering supplies to customers who can no longer obtain oil from Iran because of Western sanctions.

The virus that hit Aramco is called Shamoon and spread through computers linked over a network to erase files on about 30,000 computers by overwriting them. Mr. Panetta, while not directly attributing the strike to Iran in his speech, called it “probably the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date.”

Until the attack on Aramco, most of the cybersabotage coming out of Iran appeared to be what the industry calls “denial of service” attacks, relatively crude efforts to send a nearly endless stream of computer-generated requests aimed at overwhelming networks. But as one consultant to the United States government on the attacks put it several days ago: “What the Iranians want to do now is make it clear they can disrupt our economy, just as we are disrupting theirs. And they are quite serious about it.”

The revelation that Iran may have been the source of the computer attacks was reported earlier by The Washington Post and The Associated Press.

The attacks on American financial institutions, which prevented some bank customers from gaining access to their accounts online but did not involve any theft of money, seemed to come from various spots around the world, and so their origins are not certain. There is some question about whether those attacks may have involved outside programming help, perhaps from Russia.

Mr. Panetta spoke only in broad terms, stating that Iran had “undertaken a concerted effort to use cyberspace to its advantage.” Almost immediately, experts in cybersecurity rushed to fill in the blanks.

“His speech laid the dots alongside each other without connecting them,” James A. Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote Friday in an essay for “Iran has discovered a new way to harass much sooner than expected, and the United States is ill-prepared to deal with it.”

Iran has a motive, to retaliate for both the American-led financial sanctions that have cut its oil exports nearly in half, and for the cybercampaign by the United States and Israel against Iran’s nuclear enrichment complex at Natanz.

That campaign started in the Bush administration, when the United States and Israel first began experimenting with an entirely new generation of weapon: a cyberworm that could infiltrate another state’s computers and then cause havoc on computer-controlled machinery. In this case, it resulted in the destruction of roughly a fifth of the nuclear centrifuges that Iran uses to enrich uranium, though the centrifuges were eventually replaced, and Iran’s production capability has recovered.

Iran became aware of the attacks in the summer of 2010, when the computer worm escaped from the Natanz plant and was replicated across the globe. The computer industry soon named the escaped weapon Stuxnet.

Iran announced last year that it had begun its own military cyberunit, and Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Jalali, the head of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization, said the Iranian military was prepared “to fight our enemies” in “cyberspace and Internet warfare.” Little is known about how that group is organized, or where it has bought or developed its expertise.

The United States has never acknowledged its role in creating the Stuxnet virus, nor has it said anything about the huge covert program that created it, code-named Olympic Games, which was first revealed earlier this year by The New York Times. President Obama drastically expanded the program as a way to buy time for sanctions to affect Iran, and to stave off a military attack on the Iranian facilities by Israel, which he feared could quickly escalate into a broader war.

In advance of Mr. Panetta’s speech in New York on Thursday, senior officials debated how much to talk about the United States’s offensive capabilities, assessing whether such an acknowledgment could help create a deterrent for countries contemplating attacks on the country

But Mr. Panetta carefully avoided using the words “offense” or “offensive” in the context of American cyberwarfare, instead defining the Pentagon’s capabilities as “action to defend the nation.”

“We won’t succeed in preventing a cyber attack through improved defenses alone,” Mr. Panetta said. “If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant, physical destruction in the United States or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action against those who would attack us to defend this nation when directed by the president. For these kinds of scenarios, the department has developed that capability to conduct effective operations to counter threats to our national interests in cyberspace.”

The comments indicated that the United States might redefine defense in cyberspace as requiring the capacity to reach forward over computer networks if an attack was detected or anticipated, and take pre-emptive action. These same offensive measures also could be used in a punishing retaliation for a first-strike cyberattack on an American target, senior officials said.

One senior intelligence official described a debate inside the Obama administration over the pros and cons of openly admitting that the United States has deployed a new cyber weapon, and could use it in response to an attack, or pre-emptively.

For now, officials have decided to hold back. “The countries who need to know we have it already know,” the senior intelligence official said.

Nicole Perlroth contributed reporting from San Francisco.
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« Reply #2692 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:27 AM »

October 13, 2012

Turkey Faults U.N. Inaction Over Syria


ISTANBUL — In a sign of escalating frustration in Turkey after days of cross-border shelling with Syria, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at the United Nations’ inaction in Syria with some of his strongest comments yet, saying world powers are repeating the mistakes they made in Bosnia in the 1990s.

“This negligence 20 years ago was explained by the international community being caught unprepared in dealing with the issues of the post-cold-war era,” Mr. Erdogan said at an international conference in Istanbul. “Well, how can the injustice and weakness displayed in the Syrian issue be explained today?”

He also called for a change in the structure of the Security Council, where reluctance by any member — in this case, China and Russia — can stymie action.

Tensions between Turkey and Syria, a former ally, have been rising for months, as Turkey has sheltered leaders of the armed opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and refugees from the fighting. But the bad feelings have intensified in recent days as shells from Syria began landing in Turkey, prompting retaliation, and as Turkish officials said they found Russian munitions on a Moscow-to-Damascus civilian jet they forced to land for an inspection.

Russia has denied that weapons were onboard, saying the plane was instead carrying electronic components for a radar station and did not violate any international agreements. The United States has said relatively little on the shipment, though Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said Friday that “we have no doubt that this was serious military equipment.”

On Saturday, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the cargo had been sent by a company based in the Russian city of Tula that produces antitank, antiaircraft and anti-artillery systems, as well as radar equipment. The company, KBP Tula, was accused by the United States in 2003 of providing weapons and sophisticated military equipment to the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in violation of United Nations sanctions.

Later in the day, Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, said Syria had banned Turkish Airlines flights through its airspace.

On the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, fighting continued Saturday in Idlib Province, with human rights activists saying that the rebels had made further progress in the area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an antigovernment group, said rebels reported shooting down a Syrian fighter jet on Saturday near Aleppo. Neither the report nor a video of wreckage could be confirmed.

Human Rights Watch said Saturday that video images and interviews with residents of two towns suggested that the Syrian Air Force used cluster munitions in attacks last week. The group, based in New York, said videos posted online by Syrian activists showed what weapons experts identified as cluster munitions remnants. The munitions, which release deadly fragments when they explode, are banned by most countries, but not Syria, according to Human Rights Watch. The group noted that similar munitions were identified in videos posted in July and August. Other reports of the munitions being dropped by helicopters have not been independently verified.

Sebnem Arsu reported from Istanbul, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon. Anne Barnard contributed reporting from Beirut, and Ellen Barry from Moscow.
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« Reply #2693 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:29 AM »

October 13, 2012

In Spain’s Housing Bust, Sell-Off Brings Bargains


CANET DE BERENGUER, Spain — For years, the Mar de Canet apartment complex in this beach town south of Barcelona stood empty, another casualty of a real estate crash that left this country littered with ghost towns and half-finished developments no one would buy.

But recently, the communal pool at Mar de Canet was full of giggling children, and bright beach towels flapped from virtually every balcony.

Mar de Canet’s 308 units were sold in less than 30 days last spring, mostly gobbled up by eager Spaniards finally getting a deal they could not resist: choice holiday homes for less than half the price of similar properties on the market.

Banks, which have been sitting on a pile of real estate assets or listing them at only slight discounts, are beginning to slash prices, eager to get out of the business of being landlords. Some experts worry that they are simply repeating mistakes of the past by handing out 100 percent mortgages again. But giddy Spaniards — those who still have jobs — are lining up to get in on the bargains.

No one expects Spain’s housing backlog to disappear soon. The country has more than 1.2 million unsold new homes. And Spain is still far from getting its financial house in order. But to the surprise of many, Spaniards have not lost their passion for buying property, at the right price, and some prefer to put their savings in bricks and mortar rather than one of the country’s shaky banks.

So many people showed up on the first day the Canet apartments went on sale here that Jesús Martínez and his wife, who were at work and planning to look the next day, called their parents to rush over and lay a claim for them. The couple bought a two-bedroom unit with a terrace and a parking place for $92,000.

“I think a lot of people didn’t manage to buy a flat,” said Mr. Martínez, who still sounded a bit breathless and excited over his purchase. “We had never seen prices like this. It all happened in two days.”

Many experts see the fire sale prices as the beginning of what will probably be a long untangling of Spain’s real estate excesses. In the heady days of the construction boom, banks lent liberally to developers and homeowners alike and ended up with billions in bad loans when the economic crisis hit in 2008. At first, experts say, the banks did everything they could to play down the losses, including keeping property off the market so that its diminishing value could not be recorded.

Even after numerous audits, many experts say the true extent of the bad loans remains unclear, and the recession here continues to pile on. The Bank of Spain said last month that 9.9 percent of the country’s bank loans were in arrears, up from 9.4 a month before.

But in recent months many of the banks have been forced to write down losses, clearing the way for discount sales. The imminent creation of a “bad bank” for toxic assets, experts say, will set off even more bargain sales.

Most of these discounts are for apartments in huge developments in overbuilt tourist destinations or distant suburbs. Outside Madrid, Seseña, one of the country’s most famous ghost towns, had stood virtually empty since the crash of 2008. But a few months ago, Santander, which owned 500 units, started to slash the prices. By January, the bank was advertising the last remaining units at a third of their original price.

More recently, the bank Banesto listed 1,800 units last month on its Web site, Casaktua .com, at discounts of up to 80 percent, promising homes at prices not seen for two decades. The housing was scattered nationwide.

“This is the year that reality sets in,” said Fernando Encinar, one of the owners of the real estate company “The good news is that there is a strong demand for low prices.”

Despite Spain’s empty properties, official prices have dropped only 23 percent since 2007. Mr. Encinar says that is unrealistic. If banks want to sell, they will have to double that discount, he says, though the ability to sell varies from region to region.

The number of new mortgages remains about the same as last year. But experts say the banks offering deep discounts are doing most of the business. Eduardo Mendiluce, the director of the CatalunyaCaixa bank’s real estate division, said the bank was now offering an average 40 percent discount on its properties. After selling 7, 400 units last year, it unloaded 6,200 in just the first half of 2012.

Not everyone sees the discount bonanzas as good news, however. Some experts are suggesting that banks may be heading for more trouble as they try to sell property cheaply and quickly. In many cases, they say, the banks are offering easy mortgages to customers wanting to buy bank property, with little regard to their financial state.

In addition, they say the banking sector’s ability to dole out credit is putting private property developers who are not bankrupt and the average Spaniard trying to sell his property at a severe disadvantage.

In the hills behind the resort town of Marbella, a construction company, Inmobiliaria del Sur, has been trying to sell 48 luxury condominiums in its Alminar de Marbella complex for four years. But it remains completely empty, even with a 35 percent discount.

“We don’t get credit from the bank,” said Rafael Torres Claros, an engineer and salesman for Inmobiliaria del Sur, which built the complex in the upmarket Golf Valley area. “They don’t give it to our customers. For us, it is a constant struggle.”

Bank officials acknowledge that their ability to give out mortgages does help them make sales. But they say they have gotten more discerning about whom they lend to. Even if some customers end up defaulting on loans, they say, the bank will still have benefited from the sales, trading a large mortgage to a bankrupt developer for many small ones, the majority of which will be paid.

“Even if they don’t all pay,” said Carlos Bode Vallespín, the director of Banco Sabadell’s real estate division, Solvia, “many of them will pay. And they will pay the taxes and maintain the asset.”

Everyone agrees that there are still Spaniards willing to invest in real estate, including as a way to safeguard their money. “The very rich have taken their money out of the country, but the average person still feels that property is a safe thing,” said Rafael Valderrábano of the Web site To some degree, the fire sales are a reflection of growing expertise within some banks, which had little familiarity with owning and selling property before. For a while, too, the banks were immobilized by a series of mergers that created administrative havoc in the sector.

But as the dust settles on those mergers, some banks have developed savvy real estate divisions like Solvia, the one that successfully sold the Mar de Canet complex and its sister complex, Faro de Canet, with 289 units here. Mr. Bode says Sabadell is eager to move quickly because its officials believe other banks will soon follow, competing for buyers in hard times.

“We need to be the first,” Mr. Bode said, “because demand is limited.”

Rachel Chaundler contributed reporting.
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« Reply #2694 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:34 AM »

Women could save Japan’s economy: IMF’s Lagarde

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, October 13, 2012 11:10 EDT

Women could rescue Japan’s chronically underperforming economy if more of them went to work, the female director of the International Monetary Fund said Saturday.

Christine Lagarde said Japan’s shrinking and greying workforce, which has left the country struggling to pay welfare bills, could really benefit from an injection of female talent.

“Because there is this ageing problem… we believe that women could actually help very much,” Lagarde told reporters in Tokyo, where the IMF is holding its annual meetings.

“It’s critically important the world over but it’s particularly important in Japan,” she said, referring to IMF research on the role of women in the country “that indicates that women could actually save Japan”.

“Today you have five out of 10 Japanese women out of the job market, as opposed to two out of 10 men,” she said.

Lagarde said if there were “better kindergartens and better assistance and cultural acceptance that women can actually do the job, it would be excellent for the Japanese economy”, she said.

Despite high levels of education, many women drop out of the workforce when they have children, and social pressures to play the homemaker remain.

Japan’s once world-beating economy has spent more than two decades treading water with entrenched deflation and anaemic growth.

Lagarde, a former finance minister of her native France, was speaking after Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa stressed the importance of raising the labour participation rate of elderly people and women.

“If we could succeed in raising the participation rate, then the growth of labour force will be reversed from a negative territory to a positive territory,” he told a seminar.

Japan’s population is declining and ageing as young people increasingly put off starting families, seeing them as a crimp on their lifestyles and careers. The slow economy has also discouraged young people from having babies.

Japan’s population last year shrank at the fastest rate since comparable records began, dropping by a record 0.2 percent, to an estimated 127,799,000 as of October 1 last year. It is expected to shrink dramatically over the next few decades.

The proportion of people over the age of 65 stood at 23.3 percent, an all-time high and the highest percentage in the world, according to a government survey.
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« Reply #2695 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:35 AM »

China calls on U.S. and Japan to fix their finances

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, October 13, 2012 13:13 EDT

China said Saturday the failure by Washington and Tokyo to fix their fiscal problems was hurting the global economy, as it called for “bold, swift and decisive action” to reverse a slowdown.

Deputy central bank governor Yi Gang warned the absence of a “credible, medium-term fiscal consolidation in some of the major advanced economies such as the United States and Japan” is unsettling for the world economy.

“Uncertainties related to fiscal sustainability weigh on sentiment and confidence, negatively affecting consumption, investment, and hiring decisions,” Yi said in a statement to a key International Monetary Fund committee.

“The slow recovery in these major advanced economies poses costly spillover effects to the rest of the world,” he added.

Yi said it “remained to be seen” whether monetary easing measures touted by central banks as an elixir for growth would live up to their billing.

“The slowing global recovery suggests that fundamental constraints to economic growth and financial stability remain unresolved,” he said.

“The need for bold, swift, and decisive action to arrest the global slowdown and preserve financial stability is more urgent than ever.”

The statement credited Europe for efforts to fix its debilitating debt crisis, calling it a step in “the right direction”, but added that policymakers must follow through on promised reforms.

“A durable solution to the Euro area crisis would provide a much-needed boost to global recovery,” the statement said.

On the domestic front, Yi said the Chinese economy would expand “steadily” through the second half of 2012 and keep its “relatively strong momentum in the medium and long term”.

Beijing would also accelerate efforts to boost domestic demand to reduce the economy’s heavy reliance on exports, he added.

Yi’s assurances come amid growing fears that a slowdown in growth in the world’s second-largest economy will be a drag on the wider world.

Earlier this week the IMF cut its estimate for growth in China to 7.8 percent this year and 8.2 percent in 2013, down from a July estimate of 8.0 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively.

With global growth rates also slowing — down to 3.3 percent this year and 3.6 percent next year, according to IMF forecasts — many are looking to China to help jolt the world back onto a more upward track.

Western nations — led by the US — frequently call on Beijing to boost domestic demand, saying China’s lopsided trade relationship in which it exports far more than it imports puts them at a disadvantage.

Yi is standing in for his boss, People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan, who is staying away from the Tokyo meeting along with Finance Minister Xie Xuren, in apparent protest.

Japan and China are at loggerheads over the sovereignty of a group of uninhabited, but possibly resource-rich islands in the East China Sea.
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« Reply #2696 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:37 AM »

Thousands protest in Spain, Portugal against austerity cuts

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, October 13, 2012 20:52 EDT

Thousands of protesters in Portugal and Spain marched Saturday in fresh protests against the austerity measures their governments have imposed to tackle their debt crisis.

Portuguese demonstrators staged marches that took on a festive air in the capital Lisbon and a number of other cities.

In Lisbon, actors, singers, singers and dancers took centre-stage on a special podium set in one of the city’s main squares.

“Culture is resistance, the artists are in the street,” was the slogan for what was billed as a day of cultural protests. Organisers said several thousand people had turned out.

The government of centre-right Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, which is pushing through swingeing public spending cuts to meet the demands of the country’s international creditors, was the main target of the protests.

“The troika and the government out,” said one banner, a reference to the country’s international creditors: the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

“Portugal has had enough of being robbed and humiliated,” one leaflet read.

In a separate march, Portugal’s main trades union the CGTP led several thousand marchers to the front of parliament, where deputies are expected to vote through a harsh austerity budget on Monday.

“The government is hanging by a thread,” said CGTP leader Armenio Carlos. “The quicker we cut it, the quicker the government will collapse.”

Portugal received a 78-billion-euro ($101 billion) bailout in May 2011 to help it battle its debt crisis.

In recent weeks however, tens of thousands of Portuguese have marched in protest at the painful spending cuts. The unions have also called a new general strike on November 14.

In neighbouring Spain, around 2,000 people joined a protest in the centre of Madrid.

“Don’t owe, won’t pay,” the marchers chanted to the clatter of saucepans being rattled.

“The idea is to make some noise so they hear us,” said one protester, Marita. “But we already know that these leaders don’t have ears for us.”

The marchers, including many families, started their march from the local offices of the European Union. Then they marched across to the city’s Puerta del Sol square, the symbolic home of the “indignants” movement that has sprung up in resistance to the government’s austerity measures.

An opinion poll earlier this week suggested that 70 percent of Spaniards disapprove of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s rule as the nation veers towards a sovereign bailout.

When the poll asked if they believed the government knew how to confront the economic situation properly, 73 percent of respondents said “no”.

Spain’s economy is in recession, with one in four workers unemployed. A heavy debt refinancing burden and high borrowing costs are pushing the country towards seeking a sovereign bailout.

The European Central Bank last month revealed a plan to drive down the borrowing costs of debt-wracked states by buying their sovereign bonds but only under strict conditions that Madrid hesitates to accept.

Earlier this month, Rajoy’s government unveiled an austerity budget for 2013 despite mass street protests, under pressure from European authorities to cut Spain’s deficit and restructure its economy.

Lisbon is also battling a deep economic recession and record unemployment. But it has convinced creditors to agree to easier public deficit targets of 5.0 percent of output this year and 4.5 percent in 2013. Economic activity is forecast to contract by 3.0 percent this year.
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« Reply #2697 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:41 AM »

October 13, 2012

Afghan Boys Eke Living Amid Peril at Gorge


MAHI PAR PASS, Afghanistan — Beneath the soaring faces of rock, on a treacherous road flanked by gaping drops, lines of trucks crawled up from the Pakistani border, groaning under impossible loads of house-size metal containers and boxes tottering under tarps.

Past them and between them nudged cars, vans and other trucks carrying furniture, women in burqas, open loads of cows and donkeys.

Amid the tidal wave of traffic, piercing the cacophony with their yelps and whistles, stood the Pepsi bottle boys. They earn their meager living by keeping the contractor trucks flowing on this section of the Jalalabad road, one of the main NATO supply routes to Kabul and one of Afghanistan’s deadliest stretches of road.

“I don’t like it, but I have to work and make some money,” said one of the boys, Samiullah, a grimy-faced 12-year-old wearing a red baseball cap.

He was guiding traffic at one of the scariest hairpin bends, where cars rushed two abreast down from a tunnel through the mountain and three rusted tankers lay upside down in the gorge below. “I can get killed at any time.”

Like all of the children on this road, Samiullah waved a flattened plastic soft drink bottle, the only tool of trade for these self-appointed traffic police.

The bottle was a symbol of his poverty; these children possess almost nothing else in the world. And it was also a signal to the truck drivers that they might want to toss a few afghanis down to him in return.

“Without us there would be a car crashed every day,” he said.

The war economy touches everybody in Afghanistan and will leave a desperate hole when it is gone — not least for the Pepsi bottle boys, a prime example of how Afghans have fit their lives around America’s military presence here.

These children flock from the bazaars of Pul-i-Charkhi in the poor eastern suburbs of Kabul to work for a few infernal hours on the Mahi Par Pass, but it is better than anything else they could have.

Late last year, they began to experience what life may be like after the Americans leave in 2014.

When Pakistan closed the border to NATO supply trucks in November, the trucks stopped coming, and business for these children slowed to almost nothing. Suddenly, they were out of jobs.

“Business was very low at the time,” said one young man, Ziaullah, who did not know his age but looked about 20. He cut a lonely figure in a dirty green tunic amid billowing fumes on the edge of the cracked road.

“It hurt our business a lot, because usually the drivers of the trucks are paying us money, not the small cars; they usually pay 10 to 20 Pakistani rupees,” or 10 or 20 cents, he said. “At that time I was earning 100 to 150 afghanis a day,” $2 to $3, “so I was dividing the money for different things: 50 for bread, 50 for sugar.”

Pakistan reopened the border in July, and the NATO supply convoys, driven by Pakistani and Afghan contractors, have resumed.

“I am happy if the road is open,” Ziaullah said. “It is good for my business and my family.” Ziaullah is the only person in his family who has a job, and he works so that his five brothers can go to school.

All of the boys up and down this five-mile stretch of winding switchback about 45 minutes east of Kabul tell life stories of deprivation and crushing poverty.

Samiullah has worked here every day for five years since his father was paralyzed and a family enemy killed his elder brother. His friend Jan Agha, 13, a quiet boy with a sad, dirty face, lost both his mother and father.

Not all of the Pepsi bottle boys are actually children.

Mohammedullah, 70, whose face is as craggy as the mountain rock looming above him, lost a leg in a mine blast during the Taliban’s rule. Now he perches by one of the curving tunnels for six days a week, taking only Fridays off.

He said the drivers are crazy, and if they ignore his advice and the road gets blocked, even for a short time, “it is like the end of the world here.”

“The small cars occasionally give me money, but sometime if I am lucky to catch a good and rich businessman or governor or a big military officer, then I am calling my home and telling them to cook meat soup,” he said. “That day my luck is flying in the sky.”

Two months ago he did not come to the road for 10 days because he had to take a family member to the hospital, and when he returned someone had taken his spot.

With the help of some soldiers and a local stall keeper, he persuaded the interloper to go farther down the mountain.

“It is like a chain,” he said. “Everyone gets his part of the chain.”

Most of the traffic shunters, old and young, seemed to resent their hard existence.

But not Ihsanullah, 10, another boy who stood on a high arc of road so steep the trucks struggled to a standstill and looked as though they were about to tumble backward.

A small, plump boy with a beaming face, wearing dirty sandals and a dirty gray tunic, he sported a luminous green traffic policeman’s vest and gave himself the name Traffic. He said he had been working on the same spot since he was 6.

Every day, he arrives here at 5 a.m., leaves for school at 8 a.m., and then returns in the afternoon, though sometimes his head is “twisting” from the fumes and noise, he said.

He pays 10 afghanis for a bus from his house in Pul-i-Charkhi to the Jalalabad station and then jumped a ride with the truckers.

His father, a watchmaker, died two years ago from diabetes. He gives the money he earns to his mother, who divides it among his four sisters and three brothers.

American military vehicles drive this road, but he said they usually do not give him money, only Pepsi, cookies and chocolates. It is the bigger commercial trucks that give him cash, though on this day he had gotten nothing.

When a truck nosed around the corner, Ihsanullah grew excited, striding out between the cars, waving his green plastic bottle, whistling the traffic around it.

“Go, go, go!” he cried. But the cars sped by without stopping.

Then a minibus driver held a note from a window. Another truck driver tossed a 10 Pakistani rupee note into the air with a wave.

Ihsanullah scuttled and swept it up. He strode back, his chubby face lighted up. “If I am not here for a few minutes or one or two or three days, then I miss being here. I enjoy being with my friends,” he said, turning back as another brightly painted truck growled over the hill. “I love it.”

Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting.

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« Reply #2698 on: Oct 14, 2012, 06:44 AM »

October 13, 2012

The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent


IN the early 14th century, Venice was one of the richest cities in Europe. At the heart of its economy was the colleganza, a basic form of joint-stock company created to finance a single trade expedition. The brilliance of the colleganza was that it opened the economy to new entrants, allowing risk-taking entrepreneurs to share in the financial upside with the established businessmen who financed their merchant voyages.

Venice’s elites were the chief beneficiaries. Like all open economies, theirs was turbulent. Today, we think of social mobility as a good thing. But if you are on top, mobility also means competition. In 1315, when the Venetian city-state was at the height of its economic powers, the upper class acted to lock in its privileges, putting a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro d’Oro, or Book of Gold, an official register of the nobility. If you weren’t on it, you couldn’t join the ruling oligarchy.

The political shift, which had begun nearly two decades earlier, was so striking a change that the Venetians gave it a name: La Serrata, or the closure. It wasn’t long before the political Serrata became an economic one, too. Under the control of the oligarchs, Venice gradually cut off commercial opportunities for new entrants. Eventually, the colleganza was banned. The reigning elites were acting in their immediate self-interest, but in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for them, and for Venetian prosperity more generally. By 1500, Venice’s population was smaller than it had been in 1330. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as the rest of Europe grew, the city continued to shrink.

The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But as the story of Venice shows, virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.

You can see America’s creeping Serrata in the growing social and, especially, educational chasm between those at the top and everyone else. At the bottom and in the middle, American society is fraying, and the children of these struggling families are lagging the rest of the world at school.

Economists point out that the woes of the middle class are in large part a consequence of globalization and technological change. Culture may also play a role. In his recent book on the white working class, the libertarian writer Charles Murray blames the hollowed-out middle for straying from the traditional family values and old-fashioned work ethic that he says prevail among the rich (whom he castigates, but only for allowing cultural relativism to prevail).

There is some truth in both arguments. But the 1 percent cannot evade its share of responsibility for the growing gulf in American society. Economic forces may be behind the rising inequality, but as Peter R. Orszag, President Obama’s former budget chief, told me, public policy has exacerbated rather than mitigated these trends.

Even as the winner-take-all economy has enriched those at the very top, their tax burden has lightened. Tolerance for high executive compensation has increased, even as the legal powers of unions have been weakened and an intellectual case against them has been relentlessly advanced by plutocrat-financed think tanks. In the 1950s, the marginal income tax rate for those at the top of the distribution soared above 90 percent, a figure that today makes even Democrats flinch. Meanwhile, of the 400 richest taxpayers in 2009, 6 paid no federal income tax at all, and 27 paid 10 percent or less. None paid more than 35 percent.

Historically, the United States has enjoyed higher social mobility than Europe, and both left and right have identified this economic openness as an essential source of the nation’s economic vigor. But several recent studies have shown that in America today it is harder to escape the social class of your birth than it is in Europe. The Canadian economist Miles Corak has found that as income inequality increases, social mobility falls — a phenomenon Alan B. Krueger, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, has called the Great Gatsby Curve.

Educational attainment, which created the American middle class, is no longer rising. The super-elite lavishes unlimited resources on its children, while public schools are starved of funding. This is the new Serrata. An elite education is increasingly available only to those already at the top. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama enrolled their daughters in an exclusive private school; I’ve done the same with mine.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, I interviewed Ruth Simmons, then the president of Brown. She was the first African-American to lead an Ivy League university and has served on the board of Goldman Sachs. Dr. Simmons, a Harvard-trained literature scholar, worked hard to make Brown more accessible to poor students, but when I asked whether it was time to abolish legacy admissions, the Ivy League’s own Book of Gold, she shrugged me off with a laugh: “No, I have a granddaughter. It’s not time yet.”

America’s Serrata also takes a more explicit form: the tilting of the economic rules in favor of those at the top. The crony capitalism of today’s oligarchs is far subtler than Venice’s. It works in two main ways.

The first is to channel the state’s scarce resources in their own direction. This is the absurdity of Mitt Romney’s comment about the “47 percent” who are “dependent upon government.” The reality is that it is those at the top, particularly the tippy-top, of the economic pyramid who have been most effective at capturing government support — and at getting others to pay for it.

Exhibit A is the bipartisan, $700 billion rescue of Wall Street in 2008. Exhibit B is the crony recovery. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty found that 93 percent of the income gains from the 2009-10 recovery went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The top 0.01 percent captured 37 percent of these additional earnings, gaining an average of $4.2 million per household.

The second manifestation of crony capitalism is more direct: the tax perks, trade protections and government subsidies that companies and sectors secure for themselves. Corporate pork is a truly bipartisan dish: green energy companies and the health insurers have been winners in this administration, as oil and steel companies were under George W. Bush’s.

The impulse of the powerful to make themselves even more so should come as no surprise. Competition and a level playing field are good for us collectively, but they are a hardship for individual businesses. Warren E. Buffett knows this. “A truly great business must have an enduring ‘moat’ that protects excellent returns on invested capital,” he explained in his 2007 annual letter to investors. “Though capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’ is highly beneficial for society, it precludes investment certainty.” Microsoft attempted to dig its own moat by simply shutting out its competitors, until it was stopped by the courts. Even Apple, a huge beneficiary of the open-platform economy, couldn’t resist trying to impose its own inferior map app on buyers of the iPhone 5.

Businessmen like to style themselves as the defenders of the free market economy, but as Luigi Zingales, an economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, argued, “Most lobbying is pro-business, in the sense that it promotes the interests of existing businesses, not pro-market in the sense of fostering truly free and open competition.”

IN the early 19th century, the United States was one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet. “We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson boasted in an 1814 letter. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families.”

For Jefferson, this equality was at the heart of American exceptionalism: “Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”

That all changed with industrialization. As Franklin D. Roosevelt argued in a 1932 address to the Commonwealth Club, the industrial revolution was accomplished thanks to “a group of financial titans, whose methods were not scrutinized with too much care, and who were honored in proportion as they produced the results, irrespective of the means they used.” America may have needed its robber barons; Roosevelt said the United States was right to accept “the bitter with the sweet.”

But as these titans amassed wealth and power, and as America ran out of free land on its frontier, the country faced the threat of a Serrata. As Roosevelt put it, “equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists.” Instead, “we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already.”

It is no accident that in America today the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the Gilded Age. Now, as then, the titans are seeking an even greater political voice to match their economic power. Now, as then, the inevitable danger is that they will confuse their own self-interest with the common good. The irony of the political rise of the plutocrats is that, like Venice’s oligarchs, they threaten the system that created them.

The editor of Thomson Reuters Digital and the author of “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else,” from which this essay is adapted.

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« Reply #2699 on: Oct 14, 2012, 07:04 AM »

October 13, 2012

A Grand Experiment to Rein In Climate Change


LEGGETT, Calif. — Braced against a steep slope, Robert Hrubes cinched his measuring tape around the trunk of one tree after another, barking out diameters like an auctioneer announcing bids. “Twelve point two!” “Fourteen point one!”

Mr. Hrubes’s task, a far cry from forestry of the past, was to calculate how much carbon could be stored within the tanoak, madrone and redwood trees in that plot. Every year or so, other foresters will return to make sure the trees are still standing and doing their job.

Such audits will be crucial as California embarks on its grand experiment in reining in climate change. On Jan. 1, it will become the first state in the nation to charge industries across the economy for the greenhouse gases they emit. Under the system, known as “cap and trade,” the state will set an overall ceiling on those emissions and assign allowable emission amounts for individual polluters. A portion of these so-called allowances will be allocated to utilities, manufacturers and others; the remainder will be auctioned off.

Over time, the number of allowances issued by the state will be reduced, which should force a reduction in emissions.

To obtain the allowances needed to account for their emissions, companies can buy them at auction or on the carbon market. They can secure offset credits, as they are known, either by buying leftover allowances from emitters that have met their targets or by purchasing them from projects that remove carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, like the woods where Mr. Hrubes was working.

Dozens of verifiers from different fields, from chemists to accountants to foresters, will be the first line of defense in making sure the benefits are real.

Mr. Hrubes said his goal in any audit was to ensure that the forest’s owner was “being conservative whenever a judgment call has to be made” in calculating greenhouse gas reductions.

The outsize goals of California’s new law, known as A.B. 32, are to lower California’s emissions to what they were in 1990 by 2020 — a reduction of roughly 30 percent — and, more broadly, to show that the system works and can be replicated.

The risks for California are enormous. Opponents and supporters alike worry that the program could hurt the state’s fragile economy by driving out refineries, cement makers, glass factories and other businesses. Some are concerned that companies will find a way to outmaneuver the system, causing the state to fall short of its emission reduction targets.

“The worst possible thing to happen is if it fails,” said Robert N. Stavins, a Harvard economist.

Just three years ago, California’s plan was viewed as a trial run for a national carbon market that one day might tie into existing markets in Europe and elsewhere. President Obama’s first budget proposal included a cap-and-trade program to cut national greenhouse gas emissions 14 percent by 2020; the House later passed an energy and climate bill that incorporated such a program.

But in 2010, political forces backed by the biggest emitters, oil and coal companies, blocked the plan in the Senate. In that year’s midterm elections, conservative Republicans disavowed their party’s role in creating similar programs; they continue to deride it as “cap and tax.”

California air regulators are proud of their record in leading the nation to new auto emissions standards in the 1960s and efficiency standards for appliances in the 1970s. And so the pressure is on the state’s Air Resources Board to get this right.

At first, only four means of carbon reduction will be approved for offset credits: timber management, the destruction of coolant gases, cuts in methane emissions from livestock waste and tree planting projects in urban areas. Already, developers of offset projects in more than 20 states are preparing to enter the new market, which for now accepts only credits generated in the United States. Some projects send coolant gases to be destroyed at an incinerator in Arkansas; others, tied to dairies in states like Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, will capture methane from livestock waste.

Most of these projects already sell offset credits in other markets like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program covering utilities in the Northeast.

But offsets can be prone to misuse; some have generated significant private profits while producing questionable environmental benefits. The European Union’s eight-year-old carbon trading market has been tarnished by fake credits and audits that failed to meet minimum standards. California’s offsets have already been challenged in court by environmentalists who argue that offset developers will earn money for actions that they would have taken even if the program did not exist.

“If there is a loss of confidence because there is a sense that people have been cheating and the offsets are not real, that will be a problem,” said Kevin Kennedy, an economist with the World Resources Institute in Washington.

That is why there is such a need for qualified verifiers. This summer, four foresters from around the country gathered in a Los Angeles suburb for a $2,900 test-preparation course to master the new system in advance of a required state test.

All had experience in verification in other carbon trading systems — so much so that they offered their instructors sharp critiques on the 111 pages of rules. One even challenged the algorithms central to the forest benefit calculations.

“If they don’t get the equations right, there could be a real problem,” said Terese Walters, a forester from Oregon. She is hoping that having California credentials will lead to lucrative opportunities. Ms. Walters and Caitlin Sellers, a forester from Florida in the class, both work for Environmental Services of Jacksonville, Fla., one of the country’s largest environmental consulting firms. David Bubser, another student, is a Minnesota forester and a regional manager for the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance.

There are several basic requirements for a forest offset. Credits cannot be granted for preserving trees that were going to be left standing anyway. The change must be long-lasting: trees must be left intact for a century. And owners must hire accredited verifiers to audit their claims.

The offset marketplace is already beginning to hum as companies gear up for California’s rollout.

Independent verifiers can make $800 to $1,200 a day, according to Mr. Bubser. Scientific Certification Systems, Mr. Hrubes’s employer, which verified 4.2 million tons of carbon offsets around the world last year, added two foresters this summer, for a total of six.

Sacramento’s municipal utility recently held a conference call with potential vendors of credits to offset some of the 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually from its gas-fired power plant — possibly by buying 200,000 credits annually.

Utility officials made it clear during the call that the more measurable and reliable the offset, the more valuable it would be. The administrators of California’s program have set a floor price for allowances at $10 per metric ton of emissions during the first auction in November. Once the program gets going, the actual value of allowances will fluctuate as they are traded.

The Redwood Forest Foundation, created to promote sustainable forestry but also to keep timber jobs in Mendocino County, is considering selling offset credits. Its biggest asset is the 50,000-acre Usal Redwood Forest, where Mr. Hrubes was working, which the foundation acquired in 2007 with a $65 million bank loan. The foundation needs to pay down its debt. It reaped $19.5 million selling a conservation easement last year, but the idea of a new revenue source is alluring.

“When you need an economic return, one way is to maximize timber harvest,” said Tom Tuchmann, the group’s acting executive director. “The other way is to look at nontraditional value streams.”

But making strategic decisions about how many trees to harvest and how many to use to lock up carbon is an uncertain business. Other carbon markets have generally not done well by investors, and some brokerages have closed their carbon desks.

“There are so many people who are disappointed,” said Thaddeus Huetteman, the president of Power and Energy Analytic Resources of Atlanta. “What they are really looking for is for California to show we can create a new market of significance in the world’s ninth-largest economy.”


Obama showcases auto industry bailout

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, October 13, 2012 11:12 EDT

US President Barack Obama on Saturday praised the decision early in his administration to bail out the failing US automobile industry, arguing it has now become a leading job creator.

“Today, auto sales are the highest they’ve been in more than four years,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.

“GM is back”, he continued. “Ford and Chrysler are growing again. Together, our auto industry has created nearly a quarter of a million new jobs right here in America.”

The financial bailout of the industry dates back to January 2009, when all three major US auto companies — GM, Chrysler and Ford — stood on the verge of bankruptcy, pleading the government for $34 billion in financial assistance.

The Obama administration, which at the time had just taken over from the outgoing Republican government, used nearly $25 billion of the $700-billion bank bailout package to lend GM and Chrysler a hand.

Ford eventually decided not to take government assistance.

In return, the companies promised to consolidate operations and speed-up development of energy-efficient vehicles.

Obama said that all of this was something the American people “can and should be proud of.”

“It’s a reminder that when the American people put their mind to something, there’s nothing we can’t do,” he said.

The president pointed out that the auto industry had come back stronger following the crisis and argued that America will keep doing the same “as long as I’m President.”


October 13, 2012

At the Corner of Hope and Worry



Another day begins with a sound softer than a finger-snap, in an Ohio place called Elyria. In the central square of this small city, the gushing water fountain applauds the early-morning chorus of sparrows. A car clears its throat. A door slams. And then: click.

The faint sound comes as 7:00 flashes on the clock of the Lorain National Bank building, looming over the square. The pull of a string — click — has sent life pulsing through a neon sign, announcing to all of Elyria that, once more, against the odds, Donna’s Diner is open.

Its proprietor, Donna Dove, 57, ignites the grill that she seems to have just turned off, so seamlessly do her workdays blend into one endless shift. She wears her blond hair in a ponytail and frames her hazel eyes with black-rimmed glasses that tend to get smudged with grill grease. She sees the world through the blur of her work.

A dozen years ago, Donna found a scrap of serendipity on the sidewalk: a notice that a local mom-and-pop restaurant was for sale. After cooking for her broken family as a child, after cooking for county inmates at one of her many jobs, she had come to see food as life’s binding agent, and a diner as her calling. She maxed out her credit cards, cashed in her 401(k) and opened a business to call her own.

Donna’s Diner. Donna’s.

You know this place: It is Elyria’s equivalent to that diner, that coffee shop, that McDonald’s. From the vantage point of these booths and Formica countertops, the past improves with distance, the present keeps piling on, and a promising future is practically willed by the resilient patrons.

It is where the recession and other issues of the day are lived as much as discussed. Where expectations for a certain lifestyle have been lowered and hopes for salvation through education and technology have been raised. Where the presidential nominees Barack Obama and Mitt Romney each hope that his plan for a way back will resonate with the Donna Doves, who try to get by in places like Elyria — where the American dream they talk about can sometimes seem like a tease.

But for now, at least, the door to Donna’s is open. So take a seat. Have a cup of coffee. Maybe some eggs.

This morning, as usual, Pete Aldrich is helping Donna through the new-dawn isolation, turning on the coffee and being compensated by food and tips from the occasional delivery. In his early 50s, well-educated and from regional royalty, he has hit some hard times, and may or may not have slept in his car last night, cocooned by his bundled possessions.

Pete tries, though, he tries. He often leaves straight from Donna’s for a job interview, hustling out with purpose, no matter that his thick-lensed eyeglasses are missing one arm. Something will turn up.

That is the communal hope. Donna, for example, is dogged by the day’s anxieties. Why are her receipts going down? What lunch special can she offer to clean out the refrigerator? Should she buy less perch for her Friday fish fry? Can she slide a month on her electric bill? Since she already doesn’t have health insurance, what else can she cut?

“I’m just going in circles and circles and circles,” Donna says one day, gazing through smudged glasses. “And not getting anyplace.”

The fresh aroma of coffee face-slaps the air. Soon the Breakfast Club regulars, that gaggle of Elyrian past and present, will be here to renew their continuing discussion of what was, is and isn’t in this city of 55,000. The presidential election sometimes serves as a conversation starter, like a curio placed between the salt and pepper shakers.

The talk will continue as yolk stains harden and refills turn tepid. Their Ohio is a swing state, after all, and their Elyria sits precariously on that swing. More Democratic than Republican, it has several global companies and the memory of many more; an embattled middle class and encroaching poverty; and the faint sense that the Next Big Thing better arrive before even its beloved park fountain, visible from the diner’s front window, gets shut off.

Of course, the friendly political quarrel between the regulars Speedy Amos, 86, Republican, and Jim Dall, 89, Democrat, dates back to “I Like Ike” and “All The Way With Adlai.” And John Haynes, lawyer, Democrat, and Jack Baird, councilman, Republican, will debate without ever changing minds. It will be others, the quiet, still-undecided ones, who will help to make the big decision, Obama or Romney.

The diner waits. Pete sips coffee and reads The Chronicle-Telegram through the damaged glasses he hopes to replace someday. Donna stands by the front door, near her Friday fish fry sign, peering through the plate-glass window with expectation. If it were only about location — well, she has it.

Her diner, in an 1880s brick building at the corner of Middle Avenue and Second Street, sits along the central park, Ely Square, where the fountain’s mist blesses those who linger and a statue of a Union soldier rises from slab memorials for every American conflict from the War of Independence (1775-1783) to the War on Terrorism (2001- ).

The diner is near the majestic old courthouse, circa 1881, now mostly empty, in some disrepair and too costly to renovate. It is a short walk from the sleek new courthouse, where the Judge, a regular customer (grilled chicken, cottage cheese, fruit), ruminates in his chambers with an unlit cigar in his mouth and a portrait of Che Guevara on his wall.

It is a few storefronts away from a temp agency, where a large man in an Ohio State cap (cheeseburger, fries) dispatches the work-hungry to fleeting jobs, and a short walk from Loomis Camera, 62 years on the square, where the nonagenarian owner displays a decades-old portrait of his wife, before her arthritis, back when she was a beautiful trapeze artist, an airborne ballerina.

Finally, the diner faces City Hall, where the new mayor (bacon-lettuce-tomato-and-fried-egg sandwich and a side salad) confronts the challenges of a postindustrial, recession-haunted American city. A fourth-generation Elyrian, Mayor Holly Brinda takes hope in the city’s entrepreneurial hothouse of a community college and in northeastern Ohio’s can-do DNA. But some nights she cannot sleep.

Donna also knows what it means to lose sleep in Elyria, as she stands beside her closed cash register, a diner’s miscellany spread out before her: a jar of 25-cent mints that certain people think are free; a spill of business cards for Vinnie’s Collision Center and LePue Drain Cleaning; a box of minted toothpicks favored by the Judge; a small Southern Comfort bottle half-filled with the maple syrup that sweetens Mr. Dall’s pancakes.

When the diner’s door is open, Donna can hear the aching thrum of another one of the Norfolk Southern freight trains that clatter day and night through the city. Bound for Cleveland or Chicago with endless containers of goods made across the country and overseas, they slice through Elyria, once more prominent as a maker of things.

The familiar freight-train siren can conjure memories of the writer Sherwood Anderson, who once ran a mail-order and paint business down by the railroad line. One Thanksgiving Day, he said goodbye to his secretary, walked out the door and followed the tracks east, out of Elyria. A breakdown, apparently, one that led to his fictional classic “Winesburg, Ohio,” whose inhabitants, including some with distinctly Elyrian traits, ache for fulfillment.

Yes, Donna hears it. She also hears the Judge — James M. Burge, the meticulously dressed administrative judge of the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas — as he sits at the table reserved for him in the back and dines on that same health-conscious grilled-chicken lunch, day after day.

Donna, you’re working yourself to death. Donna, you’re not making any money. Donna, you have a heart — feeding people who don’t have money, raising money for good causes — but there’s no room for heart in capitalism.

Donna, how about this? Close up the diner, come across the street to the new courthouse and run the cafeteria: five days a week, a steady stream of customers and no worries about utilities. If you’re interested, I can try to make this happen.

The Judge’s words linger.

Imagine: no electric bill, no heating bill, no worries about security, air-conditioning. ...

Imagine, too: no Donna’s Diner, open to all of Elyria. ...

Donna has told the Judge that she’ll think about it. Maybe one of these days she’ll drive to Lake Erie. Sit on one of the benches. Gaze into the undulating blue. Clear her head. These are big decisions.

Kitchen Salvation

Cooking is vital to Donna. You can lose yourself in the stirring of sauce. You can nourish others and make things seem better, if only for a little while. This she discovered early on, as the turbulent marriage of her parents was upending her childhood.

Born on Flag Day 1955, Donna was the first child of a Navy man, Jerry Jacobson, and his Bay Village bride, Jean. But he refused to give up his beer and Black Velvet or his saloon romance with a woman named Sophie. Leaving a bar in Elyria one night, he drove into a telephone pole. When he awoke weeks later, he called out — for Sophie.

With her household’s cash being slapped on bar counters instead of the kitchen counter, Jean raised extra money — between shifts at some factory or office — by making “sweetheart soap” arrangements for her children to sell door-to-door. Meanwhile, as the oldest, Donna tried to fill the parental void.

One day, holding her baby brother in her arms, Donna followed her mother into a Cleveland saloon to confront her father as he sat beside a new girlfriend, this one with a beehive hairdo. The mother said the family needed money for food. The oldest child seconded the plea. The father said get lost.

After the inevitable divorce, Jean moved her four children to a government-subsidized house in Elyria, where Donna found solace, or control, in the kitchen. She began having dinner ready by the time her mother came home from work.

“She’d always put a tablecloth out, and in the summer there’d always be fresh flowers on the table,” recalls Jean, 78. “Dessert would be pudding, or fruit cocktail.”

Donna clearly preferred the kitchen to Elyria High School, which she found to be too big — another way of saying integrated. She had spent most of her young life in the all-white bubble of Bay Village, 15 miles to the northeast, and now she was in a city high school with a healthy enrollment of black students.

She was intimidated by the unfamiliar, so she cut school. She became pregnant, so she got married, at 16. In the wedding photos, she and her husband look like children playing dress-up.

To say the pregnancy ended Donna’s childhood is not quite accurate. In some ways, it had ended years before; in other ways, it continued. She tried to be a loving mother of two baby daughters, a doting housewife to a possessive husband, and a fun-loving young woman fond of the bar life — all at once. Not possible.

Divorce. Temporary loss of custody. A second marriage. Two more children. A third marriage.

But Donna caught her breath, summoning the resolve that had once empowered her to confront her negligent father. She earned her general equivalency diploma. She tended bar and cooked at Stan’s Villa in Elyria, across the street from the General Motors plant. She fed inmates at the Lorain County jail. She worked in marketing for the county blood bank.

One day in 2000, when she was ready for a change, Donna picked up a newspaper notice on the sidewalk that said the Lunch Break Cafe on Broad Street was for sale. Destiny. She somehow scratched up the $35,000, and spent that Mother’s Day stripping the restaurant clean, even throwing out its toaster.

Driving through Elyria to her own grand opening, she thought, “I’m going to make them remember me.”

The diner did well at first, with its 1950s décor and sandwiches named after iconic cars. It became the headquarters for Donna’s annual classic-car charity event, her community project to bake cookies for soldiers overseas, her Christmas toy drive for poor children.

“She walks the walk,” the Judge says.

This does not include all the food that Donna gave away — to this event, to that person in need, to her father. Yes, Jerry Jacobson was back on the scene, a disabled alcoholic living above a bar in Elyria. But Donna took care of him; he was still her dad.

One day, he would be the charming Jerry, cadging beer money — Two bucks, darlin’, c’mon, two bucks — or ordering hamburgers that he would sell for a shot and a beer down at Pudge’s Place or Boomer’s. The next day, he would be awful Jerry, telling Donna’s customers that they would be better off at McDonald’s.

Father and daughter had a contentious relationship right to the end. When he died of a heart attack in 2004, what could Donna do but place $2 in his coffin, along with a cigarette and a beer?

As downtown Elyria declined, like so many other American downtowns, so did Donna’s business. By late 2009, she was preparing to turn the diner’s neon off for good, but then she sensed a second chance: an ancient storefront on Middle Avenue had opened up that was larger, closer to the courts and offered a view not of Bugsy’s strip joint but of verdant Ely Square.

Over several generations, many had used the three-story brick building at 148 Middle Avenue, in a stretch once called Cheapside, as their claim stake — not to prosperity, but to the chance of it. The Candyland store, with sweets to cut the Depression’s bitter taste. The H. W. Guthrie store, selling a dozen honey-dipped doughnuts for a quarter. The Roy E. Hultz store, for the supplies necessary to protect your barn.

The Jack and Jill children’s store. Crandall’s drugstore. Hess Pharmacy, for “sick room supplies, surgical belts and trusses.” A real estate company, a title company, a law firm. The headquarters for local Democrats one year and for Republicans another year. Selenti’s Pizza. Naples Pizza. Village Sub and Pizza.

In 1996, a proposal to demolish the building for a parking lot went nowhere. Two years later came Stackers Deli and Pizza. Then the Court Street Cafe. Then the Pulse Cafe. Now here was another aspirant, staking her claim in the Elyrian concrete.

Diner Regulars

The unseen sparrows of Ely Square continue to dominate the morning conversation, save for the occasional beckoning of another passing train. A parks employee lost in his headset hunts for overnight litter. Coins tossed for luck tremble at the bottom of the fountain’s animated waters.

Inside the diner, the sole customer eats scrambled eggs, while Donna and Pete have the kind of meandering conversation that effortlessly links a new casino in Cleveland to the diner’s broken dishwasher.

“Some guy at the Polish Club supposedly hit for 130 grand,” Pete says of the casino.

“It’s never-ending,” Donna says of her own gamble.

The dining room is as narrow as a railroad car, with the Breakfast Club’s front table and the Judge’s back table bracketing six booths and three small tables in the middle, all adorned with sprays of artificial flowers. Along the wall protrudes a coffee counter stocked with customer-donated mugs: “John Deere” beside “Cabo San Lucas” beside “Jesus Saves.”

In the cramped other half of the bifurcated space, the kitchen competes for room with a freezer and two large refrigerators and cases of food and foam to-go containers and ripe bananas and a tub of Country Crock spread and the latest soda delivery and stacks of mismatched plates and a bucket filled with stale bread saved for a customer who feeds the crumbs to ducks.

At the center of it all sits the squat grill, the sizzling altar guarded by Donna with raised spatula. Orders scribbled out by her harried waitresses — her daughter Kristy, 38, and her granddaughter, Bridgette, just short of 21 — are tucked into the grill’s hood. But Donna knows her customers so well that sometimes a mere handwritten name will do. “Ken” means pork chops.

Donna knows their preferences, food allergies, moods, joys, sorrows. She knows to save some perch on Fridays for the Bullocks couple, Gloria and Forrest, who was born into a sharecropping family and is now a prominent civic leader. She knows to give turkey bacon to the retired judge who loves bacon but has heart problems, and to cut a distracting slice of lemon meringue pie for the cranky woman who bangs on the door with her walker and wants to know what’s so good about the morning.

Even the people Donna doesn’t know, she knows. Like that elfin man who comes in every Wednesday before going to the county sheriff’s auction to bid for some law firm on the foreclosed properties that riddle Lorain County. He always orders coffee and plain wheat toast, always. Hence, his diner name: “Wheat Toast.”

Donna knows how to handle the people who come in asking for a job. First thing, she escorts them to the grill to see if they can flip a frying egg. If not, the job interview ends.

She also knows how to handle Ike Maxwell when he wanders in, looking for money or food. Still built like a piston-powerful running back, he has not been the same since he was beaten on the head with a baseball bat 30 years ago. Once a high school football superstar who carried Elyria’s Friday night hopes, he now loops its streets shouting “Golden Helmet,” “They killed my brother” and other phrases that only a few Elyrians can decode.

But sometimes Ike’s shouting becomes disruptive, even unnerving, and Donna has to order him to leave. He may protest by shouting a few names — President Obama! Mitt Romney! Les Miles! — but as he heads for the door, Ike often says something else, softly:

“O.K., Donna, O.K., Donna, O.K., Donna.”

In this way, Donna’s Diner has become a living thing, humming with the flow of the human condition, alternating between harried motion and fleeting rest. When lunchtime comes, an orderly chaos takes hold in the back, as the diner’s telephone beckons with a “There’s no place like home” ringtone and denizens communicate in a shorthand language rooted in the immediate.

“That’s to go! That’s to go! Put it in a box!”

“O.K., her Reuben went out. Are the tenders done? This is a crap microwave. This one’s lettuce and mayo.”

“I just spilled ranch all over the counter.”

“I told Ryan I’d be there about 1:30.”

“This have cheese-lettuce-tomato?”

“How much is French toast with scrambled eggs?”

“Four-seventy-nine. How come I only have two sausage links?”

“Hello, Donna’s Diner?”

It can get to be too much, like the smell of toast burning. An unanticipated trigger — a forgotten order, a returned meal, a splatter of ranch dressing — can set Donna off, and her tirades will spill into the dining room like scalding coffee.

“Is she O.K.?” a customer asks one difficult day.

“My mom?” asks Kristy, the waitress.

“Yes,” the customer replies.


Sometimes you can see why, as Donna hunches into the desk space she has carved from the back-room clutter and works through the mound of mail. “I’m looking for shut-off notices,” she says, half-joking.

She also examines the income and expense figures she keeps in a brown spiral notebook. Last year, the daily receipts, in terms of hundreds of dollars, were in the threes, fours and fives; this year, they are in the twos, threes and occasional fours. Meanwhile, the expenses keep coming. Rent, $650 a month. Electric, $1,416 a month.

“My bug guy, my pop guy, my towel guy, my window washer,” she says. Cable. Orlando Bread. Port Clinton Fish.

She tries to lower expenses. When her vexing electric bill shot up a while back, she sold off several appliances and bought a cheaper, more energy-efficient freezer. She spent Mother’s Day shopping for wholesale bargains on eggs and dish soap. She bounces from Rural King to Sam’s Club to Giant Eagle, looking for the cheapest coffee.

She cannot afford health insurance, she says; it would be $1,500 a month for her and her out-of-work husband, Tim, who has congestive heart failure at 57. A while back, she tore something in her left shoulder while pulling a heavy box of bleach down from a shelf at Sam’s Club. Never had it fixed.

Life has become cyclical. Every night, Donna returns to her modest two-story house in Elyria, with its untidy backyard that she never has the time or the energy to reclaim, and stares at the television until sleep comes. Every morning, she awakens to worries, beginning with what to offer for lunch.

Every day, after expenses, there is not much left — though, now and then, she peels off $20 to gamble at a video-lottery place she calls “the joint.” And every week, after lunch, here comes Mark Ondrejech, the affable salesman for US Foods, a wholesale supplier, to provide counsel. He sits with her at a back table, opens his laptop and goes down his list.

“All your dressings are good this week? Meat broth, chicken broth, French fries? Onion rings, sauerkraut? Ketchup packets, crackers, chip bags? Foam containers are good? Dinner napkins, straws — grape tomatoes. Steak fries, cinnamon rolls. ”

But Donna is ordering less and less from US Foods. She has raised her prices ever so slightly — two eggs and toast went from $1.99 to $2.39 — in trying to strike the proper balance between fair profit and customer contentment. She is making her daughter and granddaughter occasionally pay for what they eat. She is holding on for better days, amid news that a new Taco Bell is replacing a downtown apartment building once occupied by Sherwood Anderson.

A Taco Bell.

All the while, the Judge’s suggestion — that she consider moving to the courthouse cafeteria — preys on Donna’s mind. “All you’re doing is, you’re working hard and you’re entertaining your customers,” she says he tells her.

But the diner’s people matter to her: Pete, Speedy, the Judge, Gloria and Forrest, Ike, even that unpleasant woman who bangs her walker against the door. The diner matters. It all matters.

“I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing,” she says. “When I get myself to this point, I can’t see a way out.”

Haunted by Fears

The Elyrian morning is now full-throated. Birds chirping, waters rushing, trains calling, music pounding from the cars stopped for the light just outside the diner. Sunlight paints the treetops of Ely Square.

Gazing at the park through her plate-glass window, Donna is reminded of a recurring image that she just can’t shake: that of a short woman with unruly gray hair, hunting through the park’s garbage for redeemable cans. Twenty years ago, Donna worked with this woman at a nursing home on East Avenue. She knew her to say hello.

The woman, Anna Hallman, redeems aluminum cans to pay a mortgage and make ends meet, getting about 50 cents for every 26 cans that she methodically crushes with her heel. She is 69, and other scavengers have kindly ceded to her the treasures to be found in the garbage bins downtown. And when she has had a good day, she sometimes treats herself to a meal at Donna’s — something that sticks to the ribs, like meatloaf.

Anna’s situation haunts Donna. Too close. Too possible.

How she needs to step away from the grill and take that drive to Lake Erie. No breakfast orders being shouted at her. No bills demanding her attention. Just Donna alone, sitting on a bench and staring into the infinite waters that calm her, help her think. Big decisions.

But now she has customers. The first two members of the Breakfast Club take their seats at the front table. Coffee for both. No breakfast for one, eggs over medium, wheat toast for the other. Orders taken, the owner of Donna’s Diner disappears into the kitchen.


America the Gutted: Documentary (via NewsLook)

As American jobs move overseas, workers abroad move into the middle class. But a globalized economy makes for a tenuous existence

Click to watch this documentary:


Billionaire Koch brother accused of imprisoning, interrogating former employee

By Jonathan Terbush

Saturday, October 13, 2012 20:13 EDT

William Koch, the billionaire energy tycoon and prominent Republican donor, allegedly kidnapped and interrogated at a remote Aspen ranch a former top-level executive whom he suspected of subversion.

According to Courthouse News Service, Kirby Martensen, a former executive of several Koch subsidiaries, has filed suit in federal court seeking punitive damages for the alleged incident. The Huffington Post on Saturday confirmed the story with Martensen’s lawyer.

In the suit, Martensen charges that in March, Koch lured him and other employees to a secluded Aspen ranch—one with no cell phone reception or connection to the outside world—under “false pretenses.” Though Martensen thought he had been called to Aspen to discuss business, he was instead interrogated, searched and held against his will for over twenty-four hours before finally being freed.

Koch’s motive, according to Martensen, was an anonymous letter Koch received in 2011 that claimed he and others were engaged in a scheme to steal from and defraud from Koch enterprises. According to the court filing, Koch ordered a secret investigation into the matter that turned up private correspondance from Martensen questioning the legality of Koch’s business practices. The days-long affair in Aspen, Martensen claims, was therefore an attempt to intimidate him into silence, and to ultimately fire him.

Martensen claims that Koch told him he was going to be subject to a routine peer review while at the ranch, but that he was instead led into a small room and harshly questioned by two Koch employees. Later that night, Martensen says he was moved to a small cabin on the premises  guarded by a sheriff, whom, he was told, would prevent him from fleeing.

Hours later, and after having had his belongings searched, Martensen says Koch then refused to let him catch his scheduled flight out of Aspen. Instead, he was forced into an SUV and driven to Denver where he was placed on a private jet that finally released him in Oakland, California.

Oxbow, a Koch company, told the Huffington Post that Martensen was in fact investigated, but only because they discovered he’d been defrauding the company.  Martensen’s lawyer told the website that the case would probably go to trial next year.


Sensata Workers Are Living Proof that Romney’s Tough Talk on China is Worthless

By: Jason EasleyOctober 13th, 2012   

Mitt Romney is running around Ohio talking tough about China today, but one place he won’t go near is Freeport, IL where the Bain owned Sensata Technologies is sending 170 jobs to China.

During campaign stops in Ohio today, Romney said, “It’s time for us to stand up to China for their cheating. It’s got to stop. We’ve got to get those jobs back and make trade to be fair.”

In a statement, Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner responded to Romney’s tough talk, “Mitt Romney’s talking tough, but his record and his policies show he’s anything but when it comes to China. Mitt Romney called the President’s aggressive action on behalf of American tire workers ‘decidedly bad for the nation.’ As a corporate buyout specialist, he invested in companies that were pioneers in outsourcing to low-wage countries like China. And now, while President Obama would close tax loopholes that reward companies for shipping American jobs overseas, Mitt Romney’s tax plan could create 800,000 jobs outside of America. That’s not a candidate who would be tough on China as president – that’s a candidate who thinks sounding tough will win him votes.”

The best way to understand Romney’s real attitude towards China, is to watch the workers at the Sensata plant tell their story:

As one worker put it, “Before I ever knew anything about Bain Capital, I actually kind of liked Mitt Romney. You know, I thought, okay, he is going to create jobs. He is going to, you know, save America, so when I found out about this, it’s like okay, you really aren’t doing what you say you’re going to do. You aren’t going to create American jobs because the companies that you profit off of are sending jobs, and you’re not doing anything about it.”

According to The New York Times, Romney could stand to profit off of the Sensata outsourcing, “In addition, Mr. Romney’s generous retirement agreement ensures that he continues to profit from the deals and decisions that Bain makes. He owns about $8 million worth of Bain funds that hold 51 percent of Sensata’s shares. If Sensata saves money by closing the Freeport plant, that could add money to Mr. Romney’s trust accounts, now or after the election.”

Mitt Romney has made vast sums of money off outsourcing, so does anyone really believe that he will crack down on China and stand up for American jobs? Romney’s business experience has taught him that outsourcing is a good thing, so why would ever be in true opposition to something that he has been so personally lucrative to him?

It is simple common sense.

Don’t listen to the words coming out of Mitt Romney’s mouth on the campaign trail. Look at his actions when he wasn’t running for president. Those actions speak volumes, and reveal that for American workers, Romney is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Mitt Romney’s tough talk on China is worthless, when his deeds prove that he is adding to his fortune by selling out American workers and outsourcing their jobs.

Romney actions speak much louder than his hollow and insincere words to America’s workers. The workers at the Sensata plant are living proof that Mitt Romney is no friend of the American worker.

Click to watch:

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