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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1073163 times)
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« Reply #3240 on: Nov 29, 2012, 08:18 AM »

Britain awaits crucial report into press ethics

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 7:10 EST

A top British judge will on Thursday publish a key report into a phone-hacking scandal, potentially paving the way for strict new press laws and raising tensions in the coalition government.

Brian Leveson is widely expected to include recommendations for statutory regulation when he publishes his findings from a year-long judicial inquiry into press ethics, presenting a dilemma for Prime Minister David Cameron.

The Conservative party leader is under pressure to follow the advice of the inquiry he set up, but dozens of lawmakers from within his own centre-right party on Wednesday voiced their opposition to any state control of the press.

The report could also spark a row between the Tory party and the coalition’s junior partners, the centrist Liberal Democrats.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has requested time to make a separate statement in parliament on Thursday should he disagree with Cameron’s position, which will be revealed following the report’s publication.

Clegg and the prime minister held a 40-minute discussion about the issue late Wednesday with a senior Lib Dem source saying it was still “too early to say” how things would develop.

Cameron warned Wednesday that the current newspaper regulation system was unacceptable, as he received a copy of the report.

But Britain’s oldest political magazine said it would refuse to sign up to any government-enforced regulator system, and other newspapers warned that introducing new laws were a threat to 300 years of press freedom.

Cameron set up the inquiry in July 2011 after the discovery of widespread hacking of voicemails and other illegal practices at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid, which the Australian-born tycoon then closed down.

The prime minister told parliament on Wednesday he hoped the process would lead to “an independent regulatory system” for the press and called for a cross-party consensus, but did not say if he supported new laws.

“The status quo, I would argue, does not just need updating — the status quo is unacceptable and needs to change,” Cameron said.

There will be a parliamentary debate next week on its recommendations, probably followed by a non-binding vote.

The British press is currently regulated by itself through the Press Complaints Commission, a body staffed by editors which critics say is toothless.

The prime minister’s Downing Street office received “half a dozen” advance copies of Leveson’s 1,000-page report so that Cameron could prepare his statement, a spokesman told AFP.

More than 80 lawmakers from the three major parties said in a letter published Wednesday that any introduction of statutory regulation would be the biggest blow to media freedom in Britain for 300 years.

“As parliamentarians, we believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control even if it is dressed up as underpinning,” said the letter published in the Guardian and Daily Telegraph newspapers.

But 42 MPs from the Conservatives have previously written a letter calling for strong new press laws.

British newspapers are thought to be ready to accept a tougher independent regulator that could hand out big fines but insist that signing up should be voluntary.

The Spectator, a right-leaning political magazine which says it is the oldest continuously published weekly in the English language, said that laws aimed at tackling tabloid abuses could have a “chilling effect” on the rest of the press.

“If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government,” it said in a leader article.

News International chief executive Tom Mockridge also warned against state-backed regulation but admitted newspapers “need a watchdog with bite and a watchdog with investigative powers.”

But actor Hugh Grant, who has spoken out on behalf of victims of phone hacking, called for new laws.

“What people are campaigning for is an end to newspapers being able to regulate themselves, marking their own homework,” he told the BBC.

The Leveson inquiry heard eight months of testimony from hacking victims, politicians and media figures.

British police have launched three linked investigations into alleged misdeeds by newspapers, while Cameron’s former spokesman Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, former head of Murdoch’s British newspaper wing News International, have each been charged with phone hacking and bribery.

Both are former Murdoch newspaper editors.
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« Reply #3241 on: Nov 29, 2012, 08:20 AM »

Russia bans access to Pussy Riot videos

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 7:05 EST

A Russian court issued an order Thursday to limit access to the videos of performances by the jailed feminist punk band Pussy Riot, ruling the films to be extremist.

A Moscow court declared the videos, including the infamous “Punk Prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, to be “extremist” and ordered to “restrict access” to the films, Russian news agencies reported.

The judge also listed as subject to restriction the official Pussy Riot webpage and the band’s popular Livejournal blog, the location of most of its manifestos and photos from other actions.

The decision supported the position of Moscow’s prosecutors who told the court that linguistic experts found the clips offensive.

Materials officially branded “extremist” are put on a blacklist kept by the Russian justice ministry.

Currently the list has about 1,500 items, mostly related to banned religious and ultra-nationalist groups or those deemed to have a fascist ideology.

Two band members are currently serving two year prison sentences after their cathedral performance was ruled an act of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

The video of the February Punk Prayer has gone viral and been viewed on YouTube several million times.

Pussy Riot also sang a song “Putin Got Scared” on Red Square, and staged an illicit concert on the roof of a Moscow prison for those detained at a protest rally last December.

The band’s Yekaterina Samutsevich, who has been convicted for the church stunt but freed with a suspended sentence, called Thursday’s ruling a “direct recognition of artistic censorship” in Russia.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #3242 on: Nov 29, 2012, 08:21 AM »

November 28, 2012

European Union Survey Says Outlook for Growth and Jobs Remains ‘Bleak’ for 2013


BRUSSELS — Europe faces rising unemployment for at least another year amid the most painful economic convulsions to hit the Continent since it first set out on a path of economic and political integration more than half a century ago, the European Commission reported Wednesday.

Europe’s job crisis, which has left more than 25 million people without work, has stirred rising public hostility to the European Union and has severely strained the social fabric in hardest-hit members like Greece and Spain, where unemployment has soared to over 25 percent.

“The economic and employment outlook is bleak and has worsened in recent months and is not expected to improve in 2013,” the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, said in a statement accompanying the release of its Annual Growth Survey, a yearly report on Europe’s economic outlook.

“The E.U. is currently the only major region in the world where unemployment is still rising,” the statement said.

Younger workers have suffered the most, with nearly one in three young people now jobless in six European Union countries and more than half of them unemployed in two others.

Tackling the crisis, however, has been complicated by wide differences in economic performance and interests among the union’s 27 member states. In Austria and Germany, for example, unemployment stands at 4.4 percent and 5.4 percent, a fraction of the rate in Spain and Greece.

Yet Greece’s economic meltdown, according to Standard & Poor’s, is more severe in “duration and scale” than the German depression that paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s.

“After several years of weak growth, the crisis is having severe social consequences,” the growth survey warned, noting that European welfare systems had “cushioned some of the effects at first but the impact is now being felt across the board.”

Greece, struggling to bring down its crippling debts, contain widening misery and curb the appeal of political extremism, has been hit in recent months by waves of strikes and street protests amid widespread anger at a program of austerity demanded by its international lenders in return for bailout funds.

Spain has also been hit by protests, as well as a surge of pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia and a bout of national soul-searching following reports of suicides by people facing eviction from their homes because of unpaid debts.

In an effort to combat a “crisis of confidence” in the European project, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and other senior officials on Wednesday announced measures aimed at reviving stalled momentum toward closer economic, monetary and ultimately political union.

Though largely a reworking of previously announced steps, the plan, called a “blueprint for a deep and genuine economic and monetary union,” includes proposals to help countries like Spain overhaul their labor markets and make other reforms deemed necessary for economic recovery.
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« Reply #3243 on: Nov 29, 2012, 08:23 AM »

11/28/2012 02:57 PM

A License to Steal: India Skirts Patent Laws to Help Companies and Poor

By Wieland Wagner

For years, India has refused to respect the patents of foreign pharmaceutical companies suspected of slightly altering their drugs merely to extend their profitability. In doing so, it helps not only the growing number of domestic generic drug makers, but also the millions who can hardly even afford the copycat drugs.

Two uniformed attendants in turbans push open the large wooden door to Courtroom No. 5 at India's Supreme Court, in the heart of New Delhi. Then white-haired Judge Aftab Alam and his equally dignified, gray-haired colleague Ranjana Desai take their seats. Across from them, an army of lawyers in black robes prepares for the next round in the legal dispute between Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, and the Indian state -- and, or course, the domestic pharmaceutical competition.

For the last six years, Novartis has been fighting over a patent for its cancer drug Glivec, appearing before Indian authorities and lower courts. The drug has earned billions for Novartis since it was approved in 2001.

Almost 40 countries, including China and Russia, recognize the company's Swiss patents, but India does not. In defending its position, the Indian Patent Office argues that the drug is not a true novelty, but rather a variation of an existing drug. Non-governmental organizations, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders), accuse Novartis of trying to extend its monopoly on Glivec for another 20 years by making minor changes to the drug. The 2005 amendment to the Indian Patents Act outlaws the practice known in professional circles as "evergreening."

Cashing in with Copycat Drugs

For the Supreme Court in India's capital, the case is about more than just one drug. And for other multinational pharmaceutical companies, the issue revolves around what they can have patented in India.

On the one hand, they are pursuing the goal of capturing the enormous market on the subcontinent, which is growing as the country of 1.2 billion slowly becomes more affluent. On the other hand, India's own pharmaceutical industry is also taking advantage of its Western competitors' patent disputes to go on the offensive with cheaper copycat drugs, or generics.

MSF is already warning that India's role as what it calls the "pharmacy for the poor" will be in jeopardy if Novartis wins its case before the Supreme Court. Indian companies are known for the production of affordable generic drugs that even those in lower socioeconomic groups can afford. In Africa, for example, Indian generics play in important role in fighting the AIDS epidemic. More than 80 percent of all the AIDS patients treated by humanitarian organizations like MSF get their drugs from factories in India.

On this morning, the attorney for Indian drug maker Cipla is using similar arguments to gain the attention of the judges, who he deferentially addresses as "My Lordship" and "My Ladyship," using the language of India's former colonial rulers. At the same time, the Indians are also self-confidently aware of their role as a country that is catching up to the West in industrial terms.

Other Western pharmaceutical giants are also arguing in court to have their patents recognized in the Indian market. The task is as challenging as it is enormous. As the Indian population ages and becomes more affluent, the middle class, in particular, has a growing need for drugs to treat so-called "lifestyle diseases," such as diabetes and heart ailments.

Good for Poor and Profits

The Indian pharmaceutical market is growing by 10 percent a year, and India ranks among the world's top countries in terms of the volume of drugs sold. The management consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that sales will reach $74 billion (€57 billion) by 2020, or five times the sales figure for 2011.

The economic backbone of the subcontinent is made up of not only call centers and software firms, but also of well over 10,000 drug makers. The Indians are capturing the global market with their generics, as they build bases in Europe and the United States or buy stakes in companies there.

In return, India is doing its utmost to protect domestic drug companies from foreign competitors. Pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Roche also recently lost patent suits they had filed in India. And, in the spring, the Indian Patent Office forced Bayer, the German pharmaceuticals giant, to give up its patent for the cancer drug Nexavar, thereby paving the way for Natco, an Indian competitor, to produce a generic version.

The Indians invoked the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), under which countries can issue compulsory licenses for drugs if there is a threat of public health emergency caused by things such as epidemics.

This could be characterized as protecting the domestic pharmaceutical industry -- or as expropriating the competition. In any case, the Indian government is using the trick to massively reduce the prices of drugs like Bayer's Nexavar. Someone using the original drug will pay $5,200 per month, while using the Indian generic would only cost $160.

Even that is expensive for Indians, whose average annual per capita income is only $1,514. What's more, there is often a shortage of doctors and hospitals in rural areas, and even in New Delhi, the health care system is unable to handle the crowds of the poor. For example, there are those who wait in long lines for treatment in front of Safdarjang Hospital, the best hospital in the capital. Many are forced to camp out on the dusty roadside under intense heat.

The 'Robin Hood' of the Pharma Industry

Policymakers are partly to blame for these conditions. The Indian state spends less than 2 percent of GDP on its health care system, or far less than other Asian countries. But the current pharmaceutical dispute has less to do with the dire needs of patients than with patents and profits.

Two men -- Yusuf Hamied, the CEO of Cipla, and Ranjit Shahani, the managing director of Novartis India Ltd. -- illustrate the divisions between the two sides.

Both men are Indian, and they live and work only a few blocks away from each other in Mumbai. Nevertheless, they are bitter adversaries from different worlds.

White-haired Hamied, 76, meets with us on the executive floor of Cipla's headquarters. Employees are celebrating a Hindu festival in the courtyard outside, where they have set up a colorful altar to pray for the safety of the machines and the success of the company. But, more than anything, they are excited about dancing.

The music can be heard in Hamied's office. There are black-and-white photographs of his father, the company founder, as he stands next to Mahatma Gandhi, who toured the company in 1935.

The Hamieds were closely aligned with the Indian struggle for independence from the British, and Hamied feels an obligation to uphold this heritage.

He has just come from Germany. First he was in Dresden, where his best friend, classical conductor Zubin Mehta, gave a concert. Then he visited Berlin, a journey that brought back memories of the city where his parents, an Indian Muslim and a Jewish woman from Lithuania, met. In 1935, when the Nazi regime became too threatening for their taste, they left Berlin and returned to Mumbai, where they founded Cipla and where Yusuf grew up.

Since then, the company has grown into a giant, even among India's generic drug manufacturers, with annual sales of about $1.4 billion and more than half of its drugs being sold abroad. Since Hamied challenged the multinational pharmaceutical companies 11 years ago with his own cocktail of AIDS treatment drugs, which he sold at cost, many of his fellow Indians revere him as a sort of Robin Hood of the industry.

In the early 1970s, it was Hamied who convinced then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to break the dominance of the multinational pharmaceutical companies in India. She issued strict regulations for foods and drugs that didn't permit patent protections.

Gandhi's decision marked the beginning of a golden age for companies like Cipla because it amounted to a license to copy Western drugs. The prices of important drugs fell by up to 90 percent. But during the course of India's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), in 2005, the country agreed to recognize intellectual property, including drug patents.

Hamied is quick to point out that he is also fundamentally in favor of patents. "After all, I'm a chemist myself," he says. Nevertheless, he is pleased that the 2005 law includes Section 3d, which also plays a role in the legal dispute with Novartis. The passage prohibits "evergreening." For Hamied, patents that are created to maintain existing patent protection by slightly modifying drugs are "frivolous patents."

The Champion of Innovation

Of course, Ranjit Shahani sees things differently, even though he, as a Novartis executive, is clearly playing the more thankless role in his own country. The 65-year-old meets with us in his modest office in a drab concrete building. He began his career with the former British chemical giant ICI before coming to Novartis 15 years ago. Shahani also sees himself as an Indian patriot. He pulls out a brochure depicting smiling people. As part of a program, Novartis provides most Indian patients with Glivec for free.

He is critical of "copycats" like Cipla for ultimately chasing profits for their bosses. He would also say this directly to Hamied, who happens to be a good friend of his. Still, Shahani can't resist maligning his competitor for his luxury penthouse on Regent Street in London and his vineyard in Spain.

Shahani, for his part, says he is worried about India's future. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's goal of embarking on a "decade of innovation," as he told a group of scientists last year, is an illusion without effective patent protection, says Shahani. Almost with relish, he reports that seven multinational pharmaceutical companies have withdrawn their R&D departments from India in recent years. Since then, members of India's pharmaceutical elite have been conducting their research in Basel or New York.

Shahani also doesn't believe that the 2005 Indian Patents Act guarantees foreign patents in his country. "Even if companies are granted a patent for a drug, it will be infringed," he says. "The only solution is to go to court, but such cases take a long time."

The Hunt for Vulnerable Patents

In the wake of the trials, Indian generic manufacturers, including Natco Pharma, are constantly challenging the multinationals with new products. Natco, with about 2,000 employees, is one of India's smaller companies. But since it received official approval to start producing a generic version of Bayer's Nexavar cancer drug in the spring, Natco has proudly touted itself as the holder of India's first "compulsory license."

The company's drug factory is on the outskirts of Hyderabad, in south-central India. The plant's flat-roofed, utilitarian buildings rise from a rural wasteland of rice fields and stray goats. Inside, however, everything is state-of-the-art. In dust-free rooms, workers wearing masks and special suits sort the tablets coming out of a machine. They earn about 15,000 rupees a month, or roughly €212. Not even the Chinese can compete with wages this low.

The pills are then packaged for export. One is a generic version of the well-known breast cancer drug anastrozole. The logos of various German manufacturers for which Natco works are printed on the packages. Of course, German patients would never suspect that the contents are actually made in India, manager Rami Reddy says with a smile. After all, who would know that the number 164, printed in tiny letters, is the Indian manufacturer's license code?

Natco sees its future in the field of cancer drugs. Its executives in Hyderabad are constantly searching for the drugs of multinationals whose patents are about to expire or have little chance of being recognized in India. Giant markets are waiting in the West, which is why the heads of India's pharmaceutical companies are relatively nonchalant about the Novartis trial before the Supreme Court.

A few weeks ago, Judge Alam encouraged them when he criticized the price of the cancer drug Glivec, which costs 120,000 rupees a month (€1,700). "Medicine prices are already too high in India," he muttered, and then advised the Novartis attorney to "sell it at five rupees!" If it did that, he added, Novartis could drive out all of its competitors with one blow.

The lawyers for the big drug makers were unimpressed.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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« Reply #3244 on: Nov 29, 2012, 08:25 AM »

Scientists record most powerful quasar blast ever

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 28, 2012 19:15 EST

US astronomers have detected the most powerful blast from a quasar ever recorded, offering the first proof of important theories about why the universe is shaped the way it is.

The beam of energy, detected by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, based in Chile, was at least five times larger than any observed before.

The new analysis identified a huge flow of energy — two trillion times as powerful as the Sun and 400 times more massive — streaming from a quasar known as SDSS J1106+1939.

“I’ve been looking for something like this for a decade,” said lead researcher Nahum Arav, from Virginia Tech University, “so it’s thrilling to finally find one of the monster outflows that have been predicted.”

Quasars are celestial bodies that look like extraordinarily bright stars. But astronomers now believe quasars are not stars at all, and that they draw their power from the enormous black holes at the center of newly forming galaxies.

Because they are so far away — meaning it has taken billions of years for their light to reach even the most powerful telescopes — quasars provide glimpses of the ancient history of the universe.

And while black holes are known for sucking energy in, quasars also take some of the energy around them and shoot it back into the universe at high speed.

Astronomers theorize that these energy flows help explain why there are so few large galaxies and how the mass of a galaxy is linked to its central black hole.

But until now, the powerful beams of energy were merely speculation.

“This is the first time that a quasar outflow has been measured to have the sort of very high energies that are predicted by theory,” Arav said.

Quasar SDSS J1106+1939 had already been identified, but this was the first time its outflow had been accurately measured in great detail.

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« Reply #3245 on: Nov 29, 2012, 08:27 AM »

Texas telescope spots biggest black hole ever observed

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 28, 2012 19:12 EST

PARIS — Astronomers on Wednesday said they had found possibly the biggest black hole ever observed, a leviathan with a mass 17 billion times that of the Sun, brooding at the heart of a distant galaxy.

The black hole is as unexpected as it is vast, for it accounts for nearly a seventh of its galaxy’s mass, a finding that may rewrite theories of cosmic formation, they said.

Named NGC 1277, the monster lies 220 million light years away in a small galaxy just a tenth the size of our Milky Way.

The hole’s maw is more than 11 times wider than Neptune’s orbit around the Sun.

It accounts for a whopping 14 percent of the galaxy’s mass, compared with the 0.1 percent that is the norm for galactic black holes.

“This is a really oddball galaxy,” said Karl Gebhardt of the University of Texas at Austin in a press release.

“It’s almost all black hole. This could be the first object in a new class of galaxy black hole systems.”

NGC 1277 is already the second biggest black hole ever observed, and it is a strong contender for the top spot, for the current record holder, spotted in 2011, has still not been precisely calculated. It is somewhere between six and 37 billion solar masses.

Black holes are the most powerful known forces in the Universe, creating a gravitational field that is so strong that even light cannot escape from it.

A black hole of stellar mass is formed when a very big star collapses in on itself at the end of its life.

It may then grow by gobbling up other stars and merging with other black holes, sometimes creating “supermassive” black holes which scientists say inhabit the centres of galaxies.

NGC 1277 challenges part of the galactic black hole theory because of its size relative to its galaxy.

In addition, it sits at the centre of a small disc-shaped galaxy, whereas a black hole of this size would have been expected in a far bigger blob-like, or “elliptical,” galaxy.

Further work is needed to confirm whether NGC 1277 is a one-off or part of a hitherto-overlooked process of black hole creation.

“The galaxy hosting the new black hole appears to have formed more than eight billion years ago, and does not appear to have changed much since then,” the Max Planck Institute said.

“Whatever created this giant black hole must have happened a long time ago.”

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« Reply #3246 on: Nov 29, 2012, 08:57 AM »

In the USA...

Originally published Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 5:40 AM  

US economy grew at 2.7 percent rate in summer

AP Economics Writer

The U.S. economy grew at a 2.7 percent annual rate from July through September, much faster than first thought. The strength may fade in the final months of the year if Congress and the Obama administration fail to reach a budget deal.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that growth in the third quarter was significantly better than the 2 percent rate estimated a month ago. And it was more than twice the 1.3 percent rate reported for the April-June quarter.

The two biggest factors in the upward revision were larger gains in business stockpiles and a boost in export sales. That offset weaker consumer spending.

Still, most economists say growth has slowed since then to below 2 percent in the October-December quarter. That's generally considered too weak to rapidly lower the unemployment rate.

Economists cite two reasons for the anticipated weakness.

Superstorm Sandy halted business activity along the East Coast in late October and November. And many businesses and consumers could end up scaling back on spending in the final weeks of the year, if lawmakers and Obama fail to avert the "fiscal cliff." That's the name for sharp tax increases and spending cuts that would occur in January without a deal.

So far, many reports suggest economic activity picked up early in the fourth quarter. And if Congress and the White House reach agreement and avoid the fiscal cliff, economic growth could accelerate next year, many economists say.

A Federal Reserve survey released Tuesday showed improved consumer spending and steady home sales helped lift growth from October through early November in most parts of the United States. The one exception was the Northeast, where the storm led to widespread disruptions.

The Labor Department said employers added 171,000 jobs last month and hiring in September and August was stronger than previously thought.

Rising home values, more hiring and lower gas prices pushed consumer confidence in November to the highest level in nearly five years, according to the Conference Board.

A better mood among consumers appears to have encouraged businesses to invest more in October after pulling back over the summer.

There are already signs that consumer optimism is leading to more spending. A record number of Americans visited stores and shopping websites over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.


Originally published November 29, 2012 at 5:32 AM | Page modified November 29, 2012 at 5:58 AM    

White House, Congress talk as 'fiscal cliff' nears

Associated Press


Amid increasing anxiety that the White House and top Republicans are wasting time as the government slides toward an economy-rattling "fiscal cliff," administration officials are heading to Capitol Hill for talks with congressional leaders.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and senior White House aide Rob Nabors were to visit separately Thursday with the four leaders of the House and Senate to discuss how to avert a series of tax increases and spending cuts due to begin in January. Republicans complain that the White House is slow-walking the talks and has yet to provide specifics on how President Barack Obama would curb the rapid growth of benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Obama and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, the lead GOP negotiator, spoke on the phone Wednesday, their first conversation in five days. But there's been little evident progress in negotiations between the two sides.

Boehner's lieutenants say the White House has been slow to engage.

"We have not seen any good-faith effort on the part of this administration to talk about the real problem that we're trying to fix," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

Obama is mounting a public campaign to build support and leverage in the negotiations, appearing at the White House with middle-class taxpayers and launching a campaign on Twitter to bolster his position.

"Right now, as we speak, Congress can pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody's income," Obama said. "And that means that 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses wouldn't see their income taxes go up by a single dime."

Obama is insisting that tax rates go up on family income exceeding $250,000; Boehner is adamant that any new tax revenues come from overhauling the tax code, clearing out tax breaks and lowering rates for all.

Republicans are also demanding significant cuts to so-called entitlement programs like Medicare, such as an increase in the eligibility age for the program from 65 to perhaps 67.

"It's time for the president and Democrats to get serious about the spending problem that our country has," Boehner said at a news conference Wednesday in the Capitol. Boehner, like Obama, expressed optimism that a deal could be reached.

At issue are steep, across-the-board cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs set to strike the economy in January as well as the expiration of Bush-era tax cuts on income, investments, married couples and families with children. That combination of tax increases and spending cuts would wring more than half a trillion dollars from the economy in the first nine months of next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

No one anticipates a stalemate lasting that long, but many experts worry that even allowing the spending cuts and tax increases for a relatively brief period could rattle financial markets.

From their public statements, Obama and Boehner appear at an impasse over raising the two top tax rates from 33 percent and 35 percent to 36 percent and 39.6 percent. Democrats seem confident that Boehner ultimately will have to crumble, but Obama has a lot at stake as well, including a clear agenda for priorities like an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.


Obama wants fiscal cliff deal before Christmas

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 28, 2012 17:05 EST

WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama on Wednesday called for a deal with Republicans before Christmas on averting a tax and deficit crunch that it is feared could pitch the economy into recession.

Obama gathered middle class families at the White House to up his campaign for Republicans to join Democrats in Congress to pass an extension to tax cuts for most Americans, while bowing to his pressure to raise rates on top earners.

“I want to make sure everybody understands this debate is not just about numbers. It’s a set of major decisions that are going to affect millions of families all across this country in very significant ways,” Obama said.

“Our ultimate goal is an agreement that gets our long-term deficit under control in a way that is fair and balanced.

“I believe that both parties can agree on a framework that does that in the coming weeks. In fact, my hope is to get this done before Christmas.”

If there is no agreement before the end of the year, taxes on all Americans will rise, raising the prospect of a sudden draining of consumer spending and fears that the still fragile economy could be thrown back into recession.

Obama also called on Americans to mobilize to support his position, just weeks after his re-election triumph, by posting on Facebook and sending tweets marked with the hashtag #My2K.

“Tell members of Congress what a $2,000 tax hike would mean to you,” he said.

Obama was later to huddle with top CEOs at the White House, including Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of investment giant Goldman Sachs, and Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer, as part of his campaign for a debt and deficit deal.

On Friday, he will crank up pressure on Republicans even more by making a campaign-style trip to a manufacturing business in Pennsylvania.

The year-end deadline is the result of legislation passed when Republicans and Democrats failed to reach a previous long-term deficit and budget deal, and was meant to concentrate minds of lawmakers and spur compromise.

Obama campaigned on a platform of raising taxes on individuals who make more than $200,000 per year and families that rake in more than $250,000, as a way of raising extra revenue to tame the deficit.

Republicans insist that raising taxes on the wealthy would be counter-productive, would hurt small business owners, and would slow economic growth and dampen job creation.

The parties are also feuding about where to cut expenditures, with some Republicans opposed to any trimming of the military budget and Democrats guarding social safety net entitlement programs.


November 28, 2012

Obama Tilts Tax Debate Away From Spending Cuts


WASHINGTON — President Obama surrounded himself with taxpayers on Wednesday to pitch his plan to preserve current rates for the middle class and raise them for the wealthy. A day before, he met with small-business owners for the same purpose. On Friday, he plans to fly to Pennsylvania to tour a factory to make the same point.

As the president and Congress hurtle toward a reckoning on the highest federal budget deficit in generations, Mr. Obama says he wants a “balanced” approach to restoring the nation’s fiscal order. But the high-profile public campaign he has been waging in recent days has focused almost entirely on the tax side of the equation, with scant talk about his priorities when it comes to curbing spending.

Mr. Obama has embraced specific cuts to the federal budget in the past and has committed to an agreement with Congress that will include deep reductions in spending. But it would be easy for those who listen to his public pronouncements lately to miss it. In public statements since his re-election, he has barely discussed how he would pare back federal spending, focusing instead on the aspect of his plan that plays to his liberal base and involves all gain and no pain for 98 percent of taxpayers.

Republicans and even some Democrats have expressed frustration that Mr. Obama has avoided a serious public discussion on spending with barely a month until deep automatic budget cuts and tax increases are scheduled to take effect. While the president’s aides said it was important to engage the public on taxes, others say he has not prepared the country for the sacrifice that would come with lower spending.

“The problem is real,” said Erskine B. Bowles, who was co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s deficit reduction commission. “The solutions are painful, and there’s not going to be an easy way out of this.”

After meeting with White House officials this week, Mr. Bowles said he believed “they were serious about reducing spending” but added that “we need to talk more about the spending side of the equation.”

Republican leaders were more scathing, saying the president was more interested in campaigning than sitting down to resolve difficult issues. They said they were willing to raise tax revenue by closing loopholes and limiting deductions, but Mr. Obama has not reciprocated with more restraint of entitlement programs.

“We have not seen any good-faith effort on the part of this administration to talk about the real problem that we’re trying to fix,” said Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader. “This has to be a part of this agreement or else we just continue to dig the hole deeper, asking folks to allow us to kick the can down the road further. And that we don’t want to do.”

Although Mr. Obama has not scheduled a new meeting with Congressional leaders, he will dispatch top advisers to Capitol Hill for talks on Thursday. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Rob Nabors, the White House legislative director, will pay separate visits to Senators Harry Reid of Nevada and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Democratic and Republican leaders, and Representatives John A. Boehner of Ohio and Nancy Pelosi of California, the Republican speaker and Democratic minority leader.

Mr. Obama met privately on Wednesday with the chief executives of 14 major corporations like Goldman Sachs, Home Depot, Marriott, Coca-Cola, Pfizer and Yahoo to discuss the fiscal situation.

“He seemed flexible, but he said taxes should go up on the top 2 percent,” said one executive who did not want to be named. Most of the executives said they were not opposed to tax increases as part of a deal but stressed that a quick resolution could help the economy.

White House officials rejected Republican suggestions that Mr. Obama has not been serious enough about tackling the growth of entitlement spending. “He is committed, every time he talks about this, to a balanced approach that includes both, you know, revenues, spending cuts and savings through entitlement reforms,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.

White House officials pointed to $340 billion in health care entitlement program savings and $272 billion in reductions to other mandatory programs over 10 years in a previous presidential budget proposal. “Even though that budget proposal’s been out there for a long time, a lot of people aren’t aware of that,” Mr. Carney said. “ He called it “another piece of evidence that the president has been willing to make tough choices.”

One reason a lot of people may not be aware of the cuts Mr. Obama has proposed is that he does not talk about them often. In his first postelection news conference, he focused on tax increases on the wealthy and used the term “spending cuts” just once without elaborating.

By focusing on taxes, Mr. Obama has put Republicans on the defensive. At Wednesday’s event, he challenged them to extend Bush-era tax cuts for family income under $250,000 since both sides agree those should continue. Doing so would effectively mean tax cuts on income over $250,000 would expire at the end of the year since Mr. Obama would not sign a separate bill extending them.

The president’s public lobbying seemed to crack through the solid Republican opposition this week when a prominent conservative, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, urged his party to seek such a quick deal with Mr. Obama extending middle-class tax cuts. Mr. Boehner pushed back against Mr. Cole on Wednesday, saying that would hurt small businesses and the economy.

At the same time, Mr. Obama evidently sees no percentage in talking in detail about spending cuts, acutely aware that his liberal base is unenthusiastic about paring back entitlement programs. Senator Richard J. Durbin, a longtime Illinois ally and the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said this week that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security should not be part of current budget talks.

As the two sides continued to shadowbox, Mr. Bowles was skeptical, putting the chances of a deal by the end of the year at one in three. “I believe the probability is that we are going over the cliff,” he said, “and I think that will be horrible.”

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting from Washington, and Nelson Schwartz from New York.


Bernie Sanders Blows the Lid Off the ‘Bipartisan’ Plan To Cut Taxes for Corporations and the Wealthy

By: Jason Easley November 28th, 2012

In a letter to his Senate colleagues today, Bernie Sanders exposed the bipartisan Simpson/Bowles plan for what it really is. A scheme to lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations while passing the burden to the rest of us.

Sanders laid out the 5 areas of Simpson-Bowles that he believes Democrats should strongly oppose. Simpson-Bowles would cut Social Security benefits for current retirees, cut veterans’ benefits, raise the retirement age to 69, and cut Social Security benefits for middle class workers. Simpson-Bowles would also cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy. The Simpson-Bowles plan would reduce taxes to an even lower level than the Bush tax cuts. Taxes on corporations and the wealthy would be reduced to 23%-29%. Simpson-Bowles also would increase the gas tax by 15 cents, increase Medicare premiums, establish a territorial taxation system that would allow corporations to avoid US taxes by establishing subsidiaries overseas. Simpson-Bowles would also increase taxes on low income workers by 14.5% starting in 2021, and it would make fewer people eligible for SSI, CHIP, Medicaid, LIHEAP, WIC, Head Start, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Refundable Child Credit.

Sanders urged his Democratic colleagues to reject Simpson-Bowles because it would, “cause major economic pain to nearly every America while lowering tax rates for millionaires, billionaires, and large corporations even more than President Bush.”

There is a reason why Mitt Romney and the Republican campaigned so hard for Simpson-Bowles. It is exactly what the Republican Party wants. It slashes entitlements and passes the pain on to the middle and lower classes, while lowering taxes for corporations and the so called “job creators.” The rich feel no pain and get all of the gain from Simpson-Bowles.

The reason why this plan never went anywhere with Obama is because it violates several of the elements that he believes any deal on deficit reduction should contain. If congressional Democrats adopted Simpson-Bowles as their negotiating framework, they would lose before they even sat down at the table. Simpson-Bowles contains everything that the right could ever hope for. This is why it being championed by corporate America and the Republican Party.

Starting negotiations from the Simpson-Bowles framework would be like negotiating at all. Earlier today, President Obama asked Americans to make their voices heard on this issue. Call or write to your local representatives and senators. Let them know, that you won’t stand for any deficit deal that contains the Simpson-Bowles framework.

If you don’t stand up now, the wealthy’s gain will be your pain.


U.S. firms rush special payouts to beat tax hike

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 7:00 EST

US companies are rushing to make huge payouts to shareholders before year-end to beat a tax increase on dividends expected to emerge from deficit talks under way in Washington.

Big-box discounter Costco became the latest firm Wednesday to set a dividend before December 31, promising a special cash payout of $3 billion, or $7 a share, on December 18.

On Tuesday Brown-Forman Corp., which makes Jack Daniels whiskey, declared a special cash dividend of $4 a share, to be paid on December 27; department store owner Dillard’s set a $5 a share bonus dividend, and casino operator Las Vegas Sands said its board approved a special payment of $2.75 a share on December 18.

Other companies, including Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, have moved forward their regular quarterly dividends from early 2013 to December in order to beat the expected year-end deadline for a tax change.

Verizon Wireless said earlier this month it would pay an $8.5 billion dividend to parents Verizon and Vodafone with a December 31 deadline — just in time to beat the possible tax hike.

The tax rates on dividends and capital gains are widely expected to increase as a result of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans aimed at cutting the deficit over the long term.

Cut to 15 percent in 2003 from a top rate of 39.6 percent, the dividend tax has become a symbol of a tax system and economy that critics say favors the wealthy.

It was a key issue in the presidential election, during which President Barack Obama skewered his wealthy opponent Mitt Romney for paying taxes at one of the lowest rates. This was because much of Romney’s tens of millions of dollars in income came from dividends.

Most expect the rate to be pushed back up to the same levels of income taxes — as much as 35 percent, or more if the highest income tax rate is raised again.

That has encouraged a number of companies — especially those like Dillard’s, Walmart and Las Vegas Sands which are closely controlled by families — to return cash to shareholders at a likely lower tax rate.

“We believe this special dividend is the best utilization of the company’s strong balance sheet at this time… The company chose to make this payment in calendar 2012 because of the uncertainty surrounding future dividend tax rates,” said Brown-Forman Chief Executive Paul Varga.

According to market research group Markit, special dividends are soaring this quarter, and it expects the normal average of 31 to surge to 120 or more.

It is not the first time, according to Markit: payouts jumped in December 2010 when it appeared that the dividend tax would rise at the beginning of 2011.

Markit pointed out that the payouts are more frequent when those deciding the payout control a bigger chunk of the company, as in Walmart.

“Markit believes that insider holdings are the key variable in projecting special dividends in this unique tax environment.

“Concentrated ownership at the executive and board level can more expeditiously push for one-time special dividends at the current favorable tax levels. Disparate groups of shareholders may not have the same influence.”

Jon Ogg of 24/7WallSt said some tech companies loaded up with cash could also make the move for an advanced payout, including Apple, Yahoo!, Juniper Networks and Oracle.

“Larry Ellison and friends have a cash arsenal of more than $31 billion,” Ogg said of Oracle’s chief executive and key shareholder.

“By sending back half of that cash, Oracle could have a 10 percent special cash dividend and still have more than $15 billion on its books.”


November 28, 2012

Big Issues Are Lost in Focus on Libya Talking Points


WASHINGTON — Three days after the lethal attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya, Representative C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, asked intelligence agencies to write up some unclassified talking points on the episode. Reporters were besieging him and other legislators for comment, and he did not want to misstate facts or disclose classified information.

More than 10 weeks later, the four pallid sentences that intelligence analysts cautiously delivered are the unlikely center of a quintessential Washington drama, in which a genuine tragedy has been fed into the meat grinder of election-year politics.

In the process, the most important questions about Benghazi, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed on Sept. 11, have largely gotten lost: Were requests for greater security for diplomats in Libya ignored? Even if Al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan has been decimated, what threat is posed by its affiliates and imitators in other countries where they have taken refuge? How can crucial diplomacy be conducted amid the dangerous chaos that has followed the toppling of dictators across the Arab world?

Instead, it is the parsing of the talking points — who wrote them, altered them, recited them on television or tried to explain them — that could decide the fate of a leading candidate for secretary of state, Susan E. Rice, currently the United Nations ambassador. On Wednesday, for the second time in two weeks, Ms. Rice received a hearty endorsement from President Obama in the face of a continuing battering on Capitol Hill.

“Susan Rice is extraordinary,” he said in response to a reporter’s question as he met at the White House with his cabinet for the first time since the election. “Couldn’t be prouder of the job that she’s done.”

Now the talking points could also affect the chances of a top candidate for C.I.A. director, Michael Morell, the agency’s acting director, who on Tuesday accompanied Ms. Rice to a briefing for some of her most vocal Senate critics and misspoke about changes in the original draft of the talking points.

Intelligence officials said Wednesday that Mr. Morell’s flub, which prompted a sharply worded statement from three Republican senators, was an insignificant mix-up: He said the F.B.I. had taken out a specific reference to Al Qaeda, when in fact that change was made by the C.I.A. The F.B.I. had added another phrase to the same sentence.

“This was an honest mistake, and it was corrected as soon as it was realized,” one official said. “There is nothing more to this.”

But such earnest attempts to lower the political temperature have so far failed. As so often in Washington, the clashes over Benghazi have a semi-hidden personal element that adds to the emotion. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who led the initial lambasting of Ms. Rice, had been subjected to withering criticism by her in 2008 when he was running for president. And senators considering Ms. Rice’s future are quite aware that her main rival for the job of secretary of state is their colleague Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.

For now, the focus of Congress and the news media is mostly on language. For weeks after the Benghazi attack, Republicans accused Mr. Obama and his aides of avoiding labeling it “terrorism” for fear of tarnishing his national security record in the weeks before the Nov. 6 election. Since his re-election, that issue has faded, and the debate has shifted to the talking points.

The facts about the talking points, like those about the Benghazi attack itself, have dribbled out slowly and awkwardly from intelligence officials who generally do not relish airing their internal deliberations. But there is now a fairly clear account.

The C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies rarely prepare unclassified talking points; more often, policy makers submit proposed public comments, and intelligence analysts check them for classified information or errors of fact. But in the storm of news media coverage after the killings in Benghazi, C.I.A. officials responded quickly to Mr. Ruppersberger’s request on Sept. 14.

C.I.A. analysts drafted four sentences describing “demonstrations” in Benghazi that were “spontaneously inspired” by protests in Cairo against a crude video lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. (Later assessments concluded there were no demonstrations.) The initial version of the talking points identified the suspected attackers — a local militant group called Ansar al-Shariah, with possible links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an offshoot of the terrorist network in North Africa.

But during a subsequent review by several intelligence agencies, C.I.A. officials were concerned that such specific language might tip off the malefactors, skew intelligence collection in Libya and interfere with the criminal investigation. So they replaced the names with the blanket term “extremists.”

Ms. Rice has been skewered by Republican senators for her comments on Sunday television news programs on Sept. 16, which they have suggested were part of an administration cover-up of the terrorist nature of the attack and links to Al Qaeda. The criticism has barely been affected by the revelation that she accurately recited the talking points the intelligence agencies prepared.

On Wednesday, as she and Mr. Morell continued their meetings on Capitol Hill, an evident preamble to her possible nomination as secretary of state, Republican senators were not mollified.

“I continue to be troubled by the fact that the United Nations ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign,” Senator Susan Collins of Maine told a throng of reporters waiting for her after her hourlong meeting with Ms. Rice and Mr. Morell.

Ms. Collins said she “would need to have additional information” before she could support Ms. Rice for secretary of state.

Ms. Rice and Mr. Morell also met at length with Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who said that he too was deeply troubled by what he has learned. “The whole issue of Benghazi has been, to me, a tawdry affair,” he said. Though he did not mention Ms. Rice by name, he seemed to question whether she would be an appropriate choice for a position as vital as secretary of state.

Mr. Morell — thrust into the acting directorship of the C.I.A. on Nov. 9 when David H. Petraeus stepped down in a sex scandal — might himself soon be asking for the senators’ support. He is among a handful of top candidates to lead the agency, and it is uncertain whether the flap over his misstatement about the Benghazi talking points will be held against him.

Thomas Fingar, a former intelligence official and veteran of highly politicized disputes over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and Iran’s nuclear program, said that such Congressional scrutiny could be disconcerting for an analyst unaccustomed to the political fray.

“Michael is a very, very capable guy,” said Mr. Fingar, now at Stanford University. “But until you’ve sat at the table to undergo the grilling in this kind of atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like. I might forget my own birthday.”

Jeremy W. Peters and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.


November 28, 2012

Ex-Official Is Charged After Deaths at Coal Mine


Federal prosecutors in West Virginia charged the highest-ranking executive to date on Wednesday in a broad investigation stemming from the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners, a move that suggests more senior executives at Massey Energy, the mine’s operator, are likely to be prosecuted.

The official, David C. Hughart, the former president of the Green Valley Coal Company, a division of Massey, will plead guilty and is cooperating with the investigation, said R. Booth Goodwin II, the United States attorney. “He was obviously a highly placed individual, and he gives us a fairly unique perspective,” Mr. Goodwin said.

Mr. Hughart was charged with one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and a second misdemeanor conspiracy count. Prosecutors say that he and others knowingly conspired to violate safety laws at Massey’s mines and worked to hide those violations by giving advance warnings of surprise inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The charges do not relate directly to the Upper Big Branch mine, indicating that prosecutors have widened their investigation to include a broader culture of suspected violations that is believed to have played a role in the 2010 explosion. Investigators say the blast was caused by explosive gases and coal dust that had built up in the mine.

“The conspiracy charge permits us to look more deeply at the conduct and all of the players involved in perpetuating this conduct in the corporate entity,” Mr. Goodwin said.

The use of conspiracy charges is unusual in the history of investigations of mining accidents, which typically have been prosecuted under the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. That legislation can punish the actions of lower-level mining operators, like shift foremen, but has a limited scope for prosecuting high-level company officials, said Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky lawyer who represents miners and a former prosecutor of mine-safety violations for the state.

“It’s an unusual approach, and that’s why I think it signals some restless nights for other officials at Massey,” Mr. Oppegard said of the continuing inquiry. “I think it’s an indication that they’re aiming higher in the chain of command.”

Prosecutors also used conspiracy charges against Gary May, a superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine who pleaded guilty this year to a fraud charge that accused him of manipulating a ventilation system to fool inspectors and disabling a methane monitor, among other violations.

Last year, Hughie Elbert Stover, a former security chief at Massey, was convicted of impeding the investigation into the blast by lying to federal investigators.

In June 2011 Massey Energy was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources, which late last year agreed to pay $209 million in restitution and civil and criminal penalties over the explosion, the worst American mining disaster in nearly 40 years. Samantha Davison, a company spokeswoman, said that Massey had fired Mr. Hughart in 2010, before that acquisition, but said the company was “committed to working fully” with the agencies investigating the disaster.


November 28, 2012

Losing in Court, and to Laptop Thieves, in a Battle With NASA Over Private Data


In 2007, Robert M. Nelson, an astronomer, and 27 other scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory sued NASA arguing that the space agency’s background checks of employees of government contractors were unnecessarily invasive and violated their privacy rights.

Privacy advocates chimed in as well, contending that the space agency would not be able to protect the confidential details it was collecting.

The scientists took their case all the way to the Supreme Court only to lose last year.

This month, Dr. Nelson opened a letter from NASA telling him of a significant data breach that could potentially expose him to identity theft.

The very thing he and advocates warned about had occurred. A laptop used by an employee at NASA’s headquarters in Washington had been stolen from a car parked on the street on Halloween, the space agency said.

Although the laptop itself was password protected, unencrypted files on the laptop contained personal information on about 10,000 NASA employees — including details like their names, birth dates, Social Security numbers and in some cases, details related to background checks into employees’ personal lives.

Millions of Americans have received similar data breach notices from employers, government agencies, medical centers, banks and retailers. NASA in particular has been subject to “numerous cyberattacks” and computer thefts in recent years, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, an agency that conducts research for Congress.

Even so, Dr. Nelson, who recently retired from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a research facility operated by the California Institute of Technology under a contract with NASA, stands out as a glaring example of security lapses involving personal data, privacy advocates say.

“To the extent that Robert Nelson looks like millions of other people working for firms employed by the federal government, this would seem to be a real problem,” said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group which filed a friend-of-the-court brief for Dr. Nelson in the Supreme Court case.

In a 2009 report titled “NASA Needs to Remedy Vulnerabilities in Key Networks,” the Government Accountability Office noted that the agency had reported 1,120 security incidents in fiscal 2007 and 2008 alone.

It also singled out an incident in 2009 in which a NASA center reported the theft of a laptop containing about 3,000 unencrypted files about arms traffic regulations and wind tunnel tests for a supersonic jet.

“NASA had not installed full-disk encryption on its laptops at all three centers,” the report said. “As a result, sensitive data transmitted through the unclassified network or stored on laptop computers were at an increased risk of being compromised.” Other federal agencies have had similar problems. In 2006, for example, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs reported the theft of an employee laptop and hard drive that contained personal details on about 26.5 million veterans. Last year, the G.A.O. cited the Internal Revenue Service for weaknesses in data control that could “jeopardize the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of financial and sensitive taxpayer information.”

Also last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission warned its employees that their confidential financial information, like brokerage transactions, might have been compromised because an agency contractor had granted data access to a subcontractor without the S.E.C.’s authorization.

On Wednesday, Dr. Nelson, the astronomer, and several other scientists in the NASA case held a news conference in which they asked members of Congress to investigate NASA’s data collection practices and the recent data breach.

Robert Jacobs, a NASA spokesman, said the agency’s data security policy already adequately protected employees and contractors because it required computers to be encrypted before employees took them off agency premises. “We are talking about a computer that should not have left the building in the first place,” Mr. Jacobs said. “The data would have been secure had the employee followed policy.”

The government argued in the case Dr. Nelson filed that a law called the Privacy Act, which governs data collection by federal agencies, provided the scientists with sufficient protection. The case reached the Supreme Court, which upheld government background checks for employees of contractors. The roots of Dr. Nelson’s case against NASA date to 2004 when the Department of Homeland Security, under a directive signed by President George W. Bush, required federal agencies to adopt uniform identification credentials for all civil servants and contract employees. As part of the ID card standardization process, the department recommended agencies institute background checks.

Several years later, when NASA announced it intended to start doing background checks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Nelson and other scientists there objected.

Those security checks could have included inquiries into medical treatment, counseling for drug use, or any “adverse” information about employees such as sexual activity or participation in protests, said Dan Stormer, a lawyer representing Dr. Nelson.

But Dr. Nelson and other long-term employees of the lab challenged the legality of those checks, arguing that they violated their privacy rights. NASA, they said, had not established a legitimate need for such extensive investigations about low-risk employees like themselves who did not have security clearances or handle confidential information. Dr. Nelson, for example, specializes in solar system science — concerning, for example, Io, a moon of Jupiter, and Titan, a moon of Saturn — and publishes his work in scientific journals

“It was an invitation to an open-ended fishing expedition,” Dr. Nelson said of the background checks.

In friend of the court briefs for Dr. Nelson, privacy groups cited many data security problems at federal agencies, arguing that there was a risk that NASA was not equipped to protect the confidential details it was collecting about employees and contractors.

In 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco temporarily halted the background checks, saying that the case had raised important questions about privacy rights. But last year, the Supreme Court upheld the background investigations of employees of government contractors.

Dr. Nelson said he retired from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory last June rather than submit to a background check. He now works as a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute of Tucson.

NASA has contracted with ID Experts, a data breach company, to help protect employees whose data was contained on the stolen laptop against identity theft. Mr. Jacobs, the NASA spokesman, said the agency has encrypted almost 80 percent of its laptops and plans to encrypt the rest by Dec. 21. He added that he too received a letter from NASA warning that his personal information might have been compromised by the laptop theft.


November 28, 2012

BP Is Barred From Taking Government Contracts


WASHINGTON — The United States government has temporarily banned the British oil company BP from new federal contracts, citing the company’s “lack of business integrity.”

The decision comes after BP agreed to plead guilty this month to criminal charges over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill that killed 11 workers and polluted hundreds of miles of Gulf of Mexico shoreline. As part of its settlement, the company agreed to pay penalties of $4.5 billion, including $1.26 billion in criminal fines.

The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that BP’s suspension from new contracts would remain in effect “until the company can provide sufficient evidence to E.P.A. demonstrating that it meets federal business standards.”

Although the suspension does not affect the company’s existing federal contracts, the action is nonetheless a blow to BP. It is one of the government’s largest contractors, with $1.47 billion in federal business in 2011, according to a ranking compiled by the General Services Administration. Much of that revenue comes from the Defense Department, to which it provides more than $1 billion a year in fuel.

“It is not great news for BP, as they want to do business in the U.S.,” said Iain Pyle, an analyst at Bernstein Research in London.

The company’s shares closed down 0.4 percent in London trading, although they rose slightly later in New York trading. Its depositary receipts on the New York Stock Exchange rose 13 cents to $41.48.

An E.P.A. official said that BP would have to satisfy the terms of its plea agreement, made with the Justice Department, before the agency would consider lifting the ban.

In addition to paying the fines and penalties, the company must hire a safety monitor to oversee its deepwater operations, retain an ethics monitor to ensure that company employees do not again skirt federal laws and regulations, conduct safety and environmental audits for each drilling rig, and ensure that all equipment and workers meet federal safety and training standards.

Government officials would not speculate on how long it would take the company to meet those conditions.

The E.P.A.’s decision appeared to take BP by surprise. During a conference call with analysts on Nov. 15, the day the company and the government announced the plea deal, BP’s general counsel, Rupert Bondy, said, “We have not been advised of the intention of any agency to suspend or debar us in connection” with the settlement. The deal, however, stated that the government reserved the authority to restrict BP’s ability to receive government contracts or other benefits.

A BP spokesman, David Nicholas, said Wednesday that despite the E.P.A.’s action, the company remained “engaged” with the agency. “We are working through a process demonstrating present responsibility,” he said, referring to the legal standard that BP needs to meet before the suspension is lifted.

BP’s finances could suffer if the suspension is not lifted quickly because the United States accounts for such a large part of its business, representing 19 percent of its global oil and gas production in the third quarter and about one-fourth of the profit in its important exploration and production unit.

The heart of its American business is the Gulf of Mexico, where BP helped lead the way into deepwater drilling in the late 1980s. Its operations in the gulf, previously the source of some of its most profitable oil, are still a long way from returning to prespill levels. According to a company spokesman, production from fields it operates there now averages about 150,000 barrels a day of oil or its natural gas equivalent, which is only about one-third of output before the spill.

The slump is largely a result of BP’s being unable to conduct routine maintenance drilling because of the moratorium the government imposed on all gulf drilling after the blowout. That moratorium was lifted in October 2010, but new permits were not issued until early 2011. Although many oil companies were affected by the moratorium, BP was hit hardest because it was the region’s biggest deepwater oil and gas leaseholder.

Even before the E.P.A. announced its decision, BP had voluntarily decided not to participate in a gulf lease sale that the Interior Department held on Wednesday, according to a company spokeswoman.

Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, had earlier called for a contracting ban on BP for its actions after the spill and for misleading Congress about the rate of oil flow from the damaged well.

“After pleading guilty to such reckless behavior that killed men and constituted a crime against the environment, suspending BP’s access to contracts with our government is the right thing to do,” Mr. Markey said Wednesday. “The wreckage of BP’s recklessness is still sitting at the bottom of the ocean, and this kind of time out is an appropriate element of the suite of criminal, civil and economic punishments that BP should pay for their disaster.”

BP says it has invested $52 billion in the United States over the last five years, more than in any other country, and it employs 23,000 Americans.

In another sign of the spill’s continuing fallout, BP is still selling assets elsewhere to help pay for the disaster’s costs, which total about $42 billion so far.

On Wednesday, BP announced the sale of North Sea oil fields representing about 25 percent of its British oil and gas production to Taqa, an energy company that belongs to the Abu Dhabi government, for about $1.1 billion.

Although BP has agreed to a settlement of criminal charges in the Deepwater Horizon case, it still faces billions of dollars in pollution fines under federal environmental laws.

Prosecutors are also continuing to investigate and bring charges against individuals involved in the case.

In New Orleans on Wednesday, two former BP rig supervisors were arraigned on manslaughter charges arising from the disaster. One of the supervisors, Robert Kaluza, told reporters before entering a plea of not guilty that he had not caused the accident, according to The Associated Press. He and Donald Vidrine, another site leader, were indicted on a charge of failing to heed abnormal well pressure tests.

Mr. Kaluza’s lawyer, Shaun Clarke, said his client was a scapegoat. “Bob and Don did their jobs,” he said, according to the A.P. report. “They did them correctly and they did them in accordance with their training.”

A former BP vice president, David Rainey, also pleaded not guilty to misleading Congress about the spill’s flow rate.

John M. Broder reported from Washington, and Stanley Reed from London.


November 28, 2012

Drive to Unionize Fast-Food Workers Begins


Fast-food workers at several restaurants in New York walked off the job on Thursday, firing the first salvo in what workplace experts say is the biggest effort to unionize fast-food workers ever undertaken in the United States. The effort — backed by community and civil rights groups, religious leaders and a labor union — has engaged 40 full-time organizers in recent months to enlist workers at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Domino’s, Taco Bell and other fast-food restaurants across the city.

Leaders of the effort said that workers were walking off the job to protest what they said were low wages and retaliation against several workers who have backed the unionization campaign.  They said it would be the first multi-restaurant strike by fast-food workers in American history, although it was unclear how many workers would walk off the job.

 The first walkout took place at 6:30 a.m. at a McDonald’s at Madison Avenue and 40th Street, where several dozen striking workers and supporters chanted: “Hey, hey, what do you say? We demand fair pay.” An organizer of the unionizing campaign said that 14 of the 17 employees scheduled to work the morning shift had gone on strike.

Raymond Lopez, 21, an aspiring actor who has worked at the for more than two years, showed up on his day off to protest. “In this job having a union would really be a dream come true,” said Mr. Lopez, who added that he makes $8.75 an hour. He said that he, and fellow fast-food workers, are under-compensated. “We don’t get paid for what we do,” he said. “It really is living in poverty.”

Over the decades there have been occasional efforts to unionize a fast-food restaurant here or there, but labor experts say there has never before been an effort to unionize dozens of such restaurants. The new campaign aims in part to raise low-end wages and reduce income inequality, and is also an uphill battle to win union recognition.

Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at the City University of New York, said there had been so few efforts to unionize fast-food workers because it was such a daunting challenge.

“These jobs have extremely high turnover, so by the time you get around to organizing folks, they’re not on the job anymore,” she said. Nonetheless, she said the new effort might gain traction because it is taking place in New York, a city with deep union roots where many workers are sympathetic to unions.

Jonathan Westin, organizing director at New York Communities for Change, a community group that is playing a central role in the effort, said hundreds of workers had already voiced support for the campaign, called Fast Food Forward.

“The fast-food industry employs tens of thousands of workers in New York and pays them poverty wages,” Mr. Westin said. “A lot of them can’t afford to get by. A lot have to rely on public assistance, and taxpayers are often footing the bill because these companies are not paying a living wage.”

Mr. Westin said the campaign was using techniques that differed from those in most unionization drives, and was still developing overall strategy. He declined to say whether it would pursue unionization through elections or by getting workers to sign a majority of cards backing a union.

McDonald’s issued a statement about the incipient unionization push. “McDonald’s values our employees and has consistently remained committed to them, so in turn they can provide quality service to our customers,” the company said.

It added that the company had an “an open dialogue with our employees” and always encouraged them to express any concerns “so we can continue to be an even better employer.” McDonald’s noted that most of its restaurants were owned and operated by franchisees “who offer pay and benefits competitive within the” industry.

But workers demonstrating outside the Mcdonald’s on Madison Avenue said their employer pays them wages that makes it difficult to pay for basics.

“We can’t pay rent, pay bills,’' said Hector Henningham, 40, a manager, who said he was worked for McDonald’s for eight years and makes $8 an hour. “We need change.’'

One customer drinking coffee inside the McDonald’s said she supported the organizing effort. “If anybody deserves to unionize, it’s fast food workers,’' said the customer, Jocelyn Horner, 35, a graduate student.

Even with a union, it might be hard to obtain wages of $15 an hour, and many employers say they would most likely employ fewer workers if they had to pay that much.

Mr. Westin’s group, New York Communities for Change, has played a major role in the recent uptick in unionizing low-wage workers in New York, many of whom are immigrants. In the past year, his group, working closely with the retail, wholesale and department store union and other organizations, has helped win unionization votes at four carwashes and six supermarkets in New York.

The sponsors of the fast-food campaign also include, the Black Institute and the Service Employees International Union, a powerful union that is playing a quiet but important role behind the scenes.

Several religious leaders are backing the effort. “I’ve become involved because it is primarily a matter of justice,” said the Rev. Michael Walrond of the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. “We seek to protect those who are the most vulnerable in our culture, and some of the most vulnerable people in the city are fast-food workers who work for poverty wages.”

According to the State Labor Department, median pay for fast-food workers in the city is around $9 an hour — or about $18,500 a year for a full-time worker.

After three years of working at a McDonald’s restaurant on 51st Street and Broadway, Alterique Hall earns $8 an hour — and is yearning for something better.

So when he heard about the unionization campaign, Mr. Hall, 23, was quick to sign on.

“It’s time for a change,” he said, “It’s time to put on the gloves.”

Linda Archer, a cashier at the McDonald’s on 42nd Street just west of Times Square, said she wished she earned that much. She earns $8 an hour after three years there and averages 24 hours a week, she said, meaning her pay totals about $10,000 a year.

“I feel I deserve $15 an hour,” said Ms. Archer, 59. “I work very hard.” She said she hoped a union would deliver affordable health insurance and paid sick days.

“My hope is we can all come together in a union without being intimidated,” she said.

TCB Management, the franchisee that operates Mr. Hall’s McDonald’s, and Lewis Foods, which runs Ms. Archer’s, did not respond to inquiries.

Tim McIntyre, a Domino’s Pizza spokesman, said the few efforts to unionize its stores and drivers had fallen flat.

“It’s a fairly high-turnover position, so there’s never been a successful union effort,” he said. “People who are doing this part time, seasonally or as they work their way through college don’t find much interest in membership.”

Richard W. Hurd, a labor relations professor at Cornell, said the organizations backing the fast-food campaign seemed intent on finding pressure points to push the restaurants to improve wages and benefits.

“But it’s going to be a lot harder for them to win union recognition,” he said. “It will be harder to unionize them than carwash workers because the parent companies will fight hard against it, because they worry if you unionize fast-food outlets in New York, that’s going to have a lot of ramifications elsewhere.”

Nate Schweber contributed reporting.


November 28, 2012

Rail Plan Stirs Distrust Among Black Angelenos


LOS ANGELES — The story of major transit projects in the 20th century here was the story of black neighborhoods carved into pieces. One freeway after another forced families from their homes in South Los Angeles, the core of the region’s black community. Walls of concrete were erected through their neighborhoods, which they said cut them off from wealthier parts of the city.

The Crenshaw rail line was supposed to be different. The line, a crucial link in a planned rail network that will span Los Angeles County, promised to right that historical wrong by connecting South Los Angeles to the city’s business hubs: downtown, the airport and Hollywood.

Instead, the Crenshaw line threatens to become yet another insult to South Los Angeles and a burden for businesses, some residents and community activists have said.

The Leimert Park neighborhood, the heart of black culture here, may be left without a stop on the rail line, a victim of limited money. And the train will run at street level through part of the area, which business owners fear will cut them off from their customers during years of construction.

The prospect that the train will bypass the neighborhood has stoked distrust among South Los Angeles residents who feel that they are being shortchanged as power brokers try to save money for other projects in wealthier parts of the city.

Tonya Anthony’s family has owned and operated a hair salon on Crenshaw Boulevard since 1959. She was initially excited about the Crenshaw line. But once she learned that there would be no stop in Leimert Park, a few blocks from her shop, and that construction would take away half of the parking her customers used, she worried that the train might drive the salon out of business.

“Leimert Park is one of the major cultural areas in the city,” Ms. Anthony, 44, said. “For traffic to be diverted past it, I think, would be very detrimental to this area and the businesses here.”

Tom Bradley, this city’s first and only black mayor, was also the mayor who brought modern subways to Los Angeles. Mayor from 1973 to 1993, Mr. Bradley lived in Leimert Park before moving to the mayoral residence. And, for some, the Crenshaw line, which will cover 8.5 miles through South Los Angeles to the airport, has become part of an effort to extend his legacy.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles County supervisor who represents South Los Angeles, put forward a plan last year to allocate money for a Leimert Park stop and to keep the line underground along Crenshaw Boulevard. The city’s black political establishment — religious and business leaders and elected officials who have often clashed on other issues — lined up behind the effort.

“It was a salute to Tom Bradley, who said this was his vision for his city,” Mr. Ridley-Thomas said. He added that the Crenshaw line and a Leimert Park stop had become “emblematic of a struggle for progress.”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the city’s first Latino mayor, has also positioned himself as a successor to Mr. Bradley’s transit legacy: the rail lines that will span Los Angeles County in the coming decades will be a major piece of his own legacy after he leaves office next year because of term limits.

Yet Mr. Villaraigosa and his allies blocked Mr. Ridley-Thomas’s plan. Instead, a Leimert Park stop will be included only if contractors can squeeze it within the existing budget, and the Crenshaw line will run at street level for part of its trip through the area.

Mr. Villaraigosa agrees, as does just about everyone else, that Leimert Park, home to cultural festivals, jazz clubs and a host of black-owned businesses, deserves its own stop. Contractors will submit their proposals for the project within a few weeks, and the mayor said he was “fairly confident” that a Leimert Park stop could be done within the $1.8 billion budget.

But Mr. Villaraigosa also emphasized the benefits that the rail network — including a recently constructed light-rail line that carries passengers through the northern parts of South Los Angeles — would offer the area even if a Leimert Park stop was not built. He also noted his efforts to expand the Crenshaw line, which was originally designed as a bus line with a fraction of the money it now has.

“All of that happened because I drove it,” he said. “This was a busway before I made it into a light rail.”

Still, some Leimert Park residents remain convinced that the rail line has been nickel-and-dimed to save money for other projects in wealthier parts of the city, like the “Subway to the Sea,” which will extend the subway line from downtown through affluent communities in West Los Angeles. The budget for that project stretches to an estimated $6.3 billion, and the entire line will run underground, sparing businesses from surface-level construction that could drive away customers.

“In this community, we don’t have money,” said Theodore Thomas, the president of the Community Council in the Park Mesa Heights neighborhood, where the Crenshaw line will run at street level. “The majority of people think we’re a pass-through on the way downtown.”

Lisa Schweitzer, a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California who studies social justice and transport, said that the congested corridor on the West Side was the best place in Los Angeles for a subway line, while Crenshaw Boulevard was better suited for an aboveground light-rail line, which is less expensive to build but carries fewer people.

Crenshaw Boulevard was the site of a streetcar line before that rail system was ripped out more than half a century ago.

But Dr. Schweitzer said she understood the frustration that residents and small-business owners along Crenshaw Boulevard had expressed. “It comes out of this history in which the answer is always no,” she said. “When it comes to requests from South L.A., the answer is always no, we can’t afford it. And, conversely, when it comes to the West Side, the answer is always yes, because they’re so politically empowered and so wealthy.”

Tavis Smiley, the television and radio broadcaster, has lived and worked in Leimert Park since the 1980s, when he started as an intern for Mr. Bradley.

“This is an old story,” he said. “I detest when government gives short shrift to people of color. If they don’t figure out a way to make sure this stop is included, there’s going to be outrage in this community.”
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« Reply #3247 on: Nov 30, 2012, 06:59 AM »

11/30/2012 10:00 AM

Showdown at the United Nations: Palestinian Recognition Marks Triumph over Israel

By Marc Pitzke in New York

Both Israel and the US were adamantly opposed, but the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday granted the Palestinians non-member observer status, essentially an official recognition of a Palestinian state. The European Union was unable to find a common line, and Germany abstained as expected.

Helen Freedman and Ari Briggs were completely alone on Thursday afternoon in New York. They were standing in the middle of a small traffic island in front of the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan and waving the Israeli flag. They had scrawled "No 'Palestinian' State" on a sign. The quotation marks around the word "Palestinian" were intentional.

The mini-protest was the pair's way of venting their anger at what was happening in the building across the street. The UN General Assembly had just begun proceedings to grant the Palestinians the status of a "non-member observer state," a deeply symbolic triumph over their arch-rival Israel. But it is one that is likely to set back the peace process in the Middle East rather than drive it forward.

"The Palestinians want to destroy Israel," complained Freedman, whose organization Americans for a Safe Israel supports the settler movement in the West Bank. Before he could say more, Freedman was interrupted by screaming sirens as a motorcade rushed up First Avenue. In a moment of irony, the armored car in the middle contained Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, a half hour behind schedule, rushed into the General Assembly to receive "a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine," as he put it in his forceful speech. It was ultimately handed to him at 5 p.m. local time with 138 of the 193 UN member states voting in favor. Nine countries voted no, the US and Israel most prominent among them, and 41 countries abstained,including Germany.

Although the result of the vote was a foregone conclusion, an extended ovation erupted in the plenary. The Palestinian delegation sprang out of their seats, embraced one another and unfurled their flag. Israel's UN Ambassador Ron Prosor, who just minutes earlier had criticized the resolution as a "march of folly," remained seated in stony silence.

'Hostile and Poisonous'

There is little doubt that Palestine's elevation to state status, at least according to the criteria laid out in the UN charter, is a diplomatic success for Abbas, particularly in his ongoing struggle for power with Hamas. But when it comes to the peace process, the vote could emerge as a Pyrrhic victory. After all, the two countries that are of particular importance for peace in the Middle East -- the US and Israel -- feel snubbed by the move.

Shortly after the vote, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it "unfortunate" and "counterproductive," adding that the only way to achieve real peace was by way of direct talks. The UN vote, she said, placed new obstacles on that path. As if to prove her point, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement criticizing Abbas' General Assembly speech as "hostile and poisonous."

Indeed, both sides seemed intent on using the day to further entrench their positions rather than to extend a hand. Abbas began his speech with an ode to the "beloved martyrs" who lost their lives in the most recent eight-day conflict in the Gaza Strip, speaking of the "men, women and children, murdered along with their dreams." It set the tone for what would become repeated damnations of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, with Abbas calling it racism, apartheid, colonialism and ethnic cleansing.

Israeli Ambassador Prosor, who spoke immediately after Abbas, was no less confrontational. While he said that Israel remained committed to peace, he blasted the Palestinian president, saying that he preferred travelling to New York for symbolism rather than to Jerusalem for genuine dialogue. The resolution, he said, does nothing to promote peace. "There is only one route to Palestinian statehood," he thundered, "and that route does not run through this chamber in New York."

Confusion in the EU

Indeed, outside of the UN plenary, the vote doesn't mean much. Non-member observer states such as the Vatican have a right to speak, but not to vote. The status is seen as a springboard to eventual full membership, but with the US holding a permanent veto in the UN Security Council, such a step is not in the Palestinians' immediate future. The only thing that Israel now has to fear is that the recognition gives the Palestinians access to the International Criminal Court, where they could choose to bring action against the Israelis.

For the European Union, however, the vote once again exposed the 27-member bloc's inability to reach consensus on foreign policy issues. Most EU countries, to be sure, voted in favor of Palestinian observer status, including France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark. Non-EU states Switzerland and Norway also supported Abbas. But others, including Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany, abstained in an effort at neutrality. Only one EU member state, the Czech Republic, voted against the Palestinians.

"We have doubts that today's resolution brings the peace process forward," said German UN Ambassador Peter Wittig, echoing the statement released earlier in the day from the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. He said he feared it would do more harm than good.

Others were not as concerned, though. In the morning, the UN honored the Palestinians on what was a historical day even absent the resolution. The vote, not accidentally, had been scheduled for the 65th anniversary of the day the UN Partition Plan for Palestine was passed in 1947.

The fiery General Assembly speeches weren't the only indications of just how little has changed since then. An exhibition of a Palestinian artist was opened in the UN lobby on Thursday evening. And the titles of his abstract works mirrored the ongoing tragedy of two peoples in the Middle East: "Homeland," "Homeless," and "Jerusalem."


EU-Middle East: When Europe had a foreign policy

29 November 2012
El País Madrid

Incapable once again of taking a unified position on a matter of foreign policy, European countries are voting independently on UN non-member state observer status for the Palestinian Territories. Yet there was a time when Europeans claimed to have a key role to play in the peace process.
Lluís Bassets

With a shrug of resignation, you accept these days that the EU has no foreign policy.

Sarcastic remarks about Lady Catherine Ashton have become banalities – Ashton being the Vice President of the Commission and High Representative for Foreign Policy entrusted with piloting a ship without a rudder, sails and perhaps even a hull. In other words, a contraption incapable of getting anywhere.

Since July 2010 she has commanded a formidable European External Action Service staffed by 3,000 professional diplomats of the highest level that, lacking the unity and the political will to shape an identity and a character on the international stage, in fact has no one to serve.

Crumbling Union

Today, there will be the chance to see, once again, the spectacle of the crumbling European Union when the United Nations General Assembly votes on the resolution to be presented by the President of the Palestinian Authority for Palestine's status to be upgraded to "non-member state" status. As expected, all attempts to forge a common position, which should have had the vote of each one of the 27 members of the EU, have failed, so the straddling of the middle ground has begun.

It all seems typical these days. The European fight over money is so common, mutual grievances and insults so usual, and dislike for the joint project so widespread, that it's easy to forget that things were not always like this.

The brutal truth that has to be rubbed in the faces of current policy-makers, is that we Europeans did have a foreign policy when there was no foreign policy office. To which we must add something even more cruel: the little headway that has been made along the road towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians is due to the decisions and resolutions that were taken when we Europeans, though we were barely aware of it, did have an international standing and a foreign policy worthy of the name.

Policy vaccum

The evidence against today's vacuum is the Venice Declaration from June 1980, which followed the Camp David Accords and the signing of the Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. In it, the heads of state and governments of the nine member countries of the European Community, today the core of the EU, pledged to play a “special role” in securing peace in the region; recognised the right of Palestinians to self-determination; foresaw the two states, the current Israel and one for the Palestinians, living in peace and security and recognised by all; and encouraged both two parties to negotiate over the details. Already since then, the nine condemned the settlement policy, calling it a “serious obstacle to the peace process” and rejected the unilateral change of the status of Jerusalem. And all that was done unanimously. Without any veto.

On the morning of November 28, only four of the nine signatories to that declaration have promised a yes vote for the Palestinian Territories: France, Denmark, Luxembourg and Ireland. Belgium is almost certain to end up voting in favour of the resolution. The UK with its conditions, Germany with its doubts and ruminations and the Netherlands and Italy with their no vote will end up putting the finishing brushstrokes to the portrait of European disunity – a striking contrast to the time when Europe did have a foreign policy.

Today's vote will be a demonstration of the weakness and the absence of the EU as such on the international scene at the time when that scene is being reshaped by the emerging states, where the Palestinian cause finds its greatest support. The idea of a Palestinian state, as impossible and utopian as it may seem, appears loaded with inevitability when we look at two very simple things that have always shaped history itself: the demographics of the region and the geopolitical map of the world.

Counterpoint: The EU should not be complicit in the Palestinians’mistake

“The UN vote may give the Palestinian Authroity a state on paper but it will not change the reality on the ground,” writes Daniel Schwammenthal in The Commentator. According to the Director of the American Jewish Committee Transatlantic Institute in Brussels, “no EU country should be complicit” in the “mistake” of compounding the Palestinians’ “1947 UN blunder” when they rejected the partition of Palestine as it was designed by the November 29 UN resolution that called for a Palestinian and a Jewish State. Schwammenthal adds –

    The creation of a state can only come through direct negotiations and any UN endorsement based on Palestinian terms will only make it harder to find a mutually acceptable compromise in the future. The UN bid thus threatens to divorce the creation of a Palestinian state from the ultimate goal of achieving peace.

    The only valid legal framework between Israel and the Palestinians – the 1995 “Oslo Accords” – specifically forbids the sort of unilateral manoeuvre Mr Abbas plans.

    By supporting the unilateral UN bid, EU member states would not only assist the Palestinians in violating their contractual obligations, they would also undermine the EU’s own standing, which after all signed the Oslo Accords as a witness.


November 29, 2012

U.N. Assembly, in Blow to U.S., Elevates Status of Palestine


UNITED NATIONS — More than 130 countries voted on Thursday to upgrade Palestine to a nonmember observer state of the United Nations, a triumph for Palestinian diplomacy and a sharp rebuke to the United States and Israel.

But the vote, at least for now, did little to bring either the Palestinians or the Israelis closer to the goal they claim to seek: two states living side by side, or increased Palestinian unity. Israel and the militant group Hamas both responded critically to the day’s events, though for different reasons.

The new status will give the Palestinians more tools to challenge Israel in international legal forums for its occupation activities in the West Bank, including settlement-building, and it helped bolster the Palestinian Authority, weakened after eight days of battle between its rival Hamas and Israel.

But even as a small but determined crowd of 2,000 celebrated in central Ramallah in the West Bank, waving flags and dancing, there was an underlying sense of concerned resignation.

“I hope this is good,” said Munir Shafie, 36, an electrical engineer who was there. “But how are we going to benefit?”

Still, the General Assembly vote — 138 countries in favor, 9 opposed and 41 abstaining — showed impressive backing for the Palestinians at a difficult time. It was taken on the 65th anniversary of the vote to divide the former British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, a vote Israel considers the international seal of approval for its birth.

The past two years of Arab uprisings have marginalized the Palestinian cause to some extent as nations that focused their political aspirations on the Palestinian struggle have turned inward. The vote on Thursday, coming so soon after the Gaza fighting, put the Palestinians again — if briefly, perhaps — at the center of international discussion.

“The question is, where do we go from here and what does it mean?” Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, who was in New York for the vote, said in an interview. “The sooner the tough rhetoric of this can subside and the more this is viewed as a logical consequence of many years of failure to move the process forward, the better.” He said nothing would change without deep American involvement.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, speaking to the assembly’s member nations, said, “The General Assembly is called upon today to issue a birth certificate of the reality of the state of Palestine,” and he condemned what he called Israeli racism and colonialism. His remarks seemed aimed in part at Israel and in part at Hamas. But both quickly attacked him for the parts they found offensive.

“The world watched a defamatory and venomous speech that was full of mendacious propaganda against the Israel Defense Forces and the citizens of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel responded. “Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner.”

While Hamas had officially backed the United Nations bid of Mr. Abbas, it quickly criticized his speech because the group does not recognize Israel.

“There are controversial issues in the points that Abbas raised, and Hamas has the right to preserve its position over them,” said Salah al-Bardaweel, a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, on Thursday.

“We do not recognize Israel, nor the partition of Palestine, and Israel has no right in Palestine,” he added. “Getting our membership in the U.N. bodies is our natural right, but without giving up any inch of Palestine’s soil.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, spoke after Mr. Abbas and said he was concerned that the Palestinian Authority failed to recognize Israel for what it is.

“Three months ago, Israel’s prime minister stood in this very hall and extended his hand in peace to President Abbas,” Mr. Prosor said. “He reiterated that his goal was to create a solution of two states for two peoples, where a demilitarized Palestinian state will recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“That’s right. Two states for two peoples. In fact, President Abbas, I did not hear you use the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’ this afternoon. In fact, I have never heard you say the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’ because the Palestinian leadership has never recognized that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

The Israelis also say that the fact that Mr. Abbas is not welcome in Gaza, the Palestinian coastal enclave run by Hamas, from which he was ejected five years ago, shows that there is no viable Palestinian leadership living up to its obligations now.

As expected, the vote won backing from a number of European countries, and was a rebuff to intense American and Israeli diplomacy. France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland all voted yes. Britain and Germany abstained. Apart from Canada, no major country joined the United States and Israel in voting no. The other opponents included Palau, Panama and Micronesia.

Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, was dismissive of the entire exercise. “Today’s grand pronouncements will soon fade,” she said. “And the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed, save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded.”

A major concern for the Americans is that the Palestinians may use their new status to try to join the International Criminal Court. That prospect particularly worries the Israelis, who fear that the Palestinians may press for an investigation of their practices in the occupied territories widely viewed as violations of international law.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said that after the vote “life will not be the same” because “Palestine will become a country under occupation.”

“The terms of reference for any negotiations become withdrawal,” Mr. Erekat said.

Another worry is that the Palestinians may use the vote to seek membership in specialized agencies of the United Nations, a move that could have consequences for the financing of the international organizations as well as the Palestinian Authority itself. Congress cut off financing to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as Unesco, in 2011 after it accepted Palestine as a member. The United States is a major contributor to many of these agencies and is active on their governing boards.

In response to the Palestinian bid, a bipartisan group of senators said Thursday that they would introduce legislation that would cut off foreign aid to the authority if it tried to use the International Criminal Court against Israel, and close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington if Palestinians refused to negotiate with Israel.

Calling the Palestinian bid “an unhealthy step that could undermine the peace process,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said that he and the other senators, including Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, would be closely monitoring the situation.

The vote came shortly after an eight-day Israeli military assault on Gaza that Israel described as a response to stepped-up rocket fire into Israel. The operation killed scores of Palestinians and was aimed at reducing the arsenal of Hamas in Gaza, part of the territory that the United Nations resolution expects to make up a future state of Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah, was politically weakened by the Gaza fighting, with its rivals in Hamas seen by many Palestinians as more willing to stand up to Israel and fight back. That shift in sentiment is one reason that some Western countries gave for backing the United Nations resolution, to strengthen Mr. Abbas and his more moderate colleagues in their contest with Hamas.

Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting from Washington, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, and Khaled Abu Aker from Ramallah, West Bank.

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UN leader warns Middle East peace is on ‘life support’

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 14:04 EST

UN leader Ban Ki-moon warned Thursday ahead of key vote on UN recognition of a Palestinian state that the Middle East peace process is on “life support”.

But he told a UN meeting that only “direct negotiations” between the Palestinians and Israelis can lead to a permanent settlement.

Ban called on the Israeli and Palestinian leaders “to breathe new life into the peace process which is now on life support” because of the negotiations deadlock between the rivals.

“What is needed now is political will and courage. Leaders must show a historic sense of responsibility and vision. Israelis and Palestinians must break out of the zero-sum mentality,” Ban told a meeting on Palestinian rights

The UN General Assembly will vote later Thursday on a resolution granting Palestine observer state membership of the UN. It is certain to win despite opposition from the United States and Israel.

Ban noted that the General Assembly vote comes 65 years to the day after the assembly voted a resolution on the division of the Palestinian territories into a two-state solution that “remains tragically unfulfilled”.
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« Reply #3249 on: Nov 30, 2012, 07:05 AM »

November 29, 2012

Egyptian Islamists Approve Draft Constitution Despite Objections


CAIRO — Racing against the threat of dissolution by judges appointed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and ignoring howls of protest from secular opponents, the Islamists drafting Egypt’s new constitution voted Friday to approve a charter that human rights groups and international experts said was full of holes and ambiguities.

The result would fulfill some of the central demands of the revolution: the end of Egypt’s all-powerful presidency, a stronger parliament and provisions against torture or detention without trial. But it would also give Egypt’s generals much of the power and privilege they had during the Mubarak era and would reject the demands of ultraconservative Salafis to impose puritanical moral codes.

Yet the contents of the document were perhaps less contentious than the context in which it was being adopted. Adding to the divisive atmosphere in Egypt, its passage was expected after almost all the delegates from secular parties and Coptic Christians walked out and protesters took to the streets.

Dismissing the discord, President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a televised interview on Thursday that he expected to call for an almost immediate referendum on the draft constitution to help bring Egypt’s chaotic political transition to a close — “a difficult birth from the womb of an ancient nation.”

“We are going to get out of this short bottleneck hugging each other,” he added.

But Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and former United Nations diplomat, compared the proposed constitution to the charters that Egypt’s former authoritarian rulers passed in rigged plebiscites. “It will not survive,” he said.

The Coptic Church, whose members are believed to make up about 10 percent of Egyptians, directed its representatives on the assembly to boycott the vote. One representative said the constitution represented only the Islamists who had drafted it. “Not the constitution of Egypt,” the church negotiator, Kamel Saleh, told the state newspaper Al Ahram.

But several independent analysts said the hasty way in which it was prepared led to more problems than any ideological agenda. Instead of starting from scratch and drawing on the lessons of other countries, the deadline-conscious drafters tinkered with Egypt’s existing Constitution, without attempting to radically remake Egyptian law in any particular direction, said Ziad Al-Ali, who has tracked the assembly for the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization in Sweden.

On the question of Islamic law’s place in Egyptian jurisprudence, the assembly left unchanged a longstanding article at the beginning of the text grounding Egyptian law in the “principles of Islamic law.”

But in an attempted compromise between the ultraconservatives and their liberal opponents, the proposed constitution added a new article defining those principles in accordance with established schools of Sunni Muslim thought.

Some liberals expressed fear that conservatives Islamist judges and lawmakers could ultimately use the new clause to push Egypt to the right. But liberals who signed on to the compromise said the language was broad enough to give judges grounds to argue for individual rights, too.

Egypt’s generals, who seized power at Mr. Mubarak’s ouster and who relinquished it to Mr. Morsi only in August, retain many of their prerogatives. The defense minister would be chosen from the military’s officers. Insulating the armed forces from parliamentary oversight, a special council that includes military officers would oversee military affairs and the defense budget. And the military would retain the ability to try civilians in military courts if they are accused of damaging the armed forces. On individual rights, the constitution is a muddle. Believers in any of the three Abrahamic religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism — are guaranteed the freedom of worship, but only those three.

The constitution calls for freedom from discrimination, but does not specify whether women or religious minorities are protected. A provision on women’s equality was left out to avoid a dispute after ultraconservatives insisted that women’s equality should be qualified by compliance with religious laws.

The text also offers no guidance about how to balance its broad protections of freedom of expression against other provisions protecting people or religions from insults. “These contradictions were either intentional or based on ignorance of how rights should be protected, or both,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who tracked the document.

In some places, the charter also provides for “society” as well as the state to play a role in upholding family values or moral standards, which critics said could open the door to vigilante pressure from self-appointed moral guardians. “Is ‘society’ me and my friends in my neighborhood?” asked Mr. Ali of the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance.

He noted that another article in the document calls for the election of local councils in each province but keeps all the power in the hands of federally appointed governors. And even though Egypt’s pervasive public corruption was a major complaint by those who forced Mr. Mubarak from power, the assembly declined to borrow any international models to promote transparency, he said. “There won’t be a huge improvement in the way government works and the way services are delivered, and that is a setback for democracy.”

Mohamed Mohyi el-Din, a delegate in the assembly, opened the session by pleading for more time to try to reach consensus. “We shouldn’t rush the draft of the constitution because we’re afraid of this or that, or because there’s a ‘million-man’ march today or tomorrow,” he said.

Some of the secular boycotters wanted “to topple the assembly” to embarrass its Islamist leaders, Mr. Mohyi el-Din said, while the Islamists were rushing “to save the president.” Both sides are maneuvering for parliamentary elections, but Mr. Mohyi el-Din begged them to put partisanship aside. “Our ultimate goal is Egypt,” he said.

Sitting atop the raised dais in the wood-paneled chamber of the upper house of Parliament, Judge Hossam el-Gheriani, the assembly’s chairman, would not be delayed. He refused to wait for negotiations to lure back the boycotters. “We will start work,” he said, “and we’re waiting for them to catch up to us.”

Secular opposition groups have called for a protest against the charter on Friday. And on Sunday, the Supreme Constitutional Court is expected to issue a ruling that could dissolve the assembly, which was the reason for the rush.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
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« Reply #3250 on: Nov 30, 2012, 07:07 AM »

November 29, 2012

U.S. Moves Toward Recognizing Syria’s Opposition


WASHINGTON — The United States is moving toward recognizing the Syrian opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people as soon as it fully develops its political structure, American officials said Thursday.

A decision to recognize the group could be announced at a so-called Friends of Syria meeting that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to attend in Morocco on Dec. 12. It is the most immediate decision facing the Obama administration as it considers how to end the government of Bashar al-Assad and stop the violence that has consumed Syria.

President Obama has not signed off on the move, and the meetings to decide the issue have yet to be held. Debates within the administration concern legal issues about the implications of diplomatic recognition, how such a move might affect efforts to enlist Russian support for a political transition in Syria and, most importantly, the state of the opposition.

Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have already recognized the opposition, which was enlarged and overhauled at a meeting in Doha, Qatar, last month at the insistence of the United States and other nations. It is formally known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

“They are a legitimate representative of the Syrian people’s aspirations,” Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Syria, said Thursday at a conference on the Syrian humanitarian crisis. “They are making real progress and I expect that our position will evolve as they themselves develop,” he added.

American officials who favor the move are hoping to use formal recognition as a reward to the opposition for uniting opponents of the Assad government inside and outside Syria and fleshing out its political structure so that it can play a credible role if Mr. Assad is ousted.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is in the process of developing a series of committees on humanitarian assistance, education, health, judicial and security issues. If opposition leaders are able to present their group at the Morocco meeting as a functioning organization, one senior American official said, recognition by the United States might follow at the gathering, a conference of more than 70 nations that is to be held in Marrakesh.

“We’ve been looking for them to establish a leadership structure that’s clear to everybody, but also discrete committees that can deal with the various issues that they are assuming responsibility for,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday. “We don’t want to get ahead of the game here.”

At an appearance here on Thursday, Mrs. Clinton expanded on Ms. Nuland’s remarks. “We have been deeply involved in helping stand them up, and we’re going to carefully consider what more we can do,” she said at a conference co-hosted by the publisher of the magazine Foreign Policy. “It appears as though the opposition in Syria is now capable of holding ground, that they are able to bring the fight to the government forces.”

Mr. Ford and other experts attending a conference organized by the Middle East Institute and International Relief and Development, two nongovernment organizations, described a deepening humanitarian crisis because of the Syrian conflict. The number of internally displaced people in Syria has soared to about 2.5 million, according to Kelly Clements, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

The number of refugees has also climbed. About 140,000 Syrians have registered for assistance as refugees in Jordan, some 25,000 of whom are in refugee camps. There are also believed to be more than 100,000 additional Syrian refugees who have not registered. In Turkey, there are 125,000 Syrian refugees in camps and another 75,000 who are not residing in camps, she said. In Lebanon, there are an estimated 135,000 Syrian refugees, none of whom live in refugee camps.

In Iraq, some 60,000 Syrians have registered as refugees, half of whom live in camps. More than 35,000 additional Iraqis who fled the conflict in Iraq for Syria have since returned to Iraq.

The Assad government, Mr. Ford said, has often interfered with the delivery of humanitarian assistance. He also said that Iran had helped the Assad government track down opposition figures who are voicing their view on the Internet.

Mr. Ford indicated that the subject of providing arms to opposition fighters was also being reviewed, but said that any discussion of arms needed to be part of a broader strategy for a political transition if Mr. Assad leaves power. “Arms are not a strategy; arms are a tactic,” he said.

He suggested that the government was still able militarily. “There is no sign of any kind of political deal to be worked out between the opposition groups and the regime,” he said. “The fighting is going to go on.”


Syria shuts off internet access across the country

By The Guardian
Thursday, November 29, 2012 19:59 EST

Two US-based internet-monitoring companies say Syria has shut off the internet nationwide.

A blog post on Renesys, a US company which tracks internet traffic worldwide, said that at 12.26pm in Damascus, Syria’s international internet connectivity shut down completely.

Akamai Technologies also confirmed a complete outage.

The Syrian government has previously cut phone lines and internet access in areas where regime forces were conducting major military operations.

An activist near Damascus who gave his name as Abu Sham said the government had cut the internet in the southern neighbourhoods of the capital on Thursday.

Another activist, Abu Qais al-Shami, who lives outside the country, also said land-lines, mobile phone signals and the internet were cut in several of the capital’s southern neighbourhoods, including Yarmouk and Tadamon, around noon.

He said he had been able to communicate with contacts in Syria by using satellite telephones.

Elsewhere in the capital, warplanes bombed Kafr Souseh and Daraya, two neighbourhoods that fringe the centre of the city where rebels have managed to hide out and ambush army units, opposition activists said.

The past two weeks have seen military gains by rebels who have stormed and taken army bases across Syria, exposing Assad’s loss of control in northern and eastern regions despite the devastating air power he has used to bombard opposition strongholds.

According to a pro-government TV station, Syria’s minister of information said that “terrorists”, not the state, were responsible for the outage.

“It is not true that the state cut the Internet. The terrorists targeted the Internet lines, resulting in some regions being cut off,” he was quoted by al-Ikhbariya as saying.

State TV quoted the telecommunications minister as saying that engineers were working to repair what he said was a fault.

Meanwhile Syrian rebels battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad just outside Damascus on Thursday, restricting access to its international airport. The Dubai-based Emirates airline suspended flights to the Syrian capital.

A rebel fighter who identified himself as Abu Omar, a member of the Jund Allah brigade, told Reuters that insurgents fired mortars at the airport’s runways and were blocking the road linking it with the capital.

He said insurgents were not inside the airport but were able to block access to and from it. Another source in a Damascus rebel unit said mortars had been used in clashes near the airport but did not know whether rebels had fired mortars directly at the airport.

Their accounts could not be immediately verified because of severe restrictions on media access to Syria.

An official at EgyptAir said it had cancelled its Friday flight to Damascus due to the “deteriorating situation” around the airport. He said the airline would hold an urgent meeting in the next few hours with Egyptian officials to discuss halting all flights between Egypt and Syria. © Guardian News and Media 2012
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« Reply #3251 on: Nov 30, 2012, 07:11 AM »

November 29, 2012

Ethnic Hatred Tears Apart a Region of Myanmar


SITTWE, Myanmar — The Buddhist monastery on the edge of this seaside town is a picture of tranquillity, with novice monks in saffron robes finding shade under a towering tree and their teacher, U Nyarna, greeting a visitor in a sunlit prayer room.

But in these placid surroundings Mr. Nyarna’s message is discordant, and a far cry from the Buddhist precept of avoiding harm to living creatures. Unprompted, Mr. Nyarna launches into a rant against Muslims, calling them invaders, unwanted guests and “vipers in our laps.”

“According to Buddhist teachings we should not kill,” Mr. Nyarna said. “But when we feel threatened we cannot be saints.”

Violence here in Rakhine State — where clashes have left at least 167 people dead and 100,000 people homeless, most of them Muslims — has set off an exodus that some human rights groups condemn as ethnic cleansing. It is a measure of the deep intolerance that pervades the state, a strip of land along the Bay of Bengal in western Myanmar, that Buddhist religious leaders like Mr. Nyarna, who is the head of an association of young monks, are participating in the campaign to oust Muslims from the country, which only recently began a transition to democracy from authoritarian rule.

After a series of deadly rampages and arson attacks over the past five months, Buddhists are calling for Muslims who cannot prove three generations of legal residence — a large part of the nearly one million Muslims from the state — to be put into camps and sent to any country willing to take them. Hatred between Muslims and Buddhists that was kept in check during five decades of military rule has been virtually unrestrained in recent months.

Even the country’s leading liberal voice and defender of the downtrodden, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been circumspect in her comments about the violence. President Obama made the issue a priority during his visit to the country this month — the first by a sitting American president — and Muslim nations as diverse as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have expressed alarm.

Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar have had an uneasy coexistence for decades, and in some areas for centuries, but the thin threads that held together the social fabric of Rakhine State have torn apart this year.

Muslims who fled their homes now live in slumlike encampments that are short on food and medical care, surrounded by a Buddhist population that does not want them as neighbors.

“This issue must be solved urgently,” said U Shwe Maung, a Muslim member of Parliament. “When there is no food or shelter, people will die.”

Conditions have become so treacherous for Muslims across the state that Mr. Shwe Maung travels with a security force provided by the government. “They give me a full truck of police,” he said. “Two, three or four policemen is not enough.”

Leaders of the Buddhist majority in the state say they feel threatened by what they say is the swelling Muslim population from high birthrates and by Islamic rituals they find offensive, like the slaughter of animals.

“We are very fearful of Islamicization,” said U Oo Hla Saw, general secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the largest party in the state. “This is our native land; it’s the land of our ancestors.”

During outbreaks of sectarian violence in June and again in October, villagers armed themselves with swords, clubs and sharpened bicycle spokes that they launched from homemade catapults. In Muslim-majority areas, monasteries were burned. In Buddhist-majority areas, mosques were destroyed. The mayhem was set off by the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl for which Muslims were blamed.

The center of Sittwe, a former British colonial outpost, is now empty of the Muslims who once worked in large numbers as stevedores and at other manual jobs.

“I’m scared to go back,” said Aye Tun Sein, who was a teacher at a government school before the upheaval. In his village, Teh Chaung East, a 20 minute drive from Sittwe, he said that no one has a job because no one can leave the village, a collection of shacks and tents.

Political leaders describe the near total segregation of Muslims as temporary, but it appears to be more and more permanent.

“I don’t miss them,” said U Win Maung, a bicycle rickshaw driver whose house was burned down in June by his Muslim neighbors. “The hatred we have for each other is growing day by day.”

During his visit, Mr. Obama spent a considerable portion of a speech at Yangon University focusing on the importance of diversity, singling out the “danger” of the Rakhine situation and telling his audience “there is no excuse for violence against innocent people.”

“What we’ve learned in the United States is that there are certain principles that are universal, apply to everybody no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what religion you practice,” he said.

Divisions are so deep in Rakhine State that the communities cannot agree on what the Muslims should be called. Many Muslims call themselves Rohingya, an ethnic group that is not officially recognized in Myanmar, formerly Burma.

Small Muslim communities coexist with the Buddhist majority across Myanmar, but hatred is greatest for the Rohingya, partly because of their large numbers — at least 800,000, according to the United Nations — and their concentration in Rakhine State. (The country has a population of 55 million.)

The Buddhist residents of Rakhine see themselves as the inheritors of the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Mrauk U. They do not consider themselves ethnically Burmese, and the government recognizes them as a separate group. Rakhine Buddhists say they feel squeezed, persecuted by the Burmese majority and threatened by the swelling Muslim minority.

Before the violence, Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims had a sort of master-servant relationship, a castelike system in which Muslims did menial work and Buddhists were usually the bosses.

“We lived side by side but we never talked to each other,” said Daw Htwe May, a 51-year-old Buddhist resident of Sittwe who lost her home in the violence.

A group of Buddhist women burst out laughing when asked whether their children played with Muslims.

“Even a small boy knows that he should not play with a kalar,” a pejorative term for people of Indian descent, said Daw Thein Hla Yi, 55.

Buddhists say Muslims should be considered illegal immigrants, and they are angry that foreign countries and the foreign news media have sympathy for Muslims.

Leaders from both groups reach back into history for justifications for their cause.

“These people did not migrate from anywhere,” said Mr. Shwe Maung, the Muslim member of Parliament whose father was a police officer and whose grandfather was a landlord in Rakhine State. “They have been living there for several centuries.”

President Thein Sein told a visiting delegation from the United Nations in July that only Muslims who have been in the country for at least three generations would be allowed citizenship. The rest were a “threat to the peace of the nation,” he said, and would be put in camps and sent abroad. The United Nations rejected the idea, saying that it was not in the business of creating refugees.

Diplomats say that Mr. Thein Sein has retreated from that position and is now talking about resettling displaced Muslim populations inside the country. He sent a letter to the United Nations just before Mr. Obama’s visit saying that once passions cooled he would “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.” But he offered no details or time frame. He has ordered a commission of inquiry, which is expected to issue a report in the coming months.

In Sittwe, Buddhists say they are not ready to make concessions. Mr. Nyarna, the monk, said many Muslims do not “practice human morals” and should be sent to Muslim countries to be among “their own kind.”


November 29, 2012

Violent Raid Breaks Up Myanmar Mine Protest


BANGKOK — Security forces in Myanmar mounted a violent raid on Thursday against Buddhist monks and villagers who have been protesting the expansion of a copper mine. The crackdown was the largest since the civilian government of President Thein Sein came to power 20 months ago.

Witnesses said dozens of monks and other protesters were injured when the security forces used incendiary devices that set fire to protesters’ encampments outside the offices of the Chinese company in charge of the project. The company has a partnership with the powerful military in Myanmar, formerly Burma.

Photos from Burmese online news sites showed monks, who are highly revered in the country and are often involved in political causes, with singed robes stuck to their badly seared skin.

The raid came hours before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and leader of the opposition in Parliament, visited the city of Monywa, near the mine.

Her visit underlined the widespread support the protests had engendered across the country before the raid.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi told a crowd that she would try to find compromise in the dispute. “I want to meet with both sides and negotiate,” she said, according to The Associated Press.

Analysts said the brutal way that the crackdown was carried out could hamper Mr. Thein Sein’s efforts to convince the country that his government has made a clean break from the military governments that ruled the country for five decades.

“There will be political consequences,” said U Thiha Saw, the editor of Open News Journal and Myanma Danna magazine. “This may be the start of an uglier phase for the government. Things may get a little more complicated.”

The crackdown was conducted by security forces who have little experience using modern crowd-control methods that are meant to minimize casualties. During military rule, dissent was brutally repressed and protesters on several occasions were shot to death in the streets.

In Thursday’s raid, security forces fired what one witness described to The Associated Press as “black balls that exploded into fire” to disperse the protesters, who had overstayed a Wednesday deadline set by the government to leave the area.

Factory workers and villagers, both ethnic Burmese and members of minorities, have taken advantage of new freedom under Mr. Thein Sein’s government to carry out limited demonstrations and strikes in recent months. The protests at the copper mine were by far the largest to appear since the former military junta ceded power to civilians in March 2011.

By dealing so forcefully with the mine protests, the government risks appearing to defend the vested interests of the old government. The project is typical of the kinds of opaque deals often struck during military rule that have enriched many of the country’s generals. The military has been so deeply involved in business that it has its own company, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, that is listed as a part owner of the copper mine.

The deal between the military and the Chinese company, a subsidiary of a state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer, to expand the mine was signed two years ago when Mr. Thein Sein was prime minister under the military junta.

According to an American diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks, the deal was brokered by U Tay Za, a tycoon who became rich through his connections to the military government, especially the country’s former dictator, Senior Gen. Than Shwe.

The crackdown may also complicate the investment picture for China, which has struggled with the perception that it is mainly interested in extracting natural resources from Myanmar, not in aiding its development.

The Global Times, a state-owned Chinese newspaper, published an article Thursday, before the crackdown, that accused the West and advocacy groups of instigating the protests against the mine project, and said that shutting it down would be “a lose-lose situation” for the two countries.

“Chinese companies’ investments in Myanmar are facing huge challenges,” the article said. “What we see in the country is the inevitable impact of its democratization.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment was a major factor in the cancellation of a hydroelectric dam project last year in northern Myanmar that would have exported electricity to China. The project was suspended after an outcry.

The raid on Thursday occurred in the predawn hours. Ashin Visara, a 28-year-old monk who was injured in the crackdown, said security forces threw “explosive devices” into the areas where protesters were camped out.

“That started fires at the protest sites,” he said. “And then they attacked us.”

U Nway Oo, a student activist from Monywa who assisted the injured, said many protesters fled into the surrounding villages or the jungle.

“There were no medical personnel or ambulances around before the crackdown,” he said.

The mine, which is often referred to as Letpadaung, for the mountains from which the copper is extracted, was initially operated by a joint venture between the Myanmar government and a Canadian company, Ivanhoe Mines. The Chinese company became involved two years ago. The expansion project would displace inhabitants of two dozen villages.

The protests have been led in part by two young women, Aye Net and Thwe Thwe Win, who reportedly escaped arrest.

The crackdown is a setback for advocacy groups that focus on the crucial question of land rights, an issue that is likely to become more contentious as economic growth makes villagers’ land more attractive to companies and property developers.

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Monywa, Myanmar.

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« Reply #3252 on: Nov 30, 2012, 07:15 AM »

November 29, 2012

Prosecutions in Georgia Target Ex-Officials


TBILISI, Georgia — These days, when the Georgian prosecutor’s office opens, people are lined up, clutching plastic bags full of documents. One after another, they are presenting their case that President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government stripped them of something: a state job, a piece of land, an apartment. Most of them want to see someone punished.

The promise that officials would be punished helped propel the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili to victory in October parliamentary elections, dislodging the group of politicians who had controlled Georgia for nine years. Mr. Saakashvili conceded the loss and agreed to enter the opposition, and for the first time in Georgia’s post-Soviet history, power changed hands legally.

About two months later, the Georgian experiment — to many in the West, a last hope for building democracy in inhospitable post-Soviet terrain — hangs in the balance.

Mr. Ivanishvili has embarked on the project of prosecuting former officials more swiftly than anyone expected, saying he cannot ignore the public’s demand for justice. But numerous cases are targeting political rivals, since Mr. Saakashvili remains president until next October. The authorities have already charged 23 officials from Mr. Saakashvili’s government with crimes like corruption and torture, and they may prosecute his former interior minister, who is also the leader of the Parliament’s main opposition party.

Alexander Rondeli, a political analyst, said Mr. Ivanishvili was following in the winner-take-all tradition of Georgian politics.

“In Georgia, the political enemy is an enemy. I don’t think it gives a very good image to this country, but it is our culture,” said Mr. Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s clear now that the new political force wants to annihilate the previous one. So that is completely clear. It does not look very much like democracy, but they say that the rule of law is higher.”

It was apparent there would be some kind of legal reckoning if Mr. Saakashvili lost power. Though his government was embraced in the United States and Europe for its pro-Western orientation, complaints mounted at home, especially about police brutality and the lack of due process in the justice system.

This fall, video was released showing prison inmates being beaten and sodomized by guards, releasing a huge wave of public anger. Rights activists have long complained that officials acted with impunity in grave cases, like the death of Sandro Girgvliani, a bank executive who was abducted by law enforcement officers in 2006 after an altercation.

As a candidate, Mr. Ivanishvili promised to deliver justice swiftly, sometimes claiming he could create an independent court system in as little as a year. Asked how, he told Forbes, “You have to jail one minister — two, max — to show everyone that there will be no forgiveness. Show that there’s political will up there, and it will all line up quickly.”

Georgia’s new prosecutor, Archil Kbilashvili, said that more than 3,000 criminal complaints had been filed against former officials over the last month, and he planned to triple the number of investigators in the division handling misuse of authority. If there is a criticism he hears most often from Georgians, he said, it is that he is acting too slowly.

As an example, he offered the case of Bacho Akhalaia, a much-feared former defense and interior minister who fled the country after the elections, evidently expecting to be arrested. When news got out that Mr. Akhalaia had returned, Mr. Kbilashvili said, he had been in his job for just five days when he was inundated with “many, many phone calls” asking why he had not ordered Mr. Akhalaia’s arrest.

“I said I have no evidence against him, he is a free citizen of this country,” Mr. Kbilashvili said. Still, the next day, Mr. Akhalaia was arrested based on the relatively mild charges of striking a sergeant with a knife handle and publicly beating servicemen. After that, new allegations began to flow in from citizens who were “somehow encouraged” to testify against Mr. Akhalaia, Mr. Kbilashvili said.

Two prominent legal rights groups have already warned that Mr. Ivanishvili’s team is approaching questions of justice too hastily. Tamar Chugoshvili, of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, said her group withdrew from a parliamentary effort to compile a list of political prisoners for release, because a two-week deadline made it “impossible to really study the cases in detail.”

“What we see is that they are in a real rush, they are trying to do things very quickly,” she said. “I understand that they have a political responsibility in front of voters, but I think they are doing it wrong.” She said it was too early to judge whether former officials were receiving due process, but said it was “very important that we should see a just process, and a high standard of proof.”

This week, the inquiries seemed to tilt toward high-ranking figures around Mr. Saakashvili. Investigations were opened into the cases of Mr. Girgvliani and a former prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, whose 2005 death from carbon monoxide poisoning has long been the subject of rumors.

As the campaign accelerates, Western leaders have rushed to intervene, warning Mr. Ivanishvili that acts of political retribution could jeopardize Georgia’s path toward NATO membership. But those warnings have served to annoy Mr. Ivanishvili’s supporters, who say Western governments enjoyed a cozy relationship with Mr. Saakashvili and shut their eyes to his government’s rights violations.

“We perfectly understand that there is some cliché that everything in Georgia was perfect, and that the outcome of this election was a surprise to the international community,” Mr. Kbilashvili said, when asked about warnings from the West. Mr. Ivanishvili himself was clearly angered by a critical editorial that appeared in Wednesday’s Washington Post, and said at a news conference that it had been placed by Mr. Saakashvili’s lobbyists.

It was a tense week for officials from Mr. Saakashvili’s team, who woke every morning awaiting news about further arrests. Vano Merabishvili, the former interior minister and head of the United National Movement, was half-expecting the prosecutor to call him in for questioning on a minor charge related to Mr. Girgvliani’s death. In a conversation that was punctuated with brittle laughter, he said he would return to politics even if he were sentenced to a prison term. “I am young enough to wait 15 years, or 20 years,” he said. “I will be 65 years old if I am released after 20 years.”

In Tbilisi, it is rare to find citizens who do not support the idea of prosecuting departing officials. Maka Mujerishvili, 31, was a rare dissenter, saying she feared the campaign could get out of control. “They are now repeating everything they were fighting against,” she said of Mr. Ivanishvili’s team. “I think our Georgian public is making a mistake. They are looking for revenge. But I think it is taking us backward.”

Nikoloz Bezhanishvili, a mechanic, showed up at the prosecutor’s office on Tuesday, smoothing out the papers that he had brought to the capital from his village. They showed a narrow sliver of land that he said had been shaved off by an assessor linked to Mr. Saakashvili’s party.

This, he said, was why he had voted for Mr. Ivanishvili, so that, as he put it, “truth would be restored.” Asked what would happen if the land was not returned to him, his look was grim. “Then there is no hope for Georgia, and it is better to leave the country entirely,” he said.

Olesya Vartanyan contributed reporting.
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« Reply #3253 on: Nov 30, 2012, 07:18 AM »

Ecuadoran villagers drag Chevron to Canadian court

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 18:30 EST

TORONTO — A 19-year court battle that resulted in a staggering US$18.3-billion judgment from an Ecuadoran court against Chevron last year moved to Canada on Thursday as the plaintiffs seek to collect.

Ecuadoran villagers who brought the original lawsuit over decades of oil pollution in the Amazon are asking an Ontario Superior Court to force Chevron to hand over CAN$12 billion in Canadian assets held by subsidiaries.

The oil company, which has refused to pay, alleging fraud and bribery was used to obtain the ruling, says its Canadian subsidiaries are wholly independent and have nothing to do with this case.

After two days of hearings this week, the judge is expected to decide in January whether to recognize the Ecuadoran ruling.

Chevron got tangled up in the legal quagmire when in 2000 it purchased Texaco, which operated in the Lago Agrio region of Ecuador starting in the 1970s, leaving what the plaintiffs claim is an environmental mess in the Amazon jungle.

Chevron contends that Texaco paid all of the required clean-up costs before exiting the country in the 1990s.

The plaintiffs have also attempted to collect on the massive judgment in Brazil and Argentina, where Chevron has operations.
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« Reply #3254 on: Nov 30, 2012, 07:20 AM »

11/29/2012 05:50 PM

Where Did the Yo Go?: Russia High-Tech Offensive Stalls

By Benjamin Bidder

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pumping billions into efforts to revive his country's reputation as a high-tech powerhouse. The Yo-mobil hybrid minicar is just the latest in a series of ambitious projects to stall soon after being unveiled.

On the swampy outskirts of St. Petersburg, a group of men are killing time playing cards as they guard a prestige project of Russian industrial policy: an abandoned factory building.

Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov laid the cornerstone for this new neon-orange-painted production plant. The idea is to produce a car that is as hip as Daimler's Smart microcar and sells for the bargain equivalent of €9,000 ($11,700) -- an unbeatable combination that will hopefully make it an export hit.

Prokhorov promised to invest €150 million to cover the engineering costs of the "Yo-mobil," for the Russian letter "ë." This modern, gas-electric hybrid vehicle aims to finally debunk the cliché that Russia is only capable of exporting natural gas, tanks and nuclear power plants.

That would make the Yo-mobil a godsend for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to conquer the global market with mobile phones, tablet computers and aircraft proudly made in Russia. The president has promised to create 25 million new innovation-based, high-tech jobs in this vast country by 2025. In order to achieve this goal, the Kremlin plans to invest 16 trillion rubles (€400 billion/$520 billion), or enough to purchase Toyota, BMW, VW and Daimler at their current market values.

The money would be better-off invested in these foreign carmakers. Indeed, Russian state-owned companies and pro-Kremlin oligarchs are hardly able to advance beyond the stage at which prototypes are presented.

Nevertheless, Putin views cars as a top priority for his country's innovative future. This prompted Prokhorov to have two test vehicles driven to the president's residence in the spring of 2011. But Putin reacted moodily.

Two years ago, Putin drove a canary-yellow Kalina, a supermini car produced by the Russian carmaker Lada, on a publicity tour in Siberia. Just to be on the safe side, Lada had provided him with two replacement vehicles -- and a tow truck.

Perhaps it was this experience that prompted Putin to grumble to Prokhorov about whether "this Yo-mobil won't also fall apart during the trip." But he squeezed behind the wheel anyway and drove to a Russian Security Council meeting. The car managed to cover the 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) distance without stalling.

Promises and Pipe Dreams

However, on the way to the launch of serial production, planned for in mid-2012, the Yo-mobil ran out of steam, even though it had 200,000 pre-orders. At the factory site near St. Petersburg, guards turn away all visitors, saying the project has been put on hold. The construction manager asks for discretion -- otherwise he says he'll have Russia's domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, breathing down his neck.

Prokhorov's car, which was unveiled at the 2011 International Motor Show in Frankfurt as "Russia's new symbol," is the latest example of a centuries-old tradition. Legend has it that Prince Grigory Potemkin, a favorite of Catherine the Great, had fake settlements erected to mimic prospering villages and fool the empress. Similar smoke-and-mirror tactics are still in use today.

Engineers have already presented "Russia's first smartphone" on two occasions. In September 2010, the head of the Russian Technology State Corporation gave then-President Dmitry Medvedev a rough prototype that was supposedly destined to be manufactured in Taiwan. But the world never heard anything more about it.

Two months later, Putin was handed a device that "had all the functions of an iPhone4" in the words of Russian telecommunications tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov. The oligarch promised an initial run of 500,000 phones, which was later reduced to 100,000. Chinese manufacturer ZTE pulled the plug on the project after only 5,000 units had been produced, citing "lack of demand."

A similarly disappointing performance came from an e-book reader praised by pro-government media as a "Russian iPad." Anatoly Chubais, head of the state-backed firm Rosnano, promised "a very large series production" when he placed the first workable prototype in Putin's hands in August 2011. A batch of 1,000 was distributed to Russian schoolchildren. The planned €700 million factory, though, remained just a pipe dream.

No Longer a Technological Power

Fifty-five years after Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite, spread fear in the West about the power of Soviet engineers, the innovative ineptitude of the world's largest country has reached pathological proportions. Last year, Russians registered roughly 1,000 international patents -- less than the German electronics and engineering company Robert Bosch GmbH alone.

Russia's lack of technological expertise is also jeopardizing the Kremlin's ambitious plans for the aviation and defense industries. The Superjet -- the first passenger jet developed in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union -- has virtually no prospective buyers. Sukhoi, its manufacturer, has so far built only about two dozen units. One of them crashed during a demonstration flight in Indonesia in May 2012, killing all 45 on board.

Just how much Russia's technology trails that of its competitors became painfully obvious in mid-October, when the FBI uncovered a suspected Russian smuggling ring. The alleged Russian spies apparently had little interest in politically sensitive information. Instead, according to the FBI, they managed to slip microelectronics past US customs authorities -- mass-produced goods that were suitable for use in "military systems" and apparently destined for the Russian army and intelligence services.

Russia has apparently given up on trying to manufacture these components itself. Moscow-based military analyst Alexander Golts recently complained in the English-language Moscow Times that Russian companies are "in no position to make use of advanced technologies." For instance, engineers working on the planned T-50 fighter jet, a fifth-generation stealth bomber, have been given strict orders only to install Russian high-tech components. But since there are not enough plasma displays made in Russia, "we just take Japanese monitors and relabel them," admits a member of the project team.

"Progress and modernization arise from efforts to become more efficient," Moscow-based economist Vladislav Inozemtsev recently said in a SPIEGEL interview. "That contradicts the entire logic of the Russian economy." In order to generate an economic output of one dollar, Russia uses 10 times as much energy as Germany. According to Russian government auditors, "due to corruption and weak management," every kilometer of newly constructed highway is two-and-a-half times as expensive to build as those in the European Union.

"Everyone knows that this is unacceptable," Inozemtsev says, "but they all remain satisfied as long as oil and gas revenues continue to flow."

An Open Question

Meanwhile, the Yo-mobil's future looks decidedly grim. Prokhorov, the project's billionaire backer, pushed the sales launch back two years, to 2014. Shortly thereafter, he announced he was retiring from business.

In a backroom of the factory near St. Petersburg, two German mechanical engineers are sitting and chatting. Dieffenbacher, an automotive parts supplier based in southwestern Germany, has sent them here to monitor the assembly of a plastic press weighing 200 metric tons that Prokhorov purchased to help build his dream car.

"Our machines are up and running," one of the Germans says with the knowing smile of a man who wouldn't say a bad word about his client. "If the Russians build the car here, it will be a revolution."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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