November 30, 2012
German Lawmakers Back Latest Round of Aid for Greece
By MELISSA EDDY
BERLIN — Lawmakers in Germany’s lower house of Parliament easily passed the next round of financial support for Greece on Friday, despite growing doubt among members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition and opposition parties that the measures will be sufficient to resolve the Greek problem.
As expected, a clear majority of 473 out of 584 lawmakers casting ballots voted in favor of the package of measures agreed to by European finance ministers and international lenders last week that will unlock loan installments totaling €43.7 billion, or $56.7 billion. One hundred lawmakers voted against the measure and 11 abstained.
Germany is one of Greece’s largest creditors and support from Berlin is crucial for the success of the program. Yet with a parliamentary election scheduled for Sept. 22, German politicians from all sides have been reluctant to take on extra financial burdens.
Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, defended the latest bailout package and praised the restructuring efforts that have been made by the government of Antonis Samaras, prime minister of Greece. But he warned that the current discussion of writing down Greek debt would sap Athens’s drive to continue with the painful course of reforms that Germany has required in exchange for more financial assistance.
“If we say that the debt will be forgiven, then the readiness to save in exchange for further help is weakened. Consequently, this is the false incentive,” Mr. Schäuble said. “If we want to help Greece along this difficult path, then we must go forward step by step.”
The current package aims to cut Greek debt, currently estimated at 175 percent of gross domestic product, down to 124 percent by 2020. Mr. Schäuble acknowledged for the first time that the bailout would cut into Germany’s federal budget, but warned that failure to approve it could be disastrous for the nation and the rest of Europe.
Already the 17 European Union nations using the common currency are in recession. Unemployment in the bloc has also climbed to 11.7 percent, its highest rate since 1995, according to official European figures released Friday.
While the German economy remained largely immune to the suffering on its borders, the most recent official figures show growth slowing and investor confidence dipping.
Against this backdrop, Ms. Merkel has been able to quell calls from within own her center-right coalition for Greece to leave the euro zone, by insisting that the consequences of such a step would be far more dire for Germany than providing more financial assistance.
Ms. Merkel’s government rests on an alliance of her own conservative Christian Democratic Union with the sister party for the state of Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, and the liberal pro-business Free Democrats. It was not immediately clear if a fully majority of her government had supported the bailout measure.
The leading opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens, criticized Ms. Merkel’s government for taking too long to agree to help Greece and for failing to level with German taxpayers about the true cost of the effort, but nevertheless backed the package.
“We will vote for it because we don’t want our reliability as European partners left in any doubt,” Ms. Merkel’s main challenger for the election, Peer Steinbrück of the Social Democrats, told German public television ahead of Friday’s vote. “It has nothing to do with the government."
Secretary Clinton unveils roadmap to AIDS-free generation
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 14:02 EST
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled Thursday an ambitious US blueprint on how to realize the vision of an AIDS-free generation, aiming to see virtually no babies born with HIV by 2015.
“Scientific advances and their successful implementation have brought the world to a tipping point in the fight against AIDS,” the 54-page document says.
Calling AIDS “one of the most complex global health issues in modern history,” Clinton wrote in the foreword that challenges still exist, pointing to the 1.7 million people who die every year from AIDS-related illnesses.
But she stressed that, unlike a decade ago, developing AIDS after becoming infected with HIV is no longer an automatic death sentence, and major advances have been made in treatment and prevention.
Antiretroviral drugs have been hugely successful in cutting the rate of HIV transmission from pregnant women to their unborn babies or via breast-feeding, as well as in helping HIV-positive patients from developing AIDS.
In the vision of an AIDS-free generation, almost no child is born with the virus, as they grow up they are at lower risk of becoming infected, and if they do get HIV they have access to treatment to halt its progression towards AIDS.
US Global AIDS coordinator Eric Goosby told AFP that the 390,000 children currently born every year with HIV primarily lived in about 22 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Taking a cocktail of three antiretroviral drugs cut the risk of a mother transmitting HIV to her baby to less than two percent, he said. It also allowed her to breast-feed and protected her in future pregnancies in countries where many women had between five to seven children.
“The idea is to strengthen our ability to identify and retain HIV-positive women at the earliest stages, initiating a three-drug antiretroviral therapy,” he said.
“Now we will not get to zero,” Goosby warned, saying many women in developing countries never enter prenatal care. There are also women such as sex workers or drug users “whose lifestyles are so chaotic that they only come in and out of care at extreme moments.”
But he hoped by 2015 that the numbers of babies born with HIV would drop globally below 40,000, adding some countries were already further along towards achieving the goal than others.
New HIV infections among children and adults around the world have fallen by 19 percent over the past decade, and AIDS-related deaths by 26 percent since a peak in 2005.
“These are encouraging trends, but more work needs to be done,” says the report, drawn up by the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
It also “sends an unequivocal message that the US commitment to the global AIDS response will remain strong, comprehensive and driven by science.”
Clinton acknowledged though that “global health and development resources are being squeezed due to difficult economic times. And issues of stigma and discrimination exist across the globe.”
Under the road map, the United States will:
– work towards the elimination of new HIV infections in children by 2015 and keeping their mothers alive;
– increase its coverage of HIV treatment to cut the number of deaths from AIDS and boost HIV prevention, including antiretroviral drugs. President Barack Obama has set a goal of treating some six million people with such drugs by the end of 2013;
– increase the numbers of men that get circumcisions. By the end of fiscal year 2013, PEPFAR aims to have supported such operations for some 4.7 million men in eastern and southern Africa;
– step up access to testing and counseling, as well as to condoms and other prevention methods.
Those countries which manage to cut the annual number of new HIV infections below the number of new patients starting on antiretroviral drugs will be at a so-called “tipping point” in the epidemic. If that ratio falls below 1.0 percent, then the country will be getting ahead of the epidemic.
The blueprint stressed though that underpinning all these efforts would be scientific advances.
“We will go where the science takes us, translating science into program impact,” it states, adding the US will support innovative research into ways of prevention, as well as helping to halt the progression of the disease.
“In every setting, in every country, really in every city… we are on a continuum towards an AIDS-free generation,” Goosby said.
“There’s an aggregate and a kind of cumulative reflection of that for a country, and a world. But it is an individual march for each person and for each population.”
Johnson & Johnson won’t enforce anti-AIDS drug patents in developing world
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 15:09 EST
Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson announced Thursday that it would not enforce its patents on its AIDS drug Prezista in the world’s poorest countries and throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Offering cost relief to people infected with the HIV virus, J&J said it wanted to assure manufacturers that they can freely produce the generic version of the drug, darunavir, for sale in poor countries without fear of being accused of patent violation.
The new policy applies only to countries defined by the United Nations as Least Developed Countries, and also to sub-Saharan Africa, where the AIDS epidemic has been most intense.
“This new policy anticipates a greater future need to supply affordable generic versions of darunavir for the treatment of people living with HIV in the territory,” J&J said, two days ahead of the annual World AIDS Day.
“We believe… that intellectual property should not be a barrier to ensuring a sustainable supply of medically acceptable darunavir in the world’s poorest countries,” Paul Stoffels, J&J’s worldwide chairman for pharmaceuticals, said in a statement.
J&J markets the antiretroviral drug as Prezista through its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals.
It is often administered together with other antiretroviral drugs, like the already widely available ritonavir, to protect HIV-infected patients from developing full-blown AIDS.
At the official US wholesale price, Prezista costs a user more than $34 a day or some $12,400 a year.
As a generic, though, the price can drop by 90 percent or more, Stoffels told AFP. Darunavir is currently produced by South Africa’s Aspen Pharmaceuticals and sold locally for about $2.22 a dose, he said.
Stoffels said he expected the demand for darunavir to soar, with production launched in 10-15 factories worldwide to supply poor countries covered under the new patent protection announcement.
IHT Rendezvous -
November 29, 2012, 8:19 pm
From the Ashes, Tibetan Buddhism Rises in the Forbidden City
By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW
On a freezing Tuesday this week, dozens of special guests from China's cultural, political and business elites gathered within the blood-red walls of the Forbidden City. They were there for the opening of the newly restored Hall of Rectitude, the center of Tibetan Buddhism during China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing.
After a fire in 1923, the hall and about a half-dozen surrounding buildings that comprise the Buddhist architectural complex lay in ruin for nearly a century in the northwestern corner of the 8,000-room former imperial palace.
After six years of restoration funded by the Hong Kong-based China Heritage Fund, the Zhong Zheng Dian, as it's known in Chinese, is back, rebuilt from the ground up, though it won't be open to the public for at least two years according to officials at the Forbidden City's Palace Museum, the Beijing News said (in Chinese).
The opening comes at a tense time in relations between the Beijing government and people in the Tibet autonomous region. At least three more Tibetans burned themselves to death in protest of Chinese rule this week, according to a Web site run by Tibetan exiles.
This brings the number of self-immolations by Tibetans to about 90, according to overseas-based Tibet advocacy groups. Significantly, the protests are taking place outside the autonomous region in the Tibetan-populated homeland provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu, which were once relatively peaceful, said Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibetan studies at Columbia University. This presents a "very dramatic issue for China and its strategies," Mr. Barnett said.
As I mingled in the crowd in the Forbidden City on Tuesday afternoon, I heard, once or twice, the words "Dalai Lama" spoken quietly, seriously - and one such mention turned into an impassioned discussion about "why the Dalai Lama doesn't like China," among three visitors who looked Chinese and spoke Mandarin, as they looked at Tibetan tangkas, or religious paintings, in one of the new galleries.
Officially, though, the painful state of Sino-Tibetan relations wasn't mentioned at the event, where the guests included the China-born, naturalized American Nobel laureate, Chen Ning Yang (physics, 1957); a deputy foreign minister, Cui Tiankai; and Shan Jixiang, the recently appointed head of the Palace Museum, who has big plans for the institution.
Historically and religiously, the event was deeply significant.
Much of China's claim to Tibet rests on the close relationship that existed between Beijing and Lhasa during the reign of three Qing emperors - Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong - in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's religious leader, exercised great influence on the emperors during that time, in a patron-priest relationship.
Artistically, too, it's significant: the palace's large collection of Tibetan art and artifacts, including ritual worship objects, once again have a unified home in three galleries, as well as a small research space, the Research Center for Tibetan Buddhist Heritage.
"It's like a home-coming for the artifacts," said Gerald Szeto, an architect at the Beijing-based firm of Mo Atelier Szeto, who did the interior design of the galleries. "For a hundred years the whole area was left fallow," he said.
The Palace Museum says it has about 20,000 Tibetan Buddha statues in its collection dating from the 7th to the early 20th centuries, and over 1,000 tangkas. Some were on display on Tuesday, including an intricate, highly-colored, 18th century, three-dimensional mandala of brass and enamel (above), and tangkas painted in gold.
"The art and ancient artifacts are very mysterious to the outside world because they've never been shown before," Luo Wenhua, a curator and researcher of Tibetan and Buddhist art at the museum, said in a telephone interview.
"There are written records for almost every piece in the imperial collection, including where it is from, which year it was made, and the name of donors, its history and so on," said Mr. Luo, who has in the past called for greater protection for Tibetan Buddhist history in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai, here in Chinese.
"Some have very detailed information. This makes the pieces more precious, no matter what their artistic or academic value, because compared to other similar stuff in the rest of the world there are clear clues as to their identities," he said.
"It supports the study of Buddhist culture in Tibet and Mongolia, and its influence in China."
Just hours after Tuesday's ceremony, around midnight, a 18-year-old Tibetan, Sangay Tashi, set himself on fire and died in protest, Phayul.com reported.
And on Thursday, a father of two, Tsering Namgyal, 31, set himself on fire and died, it reported.
There was no indication that the deaths were connected to the event in Beijing, but the symbolism of re-opening this center of historic Tibet-Chinese relations will resonate.
Also on Tuesday, CNN broadcast an interview with the United States ambassador to China, Gary Locke, who in October traveled to affected areas of Sichuan Province, during which Mr. Locke said there were "high expectations even by the Chinese people" for China's new leader, Xi Jinping, to improve relations with Tibetans. (Read a transcript of the interview, transcribed by the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group.)
"His remarks will be welcomed by Tibetans as evidence that their grievances are being heard globally, if not yet in Beijing," said Todd Stein, director of government relations at the International Campaign for Tibet.
11/30/2012 11:14 AM
The Gates of Hell: Exploring Mexico's Sacred Caves
By Markus Becker in Tulum, Mexico
Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is dotted with thousands of caves that once housed prehistoric people and later became sacred to the Mayans. German archaeologists and filmmakers are currently involved in a project to explore with modern imaging technology and make a 3-D film of this underwater labyrinth.
There are dead Mayans and the bones of people from the Stone Age in Mexico's flooded caves. Now the underwater labyrinth is being explored with the help of modern imaging technology. Archeologists are developing computer models of relics, and a film documents the caves in 3-D for the first time.
A person died here hundreds of years ago. His body fell into the flooded cave and sank into the water. His flesh gradually separated from his bones. Today, he stares at divers out of empty eye sockets. His skull seems to be pushing its way out of the soil, as if he were trying to rise from the dead, to rise up from the sand, shake the tiresome sediment from his bones and escape from the silent darkness.
The others would probably want to follow him, because he isn't alone. The remains of more than 125 people lie in the Las Calaveras cenote. No one knows how and why the bodies got there, whether the people died at the same time or the bodies accumulated over the centuries.
The cenotes on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula are a strange and yet unsettlingly beautiful world. They are created when the ceilings of limestone caves collapse. Some of the holes fill up with rainwater, while others reach down to the water table and are connected to giant cave labyrinths. In the Stone Age, many of the caves, which were dry at the time, were used as living quarters and burial sites. The Mayans later worshipped the cenotes as gateways to the underworld Xibalba ("Place of Fear").
A systematic exploration is currently underway. Divers have mapped out hundreds of kilometers, German scientists are preparing three-dimensional computer models of bones and ceramics, and the caves have now been documented with a 3-D film camera for the first time. The resulting documentary film, titled "The Caves of the Dead," will be released in theaters in the summer of 2013.
The filming puts the participants to grueling tests, both physical and emotional. To reach the skeletons at the base of the Las Calaveras cenote, for example, people and bulky equipment have to pass through a roughly one-square-meter opening.
Director Norbert Vander isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, climbing over moss-covered, slippery rocks along the edge of the hole, issuing commands, swearing and sweating. The temperature in the jungle is around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), and the air is as humid as in a Turkish steam bath.
"You could play a cello on my nerves," says Vander. The 3-D underwater camera, a sinfully expensive, one-of-a-kind device, dangles on a pulley in front of him. Assistants slowly and carefully lower the 80-kilogram (176-pound) camera, as it dangles only a few precarious centimeters from the edge of the hole. Vander directs the rope himself, as drops of his sweat fall into the pit. When the box-like housing finally slides into the water and into the hands of the waiting divers, everyone applauds.
Backbreaking Work for Divers
The film team dragged the camera and hundreds of pounds of equipment through the jungle for three weeks. Four research divers from the northern German city of Kiel handled the tricky job of filming underwater. Diving in caves is already more dangerous and technically challenging than anywhere else. But with an 80-kilogram camera, lots of lights and constant changes in the diving depth, it becomes backbreaking work. For team leader Florian Huber, from the University of Kiel's Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, every minute is a worthwhile investment. "The documentation of these caves is fundamental research," Huber says. "It enables us to take stock of things before we can ask further questions about individual objects."
This sort of stocktaking seems urgently necessary, especially in the Mexican underwater caves, where halfway systematic exploration began only a few years ago. The Las Calaveras cenote, with its roughly 125 scattered skeletons, is only the tip of the iceberg. Scientists are still completely in the dark when it comes to what remains to be discovered in the many caves that haven't been explored yet. "Some 3,000 to 5,000 cenotes are known today, but there is an estimated total of up to 10,000," Huber says. "Only a tiny fraction of that has been explored so far."
The fact that the caves have already produced spectacular treasures, including some of the oldest human remains found in the Americans to date, suggests that archeologists will find more. In fact, the number of finds grows with almost each new cave that's explored.
Treasure Troves of Past Millennia
In prehistoric times, man was already burying the dead in the dark underworld. When sea levels rose dramatically after the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, the water level in the caves, which are connected to the Atlantic, also rose. Skeletons, fire pits and tools from the Stone Age gradually became submerged. Later, the Mayans, who lived in the region from about 3,000 BC until 900 AD, threw ceramics and jewelry -- and people -- into the cenotes. Their remains survived the ages just as well as those of long-extinct animals, such as the giant ground sloth and the mastodon.
"Perhaps the cenotes contain the answer to the questions of when the first humans reached the Americas and how the continent was settled," says Huber. Water even preserves things that would have disappeared within a short time on dry land. In the Toh Ha cave system, for example, scientists stumbled upon both the 10,000-year-old bones of a boy and a fire pit roughly 8,500 years old. "It looked as if there had been a fire there just the day before yesterday," Huber says.
Exploring the caves is extremely cumbersome. Finding them in the middle of the jungle is difficult enough, but exploring them is considered one of the most challenging and dangerous jobs a diver can take on. Only their lamps keep them from being left in complete darkness and often have to squeeze through narrow openings. If they churn up too much sediment in the process, visibility in the otherwise crystal-clear water can suddenly drop to zero.
'Panic, and You're as Good as Dead'
Some cenotes are more than 100 meters (328 feet) deep. Normal compressed air is no longer sufficient at these depths. To avoid nitrogen narcosis and oxygen poisoning, cave divers use other products, including Trimix, a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and helium. If they encounter problems despite the many precautions, rapid ascents are not possible because divers have nothing but rock above their heads. "Sometimes we penetrate more than a kilometer into a cave," says Uli Kunz, an underwater photographer and biologist. "If, under these circumstances, you calculate your air supply incorrectly, get lost or panic, you're as good as dead."
The Kiel-based dive team, which has been working in Mexico's caves since 2009, started using modern imaging technology in 2010. Some 63 square meters of the Las Calaveras cenote were recorded using photogrammetry, and wraparound photo series of individual relics were processed into 3-D models on the computer. "This is a powerful tool for research," says Guillermo de Anda of the Autonomous University of Yucatan, the leading expert on Mexican cenotes. Of course, he says, some finds still have to be recovered, such as when scientists want to perform genetic analyses of chemical dating procedures. "But a lot can be discovered with 3-D models, without even touching or possibly destroying the find," he says.
The method also enables archeologist to evaluate relics without having to dive into cenotes. Likewise, it offers benefits to the few experts on antiquity who are also research and cave divers. "Underwater, you can usually spend only a few minutes with the finds," says de Anda. "But, on the computer, you have all the time in the world."
Other high-tech methods are also suited to exploring the world of caves. Laser scans taken from the air, for example, make it possible to eliminate entire forests on the computer. Scientists have used this method to find overgrown Mayan infrastructures, which in turn point to cenotes.
How to Shrink a 3-D Film Camera
Making the planned documentary is even more complex than preparing computer models of individual relics. Previous models of 3-D film cameras, including their underwater housings, were almost as tall as a man and weighed hundreds of pounds. Using them in the narrow caves would have been unthinkable. Specialist companies from Hamburg and Kiel designed and created a camera housing that was small and lightweight enough. "It took half a year just to develop and build the housing," says Peter Baaten, the film's producer.
But the uniqueness of the filming location will likely justify the expense. Some cenotes are so beautiful that they seem almost romantically staged, such as when thick beams of sunlight penetrate the entry hole and bathe the underground world in shimmering light. The water is often so clear that divers feel like they're floating through air.
Other cenotes could double as sets for horror films. In the Angelita cenote, a giant, circular hole, there is a 30-meter layer of fresh water on top of the saltwater -- as in most cenotes. Between the two is a billowing sulfate layer that looks like a blanket of muddy clouds. The branches of giant trees, submerged long ago, protrude into the twilight like dead fingers. Scenes like this help to explain why the Mayans felt that the cenotes were gates into hell.
A 3-D movie is probably the most effective way to experience this fascinating world on dry land. But it could also endanger the cultural treasures of the cenotes, as the number of tourists visiting the caves is already growing rapidly. People are constantly making off with pieces of ceramics as well as human and animal bones. "Of course, this sort of film can increase the temptation," Huber admits. "But it can also promote respect for this world and the willingness to protect it."
That could be critical for the exploration of the caves. As a rule, it isn't archeologists who make historically significant finds. Most are made by a small crowd of specialized divers who explore the caves in their free time and feed their results into the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey (QRSS) database. They have documented an incredible 1,053 kilometers of caves since 1990.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
11/29/2012 05:43 PM
'Bounty Loves Hurricanes': A Legendary Ship's Final Hours Battling Sandy
By Marc Hujer and Samiha Shafy
As Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast in late October, Captain Robin Walbridge wanted to save his ship, the legendary Bounty. He set out to sea to ride out the storm -- a decision which ended in disaster. He lost the ship, a crewmember and his own life.
It was still a mild fall day in New London, Connecticut, when Captain Robin Walbridge stepped on deck to prepare his crew for the possibility of dying. It was 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25.
About 1,200 nautical miles to the south, Hurricane Sandy, billed as the storm of the century, was making its way northward from Cuba. With wind speeds of more than 100 miles per hour (165 kilometers per hour), the storm was rushing across the ocean, headed for the east coast of the United States. At least 70 people had already died in the Caribbean, after being drowned, buried alive or struck with debris.
Captain Walbridge had a decision to make. He could leave the ship, the Bounty, in the harbor at New London, where it would be tossed back and forth by the storm and would presumably sustain serious damage. Or he could try to save the ship by taking it out into the Atlantic, thereby putting his life and the lives of his 15 crewmembers on the line.
Walbridge wanted to save his ship. A ship versus 16 human lives. How can such a decision be explained?
It wasn't just any ship that he had under his command. Walbridge was the captain of the Bounty, a replica of the most famous sailing vessel in seafaring history, and a treasure of the Hollywood world. Legendary films like "Mutiny on the Bounty," starring Marlon Brando, and "Pirates of the Caribbean," with Johnny Depp, had been made on board the Bounty. A legend like that can't just be left at the mercy of the weather.
While Captain Walbridge stood on deck, the US weather services were monitoring the hurricane as it became larger and more powerful on its way north. The media had dubbed it "Superstorm Sandy" and were calling it a "Frankenstorm," one that would be even more devastating than the so-called "perfect storm" of 1991. Coast Guard pilots flew over the shipping routes along the coast, sending radio messages to all ships to move to safety.
Levelheaded and Patient
At the Coast Guard base in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, pilot Mike Myers, 36, prepared for a catastrophe. He filled the tanks of his aircraft, checked equipment, and studied weather maps and forecasts. He also put together a plan: Once wind speeds along the coast reached 25 knots (46 kilometers per hour), he and his crew would board their plane, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, and fly it inland to Raleigh, so that they would be able to take off in the event of an emergency.
Captain Walbridge was 63, a quiet, contemplative man with thinning gray hair and glasses. He had stood at the helm of the Bounty for 17 years, and it was hard to say whether he was more in love with the ship or his wife, although he did spend most of his time on the ship. The crew changed, and so did its owners, but Walbridge remained.
People who have sailed across the world's oceans with Walbridge praise him for his modesty, levelheadedness and patience. He taught young people how to sail, and he took disabled children out to sea.
But there must have been another Captain Walbridge, one who overestimated himself and his ship, and who felt invincible after all those years at sea. In one interview, he talked about "chasing" hurricanes. It was important not to sail in front of a hurricane, but to stay behind it, in the southeastern quadrant, in which case it would make for a smooth ride, he said. He had sailed through 20-meter (66-foot) waves that way, Walbridge said -- not exactly the words of a cautious captain.
When he stood on deck that afternoon, he wasn't just speaking as a captain, but perhaps also as an underling. He knew that the owner of the Bounty, a New York businessman, wanted to sell the ship for $4.6 million (€3.55 million). There was no official buyer yet, but when a ship is worth that much money, you don't just leave it at the mercy of the elements.
Walbridge began his address to the crew with the words: "If anybody wants to get off the boat now, I won't hold it against you."
Not Much Time to Think
Then he explained his plan. He didn't want to spend the night in the harbor, as planned, but instead intended to set sail immediately, and to get the ship as far offshore as possible, in an easterly direction, before the hurricane could catch up with them. They would monitor the weather en route and adjust their course accordingly. The destination was St. Petersburg, Florida, the last stage in the current tour before the ship was to be taken to its winter moorage site in Galveston, Texas.
This account is from those who accompanied the captain on the journey. Their memories were used to reconstruct the ship's duel with the forces of the sea, a duel that began as a daring exploit and ended in catastrophe.
"I know that some of you all have been getting e-mails and phone calls regarding the hurricane," Walbridge told his crew as he stood on the deck. Then he said that the ship would be safer out at sea than in port.
The youngest member of Walbridge's 15-member crew was 20, the oldest was 66. Some were experienced sailors, while others were on board a sailing ship for the first time.
Chris Barksdale, 56, the ship's engineer, didn't know what the captain was talking about. Barksdale is a quiet man with a broad face, gray temples and metal-rimmed glasses. He had sailed a few times before, but he had never been responsible for the engine room of such a large ship. When its sails were lowered, the Bounty was propelled by two diesel engines. At home in Nellysford, Virginia, Barksdale worked as a handyman. He was divorced, and he no longer had parents who could worry about him. He had also had few conversations with the other crewmembers, which is why he hadn't even heard that a storm was approaching.
There wasn't much time left to think about it and Barksdale hesitated for but a moment. If he wanted to go on land, he would have had to go into the cabin immediately to pack his things. The thought of it felt like betraying the crew, which had become like a family to him.
Halfway to Europe
Barksdale didn't gather any information about the storm, and he didn't call anyone. He simply remained on board, like the others, and got to work.
The Bounty put out to sea an hour later, traveling in a south-southeasterly direction, in the hope that the storm would soon turn to the west. The waves started getting bigger and the wind picked up, but it was a warm wind. It was still the kind of storm weather most of the crew had experienced before.
As they got under way, Claudene Christian had sent the following text message to her mother: "Don't worry. We'll be fine. ... our ship is strong. They say Bounty loves hurricanes." She also wrote: "I'll probably be halfway to Europe before we get around it."
Christian, who had joined the crew in May, was one of the unpaid volunteers. She had tried a lot of things before, including owning a company that made cheerleader dolls and working as a PR consultant. She had also been a singer and a diver, and she was once crowned "Miss Teen Alaska." She had lived in Alaska, California and, most recently, after declaring bankruptcy and sliding into depression, with her parents in Oklahoma. On the Bounty, she felt, for the first time in her life, that she was in the right place. She loved the ship, and she had a special connection to it.
Claudene Christian, a petite, 5'1" (1.55 meter) woman with long, blonde curls, was a descendant of the family of Fletcher Christian, the key figure in the legendary mutiny on the original Bounty.
In 1787, Christian signed on as a master's mate on the Bounty, a heavy, 39-meter bark with the British Admiralty. The Bounty had a mission that took it halfway around the world, through storms, snow and ice into the South Seas. Under the command of the ambitious Lieutenant William Bligh, the Bounty sailed to Tahiti with 46 men on board to pick up a shipment of breadfruit plants and take them to the Antilles. The admirals believed that breadfruit would be a cheap way to feed the slaves working on the plantations there.
Bligh was a repulsive man who abused his crew. Fletcher Christian, in contrast, was a young man from a good family, who could no longer look on as his crewmates were made to suffer. He led a mutiny in which Bligh was overpowered and, together with a few of his loyal crewmembers, abandoned at sea in a small boat. That, at least, was the way the story was often told later on.
The first color film about the mutiny on the Bounty was released 50 years ago, with Marlon Brandon in the role of Fletcher Christian -- shot in part on a detailed replica of the Bounty that was specially built for the film.
Claudene Christian carried her family history with her like a trophy, writing on her Facebook page: "As a descendent of Fletcher Christian, played in four movies by Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando & Mel Gibson, I'm sure my ancestor would be proud."
Scared to Death
On late Thursday evening, it looked as though Captain Walbridge's plan was going to work. The hurricane was passing over the Bahamas, where it claimed one life. During the night, it shifted slightly to the northwest, as forecast, and became weaker.
But Sandy had only taken a little turn, gathering steam for the furious finale. On Friday evening, off the coast of Florida, it shifted back to the northeast, and it also began to gather strength again. The storm was now moving in the direction of the ship, with sustained winds of 120 kilometers per hour.
On Saturday, the third day, engineer Barksdale realized how serious the situation was. The waves were now up to 10 meters high, and if you didn't hold on, you could be hurled all the way across the ship. The Bounty was several hundred kilometers east of Chesapeake Bay, off the coast of Virginia, traveling at 6.8 knots, or 12.6 kilometers per hour. The crew recognized that the ship was moving too slowly, and that they would be caught in the middle of the storm.
Walbridge wasn't saying much anymore. Once, when Barksdale went on deck to get some fresh air, he discovered that the captain had changed course, and that they were now traveling to the southwest. His goal was to reach the other side of the hurricane as quickly as possible. Walbridge hoped that the winds wouldn't be as strong there.
No one could sleep anymore. The last time Barksdale had tried to sleep, on Friday night, he was tossed back and forth in his bunk, even though he had stuffed blankets, pillows and clothes into the gap between the bunk and the wall.
For the crewmembers, it was now a matter of keeping up their strength. Jessica Black, the cook, tried to prepare hot food on the stove, but the waves were so strong that she couldn't keep a pot in place. They ate sandwiches, cold hot dogs and sometimes some lukewarm food heated in the microwave. Claudene Christian helped the cook hand out the food. Barksdale remembers eating but doesn't remember what he ate, down in his engine room, where it was hot and dirty.
'All Else Is Well'
When Barksdale saw the engine room for the first time, before the trip began, he wanted to clean it up, but there was no time for that. New fuel tanks had been installed, and he spent his first three weeks connecting the tanks to the engines, laying the pipes and securing the connections.
Early Saturday morning, the wind speed reached 25 knots in Elizabeth City, on the North Carolina coast. It was the wind speed that Mike Myers, the Coast Guard pilot, had chosen as a cutoff point for himself and his crew. At about 9 a.m., Myers said goodbye to his wife and three daughters and drove to the base. It was raining and the runway was slippery. Myers called together the crew and they flew the plane inland from the coast.
A few hours later, Captain Walbridge sent an email to the director of the HMS Bounty Organization. He wrote: "Good evening, Miss Tracie. I think we are going to be into this for several days. The weather looks like even after the eye goes by it will linger for a couple of days. We are just going to keep trying to go fast and squeeze by the storm and land as fast as we can. I am thinking that we will pass each other sometime Sunday night or Monday morning. All else is well."
Early Sunday morning, Barksdale shut off one of the two generators for maintenance work. A few weeks later, the Coast Guard would investigate what the problem might have been. Normally one generator was sufficient to supply the ship with electricity. But at that moment a fatal chain of problems was set in motion.
As the generator cooled down, Barksdale escaped the hot engine room for an hour. During that time, the gauge on the day tank, which contains a one-day supply of fuel for the engines, was smashed. Barksdale saw the damage when he returned, but he didn't notice that the tank was almost empty. According to the gauge, there was still enough fuel in the tank. Barksdale didn't notice the error until the generator failed.
He was exhausted, the result of being thrown back and forth in the engine room. His body was covered with bruises, his leg hurt, he had injured his index finger and he could hardly breathe. Nevertheless, he managed to keep at least one generator running. But the water was rising underneath the floorboards. Barksdale noticed that the power from the generator was fluctuating, and that the bilge pumps, which are supposed to pump water out of the ship, seemed to be clogged. They weren't pumping quickly enough, and the water level kept rising.
Taking on Water
At 8 p.m. on Sunday, the eye of the storm was 450 kilometers southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The region is nicknamed the "graveyard of the Atlantic," because warm and cold currents come together there and make the ocean unpredictable, even in milder weather. The wind was still whipping across the water at 120 kilometers per hour.
The Coast Guard in Elizabeth City received an emergency distress call at 9 p.m. The Bounty was located about 170 kilometers southeast of Cape Hatteras. It was taking on water and had begun to list.
As soon as he received the news, pilot Mike Myers switched off the TV in his room at the airport hotel in Raleigh. It was the moment he and his crew had been waiting for. They prepared themselves to fly into the hurricane.
Myers is a calm and powerful man with a crew cut. He had hoped to be able to remain outside the most dangerous part of the storm, but now that was precisely where a sinking ship was located.
He tried to reassure himself with the thought that the C-130 is a heavy cargo plane, and is more stable than the helicopters he used to use for rescue missions. On the other hand, he thought, what good is a C-130 against a superstorm?
Myers has learned to control his fear. He sent his wife a text message saying: "Looks like we're going to fly into the eye of the storm. I love you." She replied immediately: "I love you too. Take care of yourself."
Myers and his crew calculated the altitude at which they stood the best chance of surviving the flight: 7,000 feet, or 2,134 meters, which would place them in a sort of tunnel between rain and ice, in which they would try to fly as close as possible to the Bounty without being carried off course by turbulence or worse.
The flight was more difficult than anything Myers had ever experienced. The winds tugged at the plane, throwing it back and forth like a tiny model. Some of the men in the cargo hold were vomiting before long.
Time to Abandon Ship
The water was now almost two meters high inside the Bounty. Myers couldn't see the ship through the wall of rain, and the plane's spotlights were only picking up the foam on the waves. He was flying at an altitude of just 300 meters when he found the ship. It was listing 45 degrees to starboard.
Myers circled over the ship, while his team tried to calm down the ship's crew on the radio. They kept trying all night long, talking and vomiting, and every 40 minutes the pilot would climb to several thousand feet, where the air was calmer, to allow the crew to recover.
The ship's crew could only be rescued with helicopters, which are even more vulnerable to the wind than a cargo plane. In one of the radio messages, a member of the Coast Guard team told the crewmembers to put on their survival suits if they hadn't already.
At about 4 a.m., Barksdale realized that he had lost his battle against the water in the engine room. He climbed up to the lower deck, where he saw his fellow crewmembers, but not the captain. The others told him that it was time to abandon ship.
They prepared themselves to get into the water. They collected their belongings and packed whatever they wanted to save into waterproof bags. Barksdale packed his laptop and his mobile phone. Claudene Christian remembered that she had forgotten her journal. Because she was so short and the water was already so deep, her best friend climbed belowdecks and retrieved it for her.
The crew intended to leave the ship in an orderly manner, just as they had practiced in frequent emergency drills in the past. But then came the one wave that can't be prepared for, and the ship tilted onto its side.
He didn't fall far, and Barksdale was only submerged for a moment. But when he reached the surface again, he saw that the masts and yards were being pulled in and out of the water with each passing wave. For the first time, he was scared to death.
'I Understand You Guys Want a Ride'
Barksdale had lost his glasses, which meant that he was almost blind, and the salt water was burning his eyes. He became entangled in the ropes three or four times, but each time he managed to free himself before being lifted up and hurled back down again by the next wave. He doesn't remember how long it took before he reached one of the two orange, covered liferafts that were drifting in the water. It could have been five minutes or two hours.
The rain was so dense that Coast Guard pilot Myers had almost no visibility, and he had also lost radio contact with the ship. He flew the plane lower to drop off more liferafts. They drifted through the air like feathers, tossed around by the hurricane winds. Only two of the rafts were sitting in the water and looked stable. When Myers saw their contours, he thought: There must be people sitting on the rafts, keeping them stable with their weight. This led him to conclude that there had to be survivors.
Barksdale and five others were now drifting on one of the liferafts. A wave would wash over the raft every few minutes. Someone had taken along the emergency manual, which told them that there was supposed to be a shovel-like tool on the raft that was used to skim off the water. They groped around for the shovel, but they couldn't find it.
It got light at about 6 a.m., and the wind had abated slightly. Two rescue helicopters arrived at 6:17 a.m. A few minutes later, the C-130 had used up its reserve fuel, and Myers had to turn back.
"My name is Dan. I understand you guys want a ride," said the swimmer when he poked his head inside Barksdale's liferaft. President Barack Obama would later quote these words when talking about the heroes of the storm of the century. Barksdale was the fourth or fifth crewmember to be pulled up to one of the helicopters. He fell asleep on the flight back.
By 7:30 a.m., 14 crewmembers had been rescued. Two were still missing: Claudene Christian and Captain Robin Walbridge.
A Daughter's Message
Christian was dead -- her body was found drifting in the water on the same day. She had an injury on her face and a black eye, and there were two liters of water in her lungs, indicating that she probably drowned. The search for the captain was called off after three days.
Sandy has gone down in history as the biggest Atlantic hurricane to date. The Coast Guard is investigating whether there is anyone to blame for the sinking of the Bounty.
Gina Christian, Claudene's mother, is sitting in front of a cup of cold black coffee, in a bleak bar between a gas station, a truck stop and a cemetery. "The crew told me she was … not scared at all," says Christian, a short woman with soft features and her blonde hair pinned up. "I didn't believe that."
The Bounty had already sailed from the harbor in New London when Gina heard from her daughter for the last time. She was sitting in her SUV in the drive-through lane at a fast-food restaurant. "Can I take your order?" a voice asked through a loudspeaker. Gina's phone rang at the same time.
"Can I call you back, honey?" Gina asked. "No, no, no," Claudene shouted, sounding distraught. "I might lose my phone service. We're already out in the water. I got to tell you how much I love you and dad." "Why are you saying it like that?" Gina asked. "I just want you to know," Claudene replied. "We know," answered Gina. "Now hang up," Claudene said. "I'm going to call back, but don't answer it. I'm going to leave you a message."
Gina Christian is holding her iPhone in both hands. She still hasn't listened to it yet.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
In the USA...
Senate committee passes email privacy bill
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 16:26 EST
A US Senate panel approved a bill to boost email privacy protections in a vote Thursday that followed widespread uproar over the FBI probe that toppled CIA director David Petraeus.
The measure, which if enacted would require police to obtain a warrant in most cases to access email accounts, drew immediate praise from privacy activists.
The proposal had been pending for some time but garnered increased attention after the resignation of Petraeus earlier this month due to an extramarital affair exposed by a search of his email records.
Senate judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the measure, said it would update a 1986 privacy law as “Americans face even greater threats to their digital privacy.”
“After decades of the erosion of Americans’ privacy rights on many fronts, we finally have a rare opportunity for progress on privacy protection,” the Vermont senator said in a statement.
Leahy’s measure requires the government to obtain a search warrant based on probable cause in order to obtain email content from a third-party service provider, with some exceptions in cases of national security or imminent threats.
It also calls for the government to notify an individual whose electronic communication has been disclosed, and provide that individual with a copy of the search warrant used.
Gregory Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology said the bill offered a historic step forward for privacy rights.
“Our privacy laws are woefully outdated given the rapid advance of technology,” he said.
Nojeim said the measure “keeps the government from turning cloud providers into a one-stop convenience store for government investigators and requires government investigators to do for online communications what they already do in the offline world: Get a warrant.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also hailed the move.
“This is an important gain for privacy. We are very happy that the committee voted that all electronic content like emails, photos and other communications held by companies like Google and Facebook should be protected with a search warrant,” said Chris Calabrese, ACLU legislative counsel.
“We believe law enforcement should use the same standard to search your inbox that they do to search your home.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation welcomed the move, saying it would “close a dangerous loophole in the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act,” which authorities have argued allows them to access private emails that are more than 180 days old without a warrant.
Robert Holleyman, head of the Software Alliance, also praised the panel for “an important step in building trust and confidence in cloud computing and other digital services.”
“Law enforcement access and civil protections should be the same for online files and other digital records as they are for papers stored in a file cabinet,” Holleyman said.
Petraeus resigned when it became clear that his affair with 40-year-old military reservist Paula Broadwell, his biographer, would become public.
FBI agents stumbled on the liaison after a complaint from Jill Kelley — a friend of Petraeus — who told a federal agent that she had received threatening emails, which investigators later traced to Broadwell.
The Leahy measure would need to pass the Senate and the House of Representatives before going to President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed into law.
November 29, 2012
G.O.P. Balks at White House Plan on Fiscal Crisis
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner presented the House speaker, John A. Boehner, a detailed proposal on Thursday to avert the year-end fiscal crisis with $1.6 trillion in tax increases over 10 years, $50 billion in immediate stimulus spending, home mortgage refinancing and a permanent end to Congressional control over statutory borrowing limits.
The proposal, loaded with Democratic priorities and short on detailed spending cuts, met strong Republican resistance. In exchange for locking in the $1.6 trillion in added revenues, President Obama embraced the goal of finding $400 billion in savings from Medicare and other social programs to be worked out next year, with no guarantees.
He did propose some upfront cuts in programs like farm price supports, but did not specify an amount or any details. And senior Republican aides familiar with the offer said those initial spending cuts might be outweighed by spending increases, including at least $50 billion in infrastructure spending, mortgage relief, an extension of unemployment insurance and a deferral of automatic cuts to physician reimbursements under Medicare.
“The Democrats have yet to get serious about real spending cuts,” Mr. Boehner said after the meeting. “No substantive progress has been made in the talks between the White House and the House over the last two weeks.”
Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman, said: “Right now, the only thing preventing us from reaching a deal that averts the fiscal cliff and avoids a tax hike on 98 percent of Americans is the refusal of Congressional Republicans to ask the very wealthiest individuals to pay higher tax rates. The president has already signed into law over $1 trillion in spending cuts and we remain willing to do tough things to compromise, and it’s time for Republicans in Washington to join the chorus of other voices — from the business community to middle-class Americans across the country — who support a balanced approach that asks more from the wealthiest Americans.”
Beneath the outward shows of frustration and rancor, Democrats said a deal could still be reached before hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic tax increases and spending cuts go into effect, threatening the fragile economy. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, pointed to conservative Republicans who have suggested that the House quickly pass Democratic legislation in the Senate extending the expiring tax cuts for income below $250,000.
“All you have to do is just listen to what’s happening out there and you realize there is progress,” he said.
But publicly, the leaders of neither side were giving an inch. And Republican aides said the details of the White House proposal pointed to a re-elected president who believes he can bully Congress.
“They took a step backward, moving away from consensus and significantly closer to the cliff,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.
The president’s proposal does stick to the broad framework of the deal Mr. Boehner wants: an upfront deficit-reduction “down payment” that would serve to cancel the automatic tax increases and spending cuts while still signaling seriousness on the deficit, followed by a second stage in which Congress would work next year on overhauling the tax code and social programs to secure more deficit reduction.
But the details show how far the president is ready to push House Republicans. The upfront tax increases in the proposal go beyond what Senate Democrats were able to pass earlier this year. Tax rates would go up for higher-income earners, as in the Senate bill, but Mr. Obama wants their dividends to be taxed as ordinary income, something the Senate did not approve. He also wants the estate tax to be levied at 45 percent on inheritances over $3.5 million, a step several Democratic senators balked at. The Senate bill made no changes to the estate tax, which currently taxes inheritances over $5 million at 35 percent. On Jan. 1, the estate tax is scheduled to rise to 55 percent beginning with inheritances exceeding $1 million.
Administration negotiators also want the initial stage to include an extension of the payroll tax cut or an equivalent policy aimed at working-class families, an extension of a business tax credit for investments, and the extension of a number of other expiring business tax credits, like the one on research and development.
To ensure that there are no more crises like the debt ceiling impasse last year, Mr. Geithner proposed permanently ending Congressional purview over the federal borrowing limit, Republican aides said. He said that Congress could be allowed to pass a resolution blocking an increase in the debt limit, but that the president would be able to veto that resolution. Congress could block a higher borrowing limit only if two-thirds of lawmakers overrode the veto.
In total, Mr. Geithner presented the package as a $4 trillion reduction in future deficits, but that too was disputed. The figure includes cuts to domestic programs agreed to last year that the White House put at $1.2 trillion but that Republicans say is about $300 billion less. And it counts savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though no one has proposed maintaining war spending over the next decade at the current rate.
“Listen, this is not a game,” Mr. Boehner said. “Jobs are on the line. The American economy is on the line. And this is a moment for adult leadership.”
Senate Democratic leaders left their meeting with Mr. Geithner ecstatic. If the Republicans want additional spending cuts in that down payment, the onus is on them to put them on the table, said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader.
The Republican hyperbole about the ‘fiscal cliff’ is deafening and misleading
By: Dennis S November 29th, 2012
“I’ll go anywhere and do whatever it takes to get this done.” That frightening declaration was made Wednesday by early second-term President Barack Obama in response to the nonsensical “Fiscal Cliff” crisis manufactured out of whole cloth by the actions of far right Republican legislators. And, at this point at least, he seems bent on honoring his words so get ready to duck.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi seems to think an 18-month- ago discussion between Obama and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, might be updated to the present time and a ‘deal’ could include $250 billion in cuts to Medicare over the next 10 years plus an increase in fees and a raise in the eligibility age to 67 plus an additional $100 billion from Medicaid and other federal health programs. That’s not what I voted for Mr. President. Obama is apparently holding fast to his pledge to restore tax cuts on the rich. I’d like to see a bump in taxes on dividend, capital gains and interest income as well. And reform the tiny tax on hedge fund manager profits by switching the booty to personal income.
Make no mistake something has to be done. But it’s a relatively easy fix. The most obvious in the near term is to do something that, according to the Congressional Research Service, Congress has done 62 times in the last 50 years, including 11 times in the last 11 years; raise the debt ceiling. Then start shaving that debt by putting money in the pockets of American workers that they’ll return in fair amounts to Uncle Sam. Breaking down the numbers; about 40% of federal revenue comes from individual income tax, a number that has remained stable since the 50′s. On the other hand Corporations have seen a huge decline in their tax burden. It’s gone down by about 27% or so in the same time period. A meager 9% of the revenue pie comes from the corporate sector. Another 40% comes from the payroll tax. Please note that every Democratic job initiative has been thwarted by the Republicans during the Obama administration. The American Jobs Act would have been great to kick-start the economy. Writing in the New Yorker, James Surowieki points out a 2009 American Society of Civil Engineer’s estimate that it would take $2.2 trillion to gussy up the nation’s infrastructure. That’s a whole lot of jobs here in America. I don’t think you could send all our roads and bridges overseas for upgrade and repair.
Right-wing legislative illiterates have taken their cues from 2 special interest sources for the entirety of Obama’s presidency, neither of which benefits the general population in the least. I’m talking about the absurd Tea Party and the greedy, essentially anti-American gargantuan multinationals. The latter and Wall Street run the country.
It should be pointed out that George W. Bush increased the debt by 86% while Obama is responsible for a much more modest 35-36%. Republican God, Ronald Reagan, saw debt soar 189% under his leadership. GW’s papa gifted the country with a 55% increase.
Here’s all you need to know about “your” representatives approach to the problem. Last Wednesday a passel of big shot CEO’s met at different times in different smoke-filled back rooms with Democratic and Republican leaders. Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of the basically silly Obama deficit commission was lurking as well.
As worrisome was Thursday’s totally unnecessary and politically gratuitous meeting between the vanquished Mitt Romney, tax evader extraordinaire, and the President. Obama supposedly wants to hear Romney’s ideas for streamlining government. Hell, is that all the meeting is about? Here are Mitt’s ideas in one breath. No taxes for huge corporations and the filthy rich and elimination of the Education Department all agencies involved in protecting the environment and regulating anything the moneyed class doesn’t want regulated. Also privatize social security, dismantle all entitlements and keep killing Muslims. There! No need for a meeting.
And let’s not forget John Boehner’s revelation that the American public prefers rewriting the tax code to eliminate loopholes and deductions rather than raising taxes on those poor put-upon millionaires and billionaires. John knows this based on the outcome of a poll by the Winston Group where 65% of respondents agreed that was the best solution to the ‘fiscal cliff’. The Winston Group is a Republican Research Firm headed by Boehner BFF, David Winston. About as much credibility as Fox News I would say. Balance this pure bullshittery with the indisputable fact that virtually every legitimate poll on the planet shows the American people, by a large margin, favor higher taxes on the rich, but as a Romney Pollster once said, “We won’t let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
Please absorb this inalienable fact: the world’s governments, corporations and investors love and trust the American economy more than any other. That remains a truism that’s not been challenged even in this economic rough patch. Any money invested in U.S. ‘debt’ (treasury securities in the form of bonds, notes, bills and TIPS or Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) is considered to be well spent and secure. For all their bitching, red states buy U.S. debt. Sometimes a lot of it, other times not so much, but such debt purchases are an unbroken historical string of entrusting that state’s money to Uncle Sam with the government’s promise to pay it back with interest.
American corporations, again, for all their bitching, buy U.S. debt. The U.S. government buys U.S. debt. The Federal Reserve gets in on the act as well in purchasing short-term securities to diddle with short-term interest rates. The Fed also plays the longer-term treasuries game to grow the economy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chairman Ben Bernanke is about to play that card. How can you not trust a chairman with the middle name “Shalom?” Governments of other lands keep buying our debt. China is usually at the top of the treasuries buyer pool followed by Japan and, oh yes, the volatile Middle-east oil exporter types, who purchase tons of T’s. The exporters include Iraq and Iran, 2 of the 3 axis of evil enemies cited by oilman G.W. Bush. Libya, under the separate heading of African Oil Exporters also taps into the T-market.
Caribbean Banking Centers, otherwise known as money launderers for U.S. tax evaders, ironically return the homies money back to the U.S. in sucking up billions in treasuries. Interestingly enough other well-known tax havens like Luxembourg, Ireland and Switzerland are quite active buyers as well.
So while Republicans keep clucking, “the sky is falling” or at the very least, boulders from the fiscal cliff, the rest of the world keeps buying large chunks of U.S. debt and has done so in roughly equal volume for the last 12 months of recorded purchases.
Hopefully Obama is playing liar’s poker in potentially putting entitlements on the table. Once the Republicans get their foot in that door, they’re kicking it down.
November 29, 2012
Complaints Aside, Most Face Lower Tax Burden Than in 1980
By BINYAMIN APPELBAUM and ROBERT GEBELOFF
BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Alan Hicks divides long days between the insurance business he started in the late 1970s and the barbecue restaurant he opened with his sons three years ago. He earned more than $250,000 last year and said taxes took more than 40 percent. What’s worse, in his view, is that others — the wealthy, hiding in loopholes; the poor, living on government benefits — are not paying their fair share.
“It feels like the harder we work, the more they take from us,” said Mr. Hicks, 55, as he waited for a meat truck one recent afternoon. “And it seems like there’s an awful lot of people in the United States who don’t pay any taxes.”
These are common sentiments in the eastern suburbs of St. Louis, a region of fading factory towns fringed by new subdivisions. Here, as across the country, people like Mr. Hicks are pained by the conviction that they are paying ever more to finance the expansion of government.
But in fact, most Americans in 2010 paid far less in total taxes — federal, state and local — than they would have paid 30 years ago. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the combination of all income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes took a smaller share of their income than it took from households with the same inflation-adjusted income in 1980.
Households earning more than $200,000 benefited from the largest percentage declines in total taxation as a share of income. Middle-income households benefited, too. More than 85 percent of households with earnings above $25,000 paid less in total taxes than comparable households in 1980.
Lower-income households, however, saved little or nothing. Many pay no federal income taxes, but they do pay a range of other levies, like federal payroll taxes, state sales taxes and local property taxes. Only about half of taxpaying households with incomes below $25,000 paid less in 2010.
The uneven decline is a result of two trends. Congress cut federal taxation at every income level over the last 30 years. State and local taxes, meanwhile, increased for most Americans. Those taxes generally take a larger share of income from those who make less, so the increases offset more and more of the federal savings at lower levels of income.
In a half-dozen states, including Connecticut, Florida and New Jersey, the increases were large enough to offset the federal savings for most households, not just the poorer ones.
Now an era of tax cuts may be reaching its end. The federal government depends increasingly on borrowed money to pay its bills, and many state and local governments are similarly confronting the reality that they are spending more money than they collect. In Washington, debates about tax cuts have yielded to debates about who should pay more.
President Obama campaigned for re-election on a promise to take a larger share of taxable income above roughly $250,000 a year. The White House is now negotiating with Congressional Republicans, who instead want to raise some money by reducing tax deductions. Federal spending cuts also are at issue.
If a deal is not struck by year’s end, a wide range of federal tax cuts passed since 2000 will expire and taxes will rise for roughly 90 percent of Americans, according to the independent Tax Policy Center. For lower-income households, taxation would spike well above 1980 levels. Upper-income households would lose some but not all of the benefits of tax cuts over the last three decades.
Public debate over taxes has typically focused on the federal income tax, but that now accounts for less than a third of the total tax revenues collected by federal, state and local governments. To analyze the total burden, The Times created a model, in consultation with experts, which estimated total tax bills for each taxpayer in each year from 1980, when the election of President Ronald Reagan opened an era of tax cutting, up to 2010, the most recent year for which relevant data is available.
The analysis shows that the overall burden of taxation declined as a share of income in the 1980s, rose to a new peak in the 1990s and fell again in the 2000s. Tax rates at most income levels were lower in 2010 than at any point during the 1980s.
Governments still collected the same share of total income in 2010 as in 1980 — 31 cents from every dollar — because people with higher incomes pay taxes at higher rates, and household incomes rose over the last three decades, particularly at the top.
There are now many more millionaires, in other words, paying more than they did in 1980, but they are paying less than they would have if tax laws had remained unchanged. And while they still pay a larger share of income in taxes than the rest of the population, the difference has narrowed significantly.
The trend can be seen by comparing three examples:
¶A household making $350,000 in 2010, roughly the cutoff for the top 1 percent, on average paid 42.1 percent of its income in taxes, compared with 49 percent for a household with the same inflation-adjusted income in 1980 — a savings of about $24,100.
¶A household making $52,000 in 2010, roughly the median income, on average paid 27.7 percent of its income in taxes, compared with 30.5 percent in 1980, saving $1,500.
¶A household making $22,000 in 2010 — roughly the federal poverty line for a family of four — on average paid 19.4 percent in taxes, compared with 20.2 percent, saving $200.
Jared Bernstein, who served as chief economist to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said the Times analysis highlighted the need to raise taxes on the affluent and cut taxes for the poor. He cautioned that the middle class most likely would need to pay more, too.
“When you look at these numbers, you understand why we’re not collecting the revenue we need to support the spending we want,” said Mr. Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group. “We’ve really gutted the system.”
But Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a prominent conservative economist, said the changes in taxation over the last three decades reflected a conscious and successful strategy to encourage economic growth that should be reinforced, not reversed.
Mr. Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who is the president of the American Action Forum, said government should reduce deficits primarily through spending cuts, particularly to Medicare and Medicaid, the health programs that are the largest source of projected increases in the federal debt.
“We can’t grow our way out of it, and we can’t tax our way out of it,” he said of the government’s fiscal predicament. “We have a spending problem, period.”
Mr. Hicks, like many residents of Belleville, views this debate with unhappiness. He would like the government to cut spending but not reduce services. He is certain that the government should not raise taxes on the middle class, a group in which he includes himself, but he is ambivalent about asking anyone to pay more. Higher taxes would hurt his businesses, he said, so raising taxes on those who make more money seems likely to hurt their businesses, too.
“At this point, I guess it’s inevitable in order to get us out of this hole,” Mr. Hicks said of higher taxes. “Illinois is in bad shape, along with a lot of the nation. But I don’t feel like we should tax the middle class any more than we are right now. There’s going to come a point where they take the incentive out of working hard.”
If the government cut his taxes, Mr. Hicks said, he would use the money to put a roof over the picnic tables outside the restaurant, expanding the year-round seating area. He already employs 14 people; then he could hire more.
And if taxes rose? Would Mr. Hicks, who started working when tax rates were higher, really choose to slow down?
He smiled. “No,” he said. “I like it. What else would I do with my time?”
Cutting From Both Ends
The federal income tax, which will turn 100 next year, is in decline.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly voted to reduce the share of income that people must pay. Over the last decade, annual revenues from federal taxation of individual and corporate income averaged just 9.2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, the lowest level for any 10-year period since World War II.
The recession and new rounds of tax cuts further reduced revenues, to 7.6 percent of economic output in the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years. Stronger economic growth has produced a modest increase in tax collections, but the White House budget office estimates that collections for the fiscal year that ended in September will total 9 percent of economic output, still less than before the financial crisis.
Federal spending, meanwhile, grew faster than the economy over the last decade — particularly during the recession. To pay those bills, the government borrowed more money than it collected in income taxes in each of the last three fiscal years, something it had not done in even a single year since World War II, federal data show.
Congress could have eliminated those deficits by cutting spending. It might also have averted those deficits by leaving the tax code unchanged. The government on average would have collected an additional $800 billion in each year from 2006 to 2010 if the 1980 code had remained in effect and economic activity had continued at the same pace, the Times analysis found. The annual federal deficits during those years averaged $714 billion.
Leaving the tax code as it was in 1980, however, would not have solved the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. Increases in federal spending, driven primarily by the rising cost of health care, are projected to outstrip even the revenue-raising capacity of the 1980 tax code in the coming decades, necessitating some combination of spending cuts and tax increases.
The income tax stands apart from other forms of taxation. It is the reason that upper-income households pay a larger share of their income in taxes than the rest of the population. The combined burden of all other federal, state and local taxes takes roughly the same share from all taxpayers. And many Americans — even in a middle-class, Democratic stronghold like Belleville — have misgivings about imposing higher tax rates on the affluent, an important reason that income taxation has declined.
The share of Americans who said high-income households paid too little in taxes fell from 77 percent in 1992 to 62 percent in 2012, according to Gallup, even as income inequality rose to the highest levels since the Great Depression.
Some people in Belleville subscribe to the argument that higher tax rates impede economic growth by discouraging investment. For others, it is a matter of fairness.
Anita Thole, a middle-income safety supervisor for a utility contractor, is not wealthy. She does not expect that she ever will be. She is a single mother with a daughter in college, and she said she regarded the wealthy with a mixture of envy and admiration. But she does not want them to pay higher taxes.
“They work their butt off to get what they got,” she said. “I wouldn’t want them to pay more so that I can pay less.”
Do they work harder than you?
“What? No. I work my butt off,” Ms. Thole, 46, said. “But you got to believe in the American dream. You got to love them for what they did, for what they made of themselves and for being more aggressive than me.”
Ms. Thole, like many in Belleville, is also convinced that governments could avoid raising taxes by adopting more frugal habits.
“There’s some days we stay home and we eat peanut butter,” she said.
What would she like governments to cut?
“I really like it when they cut the weeds along the highway,” she said. “I like it when there’s good roads to drive on. The schools, I don’t know, I don’t want to pull back from the schools. I don’t have the answer of where to pull back.
“I want the state parks to stay open. I want, I want, I want. I want Big Bird. I think it’s beautiful. What don’t I want? I don’t know.”
To Tax or Not to Tax?
William L. Enyart is a rarity in Belleville: he wants to raise his own taxes.
Mr. Enyart and his wife are lawyers, although for the last five years he led the Illinois National Guard. The couple made $380,587 in 2011 and paid $104,864 in federal taxes. His conviction that they should have paid more may not be shared by many of the area’s higher-income residents. But as the newly elected Democratic congressman for southwestern Illinois, Mr. Enyart, 63, is also the only man in town with a direct vote on federal tax policy.
Mr. Enyart, who won the seat of a retiring Democratic congressman, campaigned in part on his support for Mr. Obama’s tax plan. He defeated a Republican candidate who opposed it, 52 percent to 43 percent. But Mr. Enyart said he heard little enthusiasm for tax increases in his district. What has changed, he said, is that people are increasingly concerned about cuts to government benefits and services.
“Nobody likes to pay taxes. Nobody wants to raise taxes on anybody,” Mr. Enyart said. “But nobody wants to cut veterans services, nobody wants to give up that Interstate highway, nobody wants — pick the service that you like. These are necessary services, and they need to be paid for.”
The tax increase proposed by Mr. Obama, on taxable income — income after deductions and other adjustments — above $250,000 a year, would pay for only a small part of those services. It would reduce the projected deficit over the next decade by a little less than 10 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Nonetheless, Mr. Enyart said that he did not support broader tax increases. The focus, he said, should be on requiring the rich to pay more.
“We have the greatest disproportion of wealth since 1928, and I don’t think that’s a healthy thing,” he said. “How much money is enough? Do hedge fund traders really need to make a billion dollars a year and pay only 15 percent in taxes when we have teachers making $50,000 and paying 20 percent?”
John Siemens, who did not vote for Mr. Enyart, said that kind of “raise taxes” talk was a crowd-pleasing distraction from the need for painful spending cuts.
Mr. Siemens and his wife, Jan, both 59, own a company with a pair of factories in southwestern Illinois where workers assemble dollar-bill scanners for vending machines, dashboard lights for automobiles, magnetic probes for hospitals and other electronic equipment. They earned about $250,000 last year, so Mr. Obama’s plan would not have increased their income taxes. But it would raise the estate taxes they would have to pay to pass the company to their children someday.
Like many opponents of the president’s plan, Mr. Siemens thinks higher taxes will discourage investment and slow economic growth.
“There’s some tax rates that probably do need to be raised,” he said. “There are some that need to be lowered. But the politicians are not having an honest discussion. Is it fair or not fair is not the question. The question is, If you want to raise revenues, does that make sense or not?”
He noted as an example that interest on municipal bonds is tax-exempt, which encourages the wealthy to lend to local governments.
“Those lower tax rates were put into place for a reason,” he said. “It’s not just, let’s give the wealthy a break.”
Mr. Siemens does have a concern about fairness. He believes that lower-income households are not paying enough in taxes.
“By any measure, the wealthy are still paying a disproportionate amount of their income in taxes,” he said. “Is that fair or not fair? I don’t know, but I have an issue with the dramatic reduction of taxes at the low end because I think everybody needs some skin in the game.”
The debate is no longer theoretical here in Illinois. Facing perhaps the deepest budget crisis of any state, the Illinois legislature last year raised the state income tax rate to 5 percent from 3 percent. Unlike the federal income tax, Illinois taxes all income at the same rate.
Mr. Enyart said that the state needed more revenue, but that it should move to a tax system that imposed a heavier burden on high-income households. Mr. Siemens said the state should have cut spending.
The higher taxes have increased his costs and given an advantage to competitors in other states. And there are broader ripples, too: he said he was planning to buy some used machines, rather than new ones, to save money.
“We feel the burden of that, but it hasn’t gotten to the threshold of pain yet where we would move,” Mr. Siemens said. “There’s a lot of expense that would be incurred in moving, including a disruption of the work force, which you are always loath to do.”
View From the Lower End
Taylor McCallister, 20, works the front window at Mr. Hicks’s barbecue restaurant, taking orders from customers. She also works a second job and attends Southwestern Illinois College. She earned about $30,000 last year and, like her boss, she wishes the government would take less of that money.
“When I see my check it’s like, damn, that’s a huge chunk that was taken out,” she said. “I could have been making $450 instead of $378.”
Mitt Romney’s remarks about the “47 percent” focused public attention on the rising share of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes, a trend that has encouraged the public perception that lower-income households are getting a sweetheart deal. The share of Americans who think lower-income households pay too little in taxes increased to 24 percent in 2012 from 8 percent in 1992, according to Gallup.
But low-wage workers like Ms. McCallister still pay federal payroll taxes, which provide financing for Social Security and Medicare. They still pay sales taxes. Even if they are renters, they still bear the cost of property taxes in the form of higher rents.
And those taxes have climbed most quickly in recent decades.
The average American in 2010 paid 30 percent more of income in payroll taxes than in 1980, even while paying 27 percent less in federal income taxes. As a result, revenue from the payroll tax almost equaled income tax revenue before a temporary payroll tax cut took effect in 2011. The cut is scheduled to expire at the end of this year.
The rise of the payroll tax reflects the general movement away from requiring upper-income households to pay a larger share of income in taxes. All workers pay the same Social Security tax on wages below a threshold, which stood at $106,800 in 2010. The Medicare tax imposes a single rate on all wages, without a threshold.
Some experts argue, however, that payroll taxes are a special case because workers are entitled to Social Security benefits based in part on the amounts that they pay in taxes — a system more akin to a pension plan than an income tax.
In Illinois, the average burden of state and local taxes rose to 10.2 percent of income in 2010 from 8.8 percent in 1980, even before the latest round of tax increases last year.
And Illinois, like most states, takes a larger share of income from those who make less. Illinois households earning less than $25,000 a year on average paid 14.3 percent of income in state and local taxes in 2010, while those earning more than $200,000 paid 9.4 percent, according to the Times analysis.
Ms. McCallister said she and her friends worry about the nation’s financial problems. Their answer is simple: Someone has to pay more, and the affluent can best afford to do so. She said it was time to reverse a trend that had been going on so long it predated her birth by a decade.
“I want to know honestly how the more wealthy feel,” she said between tending to customers. “You’d think that they would want to help. We’re working these kinds of jobs and that’s what we have to do to make it through, and there’s other people making all this money. I don’t get it, honestly.
“I feel that maybe people who don’t make as much shouldn’t have to pay as much in. But who makes the rules?
November 29, 2012
Under One Roof, Building for Extended Families
By PENELOPE GREEN
Tom and Kristin Moser’s new house — nearly 3,000 square feet in a development outside Tucson — has all the modern amenities, including solar panels and an open kitchen. But their house also has a feature that the builders are betting will be a hit, like the dog showers and craft rooms that beckoned during the boom. Tucked inside is a one-bedroom apartment with its own garage and a discrete entrance around the side.
The Mosers wanted the built-in apartment not to bring in a renter to help pay the mortgage, but rather as a home for Mr. Moser’s 82-year-old widowed father.
“More than weekly visits and phone calls, he really needs to be around family,” Mr. Moser, an investment manager, said of his father, Lee. “It’s the way he was raised. I think as a society it’s a way we have to step back into.”
Built by Lennar, one of the country’s largest homebuilders, it is the most extreme example of the sort of options, like 400-square-foot “bonus” rooms, that many of the big builders are now offering to accommodate the changing shape of the American family: boomer couples with boomerang children and aging parents, an increasingly multiethnic population with a tradition of housing three generations under one roof, and even singles who may need to double up with siblings or friends in this fraught economic climate.
Lennar started marketing its new designs last fall with particular gusto: “Next Gen — The Home Within a Home” is a title and tag line intended to wrap the notion of multigenerational living in a futuristic gloss. But it is more than just marketing; the blueprints themselves are changing.
In fact, architectural historians, statisticians and builders themselves are pointing out that the new household — and the house that can hold it — is much like the old household, the one that was cast aside after World War II by the building boom that focused on small, tidy dwellings for mom, dad and their two children.
Population statistics help tell the tale. A Pew study reports that 41 percent of adults between 25 and 29 are now living, or have lived recently, with their parents. Over all, more than 50 million Americans are in multigenerational households, a 10 percent increase from 2007. It is a back-to-the-future moment.
“You have to go back to the 1940s to see those kinds of numbers,” said Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders. “What the recession has done has really hit household formation hard, so instead of forming households we are having some contractions: the college student moving back in or someone’s brother-in-law loses a job. It’s an opportunity for the builders.”
Scott Thomas, national director of product development for PulteGroup, the largest homebuilder in the United States, said his company now offers layouts with larger “flex rooms” and an over-the-garage apartment it calls the Grand Retreat. Ryland and KB Homes have been offering similar alternatives, and have seen their popularity increase as multigenerational households become more common.
“For whatever reason,” Mr. Thomas said, “whether it’s the return of something that was part of our lifestyle in the past, or simply related to the economy, multigenerational living is definitely taking place.” Thirty percent of Pulte customers are asking for such features, the company said.
The developers are catering to people like Tina O’Donnell, 34, and her husband, Joe Rigby, 48, who bought a house in a Pulte development in San Diego last year. They moved in with his mother, Cheryl Rigby, 65, and three daughters. Mrs. Rigby retired early to help with the children; in return, her son and daughter-in-law paid for her health insurance until Medicare kicked in.
“She’s very important to us,” said Ms. O’Donnell, who works with her husband at a home-security company. “And it was important that she felt like it was her home.”
The $680,000 model they bought came with four bedrooms upstairs, and “flex space” on the first floor, which they turned into a bedroom for Mrs. Rigby. It has a walk-in closet and its own bathroom, and it can be entered through the garage as well as the kitchen.
Wid Chapman, an architect and co-author of “Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes for Later Life,” said the 2010 census showed that the shift to the “nonlinear family” is part of an evolution that will be accelerated now that mainstream builders are responding to it.
“These so-called atypical households will be deliberately created and marketed in geographic locations that might have been the epicenter of the suburban classic nuclear family in the past,” he said.
But how do you make a home that is flexible enough for those who have been used to separate nests?
The “granny flat” or “mother-in-law apartment” has been around for decades. But municipalities do not always love accessory dwelling units, or A.D.U.’s. Builders who have tried to market them have become entangled in delays by zoning boards in many communities that frown on anything other than single-family homes.
“We still have zoning that was put in place in the 1950s, when farmlands turned into suburbs overnight, with houses designed for mom, dad and 2.3 kids,” said Michael Litchfield, the author of “In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats: Your Guide to Turning One House into Two Homes.”
Mr. Litchfield warns of the “dead hand of single-family zoning” that inhibits the formation of households like those headed by a single mother, who needs to rent out space to make ends meet, or by boomers who want to build an accessory dwelling unit for an aging parent. Only California, he added, has a state law that allows homeowners to build such a unit “by right,” though some cities have altered their zoning codes to encourage their creation.
To circumvent zoning that is leery of duplexes, Lennar’s Next Gen houses run on a single electric meter, have only microwave convection ovens in the apartment, and from the outside look like other houses.
“One address, one hookup, one electric meter,” said Alan Jones, Lennar’s Arizona division president. It was Mr. Jones who took a Las Vegas architect’s concept and ran with it. In the last year, Lennar has developed more than 40 Next Gen plans in 100 communities in 10 states. In Arizona alone, over 100 have been sold so far. By next year, the company will be rolling out Next Gen houses in all their markets, Mr. Jones said.
“Once I’ve gotten to the right people, to the mayors and vice mayors of municipalities, they’ve been supportive,” he said. “We’re in a situation where the world is changing. We need a home for the way people are living today.”
For their part, when Tom and Kristin Moser moved into their new house last week, they formed a thoroughly modern commune, joining Mr. Moser’s sister, brother-in-law and his parents, who were already ensconced in a Next Gen house right next to theirs. Ms. Moser’s mother is in a traditional house on the other side.
“I think it’s a natural way to live,” Mr. Moser said. “Communal living fosters love, and commitment, and all the good values we want. Think of a rubber band being extended. That’s the way most of us have been living. That is going to snap back when people say, ‘This isn’t working.’ ”
November 29, 2012
With Day of Protests, Fast-Food Workers Seek More Pay
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
The biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry began at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday at a McDonald’s at Madison Avenue and 40th Street, with several dozen protesters chanting: “Hey, hey, what do you say? We demand fair pay.”
That demonstration kicked off a day of walkouts and rallies at dozens of Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants in New York City, organizers said. They said 14 of the 17 employees scheduled to work the morning shift at the McDonald’s on Madison Avenue did not — part of what they said were 200 fast-food workers who went on strike in the city.
Raymond Lopez, 21, an aspiring actor who has worked at the McDonald’s for two and a half years, showed up at the daybreak protest on his day off. “In this job, having a union would really be a dream come true,” said Mr. Lopez, who said his pay of $8.75 an hour left him feeling undercompensated. “It really is living in poverty.”
Workplace experts said it was by far the largest series of job actions at fast-food restaurants ever — part of an ambitious plan that seeks to unionize workers and increase wages at fast-food restaurants across the city.
The unionization drive, called Fast Food Forward, is sponsored by community and civil rights groups — including New York Communities for Change, United NY.org and the Black Institute — as well as the Service Employees International Union. The campaign has deployed 40 organizers since January to rally fast-food workers behind unionization, saying the goal is to raise wages to $15 an hour.
Rick Cisneros, the franchisee who operates the McDonald’s at 40th and Madison, said: “I value my employees. I welcome an open dialogue while always encouraging them to express any concerns or to provide feedback so I can continue to be an even better employer.”
Several mayoral candidates — including Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker; Bill de Blasio, the public advocate; John C. Liu, the comptroller; and William C. Thompson Jr., a former comptroller — were quick to voice support for the workers. As those candidates vie for the Democratic nomination, they are furiously jockeying for union support.
Mary Kay Henry, the service employees’ president, said the fast-food companies could easily afford to pay their employees more. “People who work for the richest corporations in America should be able to afford at least the basic necessities to support their families,” she said.
Labor leaders say they see an uptick in activism among low-wage workers — including last week’s Walmart protests — as workers grow increasingly frustrated about pay stagnating at $8 or $9 an hour, translating into $16,000 or $18,000 a year for a full-time worker.
Pamela Waldron, who has worked at the KFC in Pennsylvania Station for eight years, complained that she earned just $7.75 an hour and was assigned just 20 hours a week, meaning income of about $8,000 a year. She was picketing outside a Burger King on 34th Street, as several dozen workers and their supporters chanted, “How can we survive on seven twenty-five” — $7.25 an hour is the federal and New York State minimum wage.
“I’m protesting for better pay,” Ms. Waldron, 26, said. “I have two kids under 6, and I don’t earn enough to buy food for them.”
Miguel Piedra, a Burger King spokesman, said its restaurants provide entry-level jobs for millions of Americans, train and invest in workers, and “offer compensation and benefits that are consistent with the quick-service restaurant industry.”
Fast Food Forward said it had filed six complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, asserting that various restaurant managers had threatened to fire workers for striking or supporting a union or had improperly interrogated workers about backing the effort.
The protest on Thursday culminated in a rally with hundreds of fast-food workers and their supporters outside the McDonald’s on 42nd Street west of Times Square. They chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, seven-twenty-five has got to go.”
Inside the McDonald’s on Madison Avenue on Thursday morning, a few workers made funny faces as their friends demonstrated outside. A few patrons, quaffing coffee and gobbling sausage McMuffins, eyeballed the protesters with concern through the restaurant windows.
Jocelyn Horner, 35, a graduate student, said she supported the protesters. “If anybody deserves to unionize, it’s fast-food workers,” she said.
A cashier whose name tag read “Milady” said she chose not to participate in the demonstration.
“At least I have a job,” she said.
Randy Leonard and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.
Most Americans and Canadians favor marijuana legalization
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 18:00 EST
OTTAWA — A majority of Americans and Canadians want marijuana legalized, saying cannabis should be readily available for those who want to use it, according to a survey released Thursday.
The Angus Reid online survey of 2,007 people in the two countries found that 57 percent of Canadians and 54 percent of Americans support the legalization of pot.
The bulk of that support comes from 18-to-34 year olds in the United States (65 percent) and those aged 35-to-54 in Canada (61 percent).
Furthermore two-thirds of Canadians and Americans expect their respective governments to end marijuana prohibition within a decade.
Earlier this month Colorado became the first US state to approve a proposal to legalize marijuana, including for recreational use. Washington followed suit while Oregon rejected a similar proposal.
Canada and a number of US states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
The public opinion poll has a 3.1 percent margin of error.
Canadian woman in largest U.S. eco-terrorism case surrenders
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 29, 2012 19:34 EST
LOS ANGELES — A Canadian women wanted over the “largest eco-terrorism case” in US history surrendered Thursday, after a decade on the run for a series of arson attacks starting in the 1990s, investigators said.
Rebecca Jeanette Rubin, 39, handed herself in to agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the Canada-US border at Blaine, Washington state, the FBI said in a statement.
She is charged with conspiring with 12 other people to commit 20 arson attacks over five years, from 1996-2001 in Oregon and five other western US states, said the FBI’s Oregon office.
The attacks constitute America’s biggest eco-terrorism case, it said, adding that the conspirators were self-proclaimed members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
“Rubin’s arrest marks the end of her decade-long period as an international fugitive in the largest eco-terrorism case in United States history,” it said. She will appear in court in Seattle, before being held in custody in Oregon.
The conspirators “sought to influence and affect the conduct of government, private business, and the civilian population through force, violence, sabotage, mass destruction, intimidation, and coercion,” it said.
They also sought to “retaliate against government and private businesses by similar means,” it added.
The alleged attacks in Oregon included a November 30, 1997 arson at the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Facility and a December 22, 1998 attempted arson at a US Forest Industries office.
In Colorado, she is charged with eight counts of arson over fires on October 19, 1998 that destroyed buildings in the Vail ski area.
In California, she is charged with conspiracy, arson, and using a destructive device in the October 15, 2001 fire at a BLM wild horse corral center.
The arson charges carry jail terms of up to 20 years in jail, and use of a destructive device linked to a violent crime carries a mandatory sentence of 30 years in prison.
The ELF, made up of numerous autonomous cells around the world, targeted ski resorts, timber companies, sellers of sport utility vehicles and others to draw attention to the environment, while avoiding harm to humans or animals.
The public perception of the ELF changed after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which prompted federal officials to call the group “domestic terrorists.”
November 29, 2012
Medical Technician Accused in Hepatitis C Infections Is Indicted on New Charges
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
A traveling medical technician who is believed to have infected at least 39 people with hepatitis C through his use of stolen hospital drugs and syringes was indicted late Wednesday in New Hampshire on 14 new charges.
The technician, David Kwiatkowski, known as the “serial infector,” was arrested in July and charged with tampering with a consumer product and illegally obtaining drugs, primarily fentanyl, a powerful anesthetic that is about 80 times more potent than morphine.
After a lengthy investigation that ranged over several states, he was indicted Wednesday by a federal grand jury in Concord, N.H., and charged with seven counts of tampering with a consumer product and seven counts of illegally obtaining drugs.
If convicted on the pending charges, Mr. Kwiatkowski, 33, faces up to 10 years in prison for each count of tampering with a consumer product and up to four years in prison for each count of obtaining controlled substances by fraud. Each offense is also punishable by a fine of $250,000.
Mr. Kwiatkowski had pleaded not guilty to the original charges and remains in federal custody in New Hampshire.
In announcing the indictment, John P. Kacavas, the United States attorney in New Hampshire, said that Mr. Kwiatkowski “used the stolen syringes to inject himself, causing them to become tainted with his infected blood, before filling them with saline and then replacing them for use in the medical procedure.”
He continued, “Consequently, instead of receiving the prescribed dose of fentanyl, patients instead received saline tainted by Kwiatkowski’s infected blood.”
The problem was discovered after several patients in the cardiac catheterization lab at Exeter Hospital, where Mr. Kwiatkowski worked, tested positive for a specific strain of hepatitis C, a chronic disease that can lead to cancer and is a major reason for liver transplants. Mr. Kwiatkowski tested positive for the same strain, leading to the testing of thousands of patients in New Hampshire this summer.
The outbreak was one of the largest in recent history. The investigation has been complicated because Mr. Kwiatkowski worked at 18 hospitals in seven other states (Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania) over the last decade. He was fired from at least two hospitals but was hired subsequently by four others.
Since Mr. Kwiatkowski’s arrest, thousands of patients in the other states have been tested for hepatitis C. More than 30 patients in New Hampshire, about a half-dozen in Kansas and one in Maryland have tested positive for the same strain.
A report in August by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that syringes at Exeter Hospital were left unattended on medication carts by nurses in the cardiac catheterization lab.
Hospital officials have said that they received reports of concerns about Mr. Kwiatkowski but not that he was diverting drugs. A statement on the hospital’s Web site said: “We understand that this has been a difficult time for our patients and the community. Our focus remains on all of our patients and while this situation has shaken the community, we will continue to do everything we can to restore the community’s confidence by providing excellent care to the hundreds of patients who receive care within our health system each day.”
November 29, 2012
End of the Line for an Oyster Farm
By FELICITY BARRINGER
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday ended a longstanding and bitter dispute that pitted wilderness advocates against supporters of a Northern California oyster farm, announcing that the farm’s lease from Point Reyes National Seashore would end on Friday as originally planned. An estuary known as Drakes Estero, where the oyster operation has existed for the last 40 years, will become a federally designated wilderness area.
In a statement, Mr. Salazar said, “We are taking the final step to recognize this pristine area as wilderness.” The Interior Department has given the farm 90 days to fold.
More than a decade after the park was created on Point Reyes in 1962, Congress mandated that part of it be designated as wilderness; the section included Drakes Estero, a 2,500-acre rich marine estuary that is home to scores of seals. The oyster farm is the source of roughly 40 percent of California’s oysters and is part of a local food web that makes the surrounding Marin County area a mecca for locavores.
In 2004, the oyster farm changed hands, and the lease was taken over by the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which is run by a local rancher, Kevin Lunny.
Mr. Lunny was notified that the lease was set to end this year, but indicated about six years ago that he hoped to have it extended.
In the ensuing years, park service scientists questioned the farm’s environmental record, and were in turn accused of skewing the science to paint Mr. Lunny as a despoiler of the ecosystem.
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Lunny said: “We’re trying to get over the devastation, the surprise and the disappointment. To have to deliver this message to our staff is beyond imaginable. To have to tell them they’re going to lose their jobs and their homes.” He said about 15 of the 30 oyster farm workers lived on the site with their families.
The department indicated it would do what it could “to help employees who might be affected by this decision” but there is no provision for any payment to Mr. Lunny.
Three environmental groups — the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Parks Conservation Association — immediately praised the decision. In an interview, Neal Desai, a West Coast representative of the Washington-based Conservation Association, said, “This is a very big gift the secretary has given the public.”
While the policy issue was always whether to extend the lease, the parallel debate over park service science moved to the forefront in recent years.
The park service had to backpedal on some of its original claims about environmental damage, and its subsequent scientific efforts were scrutinized by outside scientists who identified significant shortcomings. Repeated investigations confirmed many of these shortcomings, but never found that park scientists had engaged in outright scientific misconduct.
The memorandum supporting the secretary’s decision played down the scientific issues, saying that the environmental impact statements that reviewed the science and recommended ending the lease had been helpful, but in no way indicating they were central to the decision.
November 29, 2012
60-Million-Year Debate on Grand Canyon’s Age
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
How old is the Grand Canyon? Old enough to be gazed on by dinosaurs, which died out 65 million years ago, or closer to six million years old, formed about when the earliest human ancestors began walking upright?
A bitter controversy among geologists over this question edged into the open on Thursday, when a report published in the journal Science offered new support for the old-canyon hypothesis, which is not the prevailing one. In the report, Rebecca M. Flowers of the University of Colorado and Kenneth A. Farley of the California Institute of Technology used an improved dating technique based on the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium atoms into helium atoms in a mineral known as apatite. They said this yielded a thermal record of these rocks under the canyon floor, hot at great depths but cooler the closer they were to the surface.
An analysis of the data, the geologists said, revealed where surface erosion had gouged out canyons and how much time had passed since there was significant natural excavation in the Grand Canyon region. They concluded in the report that the western segment of the canyon was carved to within a few hundred yards of modern depths by about 70 million years ago.
The more ancient origin would put much of the canyon in place in the last epoch of the dinosaurs. Publicity for the journal report duly noted that one of nature’s wonders, dinosaurs, might well have stood and gawked at another wonder, one of today’s most majestic tourist attractions.
This was only one of the immediate objections to the findings raised by geologists favoring the young-canyon school of thought. They said that the research results had been hyped. One critic, Karl E. Karlstrom of the University of New Mexico, noted that the early-canyon model had been proposed before and was “now in what I think will be a short-lived revival.”
If the interpretation of the findings proves to be correct, it contradicts the prevailing hypothesis that the entire canyon was formed as recently as five million to six million years ago, advocated by many of the notable authorities on Grand Canyon geology. These dates were drawn from an examination of pebbles and other sediments from upstream reaches of the Colorado River system that washed up at the western exit of the canyon.
Dr. Flowers said that when she started this research seven years ago, she had not expected to find the canyon’s presumed age to be so ancient. But the first set of experiments with the radioactive helium technique in 2008 was followed up with a new round of tests and more sophisticated levels of analysis.
November 30, 2012 02:00 PM
Poland Narrowly Averts Its Own Right-Wing Terrorist Bloodbath
By David Neiwert
We all remember Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who massacred dozens of (mostly) young Norwegians in the summer of 2011, right? Well, now it seems that people in Poland have narrowly escaped having their own version of such a terrorism-induced bloodbath, at the hands of an admirer of Breivik:
Last week the Polish government announced the thwarting of a terrorism plot that is worrisome in its audacity and in who was behind it. In a country with minimal experience of terrorism, the discovery of a sophisticated homegrown bomber seeking to decapitate the government by blowing up the parliament and the president has caused shockwaves and introspection.
The would-be bomber, Dr. Brunon Kwiecień, a forty-five year old research scientist at Krakow’s Agricultural University, fits few currently fashionable profiles. Neither a jihadist nor marginally employed or socially bereft, Kwiecień is married with two children, has a respectable income, and is reported to have been exceptionally interested in explosives since his youth. A skilled chemist popular with his students and considered unremarkable by his university colleagues, he came up with a truly audacious plot to blow up the Sejm, the Polish parliament in Warsaw, during a joint session where both houses, the president and the full cabinet would be present. As Kwiecień is reported to have conducted visits to Warsaw to select his targets, this appears to be more than the figment of a demented imagination.
The seriousness of the bomber’s intent was evidenced by the astonishing haul made by Polish police after Kwiecień’s arrest on November 9. Among the items seized were a dozen illegal firearms, some 1,100 rounds of ammunition, body armor of various types, several detonators (including cell phones triggers) and an amazing four tons of high-grade explosives—more than enough to flatten several city blocks—which the bomber had access to due to his job. There seems to be little doubt that Kwiecień had the technical competence to build the bomb, but his efforts to find collaborators fell short.
As Stratfor explains, this was an attack for which Kwiecień was well suited, requiring a skillset well within his range of competence:
Kwiecien is also a self-proclaimed supporter of Norwegian ultranationalist terrorist Anders Breivik, who conducted a successful lone wolf attack in Oslo in 2011. Indeed, tactically Kwiecien's plot against the Polish government resembled Breivik's in many ways. But his was only the latest, certainly not the last, thwarted terrorist attack in Europe, where similar plots can be expected as the economic and political situation continues to worsen.
Kwiecien allegedly considered Breivik's vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack on Norway's parliament building a failure -- Breivik's killed only eight people and failed to inflict catastrophic structural damage on the building. Breivik used 1 metric ton of ammonium nitrate-based explosives, commonly called ANFO, or ammonium nitrate fuel oil, and parked his vehicle on the street, putting some distance between the VBIED and the building. Kwiecien intended to construct an explosive device using 4 metric tons of ANFO inside a tanker truck, crash through the gates of the parliament building and detonate the VBIED within the courtyard. Investigators believe that it would have been a suicide mission. Had he executed his attack successfully, he likely would have created a blast big enough to cause significant structural damage and loss of life, resulting in more damage and more deaths than Breivik's explosive device.
According to authorities, Kwiecien began planning for the attack between July and September. He apparently had traveled to Warsaw to surveil the area surrounding the building. The fact that there is fairly light security at the entrance to the parliament building may have encouraged Kwiecien to go forward with his plot.
Europeans have been having a problem with a surge in right-wing-extremist violence generally. But then, so has the USA -- to little notice in the media.
It's enough to make one wonder if there are Breivik admirers in the USA working along similar lines. And whether our law-enforcement apparatus would be able to catch them in time.
11/30/2012 05:50 PM
Religious, Stubborn and Confident: Egypt's Islamists Power Through Resistance
By Raniah Salloum in Mahalla el-Kobra, Egypt
Two worlds are colliding in Egypt. While President Morsi wants to force through an Islamist constitution, the secular opposition is holding massive demonstrations in protest. Both sides are unwilling to compromise, and the frustration could spill out into violence on the streets.
Mahalla el-Kobra, a working-class city two hours north of Cairo, likes to think of itself as the birthplace of the Egyptian Revolution. Already in 2008, despair and rising food prices had driven its enraged residents into the streets. That marked the beginning of the "April 6" youth movement that would later join those fighting for more rights at the capital's Tahrir Square.
The first thing ones comes upon these days along the road to Mahalla el-Kobra is a giant billboard bearing the face of a kindly smiling Mohammed Morsi and "The President of Egypt" in large letters. The main street continues to be lined with banners of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. The only signs of the "April 6" youth movement are its logo, a balled up fist, spray-painted on the walls.
The Islamists' office is not far from the city's main square. Standing outside in a somewhat well-worn, beige suit is Hassan Saif Abdel-Fatah, a 48-year-old member of the Brotherhood. He is surveying the damage the office sustained on Tuesday evening, when a few hundred angry youths pelted it with stones and Molotov cocktails. The front door's glass panel has been shattered, there are scorch marks on the wall, and a tear runs through one of the Brotherhood's banners.
"I don't understand it," Abdel-Fatah says. "The Morsi opponents previously said that they want revolutionary decisions, but now they're against them. I don't understand it."
The Muslim Brotherhood shows no signs of comprehending why there is a surge of resistance to them throughout Egypt. They cannot fathom why part of the population is outraged over what they say was a power grab.
Liberals Fear a Religious Dictatorship
Last Friday, President Morsi issued decrees that granted him authoritarian powers and gave the controversial assembly drafting the country's new constitution virtual immunity from the courts. On Thursday, he signed the draft constitution that had been composed by his fellow Islamists after the angry liberal members of the body had withdrawn from it in protest. Egyptians will now vote on whether to accept the draft constitution in a national referendum that must be held within 30 days.
The draft contains several vague, controversial articles that would allow Muslim clerics to make decisions that effect Egyptians' private lives. Liberals, secularists and Christians fear that Egypt could soon become a religious dictatorship. And the fact that Morsi wants to ram it through without making any concessions has only heightened their worries.
"We are getting rid of the Mubarak regime," says Abdel-Fatah, referring to the 30-year dictatorship of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that fell victim to pro-democratic uprisings in early 2011. "The only people criticizing us are the jealous losers."
Like many of his fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel-Fatah views himself as a "genuine revolutionary" and points out that the Mubarak regime persecuted his fellow Islamists for decades. Indeed, President Morsi makes frequent mention of the time he spent in prison under Mubarak. Such stories are meant to lend him credibility among those who might find him lacking in charisma.
The Muslim Brotherhood members view themselves as the good guys. And they write off anyone with opposing views as a backer of the old regime.
When it comes to the courts, there is some truth to their charges. Many seats continue to be held by former backers of the Mubarak regime, and the courts continue to throw a wrench into the process of transitioning power in post-Mubarak Egypt.
In June, the country's Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the elected lower house parliament, which was dominated by the FJP and other Islamist parties, citing a flaw in the election law. First it was the military council that served as Egypt's interim power that usurped legislative power, and now it is Morsi.
The Supreme Constitutional Court was expected to rule on Sunday that the constitution-drafting assembly was invalid. Some, but not all of its justices had good ties to the old regime. But the fact that Morsi openly declared his hostility toward the entire judiciary and unceremoniously declared himself above the law will probably drive an even deeper and more dangerous wedge between the countries executive and judicial branches.
Many Citizens Criticize Morsi's Ruthlessness
"Who was elected?" Abdel-Fatah asks. "The judges or us?" Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood subscribes to a very particular understanding of the law, arguing that the judiciary should be independent of and stand above changing political majorities. "We received 40 percent in the lower house of parliament. We have the majority," Abdel-Fatah continues. Likewise, if you combine their share of the parliamentary vote with that of the party of the ultraconservative Salafists, the figure climbs above 65 percent. Given these results, the Muslim Brotherhood members now believe that they enjoy the support of the vast majority of Egyptians. Indeed, in an interview published on Thursday in the US news weekly Time, Morsi said: "I think more that 80 percent, 90 percent, of the people in Egypt … are with what I have done."
However, asking around in Mahalla el-Kobra paints a different picture. Many criticize what they see as Morsi's ruthlessness. They say that they didn't vote for him and that he won because several moderate and charismatic politicians stole votes from each other. Then, for the final round in the presidential elections, the only men left standing were Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq. And even though the latter had been the former prime minister of deposed President Mubarak, Morsi still only won by a slim margin, with 52 to 48 percent of the vote. What's more, they argue, almost half of all eligible voters didn't cast ballots on election day.
However, those who have supported Morsi from the start still have faith in him. "We first have to give him a chance," says one textile worker.
Likewise, the fact is that only a minority of Egyptians are revolting against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Granted, hundreds of thousands of people will probably come together for demonstrations in Cairo on Friday, including many from the educated elite. A few thousand will most likely take to the streets in Mahalla el-Kobra, as well, where there will probably be more stone-throwing, and probably in a few other cities as well. Nevertheless, the rebels still only make up a minority. The majority of Egyptians might not agree with Morsi on everything, but the main thing they are interested in is seeing things move forward again, even if the final destination remains unknown.
Morsi's political understanding doesn't seem to include the belief that compromise and consensus-building are a natural part of politics, that is important to get the opposition on board, especially when it comes to the kinds of far-reaching decisions like the ones Egypt currently faces. Instead, he apparently views democracy as purely a matter of majority rule rather than something concerned with allowing the people as a whole to rule. His winner-takes-all mentality seems to ignore the fact that respecting the minority is also part of majority rule. He gives no consideration to the extreme distrust from the opposition, which itself is hardly willing to make concessions.
In fact, Morsi's response to his demonstrating opponents was to call for even bigger demonstrations. With their massive rallies, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists wanted to show who really represented the majority. This betrays the lack of political experience among the Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt. Mubarak's regime persecuted whoever seemed like a threat. The political arm of the Islamists was repeatedly forbidden and its leaders locked up. Many members are businesspeople, engineers and scientists, because public service was practically impossible for Islamists before the revolution.
In Mahalla el-Kobra, Abdel-Fatah is confident that the opposition will come around to the Muslim Brotherhood after a while. "Just let us do our thing," he says. "We want our actions and not violence to show that Islam is the best religion for everyone."
November 30, 2012
After Moves on Constitution, Protesters Gather in Cairo
By KAREEM FAHIM
CAIRO — In the second potent showing of opposition rage in less than a week, tens of thousands of people streamed into Tahrir Square on Friday, angrily denouncing Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, and the hasty passage earlier in the day of a draft constitution written by an Islamist assembly.
The gathering on Friday was smaller than one that packed the square on Tuesday, raising the question of whether Mr. Morsi’s opponents — liberals, leftists and fierce opponents of the Islamist group that the president once helped lead — could maintain their momentum. As they planned ways to escalate the protests with civil disobedience, Mr. Morsi had to face his critics personally at a mosque in Cairo, where, state news media reported, the president was heckled during Friday Prayer.
Egypt’s often fractured opposition banded together this week to protest a series of moves by Mr. Morsi that had led to accusations that he was reviving the country’s autocracy, presenting him with the most severe crisis in the five months since he took office.
Mr. Morsi’s moves to issue an edict placing his decisions above judicial review and to press the Constitutional Assembly to pass a draft constitution hastily, despite a walkout by non-Islamists, have provided the opposition with a rallying cry. Despite the heady atmosphere on Friday, protesters and activists in Tahrir Square’s choked approaches, bus shelters and plazas predicted an increasingly bitter standoff, given the slim likelihood that the president planned to accede to their demands.
Slogans calling on Mr. Morsi to leave or for his government to fall have energized crowds and drawn new faces to the opposition, including people staunchly opposed to Islamist leadership and those who have supported figures from Hosni Mubarak’s government, like Ahmed Shafik, a former minister who ran against Mr. Morsi in the presidential race. Strikingly, some revolutionary activists now refuse to use the word “remnant,” as they had in the past, to describe their new allies, saying instead that they are glad for the support of people who decided to stay home during the uprising.
It was unclear whether the newcomers would remain while the opposition pressed more concrete demands and stepped up its confrontation with the government. Sitting on a curb in Tahrir Square on Friday night, Adel Abdullah, an unemployed Web designer, said he was happy to find like-minded people also bitterly opposed to Mr. Morsi. But, short of demanding that Mr. Morsi leave office, he said he was not sure, practically, what the president’s opponents should do.
“The people don’t want him,” he said of Mr. Morsi. “I’m so glad he made a mistake.”
Other opposition figures were trying to find ways to capitalize on the president’s mistakes. Leaders of the newly formed National Salvation Front, a coalition of parties, threatened to call for a national strike and possibly to march on the presidential palace to prevent the draft constitution’s going to referendum.
Mohamed Ahmed, a leader of the April 6th Revolutionary Youth Group, spoke of plans to escalate the protests in an effort to win concessions on demands including a rescinding of Mr. Morsi’s edict; a new, more representative constituent assembly; and an overhaul of the Interior Ministry.
“We’re going to have demonstrations in places that affect the regime,” he said, also mentioning the possibility of strikes and civil disobedience. Nearby, a judge speaking to a crowd compared Mr. Morsi to Hitler and Caligula.
Mr. Ahmed said that the talk of toppling Mr. Morsi was unrealistic — but tactically important. “We have to raise our demands to get our demands,” he said.
Islamist parties have repeatedly prevailed at the polls since Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow, leaving the opposition to rely on obstructionist tactics to try to thwart them. Some activists say they hope for help from an Egyptian judiciary angered at Mr. Morsi’s bid to place his decisions out of judges’ reach. They have argued that the president will be unable to hold a referendum on the constitution because the interim charter requires judicial supervision of the vote. Most of Egypt’s judges, though, have gone on strike to protest the decree.
“The judicial bodies don’t approve of the decree, and they don’t approve of the draft constitution, and under current constitutional articles, it is impossible to hold a referendum without judicial monitoring,” said Ahmed Kamel, a spokesman for Amr Moussa, a former diplomat under Mr. Mubarak who ran for president last year and has emerged as an opposition leader.
On Friday, with Mr. Morsi in attendance, worshipers at the Sharbatly Mosque heckled the imam as he called on the public to support the president and recited religious verse that called on people to “obey those in authority,” according to an account of the visit in the semiofficial newspaper Al Ahram.
After the imam stopped his sermon, some worshipers chanted, “Down with the rule of the supreme guide,” referring to the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi’s Islamist party. The president asked the crowd to calm down and tried to explain his recent decisions, as some supporters chanted his name, the paper said.
David D. Kirkpatrick, Joe Gabra and Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
Israel to build 3,000 settlements after Palestinian U.N. recognition
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 30, 2012 15:15 EST
Israel is to build 3,000 new settler homes in east Jerusalem and the West Bank after the Palestinians won recognition as a non-member state at the United Nations, an Israeli official told AFP on Friday.
Asked if he could confirm a report that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had decided tp build the 3,000 units in response to the Palestinians success at the UN, he said: “It’s true — in (east) Jerusalem and the West Bank,” without saying exactly where.
The decision was revealed in a tweet by the diplomatic correspondent of Haaretz newspaper, who said some of the homes would be built in E1, a highly-contentious area of the West Bank which links annexed east Jerusalem with Maaleh Adumim settlement.
“Political source: Netanyahu decided to build 3,000 new housing units in east Jerusalem and in settlements in the West Bank in response to the Palestinian action at the UN,” said a Hebrew tweet by Barak Ravid.
“Despite the commitments he gave to (US) President (Barack) Obama, PM Netanyahu gave the order to advance construction in the E1 area between Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem which will cut off the northern part of the West Bank from the south,” he said.
Israel had pledged to freeze the E1 project as part of its commitments under the international roadmap for peace which was launched in 2003.
The Palestinians bitterly oppose the project as it effectively cuts the occupied West Bank in two, making the creation of a viable Palestinian state highly problematic.
November 30, 2012
Housing Move in Israel Seen as Setback for a Two-State Plan
By JODI RUDOREN and MARK LANDLER
JERUSALEM — Israel is moving forward with development of Jewish settlements in a contentious area east of Jerusalem, defying the United States by advancing a project that has long been condemned by Washington as effectively dooming any prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A day after the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to upgrade the status of the Palestinians, a senior Israeli official said the government would pursue “preliminary zoning and planning preparations” for a development that would separate the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem from Jerusalem. If such a project were to go beyond blueprints, it could prevent the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.
The development, in an open, mostly empty area known as E1, would connect the large settlement town of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem. Israeli officials also authorized construction of 3,000 housing units in parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The timing of the twin actions seemed aimed at punishing the Palestinians for their United Nations bid, and appeared to show that hard-liners in the government had prevailed after days of debate over how to respond. That represented a surprising turnaround, after a growing sense that Israeli leaders had acceded to pressure from Washington not to react quickly or harshly.
The Obama administration swiftly condemned the move as unhelpful. Senior officials expressed frustration that it came after Israeli officials had played down the importance of the Palestinian bid and suggested that they would only employ harsh retaliatory measures if the Palestinians used their new status to go after Israel in the International Criminal Court.
“We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements and East Jerusalem construction and announcements,” a spokesman for the National Security Council, Tommy Vietor, said. “We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations or achieve a two-state solution.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a Saban Forum speech on Friday night at a Washington hotel, criticized Israel’s decision to proceed with plans for construction without referring to any settlements directly by name. “These activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Israel gave the United States only a few hours’ notice of the plan, and President Obama did not call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a senior official said. For Mr. Obama, whose most bitter clashes with Mr. Netanyahu have come over settlements, the Israeli move could undermine a series of developments in recent weeks — from the violence in Gaza to the Palestinian vote — in which the two leaders appeared to draw closer together.
In her speech, Mrs. Clinton condemned the General Assembly vote as “a step that will not bring us any closer to peace,” and reiterated America’s deep commitment to Israel.
“America has Israel’s back,” she said, “and this month we proved it again.” After listing many ways in which the United States has supported Israel, Mrs. Clinton articulated the two-state vision, what she called the need for a “political horizon.”
“There is more the Israelis need to do,”she said, adding, “There is still an opportunity with the West Bank Palestinians” to have a different status quo that would be in Israel’s interest.For years, American and European officials have told the Israelis that E1 is a red line. The leaked, somewhat vague, announcement of plans to proceed with building is the diplomatic equivalent of what the Israeli military did last month when it massed tens of thousands of ground troops at the Gaza border. It is a potent threat that may well, in the end, not be carried out because the Israeli government worries about its consequences.
The Palestinian Authority described the plan as “a new act of defiance from the Israeli government.” Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator, said in a statement, “At a moment where the Palestinian leadership is doing every single effort to save the two-state solution, the Israeli government does everything possible to destroy it.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the zoning and construction decisions, which were made Thursday night around the time of the General Assembly vote.
Israel has long maintained its right to develop neighborhoods throughout East Jerusalem and the West Bank — more than 500,000 Jews already live there — and Mr. Netanyahu, responding to the United Nations speech by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, said, “Someone who wants peace does not talk in such a manner.”
While Israel has frequently announced settlement expansions at delicate political moments, often to its detriment, the E1 move came as a shock to many after a week in which both Israelis and Palestinians toned down their talk about day-after responses to the United Nations vote.
Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist foreign minister who for months denounced the Palestinian initiative as “diplomatic terrorism” and said Israel should consider severe sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, had told reporters in recent days that there would be “no automatic response.”
Mr. Lieberman, who spoke before Mrs. Clinton at the Saban Forum on Friday, castigated Mr. Abbas as a failed politician who had sought to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to divert attention from an ailing economy at home.
Mr. Erekat’s spokesman declined to discuss whether the Palestinians would use their upgraded status, as a nonmember observer state with access to United Nations institutions, to pursue a case in the International Criminal Court regarding E1 or the other settlement expansion.
Less contentious moves were already in progress: the Palestinian Authority has begun changing its name to “Palestine” on official documents, contracts and Web sites, and several nations are considering raising the level of diplomatic relations, giving Palestinian envoys the title of ambassador.
All but one European country, the Czech Republic, voted with the Palestinians or abstained in the United Nations vote on Thursday, many of them citing concerns about settlements in West Bank and East Jerusalem territories that Israel captured in the 1967 war. The settlement of E1, a 4.6-square-mile expanse of hilly parkland where some Bedouins have camps and a police station was opened in 2008, could increase Israel’s international isolation.
“This is not just another few houses in Jerusalem or another hilltop in the West Bank,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “This is one of the most sensitive areas of territory, and I would hope the United States will lay down the law.”
After a day in which Israeli government officials insisted that the United Nations vote was a purely symbolic one that had not changed anything on the ground, the revelation of the development late Friday stunned and outraged even some of Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters.
“A number of important countries are telling us that they think it’s wrong to do settlements, and these are our best friends,” noted one senior Israeli government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired. “After they say this directly or indirectly, the immediate response is to build more settlements, even in one of the most controversial areas. E1? How does that make sense? What is the message the government is sending its best friends?”
Dani Dayan, the leader of Israel’s settler movement, said the development of E1 was an “important Israeli strategic interest,” but he, too, was somewhat dismayed by the timing. “We don’t like the idea of developing our communities as a sort of retaliatory or punitive step,” he said.
Shelly Yacimovich, head of the left-wing Labor Party, also questioned the strategy. “Construction in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem is not controversial,” she said Friday night in a television interview. “But to do this now? That’s sticking a finger in the eye.”
It is hardly the first time Israel has been criticized for bad timing on settlement expansion. In August 2011, a month before a previous bid by Mr. Abbas for upgraded status at the United Nations Security Council, Israel’s Interior Ministry gave final approval for the construction of a 1,600-unit apartment complex in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
On the eve of an April 2011 meeting between Mr. Obama and Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, a Jerusalem planning committee gave its go-ahead for 1,000 units. And in 2010, Mr. Netanyahu was embarrassed by an early approval of the Ramat Shlomo development hours after a Jerusalem visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
But E1 — where a plan approved years ago calls for 3,910 housing units, 2,192 hotel rooms and an industrial park, in addition to the police station — is more contentious than all those projects combined. Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have all strenuously objected to any settlement there.
Dani Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and peace activist, described E1 as “the fatal heart attack of the two-state solution” and said Mr. Netanyahu was wielding “the doomsday weapon.”
Still, he and others noted that the approval was only for zoning and planning, early steps in a long development process before bulldozers begin work, and could be what he called “the dramatic flourish.”
That may be why the announcement is so vague. Turning the plans into reality is likely to take years. On the other hand, just asserting that such steps are being considered is a way of signaling Israel’s readiness, after having lost a key battle at the United Nation, to engage fully in the diplomatic war over the future of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Jodi Rudoren reported from Jerusalem, and Mark Landler from Washington. Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Washington; Peter Baker from Hatfield, Pa.; and Ethan Bronner from New York.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 30, 2012
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name and surname of the leader of the Israeli Labor Party. She is Shelly Yacimovich, not Shelley Yachnimovich.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 30, 2012
An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Saban Forum speech in Washington. It was at a hotel, not at the Brookings Institution.
November 30, 2012
New U.N. Status for Palestinians Could Open Door for Claims of Israeli War Crimes
By CHRISTINE HAUSER
In recent years, the Palestinian Authority has tried to have its accusations of Israeli war crimes investigated by the International Criminal Court, only to see its request go nowhere because the Palestinian territories were not recognized as a state.
But now the court says it will take a fresh look at the issue after the United Nations General Assembly voted to enhance the standing of the Palestinians, conferring on them the word “state” as part of their new status as nonmember observers. On Friday, a spokeswoman for the prosecutors office said it “will consider the implications of this resolution.”
Less than a day after the United Nations vote, which many Palestinians cheered as a historical turning point and its opponents derided as an obstacle to peace and statehood, Palestinian officials said they hoped the distinction gave them enough momentum to be able to return to the international court at some time in the future — if that is what they decide to do.
“Of course it is enough,” Rabii al-Hantouli, a spokesman for the Palestinian Mission at the United Nations, said Friday. “There are some technicalities and procedures. In 2009, we approached the I.C.C., and the only thing pending was they wanted a legal document saying Palestine was a state. And now they have it.”
But as history has so often shown in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a lot happens, but very little may change. Judging by some of the expectations after the vote, this could be one of those cases.
In his speech to the General Assembly, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, said that the new status would not enable the Palestinian Authority to join international treaties, organizations or conferences as a state and does “not confer statehood on the Palestinian Authority, which clearly fails to meet the criteria for statehood.”
Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador, who along with eight other countries’ representatives voted against the resolution with Israel, said bluntly, “This resolution does not establish that Palestine is a state.” Representatives of 138 nations voted for the resolution, and 41 abstained.
But Palestinians are throwing a great deal of weight behind the new nomenclature, which does not make them full United Nations members but is an upgrade from their former status as an observer entity. “That is what changed everything,” said Yousef Zeidan, an adviser on legal matters to the Palestine Mission at the United Nations.
Still, he made clear that the Palestinian Authority had not made any decisions about what it would do at the court. “Right now we are not asking for anything,” he added, referring to international treaties or conventions.
In 2009, the Palestinian Authority pressed the court to investigate accusations of war crimes committed by Israeli commanders during the war in Gaza against Hamas militants, including that Israel had singled out civilians and illegally used weapons like white phosphorus.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the I.C.C. prosecutor at the time, initially said he lacked the legal basis to investigate, but he appeared more open to consider the claim after the Palestinian Authority signed a commitment recognizing the court’s jurisdiction.
But in April, he turned down the Palestinian request, saying his office had no jurisdiction over the Palestinian territories until the United Nations, or nations that have joined the court, recognized them as a state. The court has a new chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
Some analysts said that by accepting the jurisdiction of the court, the Palestinians could also open themselves up to prosecution for war crimes, including Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians.
“Maybe the Palestinians will not want there to be a case against Palestinians,” said Aeyal Gross, a law professor at Tel Aviv University.
They also question whether the Palestinian Authority can bring a case involving jurisdiction in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas, and not President Mahmoud Abbas, controls. That raises questions on whether Gaza even forms a state along with the West Bank. “It is a double-edged sword for them,” said Srini Sitaraman, an international law professor at Clark University in Massachusetts.
Mr. Zeidan, the legal adviser, said that after the vote, the Palestinians could renew their 2009 request or seek membership in the court. But he said no decision had been made. “The treaty is open to all states,” he said.
Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris.
Editorials: Every man for himself
30 November 2012
The major diplomatic event of this week was the United Nations’ decision to recognise the Palestinian Territories as a non-member observer state on November 29. The vote in the UN General Assembly was first and foremost a symbolic gesture, which, in itself, will not settle the issue of the co-existence of Israel and its new official neighbour. And from the perspective of Europe, the fact that the EU was unable to speak with a single voice was also equally symbolic.
The record of the vote shows that the 27 EU states were divided into two roughly equivalent blocs, with 14 countries in favour and 12 abstentions. Among the Europeans, only the Czech Republic voted against the measure – alongside eight other countries, including Israel and the United States, in the 188-member assembly.
As Lluís Bassets pointed out in the run-up to the UN vote, the European External Action Service (EEAS) launched in 2010 has remained an empty shell. Not only do the EU-27 appear determined to ignore the Service led by the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and its mission to develop the global influence of the EU, but they also appear completely unperturbed by their incapacity to agree among themselves on a question as symbolic as the recognition of a Palestinian state.
Also telling, is the fact that European disunity has once again made itself apparent a week after a failed summit on the EU budget, marked by a defence of national interests, which undermined any attempt to define shared priorities for the next seven years.
The fact that these events have followed each other in such close succession is not a coincidence, but reveals the spirit of the times. On Friday, in an interview with four European newspapers including the Financial Times, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared that his government wants “a debate at the level of the 27 [member states] on whether Europe is not involved in too many areas which could be done at the national level.”
The question of subsidiarity is not new, and ought to be posed to improve the functioning of the Union. But asked in such a manner in the current context, it will only add to the confusion already prompted by the British debate on the repatriation of powers to London.
The political message inherent in all of this is that we should have an à la carte Europe, even if it goes against the overall interests of the European project.
A few years ago, the ill-fated European Constitution was to be the consecration of a crucial phase of European construction. Born under unfavourable conditions, the Lisbon Treaty which replaced it was marked by compromise and renunciation, and the spirit it was supposed to sustain has since been swallowed up by the economic crisis.
In his book, De passage naar Europa [The passage to Europe], Luuk van Middelaar describes the ever-changing balance between the “external sphere” of the traditional 19th Century Concert of Nations, the “internal sphere” of community institutions, and the “intermediate sphere”, where a council of states slowly advances towards decisions which transcend their national interests but nonetheless take them into account. Until recently, the history of the EU has been one of transition from the predominance of the external sphere towards close cooperation between the two other spheres. However, this historical process now appears stalled.
Today, only the Commission persists in proposing projects that relate to integration in the long term. But it appears increasingly alone and unable to make itself heard.
Notwithstanding this deceleration in the progress of history, the EU has recently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And this is not a coincidence. The Nobel Committee wants to warn against the consequences of deadlock between Europe’s 27 member states. When the decision was announced, we remarked that the EU should show itself to be worthy of the award. In answer to our request, we have now had news that six EU leaders will not attend the prize-giving ceremony on December 10.
November 30, 2012
Syrian Forces, Seeking to Keep Hold on Capital, Strike Rebels on Its Outskirts
By HANIA MOURTADA, ANNE BARNARD and HALA DROUBI
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian forces pummeled the outskirts of Damascus with artillery and airstrikes on Friday, antigovernment activists reported, apparently in an effort to insulate the city — the cornerstone of President Bashar al-Assad’s rule — from rebels who have pushed deeper into a semicircle of suburbs along the city’s eastern and southern edges.
Foreign airlines suspended flights into Damascus International Airport for a second day as the air force bombarded rebels along the airport road. Rebels clashed with government forces along the road, lobbing a mortar onto a bridge, activists reported.
Holding Damascus, the capital, is crucial for the government, which keeps its highest concentration of troops and its most loyal and best-trained units in and around the city. Though rebels were unlikely to be able to overrun Damascus soon, analysts said, the encroachment of fighting there — particularly at the airport — has a profound psychological effect on government supporters, making them feel trapped. It also forces the military to pull resources from other areas to defend the capital.
Damascus residents reached by phone and by Skype reported hearing explosions and seeing billowing smoke in the distance, and they described an atmosphere of tension and fear. Government checkpoints were so numerous that it was difficult to travel anywhere without passing through one.
Activists reported that violence had spilled into areas that had usually been calm. A mortar shell landed on Baghdad Street, a downtown thoroughfare, killing a 22-year-old man, said Salam Mohammed, an activist in Damascus. There were clashes at Mezze Airport, west of the capital, near a wealthy pro-government area that had usually been isolated from fighting, another activist said.
Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, described the fighting as “part of the strategy of encirclement of the city.”
“The rebels are making a very strong point: that they can go after anything that is seen as critical infrastructure,” Mr. Hokayem said, adding that while the government would be able to reopen the airport and the airport road, “the cost of doing so is only going to increase over time.”
Fighting has plagued the Damascus suburbs throughout the 20-month conflict, and rebels have tried several times to push into the city. Most recently, they held the southern neighborhood of Medan for several days over the summer. The government responded by moving forces from other areas to Damascus, analysts said, and there were indications that it had also done so in recent days. Activists reported that government forces had withdrawn from one of their last bases in the remote eastern province of Deir al-Zour, leaving rebels in control of oil fields there.
There was less detailed information than usual about the conflict on Friday because Internet access was cut to the entire country for a second day, in what seemed to be a government effort to disrupt the communications of its opponents, although some activists and other residents used the Web through satellite services.
Fighter jets bombarded neighborhoods in Daraya, south of the capital, and in East Ghouta, to the east, and artillery pounded other areas in the crescent of territory where rebels have been trying to consolidate gains. Activists and analysts said the attacks could herald a counteroffensive, or might simply be further retaliation against pro-rebel areas.
Hania Mourtada and Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 30, 2012
An earlier version of this article reversed the given name and surname of an activist in the Damascus suburbs who said rebels had recently captured 40 pro-government militiamen, and misspelled his given name. He is AlBaara Abdul Rahman, not Abdul Rahman al-Barra.
November 30, 2012
For Syria’s Rebel Movement, Skype Is a Useful and Increasingly Dangerous Tool
By AMY CHOZICK
In a demonstration of their growing sophistication and organization, Syrian rebels responded to a nationwide shutdown of the Internet by turning to satellite technology to coordinate within the country and to communicate with outside activists.
When Syria’s Internet service disappeared Thursday, government officials first blamed rebel attacks. Activist groups blamed the government and viewed the blackout as a sign that troops would violently clamp down on rebels.
But having dealt with periodic outages for more than a year, the opposition had anticipated a full shutdown of Syria’s Internet service providers. To prepare, they have spent months smuggling communications equipment like mobile handsets and portable satellite phones into the country.
“We’re very well equipped here,” said Albaraa Abdul Rahman, 27, an activist in Saqba, a poor suburb 20 minutes outside Damascus. He said he was in touch with an expert in Homs who helped connect his office and 10 others like it in and around Damascus.
Using the connection, the activists in Saqba talked to rebel fighters on Skype and relayed to overseas activists details about clashes with government forces. A video showed the rebels’ bare-bones room, four battery backups that could power a laptop for eight hours and a generator set up on a balcony.
For months, rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad have used Skype, a peer-to-peer Internet communication system, to organize and talk to outside news organizations and activists. A few days ago, Jad al-Yamani, an activist in Homs, sent a message to rebel fighters that tanks were moving toward a government checkpoint.
He notified the other fighters so that they could go observe the checkpoint. “Through Skype you know how the army moves or can stop it,” Mr. Yamani said.
On Friday, Dawoud Sleiman, 39, a member of the antigovernment Ahrar al-Shamal Battalion, part of the Free Syrian Army, reached out to other members of the rebel group. They were set up at the government’s Wadi Aldaif military base in Idlib, a province near the Turkish border that has seen heavy fighting, and connected to Skype via satellite Internet service.
Mr. Sleiman, who is based in Turkey, said the Free Syrian Army stopped using cellphone networks and land lines months ago and instead relies almost entirely on Skype. “Brigade members communicate through the hand-held devices,” he said.
This week rebels posted an announcement via Skype that called for the arrest of the head of intelligence in Idlib, who is accused of killing five rebels. “A big financial prize will be offered to anyone who brings the head of this guy,” the message read. “One of our brothers abroad has donated the cash.”
If the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were Twitter Revolutions, then Syria is becoming the Skype Rebellion. To get around a near-nationwide Internet shutdown, rebels have armed themselves with mobile satellite phones and dial-up modems.
In many cases, relatives and supporters living outside Syria bought the equipment and had it smuggled in, mostly through Lebanon and Turkey.
That equipment has allowed the rebels to continue to communicate almost entirely via Skype with little interruption, despite the blackout. “How the government used its weapons against the revolution, that is how activists use Skype,” Mr. Abdul Rahman said.
“We haven’t seen any interruption in the way Skype is being used,” said David Clinch, an editorial director of Storyful, a group that verifies social media posts for news organizations, including The New York Times (Mr. Clinch has served as a consultant for Skype).
Mr. Assad, who once fashioned himself as a reformer and the father of Syria’s Internet, has largely left the country’s access intact during the 20-month struggle with rebels. The government appeared to abandon that strategy on Thursday, when most citizens lost access. Some Syrians could still get online using service from Turkey. On Friday, Syrian officials blamed technical problems for the cutoff.
The shutdown is only the latest tactic in the escalating technology war waged in Arab Spring countries.
But several technology experts warned that the use of the Internet by rebels in Syria, even those relying on Skype, could leave them vulnerable to government surveillance.
Introduced in 2003, Skype encrypts each Internet call so that they are next to impossible to crack. It quickly became the pet technology of global organizers and opposition members in totalitarian countries. And while Skype’s encryption secrets remain elusive, in recent months the Assad government, often with help from Iran, has developed tools to install malware on computers that allows officials to monitor a user’s activity.
“Skype has gone from in the mid-2000s being the tool most widely used and promoted by human rights activists to now when people ask me I say, ‘Definitely, don’t use it,’ ” said Ronald J. Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto that monitors human rights and cybersecurity.
Using satellite phone service to connect makes Skype potentially more dangerous since it makes it easier to track a user’s location, said Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group in San Francisco.
The Syrian government has “gone from passive surveillance to more active surveillance in which they’re gaining access to dissidents’ and opposition members’ computers,” Ms. Galperin said.
The pro-government Syrian Electronic Army has largely led the response to early cyberattacks by rebels and overseas sympathizers. At checkpoints in government-controlled regions, Assad forces examined laptops for programs that would allow users to bypass government spyware, several activists said. In cafes where the Internet was available, government officials checked users’ identification.
Rebels are starting to suspect that the government’s efforts are paying off. A media activist in Idlib named Mohamed said a rebel informant working for the government was killed in Damascus six months ago after sending warnings to the Free Syrian Army on Skype.
“I saw this incident right in front of my eyes,” Mohamed said. “We put his info on Skype so he was arrested and killed.”
In August, an activist named Baraa al-Boushi was killed during shelling in Damascus. Activists later circulated a report saying that a Saudi Arabian claiming to support the revolution was actually a government informant who determined Mr. Boushi’s location after a long conversation on Skype.
A Skype spokesman, Chaim Haas, said calls via the service between computers, smartphones and other mobile devices are automatically encrypted. But just like e-mail and instant messaging can be compromised by spyware and Trojan horses, so can Skype.
“They’re listening to the conversation before it gets encrypted,” Mr. Haas said. “That has nothing to do with Skype at all.”
Liam Stack contributed reporting from New York; Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.
November 30, 2012
Dire Scene in Congolese City as Rebels Prepare to Leave
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NAIROBI, Kenya — Lootings. Assassinations. A spreading sense of lawlessness.
That was the alarming picture that emerged on Friday from Goma, a rebel-held city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, despite vows by the rebels to withdraw peacefully.
Human rights groups said that the M23 rebels who captured Goma last week were now going on an assassination campaign as they prepared to leave, creating a vortex of crime and confusion.
“I think it will be extremely chaotic over the next few days,” said Ida Sawyer, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Residents in Goma reported that the rebels were piling cases of ammunition and other looted supplies onto trucks, with some of it heading toward neighboring Rwanda, while a new document sent to a United Nations Security Council committee said that the Rwandan Army had crossed the border into Congo and had helped the fighters capture Goma in the first place.
Rwandan troops “openly entered into Goma through one of the two official border crossings,” said the document, which was signed by Steve Hege on behalf of a United Nations investigative panel of which he is the coordinator, and was leaked by a third party.
The panel has accused Rwanda — with help from Uganda — of creating, equipping and commanding the rebels. In the document, the panel contended that once the rebels and Rwandan soldiers chased the Congolese Army out of Goma, “these troops together took control over the entire city, marching through downtown dressed in a combination of R.D.F. and new M23 uniforms,” using R.D.F. to signify the Rwanda Defense Force.
Rwanda has strenuously denied any covert involvement in this round of conflict. But it has sent thousands of soldiers across the border to overthrow the Congolese government at least twice in the past, justifying such actions by blaming Congo for insecurity across the region.
Some of Rwanda’s staunchest allies, including the United States, have recently cut aid to Rwanda amid the allegations of meddling in Congo. On Friday, the BBC reported that the British government had suspended more than $33 million in aid, which Rwanda desperately needs to keep its government running.
Congo and Rwanda seem to be heading into yet another turbulent, acrimonious phase, with tensions growing by the day. It began this spring when more than 1,000 former rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese Army mutinied. The rebels named themselves the M23 after March 23, 2009, the date of a failed peace deal between the two sides.
Most of the rebel commanders were Tutsi, the same minority ethnic group that dominates politics and the economy in Rwanda, and many of them had fought in the Rwandan Army.
The rebels indicated this week that they would abide by a regional agreement signed last weekend to leave Goma. “And we are continuing with that plan,” Bertrand Bisimwa, an M23 spokesman, said Friday.
He said the rebels had begun withdrawing from Goma and planned to station all troops about 12 miles outside the city, as the agreement demanded.
But another rebel spokesman contradicted him, telling The Associated Press that the rebels would not be able to leave Goma for “logistical reasons” until Sunday.
Aid workers in Goma said on Friday that they could not see any sign of a rebel pullout.
“I’m not seeing big movements of soldiers,” said Richard Nunn, a coordinator for Oxfam. “I still see some rebel soldiers in town. It’s very difficult to say what’s going on right now.”
Other residents reported an increase in carjackings and break-ins, saying that Goma was becoming virtually lawless at night. Many people fear that a vacuum could open up when the rebels leave, and that the Congolese Army could be even worse.
When Congolese troops hastily retreated from Goma last week, Mr. Nunn said, “there was a lot of rape, a lot of insecurity, a lot of extortion and some killings.”
“It was a mess, and people are worried about the same kind of thing happening when they come back,” he added.
The deal struck last weekend calls for one battalion of government troops to return to Goma’s streets and for a mixed force of rebels, government troops and a yet-to-be-named “neutral force” to guard the airport, from which millions of dollars in minerals is exported every month.
The rebels have clearly infiltrated the police in Goma, with officers who speak the principal Rwandan language strutting around the city last week in uniforms so freshly sewn that loose threads still hung off them. Congolese officers who had been disarmed said that only Tutsi officers were allowed to carry guns.
Most analysts believe that the rebels will officially withdraw from Goma soon, after cleaning out everything of value (there were reports that they robbed the central bank this week). Because the Congolese government is so weak and its army is in such disarray, the rebels are expected to extract a new deal that will give them top positions in the army and an even firmer grip on a large and lucrative swath of eastern Congo.
Residents said that at least 10 people in Goma had been assassinated in the past 10 days, with many more disappearances. After one magistrate was struck in the face with a machete and nearly killed last week, United Nations peacekeepers evacuated more than 20 other magistrates.
“We’ve confirmed several cases of targeted killings by the M23 in and around Goma,” said Ms. Sawyer, the Human Rights Watch researcher. She said the victims included “those who refused to join the M23 or act as informants, individuals deemed uncooperative during looting incidents, and other suspected ‘enemies.’ ”
The rebels have denied any wrongdoing.
Mr. Bisimwa, the rebel spokesman, said that he had heard the same accusations but that no one had offered proof.
“Where are the facts?” he asked.
December 1, 2012
A New President Takes Office in Mexico
By KARLA ZABLUDOVSKY
MEXICO CITY — Enrique Peña Nieto became president of Mexico early Saturday, beginning a six-year term in which he has promised to accelerate economic growth, reduce the violence related to the drug war and forge closer, broader ties with the United States.
Mr. Peña Nieto took office at 12:01 a.m. during a short ceremony at the presidential residence with his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. Mr. Peña Nieto is scheduled to take the oath of office before Congress on Saturday morning and then deliver a speech before an audience of domestic and foreign dignitaries, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., with whom he will also meet privately.
Mr. Peña Nieto, 46, a lawyer who served as governor of Mexico State, has vowed to continue Mr. Calderón’s efforts to work with American law enforcement agencies to quell the violence linked to drug gangs that has killed tens of thousands in the past several years and tarnished Mexico’s image.
In recent weeks, his team has emphasized the need to bolster Mexico’s economy, which rebounded from a recession in 2009 and is now growing faster than the United States’ with an infusion of new manufacturing plants and other investment.
His administration plans more steps to stimulate the economy, arguing that generating better-paying jobs will go a long way toward reducing violence by providing alternatives to crime for the chronically underemployed.
Mr. Peña Nieto also plans to reorganize the federal security forces and intends to form paramilitary units with police duties to combat violence in rural areas and support local and state police departments that are too corrupt or poorly trained to fight crime.
Still, his administration will be watched closely to see whether it is propelling Mexico forward or backward.
Mr. Peña Nieto ushers in a new era for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which had ruled Mexico for more than 70 years before the more conservative National Action Party toppled it in 2000 and defeated it again in 2006.
But Mr. Peña Nieto and his associates said they represented a new, chastened party bent on promoting efficiency and economic change and promising to fight the kind of corruption long associated with it.
“It’s a very common misconception to think that the PRI’s return to power means the return of something that is already in history,” Luis Videgaray, who led the president’s transition team and will become the finance minister, said in a recent interview.
“The PRI of today is like any other party: a party that competes in a democracy, that accepts results and understands that only through good government would it be able to compete again in elections,” he said. “So I think that’s the biggest misconception that the PRI is something of the past, and it’s not.”
Mr. Peña Nieto begins his term on a politically shaky foundation. He won 38 percent of the vote in the July election, and for weeks afterward, political opponents complained about what they said were irregularities in the voting. The PRI-led coalition is the largest in Congress, but it does not have an absolute majority and will need alliances to get anything done.
In unveiling his cabinet on Friday, Mr. Peña Nieto relied largely on PRI stalwarts, including five former governors, but placed several young, foreign-educated technocrats from his inner circle, including Mr. Videgaray, in prominent positions to present a fresh face for the old party. Men dominate the cabinet, with only 3 of the 27 positions filled going to women.
The opposition, however, has its own challenges.
The leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution has split into factions, and the National Action Party is rebuilding without a clear leader after losing its 12-year grip on the presidency.
Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting.
November 30, 2012
Battle Between Argentine Media Empire and President Heats Up Over a Law
By SIMON ROMERO and EMILY SCHMALL
BUENOS AIRES — In her battle with Argentina’s largest media empire, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has raided its headquarters with 200 tax agents. Her supporters have accused the conglomerate’s largest shareholder of adopting two children thought to have been abducted from women killed during Argentina’s “dirty war.” Her vice president has disparaged its chief executive, Héctor Magnetto, as a “Mafioso.”
And yet, the dispute between Mrs. Kirchner and the conglomerate, Grupo Clarín, one of the most contentious struggles over power and public influence in Argentina in years, is just heating up.
A showdown is approaching as a media law championed by Mrs. Kirchner is set to take effect in December, potentially forcing Clarín to divest most of its cable television operations. Those lucrative assets support an array of influential publications, including the group’s flagship daily newspaper, Clarín, one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the Spanish-speaking world.
Mrs. Kirchner’s ambitions of breaking up Grupo Clarín reflect the festering official resentment over the sway of the group, which has evolved over the decades from a newspaper on the brink of bankruptcy into a sprawling media giant at times publicly despised by presidents who have had to reckon with Clarín’s power to shape public opinion.
For Clarín, the battle involves not only its economic interests but also the broader viability of independent media groups in a country where government officials are channeling a surge in public advertising to news organizations that favorably cover Mrs. Kirchner, whose approval ratings have recently plunged as Argentina’s economy slows.
“This is about more than Clarín; this is about democracy,” Mr. Magnetto said.
But critics of Clarín — and there are many across the political spectrum here — adopt a sharply different view. They contend that Clarín, founded by an Axis sympathizer in the 1940s, colluded with the military dictatorship in the 1970s, giving it advantages over competitors, before aggressively expanding by pressing democratically elected leaders to loosen antimonopoly measures.
“Clarín thinks in the same way as a government,” said Roberto Caballero, the editor of Tiempo Argentino, a newspaper that is part of Veintitrés, a media group that relies heavily on government advertising. His comments about Clarín’s size and clout echoed the sentiments of Martín Sabbatella, the director of the federal agency created to enforce the media law, who said the measure’s aim was to guarantee a “plurality of voices.”
In other parts of Latin America, leaders have clashed vehemently with the news media. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela incurred protests by forcing a critical broadcaster, RCTV, off public airwaves, while President Rafael Correa of Ecuador regularly disparages journalists, some of whom have faced debilitating libel lawsuits.
But Mrs. Kirchner’s battle with Clarín stands out because of the ties that once bound them together. For years, Clarín threw its support behind her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, president from 2003 to 2007; he regularly hosted Mr. Magnetto for lunches at the presidential residence and often delivered exclusive stories to Clarín’s journalists.
Mr. Kirchner clashed with some of Clarín’s top competitors, notably the daily newspaper La Nación, and in one of his last acts as president he instructed officials to approve Clarín’s acquisition of Cablevisión, a major cable television provider. The deal gave Clarín a jewel in its crown of properties, including magazines, an Internet provider and television channels with some of Argentina’s highest-rated news and entertainment programs.
Still, the relationship with the Kirchners began to sour in 2007, when Clarín published reports about a businessman who flew here from Venezuela with a suitcase containing $800,000 in cash, prompting allegations that the money was meant as a secret contribution for Mrs. Kirchner’s presidential campaign.
Clarín’s standing with the government deteriorated further in 2008, when Mrs. Kirchner raised export taxes on agricultural producers and Clarín sided with farmers striking against the measure. She accused Grupo Clarín of fomenting civil unrest; by the time she ran for re-election in 2011 — with one of her slogans proclaiming “Clarín Lies!” — her adversary seemed to be as much Clarín as the other candidates.
The dispute is nothing new for Clarín, which has bitterly clashed with other presidents, including Raúl Alfonsín and Carlos Menem, and whose influence, while under siege, remains feared in political circles.
“Behind the scenes, there are politicians satisfied with the weakening of Clarín,” said Graciela Mochkofsky, the author of “Original Sin,” a book about Clarín’s rise within Argentina’s political culture.
Still, Clarín’s skirmishes with other leaders pale in comparison with the battle with Mrs. Kirchner, whose government encouraged an investigation into the adoption of two children by Ernestina Herrera de Noble, the widow of Clarín’s founder, Roberto Noble.
Her children, Marcela and Felipe Noble Herrera, now adults and heirs to her stake in Clarín, became embroiled in efforts by human rights groups to determine the origins of an estimated 500 babies believed to have been abducted from women killed by the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. DNA tests ultimately determined that they were not among the abducted children.
Clarín was left exposed to such scrutiny after its dealings during the dictatorship resurfaced in the congressional debates over the media law, including a pact in which it and two other newspaper publishers gained stakes in Argentina’s only newsprint manufacturer. Lidia Papaleo, the widow of the banker who had been a shareholder in the newsprint venture, was tortured and raped after her arrest during the dictatorship.
In addition to pressuring Clarín over its expansion during military rule, Mrs. Kirchner’s government also focused its ire on Mr. Magnetto, an accountant who joined Clarín while still in his 20s, surviving various purges within its ranks to emerge as chief executive and the second-largest shareholder in the group, after Ms. Herrera de Noble.
After a battle with throat cancer, Mr. Magnetto’s speech remains garbled from the various surgeries by doctors in the United States. Interviewed alongside Ricardo Kirschbaum, the editor in chief of the newspaper Clarín, who helped decipher responses to questions, Mr. Magnetto, 68, contended that Clarín was being unfairly singled out for retribution because of its journalism.
“The government’s objective is not justice,” he said, claiming that the efforts to break up Clarín were part of a plan to change Argentina’s Constitution so that Mrs. Kirchner can seek a third term in 2015.
“For this to happen,” Mr. Magnetto said, “the president needs to have a restricted press.”
News organizations that are relatively uncritical of the government have expanded under the Kirchners. Through public spending on advertising, the government bolsters loyal print and broadcast companies while withholding advertising from news organizations viewed as adversaries. In one case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Editorial Perfil, a magazine publisher that sued the government over its advertising policies.
The government’s budget for 2013 projects about $300 million in spending on advertising — including television commercials for YPF, the oil and gas company the government seized this year; political ads criticizing government opponents during soccer matches on public television; and announcements of government-sponsored projects — compared with $10.5 million in 2003.
Mr. Caballero, the editor of the pro-Kirchner newspaper Tiempo Argentino, acknowledged relying on such advertising, calling it “a policy of encouraging debate and promoting new voices.”
The media law that would force Clarín to shed some of its cable operations was passed in 2009, and the authorities say it is aimed at “democratizing” ownership of television operations. Clarín has already challenged the law in courts, but the Supreme Court ruled in May that it has until Dec. 7 to comply.
As the deadline approaches, Clarín has held out hope that the law could still be declared unconstitutional. At the same time, Mr. Magnetto claimed that Mrs. Kirchner’s government was intimidating the judiciary, making an objective ruling almost impossible after several judges resigned in recent weeks.
British government divided over new proposals to curb press
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 30, 2012 8:15 EST
British lawmakers started work Friday on a draft law to regulate the nation’s unruly newspapers as proposed by a major press inquiry, despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s strong objection to the legislation.
Cameron’s government is divided on the future of the press after the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in his Conservative-led coalition, said they would join forces with the opposition Labour party and support a new law.
The rift was sparked by Thursday’s publication of a report by judge Brian Leveson which, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, proposed a new independent self-regulatory body backed by law.
Cameron warned immediately that he believes legislation could threaten press freedom — while his deputy Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, insisted it was essential to guarantee the independence of the new watchdog.
The prime minister said he accepted the vast majority of Leveson’s proposals, which follow a year-long inquiry that heard from journalists, politicians and victims of press intrusion, but said a new law would put Britain on a slippery slope.
“I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation,” he told parliament on Thursday.
“We will have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land… We should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”
Actor Hugh Grant joined other victims of media intrusion in blasting Cameron for rejecting a state-backed watchdog despite his earlier pledge to do whatever Leveson proposed as long as it was not “bonkers”.
“It wasn’t and he didn’t,” Grant tweeted.
The British press currently regulates itself through the Press Complaints Commission, a body staffed by editors.
Its critics say it is toothless and partly responsible for Britain’s failure to punish journalists for harassment, invasion of privacy and the hacking of voicemail messages.
Leveson proposed a beefed-up watchdog staffed by independent members, with the power to fine newspapers up to £1 million ($1.6 million, 1.23 million euros).
It is “essential” that the new body is backed up by legislation, the judge concluded in his 2,000-page report.
Lawmakers will go ahead with drafting a law, although culture minister Maria Miller suggested the Conservatives would use the process to attempt to persuade the Lib Dems and Labour that the new law would be unworkable.
Newspapers have broadly accepted the need for a tougher watchdog but were united Friday in their opposition to the regulation being enshrined in law.
“What is to stop MPs amending it now and in the future so that it no longer resembles the benign legislative vehicle envisaged by the judge?” asked the right-leaning Daily Telegraph.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the left-leaning Guardian, accepted that the members of the new watchdog must not be “picked from amongst the old cosy club”.
“There are lots of things that are much better about the Leveson regulator than the one that existed before or the one that the press proposed,” he told BBC radio.
“It is right that is is open, that it is fair, that it’s got sanctions, that it can investigate.”
Some editorials said the onus was now on the newspapers to show they could come up with a tougher watchdog without legislation being required.
Cameron commissioned the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011 in the wake of revelations that the News of the World hacked the voicemails of a murdered schoolgirl and dozens of public figures.
Murdoch was forced to shut down the 168-year-old tabloid, and police have arrested dozens of people under three investigations spawned by the scandal.
Leveson, who heard from celebrities including actor Sienna Miller and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling on their treatment by the media, said the press had for decades “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.