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« Reply #3885 on: Jan 06, 2013, 08:17 AM »

January 5, 2013

As Biofuel Demand Grows, So Do Guatemala’s Hunger Pangs

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
IHT

GUATEMALA CITY — In the tiny tortillerias of this city, people complain ceaselessly about the high price of corn. Just three years ago, one quetzal — about 15 cents — bought eight tortillas; today it buys only four. And eggs have tripled in price because chickens eat corn feed.

Meanwhile, in rural areas, subsistence farmers struggle to find a place to sow their seeds. On a recent morning, José Antonio Alvarado was harvesting his corn crop on the narrow median of Highway 2 as trucks zoomed by.

“We’re farming here because there is no other land, and I have to feed my family,” said Mr. Alvarado, pointing to his sons Alejandro and José, who are 4 and 6 but appear to be much younger, a sign of chronic malnutrition.

Recent laws in the United States and Europe that mandate the increasing use of biofuel in cars have had far-flung ripple effects, economists say, as land once devoted to growing food for humans is now sometimes more profitably used for churning out vehicle fuel.

In a globalized world, the expansion of the biofuels industry has contributed to spikes in food prices and a shortage of land for food-based agriculture in poor corners of Asia, Africa and Latin America because the raw material is grown wherever it is cheapest.

Nowhere, perhaps, is that squeeze more obvious than in Guatemala, which is “getting hit from both sides of the Atlantic,” in its fields and at its markets, said Timothy Wise, a Tufts University development expert who is studying the problem globally with Actionaid, a policy group based in Washington that focuses on poverty.

With its corn-based diet and proximity to the United States, Central America has long been vulnerable to economic riptides related to the United States’ corn policy. Now that the United States is using 40 percent of its crop to make biofuel, it is not surprising that tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala, which imports nearly half of its corn.

At the same time, Guatemala’s lush land, owned by a handful of families, has proved ideal for producing raw materials for biofuels. Suchitepéquez Province, a major corn-producing region five years ago, is now carpeted with sugar cane and African palm. The field Mr. Alvarado used to rent for his personal corn crop now grows sugar cane for a company that exports bioethanol to Europe.

By Jeff DelViscio

A large palm plantation and factory recently opened in the indigenous village where Ms. Quirix lives.

In a country where most families must spend about two thirds of their income on food, “the average Guatemalan is now hungrier because of biofuel development,” said Katja Winkler, a researcher at Idear, a Guatemalan nonprofit organization that studies rural issues. Roughly 50 percent of the nation’s children are chronically malnourished, the fourth-highest rate in the world, according to the United Nations.

The American renewable fuel standard mandates that an increasing volume of biofuel be blended into the nation’s vehicle fuel supply each year to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and to bolster the nation’s energy security. Similarly, by 2020, transportation fuels in Europe will have to contain 10 percent biofuel.

Large companies like Pantaleon Sugar Holdings, Guatemala’s leading sugar producer, are profiting from that new demand, with recent annual growth of more than 30 percent. The Inter-American Development Bank says the new industry could bring an infusion of cash and jobs to Guatemala’s rural economy if developed properly. For now, the sugar industry directly provides 60,000 jobs and the palm industry 17,000, although the plantations are not labor-intensive.

But many worry that Guatemala’s poor are already suffering from the diversion of food to fuel. “There are pros and cons to biofuel, but not here,” said Misael Gonzáles of C.U.C., a labor union for Guatemala’s farmers. “These people don’t have enough to eat. They need food. They need land. They can’t eat biofuel, and they don’t drive cars.”

By Jeff DelViscio

Ms. Siquic and her relatives sold their land to a palm plantation and now have to buy foods that they once grew.

In 2011, corn prices would have been 17 percent lower if the United States did not subsidize and give incentives for biofuel production with its renewable fuel policies, according to an analysis by Bruce A. Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. The World Bank has suggested that biofuel mandates in the developed world should be adjusted when food is short or prices are inordinately high.

Concerned about the effects of its biofuel mandate on world hunger, the European Commission recently proposed amending its policy so that only half of its 2020 target could be met by using biofuels made from food crops or those grown on land previously devoted to food crops.

The current American mandate, established in 2007 by Congress, can be waived by the Environmental Protection Agency, but, according to law, such adjustments focus on domestic issues like cases in which biofuel “requirements would severely harm the economy of a state, a region or the United States,” the agency said in an e-mail when asked for comment.

Once nearly self-sufficient in corn production, Guatemala became more dependent on imports in the 1990s as a surplus of subsidized American corn flowed south. Guatemalan farmers could not compete, and corn production dropped roughly 30 percent per capita from 1995 to 2005, Mr. Wise said.

But cheap imports disappeared once the United States started using corn to fulfill its 2007 biofuels standards. “The use of maize to make biofuel has led to these crazy prices,” said Guy Gauvreau, head of the United Nations World Food Program in Guatemala. It “is not ethically acceptable,” he added.

In part because the agency’s primary food supplement is a mix of corn and soy, it cannot afford to help all of the Guatemalan children in need, Mr. Gauvreau said; it is agency policy to buy corn locally, but there is no extra corn grown here anymore. And Guatemalans cannot go back to the land because so much of it is being devoted to growing crops for biofuel. (Almost no biofuel is used domestically.)

The southwestern village of La Ayuda is now an island of rickety dwellings in the middle of a giant African palm plantation. Félix Pérez, 51, used to grow corn, beans and fruit behind his home. He now walks about three miles to a cheap hillside plot that he rents for four months of the year. “Every day it’s more difficult to survive since we live off the land, and there’s less and less,” he said.

By Jeff DelViscio

Ms. Cosagua Pérez tends to corn and fruit grown on land belonging to the town church in an area where plantations are rapidly expanding.

Although African palm was practically nonexistent in Guatemala two decades ago, palm oil is now the country’s third-largest export, after sugar and bananas, with exports rising by more than a third in 2011, according to United Nations trade statistics.

Although Susana Siekavizza, executive director of Grepalma, the local industry association, said that Guatemalan palm is currently exported for cooking oil, the high prices that it commands reflect heightened global demand for a crop also used in biofuel. It is exported in a raw form that can be distilled into biofuel in the receiving country, and Ms. Siekavizza said there was “interest” in manufacturing fuel in Guatemala.

Production of sugar cane, long a mainstay Guatemalan crop, has also skyrocketed as biofuels opened new market opportunities. Pantaleon Sugar Holdings, which once exported only food products, now uses 13 percent of its production for fuel. Local sugar prices have doubled.

For Guatemala’s largest landowners, long-term leases with large biofuel companies are more profitable and easier to manage than cattle ranching or renting to subsistence farmers.

In small towns like San Basilio, representatives of one palm company are pressing farmers to lease their fields.

“I’m trying not to because I need that land to grow corn,” said one farmer, Gilberto Galindo Morales, 46. But he added that farming has become difficult as nearby plantations divert and deplete rivers to feed industrial-scale irrigation systems. Ash from burning cane fields after harvest also damages his corn crop and irritates his children’s lungs, he said.

By Jeff DelViscio

A palm company is trying to lease Mr. Galindo Morales’s five acres of land.

With sometimes violent confrontations over land and labor, plantation gates are secured with armed guards. Still, Ms. Siekavizza of the trade group contends that the belief that palm cultivation is robbing people of food is “more myth than reality” since much of Guatemala’s terrain and soil composition “is not well suited to growing corn.”

In the remote Mayan villages in the north of the country, the incursion of plantations has brought a few good jobs and some training, but many complain of low wages and the backbreaking nature of the work, which mostly involves picking the small red fruits from African palm trees or off the ground. “We sold our land, so now we have to work, but I think it’s better when you grow your own,” said Juana Paula Tec Choc in the village of El Cancellero. “At least then you have some security.”

A report last year by the United States Department of Agriculture noted Guatemala’s potential for biofuel production, saying that palm plantations tended to be on “underutilized” agricultural land and applied no dangerous pesticides to the trees; that assessment could be important for getting palm-based fuel approved for use in the United States.

But villagers in El Cancellero disputed that, saying they suspected chemical poisoning was behind the mysterious deaths of four young children last year. On a recent afternoon, a crop duster buzzed overhead, and workers wearing tanks fitted with spray hoses trudged along a narrow road that separates what remains of the village from endless rows of squat palms.

Mike McDonald contributed reporting.


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« Reply #3886 on: Jan 06, 2013, 08:19 AM »


January 5, 2013

India Aims to Keep Money for Poor Out of Others’ Pockets

By GARDINER HARRIS
IHT

NEW DELHI — India has more poor people than any nation on earth, but many of its antipoverty programs end up feeding the rich more than the needy. A new program hopes to change that.

On Jan. 1, India eliminated a raft of bureaucratic middlemen by depositing government pension and scholarship payments directly into the bank accounts of about 245,000 people in 20 of the nation’s hundreds of districts, in a bid to prevent corrupt state and local officials from diverting much of the money to their own pockets. Hundreds of thousands more people will be added to the program in the coming months.

In a country of 1.2 billion, the numbers so far are modest, but some officials and economists see the start of direct payments as revolutionary — a program intended not only to curb corruption but also to serve as a vehicle for lifting countless millions out of poverty altogether.

The nation’s finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, described the cash transfer program to Indian news media as a “pioneering and pathbreaking reform” that is a “game changer for governance.” He acknowledged that the initial rollout had been modest because of “practical difficulties, some quite unforeseen.” He promised that those problems would be resolved before the end of 2013, when the program is to be extended in phases to other parts of the country.

Some critics, however, said the program was intended more to buy votes among the poor than to overcome poverty. And some said that in a country where hundreds of millions have no access to banks, never mind personal bank accounts, direct electronic money transfers are only one aspect of a much broader effort necessary to build a real safety net for India’s vast population.

“An impression has been created that the government is about to launch an ambitious scheme of direct cash transfers to poor families,” Jean Drèze, an honorary professor at the Delhi School of Economics, wrote in an e-mail. “This is quite misleading. What the government is actually planning is an experiment to change the modalities of existing transfers — nothing more, nothing less.”

The program is based on models in Mexico and Brazil in which poor families receive stipends in exchange for meeting certain social goals, like keeping their children in school or getting regular medical checkups. International aid organizations have praised these efforts in several places; in Brazil alone, nearly 50 million people participate.

But one of India’s biggest hurdles is simply figuring out how to distinguish its 1.2 billion citizens. The country is now in the midst of another ambitious project to undertake retinal and fingerprint scans in every village and city in the hope of giving hundreds of millions who have no official identification a card with a 12-digit number that would, among other things, give them access to the modern financial world. After three years of operation, the program has issued unique numbers to 220 million people.

Bindu Ananth, the president of IFMR Trust, a financial charity, said that getting people bank accounts can be surprisingly beneficial because the poor often pay stiff fees to cash checks or get small loans, fees that are substantially reduced for account holders.

“I think this is one of the biggest things to happen to India’s financial system in a decade,” Ms. Ananth said.

Only about a third of Indian households have bank accounts. Getting a significant portion of the remaining households included in the nation’s financial system will take an enormous amount of additional effort and expense, at least part of which will fall on the government to bear, economists said.

“There are two things this cash transfer program is supposed to do: prevent leakage from corruption, and bring everybody into the system,” said Surendra L. Rao, a former director general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research. “And I don’t see either happening anytime soon.”

The great promise of the cash transfer program — as well as its greatest point of contention — would come if it tackled India’s expensive and inefficient system for handing out food and subsidized fuel through nearly 50,000 government shops.

India spends almost $14 billion annually on this system, or nearly 1 percent of its gross domestic product, but the system is poorly managed and woefully inefficient.

Grains, for instance, pass through myriad hands, with much of the supply being diverted or replaced with rotten or poor-quality grains before it reaches its intended recipients. Rajiv Gandhi, who served as prime minister for five years in the late 1980s before being assassinated in 1991 while running for office, once estimated that only 15 percent of the money spent on the poor actually reached them; his son Rahul Gandhi said recently that this level may now be as low as 5 percent.

But so far the government has stopped short of replacing the direct distribution of food and fuel with cash payments because of the enormous logistical difficulties involved, and because many of those involved in pilot projects in which cash was substituted for goods have said they preferred receiving food.

There are several problems with making a switch, experts say. One is that men are often the ones who receive cash in the programs, and they sometimes squander the money. When food is distributed, however, women are often the recipients, and they are more likely to use the food to benefit their children.

Another problem is that while cash transfers can significantly reduce losses to corrupt intermediaries and traders, simply setting up the system does little to overhaul the sometimes-corrupt decision-making process that determines who is eligible for benefits in the first place.

A group of 208 scholars and activists released an open letter on Monday, the day before the pilot program started, saying that electronic transfers of pensions and scholarships were fine but substituting cash for food “could cause havoc and massive social exclusion.”

Still, Arvind Panagariya, an economics professor at Columbia University and the former chief economist of the Asian Development Bank, contended that opposition to the program was shortsighted, dismissing fears that the poor would squander the money they receive.

“The argument that people will not spend on the essential goods when given cash for that is spurious and paternalistic,” Dr. Panagariya said in an interview.

The Indian government’s aggressive timetable for rolling out the cash transfer program has led some of its political opponents to claim that the entire exercise is mostly about securing political support for the governing coalition led by the Indian National Congress Party.

A World Bank study found that there is a direct link between cash transfer programs and voting patterns, with beneficiaries strongly supporting the party that gave them money. A significant number of early enrollees in the program live in states controlled by the Congress Party.

Giving cash to “India’s poor is all about power, politics and winning elections,” a recent article in the popular newsmagazine Outlook India argued.

The government has promised to continue the program’s rollout through 2014, when national elections are scheduled. The Election Commission of India ordered the government last year to postpone starting the program in eight districts in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat because of pending state elections, which were held last month.

Mr. Rao, the economic researcher, cautioned that the rural poor would need a vastly improved social and commercial infrastructure — better shops, schools and hospitals — for any cash-based welfare plan to significantly improve their lives.

“Cash transfers,” he said, “are not a panacea.”

Malavika Vyawahare contributed reporting.


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« Reply #3887 on: Jan 06, 2013, 08:29 AM »


Pamplona's locksmiths join revolt as banks throw families from their homes

In the years of the housing boom, Spain's banks offered 100% mortgages. Now, while receiving millions in public aid, they are throwing people out of their homes. But there's a rebellion under way, report Monica Muñoz and Giles Tremlett

Monica Muñoz and Giles Tremlett   
The Observer, Saturday 5 January 2013 22.53 GMT   

He is a locksmith who refuses to open locked doors; neither will he replace their locks with new ones. What may seem a disastrous strategy for Iker de Carlos, a 22-year-old Spaniard starting out in the world of cylinders, pins, bolts and lock springs in his home city of Pamplona, is actually part of a growing civic rebellion in support of the biggest losers in Spain's five-year story of failing, mismanaged banks – those being thrown out of their homes after falling behind on mortgage payments.

Tired of accompanying court officials to evict unemployed people as banks foreclosed mortgages, De Carlos consulted his fellow Pamplona locksmiths before Christmas. In no time at all, they came to an agreement. They would not do the dirty work of banks whose rash lending pumped up a housing bubble and then, after it popped, helped bring the country to its knees.

"It only took us 15 minutes to reach a decision," says De Carlos amid the racks of keys in the family's shop in the centre of this small northern city best known for its annual bull-runs and the adoration heaped on it by Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises. "We all had stories of jobs we had been on where families had been left on the street. When you set out all you have is an address and the name of the bank, but I recall an elderly, sick man who was barely given time to put his trousers on."

The logic behind their decision was clear and simple. While Spain's banks mop up billions of euros in public aid, they are also busy reclaiming homes that in some cases they lent silly money for. At the height of Spain's housing madness, banks were, in effect, offering mortgages of more than 100%. They aggressively chased clients – especially among the immigrants who arrived from Latin America in their millions to build new homes – creating an uncontrolled spiral of self-fulfilling, but ultimately doomed, demand. Complex networks of guarantors were pieced together by middlemen among immigrants who often barely understood what they were doing.

"Spain must be the only country in the world where banks were allowed to offer 100% mortgages," said Guillermo Perilla, a 31-year-old Colombian immigrant who bought a house on the outskirts of Pamplona for €240,000 in 2005. "Not only that, but in some cases they also offered further loans to the people taking out mortgages. The bank staff were on commission."

Seven years after buying his house Perilla, an unemployed painter whose wife works part-time, is fighting foreclosure. The bank has told him his house is now only worth €140,000 and refuses to accept it back in payment for the debt. "But it was their valuer who originally said it was worth a lot more," he said. "Banks inflated prices and now they are making ordinary people pay for them." The bank has now said he can just pay interest for three years: "But that still leaves me with the debt. These things crush you, both morally and physically."

Last month, Spain's banks began to receive what will eventually be more than €40bn (£32.5bn) in aid. The number of foreclosures, meanwhile, increased by 134% last year. "Social conflict is being created," said Gonzalo Moliner, head of Spain's higher judiciary council. Properties were often reclaimed through the courts on valuations well below levels at which the loans were given. Those unable to pay can be evicted while still saddled with ever-growing debt.

De Carlos believes that Pamplona's locksmiths have now lost 10% of their trade, but recovered their honour and dignity: "This summer we were doing two or three foreclosures a week."

The locksmiths' rebellion follows several widely reported suicides by people about to be evicted from their homes. Amaia Egaña, a 53-year-old former socialist councillor in the northern town of Barakaldo, threw herself out of a window just as the court authorities – and their locksmith – were about to evict her in November.

"It wasn't suicide," demonstrators who marched through her town later that day shouted. "It was murder."

The Roman Catholic bishop of Bilbao called for urgent action to prevent further suicides.

"We had a suicide in Santesteban, too, where someone threw themselves out of the window," said Perilla, who now helps to campaign to stop foreclosures. "Banks still don't want to do anything. As you stop paying you cease to exist for them – they don't care if you are sick or if you have children. But they can buckle under pressure. They hate the bad publicity."

As Spain enters yet another year of austerity and sky-high unemployment, people such as De Carlos are increasingly fed up with seeing the country's most vulnerable paying for the errors of its banks. Campaigners now regularly form human barricades at the front doors of those due to be evicted from their homes.

But things look unlikely to get better. Unemployment, already at 26%, is set to grow, creating still more people who cannot pay mortgages. Iker is one of the fortunate minority in his age bracket with a job. More than 50% of under-25s fail to find work. Spain lost some 800,000 jobs last year. Only Greece – Europe's worst disaster story – can rival the figures.

Even Pamplona, a relatively wealthy city at the centre of Navarra, one of Spain's richest and best-funded regions, is feeling the squeeze. Unemployment in the region is 15%, higher than in any other European country bar Greece, Croatia and Portugal – but the lowest in Spain. A quarter of those unemployed joined Navarra's dole queues last year as the region discovered that, despite the presence of major employers such as Volkswagen, it was not immune to the downturn.

Like Spaniards elsewhere, people here have almost stopped buying houses. In October only 250 new mortgages were signed in a region of 640,000 people – a sixth of the monthly rate five years ago. Prices have fallen 38% since Spain's housing bubble burst, but are expected to fall further. Loans no longer come from the once proud local savings bank, Caja Navarra. Like many of Spain's regional savings banks, it sank under the weight of its own toxic real estate assets, losing value rapidly and merging with two others before being taken over by a large Catalan bank, la Caixa.

In Madrid, the locksmiths of Pamplona are being held up as an example to follow. "You have to fight," said 75-year-old Luis Domínguez. Last year he called in campaigners to prevent court officials throwing him out of his house in the dormitory town of Parla. Now Luis is part of a group who have spent the past 77 days camped out at the doors of Bankia – Spain's fourth-largest bank, which has taken €20bn in rescue money. He is now negotiating a rental agreement with his bank and hopes to pay €250 a month in rent for the next five years.

Gladys Cerna, 49, is facing foreclosure on her small flat in Madrid's San Blas neighbourhood. Her bank gave her a 120% mortgage in 2007. "When you sign they turn up with lawyers and economists, and I didn't have any real idea what I was letting myself in for," she said.

Spooked by the suicides, prime minister Mariano Rajoy's reformist , pro-austerity government changed the law last year to allow those with large families or very sick dependents to stay longer in their homes. But campaigners say it is not enough.

"They have placed a tiny sticking plaster over the problem," said Perilla. "It only covers really extreme cases. Banks will still do whatever they can to evict people."

In Pamplona, however, they will now find it harder to find a locksmith to help them.

**********

                                                           Iker de Carlos

Locksmith Iker de Carlos: 'It took us only 15 minutes to reach a decision. We all had stories of jobs we had been on where families had been left on the street.'


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« Reply #3888 on: Jan 06, 2013, 08:34 AM »


January 5, 2013

Greek Tax Scandal Distracts From a Collection Shortfall

By LIZ ALDERMAN and RACHEL DONADIO

The tax scandal that reignited in Greece over the holidays had all the makings of a grade-B drama. A former finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, was accused of scrubbing his relatives’ names from a CD containing the identities of thousands of possible Greek tax dodgers. Within hours, his chief political rival tossed him from their party.

Mr. Papaconstantinou, in turn, hinted darkly that he was the victim of a plot masking malfeasance at higher levels.

While the firestorm may have made for political theater of a sort, it has diverted attention from a much bigger problem: Greece, its foreign lenders say, has fallen woefully short of its tax collection targets and is still not moving hard enough to tackle widespread tax evasion — long tolerated, particularly among the country’s richest citizens.

Greek officials agreed to the targets as part of an international lending pact last year, but there is no penalty for missing them. In recent weeks, however, two reports by Greece’s foreign lenders have found that Athens pulled in less than half of the additional tax income that it expected last year and performed fewer than half of the expected audits.

One report said that Athens had brought in a little less than $1.3 billion in additional taxes of the $2.6 billion it had hoped to collect in 2012. Only 88 major taxpayers, including corporations, were the subject of full-scope audits, well below a target of 300, the report said, while just 467 audits of high-wealth individuals were completed, compared with a goal of 1,300.

The fragile, three-party coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras continues to vow it will crack down on corruption and tax evasion, but a blunt assessment last month by a task force of Greece’s foreign lenders said, “These changes have not yet been reflected in results in terms of improved tax inspection and collection.” Analysts say the failure to pursue tax evaders aggressively is deepening social tensions. “It’s a weak government with very difficult work to do, and this is very, very bad for the morale of the people,” said Nikos Xydakis, a political columnist for Kathimerini, a daily newspaper. “This year will be hell for the middle-class people. And the rich people are untouchable. This is very bad.”

In a separate report, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund said they were concerned that the “authorities are falling idle and that the drive to fight tax evasion by the very wealthy and the free professions is at risk of weakening.”

The report added that total unpaid taxes amounted to nearly $70 billion, about 25 percent of Greece’s gross domestic product. But only about 15 percent to 20 percent of the amount is actually collectible, either because the statute of limitations has run out or the scofflaws do not have the money.

It pressed Greece to focus on the cases most likely to produce real revenues, especially in vocations where tax evasion has become pernicious. “Doctors and lawyers are a good place to start,” it said.

Critics, especially the leftist party Syriza, which leads in opinion polls, say the government has not done enough to stop corruption because its members are tied to the country’s business elite and do not want to jeopardize their political careers.

“The problem is not simply tax evasion among the rich,” said Zoe Konstantopoulou, a member of Parliament from Syriza who serves on a panel investigating the so-called Lagarde list, a compilation of more than 2,000 Greeks with accounts in a Swiss branch of HSBC that had been sent to Mr. Papaconstantinou in 2010 by Christine Lagarde, then the finance minister of France. “The problem is tax evasion among the rich with the complicity and the aiding and abetting of those who govern.”

While Greece received a badly needed $45 billion in aid last month to help it avoid defaulting on its debts, critics say that unless Athens can more forcefully tap the billions it is owed in taxes, it will never pay off its debts, even if its moribund economy eventually starts to recover.

A dysfunctional bureaucracy weakened by budget cuts, two destabilizing rounds of elections last spring and an economy decimated by austerity have hampered tax collections further. But a thicket of regulations and a culture of resistance also fuel a shadow economy that includes an estimated 25 percent of economic activity.

One study by researchers from the University of Chicago and Virginia Tech estimated that tax evasion costs Greece about $37 billion a year, equivalent to nearly 15 percent of economic output. The study found that doctors, engineers, accountants and lawyers were “the primary tax-evading occupations.”

The reports were released shortly before Greece’s financial crimes squad accused Mr. Papaconstantinou late last month of removing the names of three of his relatives from the Lagarde list.

Those accounts belonged to a cousin of Mr. Papaconstantinou’s, her husband and the spouse of another cousin. On Wednesday, the cousin, Eleni Papaconstantinou-Sikiaridis, resigned from her post at the Greek privatization agency, saying in a letter that the money held in the HSBC Geneva account was “the legal wealth of myself and my husband.”

Mr. Papaconstantinou has vehemently denied the accusations and has said that he worked to clamp down on tax evasion as finance minister from 2009 until 2011. “I handed to the tax authorities all the files which I received from the French authorities,” he said in an e-mail. “I am not in a position to confirm that the original information received in 2010 contained the three files concerned,” he added, about his relatives.

“If the original is identical to the new one sent by the French authorities two weeks ago, this means that someone removed the names after I handed the files over,” he said.

Mr. Papaconstantinou told Parliament in November that he had asked the head of the financial crimes unit at the time to investigate only the names of the 20 biggest account holders on the list. In the e-mail interview, he said that an aide in his office pulled together the names, which he said accounted for about half of the money in the accounts.

He said he had been uneasy releasing the full 2,000 names to financial investigators for fear that they would be leaked. “Surely it is easier to safeguard an investigation of 20 people than one of 2,000 people,” he said.

Mr. Papaconstantinou testified that he then passed the entire file in June 2011 to the head of Greece’s financial crimes unit, Ioannis Diotis, who later gave it to Mr. Papaconstantinou’s successor, Evangelos Venizelos, the current leader of the Socialists and a rival of Mr. Papaconstantinou’s.

Mr. Diotis said that Mr. Venizelos did not give him orders to investigate the names on the list. Mr. Venizelos said Mr. Diotis had told him the material was unusable as it had been illegally acquired. Mr. Venizelos added that he passed the memory stick to the prime minister, Mr. Samaras, last October after Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said the authorities could not find the original list.

On Thursday, Syriza called for an investigation into Mr. Papaconstantinou and Mr. Venizelos, and it labeled the current coalition government “the architects of corruption, and of the cover-up of corruption.”

Liz Alderman reported from Paris, and Rachel Donadio from Rome. Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting from Athens.


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« Reply #3889 on: Jan 06, 2013, 08:39 AM »


Barack Obama signals hard line in debt ceiling talks with Republicans

President uses weekly address to warn of 'catastrophic consequences' if Congress refuses to raise US debt ceiling

Paul Harris in New York
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 5 January 2013 16.13 GMT   

President Barack Obama signalled on Saturday that he would be pushing a hard line in future talks with Republicans over the looming issue of raising America's debt ceiling.

After narrowly averting a crisis over the so-called fiscal cliff – a series of tax rises and spending cuts designed to force action to reduce the country's huge deficit – the US is now facing a second threat to its tepid economic recovery.

Though raising the debt ceiling and allowing the government to continue borrowing money has historically been a routine affair, the Republican party is committed to securing major government spending cuts as part of any deal to do so this time.

However, if talks fail to secure a deal the US could default on its debt and trigger a major global financial crisis. In 2011, uncertainty over similar brinkmanship, which only ended after a last-minute deal was secured, caused America's credit rating to be downgraded.

Obama, fresh from what some have seen as a victory in the fiscal cliff talks, said in his weekly address Saturday that he would not tolerate any threat to raising the debt ceiling by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

"If Congress refuses to give the United States the ability to pay its bills on time," Obama said, "the consequences for the entire global economy could be catastrophic. The last time Congress threatened this course of action, our entire economy suffered for it. Our families and our businesses cannot afford that dangerous game again."

He added: "One thing I will not compromise over is whether or not Congress should pay the tab for a bill they've already racked up."

Obama's stance puts him on a collision course with Republicans who are implacably opposed to raising the limit without massive spending cuts. On Friday the newly re-elected House speaker, John Boehner, told a closed-door meeting of Republicans that he will insist on a dollar-per-dollar match between spending reductions and continued borrowing. The Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, who leads Republicans in the Senate, has expressed similar sentiments.

Obama said he was open to spending cuts but not so deep that they threatened economic development. He also said cuts needed to go hand in hand with upping tax revenue.

"Spending cuts must be balanced with more reforms to our tax code. The wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations shouldn't be able to take advantage of loopholes and deductions that aren't available to most Americans," he said.

Most observers believe the showdown over the debt ceiling, which has already been breached, causing the federal government to use other measures to continue meeting its spending commitments for the short term, could have far more serious economic consequences than the fiscal cliff crisis.


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In the USA...

Steubenville rape protest draws hundreds as city responds to cover-up allegations

By Arturo Garcia
RawStory

Saturday, January 5, 2013 20:53 EST

Hundreds of demonstrators converged on Steubenville, Ohio on Saturday to demand justice for the 16-year-old victim of an alleged rape in August, in a case that has garnered national attention.

WTRF-TV reported that protesters at the “Occupy Steubenville” included visitors from as far away as California and New York, and even overseas.

Several of the demonstrators wore masks or carried signs bearing the likeness of Guy Fawlkes, the symbol of the “Anonymous” hacker collective. An affiliated group, KnightSec, brought the case further to light after releasing video and other evidence it said was swept under the rug for the sake of protecting the town’s high school football program, including mockery of the victim.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that two 16-year-old members of the team will stand trial on Feb. 13 in connection with the attack on the girl.

“There are good officers on the police force, there are good sheriffs deputies, and there are good kids on the football team,” one rallygoer told WTOV-TV. “But there’s an injustice here. There are lies and injustice and coverups. If you want to do something about it from this point on, start teaching your children to respect life.”

Among the speakers at the event were several sexual assault survivors, as well as Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, who, according to The Atlantic Wire, went from saying he was “coming after” the hacker group to addressing Saturday’s rally.

“I’m trying to convince you that I’m not the bad guy,” Abdalla said amid boos from the crowd. “You’ve already got your mind made up.”

CNN reported that city officials launched their own website to counter what they call a misrepresentation of the facts of the case.

“City leaders know that many people outside Eastern Ohio are interested in this matter and people from other states and countries may not be familiar with some basic facts about the background of the case,” a statement on the site said. “This site is not designed to be a forum for how the Juvenile Court ought to rule in this matter.”

Watch WTRF’s report from “Occupy Steubenville,” aired Saturday, below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8811Hk0KQw

Click these links for complete information on this whole story:

http://localleaks.blogs.ru/

***********

January 5, 2013

G.O.P. Begins Soul-Searching After Tax Vote

By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and JIM RUTENBERG
NYT

WASHINGTON — When Republican leaders in Congress agreed to raise taxes on the wealthy last week, it left the increasingly fractured and feuding party unified on perhaps only one point: that it is at a major crossroads.

From Mitt Romney’s loss on Election Day through the recent tax fight that shattered party discipline in the House of Representatives, Republicans have seen the foundations of their political strategy called into question, stirring a newly urgent debate about how to reshape and redefine their party.

At issue immediately is whether that can be achieved through a shift in tactics and tone, or will instead require a deeper rethinking of the party’s longtime positions on bedrock issues like guns and immigration. President Obama intends to test the willingness of Republicans to bend on those issues in the first months of his new term, when he plans to push for stricter gun control and a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

The coming legislative battles are certain to expose even more division in the party. And with establishment Republicans and Tea Party activists at times speaking as if they are from different parties altogether, concern is spreading throughout the ranks that things could get worse before they get better.

“The Republican Party can’t stay exactly where it is and stick its head in the sand and ignore the fact that the country is changing,” said Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and onetime leader of the Christian Coalition. “On the other hand, if the party were to retreat on core, pro-family stands and its positions on fiscal responsibility and taxes, it could very quickly find itself without a strong demographic support base.”

Having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, Republicans now face a country that is increasingly younger, multiethnic and skeptical of Republican positions on some social issues. The party’s deficit-cutting agenda relies heavily on reducing taxes for the wealthy, which irks middle-class voters, and cutting spending on government programs, like Social Security and Medicare, that are popular with many voters.

Generational change is also robbing the party of some of its most effective political positions. Same-sex marriage, which less than a decade ago was an issue that reliably drove conservative voters to the polls in favor of Republicans, appears to be losing its potency with an electorate increasingly comfortable with gay unions.

None other than Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker who promised to fight for a constitutional ban against same-sex marriage during the Republican presidential primaries, now says his party must come to terms with the country’s rapidly shifting views on the subject.

“Walking around and pretending it doesn’t exist just means you’re going to become irrelevant,” Mr. Gingrich said in an interview.

Prominent Republicans insist that if the party’s disparate factions can come together around a set of economic, social and foreign policy principles in the coming years, they stand a good chance of retaking the presidency, making gains in Congress and repairing some of the damage done through several years of bitter primary battles and divisive legislative bickering.

“Republicans will get their mojo back when they define themselves as the party of economic growth and upward mobility,” said Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a Republican who will become the president of Purdue University next week. Mr. Daniels said new lawmakers and governors — many of whom are minorities and women — would reshape the Republican Party.

“The party, with all its problems — and I’m not disputing them — has a really large and interesting crop of new faces,” he said. “Ultimately, parties tend to be defined by their most visible personalities.”

Republicans have already demonstrated success in midterm elections, when fewer people vote, and in state elections for governorships and legislatures. In North Carolina, Pat McCrory, a Republican former mayor of Charlotte, was sworn in as governor on Saturday after waging a campaign that emphasized pragmatism over ideology.

“My message remained a Republican message,” Mr. McCrory said, suggesting that national Republicans could learn a lesson from state politicians. “But I did it with a tone of problem solving. I did it with a tone of cooperation. I didn’t run one negative ad.”

But a changed tone alone may not do enough to smooth over the very real disagreements in the Republican Party. And it is not clear how the intraparty combatants can meet in the middle. For example, while some Republicans argued that the tax vote last week enshrined almost all of the Bush-era tax cuts into permanent law and should be seen as a victory, harder-line fiscal conservatives called it a shameful departure from the party’s two decades of successful opposition to tax increases.

Clashes between Tea Party supporters in the House and Speaker John A. Boehner during the budget battles last year led a dozen of them to withhold their votes for speaker last week.

And across the country, deeply conservative organizations angry about the concession on tax increases are pledging more, not fewer, primary challenges to Republicans they believe are straying too far from the party’s orthodoxy on taxes, guns, energy, immigration, spending and abortion.

“The gloves are off,” said Everett Wilkinson, a founder of the Tea Party movement in Florida. “We’re going to challenge a lot of the G.O.P. going forward,” he added, both in primaries and general elections.

Moderate Republicans are bracing for the challenges. Steven C. LaTourette, who retired from his Ohio Congressional seat at the end of the year and will become the president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, said his group would raise money to defend middle-of-the-road Republicans against the more conservative groups.

“There has to be an acceptance within the party of people who have nonidentical views on every issue,” Mr. LaTourette said. “You can’t be a national party unless you invite in and are accepting of members with different visions. You can’t treat them as pariahs.”

As the new year begins, some of the party’s leaders in Washington are searching for ways to address the philosophical divide and the structural changes in the country that have caused such problems.

Some are talking about the need to find a positive vision and agenda that represents conservative values but still speaks more directly to the concerns of a broad section of voters — and manages to sell that vision through leaders who can convince voters that the party wants to move forward and not back.

Former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican who retired this year, said Republicans must shift their focus away from issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, gun rights and immigration.

“The combination of our fiscal responsibility message and the social issue message did not bring together a majority” in the presidential election, she said. “It’s not so much coming to the middle. It’s letting people have various views on personal issues and not requiring complete fealty to all of those issues in a way that will drive people off.”

Other leaders have urgently ordered top-to-bottom reviews to determine how the party lost touch with the most important and fastest-growing voting blocs, including women and Hispanics, and how it can win them over by the 2014 midterm elections.

It is now accepted in the party that it has failed to keep up with Democrats in the competition for ascendant voting blocs of Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and young people. Although exit polls showed that Mr. Romney won nearly 60 percent of the white vote, Mr. Obama won more than 70 percent of Asians and Hispanics and more than 90 percent of black voters.

“If there’s one conclusion that’s going to come out of this process, it’s that we have to be much more granular in our approach to partners in the community like African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians,” said Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, who is overseeing one of the most ambitious review efforts.

Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Jim Rutenberg from New York.

************

January 5, 2013

Obama and Republicans Gear Up for Next Fiscal Fight

By ANNIE LOWREY
NYT

WASHINGTON — In dueling weekly addresses, the White House and Republicans drew lines in the sand for their next fiscal showdown, which could be as soon as next month, when a Congressional fight is expected on raising the nation’s borrowing limit.

Democrats have warned Republican leaders not to use the debt authorization for political leverage. In his weekly address, President Obama again said he would not trade spending cuts for an increase in the debt limit.

“One thing I will not compromise over is whether or not Congress should pay the tab for a bill they’ve already racked up,” he said. “If Congress refuses to give the United States the ability to pay its bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy could be catastrophic.”

Mr. Obama also repeated his new demand that future spending cuts be met with commensurate tax increases. “Spending cuts must be balanced with more reforms to our tax code,” he said. “The wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations shouldn’t be able to take advantage of loopholes and deductions that aren’t available to most Americans.”

A similar standoff over raising the debt limit in 2011 led Standard & Poor’s for the first time to downgrade its rating of United States Treasury debt by one notch, suggesting a higher risk of default. The impasse caused a slump in the market, and analysts fear that another one could cause yet more damage.

Many Republicans have said they do not plan to lift the country’s statutory borrowing limit unless Democrats agree to significant spending cuts, particularly to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

In the Republican address, Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, argued that Congress needed to focus on cutting spending and simplifying the tax code.

“Many of our Democrat colleagues just don’t seem to get it,” he said. “Throughout the fiscal cliff discussions, the president and the Democrats who control Washington repeatedly refused to take any meaningful steps to make Washington live within its means. That position is irresponsible and fails to acknowledge what every family in America already knows: when you have no more money in your account and your credit cards are maxed out, then the spending must stop.”

Just after the new year, Congress agreed to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and delay for two months significant cuts to the discretionary budget, brokering the deal to avoid the worst of the tax increases and spending cuts known collectively as the “fiscal cliff.” But the deal, which will cut the deficit by an estimated $650 billion over 10 years, is far smaller than the trillions of dollars in deficit reduction initially sought by negotiators.

It also left several issues for the 113th Congress to resolve, including raising the debt ceiling, trying to defuse some of the mandated discretionary-spending cuts and averting a government shutdown. Those will come to a head in February and March. If Congress fails to lift the ceiling, a cash management crisis will result, as the Treasury will lack the money to pay all the country’s bills on time.

**********

The wonders of unregulated capitalism ........

January 5, 2013

Health Insurers Raise Some Rates by Double Digits

By REED ABELSON
NYT

Health insurance companies across the country are seeking and winning double-digit increases in premiums for some customers, even though one of the biggest objectives of the Obama administration’s health care law was to stem the rapid rise in insurance costs for consumers.

Particularly vulnerable to the high rates are small businesses and people who do not have employer-provided insurance and must buy it on their own.

In California, Aetna is proposing rate increases of as much as 22 percent, Anthem Blue Cross 26 percent and Blue Shield of California 20 percent for some of those policy holders, according to the insurers’ filings with the state for 2013. These rate requests are all the more striking after a 39 percent rise sought by Anthem Blue Cross in 2010 helped give impetus to the law, known as the Affordable Care Act, which was passed the same year and will not be fully in effect until 2014.

 In other states, like Florida and Ohio, insurers have been able to raise rates by at least 20 percent for some policy holders. The rate increases can amount to several hundred dollars a month.

The proposed increases compare with about 4 percent for families with employer-based policies.

Under the health care law, regulators are now required to review any request for a rate increase of 10 percent or more; the requests are posted on a federal Web site, healthcare.gov, along with regulators’ evaluations.

The review process not only reveals the sharp disparity in the rates themselves, it also demonstrates the striking difference between places like New York, one of the 37 states where legislatures have given regulators some authority to deny or roll back rates deemed excessive, and California, which is among the states that do not have that ability.

New York, for example, recently used its sweeping powers to hold rate increases for 2013 in the individual and small group markets to under 10 percent. California can review rate requests for technical errors but cannot deny rate increases.

The double-digit requests in some states are being made despite evidence that overall health care costs appear to have slowed in recent years, increasing in the single digits annually as many people put off treatment because of the weak economy. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that costs may increase just 7.5 percent next year, well below the rate increases being sought by some insurers. But the companies counter that medical costs for some policy holders are rising much faster than the average, suggesting they are in a sicker population. Federal regulators contend that premiums would be higher still without the law, which also sets limits on profits and administrative costs and provides for rebates if insurers exceed those limits.

Critics, like Dave Jones, the California insurance commissioner and one of two health plan regulators in that state, said that without a federal provision giving all regulators the ability to deny excessive rate increases, some insurance companies can raise rates as much as they did before the law was enacted.

“This is business as usual,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s a huge loophole in the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

While Mr. Jones has not yet weighed in on the insurers’ most recent requests, he is pushing for a state law that will give him that authority. Without legislative action, the state can only question the basis for the high rates, sometimes resulting in the insurer withdrawing or modifying the proposed rate increase.

The California insurers say they have no choice but to raise premiums if their underlying medical costs have increased. “We need these rates to even come reasonably close to covering the expenses of this population,” said Tom Epstein, a spokesman for Blue Shield of California. The insurer is requesting a range of increases, which average about 12 percent for 2013.

Although rates paid by employers are more closely tracked than rates for individuals and small businesses, policy experts say the law has probably kept at least some rates lower than they otherwise would have been.

“There’s no question that review of rates makes a difference, that it results in lower rates paid by consumers and small businesses,” said Larry Levitt, an executive at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which estimated in an October report that rate review was responsible for lowering premiums for one out of every five filings.

Federal officials say the law has resulted in significant savings. “The health care law includes new tools to hold insurers accountable for premium hikes and give rebates to consumers,” said Brian Cook, a spokesman for Medicare, which is helping to oversee the insurance reforms.

“Insurers have already paid $1.1 billion in rebates, and rate review programs have helped save consumers an additional $1 billion in lower premiums,” he said. If insurers collect premiums and do not spend at least 80 cents out of every dollar on care for their customers, the law requires them to refund the excess.

As a result of the review process, federal officials say, rates were reduced, on average, by nearly three percentage points, according to a report issued last September.

In New York, for example, state regulators recently approved increases that were much lower than insurers initially requested for 2013, taking into account the insurers’ medical costs, how much money went to administrative expenses and profit and how exactly the companies were allocating costs among offerings. “This is critical to holding down health care costs and holding insurance companies accountable,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said.

While insurers in New York, on average, requested a 9.5 percent increase for individual policies, they were granted an increase of just 4.5 percent, according to the latest state averages, which have not yet been made public. In the small group market, insurers asked for an increase of 15.8 percent but received approvals averaging only 9.6 percent.

But many people elsewhere have experienced significant jumps in the premiums they pay. According to the federal analysis, 36 percent of the requests to raise rates by 10 percent or more were found to be reasonable. Insurers withdrew 12 percent of those requests, 26 percent were modified and another 26 percent were found to be unreasonable.

And, in some cases, consumer advocates say insurers have gone ahead and charged what regulators described as unreasonable rates because the state had no ability to deny the increases.

Two insurers cited by federal officials last year for raising rates excessively in nine states appear to have proceeded with their plans, said Carmen Balber, the Washington director for Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group. While the publicity surrounding the rate requests may have drawn more attention to what the insurers were doing, regulators “weren’t getting any results by doing that,” she said.

Some consumer advocates and policy experts say the insurers may be increasing rates for fear of charging too little, and they may be less afraid of having to refund some of the money than risk losing money.

Many insurance regulators say the high rates are caused by rising health care costs. In Iowa, for example, Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, a nonprofit insurer, has requested a 12 to 13 percent increase for some customers. Susan E. Voss, the state’s insurance commissioner, said there might not be any reason for regulators to deny the increase as unjustified. Last year, after looking at actuarial reviews, Ms. Voss approved a 9 percent increase requested by the same insurer.

“There’s a four-letter word called math,” Ms. Voss said, referring to the underlying medical costs that help determine what an insurer should charge in premiums. Health costs are rising, especially in Iowa, she said, where hospital mergers allow the larger systems to use their size to negotiate higher prices. “It’s justified.”

Some consumer advocates say the continued double-digit increases are a sign that the insurance industry needs to operate under new rules. Often, rates soar because insurers are operating plans that are closed to new customers, creating a pool of people with expensive medical conditions that become increasingly costly to insure.

While employers may be able to raise deductibles or co-payments as a way of reducing the cost of premiums, the insurer typically does not have that flexibility. And because insurers now take into account someone’s health, age and sex in deciding how much to charge, and whether to offer coverage at all, people with existing medical conditions are frequently unable to shop for better policies.

In many of these cases, the costs are increasing significantly, and the rates therefore cannot be determined to be unreasonable. “When you’re allowed medical underwriting and to close blocks of business, rate review will not affect this,” said Lynn Quincy, senior health policy analyst for Consumers Union.

The practice of medical underwriting — being able to consider the health of a prospective policy holder before deciding whether to offer coverage and what rate to charge — will no longer be permitted after 2014 under the health care law.

*********

January 5, 2013

In Texas, Resistance to a Renewed Call for an Annual Roundup of Legislators

By MANNY FERNANDEZ
NYT

AUSTIN, Tex. — Long before lawmakers prepared to gather at the sand-colored Capitol here on Tuesday for the opening day of the legislative session, State Representative Richard Peña Raymond had already filed a little-noticed bill to drastically change not only how they conduct business, but also how often.

Texas is one of only four states whose legislatures convene in regular session every two years. Lawmakers in Texas meet in odd-numbered years only — as do legislators in Montana, Nevada and North Dakota — while those in the 46 other states hold legislative sessions yearly, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Mr. Raymond’s bill would require the Texas Legislature to meet in regular session in odd-numbered years and to hold a budget session in even-numbered years. The move would mean annual meetings and budgets, an idea that has been debated for decades but has long been viewed with suspicion in a place that prizes small government, low taxes and deregulation.

“As big a budget as we have, as big a state as we are, as diverse of an economy as we have, we really should be looking at annual budgets,” said Mr. Raymond, a Democrat from Laredo and a former member of the Appropriations Committee, which writes the budget. “There’s no business in the private sector that does two-year budgets. It’s a very outdated idea.”

In Texas, the biennial sessions unfold quickly — beginning at noon on the second Tuesday in January and ending in May after a 140-day run. It is a tradition dating back 137 years, when the State Constitution was ratified and required the Legislature to meet every two years.

Although the state’s population has grown in that time to nearly 26 million people from about 1 million, Texas has held on to the biennial tradition. Several Republican lawmakers and conservative activists said it suited them, and the political culture, just fine.

They described Mr. Raymond’s bill — his third attempt to change the system since the 2009 session — as a long shot at best. Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, and even if the bill were to pass, a constitutional amendment changing the legislative schedule to annual sessions would have to be approved by Texas voters before it could take effect.

“There’s not a single Republican who would vote for that,” said Steve Ogden, a Republican senator from Bryan who was preparing to officially retire on Tuesday after 22 years in the Legislature. “I think one of the reasons that Texas does as well as it does is because the Legislature meets as infrequently as it does. In a state that believes in limited government, I think it works well for us.”

Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, appeared to agree with Mr. Ogden. “The governor believes we need to limit government in people’s lives, not expand it,” said Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry. “A part-time Legislature allows lawmakers to come in and complete the business of Texans and then go out and live under the laws that they’ve passed.”

As with other state issues, the debate over biennial sessions falls along party lines. Republicans argue that meeting every other year prevents the Legislature from passing frivolous bills, forces lawmakers to focus under considerable deadline pressure and keeps part-time legislators from becoming full-time politicians.

Some Democrats and political scientists say the infrequency of the sessions increases the power of the governor and state agencies because of a lack of oversight. They also say it makes the budget process a difficult task amid ever-changing national and state economies. (This session, lawmakers will adopt a budget for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years.)

“It’s very fast-paced and tumultuous and inefficient to have a short 140-day session every other year in a state as big and as complex as Texas,” said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “You’re trying to budget and anticipate revenues and the need for expenditures 30 months out, and that’s very difficult to do.”

Lawmakers, of course, work more often than the legislative schedule implies. Mr. Perry has used his power to call special sessions several times during his 12 years as governor. In even-numbered years, the Capitol does not shut down, but hums quietly with committee hearings. But unlike lawmakers in California, New York and other large states, Texas legislators have the populist distinction, and pay, that come from being part-timers.

Members of the House and the Senate are paid $7,200 annually. A per diem for living expenses during the sessions stands at $150 but will most likely rise to $179 through a vote this month by the Texas Ethics Commission. Legislators spend at least part of their time focused on other jobs. Many are lawyers, and others are ranchers, business consultants, insurance agents and pharmacists.

Cindy Burkett, a Republican representative from Mesquite, oversees a company that operates Subway sandwich shops. Charles Anderson, a Republican representative who is known as Doc, is a longtime veterinarian. (He planned to be at the Capitol for opening day on Tuesday and back at his practice in Waco later in the week.) Several conservatives said in effect that they want Dr. Anderson to spend as much time on his clients as he does on legislative bills.

“The California Legislature meets, I think, 30 hours a day, 9 days a week, 412 days a year, and they seem to invent new ways to cause problems for their citizens,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, the president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. “The last thing Texas needs is a Legislature that meets more often.”

************

January 5, 2013

Ex-Officer Is First From C.I.A. to Face Prison for a Leak

By SCOTT SHANE
NYT

WASHINGTON — Looking back, John C. Kiriakou admits he should have known better. But when the F.B.I. called him a year ago and invited him to stop by and “help us with a case,” he did not hesitate.

In his years as a C.I.A. operative, after all, Mr. Kiriakou had worked closely with F.B.I. agents overseas. Just months earlier, he had reported to the bureau a recruiting attempt by someone he believed to be an Asian spy.

“Anything for the F.B.I.,” Mr. Kiriakou replied.

Only an hour into what began as a relaxed chat with the two agents — the younger one who traded Pittsburgh Steelers talk with him and the senior investigator with the droopy eye — did he begin to realize just who was the target of their investigation.

Finally, the older agent leaned in close and said, by Mr. Kiriakou’s recollection, “In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that right now we’re executing a search warrant at your house and seizing your electronic devices.”

On Jan. 25, Mr. Kiriakou is scheduled to be sentenced to 30 months in prison as part of a plea deal in which he admitted violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by e-mailing the name of a covert C.I.A. officer to a freelance reporter, who did not publish it. The law was passed in 1982, aimed at radical publications that deliberately sought to out undercover agents, exposing their secret work and endangering their lives.

In more than six decades of fraught interaction between the agency and the news media, John Kiriakou is the first current or former C.I.A. officer to be convicted of disclosing classified information to a reporter.

Mr. Kiriakou, 48, earned numerous commendations in nearly 15 years at the C.I.A., some of which were spent undercover overseas chasing Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He led the team in 2002 that found Abu Zubaydah, a terrorist logistics specialist for Al Qaeda, and other militants whose capture in Pakistan was hailed as a notable victory after the Sept. 11 attacks.

He got mixed reviews at the agency, which he left in 2004 for a consulting job. Some praised his skills, first as an analyst and then as an overseas operative; others considered him a loose cannon.

Mr. Kiriakou first stumbled into the public limelight by speaking out about waterboarding on television in 2007, quickly becoming a source for national security journalists, including this reporter, who turned up in Mr. Kiriakou’s indictment last year as Journalist B. When he gave the covert officer’s name to the freelancer, he said, he was simply trying to help a writer find a potential source and had no intention or expectation that the name would ever become public. In fact, it did not surface publicly until long after Mr. Kiriakou was charged.

He is remorseful, up to a point. “I should never have provided the name,” he said on Friday in the latest of a series of interviews. “I regret doing it, and I never will do it again.”

At the same time, he argues, with the backing of some former agency colleagues, that the case — one of an unprecedented string of six prosecutions under President Obama for leaking information to the news media — was unfair and ill-advised as public policy.

His supporters are an unlikely collection of old friends, former spies, left-leaning critics of the government and conservative Christian opponents of torture. Oliver Stone sent a message of encouragement, as did several professors at Liberty University, where Mr. Kiriakou has taught. They view the case as an outrage against a man who risked his life to defend the country.

Whatever his loquaciousness with journalists, they say, he neither intended to damage national security nor did so. Some see a particular injustice in the impending imprisonment of Mr. Kiriakou, who in his first 2007 appearance on ABC News defended the agency’s resort to desperate measures but also said that he had come to believe that waterboarding was torture and should no longer be used in American interrogations.

Bruce Riedel, a retired veteran C.I.A. officer who led an Afghan war review for Mr. Obama and turned down an offer to be considered for C.I.A. director in 2009, said Mr. Kiriakou, who worked for him in the 1990s, was “an exceptionally good intelligence officer” who did not deserve to go to prison.

“To me, the irony of this whole thing is, very simply, that he’s going to be the only C.I.A. officer to go to jail over torture,” even though he publicly denounced torture, Mr. Riedel said. “It’s deeply ironic under the Democratic president who ended torture.”

John A. Rizzo, a senior C.I.A. lawyer for three decades, said that he did not believe Mr. Kiriakou set out to harm national security or endanger anyone, but that his violation was serious.

“I think he wanted to be a big shot,” Mr. Rizzo said. “I don’t think he was evil. But it’s not a trivial thing to reveal a name.”

The leak prosecutions have been lauded on Capitol Hill as a long-overdue response to a rash of dangerous disclosures and have been defended by both Mr. Obama and his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr. But their aides say neither man ordered the crackdown, and the cases appear to have resulted less from a conscious policy change than from the proliferation of e-mail, which makes it possible to trace the origin of some disclosures without pressuring journalists to identify confidential sources.

When Mr. Kiriakou pleaded guilty on Oct. 23 in federal court in Alexandria, Va., David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, issued a statement praising the prosecution as “an important victory for our agency, for our intelligence community, and for our country.”

“Oaths do matter,” he went on, “and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy.”

Less than three weeks later, e-mails tripped up Mr. Petraeus himself. He resigned after F.B.I. agents carrying out an unrelated investigation discovered, upon examining his private e-mail account, that he had had an extramarital affair.

Neil H. MacBride, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, hailed Mr. Kiriakou’s conviction in a statement: “The government has a vital interest in protecting the identities of those involved in covert operations. Leaks of highly sensitive, closely held and classified information compromise national security and can put individual lives in danger.”

The leak case is a devastating turn for Mr. Kiriakou, a father of five who considers himself a patriot, a proud Greek-American from Pennsylvania steel country whose grandfather, he recalls, “always talked as if F.D.R. personally admitted him to this country.” Discovering a passion for international affairs, he scrounged scholarships to go to George Washington University, where he was recruited by a professor, a former C.I.A. psychiatrist who spotted talent for the agency.

After he was charged last January, his wife, though accused of no wrongdoing, resigned under pressure from her C.I.A. job as a top Iran specialist. The family had to go on food stamps for several months before she got a new job outside the government. To make ends meet, they rented out their spacious house in Arlington, Va., and moved to a rented bungalow a third the size with their three young children (he has two older children from his first marriage).

Their financial woes were complicated by Mr. Kiriakou’s legal fees. He said he had paid his defense lawyers more than $100,000 and still owed them $500,000; the specter of additional, bankrupting legal fees, along with the risk of a far longer prison term that could separate him from his wife and children for a decade or more, prompted him to take the plea offer, he said.

Despite his distress about the charges and the havoc they have wrought for his family, he sometimes still speaks with reverence of the C.I.A. and its mission.

But the same qualities that worked well for him in his time as a risk-taking intelligence officer, trained to form a bond with potential recruits, may have been his undoing in his post-C.I.A. role as an intelligence expert sought out by reporters.

“Your job as a case officer is to recruit spies to steal secrets — plain and simple,” Mr. Kiriakou said. “You have to convince people you are their best friend. That wasn’t hard for me. I’d say half the people I recruited I could be lifelong friends with, even though some were communists, criminals and terrorists. I love people. I love getting to know them. I love hearing their stories and telling them stories.

“That’s all great if you’re a case officer,” he said. “It’s not so great, it turns out, if you’re a former case officer.”

Mixed Feelings

After Mr. Kiriakou first appeared on ABC, talking with Brian Ross in some detail about waterboarding, many Washington reporters sought him out. I was among them. He was the first C.I.A. officer to speak about the procedure, considered a notorious torture method since the Inquisition but declared legal by the Justice Department in secret opinions that were later withdrawn.

While he had spent hours with Abu Zubaydah after the capture, he had not been present when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, a fact he made clear to me and some other interviewers. But based on what he had heard and read at the agency, he told ABC and other news organizations that Abu Zubaydah had stopped resisting after just 30 or 35 seconds of the suffocating procedure and told interrogators all he knew.

That was grossly inaccurate — the prisoner was waterboarded some 83 times, it turned out. Mr. Kiriakou believes that he and other C.I.A. officers were deliberately misled by other agency officers who knew the truth.

Mr. Kiriakou, who has given The New York Times permission to describe previously confidential conversations, came across as friendly, courteous, disarmingly candid — and deeply ambivalent about what the C.I.A. called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

He spoke about his career: starting as an analyst on the Middle East at headquarters in Virginia; later being stationed in Bahrain; making the unusual switch to the “operations” side of the C.I.A.; and serving stints as a counterterrorism officer under cover, first in Greece and later in Pakistan (he speaks fluent Greek and Arabic).

When terrorists blew up the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing 19 American servicemen, the blast blew out his apartment windows in Bahrain 16 miles away across the water. Twice overseas, he had close calls with terrorists who were trying to kill Western officials.

He said he had been offered the chance to be trained in the harsh interrogation methods but turned it down. Even though he had concluded that waterboarding was indeed torture, he felt that the C.I.A.’s critics, inflamed by the new revelation that videotapes of the interrogations had been destroyed, were being unduly harsh in judging actions taken in the hectic months after Sept. 11 when more attacks seemed imminent.

“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he said in our first conversation. “2002 was a different world than 2007. What I think is fair is having a national debate over whether we should be waterboarding.”

His feelings about waterboarding were so mixed that some 2007 news reports cast him as a critic of C.I.A. torture, while others portrayed him as a defender of the agency. Some human rights activists even suspected — wrongly, as it turned out — that the intelligence agency was orchestrating his public comments.

Mr. Kiriakou seemed shellshocked, and perhaps a little intoxicated, by the flood of publicity his remarks on ABC had received and the dozens of interview requests coming his way. We met for lunch a couple of times in Washington and spoke by phone occasionally. He recounted his experiences in Pakistan — the C.I.A. later allowed him to include much of that material in his 2009 memoir, “The Reluctant Spy” — and readily answered questions about agency lore or senior officials with whom he had worked.

But he occasionally demurred when the subject was too sensitive. I could use information he gave me “on background” — that is, without mentioning him. But we would have to agree explicitly on anything I attributed to him by name, standard ground rules for such relationships.

In 2008, when I began working on an article about the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, I asked him about an interrogator whose name I had heard: Deuce Martinez. He said that they had worked together to catch Abu Zubaydah, and that he would be a great source on Mr. Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.

He was able to dig up the business card Mr. Martinez had given him with contact information at Mitchell Jessen and Associates, the C.I.A. contractor that helped devise the interrogation program and Mr. Martinez’s new employer.

Mr. Martinez, an analyst by training, was retired and had never served under cover; that is, he had never posed as a diplomat or a businessman while overseas. He had placed his home address, his personal e-mail address, his job as an intelligence officer and other personal details on a public Web site for the use of students at his alma mater. Abu Zubaydah had been captured six years earlier, Mr. Mohammed five years earlier; their stories were far from secret.

Mr. Martinez never agreed to talk to me. But a few e-mail exchanges with Mr. Kiriakou as I hunted for his former colleague would eventually turn up in Mr. Kiriakou’s indictment; he was charged with revealing to me that Mr. Martinez had participated in the operation to catch Abu Zubaydah, a fact that the government said was classified.

Tensions Over Secrecy

Nothing about my exchanges with Mr. Kiriakou was unusual for a reporter covering intelligence agencies, though he was certainly on the candid end of the spectrum of former C.I.A. officers. Current officials are almost always less willing to speak than retirees. And former rank-and-file officers are usually more reluctant to speak than their bosses, who are more confident in walking up to — or occasionally crossing over — the borders protecting classified information.

Why do officials talk about ostensibly secret programs? Sometimes the motive is self-aggrandizement, or to promote a personal or political agenda. But many officials talk because they feel Americans have a right to know, within limits, what the government is doing with their money and in their name.

There is wide agreement in the government that too much information is classified, and even senior officials are sometimes uncertain about what is secret.

In Senate testimony last July, for example, Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director from 2006 to 2009, admitted that he was perplexed by the “dilemma” over what he was or was not permitted to say, in this case about the targeted killing of Qaeda operatives using drones — officially classified but reported in the news media every day and occasionally discussed by Mr. Obama.

“So much of that is in the public domain that right now this witness, with my experience, I am unclear what of my personal knowledge of this activity I can or cannot discuss publicly,” Mr. Hayden said. “That’s how muddled this has become.”

The trade-offs and tensions over government secrets in a democracy are nothing new. In 1971, when the Nixon administration went to court to try to stop The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, Max Frankel, then the Washington bureau chief for The Times, filed an affidavit on how officials and reporters exchange secrets.

“Without the use of ‘secrets’ that I shall attempt to explain in this affidavit, there could be no adequate diplomatic, military and political reporting of the kind our people take for granted, either abroad or in Washington, and there could be no mature system of communication between the government and the people,” Mr. Frankel wrote 42 years ago.

Before Mr. Obama took office, prosecutions for disclosing classified information to the news media had been rare. That was a comforting fact for national security reporters and their sources, but a lamentable one for intelligence officials who complained that leaks damaged intelligence operations, endangered American operatives and their informants and strained relations with allied spy services.

By most counts, there were only three cases until recently: against Daniel Ellsberg and a colleague for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971; against Samuel Loring Morison, a Navy intelligence analyst, for selling classified satellite photographs to Jane’s, the military publisher, in 1985; and against Lawrence Franklin, a Defense Department official, who was charged in 2005 with passing secrets to two officials of a pro-Israel lobbying group, who shared some of them with reporters.

Thus Mr. Obama has presided over twice as many such cases as all his predecessors combined, though at least two of the six prosecutions since 2009 resulted from investigations begun under President George W. Bush. An outcry over a series of revelations last year — about American cyberattacks on Iran, a double agent who infiltrated the Qaeda branch in Yemen and procedures for targeted killings — prompted Mr. Holder to begin new leak investigations that have not yet produced any charges.

The resulting chill on officials’ willingness to talk is deplored by journalists and advocates of open government; without leaks, they note, Americans might never have learned about the C.I.A.’s interrogation methods or the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping. But for supporters of greater secrecy, the chill is precisely the goal.

Revealing a Name

From court documents and interviews, it is possible to piece together how the case against Mr. Kiriakou took shape. When he first spoke on ABC in 2007, the C.I.A. sent the Justice Department a “crimes report” — a routine step to alert law enforcement officials to an apparent unauthorized disclosure of classified information. At least half a dozen more referrals went to Justice as he continued to grant interviews covering similar ground.

Shortly after he became a minor media star, Mr. Kiriakou lost his job in business intelligence at Deloitte, the global consulting firm he joined after leaving the C.I.A. He had also begun working with Hollywood filmmakers — visiting Afghanistan, for instance, before advising the producers of “The Kite Runner” that its young male actors should probably be relocated outside the country for their own safety. He was working with a veteran journalist, Michael Ruby, on his memoir and battling the agency’s Publications Review Board, as many C.I.A. authors have, over what he was permitted to write about and what was off limits.

Mr. Rizzo, then a top C.I.A. lawyer, said he recalled some colleagues being upset that Mr. Kiriakou had begun speaking so openly about the interrogation program. “It was fairly brazen — a former agency officer talking on camera,” Mr. Rizzo said. “He started being quoted all over the place. He was commenting on everything.”

Of course, Mr. Kiriakou had plenty of company. More and more C.I.A. retirees were writing books, speaking to reporters or appearing on television. Mr. Rizzo himself became the subject of a Justice Department referral after he spoke to a Newsweek reporter in 2011 about drone strikes, and his own memoir, “The Company’s Man,” is scheduled for publication next year.

Mr. Rizzo said he did not believe that Mr. Kiriakou’s media appearances spurred a serious criminal investigation. “There really wasn’t a campaign against him,” he said.

Then, in 2009, officials were alarmed to discover that defense lawyers for detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had obtained names and photographs of C.I.A. interrogators and other counterterrorism officers, including some who were still under cover. It turned out that the lawyers, working under the name of the John Adams Project, wanted to call the C.I.A. officers as witnesses in future military trials, perhaps to substantiate accounts of torture or harsh treatment.

But initial fears that Al Qaeda might somehow be able to stalk their previous captors drew widespread coverage. This time there was a crimes report, Mr. Rizzo said, that was taken very seriously, both at the C.I.A. and the Justice Department.

F.B.I. agents discovered that a human rights advocate hired by the John Adams Project, John Sifton, had compiled a dossier of photographs and names of the C.I.A. officers; that Mr. Sifton had exchanged e-mails with journalists, including Matthew A. Cole, a freelancer then working on a book about a C.I.A. rendition case in Italy that had gone awry; and that Mr. Cole had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Kiriakou. The F.B.I. used search warrants to obtain access to Mr. Kiriakou’s two personal e-mail accounts.

According to court documents, F.B.I. agents discovered that in August 2008, Mr. Cole — identified as Journalist A in the charging documents — had asked Mr. Kiriakou if he knew the name of a covert officer who had a supervisory role in the rendition program, which involved capturing terrorism suspects and delivering them to prisons in other countries.

Mr. Kiriakou at first said he did not recall the name, but followed up the next day with an e-mail passing on the name and adding, “It came to me last night,” the documents show. (Mr. Sifton, Mr. Cole and federal prosecutors all declined to comment.)

In recent interviews, Mr. Kiriakou said he believed that the covert officer, whom he had last seen in 2002, had retired; in fact, the officer was then working overseas. He had no idea that the name would be passed on to the Guantánamo defense lawyers and end up in a government file, as it did, he said.

When the F.B.I. agents invited Mr. Kiriakou to their Washington office a year ago “to help with a case,” he said, they repeatedly asked him whether he had knowingly disclosed the name of a covert officer. He replied that he had no recollection of having done so; he still insists that was the truth.

“If I’d known the guy was still under cover,” Mr. Kiriakou said, “I would never have mentioned him.”

The officer’s name did not become public in the four years after Mr. Kiriakou sent it to Mr. Cole. It appeared on a whistle-blowing Web site for the first time last October; the source was not clear.

Preparing for Prison

On a chilly recent afternoon, Mr. Kiriakou, in a Steelers jersey, drove his Honda S.U.V. to pick up his son Max, 8, and his daughter Kate, 6, from school, leaving the 14-month-old Charlie at home with a baby sitter.

He and his wife had struggled with how to explain to the children that he is going away, probably in mid-February. They settled on telling the children that “Daddy lost a big fight with the F.B.I.” and would have to live elsewhere for a while. Max cried at the news, Mr. Kiriakou said. He cried again after calculating that his birthday would fall on a weekday, so it would be impossible to make the trip to prison to share the celebration with his father.

The afternoon school pickup has become his routine since he has been out of work. A stint as an investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ended before he was charged; two hedge funds that had him on retainer to provide advice on international security issues dropped him when the charges were filed.

Only Liberty University, the conservative Christian institution founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. in Lynchburg, Va., where Mr. Kiriakou was hired by former C.I.A. officers on the faculty to teach intelligence courses, actually increased the work it offered him when he got in trouble.

“They say torture is un-Christian,” Mr. Kiriakou said, who notes wryly that his fervent supporters now include both the Liberty Christians and an array of left-wing activists.

Last summer, Mr. Kiriakou was teaching a practical course on surveillance and countersurveillance to a group of Liberty students in Washington and had them trail him on foot on the eastern edge of Georgetown, he said. After several passes, the students excitedly told him that they had detected several cars that were also following him — his usual F.B.I. minders, he figured.

When Mr. Kiriakou pleaded guilty in October to sharing the covert officer’s name, the government dropped several other charges, including the disclosure to The Times and a claim that he had lied to the C.I.A.’s Publications Review Board, though those violations remain in an official statement of facts accompanying the plea.

He expects to be sent to a minimum-security federal prison camp at rural Loretto, Pa., where his fellow residents will include corrupt officials (inmates in recent years have included a Connecticut governor and a New York state senator) and nonviolent drug offenders (the actor Michael Douglas’s son, Cameron, currently among them).

Without explanation, he said, his lawyers at Trout Cacheris, a high-end Washington criminal defense firm, recently cut his outstanding bill from more than $700,000 to $492,264.16. “We would appreciate any efforts you can make to reduce the outstanding amount,” the firm wrote to him.

But the bill keeps climbing. One recent item: $1,500 for three hours of work — a lunch arranged by one of his lawyers with Mr. Kiriakou and a local professor who spent time at Loretto for stealing government research money, so he could get a firsthand account of life inside the prison camp.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 5, 2013

A summary that appeared with an earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the former C.I.A. operative. He is John C. Kiriakou, not Kiriako.

***********

January 5, 2013

General Details Pentagon Tensions With Obama on Afghanistan

By MICHAEL R. GORDON
NYT

WASHINGTON — In a memoir, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former American commander in Afghanistan, writes that tensions between the White House and the Pentagon were evident in the Obama administration from its opening months in office.

The beginning of President Obama’s first term “saw the emergence of an unfortunate deficit of trust between the White House and the Department of Defense, largely arising from the decision-making process on Afghanistan,” General McChrystal writes. “The effects were costly.”

The book by General McChrystal, who was fired from his post in 2010 after an article in Rolling Stone quoted him and his staff making dismissive comments about the White House, is likely to disappoint readers who are looking for a vivid blow-by-blow account of infighting within the administration.

The book, titled “My Share of the Task: A Memoir,” does not provide an account of the White House meeting at which Mr. Obama accepted the general’s resignation. General McChrystal’s tone toward Mr. Obama is respectful, and he notes that his wife, Annie, joined the crowd at Mr. Obama’s inauguration. The book is to be released on Monday.

An advance copy of the book provides revealing glimpses of the friction over military planning and comes as Mr. Obama is weighing, and perhaps preparing to overrule, the troop requests that have been presented by the current American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen.

The account is all the more noteworthy since General McChrystal, who retired from the Army, remains a respected voice within the military and teaches a course on leadership at Yale.

According to the book, the tensions began before General McChrystal took command in Kabul, Afghanistan, and were set off by a request from his predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, for 30,000 additional troops at the end of the Bush administration.

Instead of approving the entire request, in February 2009, Mr. Obama decided that 17,000 would be sent, adding that decisions on additional deployments would be based on further analysis.

From the White House perspective, General McChrystal writes, “this partial decision was logical.” After less than a month, the president had increased American forces in Afghanistan by 50 percent. Though Mr. Obama had cast the conflict in Afghanistan as a “war of necessity,” as a candidate he was nonetheless wary about a prolonged American military involvement there.

But the Pentagon pressed for an additional 4,000 troops, fearing that there was little time to reverse the Taliban’s gains before the August elections in Afghanistan.

“The military felt a sense of urgency, seeing little remaining time if any forces approved were to reach Afghanistan in time to improve security in advance of the elections,” he wrote.

The White House later approved the 4,000 troops, but the dispute pointed to a deeper clash of cultures over the use of force that continued after General McChrystal took command.

“Military leaders, many of whom were students of counterinsurgency, recognized the dangers of an incremental escalation, and the historical lesson that ‘trailing’ an insurgency typically condemned counterinsurgents to failure,” he writes.

In May 2009, soon before he assumed command in Kabul, General McChrystal had a “short, but cordial” meeting with Mr. Obama at which the president “offered no specific guidance,” he notes.

The next month, General McChrystal was surprised when James L. Jones, Mr. Obama’s first national security adviser, told him that the Obama administration would not consider sending more forces until the effect of arriving units could be fully evaluated.

That contradicted the guidance that General McChrystal had received from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that he should submit an assessment in August of the additional forces that might be required, he writes.

At an Oct. 8, 2009, video conference with Mr. Obama’s National Security Council, differences again emerged when General McChrystal outlined his goals: “Defeat the Taliban. Secure the population.”

That prompted a challenge by a Washington-based official, whom General McChrystal does not name, that the goal of defeating the Taliban seemed too ambitious and that the command in Kabul should settle instead for an effort to “degrade” the Taliban.

At the next video conference, General McChrystal presented a slide showing that his objectives had been derived from Mr. Obama’s own speeches and a White House strategy review. “But it was clear to me that the mission itself was now on the table for review and adjustment,” he wrote.

After General McChrystal determined that at least 40,000 additional forces were needed to reverse the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama provided 30,000 and said he would ask allied nations to contribute the rest.

General McChrystal acknowledges that he had concerns that Mr. Obama’s decision to announce a date for beginning the withdrawal of the additional “surge” forces might embolden the Taliban. But the general writes that he did not challenge the decision.

“If I felt like the decision to set a withdrawal date would have been fatal to the success of our mission, I’d have said so,” he writes.

General McChrystal has little to say about the episode that led to the article in Rolling Stone. He writes that the comments attributed to his team were “unacceptable” but adds that he was surprised by the tone of the article, which he had expected would show the camaraderie among the American, British, French and Afghan officers.

As the controversy over the article grew, General McChrystal did not seek advice before offering his resignation. The book does not say if he was disappointed when Mr. Obama accepted it at a brief White House meeting.

Returning to his quarters at Fort McNair after that White House meeting, he broke the news to his wife: “I told her that our life in the Army was over.”







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Astronomers launch advanced planet search to look for signs of life

By Ian Sample, The Guardian
Monday, January 7, 2013 6:06 EST

Robotic telescopes in Chile’s Atacama desert will conduct Next Generation Transit Survey to analyse atmospheres for clues

The art of hunting planets has come so far that astronomers can now list hundreds of alien worlds that orbit stars so faint they are not even visible as pinpricks in the clear night sky.

Little is known of these far-flung planets. The most conspicuous are huge, the size of Jupiter, and scorched from circling so close to their suns. Others are giant iceballs, or waterworlds, or even rocky like Earth. But the finer details are a mystery, the stuff of speculation more than science.

To find out more about these other worlds, a team led by British astronomers is launching an ambitious search for planets that orbit the nearest, brightest stars to Earth. Their aim is to find prime candidates for the most important question of all: is there life elsewhere?

“In the end, this is about understanding our place in all this around us. Why are we here? What are the chances that similar things can occur elsewhere? What range of life is there?,” says Don Pollacco, a planet hunter at the University of Warwick. “We are at a point in history where we are close to being able to answer these questions.”

Construction work on the £2m Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) starts early this year when the first of a dozen robotic telescopes is hauled to the top of the 8,645ft Paranal mountain in Chile’s Atacama desert. The isolated site is home to several other facilities, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, and has excellent atmospheric conditions for stargazing.

The NGTS telescopes stand as high as a person on their mounts. They are steered remotely, and send information back to the astronomers over the internet. Once fully installed, the telescopes will stare up at the sky through the open roof of a protective building made by a Cornish firm noted for its odour-trapping covers for sewage works and glass-fibre cat flaps.

The telescopes are exquisitely sensitive to changes in the brightness of stars. Working in unison, they will keep watch for fleeting shadows cast by unknown planets as they cross the faces of their suns. A planet wandering in front of its star – as seen from Earth – causes a momentary dimming of light, imperceptible to the human eye, which repeats with every orbit.

The team expects to take four years to complete its survey of bright and nearby stars. Every year, each telescope will look at four patches of sky the size of a hand spread wide at arm’s length. The group, which includes astronomers from the German Aerospace Centre and the Geneva Observatory, hope to spot scores of planets two to five times the diameter of Earth.

Astronomers use the so-called transit technique to hunt for new planets all the time. But NGTS is unique in targeting smallish planets around very bright stars. These planets should be ripe for having their atmospheres analysed, to reveal what gases make up their alien air. If life exists on another world, the atmosphere should carry its signature.

On Earth, the air contains a mix of gases that betrays the presence of living organisms. For example, only plants and photosynthetic bacteria churn out large volumes of oxygen. Indirectly, water vapour in the air points to liquid water on the ground. All life on Earth depends on water, and the same may apply to life as we know it elsewhere.

There are two ways to measure the atmosphere of a transiting planet. Both are fiendishly difficult, but made marginally easier if the star the planet orbits is bright. The most common way is to measure the various wavelengths of light coming from a planet’s host star, and see how these change as the planet moves across its face. In transit, some starlight passes through the thin ring of the planet’s atmosphere, and is absorbed according to the gases it contains.

The second method is trickier still. It looks for changes in light coming from the planet as it moves behind the star. Just as the moon appears bright because it reflects sunlight our way, so faraway planets reflect light from their own suns to Earth. This desperately faint light has passed through the planet’s atmosphere and so carries the signature of its constituent gases.

Astronomers have already used Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer, the agency’s orbiting infra-red observatory, to take a quick look at the thick atmospheres of some gas giants beyond the solar system. But measuring the thin bands of atmosphere around rocky – and potentially habitable – planets will require more impressive know-how than exists today.

“A lot of planets we’ll find will be rocky, but we’ll not be able to measure their atmospheres straight off,” says Pollacco. “These will be the ones that get done first when we have the technology,” he adds.

To get the planet survey underway, the astronomical equipment must be hauled to the Chilean desert from several countries. The steerable mounts are in the US and ready to be shipped to South America. The optics for the telescopes are in Austria. All but one of the detectors are in the UK. The outer building to house the array is due to reach the site from Cornwall around March.

Pollacco said the team will draw on a range of other land and space-based telescopes to study the atmospheres of the planets they find. First in line will be the Very Large Telescope, which is already up and running on Paranal mountain, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. But more hope rests on Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to Hubble, which is due to launch in five years, and the European Extra Large Telescope, approved for construction at Paranal at a council meeting of the European Southern Observatory in December last year.

Two other much smaller space observatories will join the effort if they are not cancelled in coming years. Nasa’s Finesse (Fast Infrared Exoplanet Spectroscopy Survey Explorer) mission, and the European Space Agency’s Echo mission (Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory), are both designed to study and characterise the atmospheres of exoplanets.

Even with all this technology, the task is formidable. To capture starlight that has passed through a planet’s atmosphere is hard enough. To spot how its spectrum has changed as a result is harder still. Then those changes must be attributed to individual gases in the alien air, all as the star’s brightness varies over time, and changes in temperature and pressure subtly change the properties of the telescopes on Earth. “It’s a nightmare, it’s incredibly difficult to do,” says Pollacco. “But if this was easy to do, it would have been done already.”

© Guardian News and Media 2013


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Two asteroids and two comets to buzz Earth

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, January 6, 2013 10:24 EST

Astronomers are gearing up for thrills this year when Earth gets buzzed by two rogue asteroids and two comets, including a wanderer last seen by the forerunners of mankind.

The guardians who scour the heavens for dangerous space rocks are currently closely tracking an asteroid called 99942 Apophis.

Named after the god of evil and darkness in Egyptian mythology, Apophis measures around 270 metres (877 feet) across, a mass able to deliver more energy than 25,000 Hiroshima bombs if it ever smashed into Earth.

Apophis sparked some heart-stopping moments when it was first detected in 2004.

Early calculations suggested a 2.7-percent probability of a collision in 2029, the highest ever seen for an asteroid, but the risk was swiftly downgraded after more observations.

Even so, for April 13, 2036, “there is still a tiny chance of an impact,” says NASA’s fabled Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which puts the risk at about one in 250,000.

One of the big unknowns is the Yarkovsky effect, a phenomenon discovered by a Russian engineer at the start of the 20th century.

A slowly rotating body that orbits close to the Sun experiences heating on one side of its body that then cools at “night” as it turns over.

This alternate heating and cooling can cause a tiny momentum, depending on the body’s spin and amount of area that warms.

The question is whether, over time, the Yarkovsky effect is accelerating Apophis, thus skewing estimates for future approaches.

Seeking clues, NASA’s deep-space radars at Goldstone, in California’s Mojave desert, and at Arecibo in Puerto Rico will be scanning Apophis, which on January 9 will pass by at some 14.5 million kilometres (nine million miles).

“Using new measurements of the asteroid’s distance and line-of-sight velocity, we hope to reduce the orbital uncertainties and extend the interval over which we can compute the motion into the future,” JPL’s Lance Benner said in an email.

“It’s possible that the new measurements improve the orbit to the point that we can completely rule out an impact.”

On February 15, a 57-metre (185-feet) asteroid, 2012 DA14, will skim the planet at just 34,500 kilometres (21,600 miles). In other words, it will spookily fly by inside the orbit of geostationary satellites.

“It’s going to be the closest predicted flyby of an asteroid,” says Mark Bailey, director of the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland.

“Because it is coming so close, even amateur astronomers will be able to watch it as it moves against background stars, and it may be visible through binoculars.”

Comets — seen by the superstitious as harbingers of great events — could make 2013 a memorable year, astronomers hope.

Lonely travellers of the cosmos, comets comprise giant clumps of primeval ice and dust, formed in the infancy of the Solar System, which loop around the Sun at intervals that can vary from years to aeons.

As they get closer to our star, solar heat warms the comet’s surface, causing it to spew out gases and shed a dusty trail which becomes reflected as a “tail” in the Sun’s rays.

First up is Comet 2011 L4 (PANSTARRS), whose name comes from the telescope at the University of Hawaii which spotted it in 2011.

PANSTARRS could be at its brightest from March 8 to 12, according to US specialist Gary Kronk (http://cometography.com/current_comets.html).

The biggest excitement is being reserved for Comet ISON, named after the International Scientific Optical Network, whose telescope was used by Russian astronomers Vitaly Nevski and Artyom Novichonok to make the find last September.

Right now, it is unclear how bright ISON will be, but by some calculations it could become visible to the naked eye by late November and maybe linger brilliantly for months, becoming a once-a-century event.

ISON is an extraordinary beast, for it last returned to Earth 10 million years ago, or more, says Bailey.

“It’s a ‘new comet’, which comes from a region of the Solar System that’s called the Oort Cloud, an extensive system that extends from around a thousand times the distance of the Earth to the Sun to around 100,000-200,000 times this distance,” Bailey says.

“If you imagine a model of the Solar System whereby the Sun’s a football in the centre of a football pitch and the Earth is on the perimeter, then this comet has come effectively from Australia. That’s the scale of things.”

[Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 via Shutterstock]


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« Reply #3893 on: Jan 07, 2013, 05:46 AM »

Scientists break absolute zero barrier

By Samantha Kimmey
Sunday, January 6, 2013 19:39 EST

Students are usually told in science class that absolute zero — zero kelvin, or about -460 degrees Fahrenheit — is the lowest temperature threshold.

But scientists have created a temperature beyond absolute zero, reported LiveScience.

The implications of the new research suggest that engines could theoretically be more than 100 percent efficient. It also offers potential explanations for “dark energy,” the matter that may cause the universe to expand.

The researchers manipulated a gas in order to force most of the gas particles into high energy states, giving it the negative reading (objects at positive temperatures contain particles with mostly low energy states).

But the resulting gas was not colder than absolute zero — if you can wrap your mind around it. “Yet the gas is not colder than zero kelvin, but hotter. It is even hotter than at any positive temperature — the temperature scale simply does not end at infinity, but jumps to negative values instead,” researcher Ulrich Schneider, who is a University of Munich in Germany physicist, told LiveScience.

In fact, objects with negative temperatures — below zero kelvin — are always hotter than objects with positive temperatures. In addition, when an object at a negative temperature releases energy, “they can actually absorb entropy,” a measure of chaos or disorder, unlike objects at positive temperatures which increase entropy.


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« Reply #3894 on: Jan 07, 2013, 05:49 AM »


Delhi gang-rape: five accused face court

Five men accused of gang rape that killed woman to appear in court for the first time ahead of fast-track trial

Reuters in New Delhi
guardian.co.uk, Monday 7 January 2013 07.55 GMT   

The five men accused of a brutal gang-rape that killed an Indian woman are due to appear in a New Delhi court, with two of them offering evidence possibly in return for a lighter sentence in the case that has led to a global outcry.

The five men, along with a teenager, are accused of raping the 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a bus in New Delhi. She died two weeks later on 28 December in a Singapore hospital from her injuries.

Television images on Monday morning showed the blue police van believed to be transporting the suspects from Tihar jail as it arrived at the court gate prior to the hearing.

Two of the accused, Vinay Sharma and Pawan Gupta, moved an application on Saturday requesting they be made "approvers", or informers against the other accused, a public prosecutor in the case, Rajiv Mohan, told the Reuters news agency.

The men are appearing before a newly formed fast-track court and their trial is expected to take place over the next few weeks. A teenager who is also accused will likely be tried in a juvenile court.

The brutal case ignited protests across India and neighbouring countries, and prompted government promises for tougher punishments for offenders.

Ahead of Monday's court appearance, the five still had no defence lawyers – despite extensive interrogations by the police, who have said they have recorded confessions – after members of the bar association in the South Delhi district where the case is being heard vowed not to represent them.

The men will be assigned lawyers by the court before the trial begins but their lack of representation so far could give grounds for appeal later should they be found guilty, experts say. Similar cases have resulted in acquittals years after convictions.

"The accused has a right to a lawyer from point of arrest – the investigations are going on, statements being taken, it is totally illegal," said Colin Gonsalves, a senior supreme court advocate and director of Delhi's Human Rights Law Network.

Senior leaders of most states on Friday came out in support of a plan to lower to 16 the age that minors can be tried as adults – in response to fury that the maximum penalty the accused youth could face is three years' detention.

A government panel is considering suggestions to make the death penalty mandatory for rape and introducing forms of chemical castration for the guilty. It is due to make its recommendations by 23 January. Official data shows one rape is reported on average every 20 minutes in India.

India set up 1,700 fast-track courts in 2004 but stopped funding them in 2012 because they turned out to be costly. The courts typically work six days a week and try to reduce adjournments that lead to long delays in cases.

"The record of the fast-track courts is mixed," Gonsalves said. Conviction rates rose, he said, but due process was sometimes rushed, leading to convictions being overturned.


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« Reply #3895 on: Jan 07, 2013, 05:52 AM »


Women in Swaziland organise to confront discrimination

Activists look to the country's traditions as a route to recognition of their contribution and a return to equality

IRIN part of the Guardian development network   
guardian.co.uk, Monday 7 January 2013 09.00 GMT   

Women in Swaziland are organising to promote their rights and welfare, convinced that discriminatory laws are at odds with the essential roles they play in their families and in their country's economy.

"We are taking a page from the past to achieve the recognition Swazi women deserve as the ones who keep this society going. It is a scandal how the authorities refuse to take women seriously when we are holding the country together," said Cynthia Simelane, an activist who works with female garment workers at the Matsapha Industrial Site, outside the city of Manzini.

The Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations has noted that the Swazi government has signed various international accords pledging to end gender discrimination, but it has never enacted legislation to put those pledges into action.

In 2005, King Mswati III, a strict traditionalist with 13 wives, signed a new constitution granting men and women equal rights. However, discriminatory laws – such as one that prevents women from taking out bank loans – remain in place. Another law, forbidding women from owning property, remains on the books despite having been ruled unconstitutional.

Caretakers

In the past year, the Swaziland Single Mothers Association (Swamaso), which aims to improve the lives of single mothers and reduce high teen pregnancy rates, doubled its membership.

"In Swaziland today, a majority of children live with one or no parent, mostly because of Aids but also because Swazi men have many girlfriends," Thabsile Ndwandwe, a Swamaso member, said. "A majority of Swazi children are raised by single mothers or by their grandmothers if the mother is no longer alive. Where are the programmes to assist these mothers? Where is even the government acknowledgement of this reality?"

Instead, the government announced last week that elderly Swazis, including grandmothers, will not receive their pension stipend this quarter due to "limited resources". Swaziland's financial crisis has not eased since the government last suspended pension payments, in 2011. The amount of the stipend is only US$73 (£45) per three-month period, but the majority of elderly live in chronic poverty and the suspension of the pensions will hinder their ability to purchase food and medicines and care for their grandchildren.

Swamaso's attempts to lobby the government to give more assistance to single mothers have not yet paid off, but the organisation is making a difference in other ways. Its network of community groups plays an important role in educating girls about avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. A quarter of Swaziland's population is HIV-positive, the highest rate in the world.

Tradition of organising

Swazi women have a long tradition of organising based on age groups, according to Simelane, from the young maidens who assemble to collect building material for the Queen Mother ahead of the annual reed dance, to the grandmothers who supervise community improvement projects.

Other women's groups include the Swazi Women for Positive Living, established in 2003 by HIV-positive women to assist other women living with the virus, and the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, formed by women to influence policy on the country's high rates of domestic and gender-based violence.

Last month, a new group was established – the Swaziland Young Women's Network – which announced its launch with a march through the streets of the capital, Mbabane, to protest against the prevalence of sexual harassment. The police blocked the march on the grounds that some of the women were wearing miniskirts.

A week later, the Royal Swaziland Police Force spokeswoman Wendy Hleta invoked a 19th century public indecency law as a basis for arresting women wearing miniskirts or tank tops. Hleta said that women who wore revealing clothing were responsible for provoking rape.

Her comments drew a flood of unfavourable reports in the international media, prompting a government spokesperson to deny that a miniskirt ban was in place. Gender-rights activists considered this a partial victory.

"The government's first response to women seeking our rights was to block us and threaten us with arrest, and to control us by telling us what to wear," Simelane said. "That is their instinct, and it is going to be hard to overcome, but we are determined not only for our own sake but for the sake of the country.".

Policymaking

Ntombi Dube, a health worker in Manzini, argued that the only way for Swaziland to reverse economic and social decay was for women to assume a greater role in policymaking.

"This is what Swazi women have been doing in our 'regiments' for generations … men have got to stop seeing our call for the end of discrimination against women as an attempt to usurp their authority," she said.

The new constitution stipulates that a third of members of parliament should be women, but the actual proportion is about a quarter, and parliament's role is limited to raising and debating issues, as legislation can only be drafted by cabinet.

The women's advocacy groups insist they are not asking Swazi women to choose between traditional Swazi life and western concepts of femininity, arguing that this is a false choice.

"There is no traditional life to live any more. It is sad that the old multi-generational homestead where women held respected roles is a thing of the past," Dube said. "We can't go back to that, and we have to adapt as African women who are proud of a culture that respects women. That respect got lost somewhere."

Simelane agreed: "All these laws that make Swazi women second-class human beings, they were not part of traditional Swazi life because we did not live under western laws. Swazi women want to return to the way it was when we were equal."


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« Reply #3896 on: Jan 07, 2013, 05:59 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
01/07/2013 11:45 AM

Rest in Peace: The Dead Children of Guizhou

By Bernhard Zand

Since the discovery in mid-November of the bodies of five young boys in China's Guizhou province, the Chinese leadership has sought to distract attention from the case. Reporting on the deaths by SPIEGEL was also hindered.

On Nov. 15, 2012, seven men stepped onto a stage in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. One walked over to a lectern decorated with flowers to face the cameras and microphones. The Communist Party had just named him its general secretary, he said, and the "heavy responsibility" of ruling China now rested on his shoulders and those of the six other men.

The appearance of Xi Jinping, the country's designated leader, took most of the international correspondents in attendance by surprise. He apologized for being late before going on to praise the "friends from the press" for being so "dedicated, professional and hard-working."

It was an unusual message in a country in which journalists work under difficult conditions. A reporter with the Al-Jazeera news network was forced to leave the country in May, and Chinese authorities blocked access to the website of business news agency Bloomberg in June and that of the New York Times in October. In August, correspondents for German publications in China asked Chancellor Angela Merkel to press the Chinese to improve working conditions for foreign journalists in the country.

Many Chinese reporters were also impressed by Xi's speech, which differed from those of his predecessors. "Our people have great enthusiasm for life," he said, among other things. "They wish that children will grow better, work better and live better."

Impoverished Province

On that Nov. 15, the city of Bijie, about 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) southwest of Beijing, was cloaked in the cool, dense fog for which Guizhou, one of China's poorest provinces, is notorious. It began to drizzle in the afternoon and the temperature fell to 6 degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit), the coldest it had been so far that autumn.

A pedestrian noticed five boys playing soccer on the sidewalk along Huandong Lu, a wide street on the city's outskirts. The children, between 9 and 13 years old, were skipping school and had been hanging out in the neighborhood for days. They were wearing filthy parkas and thin cotton trousers, and one of them had no socks. They spent their days in an underpass at the entrance to the local university, begging for money from students, and at night they had slept in a makeshift hut they had built with rubble and tarps on a construction site.

But on the night of Nov. 15, it was so cold that they hit upon a different idea. They climbed into one of five dumpsters, each of them measuring about two by one meters (six by two feet), standing next to the road. Then they lit a fire in the dumpster and closed the four lids from the inside.

At 7:30 the next morning, garbage collector Sun Qingying opened one of the lids. She is 83, lives with her husband in a hut across the street and begins her daily work, as always, at the five dumpsters on Huandong Lu. She retrieved a few pieces of coal from the first dumpster and two plastic bottles from the second one. When she opened the third container, she was initially confronted with the acrid smell of fire, and then she made out five lifeless children lying next to each other. One of them had white foam coming from his mouth and nose. Sun tried to revive the children with a stick, but they didn't wake up. "They're dead! They're dead!" she screamed. A passerby called the police.

A few hours later Li Yuanlong, 52, was standing at a bus stop in Bijie, where he overheard two other people saying that five children had been found dead in a dumpster near the university.

In his years spent working as a journalist for the government-run Bijie Daily, Li had written a number of reports about corruption and abuse of power that got him into hot water with the city and district government. He was determined to investigate the story he had just overheard. At some point in the last few years, there was a moment when Li felt an inner connection to his country being destroyed. In 2005, after writing an essay titled "How One Becomes an American in Spirit," charges were filed against him and he was sentenced to two years in prison. He served the entire term, much of it in solitary confinement.

After being released from prison, Li sold his apartment and, using the money as collateral, applied for an American visa for his son Muzi. To his surprise, the visa was issued, and Muzi is now attending a college in Ohio.

Deaths Shock China

Li began researching the story on Nov. 16, the day the five dead boys were discovered. He posted his first report on the Internet the next morning, but no one seemed to notice it. Li continued his research, making phone calls and interviewing neighbors and pedestrians on Huandong Lu. On Nov. 18, he posted a second, more detailed report online.

This time the reaction was immediate and intense. Within hours, Li's report was the most-read and most-talked-about news story on the Chinese Internet. "I can't believe that something like this is happening in China today," one person wrote. "Where are the authorities that should be handling these cases, and where were the parents?" Another reader remarked: "Even though you died in a dumpster, you're not garbage." Finally, a third person wrote: "Rest in peace. Don't reincarnate in China."

It wasn't just the death of these children that was so shocking to the Chinese. The tragedy of Bijie reminded many of a story they had read in elementary school: Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Match Girl," in which a little girl freezes to death by the side of the road while the bourgeoisie pass by without paying her any heed.

"Vicious capitalists!" one blogger wrote, recalling Andersen's story. "That's how we were educated." Another one asked: "Why this sense of superiority about our system?"

Unemployed journalist Li's report created so much pressure that the official media finally weighed in on the story as well. On Nov. 19, the government-owned television network CCTV contacted Li and asked him to find the garbage collector. On Nov. 20, Universal Children's Day, state-owned news agency Xinhua published a report that even pointed out the contradiction between the deaths of the five children and Xi's rousing words.

Now officials in Bijie released the names of the dead boys: Zhonglin, 13, Zhongjing and Chong, both 12, Zhonghong, 11 and Bo, 9, all had the same last name, Tao. They were cousins, the children of three brothers, two of whom were migrant workers in the booming city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. The boys had been left in the care of the third brother, who was struggling in the bitterly poor village where he lived. Conditions were so bad there that the boys had run away. The city of Bijie also fired or suspended eight officials, including the director of the elementary school the children had attended, and where they hadn't been seen in weeks.

But the children weren't the only victims. While he was doing his research for CCTV, state security officers parked their SUVs on Li's street and knocked on his door. They told him that things had gone too far, and that the case had been solved and he should delete his blogs and stop working on the story. Li refused. They threw him and his wife into a car, took them to the provincial capital Guiyang and put them on a flight to Haikou on Hainan, a resort island in the South China Sea.

When someone recognized the prominent dissident there, two officials dragged him off to another city. They told Li that the authorities had in fact considered issuing him a passport after the 18th party congress, so that he could visit his son. But that, they added, was now no longer an option. "Assume that you won't see your son for the next 10 years, and perhaps not even for the rest of your life," they said. They forced him to write a last blog entry, to the effect that he was traveling for personal reasons, to resolve a "family matter." After that, Li's voice fell silent, and he disappeared from the radar for the next four weeks.

'No One Paid Any Attention to Them'
In the meantime, SPIEGEL had also begun researching the case of the five dead children. In late December, my colleague Wu Dandan and I traveled to Bijie. We didn't know Li Yuanlong's whereabouts, but shortly before we arrived in the city we managed to establish contact with him without alarming his minders. We met him on a street corner and, without greeting each other, followed him to his apartment, careful to keep a distance of a few meters. Only one room in the apartment was heated, and only sparsely at that. It was the room where Li kept his computer, to which he had attached two pennants, in the colors of the British and the American flags.

When Li told us about his arrest, his research and his abduction, it was with the muffled fury of a journalist who has been repeatedly prevented from reporting on what he knows. When he talked about his son in Ohio, he paused and swallowed. And when he reached the point in his story when the police came knocking on his door, there was another knock on the door. Li placed his finger over his mouth, disappeared for a few minutes, returned and said quietly: "That was one of the neighborhood security men. He had noticed movement." A few days after his return from Hainan, Li said, outgoing President Hu Jintao was in Bijie, and after that he was no longer guarded as closely as before. But that, he said, would likely change again.

We stayed there until shortly before midnight, by which time Li had received numerous calls on his mobile phone. We agreed to meet him discreetly the next day in a busy part of the city, near the underpass where the five boys had spent time in the days before they died.

"Just next to it are a police station and a district administration building," said Li. "The officials saw the children every morning for three weeks when they arrived at the office, but no one paid any attention to them."

When we left Li's apartment, we saw the outline of a man behind the stairs, and we also noticed an SUV parked in the dark alleyway, its windows slightly opened. When we returned to our hotel, there were five police officers waiting for us. They filmed our arrival, checked our papers and then accompanied us to the doors of our rooms. They wanted to question us, but we asked them to wait until the next morning and went into one of the two rooms. After a while, the police officers left our floor.

Li seemed tense when we met him briefly the next morning. That afternoon, he contacted us and suggested that we continue our research without him, because there were security officials at his door and he would only cause trouble for us.

Intimidation of Potential Sources

We had trouble anyway. When we spoke with neighbors and passersby at the site where the boys' bodies were found, men and women who hadn't been involved in the interviews intervened after a while, urging them not to speak with us and suggesting that there would be consequences if they did.

Many allowed themselves to be intimidated, but some didn't. Mao Hai, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student, told us that he remembered the children well. "It was cold, and they were sitting on the steps here. They didn't harm anyone." Others, like a woman named Lu who runs a restaurant, noticed how quickly the police had cleared everything away from the site where the boys' bodies were found. By 8:30 a.m., when local merchants had arrived at their shops, there was nothing left to see, and the five dumpsters were removed soon afterwards, said Lu.

A man named Zhao introduced himself as the deputy director of the local office for foreigners and overseas Chinese. He spoke some English and said that he had been assigned to work with us. We asked him to let us work in peace, but he continued to impose himself. When we requested interviews with officials from the city administration, the welfare offices and the school authority, he turned us down, but he did say that he could arrange a trip to the village the boys had left.

The three-hour drive gave us an impression of the challenges involved in governing Guizhou Province. The muddy roads were filled with bathtub-sized potholes, and hundreds of children stood shivering in the cold fog. China's one-child policy doesn't apply to its ethnic minorities, many of which live in Guizhou. At the same time, the region is so poor that about 2 million of Bijie's population of 7 million people are forced to work in the wealthy coastal cities, like the father of four of the dead boys.

When we arrived at the village, neighbors prevented us from meeting with the boys' family. It was unclear to us whether this was because the family didn't want to see us, or whether the presence of Zhao and our other escorts intimidated them.

When we returned to the city, one of the police officers from the hotel joined us for dinner. After apologizing for the rude reception on the previous evening, he tried to ascertain what our next plans were. He also suggested that we refrain from reporting too critically on conditions in Bijie, noting that criticism is bad for the investment climate in the region. We remained under observation, and government agents sitting in the lobby filmed us whenever we left the hotel.

The next morning, people whom we had planned to meet suddenly failed to appear. Others received calls warning them about us as we were speaking with them. When Zhao interrupted a conversation we were having with a local resident, I asked him to leave us alone. He responded: "Okay. But then you will not be my business anymore." We weren't sure whether to interpret this as a promise or a threat.

That afternoon, we hailed a cab for the trip back to the provincial capital Guiyang. Minutes later, our driver received a phone call that he didn't really want to discuss. The drive took six hours, and by the time we arrived we had missed our return flight to Beijing. We decided to spend the night in Guiyang. It was only while taking another taxi back into the city that we chose to stay at the local Kempinski Hotel. After we had checked in, I loaded the remaining pictures I had taken in Bijie from my camera's memory card onto my laptop. We went to the hotel restaurant for dinner at about 9 p.m..

Reporters' Equipment Destroyed

When we returned at 10:30 p.m., the light was on in my room, the bedspread had been pulled back and the curtains were closed. When I switched on my camera I noticed that my memory card was empty. My iPad had been plugged in incorrectly and I couldn't switch it on anymore. Water was dripping from the plugs for the headphone and the charger. A mobile phone that I had left in the room had also been submerged in water. All the files on the desktop of my computer -- and that of my colleague -- had been deleted. Someone had broken into our rooms while we were out and manipulated and destroyed our devices.

I informed the management. After half an hour, the manager on duty came to the room and urged us to leave Guizhou Province and refrain from filing charges. I declined. Instead, I photographed the surveillance cameras installed in the elevator and the hallway. The cameras covered the doors to my room and that of my assistant, which meant that the people who had broken into the rooms must have been recorded.

We filed a complaint the next morning. The officers were friendly and cooperative, and when I told them about the surveillance cameras, two of them returned to the hotel with us and asked for the tapes. The hotel's head of security and one of the officers went into the surveillance room, but we weren't allowed to join them.

When the officer returned after half an hour, he told us that -- regrettably -- nothing had been recorded between Dec. 26 and Dec. 30. I suggested that they check the electronic door lock logs, and the officer asked a hotel employee to give him the logs. The man disappeared for a moment, and when he returned he said: "Our hotel doesn't keep such logs."

We flew back to Beijing on Sunday, Dec. 30. On Monday, Dec. 31, the New York Times reported that Chris Buckley, one of its China correspondents, was being forced to leave the country on the last day of the year.

We heard from Li Yuanlong for the last time on Thursday. We had asked him to send us two photos that had been stored on the erased memory card. I had saved other photos in a safe spot on my hard drive. Li told us that he had sent the pictures, and that he was doing well.

But the photos never arrived, and we haven't been able to reach Li since.

In keeping with tradition, Zhonglin, Zhongjing, Bo, Chong and Zhonghong were buried without a ceremony. The two fathers who had come to the funeral from Shenzhen have since returned there, where they work as garbage collectors.

An assortment of discarded items remains behind on the construction site along Huandong Lu, where the children slept for three weeks: a badminton racket, a broken broom, a crushed chocolate-milk container, a dirty ice-cream cup.

Shortly before the end of the year, the Bijie official in charge of city cleaning reacted to the drama of the five dead children by having the following notice affixed to all dumpsters: "Strictly off-limits to people and animals. Violate at your own risk." China's bloggers were speechless at first, but then they protested. The signs have since been taken down.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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« Reply #3897 on: Jan 07, 2013, 06:05 AM »


Assad's call for talks dismissed as 'a waste of time' by Syrian opposition

Rebels say Syrian president offered no meaningful concessions in his first public speech in seven months

Ian Black, Middle East editor
The Guardian, Monday 7 January 2013   

Syria's opposition and its international backers have rejected Bashar al-Assad's latest initiative to end the 21 months of violence, insisting that he offered no meaningful concessions and should surrender power at once.

Hopes of a breakthrough were dashed after an hour-long speech in Damascus in which the Syrian president called for "a war to defend the nation" against "terrorist" violence and urged foreign countries to stop supporting his enemies – while offering a national dialogue and a constitutional referendum.

He proposed what he called a "comprehensive plan" that included an "expanded government". But there was no sign that he was prepared to step down as the first stage of a political transition – a demand of all opposition groups. "I will go one day, but the country remains," he said.

Assad referred repeatedly to "plots" against his country and the role of al-Qaida, long portrayed as the leading element in what began as a popular uprising in March 2011. Syria was not facing a revolution but a "gang of criminals" and "western puppets", he said. "We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word," the president told cheering supporters. "This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation."

The speech from the stage of the Damascus Opera House in the heart of the capital was punctuated by thunderous applause and loyalist chants from what was certainly a carefully selected audience. The city was described as being under a security lockdown before the event. Internet services were disconnected.

But it was hard to see how the president's public speech – the first in seven months – offered even a faint glimmer of a way out of the bloody impasse between the regime and rebels in a conflict which the UN said last week had claimed 60,000 lives.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition said the closely watched address marked an end to diplomatic efforts led by the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi. "The appropriate response is to continue to resist this unacceptable regime and for the Free Syrian Army to continue its work in liberating Syria until every inch of land is free," said George Sabra, its deputy president.

"It was a waste of time. He said nothing constructive," a spokesman, Louay Safi, told al-Jazeera TV. "It was empty rhetoric."

Walid al-Bunni, a veteran activist, said: "The genuine opposition inside and outside Syria won't accept the initiative."

Assad's speech was "beyond hypocritical", Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, commented on Twitter. "Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one."

Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, told CNN that he supported calls for Assad to be tried for war crimes.

Assad's last last public speech was in June 2012. In November he told Russian TV he would "live and die in Syria".

Opposition media described clashes taking place between government and rebel forces near the Yarmuk refugee camp as well as anti-Assad demonstrations in Qadam and Homs. In all, 52 people were reported killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor.

Reconciliation could take place only with those "who have not betrayed Syria", the president declared, repeating that the government had no "partner" for peace. There could not be simply a political solution he insisted, but there had to be an end to violence and terror. There was loud cheering when he praised the bravery of the Syrian armed forces.

Assad said a "national dialogue" would draw up a charter to be put to a national referendum, followed by parliamentary elections and a general amnesty.

But Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, thought Assad had simply repeated empty promises. "As Assad no longer has the representative authority over the Syrian people, his words have lost persuasiveness," he said. "A transition period needs to be completed swiftly through talks with representatives of the Syrian nation."

In Brussels, the EU foreign affairs chief, Cathy Ashton, promised to "look carefully" at the speech, but added: "We maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition."

In his speech, Assad thanked Russia, China and Iran for supporting Syria in the face of hostility from the US, Britain and France.

"Syria is impervious to collapse and the Syrian people impervious to humiliation," he concluded. "We will always be like that. Hand in hand we will move ahead, taking Syria to a brighter and stronger future."

*************

Nearly 9,000 Syrians flee to Jordan in six days

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, January 6, 2013 10:08 EST

Nearly 9,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, fled to Jordan over the past six days to escape the bloodshed in their homeland, a government spokesman told AFP on Sunday.

“Some 8,835 Syrians fled to the kingdom since January 1 this year,” said Anmar Hmud, a government spokesman for Syrian refugee affairs.

“Most of them are women and children who came from Syrian southern areas, including Daraa.”

Hmud said Jordan is now hosting around 290,000 Syrians, including more than 62,000 in the Zaatari desert refugee camp near the border.

A Jordanian security source meanwhile said without elaborating that, “1,800 Syrian military personnel have sought refuge in Jordan since the crisis began in 2011.”

Hundreds of Syrians cross the border daily into Jordan, fleeing the fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebels.

At least 60,000 people have been killed in 21 months since an anti-regime revolt erupted in March 2011, according to UN figures.

The United Nations has predicted the number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries will double to 1.1 million by June if the civil war does not end.
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« Reply #3898 on: Jan 07, 2013, 06:07 AM »

January 6, 2013

Qatar Pushes for a Larger Role on the Global Stage

By STANLEY REED
IHT

LONDON — At first glance the willingness of Al Jazeera, the satellite network owned and financed by Qatar, to pay in the neighborhood of $500 million for Current TV, Al Gore’s struggling channel, seems like a vanity project. And it may turn out that way.

But in recent years Qatar has developed what is one of the more energetic and sophisticated foreign investment strategies of the Gulf oil and gas producers. Al Jazeera’s expansion plan in the United States can be seen as part of its overall plan to put itself on the map and make itself heard globally.

The Qatari leadership want to propagate “a Qatari-sponsored narrative of events in the Middle East and elsewhere,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Gulf analyst at Chatham House, a London research institute. “Being able to shape that narrative and how it is being seen in the U.S. is extremely important.”

When he overthrew his father in 1995, Qatar’s ruler, Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, took control of what was a small and vulnerable country jutting out into the Gulf from the Arabian Peninsula. He has assiduously worked to change Qatar’s circumstances, most notably by bringing in partners like ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell to build the liquefied natural gas installations needed to exploit Qatar’s enormous North Field.

As a result, Qatar, which had been a relatively small oil producer, is now the world’s dominant L.N.G. power with financial surpluses in the range of $30 billion to $40 billion a year, according to Rachel Ziemba, an analyst at Roubini Global Economics in London.

The oil and gas money has given the ruler and his key collaborator, Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, the means to transform the once sleepy capital, Doha, into a Dubai-like cityscape that has become a preferred location for international conferences like the recent COP 18 summit meeting and prestigious sports events like the 2022 World Cup in soccer.

Qatar is also now the world’s wealthiest country per capita. Income was close to $100,000 per person in 2011, according to the C.I.A. World Factbook.

Having so much money to spend has helped make the Qataris key global deal makers in both business and politics.

“The leadership of Qatar is probably the most dynamic and ambitious of any senior leadership in the Gulf,” Tarik Yousef, chief executive of Silatech, a Qatari nonprofit that helps young people in the Middle East set up businesses, said in an interview last year. “They not only have ambitions and drive, but they have phenomenal financial resources.”

That ambition and drive have been conspicuously in evidence of late. In a high-profile gambit involving mediation by Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, Qatar helped force Glencore to increase its takeover bid last autumn for the miner Xstrata, in which Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund held a large stake, increasing the price of the multibillion-dollar deal 9 percent, said Jeff Largey, an analyst at Macquarie in London.

Despite being a tightly controlled monarchy, Qatar is the only Gulf country that has enthusiastically bought into the Arab Spring revolutionary movements that have roiled the Middle East over the past two years. Qatari aid was instrumental in toppling the Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and its leadership was early in calling for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Qatar has backed the government of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt with promises of billions in investment, including money for an oil refinery near Cairo.

Some of these decisions, like investing in the Xstrata deal or Qatar’s supplying new capital to Britain’s Barclays bank during the financial crisis — a matter that is now under investigation in Britain — make good business sense. So does Qatar’s stake-building in major Western companies including Shell, the German construction giant Hochtief and Volkswagen. But they also help accentuate Qatar’s political clout. When buying large shareholdings “you are gaining access to a network. It’s almost a means of doing politics,” said a senior Western investment banker in the Gulf last year, who declined to be identified because it might affect his business.

Being the site of billions of dollars in investment by major oil companies including ExxonMobil, Shell and Total also enhances Qatar’s relevance, as do its L.N.G. contracts with countries like Japan and China. The Qataris are thinking “if you have many long-term partners around the world, you won’t be sacrificed in a time of need,” said Mr. Ulrichsen of Chatham House.

In this context, Al Jazeera’s plan to expand in the United States may be seen as another part of Qatar’s global outreach campaign, though Al Jazeera has changed its tactics from its early days.

Al Jazeera’s English channel, introduced in 2006, has helped at least partially change its image from that of a network used as a vehicle by Al Qaeda and hostile to the United States to that of a professionally run news channel that has won prominent U.S. journalism prizes, including George Foster Peabody and George Polk awards last year. The Polk prize came for coverage of unrest in Bahrain, another small Gulf emirate.

“The key question is whether this is to give Al Jazeera in English more exposure in its current relatively objective form or to buy a forum for sending more of a Qatari and Arab message to U.S. viewers,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a Gulf security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The English channel has struggled to find viewers in the United States. It reaches only 4.7 million homes and far fewer actual viewers. The deal for Current TV will multiply potential viewers almost tenfold. “This is intended to be a commercial venture,” said Stan Collender, a spokesman for the company. Al Jazeera made the purchase only after “several years of study,” he said.
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« Reply #3899 on: Jan 07, 2013, 06:12 AM »


David Cameron's threat to block EU reforms branded 'economic insanity'

Peter Mandelson says PM shouldn't think he can 'put a gun to the heads' of EU leaders in an effort to repatriate powers

Patrick Wintour, political editor
The Guardian, Sunday 6 January 2013 19.00 GMT   

David Cameron has been accused of "economic insanity" in trying to put a gun to the head of his European partners after he warned on Sunday that he would block treaty changes to make the euro more effective unless he is allowed to repatriate powers to the UK.

Cameron made his thinly veiled threat on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, when he said he was "entitled" and "enabled" to seek a repatriation of powers when other EU countries sought treaty change to make the single currency work more effectively. Cameron is due to set out his definitive position on Europe, including a referendum, later this month.

Writing in the Guardian, the former European commissioner Lord Mandelson warns Cameron that he "will be disappointed if he thinks he can put a gun to their heads to begin renegotiating Britain's EU membership and then dictate when it will end, especially when, in their view, he is arguing not in Europe's interests as a whole but for British exceptionalism".

Faced by a choice between protecting the euro and British demands, he says Europe will choose the euro.

Claiming the Tory party is now gripped by a madness on Europe, he says it is "an act of economic insanity to begin 2013 by placing this large and indefinite question mark over our membership of the EU, and all the trade and investment privileges it brings us.

"The signal it sends to the world is that we are on our way out of the European single market and that those who invest in Britain in order to trade in that market should think again."

His remarks are supplemented by a warning from the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, that Cameron is in danger of putting a long-term question mark over the UK's relations with its largest trading partner at a time when the country is desperate to secure growth.

Alexander writes: "Announcing an in/out referendum halfway through this parliament to take place more than halfway through the next, given the Conservatives' hostility towards Europe, could risk up to seven years of economic uncertainty, threatening vital investment and effectively playing roulette with the country's economic future."

Alexander added "Focusing on an in/out referendum now actually risks the UK missing the best chance in a generation to reform Europe so that it better serves our interests and meets our expectations.

"Simply presenting a shopping list of repatriations – backed by the threat of exit – will not deliver for Britain and will undermine our ability to shape and lead the broader project of EU reform.

"While the Prime Minister is right to recognise that Europe, and our position within it, is changing, he is wrong to imply that these changes inevitably threaten our interests It is still unclear how these changes will affect Britain's relationship with the EU, or indeed the nature of our membership".

Cameron reiterated on Sunday that he does not favour the UK leaving the EU, arguing that countries outside the EU such as Norway are subject to its rules but have no influence over its policies.

Setting out how Britain would have a lever over the rest of the EU to demand repatriation of UK competences, Cameron said: "What's happening in Europe right now is massive change being driven by the existence of the euro. The countries of the euro, they have got to change to make their currency work. They need to integrate more … This is something they recognise they have to do. There isn't a single currency in the world that doesn't have a banking union and forms of a fiscal union." He added: "As they need to change, what that means is they are changing the nature of the organisation to which we belong. And thus we are perfectly entitled, and not just entitled but actually enabled because they need changes, to ask for some changes ourselves."

Britain can veto treaty changes to make the euro more effective, such as closer EU supervision of banks and deficits. These treaty changes require the unanimous support of all EU members, and euro members are likely to take a dim view of Britain threatening to block an effective euro as part of a bargain designed to allow Britain to opt out of other EU laws, especially laws designed to create social equality.

EU sources have also claimed there is no certainty that treaty changes will be required, and if they are, and Britain seeks to veto them, they could still be agreed between governments without the need to use EU institutions.

Cameron said he supported treaty changes in principle to make the euro more effective.

He said: "I'm very positive about the changes that they need to make, but I think it's a perfectly acceptable argument to say that as you need to make your changes, there are changes that Britain would like to make too. We want to be members of the European Union, particularly the single market, but there are changes we would like to make."

He insisted the rest of the EU would concede to Britain's as-yet-unspecified demands, saying: "I'm not a fatalist. People told me it was never possible to make changes to our relationship. I came in as prime minister, I've already managed to get us out of the bailout power that the last government opted us into."

Pressed to explain the kind of competences that Britain would seek to have repatriated, he said: "There are lots of things we would be better off out of … The working time directive in my view should never have been introduced in the first place, because it's actually affecting things like the way we run our hospitals rather than simply about business and trade and the single market."

He also repeated a warning by the home secretary, Theresa May, that he would like to make it more difficult for EU citizens to claim UK benefits if they are working in Britain, a change that might not need treaty reform.

He said: "One of the key reasons of being a member of the European Union are what are called the key freedoms: the movement of services, the movement of goods and the movement of people. Now, there are restrictions already on the movement of people if you have, for instance, an emergency. Should we look at arguments about should it be harder for people to come and live in Britain and claim benefits? Yes, frankly we should."

He defended the Foreign-Office-led review of competences between the EU and the UK due to be completed by 2015. "We've got a process under way, a proper process with the balance of competences review where the government – and the public can be as involved in this as they like – are going through competence after competence, area after area, and saying: 'What is the balanced argument? What's right at the European level? What's right at the national level?'"

Cameron refused to be drawn on the exact nature of any referendum he would offer, but reiterated there would be a "real choice" for Britons.

He argued against Britain leaving the EU, saying: "50% of our trade is with the European Union. At the moment, because we're in this single market, we have a seat at the table in the single market, we help write those rules. If we were outside the EU altogether, we would still be trading with these European countries but we would have no say."

**********

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
01/07/2013 12:15 PM

Britain's Political Poltergeist: Cameron Succumbs to Growing Europhobia

By Christoph Scheuermann

Britain's right-wing conservative movement is making life difficult for Prime Minister David Cameron. The UK Independence Party wants to lead the country out of the EU, and its approval ratings are higher than ever. As the pressure mounts, Cameron has been at pains to outline a clear stance on Europe.

Nigel Farage is the kind of politician who apparently needs an opponent to bring out the best in him. Right now, that role is being played by a cushion. Sitting on a sofa in a London hotel lobby, Farage alternately slaps the cushion with the palm of his hand and punches it with his fist as he talks about how he intends to stir up British politics.

Farage is the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing conservative movement that aims to lead Britain out of the European Union.

For months now, his proposals have put the government on the back foot -- and this has rapidly increased his party's popularity among voters. Recent surveys show UKIP polling around 15 percent, which would make it the third most important political force in the country, after the Conservatives and the center-left Labour Party, yet ahead of the Liberal Democrats.

Nobody believes that UKIP could win that many votes in the lower house of parliament, the House of Commons -- in part because the British electoral system puts small parties at a disadvantage. But the opinion polls are enough to unsettle British Prime Minister David Cameron and his strategists on Downing Street.

This political pressure comes at a time when Cameron already has his hands full dealing with his own center-right Conservative Party. Tory parliamentarians are pushing him to make a commitment on Britain's future course with the EU.

High Stakes

Roughly one-third of Conservative MPs favor an EU exit, and even Cameron sees this as a plausible scenario. The prime minister has announced that he will clarify his stance on Europe in a long-awaited address this month, but he provided a foretaste in a television interview on Sunday.

While it would not be "right for Britain" to leave the EU entirely, the country is "perfectly entitled" to ask for changes to this relationship, particularly in light of the fact that the EU is "changing the nature of the organization to which we belong," he said on the BBC's "Andrew Marr Show."

In exchange for greater European integration, Cameron said that Britain should be allowed to take back some powers from the EU. Among his suggestions were a review of tighter EU immigration controls to limit the possibility for "people to come and live in Britain and claim benefits," and getting rid of the EU's Working Time Directive, which he said "should never have been introduced."

The political stakes are high and Cameron cannot allow himself to make any mistakes on these issues, having hesitated for too long to take a clear position on Europe. The prime minister has no strategy and has made tactical decisions out of fear of alienating voters. This is also one of the reasons why ranting members of UKIP and rebellious anti-EU members of Cameron's Conservatives are dominating the political discourse. They are making sweeping demands that Cameron cannot meet if he wants to avoid steering his country towards an exit.

Cameron's dithering on the issue is also to blame for the UK losing nearly all its clout in Europe. With increasing reluctance, he travels to Brussels, where the other heads of state hope that he won't threaten a veto again in an attempt to score points on the domestic political front. Nevertheless, Cameron doesn't want Britain to leave the European Union. He knows that an exit would damage the British economy -- and have considerable political consequences. On the other hand, he has members of his own party, Farage and a large proportion of the electorate breathing down his neck.

Europhobia Spreads

Roughly half of all Britons would vote in favor of withdrawing from the EU. Many of them see the debt crisis as proof that the European project has failed. Meanwhile, Cameron has to find a way to appease the British without further annoying his European partners. It was already months ago that he announced that Britain would examine existing European treaties to pick and choose which EU laws and regulations benefit the country. German diplomats are currently trying to convince their British counterparts that it doesn't work that way.

Still, Europhobia continues to spread throughout the country and is forcing both the Conservatives and Labour further to the right. Of the three parties represented in the House of Commons, only the Liberal Democrats are staunchly pro-EU -- and they are currently running at 8 percent in the opinion polls. Labour is afraid of making a crystal-clear commitment to Europe and the Tories are largely spewing populist rhetoric. UKIP leader Farage is pleased with this development. "What happens is that everybody is coming towards our position," he says.

Farage, 48, has been a member of the European Parliament since 1999. He has survived a serious car accident, a plane crash and testicular cancer. His autobiography bears the title "Fighting Bull." His second marriage is with a German national. He loves Europe, he says, adding "my enemy is the British political class, who have signed us up for this without ever telling us the truth."

Farage's tirades are appreciated by many British -- and generally loathed by politicians. His favorite targets are EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who Farage has dubbed "Rumpy Pumpy," and the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. "They want to be the world's global superpower," Farage shouts, his voice booming throughout the lobby while he abuses the cushion. During one session of the European Parliament, he shouted at Van Rompuy: "You have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk. Who are you?" Farage believes that the UK is losing global influence because it's clinging too much to a failing Continent.

Britain's Tea Party Equivalent

Like many small right-wing parties in Europe, UKIP is a movement of radical opportunists who claim that they speak for a large proportion of white lower-middle-class voters. They are fighting to ease the current ban on smoking in pubs and to stop the construction of wind turbines. It is a British version of the American Tea Party movement. Farage's latest battlefield is same-sex marriage, which the Conservatives are currently debating. Cameron says that he intends to introduce legislation this year that would make it legal for gays and lesbians to marry, starting in 2014. The Church of England and Roman Catholics oppose the plan, and 100 Tory MPs say that they will vote against the proposal. Cameron is sticking to his guns, though, and appears much more committed to this issue than to Europe.

Farage takes delight in watching the Tories rip themselves apart. The more divided they are, the better he can stage himself as Britain's savior. The UKIP leader is an aggressively nostalgic figure -- the poltergeist of British politics. This leads many to underestimate him and his party. Farage wants to make UKIP the strongest British party in the European elections in 2014 -- and the way things are looking now, this may not be an entirely unrealistic objective. By contrast, Cameron dismisses Farage and his supporters as marginal oddballs. He once called them "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists." However, this doesn't allow the prime minister to escape the political dilemma that he has stumbled into.

If he wants to appease the Europhobes in his upcoming speech on Europe, Cameron will at least have to set a deadline for a referendum on the EU -- and he will have to decide what the people will vote on: whether Britain will leave the EU, or merely whether voters are satisfied with the government's policy on Europe.

Populist Agenda Ahead

In any case, the backbenchers in his party will only be satisfied if Britain withdraws from the EU. Moderate Tories have long since fallen silent. A balanced approach towards Europe has almost become a stigma. Nevertheless, Conservative MPs like Robert Buckland could add a number of enlightening aspects to the debate.

Buckland represents Swindon, a city 100 kilometers west of London, and home to a number of companies that rely on access to the European market, such as carmaker Honda and computer chip manufacturer Intel. He says it's probable that some of these companies will transfer their production facilities to the Continent if Britain leaves the EU. Buckland is afraid that thousands of workers will lose their jobs. The debate alone on exiting the EU annoys him, he says, because he thinks it's simply absurd.

Meanwhile, Farage is planning ways to win even more supporters. His party's campaigns against wind turbines and gay marriage are just the beginning, he says. His biggest issue this year, he contends, is the possible influx of millions of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants, starting Jan. 1, 2014. Farage promotes the notion of a state that cuts itself off from the outside world and keeps out of people's lives as much as possible on the domestic front. It's a state that has a strong army to protect the lives of its citizens, but doesn't establish quotas for the fishing industry or ban hunting foxes with hounds. He would prefer to have everything as it was in the old days.

After an hour in the lobby, he gets up and lights a cigarette outside. That also annoys him. In an ideal Britain, there would be no ban on smoking.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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