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« Reply #3930 on: Jan 09, 2013, 07:20 AM »

Fake mission to Mars leaves astronauts spaced out

By Ian Sample, The Guardian
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 19:27 EST

As the cheerless skies and grim economy sap all will to return to work, take heart that even on a trip to Mars, it is hard to get out of bed in the morning.

The drudge of interplanetary travel has emerged from research on six men who joined the longest simulated space mission ever: a 17-month round trip to the red planet in a pretend spaceship housed at a Moscow industrial estate.

Though chosen for the job as the best of the best, the would-be spacefarers spent more and more time under their duvets and sitting around idle as the mission wore on. The crew’s activity levels plummeted in the first three months, and continued to fall for the next year.

On the return leg, the men spent nearly 700 hours longer in bed than on the outward journey, and only perked up in the last 20 days before they clambered from their capsule in November 2011. Four crew members suffered from sleep or psychological issues.

“We saw some problems,” said Mathias Basner, of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the effects of sleep-loss on behaviour. “There were no major adverse events, but there could have been if the stars were aligned in a certain way.”

The $10m (£6.2m) Mars500 project, run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems, launched, metaphorically, when the hatch to the mock-up spaceship closed behind three Russians, two Europeans and a Chinese man in June 2010. The men spent the next 520 days in windowless isolation. Their only contact with the outside world was over the internet and by phone lines that carried a delay of up to 20 minutes, to mimic the time it takes radio waves to reach Mars from Earth.

Throughout the mission, the men endured daily medical, physical and psychological examinations, to help space agencies learn how humans cope with the stress, confinement and limited company that astronauts will face on future voyages. The crew fought boredom by watching DVDs, reading books and playing Guitar Hero on a games console. Mission controllers faked a fire and a power outage to keep them alert.

The ESA selected the crew from thousands of highly qualified applicants, and put them through a year of intensive training. But despite embodying “the right stuff” that underpins the astronaut corps, the men struggled with the tedium of the mission.

“The monotony of going to Mars and coming back again is something that will need to be addressed in the future. You don’t want your crew hanging around doing nothing,” Basner said.

On a real mission, sedentary astronauts would be at greater risk of bone and muscle wastage.

According to the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, some crew members fared worse than others. One began living a 25-hour day, and quickly fell out of routine with the others. “If you live on a 25-hour day, after twelve days it’s the middle of the night for you when it’s daytime for everyone else,” Basner said.

Another crew member slept at night but took ever longer naps during the day. Taken together, the two men spent a fifth of their time, or 2,500 hours, asleep when the rest of the crew were awake, or vice-versa. “That cannot be good for mission success, because mission-critical tasks will be scheduled for the day,” Basner said.

A third crew member slept so badly he suffered chronic sleep deprivation and single-handedly accounted for the majority of mistakes made on a computer test used to measure concentration and alertness. “He was falling apart in terms of his attention system,” Basner said. In a second study, not yet published, the team describes a fourth crew member who was developing mild depression.

“Only two of the men adapted well to the mission. Of the other four, there was at least one major reason for concern, where we would ask, should we really send someone like this on a long mission,” Basner said.

For the 17 months of the mission to nowhere the crew had control over the amount of exercise they took, their meals, and the levels of ambient lighting. The right lighting is crucial to keep people on a regular sleep and wake cycle.

Improved lighting to mimic day and night could help some astronauts cope with long missions, but the results point to a need for tests that can spot astronauts who are vulnerable to sleep disorders, Basner said.

Steven Lockley, a neuroscientist who specialises in sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston, said the study raised concerns about long-term space missions.

“Having some of the six crew members with different schedules, and different amounts of sleep, would likely make for poor team performance and increased risk of accidents and injuries in a real-life situation,” he told the Guardian.

Astronauts on a trip to Mars would probably face even worse problems if they spent time on the surface of the planet, because the length of the Martian day is slightly longer than an Earth day. “The deleterious effects on sleep, performance, psychological health and physical health would likely have been much worse had the subjects been required to live on a 24.65-hour day,” Lockley said. © Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #3931 on: Jan 09, 2013, 07:29 AM »

Obama considers leaving no troops in Afghanistan

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 18:12 EST

President Barack Obama would consider a plan for post-2014 Afghanistan that left no American troops in the country, a senior US official said Tuesday, as President Hamid Karzai headed to Washington.

Officials however stressed that Obama, mulling how fast to draw down US soldiers from the country, would not be guided by specific future troop levels, but would decide the fate of the American presence based on strategic needs.

Asked whether Obama would consider a scenario in which all US troops left and there was no residual force in Afghanistan, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor said: “That would be an option we would consider.”

“We wouldn’t rule out any option. We are not guided by the goal of a certain number of troops in the country. We are guided by the objective that the president has set,” Rhodes told reporters.

Obama’s goals are to ensure that Afghanistan’s new national army has the capacity and equipment to defend itself and to ensure that Al-Qaeda cannot make a post-war comeback and again find safe haven.

Ahead of Karzai’s visit, various reports citing US defense sources have put forward a range of possible plans, including the “zero option” for the residual level of the American commitment to Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal reported late last week that the Pentagon had prepared plans for a smaller presence in Afghanistan at the insistence of the White House.

The newspaper said the plans now prepared by the Pentagon call for leaving roughly 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 US troops in the country.

The presence of US troops in Afghanistan after 2014 will also have to be governed by a status of forces agreement, which Obama and Karzai are expected to discuss at their talks at the White House on Friday.

US and international forces anticipate ending combat missions in Afghanistan this year, before moving to a training role with local forces until the end of 2014.


January 8, 2013

In Old Taliban Strongholds, Qualms on What Lies Ahead


LOY BAGH, Afghanistan — The battle against the Taliban in Helmand Province was so fierce two years ago that farmers here say there were some fields where virtually every ear of corn had a bullet in it.

Now it is peaceful enough that safety concerns were an afterthought during this year’s harvest. In districts of Helmand like Marja and Nad Ali that used to be Taliban strongholds, life has been transformed by the American troop surge that brought in tens of thousands of Marines three years ago. Over several recent days, a reporter was able to drive securely to places that in the past had been perilous without a military escort, and many of the roads were better paved, too.

So why, then, was it so difficult to find an optimist in Helmand Province?

In conversations with dozens of tribal elders, farmers, teachers and provincial officials, three factors loomed large: dissatisfaction with the Afghan government, the imminent departure of Western troops and recognition that the Taliban are likely to return. Few expressed much faith in the ability of the Afghan government and security forces to maintain the security gains won by the huge American and British military effort here.

Although some people said they believed that areas near the provincial capital would remain secure, beyond that there was little confidence, and many voiced worries that much of the province would drift back under Taliban control after the NATO combat mission ends in 2014.

Even now, with at least 6,500 Marines still in Helmand after a peak of 21,000 troops last year in Helmand and neighboring Nimroz Provinces, local people say the Taliban have begun “creeping back.” Residents report that threats from nearby militant commanders have increased, and that the Taliban are sending in radical mullahs to preach jihad in the mosques and woo the young and unemployed to their cause.

As fearful as residents may be of a resurgent Taliban, they are also angry at the government for what they see as widespread corruption and hypocrisy. Some of that anger focuses on bribery connected with government services, and some on policies relating to the opium trade, which still thrives here. Helmand is the supplier of more than 40 percent of the world’s opium, according to United Nations statistics, and the poppy crop is still the most profitable one by far. Even farmers who are willing to grow other crops are angry at officials who have eradicated poppy but failed to provide enough help with alternatives. Farmers say some of those same officials profit from the drug trade they profess to be fighting.

“Before the surge, the government in Helmand did not control even a single district,” said Hajji Atiqullah, a leader of the powerful Barakzai tribe in the Nawa district of central Helmand. “They had a presence in the district centers, a very small area, but the Marines cleared many districts, and they expanded the presence of the central government.”

Afghan forces now control his district, he said, but will not be able to hold it unless “the foreigners manage to get rid of corruption in the Afghan government, in the districts and the province levels.”

Local elders fear that many farmers, especially those impoverished by the government’s strict poppy eradication policies, will return to opium cultivation and look to the Taliban or other criminals for protection because the government has not offered them a satisfactory substitute livelihood.

“Before the Marines launched this big offensive, Marja was the center of the opium trade,” said Ahmad Shah, the chairman of the Marja development shura, a group of elders that works with the government to try to bring change here. “Millions and millions of Pakistani rupees were being traded every day in the bazaar. People were so rich that in some years a farmer could afford to buy a car.

“We were part of the eradication efforts by the government, and if they had provided the farmer with compensation, we could have justified our act. But the government failed to provide compensation, and unless it does so, the people will turn against us or join the insurgency and be against development, as they were during the Taliban.”

Part of the government’s rationale for poppy eradication was to starve militants of the opium profits that have been important to their finances. As opium cultivation was pushed away from the centers of the American troop surge, the Taliban made new allies by providing protection for farmers who moved their poppy cultivation to outlying deserts. Over the past few years, militants and opium farmers have increasingly found common cause.

A largely British-financed alternative crop program made significant headway at first in persuading farmers to switch crops, but few farmers could do as well as they had with opium.

Juma Khan, a farmer in Nad Ali, substituted wheat and corn for opium poppies but now cannot make enough to feed his family. That means not only a gnawing in his children’s stomachs but a delay in seeking medical services and marriages for his sons, as well as a feeling of being abandoned by the government.

“When we used to cultivate poppy, I made enough money to have sheep, and we could eat meat whenever we wanted,” said Mr. Khan, 53, standing in the middle of his cornfields in the hamlet of Loy Bagh on an autumn afternoon, stripping kernels from the dried cobs with his six children working beside him. “Now we eat a little meat only once every two weeks.”

He hopes that the government will subsidize cotton, a favorite crop here and one worth more than wheat. But the government would have to create a market by buying the cotton, which so far it has declined to do.

“We feel kind of lost,” he said, gazing bleakly at his fields of dried cornstalks.

Several district officials and tribal elders noted that legal agriculture had received a huge boost from roads paved as part of the American troop surge. The new roads and security have greatly reduced the ability of militants to plant roadside bombs and allowed farmers to take their crops to bigger markets.

Hajji Atiqullah, the tribal leader in Nawa, says the road between his city and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has been life-changing.

“This road will last for many years, and I think people will remember it as one of the biggest contributions of the American Marines,” he said.

Other economic benefits, however, are dwindling as the Western troops leave.

The surge brought jobs for many rural residents. There were small irrigation and construction projects, which are finished now. In Marja alone, about 1,400 people were hired to work for the informal security forces set up by the Marines at the height of the surge, according to elders in Marja. But when the Interior Ministry began to integrate these forces into the Afghan Local Police, they offered places to only 400, said Mr. Shah, the chairman of the development shura.

As the rest find themselves jobless, village elders say, they will turn to whoever will protect them, even if that is the Taliban or criminals.

On a recent day, the commander of the Afghan Local Police unit in Marja, Hajji Asif Khan, was closing down 21 of his outposts because the men had not been accepted into the police contingent approved by the Interior Ministry. Those 21 posts had 100 men, each of whom helped support his family on the monthly $120 salary, Mr. Khan said.

“Now the enemy knows these people, and every one of them is a target,” he said.

One commander, Koko Jan, who had just lost his post in the small hamlet known as Block 5, said he had 70 men a few months ago but now had none. Angry and confused, he railed against the government.

“I will not go to the Taliban, but I will do anything else to feed my family, and I told them I might go to the desert where there is no government and cultivate poppy,” he said.

Western military leaders say lasting security here is up to the Afghan government now, but they sound reserved about its ability to do the job.

“The prerequisite, the foundation of security has been laid by us and by the Afghan National Security Forces,” said Maj. Gen. David H. Berger, commanding general for ground forces in Helmand. “The necessary follow-on step is the governance. The challenge now is for the government to step in and fill that void.”

He added, “It comes down to choices for people in Helmand between what the Taliban have to offer and what the government has to offer.”

The Taliban may be diminished in number and farther from population centers, but they cannot be written off, many Helmand residents said. In the far northern districts of Helmand, only the district centers, if those, are under government control. The rest of the province is mostly under government control, except the vast western desert, which remains dominated by the Taliban.

According to the United States military, the number of violent attacks dropped by 50 percent or more from 2011 to 2012 in the central districts of Marja and Garmsir and the northern district of Sangin. But in most of the north, violence was as prevalent in 2012 as it was in 2011, and sometimes more so.

The Helmand residents know that well, and few believe that the Afghan government can prevail here once the troops and money are gone.

In Nad Ali on a recent morning, members of the district shura, asked what they thought would happen after 2014, smiled knowingly.

“Let’s be honest,” said Mohammed Omar Barakzai, a senior shura member. “The Afghan government is like a generator. The foreigners have provided enough fuel so that it will run until 2014. If they don’t refill the fuel tank, it will stop working.”

Habib Zahori contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.


Hidden casualties of Afghan war: Nomadic farmers adopt more settled life

By Emma Graham-Harrison, The Guardian
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 22:13 EST

Former nomad Gul Mohammad has not taken to a settled life. “I live in a jail now,” the 45-year-old said, gazing out despondently at a livestock market from a breeze-block shed that doubles as a rough tea house. With 11 children his tiny house feels crammed, and the large herd of sheep that once allowed him to eat meat regularly are a fading memory.

Mohammad is a Kuchi, one of about 4 million Afghans whose tribes over centuries pursued a migratory, but often highly lucrative, life, herding caravans of sheep, goats and camels around the country, from warmer lowlands in winter to mountain pastures in summer.

Their black tents, colourful clothes and flocks sometimes hundreds of animals strong have become a classic symbol of Afghanistan. They also make a critical contribution to the country’s economy and lifestyle, producing most of the raw materials for its much loved kebabs and famous carpets.

Yet the nomadic way of life has been rudely interrupted by war. Three decades of conflict have spared few in Afghanistan from upheaval, but Kuchis have been particularly vulnerable. They cannot claim protection from local commanders when the country fragments, because they move between areas.

“Each area fell under the control of one commander, who was king there,” said Talib, who like many Afghans uses only one name and works at a major Kabul livestock market. “Commanders in each area did not care about night or day; they sent soldiers to seize our sheep or cows,” he said, adding that he gave up his tent 10 years ago.

Hundreds of thousands have now settled down, or are petitioning the government for land so they can join a more mainstream way of life. A handful of people, such as Ashraf Ghani, a former presidential candidate, have become powerful businessmen and politicians.

Nearly 1 million others have partly settled, moving for the main change of the seasons, but fixed enough to have some access to schools and medical attention. Many in the government would like to see the remaining million or so who are still entirely nomadic shift to a settled life, because of concerns about widespread exclusion and poverty.

“The life of Kuchis and other Afghans is as different as sky and earth,” said Ezatullah Ahmadzai, former head of the government’s Kuchi independent general directorate.

Yet the Kuchi tradition is appropriate for Afghanistan’s fragile and difficult terrain. Harsh deserts and soaring mountains are threaded with narrow green valleys of cultivated land. Outside the river valleys, thin soil and limited water mean most areas cannot support a large number of grazing animals for more than a few days or weeks.

“With the type of semi-arid and very arid environment you find in Afghanistan, it is nearly impossible to raise livestock in one location because you will damage the vegetation. After a few years it can’t support them any more,” said Mike Jacobs, a rangeland ecologist at Texas A&M university who has been working with Afghanistan’s nomads since 2006. The Kuchi lifestyle, developed over hundreds of years, is an ideal adaptation to these conditions, allowing the country to raise tens of thousands of sheep a year, but limiting grazing in any single area.

A year-long survey of six of the country’s main livestock markets by Jacobs’ Pastoral Engagement, Adaptation and Capacity Enhancement (Peace) programme showed that more than two-thirds of animals sold in Afghanistan are raised by nomads.

But few Afghans, in government or outside it, appreciate that role. “Meat from Kuchis is a very low proportion of what you see in the shops, especially in the winter,” said Sher Ali, 51, who started in the trade aged 10 and owns a shop on Kabul’s butcher street.

His attitude is part of a larger problem of disregard for the Kuchis; although the livestock trade can be highly lucrative, their lack of education and the enforced simplicity of a nomadic life means they are often looked down on as stupid, dirty or backward.

The Kuchis are guaranteed 10 seats in parliament, but official positions are dominated by settled members of the group. Those who still live a nomadic life are marginalised even for a country where millions of people have minimal interaction with the government or any services it provides.

Few have birth certificates or other identity papers, needed for everything from land requests to school registration or medical care. Only four out of 100 Kuchis are able to read at present; many are keen for their children to be better equipped for modern life.

“We worry about our kids, we are like blocks of wood, with nothing in our minds,” said Gul Agha, a 50-year-old elder from a camp of Kuchis petitioning the government in Kabul for land to settle permanently, in part so they can be nearer clinics and schools.

His group of about 75 families have been waiting more than two years in the capital, scraping a living by sorting rubbish for recyclable scraps.

About 18 months ago, they were promised land in nearby Laghman province only to be chased off the site by armed police; five Kuchis were killed in the clash. They returned to Kabul to ask once more for help, camp residents say.

That said, not everyone is keen to leave their tents. The livestock business can be very profitable, and some enjoy the freedom of a wandering life. “If you offered to make me a king, or give me back some sheep, I’d rather have my sheep and my old life with them,” said Malik Durani, 46, who lives in the camp of Kabul petitioners.

Many educated, settled Kuchis dismiss the longing for the traditional way of life as nostalgic sentiment peddled to foreigners, or worse.

“These are businessmen who have part of the market cornered and don’t want competition from other Kuchi,” said Haji Sher Ali Ahmadzai, a member of parliament elected to one of the seats reserved for Kuchi. “Of course it is better to settle down,” he said, waving at his warm, well carpeted office. “In the tents they don’t have a bathroom, a stove, nothing.”

There are serious political and economic concerns about trying to accelerate an enormous lifestyle shift in a country short of land and jobs for its urban population.

Jacobs supports finding permanent homes for those who want to settle down, but warns that a rush to end the nomadic lifestyle of all Kuchis would create problems in a country that has to import a significant amount of food.

“Trying to settle your nomadic populations, you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot, you’re going to have to start importing meat from other places,” Jacobs said.

“Around 70% of the sheep and goats you see in the major livestock markets of Afghanistan comes from the Kuchi, and they only make up about 5% or 6% of the Afghan population. So it doesn’t take a maths whiz to work out that maybe we should find a way to let the people who really want to raise their livestock this way, do that.”

Additional reporting by Mokhtar Amiri © Guardian News and Media 2013
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« Reply #3932 on: Jan 09, 2013, 07:32 AM »

January 8, 2013

Aid Groups for Syrians See Needs Growing More Dire


New signs of deprivation plaguing Syria’s war-ravaged civilians emerged on Tuesday, with the United Nations saying it is unable to feed a million hungry residents in combat zones and aid agencies reporting an outbreak of violence in a large refugee camp in Jordan, where a winter storm felled tents and left many frustrated inhabitants shivering in a cold rain.

Weather forecasters said another storm was threatening Syria and its neighbors with snow on Wednesday.

The World Food Program, the food agency of the United Nations, said that it was providing food to one and a half million people inside Syria this month but that as many as two and a half million needed help, mostly in areas made hazardous by fighting between insurgents and loyalist forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

“Our partners are overstretched, and there is no capacity to expand operations further,” said a World Food Program spokeswoman, Elizabeth Byrs, at the agency’s Geneva headquarters. “We need more implementing partners.”

She also said acute fuel shortages in Syria had delayed food deliveries and contributed to severe inflation in the price of bread because bakeries needed fuel for their ovens. In the contested city of Aleppo, for example, the price of a kilogram of bread is 250 Syrian pounds, or about $3.50, at least 50 percent higher than in other parts of Syria and at least six times more than its cost when the Syrian conflict began nearly two years ago.

The United Nations appealed last month for $1.5 billion in additional aid to handle the growing humanitarian crisis created by the Syrian conflict, which has left at least 60,000 people dead and is threatening to destabilize the Middle East. More than half a million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, and the United Nations refugee agency has forecast a doubling of that number by the middle of 2013.

The most heavily burdened neighbors — Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon — have been persistently calling for more international aid, particularly during the cold winter months.

At the Zaatari refugee camp, which shelters 54,000 Syrians in northern Jordan, fighting erupted Tuesday during food distribution after a night of relentless rain inundated parts of the encampment. The number of injuries was unclear.

A statement by the Jordanian police said two aid workers had been hurt. Save the Children, one of the international groups that help the United Nations refugee agency administer the camp, said 11 people had been hurt, more than half of them Save the Children workers.

“The incident followed a night of heavy storms, during which torrential rains and high winds swept away tents and left parts of the camp flooded,” Save the Children said in a statement.

Mohammed Abu Asaker, a regional spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, acknowledged weather-related problems at the camp, aggravated by a large number of new residents — roughly 9,000 arrivals in the past week.

“It is a difficult situation in the camp,” he said. “There is a frustration from the refugees.”

Ali Bibi, a liaison officer with the refugee agency, said the violence on Tuesday was the latest in a series of at least four clashes among refugees, aid workers and the police in recent weeks.

Melissa Fleming, the chief spokeswoman for the refugee agency in Geneva, said in an e-mail that most of the camp had withstood the rainfall and that aid workers were expediting efforts to move families into prefabricated housing. She attributed tensions among the camp population to “fears of worsening weather conditions, with some families rushing to occupy prefabs out of turn.”

One refugee, who described himself as a colonel in the Syrian Army before he defected, said that even though he was living in one of the prefabricated houses and covering himself with blankets, he could not stay warm.

“The tents are drenched. Kids are crying. Puddles of water are all over,” the refugee, who asked to be identified by only his first name, Mohamad, said in a telephone interview. “I am walking, my shoes are covered with rainwater. I can’t remember being so cold. I don’t even want to think about more than half of the camp living in tents. Something has to be done.”

In Syria on Tuesday, activists reported new violence in the Yarmouk district south of Damascus, a longtime Palestinian refugee encampment convulsed by fighting last month when insurgents temporarily seized control. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition group with a network of contacts in Syria, reported an unspecified number of casualties in the area, as well as shelling by the Syrian military aimed at insurgent pockets in other Damascus suburbs.

In a speech on Sunday, Mr. Assad, whose family has dominated Syria’s politics for four decades, denounced those fomenting the armed uprising against him as foreign stooges, rejected negotiations and instead offered his own plan for political changes, which critics said was meant to keep him in power.

His speech was denounced by the opposition, its Arab and Western supporters, and the United Nations secretary general. On Tuesday, the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former friend of Mr. Assad’s who has since become a strident foe, added his voice to the criticism.

“It is unimaginable to consider suggestions of a person who has killed his people with bombs, planes and shelling as democratic,” Turkey’s semiofficial Anatolian News Agency quoted Mr. Erdogan as saying.

Rick Gladstone reported from New York, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva. Reporting was contributed by Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem; Ranya Kadri from Amman, Jordan; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul.

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« Reply #3933 on: Jan 09, 2013, 07:35 AM »

Yemen says U.S. drone strikes to continue

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 18:10 EST

Yemen’s national security chief said on Tuesday that US drone strikes against Al-Qaeda targets will continue as the two governments keep up their counter-terrorism cooperation.

“The Yemeni-American cooperation, including the use of friendly aircraft, will continue,” Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi told reporters in Sanaa.

“Yemen is one of the countries that joined the international alliance to combat terrorism after the September 11,” 2001 attacks on the United States, he said.

Washington has been stepping up its support for Yemen’s battle against militants of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which it regards as the most active and deadliest franchise of the global jihadist network.

US drone strikes in Yemen nearly tripled in 2012 compared to 2011, with 53 recorded against 18, according to the Washington-based think tank New America Foundation.

At least 14 Al-Qaeda suspects have been killed in Yemen since December 24, when attacks by the unmanned aircraft on targets in Al-Bayda and the eastern Hadramawt province were stepped up.

AQAP took advantage of the weakness of Yemen’s central government during an uprising in 2011 against now ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, seizing large swathes of territory across the south.

But after a month-long offensive launched in May last year by Yemeni troops, most militants fled to the more lawless desert regions of the east.

According to Ahmadi, “terrorist elements of around 13 nationalities took part in killing Yemenis during the past period and have destroyed Abyan province, especially (its capital) Zinjibar which was completely destroyed.”

Around 170,000 people fled Abyan after the militants seized much of the province, he added.

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« Reply #3934 on: Jan 09, 2013, 07:41 AM »

Japan and China step up drone race as tension builds over disputed islands

Both countries claim drones will be used for surveillance, but experts warn of future skirmishes in region's airspace

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing and Justin McCurry in Tokyo
The Guardian, Wednesday 9 January 2013   

Drones have taken centre stage in an escalating arms race between China and Japan as they struggle to assert their dominance over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

China is rapidly expanding its nascent drone programme, while Japan has begun preparations to purchase an advanced model from the US. Both sides claim the drones will be used for surveillance, but experts warn the possibility of future drone skirmishes in the region's airspace is "very high".

Tensions over the islands – called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan – have ratcheted up in past weeks. Chinese surveillance planes flew near the islands four times in the second half of December, according to Chinese state media, but were chased away each time by Japanese F-15 fighter jets. Neither side has shown any signs of backing down.

Japan's new conservative administration of Shinzo Abe has placed a priority on countering the perceived Chinese threat to the Senkakus since it won a landslide victory in last month's general election. Soon after becoming prime minister, Abe ordered a review of Japan's 2011-16 mid-term defence programme, apparently to speed up the acquisition of between one and three US drones.

Under Abe, a nationalist who wants a bigger international role for the armed forces, Japan is expected to increase defence spending for the first time in 11 years in 2013. The extra cash will be used to increase the number of military personnel and upgrade equipment. The country's deputy foreign minister, Akitaka Saiki, summoned the Chinese ambassador to Japan on Tuesday to discuss recent "incursions" of Chinese ships into the disputed territory.

China appears unbowed. "Japan has continued to ignore our warnings that their vessels and aircraft have infringed our sovereignty," top-level marine surveillance official Sun Shuxian said in an interview posted to the State Oceanic Administration's website, according to Reuters. "This behaviour may result in the further escalation of the situation at sea and has prompted China to pay great attention and vigilance."

China announced late last month that the People's Liberation Army was preparing to test-fly a domestically developed drone, which analysts say is likely a clone of the US's carrier-based X-47B. "Key attack technologies will be tested," reported the state-owned China Daily, without disclosing further details.

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Defence Review, said China might be attempting to develop drones that can perform reconnaissance missions as far away as Guam, where the US is building a military presence as part of its "Asia Pivot" strategy.

China unveiled eight new models in November at an annual air show on the southern coastal city Zhuhai, photographs of which appeared prominently in the state-owned press. Yet the images may better indicate China's ambitions than its abilities, according to Chang: "We've seen these planes on the ground only — if they work or not, that's difficult to explain."

Japanese media reports said the defence ministry hopes to introduce Global Hawk unmanned aircraft near the disputed islands by 2015 at the earliest in an attempt to counter Beijing's increasingly assertive naval activity in the area.

Chinese surveillance vessels have made repeated intrusions into Japanese waters since the government in Tokyo in effect nationalised the Senkakus in the summer, sparking riots in Chinese cities and damaging trade ties between Asia's two biggest economies.

The need for Japan to improve its surveillance capability was underlined late last year when Japanese radar failed to pick up a low-flying Chinese aircraft as it flew over the islands.

The Kyodo news agency quoted an unnamed defence ministry official as saying the drones would be used "to counter China's growing assertiveness at sea, especially when it comes to the Senkaku islands".

China's defence budget has exploded over the past decade, from about £12.4bn in 2002 to almost £75bn in 2011, and its military spending could surpass the US's by 2035. The country's first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet model called the Liaoning, completed its first sea trials in August.

A 2012 report by the Pentagon acknowledged long-standing rumours that China was developing a new generation of stealth drones, called Anjian, or Dark Sword, whose capabilities could surpass those of the US's fleet.

China's state media reported in October that the country would build 11 drone bases along the coastline by 2015. "Over disputed islands, such as the Diaoyu Islands, we do not lag behind in terms of the number of patrol vessels or the frequency of patrolling," said Senior Colonel Du Wenlong, according to China Radio International. "The problem lies in our surveillance capabilities."

China's military is notoriously opaque, and analysts' understanding of its drone programme is limited. "They certainly get a lot of mileage out of the fact that nobody knows what the hell they're up to, and they'd take great care to protect that image," said Ron Huisken, an expert on east Asian security at Australian National University.

He said the likelihood of a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese drones in coming years was "very high".

US drones have also attracted the interest of the South Korean government as it seeks to beef up its ability to monitor North Korea, after last month's successful launch of a rocket that many believe was a cover for a ballistic-missile test.

The US's Global Hawk is piloted remotely by a crew of three and can fly continuously for up to 30 hours at a maximum height of about 60,000 ft. It has no attack capability.

The US deployed the advanced reconnaissance drone to monitor damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami on Japan's north-east coast.
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« Reply #3935 on: Jan 09, 2013, 07:45 AM »

January 8, 2013

Tentative Deal Reported in Chinese Censorship Dispute


GUANGZHOU, China — A tentative agreement to defuse a newsroom strike by Chinese journalists over censorship controls in this southeastern provincial capital had been reached by early Wednesday, and some reporters working for Southern Weekend, the newspaper at the heart of the dispute, were told that the paper would publish as usual on Thursday, one journalist in the newsroom said.

“The paper is coming out tomorrow, and the propaganda department is going to hold a meeting with staff about this tomorrow,” said the journalist, who spoke Wednesday on the condition of anonymity. Several other reporters said that details of the agreement remained murky Wednesday morning, and that the deal could fall apart.

Protests over censorship at Southern Weekend, one of China’s most liberal newspapers, had descended into ideological confrontation on Tuesday, pitting advocates of free speech against supporters of Communist Party control, who wielded red flags and portraits of Mao Zedong.

The face-off outside the headquarters of the company that publishes Southern Weekend came after disgruntled editors and reporters at the paper last week deplored what they called crude meddling by the top propaganda official in Guangdong Province, which has long had a reputation as a bastion of a relatively free press.

With a number of celebrities and business leaders rallying online to the liberal cause, senior propaganda officials in Beijing began this week to roll out a national strategy of demonizing the rebel journalists and their supporters. The Central Propaganda Department issued a directive to news organizations saying the defiant outburst at Southern Weekend, also known as Southern Weekly, had involved “hostile foreign forces.”

The order, translated by China Digital Times, a research group at the University of California, Berkeley, that studies Chinese news media, said that Chinese journalists must drop their support of Southern Weekend and insisted that “party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle.”

An editor at a party news organization said the term “hostile forces” had been used in an internal discussion with a senior editor about the Southern Weekend conflict. Several Chinese journalists outside Guangdong said Tuesday that a call by Southern Weekend reporters and editors for the dismissal of Tuo Zhen, the top provincial propaganda official, who took up his post in May, was probably too radical for higher authorities to accept.

The protesting journalists at Southern Weekend blame Mr. Tuo, a former journalist, for ordering a drastic change in a New Year’s editorial that had originally called for greater respect for constitutional rights. The revised editorial instead praised party policies. Mr. Tuo has not commented on the accusation.

Early Wednesday, there was online chatter among Chinese journalists that Dai Zigeng, the publisher of The Beijing News, had balked at an order from the Central Propaganda Department to print an editorial attacking Southern Weekend. A truncated version ran on Wednesday deep inside the paper, and several Beijing News reporters confirmed that Mr. Dai had been uncomfortable with it.

A former editor for the Nanfang Media Group, which includes Southern Weekend, said provincial propaganda officials and disgruntled journalists talked Tuesday in Guangzhou. The talks focused on the journalists’ demands for an inquiry into the New Year’s episode and for the newspaper’s managers to rescind a statement that absolved Mr. Tuo of responsibility for the editorial.

“They want that statement to be removed, and they also want assurances about relaxing controls on journalists — not removing party oversight, but making it more reasonable, allowing reporters to challenge officials,” the editor said. “The other main demand is for an impartial explanation of what happened, an accounting so it won’t happen again.”

Senior Chinese officials have not commented publicly on the censorship dispute at the paper, which could test how far the recently appointed Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, will go in support of more open economic and political policies.

“I don’t believe that Xi is totally hypocritical when he talks about reform,” said Chen Min, a prominent opinion writer for Southern Weekend who was forced out of the newspaper in 2011 during a party-led crackdown on potential dissent.

Defenders of Communist orthodoxy turned up at the newspaper headquarters on Tuesday to make the case for firm party control of the media.

“We support the Communist Party. Shut down the traitor newspaper,” said a cardboard sign held up by one of 10 or so conservative demonstrators.

“Southern Weekend has an American dream,” another sign said. “We don’t want the American dream. We want the Chinese dream.”

Most of the party supporters refused to give their names. One who did, Yang Xingfa, 50, from Hunan Province, said: “Southern Weekend belongs to the people. However, the paper always ignores the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party and asks why China isn’t more like the United States. Outrageous!”

The participants said they had come on their own initiative.

The dueling protests outside the newspaper headquarters reflected the political passions and tensions raised by the quarrel over censorship. Finding a resolution to the standoff poses a challenge both to the central authorities and to Hu Chunhua, the new party chief of Guangdong and a potential candidate to succeed Mr. Xi in a decade.

Hundreds of bystanders watched and took photos on cellphones as the party supporters shouted at the 20 or more protesters who had gathered to denounce censorship, and shoving matches broke out.

One defender of the Southern Weekend journalists was Liang Taiping, 28, a poet who wore a Guy Fawkes mask popularized by “V for Vendetta,” the Hollywood movie and British comic book. Mr. Liang said he had bought the mask after watching the movie recently on state-run China Central Television, which had surprised many Chinese with its willingness to show the film uncut, since the film advocates the overthrow of a one-party dictatorship.

“It’s the only newspaper in China that’s willing to tell the truth,” said Mr. Liang, who added that he had traveled by train about 350 miles from the southern city of Changsha. “What’s the point of living if you can’t even speak freely?”

Edward Wong reported from Guangzhou, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Jonah M. Kessel contributed reporting from Guangzhou, and Jonathan Ansfield from Beijing. Mia Li contributed research from Guangzhou.
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« Reply #3936 on: Jan 09, 2013, 07:55 AM »

January 8, 2013

In Step on ‘Light Footprint,’ Nominees Reflect a Shift


WASHINGTON — With the selection of a new national security team deeply suspicious of the wisdom of American military interventions around the world, President Obama appears to have ended, at least for the moment, many of the internal administration debates that played out in the Situation Room over the past four years.

He has sided, without quite saying so, with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s view — argued, for the most part, in the confines of the White House — that caution, covert action and a modest American military footprint around the world fit the geopolitical moment. The question is whether that approach will fit the coming challenges of stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the potential collapse of Syria.

Gone for the second term are the powerful personalities, and more hawkish voices, that pressed Mr. Obama to pursue the surge in Afghanistan in 2009, a gamble championed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Robert M. Gates, the former secretary of defense. Gone from the C.I.A. is the man who urged Mr. Obama to keep troops there longer, David H. Petraeus.

The new team will include two Vietnam veterans, Senator John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, who bear the scars of a war that ended when the president was a teenager, and a counterterrorism chief, John O. Brennan, who helped devise the “light footprint” strategy of limiting American interventions, whenever possible, to drones, cyberattacks and Special Operations forces. All are advocates of those low-cost, low-American-casualty tools, and all have sounded dismissive of attempts to send thousands of troops to rewire foreign nations as wasteful and ill-conceived.

Most important to Mr. Obama and his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, all three are likely to accommodate themselves, in ways their predecessors often did not, to a White House that has insisted on running national security policy from the West Wing.

“One of the characteristics of this administration has been that decision-making has been centered in the White House,” said Dennis B. Ross, a Mideast expert who left the Obama administration a year ago but never wandered far from some of its key debates. “And most second-term administrations don’t change their sociology.”

But if they grab hold of the national security levers after what many predict will be, for Mr. Hagel and Mr. Brennan, bruising confirmation hearings, they will confront problems that may test whether the light footprint carries enough weight.

“Issues 1 and 2 will be cutting the defense budget and confronting Iran,” said Michael Mandelbaum, a political scientist whose 2010 book, “The Frugal Superpower,” dealt with the challenge of trying to manage the world on the cheap. “And then you will have issues like Syria, which test the question of whether you can manage to control a dangerous situation with no boots on the ground — and unless something dramatic changes, there will be no boots.”

Mr. Hagel, who was both a senator and a cellphone entrepreneur, has long been a critic of Pentagon bloat. But others with business experience, like Donald Rumsfeld, have believed they could bring market discipline to one of the country’s most sprawling enterprises, only to discover that killing off unneeded weapons systems has almost nothing to do with business decisions and everything to do with the politics of Congressional districts and campaign funds.

Mr. Obama’s bet was that by appointing a Republican, he will better his chances of overcoming those obstacles. What he discovered even before announcing Mr. Hagel’s appointment is that the former senator burned many bridges with his Republican colleagues, in part with his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war, despite voting in 2002 to authorize military action, and to the 2008 surge when President George W. Bush was still in office.

“If the president thinks Chuck Hagel can get him the Republican votes to downsize the Pentagon,” said one former senior aide to Mr. Bush, who declined to speak on the record, “I think he is in for a very rude surprise.”

Then there is Iran, which will be a test for all three men, for different reasons. Mr. Hagel has been particularly vocal about the dangers of a military confrontation with Tehran. While both Mr. Gates and his successor, Leon E. Panetta, expressed similar concerns at various points in the first term, Mr. Hagel’s view is considerably to the left of Mr. Obama’s. The president has, gradually, endorsed “coercive diplomacy,” telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March, “As I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”

But Mr. Hagel has opposed unilateral sanctions and suggested that threatening Iran just closes down opportunities for dialogue.

“The key to coercive diplomacy is that the side you are trying to influence is convinced you are willing to follow through on the threat,” said Mr. Ross, who drafted some of those threats. “The president has been clear, but from others there have been mixed messages.”

Mr. Kerry has another challenge: how deeply to wade directly into diplomacy with Iran, if talks begin. Mrs. Clinton almost always let others handle it. One of his allies in the Senate, alluding to the possibility of military conflict, said, “My guess is that you are going to see John Kerry dive in himself, because he knows what the alternative will be.”

Mr. Brennan faces his own Iran challenge: he would inherit the C.I.A.’s project, which he partly oversaw at the White House, to subvert Iran’s nuclear program. The core of that effort was “Olympic Games,” the complex introduction of a cyberweapon into the enrichment plant at Natanz, where Iran made most of its nuclear fuel. But the focus for Mr. Brennan would be the deep underground site at Qum, where Iran is producing the fuel that is closest to bomb grade. And, much as he began to give speeches justifying how America uses drones, he would face growing pressure to explain how the United States uses offensive cyberweapons — weapons it has never acknowledged possessing.

But the hardest test of the light footprint strategy may come in Syria. It is where the specter of the Iraq war, and Vietnam before it, most haunts the discussion. While Mr. Obama made a passionate case on humanitarian grounds in 2011 for the American intervention in Libya — done from the air, and with drones — there is no serious consideration of doing the same in Syria, where the United Nations estimates that 60,000 have died.

Mr. Kerry, Mr. Brennan and Mr. Biden are all of a view that the United States has no way to get into Syria and, if it got in, no way to get out.

“But the president has also said that Assad must go,” Mr. Mandelbaum noted, referring to Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. “And we’ve worried about whether, if he does go, we get another Afghanistan-under-the-Taliban. The dilemma here is that you have no hope of controlling events unless you invest in boots on the ground, and that’s what the president has made clear we’re not going to do.”

That problem, like slowing the Iranian nuclear program or taking out Al Qaeda’s cells in Mali, may fall into the lap of Mr. Brennan at the C.I.A. Because for all the talk of demilitarizing the intelligence agency — reducing its role in conducting strikes, and going back to stealing secrets and analyzing intelligence — at the end of the day Mr. Obama’s favorite way to use force is quickly, secretly and briefly.

January 8, 2013

For 2 Nominees, Vietnam Bred Doubts on War


Between them, Senator John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have five Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in Vietnam, shared a harrowing combat experience in the Mekong Delta and responded in different ways to the conflict that tore their generation apart. But in nominating one as secretary of state and the other as defense secretary, President Obama hopes to bring to his administration two veterans with the same sensibility about the futilities of war.

Mr. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who is the president’s choice for the State Department, came home from commanding a Swift boat in Vietnam to throw away his military decorations in a protest at the Capitol, accuse American troops of systematic atrocities and tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Mr. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who is the nominee for the Pentagon, returned home thinking of the war as justified and did his best to put it behind him. “I wanted a life,” he later said. Mr. Hagel eventually turned against the leadership of the war — “I can’t fathom that this country would allow something like that to happen, 16,000 young men killed in one year,” he told Vietnam magazine, a history publication, in October — but not its warriors. Today he is the chairman of the Pentagon’s advisory group for commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

Supporters of Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel say that despite their different responses, their combat experience has had the same effect, making them question the price of American involvement overseas.

“I have some pretty strong feelings that those who have been to war are the best to keep us out of it,” said Max Cleland, a former Democratic senator from Georgia who lost three of his limbs fighting in Vietnam. “They have felt the wounds of war, physically, mentally and emotionally. They bring to the table all that they need to bring, and that is that wars are disastrous.”

To Mr. Obama, the lessons Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel took from combat were crucial in his decision to name them.

“Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction,” the president said on Monday as he announced his selection of Mr. Hagel. “He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.”

In announcing his nomination of Mr. Kerry last month, Mr. Obama said that “having served with valor in Vietnam, he understands that we have a responsibility to use American power wisely, especially our military power.”

If confirmed, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel would be among the very few Vietnam veterans to reach the top of the national security hierarchy. (Colin L. Powell, a former secretary of state and national security adviser, served two tours in Vietnam.) Mr. Hagel would be the first person who was an enlisted soldier to run the Pentagon, which Mr. Obama called “historic.”

The views of Mr. Hagel and Mr. Kerry make them highly compatible with a White House that is almost certain to push for a more rapid withdrawal of the remaining 66,000 American troops in Afghanistan than the military command would like. “The reason we are losing Afghanistan is that it wasn’t ours to win or lose,” Mr. Hagel told Vietnam magazine. “After 10 years in Afghanistan, what are we going to have when we get out? What have we done here?”

Like Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel voted for the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq but became an early opponent of the Bush administration’s execution of the war.

Friends say it is fitting that Mr. Hagel, who was awarded two Purple Hearts, is in line to run the Pentagon, while Mr. Kerry, who was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, is headed for the State Department. “They sort of ended up where you’d think they’d end up,” said Jan C. Scruggs, the founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, who knows both men.

In 1971 testimony at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Vietnam, Mr. Kerry heatedly told of American servicemen who “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads” and committed many other atrocities. He later said he regretted some of his language that day, and it came to haunt him as the Democratic nominee for president in 2004 when a group of Swift boat veterans, still outraged by his remarks, tried to undercut his military record.

“Kerry turned against the military as an institution in a way that Hagel never did,” said Christopher Gelpi, a professor at Duke University who has studied the attitudes of military leaders on how and when wars should be fought. “My view is that the whole Swift boating thing was unfair, but it reflected a level of animosity between him and the military that was left over.”

Mr. Hagel, Dr. Gelpi said, has been more typical of veterans who became disillusioned with the war because of the decisions made by political leaders.

Mr. Hagel, now 66, arrived in Vietnam as an Army infantryman in December 1967 and was soon serving near the Cambodian border in the same infantry squad as his younger brother Tom. In March 1968, the squad hit a tripwire in the jungle that set off a huge mine, sending body parts flying and shrapnel into Chuck Hagel’s chest. Tom Hagel stanched the bleeding and bandaged his brother, a favor Chuck returned in April, when the brothers’ troop carrier, with Tom in the turret, hit another mine.

Mr. Hagel worked frantically to pull his unconscious brother from the wreckage, knowing that the carrier might soon explode. Both brothers’ eardrums were blown out, Mr. Hagel’s face was badly burned, and the two were taken by medevac to a field hospital.

Over the decades, Mr. Hagel’s support for the war began to fade, but what changed him most, he has said, was hearing taped telephone calls, made public in the 1990s, of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 confiding that he saw the war as pointless. “The dishonesty of it was astounding — criminal, really,” Mr. Hagel said in 2007. Ultimately, Vietnam powerfully influenced his opinions about war.

“I’m not a pacifist — I believe in using force, but only after following a very careful decision-making process,” Mr. Hagel told Vietnam magazine. “The night Tom and I were medevaced out of that village in April 1968, I told myself: If I ever get out of this and I’m ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.”

Mr. Kerry, now 69, arrived in Vietnam as a Navy lieutenant in November 1968 and was soon commanding a Swift boat, a 50-foot aluminum patrol craft. The boats chugged up the rivers of the Mekong Delta in aggressive nighttime incursions to destroy Vietcong outposts and disrupt supply lines.

A few months later, in an engagement for which he won the Silver Star, Mr. Kerry beached his boat in a firefight, chased a teenage Vietcong fighter who had aimed a rocket launcher at the crew and “shot him while he fled,” according to the official after-action report. In a 2004 interview about his conduct in combat, Mr. Kerry said, “Anybody who tells you they’re not scared in combat is not telling you the truth.”

Two weeks after the firefight, Mr. Kerry rescued an Army Special Forces lieutenant who had been thrown out of a nearby boat. For that he was awarded the Bronze Star.

“You don’t want a bunch of people whose only understanding of war is from some issue paper,” Mr. Cleland said. “John and Chuck have the same jaundiced view of jumping into war when we don’t need to be there.”


Brennan on Key Issues

John O. Brennan was the top counterterrorism adviser during President Obama’s first term. Mr. Brennan, 57, played a central role in the oversight of Mr. Obama’s use of targeted killing of suspected terrorists using drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. He became one of the president’s most trusted advisers. Here are some of his statements on key issues.

Torture and "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques"

“Well, the C.I.A. has acknowledged that it has detained about 100 terrorists since 9/11, and about a third of them have been subjected to what the C.I.A. refers to as enhanced interrogation tactics, and only a small proportion of those have in fact been subjected to the most serious types of enhanced procedures ... There have been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists. It has saved lives. And let's not forget, these are hardened terrorists who have been responsible for 9/11, who have shown no remorse at all for the deaths of 3,000 innocents.” – "The Early Show" on CBS, Nov. 2, 2007


“I think it is certainly subjecting an individual to severe pain and suffering, which is the classic definition of torture. And I believe, quite frankly, it's inconsistent with American values and it's something that should be prohibited. But I think Judge [Michael B.] Mukasey is in a very difficult position right now as the attorney general nominee, to be asked whether or not this is torture. And if torture, then, is unconstitutional or illegal, they’re asking whether or not waterboarding is illegal and whether or not the individuals, which includes the president and others–if it was used, who authorized and actually used this type of procedure may be subject to some type of judicial action.” – "The Early Show" on CBS, Nov. 2, 2007


“The United States is the first nation to regularly conduct strikes using remotely piloted aircraft in an armed conflict. Other nations also possess this technology, and any more nations are seeking it, and more will succeed in acquiring it. President Obama and those of us on his national security team are very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of those nations may — and not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians.

If we want other nations to use these technologies responsibly, we must use them responsibly. If we want other nations to adhere to high and rigorous standards for their use, then we must do so as well. We cannot expect of others what we will not do ourselves. President Obama has therefore demanded that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards, that, at every step, we be as thorough and as deliberate as possible." – Speech before the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, April 30, 2012

Warrantless Wiretapping

“When it comes to individuals who are determined to destroy our nation, though, we have to make sure that we take every possible measure. It's a tough ethical question, and it's a question that really needs to be aired more publicly. The issue of the reported domestic spying — these are very healthy debates that need to take place. They can't be stifled, because I think that we as a country and a society have to determine what is it we want to do, whether it be eavesdropping, whether it be taking actions against individuals who are either known or suspected to be terrorists. What length do we want to go to? What measures do we want to use? What tactics do we want to use?

“Hopefully, that "dark side" is not going to be something that's going to forever tarnish the image of the United States abroad and that we're going to look back on this time and regret some of the things that we did, because it is not in keeping with our values.” – PBS “Frontline” Interview, March 8, 2006
Closing Guantánamo

“Congress has not made this easy. And so what we're trying to do is to make sure we do this responsibly. The president said he is going to close it down. He has continued to be determined to do that. But we have to do it in a manner that does not put the safety of the American people in jeopardy, but also in a manner that we can bring justice to those people.

We'll work with the Congress. We'll continue to have ongoing discussions with them. And I'm hoping certainly one day that the people in Guantánamo will no longer be there.” – CNN’s “State of the Union,” April 29, 2012

Al Qaeda

“Their capability has been degraded significantly. We have taken off the battlefield the founding leader as well as other leading operatives. We have degraded their infrastructure. Their capability to train. Their capability to deploy operatives. So their capability has been degraded. Our defenses have increased. But that doesn't mean we can rest. And we're not going to rest until Al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa and other areas. We're determined to do that.” – ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” April 29, 2012


Hagel on Key Issues

Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, was elected to the Senate in 1996 and retired in 2008. A Vietnam veteran, he was best known as the most outspoken Republican critic of President George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq. Following are some of his recent statements on issues he is likely to confront if he is confirmed as secretary of defense.

“We've got to understand great-power limitations. There are so many uncontrollable variables at play in Syria and the Middle East. You work through the multilateral institutions that are available, the U.N., the Arab League. The last thing you want is an American-led or Western-led invasion into Syria.” – Interview with Foreign Policy, May 2012

“The United States will remain committed to defending Israel. Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.” – Senate floor, July 31, 2006, in reference to Israel-

Hezbollah war in Lebanon

“The two options – attack Iran or live with a nuclear-armed Iran – may be eventually where we are. But I believe most people in both Israel and the United States think there's a ways to go before we get to those.” – Interview with Foreign Policy, May 2012


“We are far more likely to live peacefully and influence China if we are bound by strong economic ties and mutual geopolitical interests.” – E.N. Thompson Forum, Nov. 10, 2010
Iraq and Afghanistan

“We’ve got to get out of those wars. Let the people decide what they want. If they don’t want what we wanted for them, or if they certainly don’t want what we wanted for them as much as we want it, then we can’t control that.” – Interview with The Financial Times, Aug. 29, 2011

Cyber Threats

“Cyber is a huge issue, that cyberwarfare dimension which we are just now just getting our arms around, as other nations are. If you concentrate on that arena of warfare, you can completely paralyze a nation. You can paralyze power grids; you can paralyze financial services; you can stop a country; you can paralyze computers on ships. I think the greater threat to all of us is going to be directly a dagger at the heart of economic interests, and certainly I would start with cyber. All the other threats are still going to be there — nuclear proliferation, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and all the things we're dealing with today. But, in the end, we can deal with those; we can manage those; we can work our way through those. The big issues are things like cyber, that's where we've really got to pay attention. It's not like sending one army against another. You're not going to win that by having a bigger navy that the other guy's navy. You need big navies, you need strong security, but you need so much more now today to protect our economic interests, which are our vital security interests." – PBS Interview, "Great Decisions in Foreign Policy," May 2012
'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and Gay Rights

Mr. Hagel faced criticism for remarks he made as a senator that an openly gay man nominated for a diplomatic post should not represent the United States, but he recently issued an apology: “My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive. They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any L.G.B.T. Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to L.G.B.T. military families.” – Hagel Apologizes About Remarks Against Gay Diplomat, Dec. 21, 2012
Potential Pentagon Cuts After Fiscal Deadline

“Well, no American wants to in any way hurt our capabilities to national defense, but that doesn’t mean an unlimited amount of money, and a blank check for anything they want at any time, for any purpose. Not at all. Not at all, and so the realities are that the mess we’re in this country, with our debt and our deficits, and our infrastructure and jobless and all the rest, is going to require everybody to take a look, even the Defense Department, and make a pretty hard re-evaluation and review. ... The Defense Department, I think in many ways has been bloated. Let’s look at the reality here. The Defense Department has gotten everything it’s wanted the last 10 years and more. We’ve taken priorities, we’ve taken dollars, we’ve taken programs, we’ve taken policies out of the State Department, out of a number of other departments and put them over in Defense.” – Interview with The Financial Times, Aug. 29, 2011

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« Reply #3937 on: Jan 09, 2013, 07:58 AM »

Hugo Chávez fights for life as supporters pray in Venezuela

Three months after crowds celebrated another election triumph for the president, the mood in Caracas is transformed

Jonathan Watts and Virginia Lopez in Caracas
The Guardian, Friday 4 January 2013 19.21 GMT      

The change of mood in Plaza Bolivar could hardly be more dramatic. Less than three months ago, jubilant crowds filled the main square in Caracas to celebrate another election triumph for Hugo Chávez with chants of "Oo, ah, Chávez no se va" – Chávez won't go.

Now, however, supporters wait anxiously for any scrap of news from Havana, Cuba, where their president is fighting for his life after emergency cancer surgery.

"We are all very confused. We have no idea what to expect. I pray for his recovery but I am expecting the worst," said Joaquín Cavarcas, as he scanned the Ciudad CCS newspaper for the latest update.

Next Thursday, Chávez is supposed to be inaugurated for a further six-year term of office at a ceremony at the National Assembly, a short walk from the plaza. But the usually gregarious, publicity-loving president has not been seen or heard since his operation on 11 December, prompting speculation that he will not recover in time.

In the latest in a series of grave bulletins, the government said on Thursday that the president was suffering from complications brought on by a severe lung infection after surgery. Aides earlier described his condition as "delicate". The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, said it was painful to see his close political ally in this state. "The situation for our brother Hugo Chávez is very worrying," he said.

With information scarce, rumours abound. Spain's ABC newspaper claimed the president was in a coma and kept alive by a life-support system. Social networks are abuzz with speculation that he is already dead.

Ministers and ruling party officials have lined up to deny such reports. Venezuela's vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, has told the country to ignore "enemy" rumours of Chávez's imminent demise. On Friday, he accused ABC of being funded by the extreme right which had backed General Franco's "despicable regime" in Spain.

On the streets, nobody is giving up on Chávez, but there is a growing resignation that he will not attend his swearing-in as scheduled.

"We must wait for him to recover and then swear him into office," said Ruben Daza, a newspaper vendor. "I don't think he'll be back next week. The assembly will have to decide what to do in the meantime, but he is the president and we must wait for his return."

Posters hanging from street lamps show Chávez alongside his daughter pointing down on a sea of supporters with a caption: "Now, more than ever, we are with Chávez."

But questions remain over the legal status of the president-elect if he fails to show up for his inauguration. The constitution stipulates the need for a new poll if the president dies or suffers permanent physical or mental disability before inauguration. Article 233 notes: "When there is an absolute absence of the president-elect before taking office, there shall be a new election by universal, direct and secret vote within the next 30 consecutive days."

Until the vote, the interim president should be the head of the national assembly. He is Diosdado Cabello – a former military officer and old ally of Chávez and head of a faction within the ruling camp. If there were an election, he would be likely to run the government, while another ruling party figurehead, Maduro, would campaign for a six-year term.

In his last public broadcast before leaving for Havana, Chávez urged Venezuelans to vote for Maduro if he became incapacitated.

However, other scenarios are possible. The constitution also states that the president-elect can take the oath of office before the supreme court, which is packed with Chávez appointees. Whether he could do this in a foreign hospital is uncertain.

According to Nicmer Evans, a professor of political science at the Central University of Venezuela, only a medical team approved by the supreme court can determine if Chávez is unable to govern. For now, Evans says, the president has not resigned so his absence cannot be considered absolute. If he is unable to be sworn into office, Evans thinks the government could call for a provisional "junta" or the supreme justice could declare Chávez's absence temporary, allowing Maduro to stand in for 90 days or until a medical team declares otherwise.

If Chavéz is incapacitated merely in the short term, Jose Ignacio Hernandez, a law professor at the Central University of Venezuela, said the outcome that would best represent the will of the people would be for the head of the National Assembly – Cabello – to temporarily assume power. This is possible under the constitution for a 90-day period, which can be extended for a further 90 days if the assembly approves.

Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank in Washington DC, said a postponement of the swearing-in ceremony was increasingly likely.

"It is hard to imagine that he will be inaugurated on the 10th," he said. "I think they will just try to put it off and figure out what to do – whether to do it later or call elections."

This, he said, was likely to strengthen the hand of the ruling party and put pressure on an opposition that already appears divided over the correct interpretation of the constitution.

Riding a huge wave of emotion, Maduro would then be likely to win any election. His problems, however, would begin once he took power and started to address some of the tough financial and social problems facing Venezuela while trying to maintain unity in a ruling bloc.

"There is clearly going to be a power struggle within Chavismo," said Shifter. "Cabello is head of a rival faction and in a strong position. He is a crafty guy and he has been waiting a long time. He will follow Chávez's wishes for now, but it's unclear how long that will last, especially if the armed forces end up playing an important role."

Maduro and Cabello have both been at Chávez's bedside this week. When they returned to Venezuela on Thursday, they dismissed rumours of a rift as an opposition ploy.

"We're more unified than ever," said Maduro. "We swore in front of Commander Chávez that we will be united at the side of our people."

For many of his supporters, it is unimaginable that anyone could fully replace Chávez, who has dominated the nation's politics for 14 years. But even if their worst fears are realised, they say Chávez's legacy will endure.

"I want President Chávez to come back, I've prayed for his health from the beginning, but at this point I've lost all hope. I think the president of the assembly should take over and call for elections in the next 90 days and may the best man win. It's what the constitution says," said Sixto Zambrano, a retired soldier.

"I've always liked Chávez, since the day I saw him as a young man speaking in the barracks, but I've seen how cancer goes and one cannot go against that."

"No one has his charisma," Cavarcas said. "There will be no leader like him. No one comes close to him, but the revolution and Chavismo won't end. As long as there are one or two of us left to take this forward, this process will continue."
Succession plan

In the event of an "absolute absence" by the president elect, Venezuela's constitution stipulates that elections must be held within 30 days and the interim president should be the head of the national assembly.

That post is currently held by Diosdado Cabello, a former army officer who joined Chavéz in a failed 1992 coup that led to both of them being jailed. The experience cemented their friendship and a political alliance that propelled them to power, with Cabello serving as the president's chief of staff and in a number of ministerial posts.

If he becomes interim president, it would be his second time as a top-level stop-gap. Cabello took the reins for a few hours after Chavéz was detained in a 2002 coup by the opposition. His electoral record is patchier. From 2004 he served as governor of Miranda state, but lost in a re-election bid against Henrique Capriles – the most likely opposition candidate if a presidential election were to be held.

Despite reports of a rift inside the ruling coalition between a military faction led by Cabello and a civilian faction headed by the vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, the two have worked together for many years and stressed their unity this week. It is likely that both would respect Chavéz's wish for Maduro to be the ruling party candidate if a presidential election has to be held.
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« Reply #3938 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:01 AM »

Anger grows in Hungary over anti-Roma article

Justice minister adds voice to condemnation of ruling party founder Zsolt Bayer's remark that 'Roma are animals'

Associated Press in Budapest, Tuesday 8 January 2013 18.07 GMT   

Outrage has been growing in Hungary over an anti-Roma article written by a founding member of the ruling Fidesz party.

Describing a New Year's Eve bar brawl in which several people were seriously injured and some of the attackers were reportedly Roma, Zsolt Bayer said "a significant part of the Roma are unfit for co-existence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals and they behave like animals."

His commentary in Saturday's Magyar Hirlap newspaper criticised the "politically correct western world" for advocating tolerance and understanding of Roma, who comprise 7% of Hungary's 10 million people and are often among its poorest and least educated citizens. Roma are also known as Gypsies.

The justice minister, Tibor Navracsics, condemned the article, but a Fidesz spokeswoman said it would not take a position on an opinion piece.

Opposition parties said authorities must decide whether Bayer should be prosecuted for incitement against a minority, and urged Fidesz to expel him. If that does not happen, opposition groups say, they will stage a protest on Sunday outside Fidesz headquarters.

Bayer, who also has written columns that have been criticised as anti-Semitic or racist, served as the Fidesz press chief in the early 1990s. He is one of the main organisers of the Peace March, events in support of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government that have drawn huge crowds over the past year.

On Tuesday, Bayer said in another column in Magyar Hirlap that his words had been willfully distorted and his only intention was to "make something happen" with the Roma issue. "I want order," he wrote. "I want every honourable Gypsy to get on in life in this country, and for every Gypsy unable and unfit to live in society to be cast out of society."

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« Reply #3939 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:04 AM »

01/08/2013 06:11 PM

Amateur Hour at the SPD: Merkel Challenger Steinbrück Fails to Find His Feet

Germany's Social Democrats had hoped that former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück could topple Chancellor Angela Merkel in this year's elections. But his campaign has thus far been characterized by a series of damaging blunders. Support from within his own party is beginning to crumble. By SPIEGEL Staff

He doesn't stride up to the lectern. In fact, he doesn't look at it at all, shunning it as though it were the enemy. Peer Steinbrück sticks one hand into his trouser pocket, shifts his weight back and forth from his left to his right foot, and says: "If I stood behind it, I might make a remark that I would have to take back afterwards."

It's Friday evening, and he is standing in a concert hall in the northern German town of Emden, where he is set to give a stump speech ahead of the Jan. 20 state elections in Lower Saxony. The audience laughs at his remark, knowing full well what he means: Steinbrück has developed a reputation for putting his foot in his mouth. This time, though, his speech came off without any mishaps.

These days, that qualifies as news. Once Chancellor Angela Merkel's respected finance minister in the dark days of the crisis, he has since become the Social Democrats candidate to dislodge Merkel from the Chancellery in elections this autumn.

"He can do it," former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said in October 2011, a quote SPIEGEL used on its cover page at the time. But now one word in that sentence has changed, from "can" to "can't." It's become a real possibility that perhaps the SPD made a mistake when it selected Steinbrück to carry its torch.

Rarely has a candidate gotten off to such a bumpy start, and rarely has a candidate been so controversial within his own ranks as Steinbrück. On the Sunday before last, he managed to make two significant gaffes in one single interview with the Sunday paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. First, he said that he found the chancellor's salary too low, thus creating the impression that he is hoping to improve his own future income. Second, he claimed that current Chancellor Angela Merkel has a "female bonus," even though many women justifiably assume that they are in fact at a disadvantage in professional life.

It was not the first slip-up, and once again SPD members were left shaking their heads in disbelief, as were politicians from the Green Party, the SPD's favored coalition partner. Meanwhile, their political opponents were happily exchanging high-fives.

This week, Steinbrück has found himself in the headlines again. According to the business daily Handelsblatt, Steinbrück, as a member of ThyssenKrupp's supervisory board, offered last January to provide political support should the company launch an initiative aimed at achieving lower electricity prices for industry. Steinbrück was a member of the board from January 2010 until the end of 2012 and was also a member of German parliament during that time.

Days of Peace Are Over

The SPD, not surprisingly, is beginning to wonder whether Steinbrück is the right candidate for the chancellorship. It starts with Chairman Sigmar Gabriel, who was measured in his comments on Steinbrück in a SPIEGEL interview. But in the candidate's own camp, aides have long noticed that what Gabriel is saying off the record isn't nearly as congenial.

So much resentment has built up that some prominent party members are already publicly berating Steinbrück. Erhard Eppler, a former cabinet minister and later a leading thinker in the SPD, says: "The aphorism: 'Becoming chancellor isn't difficult, but being chancellor is,' applies to some politicians. But in the case of Peer Steinbrück, it seems to be the other way around." The left wing of the party, which has long feuded with Steinbrück but had been loyal to him since October, intends to keep a very close eye on him in the future. The days of peace in the SPD are over.

Some members of the Green Party have also had enough. The party's parliamentary group -- the same people with whom Steinbrück hopes to form a coalition government -- has been especially critical. Parliamentarian Ulrich Schneider tweeted his "Wish for 2013: That the SPD quickly realizes that Steinbrück will never become chancellor, and soon stops backing a dead horse!"

Steinbrück has thus far seemed unimpressed by the criticism. He insists on his right to say what he has to say -- though it has begun looking as though he has even greater ambitions, as though he aims to challenge the entire political system. It is generally accepted that the higher a politician rises on the political ladder, the more guarded he or she must be. Steinbrück, however, wants to be able to speak freely. He takes an emotional approach to politics, one that he is determined to preserve, even though it could cost him the candidacy.

The party kept quiet in late 2012, even as the gaffes mounted. Party leaders defended him and the rest merely kept silent. But now that the election year has begun, the SPD's patience has run out. The consternation over his most recent mistake pervades all wings of the party and all SPD state organizations.

Bizarre Behavior

After the interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, hardly any top politician was willing to stand up for Steinbrück, with only General Secretary Andrea Nahles assuming the role of public defender. Even Steinbrück's supporters are speechless about his poor judgment in making such remarks publicly, especially at a time like the Christmas holidays, when there typically isn't much else in the news. "The deliberate traps in this interview should have been recognizable," says Rolf Mützenich, the foreign-policy spokesman of the SPD parliamentary group.

The left wing of the party is especially disappointed. It has long been irritated by the candidate's bizarre behavior but has said nothing. They are also critical of Steinbrück's seeming unwillingness to further policy demands that are central to the SPD's left, a concern that many had even when the former finance minister was chosen to represent the party. After the interview on the chancellor's salary was published, senior left-wing leaders called each other to discuss their frustrations -- and they decided to break their silence and to publicly criticize Steinbrück.

The group has called a meeting for the beginning of February in Berlin to consider Steinbrück's progress. "I expect that the SPD's message become clear on issues such as the labor market, pensions and on climbing rents," says Jan Stöss, SPD head in the city-state of Berlin.

Steinbrück hadn't expected to be Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger. After he and the SPD were voted out of government in the fall of 2009, he stopped leading a serious political life. He was still a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, but he seemed to devote more of his energy to writing a book and giving speeches, for which he was paid handsomely. He wasn't living the way a high-ranking representative of the SPD should live, but rather the way private citizen Steinbrück prefers to live. Even after receiving Schmidt's endorsement, he didn't shape his life to conform to his ambitions. He was now a gambler who had chosen a high-risk approach.

Pinot Grigio and the SPD's Soul
Yet when he became the SPD's candidate, he was suddenly the center of attention, and soon his secondary sources of income became an issue. He had collected €1.25 million ($1.64 million) in speaking fees between November 2009 and July 2012. One fee seemed particularly objectionable: €25,000, for a roughly one-hour speech, paid by the public utility in the cash-strapped city of Bochum in the industrial Ruhr region.

Steinbrück eventually decided to utter a few words of regret about the Bochum case. Otherwise, though, he insisted that everything had been perfectly legal, and then proceeded to accuse the media of hyping the issue. He seemed not to understand that the SPD still wants to represent the working class and that some of its voters might find it unfair that men like Steinbrück are paid a lot of money for little work, while they are paid little money for a lot of work. A few explanatory remarks certainly would have helped, but Steinbrück brusquely rejected such demands as an imposition. It had all been completely above reproach, and that was that, he said.

But that wasn't that. In early December, he cheerfully said: "I wouldn't buy a bottle of Pinot Grigio for only €5." The connoisseur with exquisite taste isn't exactly a standard role in the world of Social Democrats.

In the wake of this string of gaffes, it seemed odd for Steinbrück to be telling the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, on Dec. 30, that the German chancellor's salary is too low, as if he were making sure that he would never have to drink a bottle of Pinot Grigio for less than €20. Indeed, in the first weeks of his candidacy, Steinbrück has given the impression that money means a great deal to him -- and that he has but little sympathy for the concerns of people with low incomes.

Never Forgive Him

Nobody, of course, expected Steinbrück to be a flawless Social Democrat. He has long tended to be obtuse when it comes to social issues. Steinbrück is a fiscal policy expert by nature and has often found himself at odds with lawmakers who focus on social policy, because they need budget resources for their programs. Furthermore, Steinbrück has always been a big supporter of the far-reaching welfare reforms passed under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The reforms have since fallen into disrepute in his party, but Steinbrück has called them "one of the greatest political achievements of the postwar era." Many SPD social policy experts will never forgive him for that remark.

Most of all, Steinbrück has an eye for economic issues. Indeed, his entire disposition places him more squarely in the camp of employers than that of workers.

There isn't anything objectionable about this, of course. It does, however, make his path to the Chancellery, a path that he must tread with the full support of the SPD, that much more difficult. Fairness remains one of the party's biggest issues and he has to represent the interests of SPD voters in a credible way, which requires incorporating their desires and sensitivities into his message. In this respect, he hasn't found the right balance. He is still the candidate of the Steinbrück party, not of the SPD. This is as egocentric as it is unprofessional.

In short, the situation could hardly be worse after three months. How does the SPD expect to win an election with a candidate who alienates a large share of his party, consistently trips over his tongue and is engaged in a subtle feud with the party chairman?

Waiting for the Next Gaffe

Steinbrück's candidacy isn't quite on the rocks yet, but the party will not support his candidacy forever. Jan. 20, when Lower Saxony elects a new state parliament, is an important date. If the SPD loses ground in that election and fails to regain power, the chatter will only increase.

Given Steinbrück's temperament and defiant nature, his gaffes could very well continue. At the moment, hardly anyone feels confident in victory, although it is possible, depending on how many of the smaller parties capture seats in the Bundestag.

In their defeatist hours, leading Social Democrats sometimes make a leap forward in time. Instead of focusing on the 2013 election, their thoughts turn to 2017. By then, the current governor of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, will be ready for a candidacy. She is already the most popular SPD politician among voters, though she declined to run this time around, and party members see her as a woman who can embody the heart of the center left.

For now, it seems likely that the party will stomach Steinbrück until the end of this election campaign. But what about him? Will Steinbrück stomach the SPD much longer? He is an impulsive and sensitive person, and he would certainly not tolerate every act of blasphemy or disloyalty. But that point hasn't been reached yet. Steinbrück wants to keep going and keep on talking. Which means that it is only a matter of time until the next gaffe hits the headlines.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #3940 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:08 AM »

01/09/2013 10:43 AM

Opposition in Berlin: Cyprus Bailout Could Fail in German Parliament

The urgently needed bailout of the Cypriot banking industry is in danger of being vetoed by the German parliament. The opposition Social Democrats say they are leaning towards voting no, according to a media report. With Chancellor Merkel unable to rely on her own majority, that could be bad news for Cyprus and for the euro.

Optimism has been in no short supply in the euro zone in recent weeks. Before the new year, both European Commissioner Olli Rehn and notoriously circumspect German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said they believed that the worst of the euro crisis had passed. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso joined the chorus late last week.

But for crisis late-comer Cyprus, the worst is almost surely still to come. Even more concerning for the Mediterranean island nation, Germany's opposition Social Democrats (SPD) now say they are considering voting against a badly needed aid package for the country. And the Green Party is skeptical too. With Chancellor Angela Merkel no longer able to rely on her own parliamentary majority to push through euro-zone bailout packages, help for Cyprus may not be forthcoming.

"As things currently stand, I can't imagine German taxpayers bailing out Cypriot banks, whose business model depends on abetting tax fraud," SPD head Sigmar Gabriel told the Süddeutsche Zeitung in comments published Wednesday. "If Ms. Merkel wants SPD support for a Cyprus aid package, she will have to have excellent arguments. At the moment, however, I don't see what those might be."

The SPD is not alone in its concern over the planned aid package for Cyprus. Other euro-zone capitals and many in Brussels are likewise wary of propping up the banking industry there due to its having become a favorite destination for money from Russian oligarchs. The country is widely seen as a tax haven.

'Not Russian Oligarchs'

Marcus Ferber, a leading German conservative in the European parliament, told the Süddeutsche that he too is skeptical. He is demanding a guarantee "that we are helping the citizens of Cyprus and not Russian oligarchs."

The Cypriot banking industry has run into recent trouble in part due to the huge quantities of Greek debt on its books. It is also much too large for Nicosia to bail out on its own; banks in Cyprus hold assets worth some €150 billion ($196 billion) against a Cypriot gross domestic product of just €18 billion in 2011. Currently under discussion is a €17.5 billion ($23 billion) package which, relative to the country's GDP, would be the euro zone's largest yet.

Euro-zone finance ministers are now set to approve the emergency aid on Feb. 10 following a delay in late December over demands from the International Monetary Fund that the package be accompanied by a debt haircut. Merkel has said that she will not move forward with aid for Cyprus without IMF participation. The delay meant that Cyprus was forced to borrow €250 million from the pension funds of state-owned companies to remain solvent into early 2013.

Changing the Subject

Even if euro-zone finance ministers do approve an aid package for Cyprus in February, the German parliament must sign off on it. Yet with elections in Germany looming this autumn, the Social Democrats have become less willing to follow Merkel's euro strategy. Furthermore, widespread concerns surrounding massive Cypriot bank deposits from Russian oligarchs as well as accusations that the country doesn't do enough to combat money laundering would seem to provide the SPD with an attractive opportunity to finally detach itself from Merkel's crisis management strategy.

Furthermore, it would allow SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück to distract attention from his growing collection of gaffes following a rocky start to his candidacy.

Though Merkel has a parliamentary majority, the number of conservatives who regularly dissent on euro-zone aid package votes has grown throughout 2012. Were the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party (which votes against aid on principle) to all dissent on aid for Cyprus, Merkel's majority would be in serious danger.

As would the Cypriot economy.
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« Reply #3941 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:10 AM »

EU-funds: Spending still hard to control

8 January 2013
De Standaard Brussels   

Despite all the promises of transparency, European funds are still being used improperly by companies and member states, while fraud and misuse remain difficult to detect and rarely punished.
Filip Rogiers

Around €7m from the European Social Fund (ESF) was spent by a handful of multinationals in Poland on providing extra training for their own employees. These funds were really intended for small and medium-size businesses and not for people already in employment and certainly not for managers. The funds were supposed to be used primarily to help poorly educated and long-term unemployed people to get a foothold on the job market.

Dutch newspaper Trouw, which highlighted the improper use of European funds this weekend, named a number of household names, such as ING, Unilever, Philips and BGZ, Rabobank's Polish subsidiary, in connection with the problem.

The level of misuse is sometimes astonishing. The article includes a quote by Grzegorz Gorzelak from the Centre for European Regional and Local Studies in Warsaw, saying "everyone seems to be out to make a quick buck. We organise completely pointless training courses. Money is spent on albums, business cards, cd covers, mugs, toys, chocolates and memory sticks.”
€1.6m to build a cigarette factory

Reports on the improper use of European funds are nothing new. Two years ago the Financial Times newspaper in cooperation with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism presented the results of a detailed investigation that revealed that European programmes for the development of deprived European regions “lie idle under red tape”.

When detected, fraud and misuse were rarely punished. At the time the newspaper also cited multinationals such as IBM, Fiat and H&M. The company, British American Tobacco, raked in €1.6m of support for the construction of a cigarette factory. According to Italian police around €1.2bn in European funds ends up in the hands of the Mafia every year.

As Bart Staes, an MEP for the Greens and member of the Committee on Budgetary Control explains, “The misuse concerns not only money from the three major European Structural Funds, which is intended for regional development employment and social cohesion. Agricultural subsidies are also frequently not used for what they are intended.”

Last year the European Court of Auditors discovered large plots of “permanent grazing land” in Italy and Spain for which subsidies had been issued, but which in reality were wooded areas or the location of other “elements which were not eligible for subsidies”. The Dutch airline company KLM was even more creative. It received a subsidy worth €600,000 for its in-flight catering under the category “export of agricultural products”.
Naming and shaming

As Staes clarifies, “The problem is not always one of fraud. For example, was it really a good idea to use money from the European Regional Development Fund to rebuild the streets around the city of Antwerp?” The European Parliament's Committee on Budgetary Control has already been working for seven years to increase the transparency and control over European funds. The problem is that the European institutions themselves are incapable of monitoring the correct use of the many billions made available.

In the multi-year budget for 2007-2013 the three Structural Funds alone were allocated no less than €347bn, which represents around a third of the total EU budget. Add to this the agricultural subsidies and the amount involved is more like three quarters of that budget.

The member states are responsible for managing these funds and for using them to supplement their own investments. In that respect they have a substantial degree of autonomy. This is something the European commission is well aware of. According to the “Blunder Book”, the commission acknowledges that there are “considerable weaknesses in some areas such as rural development, cohesion and research”.

As Staes adds, “Over the years, national and regional administrations have gradually started to regard the funds as their own, rather than European money. As a consequence there is little supervision. The European Court of Auditors calculated that in 70 per cent of the misuse cases discovered during their audits, the member states should have been perfectly aware that the money was not being used in precisely the correct way.”

In 2010, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which advocated a policy of “naming & shaming”. However previous attempts to implement such a policy failed due to legal objections. Accused parties can simply take the matter to the European Court of Justice, which adopts a strict approach when it comes to protecting privacy. At the end of last year the European commissioners for social policy, regional policy and agriculture promised to join forces at the beginning of this year to ensure that the policy could be implemented.
500m Europeans under the poverty line

In the meantime the European Parliament's Committee on Budgetary Control has itself proposed that finance ministers of the member states should be held responsible.

Up to now only four member states have expressed support for the proposal. These are Sweden, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Staes adds, “It is no coincidence that these are the more Eurosceptic members of the UK.”

Incidentally, the crisis may cause even more member states to start viewing Europe as cash cow. In the words of Staes, “There may be an increased temptation to try and access European funds.” At the moment the crisis is creating holes at a faster rate than the European Structural Funds can repair them. Last month Eurostat calculated that almost a quarter of the 500 million members of the European population were living at or under the poverty line in 2011. “More than 27 per cent of children in the EU are facing the risk of poverty or social exclusion,” was the conclusion of Laszlo Andor, the Hungarian European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

Poland: Abuses by multinationals

The European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, László Andor, will be asking the Polish authorities to account for their use of grants from the European Social Fund (ESF), reports Trouw. On January 5, the newspaper revealed that some multinationals in Poland had used funds originally earmarked for SMEs and for promoting employment in disadvantaged areas.

According to Trouw –

    At least half of the €300m paid out so far by [the ESF] has gone to pay for internships in stock-exchange listed companies and in multinationals. ING, Unilever and Philips, as well as Mercedes Benz, BMW, Renault, Heinz, EDF, Nestle, Pepsi Cola and Deutsche Bank have received training courses for their managers. The ESF budget of €75bn for the 2007-2013 period is meant to “promote employment in the EU.” Poland is the biggest beneficiary, receiving €10bn. Most of the organisations benefitting from the money are local authorities, employment centres and NGOs, who use it for training courses, the fight against youth unemployment, reintegration into the labour market, the fight against poverty, and for integrating minorities.

The newspaper quotes Roman Stolarski, director of a training office in Warsaw –

    When the program began in 2005, the money from Brussels was three times more than what the market for training courses in Poland could absorb. The money has to be spent, and that's easier to do with large projects than small ones. A training course inside a big company gathers in a lot of participants in one fell swoop, but the paperwork is the same as it is for a small business.

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« Reply #3942 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:13 AM »

Eurozone unemployment hits new high

Jobless rate jumps to 11.8% as data lays bare continued discrepancies between nations in single currency region

Phillip Inman, economics correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday 8 January 2013 19.05 GMT   

Unemployment in the eurozone hit a fresh high in November after the jobless rate jumped to 11.8%, illustrating the difficulties faced by officials in Brussels seeking to show the bloc is on the mend.

The news came as Ireland's deputy prime minister warned that Britain's possible exit from the European Union is now the "big challenge" facing Europe.

Official figures from Eurostat showed that the number of unemployed in the struggling 17 member currency union jumped to 18.8 million. Across the wider European Union, the unemployment total hit 26 million for the first time out of a working population of almost 230 million. The unemployment rate for the 27 member EU remained at 10.7%, the same as in October, but up from 10% a year ago.

The European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, argued in an upbeat speech on Monday that the currency union had put the worst behind it and no longer faced an existential crisis – but Tuesday's unemployment data laid bare the continued discrepancies between different nations.

The unemployment situation is particularly dire in southern European countries where the situation has become entrenched, especially among the under 25s. Youth unemployment in Italy rose to an all-time high above 37% in November, while Greece and Spain registered rates above 50%.

Economists have forecast unemployment will keep rising. Tom Rogers, senior economic adviser at Ernst & Young, said he expected the rate to hit 12.5% by early 2014 "as eurozone businesses and households remain wary and governments continue to cut back".

Laszlo Andor, the EU's employment commissioner, warned that record unemployment and fraying welfare systems in southern Europe risk creating a new divide in the continent.

"A new divide is emerging between countries that seem trapped in a downward spiral of falling output, fast rising unemployment and eroding disposable incomes and those that have so far shown good or at least some resilience," he said.

Last year had been "another very bad year for Europe in terms of unemployment and the deteriorating social situation," said Andor.

The biggest rise in unemployment over the past year took place in Greece, where joblessness soared to 26% in September, up 7.1 percentage points over September 2011's 18.9%. But the highest overall rate in the EU was in Spain, where 26.6% of the workforce was jobless in November.

Austria, however, posted the lowest unemployment rate in the EU, at 4.5%. The rate in Germany was 5.4%, with 7.8% in Britain and 10.5% in France.

Meanwhile, Ireland's deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, criticised David Cameron's idea of renegotiating the UK's relationship with Brussels. Speaking at an event to mark the start of Ireland's presidency of the European Union, Gilmore said: "This is not going to work if we have 27 different categories of membership." He added that Britain leaving the EU, a scenario dubbed "brexit", had replaced Greece leaving the euro as the continent's biggest potential challenge.

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« Reply #3943 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:15 AM »

01/09/2013 01:55 PM

Euro-Crisis Hope: Confidence in European Banks Is Returning

By Stefan Kaiser

There is cause for hope in southern Europe. New numbers indicate that trust is returning to banks located in countries that have been hit hardest by the euro crisis, a trend triggered by ECB head Mario Draghi. But even as discrepencies in the Continent's Target2 payment system shrink, danger still lurks.

The turning point came almost exactly four months ago. On Sept. 6, 2012, 22 men gathered on the 36th floor of the European Central Bank building in Frankfurt to reach a momentous decision on the Continent's common currency. The euro, said ECB President Mario Draghi at the press conference following the meeting, is "irreversible." To save it, he added, his bank would undertake unlimited purchases of sovereign bonds should it become necessary.

Since then, an amazing thing has happened. Although the ECB has yet to embark on any such bond shopping sprees, countries such as Italy and Spain, at risk of being engulfed by the crisis, no longer have to pay the horrendous interest rates they did in the middle of 2012. Furthermore, the massive imbalances that have recently plagued the European banking system have shrunk, if only slightly.

As recently as the summer of 2012, investors and those with savings accounts in crisis-stricken countries were moving their money out as quickly as they could. Billions of euros were withdrawn from accounts in Greece and Spain and banks in stable countries such as Germany put a cap on the amount of money they were willing to lend business partners in countries hit hardest by the euro crisis.

But since last autumn, this trend has come to a stop. Indeed, the most recent numbers indicate that a slight reversal is underway, with ECB statistics showing that deposits in Spanish and Greek banks have recently ticked upwards. Furthermore, Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, reported this week that imbalances in Europe's so-called Target2 settlement system, in which euro-zone central banks and the ECB transfer money across the common currency union, have declined. As the euro crisis progressed, the system had become massively imbalanced, which could result in massive losses for countries such as Germany should Greece, for example, be forced to exit the euro zone.

Cause for Hope?

Just prior to the ECB's massive intervention on the bond markets in August, 2012, the Bundesbank had Target2 claims worth €751 billion ($981 billion). But by the end of December, they had sunk to €656 billion. The imbalance is still dramatic, but the trend reversal provides cause for hope, particularly because it is mirrored by falling debts at the other end of the transfer system. Taken together, the combined Target2 debts owed by Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland shrank from €989 billion at the end of August, 2012 to €902 billion at the end of October. More current data is unavailable.

When the Target2 system is healthy, accounts balance out and the discrepancies, such as they are, tend to be close to zero. And that is how things actually looked until 2007. But as the crisis took hold, the balances of those euro-zone countries suffering the most under the crisis began to drift apart from those, like Germany, that remained largely untouched, a phenomenon first noticed by German economist Hans-Werner Sinn.

The imbalances were the direct result of both savers and investors pulling their money out of the euro-zone's crisis-stricken member states. Furthermore, because banks in the better-off countries of northern Europe were increasingly skeptical about doing business with their southern European cousins, financial institutions in Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere became increasingly dependent on money borrowed from the central banks in their home countries. Such credits show up in the Target2 balance -- and are also reflected in the claims held by central banks in stable members of the common currency area.

Crisis Not Yet Overcome

The reversal of the dangerous trend has many breathing a sigh of relief. "Trust is returning," says an investment banker at a bank in Germany. "Spanish banks are once again receiving investor money." Nevertheless, the trader noted, most financial institutions in crisis-stricken countries remain cut off from the interbank lending market. "Such business is still being conducted via the ECB."

Even Draghi's biggest critics are not denying that the ECB president's plan to buy unlimited amounts of sovereign bonds is largely responsible for the improvements. The announcement "calmed the markets and initiated the trend reversal," economist Sinn, who is president of the Ifo Institute in Munich, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Fresh liquidity with affordable interest rates is flowing to southern Europe. That reduces the Target2 imbalances."

Nevertheless, Sinn is not prepared to count the phenomenon as an ECB success story. On the contrary: "The markets have been calmed because new ways have been found to make taxpayers in those European countries that are still healthy liable," Sinn says. He is not just referring to the bond purchases that could be undertaken by the ECB -- purchases that taxpayers are ultimately liable for. Rather, he is also referring to new rules allowing the crisis backstop fund, the European Stability Mechanism, to provide aid directly to banks.

"The debt crisis is eating its way ever further into the budgets of Europe's core countries," he says. "But policymakers are celebrating the obfuscation of this fact as a success."

In other words, Sinn does not believe that the crisis has yet been overcome. The risks have merely been shifted.
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« Reply #3944 on: Jan 09, 2013, 08:22 AM »

January 7, 2013

Chinese Safety Concern Empties Distant Shelves


SYDNEY, Australia — A surge in sales of one of Australia’s most popular brands of infant formula has led to an unusual sight for this wealthy nation: barren shelves in the baby aisle and even rationing of baby food in some leading retail outlets.

But the run on formula is not the result of a local baby boom. Instead, it is being attributed to Chinese visitors, who are apparently concerned about domestic food safety standards and are believed to be buying in bulk and carrying it home.

The run is one of the odder examples of how China’s thirst for high-quality products can upend faraway consumer markets, particularly amid concerns about the quality of its food supply.

A number of recent high-profile scandals involving tainted food products in China have shaken public confidence in the safety of domestic supplies. In 2009, two Chinese milk producers were executed for selling contaminated milk powder after infant formula and other products were found to have the industrial chemical melamine. Six children died and about 300,000 became ill, provoking a nationwide panic among parents.

Last June, China’s biggest milk producer, the Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group, was compelled to recall six months’ worth of production.

With about 16 million births a year, China is one of the world’s largest markets for baby food and infant formula, representing around 23 percent of the $41 billion global market, according to a recent study published by Euromonitor International, a research firm in London.

Concerns about the safety of domestic supplies have led to a sharp rise in demand for imported formula among urban middle-class households, sending prices of foreign brands soaring in Chinese supermarkets. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the retail price of a 28-ounce package of imported formula is 290 to 350 renminbi, or $46 to $56 — about 50 percent higher than most domestic brands.

Hoping to stem the loss of market share to foreign competitors — and perhaps to reap the higher margins on foreign milk — some Chinese producers are investing in plants overseas. One of China’s leading makers of baby formula, Synutra International, announced plans in September to invest about $130 million in a new milk-drying plant in the western French region of Brittany that will be operated by Sodiaal, a French dairy cooperative.

The plant, which is expected to open in 2015, will produce around 100,000 tons of “high-quality” whey and milk powder a year exclusively for Synutra, the company said.

With Chinese visitors to Australia reaching record numbers in 2012, local merchants say it is common for these travelers to stock up on formula.

“This has been happening for maybe five years,” Edward Karp, who owns Pyrmont Pharmacy in Sydney, said in an interview. “Their pilots and their flight attendants used to stay at the hotel in the other block, and they used to come in and buy cartons of baby formula to take back home for their family and friends. They used to come in in their uniforms with the trolleys, put the bags on the trolleys, and off to the airport they’d go.”

The phenomenon is not unique to Australia. Mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong, for example, have put such pressure on formula supplies that retailers routinely limit purchases to four cans per customer, analysts say. Thousands of Chinese households are also placing international orders for formula online, either directly or through friends and relatives living overseas.

The shortages in Australia are primarily limited to the Karicare Aptamil Gold brand of formula, which is produced by a New Zealand-based subsidiary of the French food-product giant Danone. It remains unclear why that brand is in greater demand than others, but Australia’s leading supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths, acknowledged this week that they were struggling to meet demand.

A spokeswoman for Woolworths, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with company policy, said that while the chain had not instituted formal rationing, it would restrict the amount that customers may buy at any one time.

“Woolworths is not a wholesaler; we reserve the right to limit the number of identical products any one customer can buy during a single visit,” the spokeswoman said in an e-mailed response to questions. “While there is no specific limit set, our stores are encouraged to use a common-sense approach to ensure stock is only sold in retail quantities.”

Alistair Bradley, the general manager of Nutricia, which produces the formula at its New Zealand factory, told the newspaper The Australian on Friday that the company was struggling to keep its products on the shelves, despite having increased production to 20,000 tons from 5,000 in 2012 to cope with growing domestic demand.

“This, coupled with food safety concerns overseas, has generated an unexpected increase in demand for Karicare and Aptamil formula,” he said. “We are currently not always able to ensure that adequate amounts.”

In Perth, on Australia’s west coast, Richard McWatt, the manager of the Superchem Family Pharmacy, said by telephone that a customer had called him on Thursday to buy 100 cans of the formula. Similar stories have been reported in the Australian news media, although it is unclear how the products are being taken out of the country without the imposition of export duties.

“Some families will buy six tins at a time and send it back to their home country, but never that many at one time,” Mr. McWatt said.

Some of the purchases, though, could be the result of hoarding by residents fearful of shortages.

Nicola Clark contributed reporting from Paris.
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