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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1084301 times)
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« Reply #4380 on: Feb 04, 2013, 07:37 AM »

February 3, 2013

Official Says Iran Is Open to New Round of Nuclear Talks


MUNICH — Iran’s foreign minister said Sunday that his country was open to a renewed offer of direct talks with the United States on its nuclear program and that it looked favorably on a proposal for a new round of multilateral nuclear negotiations on Feb. 25 in Kazakhstan.

But the Iranian official, Ali Akbar Salehi, does not have the power in the Iranian system to decide these matters on his own, so his comments were viewed by European and American officials as more atmospheric, intended for the trans-Atlantic audience at the Munich Security Conference, than definitive.

Mr. Salehi called a restated offer here for direct talks with Washington, expressed Saturday by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., “a step forward” and said, “We take these statements with positive consideration.”

But Mr. Salehi quickly added that “each time we have come and negotiated, it was the other side, unfortunately, who did not heed” its commitments. And he complained to the Iranian news media of “contradictory signals” from President Obama and “the threatening rhetoric that everything is on the table,” including military means to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.

“This does not go along with this gesture” of direct talks, Mr. Salehi said, “so we will have to wait a little bit longer and see if they are really faithful this time.” Having negotiated in the past with Washington over Iraq, he said, Iran had no “red lines.”

Similarly, Mr. Salehi said he had “good news,” responding to the proposal by the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, of another round of negotiations with Iran run by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. She suggested that they take place Feb. 25 to 26 in Kazakhstan.

Iran has regularly delayed such meetings, which the six powers had hoped to restart in December, and then in January, with arguments over location and timing.

Iran is represented in nuclear talks by Saeed Jalili, who is designated as the “personal representative” of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is the ayatollah who will decide matters on the nuclear issue, and who will certainly decide whether Tehran opens direct talks with the United States, which he regards as being intent on overturning the Islamic Revolution in Iran, American officials said. Mr. Jalili is in Damascus meeting with officials from the Syrian government, which Iran is supporting with arms, fuel and cash.

Mr. Biden said bluntly in response to a question on Saturday that Washington was prepared for bilateral talks with Iran “when the Iranian leadership, supreme leader, is serious.” Mr. Biden added that the offer of talks “stands, but it must be real and tangible, and there has to be an agenda that they are prepared to speak to. We are not prepared to do it just for the exercise.”

Ms. Ashton’s spokesman, Michael Mann, noted that she has been proposing various dates and locations to Tehran since December, “so it is good to hear that the foreign minister finally confirmed now.” But he added, “We hope the negotiating team will also confirm.”

Iran has played hard to get on the nuclear issue, say Western diplomats involved with the talks, and since 2009, Mr. Jalili has regularly refused offers to meet separately with the American negotiator in the multilateral talks, who is now Wendy R. Sherman, the under secretary for political affairs in the State Department.

In the last round of talks, in Moscow in June, Iran insisted that the world powers lift all sanctions against Tehran as a precondition for substantive talks on reducing or eliminating Iran’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium. The six powers have argued that Iran must first comply with Security Council resolutions, demanding that it halt enrichment and satisfy the International Atomic Energy Agency that it does not have a nuclear weapons program. Iran has also refused the agency access to various sites in Iran.

Mr. Salehi also met with the leader of the Syrian opposition, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, who repeated his offer here of talks with representatives of the government of President Bashar al-Assad under certain conditions. Iran and Russia are Mr. Assad’s two most important allies and suppliers, and Mr. Salehi and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, called Sheik Khatib’s suggestion “a good step forward.” Mr. Salehi said that Iran would talk to anyone and that “we are ready to be part of the solution” in Syria.

And Mr. Lavrov told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass on Sunday that Sheik Khatib’s proposal was “a very important step, especially since the coalition was created on the basis of categorical rejection of any talks with the regime.”

But Sheik Khatib’s offer has produced fierce criticism from his own coalition, which has demanded that Mr. Assad step down before any talks.
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« Reply #4381 on: Feb 04, 2013, 07:42 AM »

February 3, 2013

Pentagon Expects U.S. to Retain Presence in Afghanistan


WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top civilian and military officials on Sunday expressed an expectation, even a desire, that American troops would remain in Afghanistan after the NATO mission ends in December 2014, although they emphasized that no decision had been made.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States would sustain a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, and they cited a decision by the NATO heads of state during a summit meeting last year in President Obama’s hometown, Chicago, that long-term support for Kabul would include military assistance.

“In Chicago, we also said that we’re committing to an enduring presence,” Mr. Panetta said. “And I believe that the president of the United States is going to do everything possible to implement the Chicago agreements.”

During joint appearances on the NBC News program “Meet the Press” and the CNN program “State of the Union,” Mr. Panetta and General Dempsey sought to define and defend an 11-year-old mission in Afghanistan whose objectives have become fuzzy in the minds of many Americans. Mr. Obama is weighing how rapidly to withdraw the remaining troops and considering how many to propose leaving there after 2014.

In advance of the Washington visit last month by President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, some White House officials said one option would be to leave no troops behind, though some viewed those comments as a negotiating tactic. Kabul and Washington must agree on any American military presence after the conclusion of the NATO mandate.

Some sticking points remain, including a Defense Department demand that American service personnel receive immunity from prosecution in Afghanistan, with any misconduct to be adjudicated under the Pentagon’s Uniform Code of Military Justice, not Afghan law. The Departments of Defense and State also sought, but failed to secure, a similar agreement to leave a sizable training and advisory force in Iraq after the end of combat there.

“No one has ever suggested zero to me,” General Dempsey said, referring to the number of postwar troops in Afghanistan, although he stressed that “the decision on numbers hasn’t been made yet.”

Pressed to define the mission in Afghanistan, General Dempsey said it was “to establish a secure and capable Afghanistan that can govern itself and ensure that Al Qaeda never again establishes a safe haven in that country.” He argued that coalition forces have diminished the Taliban’s capabilities. “Violence has gone down,” he said. “We’re also developing an Afghan Army that has increased its operational skill to provide security.”

Mr. Panetta expressed confidence that President Obama’s choice to succeed him, former Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, would be a strong defense secretary, despite a bitterly partisan confirmation hearing last week in which Mr. Hagel stumbled over some answers. General Dempsey noted that several important security issues — like Afghanistan, where 66,000 American troops are at war — were nearly absent during a full day of Senate questioning of Mr. Hagel.

Mr. Panetta criticized the agenda pursued by some senators in their questioning of Mr. Hagel. He said, for example, that not enough attention had been paid to the Pentagon budget and what would happen if automatic budget cuts, called sequestration, go into effect as scheduled on March 1.

He said that if a fiscal deal was not reached to stop those cuts, the armed forces would be weakened and less able to respond to global crises.

“There are members up on the Capitol Hill that are saying, ‘Oh no, we’re going to stand back and let sequester happen,’ ” Mr. Panetta said. “Let me tell you, if sequester happens, it is going to badly damage the readiness of the United States of America.”

He said the cuts required under sequestration would “go right at readiness, right at maintenance, right at training.”

“We are gonna weaken the United States and make it much more difficult for us to respond to the crises in the world,” he said.

General Dempsey said that sequestration cuts would be only part of the limits on military spending. He noted that the Defense Department is now operating under a continuing resolution on its spending, and he estimated that total cuts in the last half of the fiscal year could reach $52 billion.


Hamid Karzai says security in Helmand better before British troops arrived

Afghan president questions effectiveness of west's intervention before talks with David Cameron and Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari. Watch the interview at

• Exclusive Guardian interview with Hamid Karzai

Emma Graham-Harrison   
The Guardian, Sunday 3 February 2013 23.00 GMT   

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has questioned whether western troops were "fighting in the wrong place" during their decade-long mission in Afghanistan, saying security was better in southern Helmand province before the arrival of British forces.

Speaking exclusively to the Guardian and ITV News in London, Karzai said he was unclear if western forces were leaving Afghanistan because they felt they had achieved the aim of making their own countries more secure by tackling international terror groups – or because they had realised the mission was mistaken.

"They feel fulfilled with regard to the objective of fighting terrorism and weakening al-Qaida, or they feel that they were fighting in the wrong place in the first place, so they should discontinue doing that and leave," Karzai said in an interview ahead of trilateral talks with David Cameron and the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari.

The man who has led Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 said the greatest long-term threat to the country was not the insurgents but meddling by foreign powers. He did not name Pakistan, but he has long been a strident critic of the neighbouring country, which has provided sanctuaries for the Taliban for years, and his government has accused Islamabad's military intelligence of manipulating the insurgents.

The trilateral meetings follow moves by Pakistan to build confidence, such as the release of several batches of Taliban prisoners whom Kabul wanted freed. They have raised hopes of progress towards substantive Afghan peace talks, which would be almost impossible without Pakistani support.

Karzai said: "There will not be peace in Afghanistan by having an agreement only between us and the Afghan Taliban. Peace will only come when the external elements involved in creating instability and fighting, or lawlessness in Afghanistan, are involved in talks." He added that he was more optimistic than a year ago that extensive behind-the-scenes contacts between his government and the Taliban would bear fruit, as relations with Pakistan improved.

"Britain's role at this point is highly valued in the pursuit it has for the peace process in Afghanistan and bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan together in a close dialogue for improved relations," Karzai said.

As a pullout for the Nato-led mission draws closer, the focus on peace talks is gaining ground. All forces must be gone by the end of next year but hopes that Afghanistan would be relatively secure by then have been abandoned. The country is still plagued by widespread instability, and the Afghan police and army will face a tough fight against the Taliban.

Karzai admitted that it was utopian to think the government could survive without some western military and financial aid after the main Nato mission ends.

Afghans were not concerned whether the west felt it had succeeded or failed in their country, Karzai said, because they were focused on trying to recover from 30 years of war. He expects fighting to diminish after most foreign troops have gone, however, as their departure would remove a grievance that drove many fighters to take up arms.

"The exit of foreign forces will not bring more violence for them to perpetrate against their own people, but a serious, strong, good reduction in violence will occur," Karzai said, adding that he thought Helmand had been more peaceful before tens of thousands of US and British troops arrived to fight the Taliban in 2006.

Karzai was quoted as telling an official in 2008: "The question is why do we have Taliban controlling these areas now, when two years ago I had control of Helmand … we had girls in schools and only 160 foreign troops."

Asked about those comments, and whether he felt the substantial international presence had helped the area, Karzai paid tribute to the sacrifices the Nato-led troops had made and said it was not clear why violence had risen, but stood by the statement.

"Factually, what I said then was true, and it remains true today.

"In 2002 through 2006, Afghanistan had a lot better security. When we had our own presence there, with very little foreign troops, schools were open in Helmand and life was more secure," he said.

"But I am not going to blame, and it should not be seen as such. I don't want to be interpreted as saying that the arrival of foreign troops brought less security or worsened security for us. Whatever happened was the past, and now we are looking forward to the future."

The president has long opposed the presence of foreign troops in Afghan towns and villages, but he said it was critical that some stay on in large bases.

The US is considering leaving a few thousand troops in Afghanistan, probably bolstered by soldiers from Nato allies, to hunt groups linked to al-Qaida in the wild area around the Pakistan border and provide more training to the shaky Afghan security forces.

But the Obama administration has also said it is considering removing all troops, dubbed the "zero option", which Karzai warned could be disastrous for Afghanistan.

"Zero option would be a failure, not success," Karzai said.

"We wish to have that utopian state of mind, that's the ideal. Why wouldn't I – or why wouldn't any citizen of a country – want no troops on our side?"

"[But] Afghanistan needs to rebuild itself … For that we need the presence of the international community with us, our allies."

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« Reply #4382 on: Feb 04, 2013, 07:44 AM »

Burma government and Kachin rebels hold peace talks

Latest round of negotiations comes as Kachin Independence Army loses key positions near its headquarters in Laiza

Kate Hodal in Rangoon, Monday 4 February 2013 11.56 GMT   

Ethnic Kachin rebels have begun peace talks with the Burmese government in China after recent intense fighting saw the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) lose key positions around its headquarters in Laiza, northern Burma.

Senior negotiators from each side arrived in Ruili, a city on the Chinese border with Kachin state, including Aung Min, a high-ranking minister in the office of Burma's president, Thein Sein, and the KIA's second-in-command, General Gun Maw. The general was absent from earlier peace discussions in October, a move seen as a significant blow to the Burmese army.

Monday's negotiations were also attended by other ethnic rebel groups in Burma, among them Karen and Shan leaders, as well as representatives from the Myanmar Peace Centre, an EU-funded government body that mediates conflict between the Burmese government and the country's ethnic groups, Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network told the Guardian.

The meeting is expected to be the first of many negotiations after 11 rounds of previous peace talks ended without solution.

The KIA, which has been fighting for nearly 50 years for greater autonomy, has repeatedly refused to sign a ceasefire deal until a political agreement is made with the Burmese government. It is the only ethnic group that has not yet signed a peace deal with Thein Sein's administration.

Heavy fighting between the KIA and Burmese army resumed in July 2011 after 17 years of ceasefire, and is regarded as a serious setback to the economic and political reforms Thein Sein has instituted since taking power. The most violent skirmishes between began in December, when the Burmese army launched heavy artillery and air strikes, and for the first time in five decades used fighter jets and helicopter gunships against guerilla outposts.

Although Thein Sein called for a ceasefire in January, it was almost immediately ignored by the army, raising questions on how much power the president has over the military, which ruled the country for nearly 50 years until a quasi-civilian government was established in 2011.

The Chinese government is central to the mediation between the KIA and Burmese government as China, which shares a border with Kachin state, houses a significant number of Kachin refugees who have fled the fighting. Four mortars fired by the Burmese army also landed on Chinese soil last month.

Whether the peace talks will stop the continued fighting remains to be seen. The latest negotiations came just one day after the Burmese government shelled rebel outposts near Laiza, Khon Ja said, as well as across other parts of the state.

Rights groups say nearly 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, with an unknown number of casualties.

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« Reply #4383 on: Feb 04, 2013, 07:46 AM »

February 3, 2013

Reformers Aim to Get China to Live Up to Own Constitution


BEIJING — After the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the surviving Communist Party leaders pursued a project that might sound familiar to those in the West: Write a constitution that enshrines individual rights and ensures rulers are subject to law, so that China would never again suffer from the whims of a tyrant.

The resulting document guaranteed full powers for a representative legislature, the right to ownership of private property, and freedoms of speech, press and assembly. But the idealism of the founding fathers was short-lived. Though the Constitution was ratified in 1982 by the National People’s Congress, it has languished ever since.

Now, in a drive to persuade the Communist Party’s new leaders to liberalize the authoritarian political system, prominent Chinese intellectuals and publications are urging the party simply to enforce the principles of their own Constitution.

The strategy reflects an emerging consensus among advocates for political reform that taking a moderate stand in support of the Constitution is the best way to persuade Xi Jinping, the party’s new general secretary, and other leaders, to open up China’s party-controlled system. Some of Mr. Xi’s recent speeches, including one in which he emphasized the need to enforce the Constitution, have ignited hope among those pushing for change.

A wide range of notable voices, among them ones in the party, have joined the effort. Several influential journals and newspapers have published editorials in the last two months calling for Chinese leaders to govern in accordance with the Constitution. Most notable among those is Study Times, a publication of the Central Party School, where Mr. Xi served as president until this year. That weekly newspaper ran a signed editorial on Jan. 21 that recommends that the party establish a committee under the national legislature that would ensure that no laws are passed that violate the Constitution.

After the end of the party’s leadership transition last November, liberal intellectuals held a meeting at a hotel in Beijing to strategize on how to push for reform; constitutionalism was a major topic of discussion. At the end of the year, 72 intellectuals signed a petition that was drafted by a Peking University law professor who had helped organize the hotel meeting. In early January, a censored editorial on constitutionalism at the liberal newspaper Southern Weekend set off a nationwide outcry in support of press freedoms.

Several people involved in the advocacy say their efforts are not closely coordinated, but that rallying around the Constitution was a logical first step to galvanize reform.

“We have a common understanding that constitutionalism is a central issue for China’s reform,” said Zhang Qianfan, the law professor who drafted the petition. “The previous reform was preoccupied with economic aspects. But we learned from the experiences of the recent two decades that economic reform can go wrong if it’s not coupled with political reform, or constitutional reform actually.”

Through the decades, party leaders have paid lip service to the Constitution, but have failed to enforce its central tenets, some of which resemble those in constitutions of Western democracies. The fifth article says the Constitution is the supreme authority: “No organization or individual may enjoy the privilege of being above the Constitution and the law.” Any real application of the Constitution would mean severely diluting the party’s power.

It is unclear whether the latest push will be any more successful than previous efforts. A decade ago, a similar wave of advocacy failed to significantly alter the status quo, despite some initially encouraging words from Hu Jintao, the newly designated president at the time. The authorities admonished scholars who took part in seminars on the issue, and propaganda officials ordered the state news media not to publish articles on calls for constitutional government.

Liberals have been encouraged by a speech that Mr. Xi gave on the 30th anniversary of the Constitution in which he said, “The Constitution should be the legal weapon for people to defend their own rights.” He added that implementation was needed for the document to have “life and authority.” Analysts say the speech, delivered Dec. 4, was much stronger than the one given by Mr. Hu on the Constitution’s 20th anniversary. And on Jan. 22, Mr. Xi said in a speech to an anticorruption agency that “power must be put in the cage of regulations.”

But Deng Yuwen, an editor at Study Times, said he had so far only seen talk from Mr. Xi. “We have yet to see any action from him,” Mr. Deng said. “The Constitution can’t be implemented through talking.”

And since taking power, Mr. Xi has appeared more concerned with maintaining party discipline than opening political doors. In remarks made during a recent southern trip that have circulated in party circles, Mr. Xi said China must avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, which broke apart, in his view, after leaders failed to stick to their socialist ideals and the party lost control of the military.

In part, liberals advocating constitutional checks on power have been energized by the party’s takedown of Bo Xilai, the polarizing former Politburo member who is expected to be prosecuted soon on charges of corruption and subverting the law.

One journal supported by reform-minded party elders, called Yanhuang Chunqiu, published a New Year’s editorial that said fully carrying out the Constitution would mean “our country’s political system will take a big step forward.”

Wu Si, the journal’s editor, said in an interview that he expected the “heightened fervor” surrounding constitutionalism to persist “because there is more to the issue to discuss.”

Rulers of modern China have never enforced a Constitution that enshrines the law as the highest authority and guarantees the rights of individuals. In the late 19th century, as the Qing dynasty waned, intellectuals who studied Western political systems, including Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei, lobbied rulers to transform China into a constitutional monarchy.

In 1905, the Empress Dowager Cixi established a constitutional commission to search the world for political models to adopt. The Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911, and the Kuomintang government tried its hand at creating a constitution for the new republic, but nothing took hold.

The Communist Party wrote several constitutions after taking power in 1949. The current version, which has been revised four times and had 13 amendments added, was overseen by Peng Zhen and Marshall Ye Jianying, two revered Communist leaders.

In all those instances, rulers experimented with a constitution to bolster the power of the governing body, said Sam Crane, a political scientist at Williams College who specializes in China.

“Constitutions were something that strong states had; therefore, China had to have one,” he said. “Thus, Chinese constitutions were not really effective in limiting state power and protecting individual liberties. That might be changing now.”

Recent attempts by scholars looking to defend the legitimacy of the Constitution, he said, “might be due to the growth of ‘rights consciousness’ in the People’s Republic of China in recent years.”

Advocates of constitutionalism say their approach should be more acceptable to the party than Charter ’08, an online petition calling for gradual political reforms that secured thousands of signatures but was banned by officials. One of its authors, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for subversion, and his wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest. Mr. Liu was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Some party censors have reacted with caution or hostility to the recent calls for constitutionalism. In recent weeks, the term “constitutional governance” could not be searched on microblogs. And the petition organized by Mr. Zhang, which he prefers to call an initiative, has been scrubbed from many sites on the Internet.

“I take it to mean that the government doesn’t want this to spread too far domestically,” Mr. Zhang said. “Perhaps they’re not ready yet.”

Nonetheless, talk of constitutionalism has become daily fare on literati Web sites like Gongshiwang, a politics forum. Typical was a Jan. 24 essay that ran on the site by Liu Junning, a political scientist, who seized on Mr. Xi’s most recent remarks on “caging power” and traced the concept to the Magna Carta and the American Constitution.

“Constitutional governance is restricted governance,” Mr. Lui wrote. “It is to tame the rulers. It is to shut the rulers in a cage.”

Mia Li contributed research.

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« Reply #4384 on: Feb 04, 2013, 07:50 AM »

February 3, 2013

Candidate for President of Paraguay Dies in Crash


RIO DE JANEIRO — Lino Oviedo, a candidate in Paraguay’s presidential election and one of the country’s most polarizing political figures, was killed in a helicopter crash on Saturday night while returning from a rally in northern Paraguay, government officials said Sunday.

The death of Mr. Oviedo, 69, opens new uncertainty in Paraguay, where President Fernando Lugo was ousted last year. After the authorities confirmed Mr. Oviedo’s death and called it an accident, officials in Mr. Oviedo’s party, the National Union of Ethical Citizens, immediately questioned whether he had been assassinated.

Mr. Oviedo, a retired general who had led the Paraguayan Army, had a tumultuous political career. He initially gained prominence in 1989, when he helped topple Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator who ruled Paraguay for 35 years.

Mr. Oviedo fled the country in 1999 — seeking exile first in Argentina and then in Brazil — after being charged with organizing an aborted coup in 1996 against Juan Carlos Wasmosy, who was then Paraguay’s president.

The authorities also indicted Mr. Oviedo on charges of masterminding the assassination of Vice President Luis María Argaña, who was killed by gunmen outside Asunción, the capital, in March 1999. But after Mr. Oviedo returned to Paraguay in 2004 and served time in prison in connection with the coup plot, Paraguay’s Supreme Court absolved him of the various charges.

He then took up a hard-charging political career, campaigning as a populist who nimbly used Guaraní, Paraguay’s widely-spoken indigenous language, in his speeches. He became known as the “bonsai horseman,” in a nod to his short stature, and came in third in the country’s last presidential vote, in 2008.

Paraguay was officially commemorating Mr. Stroessner’s overthrow on Sunday, and some of Mr. Oviedo’s supporters questioned the timing of the helicopter crash, which also killed an aide and the pilot. The Paraguayan aviation authorities said the helicopter went down during a storm in northern Paraguay and said they would investigate the cause of the crash.

“Twenty-four years ago today General Oviedo overthrew the dictatorship,” César Durand, a spokesman for Mr. Oviedo’s party, told Radio Ñanduti. “This is a message from the mafia,” he said, employing a blanket term often used by Paraguayans to refer to shadowy organizations involved in drug trafficking and the smuggling of pirated goods into neighboring Brazil.

Mr. Oviedo’s chances of winning Paraguay’s presidential election, scheduled in April, appeared to be slim, political analysts said. According to recent polls, support for Mr. Oviedo remained in the single digits, placing him far behind the front-runner, Horacio Cartes, a banking and tobacco magnate.

The election comes after a stretch of political turmoil in Paraguay in which the Senate hastily ousted Mr. Lugo from office in June. Mr. Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, had ended six decades of one-party rule when he was elected, but he faced fierce opposition from lawmakers in his attempts to reduce Paraguay’s landholding disparities.

If Mr. Cartes, 56, holds his lead, the presidency will return to the Colorado Party, which has long dominated Paraguay. Still, his campaign is facing questions over his business dealings. State Department diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks revealed allegations that a bank under Mr. Cartes’s control was involved in money-laundering in 2007.

Mr. Cartes has denied those accusations, calling them “laughable rubbish.”

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« Reply #4385 on: Feb 04, 2013, 07:54 AM »

02/04/2013 01:07 PM

Greek Extremists: 'Golden Dawn' Fosters Ties with German Neo-Nazis

The Greek right-wing extremist party Golden Dawn has established contacts with German neo-Nazis in Bavaria. The group, which is represented in Greek parliament, is also attempting to set up a cell in the southern German state.

The Greek right-wing extremist party Golden Dawn is establishing close contacts with Bavarian neo-Nazis and began setting up a cell in Nuremberg last year. The party, known in Greek as Chrysi Avgi, even held a conference in the southern German city recently.

Bavaria's state intelligence agency is particularly interested in meetings that have been taking place between right-wing extremists from Greece and those in Bavaria.

An umbrella organization of Greek communities in Germany has called on all Greeks in Germany to reject attempts by neo-Nazis to promote "violence, inteolerance and social cannibalism."

Golden Dawn is led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos and has called for a revolution in Greece and an "ethnically pure" nation. Members of the party are accused of physically attacking immigrants and members of the country's left-wing. They also regularly stage intimidating marches, wearing military uniforms and singing Nazi chants, in immigrant neighborhoods of Athens.

Support for the party has increased following the debt crisis and the radical austerity measures imposed on Greece by international lenders. Golden Dawn won seats in parliament for the first time in last year's election and is currently polling at 12 percent.

A spokesman for the Bavarian arm of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "Golden Dawn has an international network of contacts and also has contacts with Bavarian neo-Nazis. These contacts are nurtured through mutual visits and at meetings at right-wing extremist events in Europe."

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« Reply #4386 on: Feb 04, 2013, 07:55 AM »

February 3, 2013

Rise in Oil Tax Forces Greeks to Face Cold as Ancients Did


ATHENS — Even in the leafy northern stretches of this city, home to luxury apartment buildings, mansions with swimming pools and tennis clubs, the smell of wood smoke lingers everywhere at night.

In her fourth-floor apartment here, Valy Pantelemidou, 37, a speech therapist, is, like many other Greeks, trying to save money on heating oil by using her fireplace to stay warm.

Unemployment is at a record high of 26.8 percent in Greece, and many people have had their salaries and pensions cut, but those are not the main reasons so few residents here can afford heating oil. In the fall, the Greek government raised the taxes on heating oil by 450 percent.

Overnight, the price of heating a small apartment for the winter shot up to about $1,900 from $1,300. “At the beginning of autumn, it was the biggest topic with all my friends: How are we going to heat our places?” said Ms. Pantelemidou, who has had to lower her fees to keep clients. “Now, when I am out walking the dog, I see people with bags picking up sticks. In this neighborhood, really.”

In raising the taxes, government officials hoped not just to increase revenue but also to equalize taxes on heating oil and diesel, to cut down on the illegal practice of selling cheaper heating oil as diesel fuel. But the effort, which many Greeks dismiss as a cruel stupidity, appears to have backfired in more than one way.

For one thing, the government seems to be losing money on the measure. Many Greeks, like Ms. Pantelemidou, are simply not buying any heating oil this year. Sales in the last quarter of 2012 plunged 70 percent from a year earlier, according to official figures.

So while the government has collected more than $63 million in new tax revenue, it appears to have lost far more — about $190 million, according to an association of Greek oil suppliers — in revenue from sales taxes on the oil.

Meanwhile, many Greeks are suffering from the cold. In one recent survey by Epaminondas Panas, who leads the statistics department at the Athens University of Economics and Business, nearly 80 percent of respondents in northern Greece said they could not afford to heat their homes properly.

The return to wood burning is also taking a toll on the environment. Illegal logging in national parks is on the rise, and there are reports of late-night thefts of trees and limbs from city parks in Athens, including the disappearance of the olive tree planted where Plato is said to have gone to study in the shade.

At the same time, the smoke from the burning of wood — and often just about anything else that will catch fire — has caused spikes in air pollution that worry health officials. On some nights, the smog is clearly visible above Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, and in Athens, where particulate matter has been measured at three times the normal levels.

“Places that in 2008 wouldn’t even think about using their fireplaces for heating, now they are obliged to do so,” said Stefanos Sabatakakis, a health supervisor with the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He said the rise in pollution could cause eye irritation and headaches in the short term and far more serious problems in the long term. The air is particularly bad for asthma sufferers.

The agency has asked that anyone who is lighting living-room fires just for the aesthetics give them up. It has also uploaded information on its Web site about what not to burn — anything that is painted or lacquered, for instance. But in these times, Mr. Sabatakakis acknowledged, people are not that picky.

Government officials say it is too early to judge the new tax. The winter is not yet over. It has not been particularly cold, they say, and many people may have stocked up on fuel oil last season. In the north of Greece, temperatures often dip to freezing at night, while in Athens they are more likely to stay in the low 40s.

“This is a very complex environment,” said Harry Theoharis, the secretary general of the Ministry of Finance, adding that many factors were affecting people’s behavior. “It is not easy to isolate and say: ‘O.K., this tax, this is the effect it had.’ ”

He said there were no clear indications yet that the tax had discouraged illicit sales of heating oil as diesel, though he had detected a slight change in buying patterns that might indicate some change.

It is impossible not to notice the stacks of wood for sale all over Athens this year. Not far from Ms. Pantelemidou’s place is a wood lot run by Valantis Topalis, 44, who used to own an interior design company. He started selling wood last year, eager to have a business that was not reliant on people paying their bills.

Last year, he made some money. But this year, he said, everybody is selling wood — some of it stolen from national parks — and business is not so good. Even in this wealthy area, a lot of the customers come in for only 20 euros, or $27, worth of wood on colder days.

“The worst part is not the lack of money,” Mr. Topalis said of his life today. “The worst part today is the mood that people are in.”

Those who can afford to, like Ms. Pantelemidou, are using a combination of their fireplaces and electric heaters, unsure what this will do to their electric bills. But that is likely to bring some unpleasant surprises, as the government recently announced an increase in the cost of electricity that, depending on consumption, could be as much as 20 percent.

Still, oil suppliers are glum about their prospects. Elias Bekkas, who provides oil to 65 buildings around the city, said that many of his clients had not ordered any oil, and that some who had could not pay the bill. Last winter, he said, his company sold a little more than a million gallons. This season, it has sold only about 65,000 gallons, and he doubted the total would get to 225,000.

Tenant meetings to decide whether to buy oil, he said, have gotten ugly. A year ago, two buildings covered the costs for people who could not pay. But this year there is only bickering.

“There is anger, bitterness between neighbors who can afford oil and those that cannot,” Mr. Bekkas said. “That is what Greece is like now.”

Hes said he had detected a third class of people as well this winter. “There are those who are just making a political statement,” he said. “They are just angry about the taxes.”

Ms. Pantelemidou, like many others in newer buildings, has a fireplace that was designed largely for decorative purposes. It hardly heats her living room, let alone the rest of her apartment. She has pulled a chair close to it so she can stay warm.

In a working-class area of town, Aggeliki and Christos Makris are also making do without heating oil. They bought their three-bedroom apartment in 2009, when they had a combined income of $63,400 for a family of five.

Since then, the salary of Mrs. Makris, 45, who works as a cleaner for the government has been cut to about $1,100 a month from $1,750 a month. Mr. Makris, 42, who runs heavy machinery at a mining company, lost all of his overtime. They are behind on their taxes and, after mortgage payments, living on less than $340 a week. To cut down on the electric bill, Mrs. Makris has even reduced the ironing she does.

Paying for heating oil was out of the question. This year, Mr. Makris went north to his village to cut firewood himself. He said no one in his building wanted to buy heating oil. “The super did not even bother to ask,” said Mr. Makris. “We are all in debt.”

The Makrises said they were at least lucky that they had made a good choice in upgrading the fireplace when they bought the apartment. It burns efficiently and warms much of their living space.

Mr. Makris said it was far worse for the pensioners he saw, who really need central heating and do not have the strength, the energy or the money to get good firewood. Instead, they pick up scraps of wood left on the street, whether it is painted or not.

“There is an old man I see at the market, and every week there is less and less in his grocery bag,” he said. “I cannot blame him, no matter what garbage he burns.”

Dimitris Bounias and Nikolia Apostolou contributed reporting.

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« Reply #4387 on: Feb 04, 2013, 08:00 AM »

02/04/2013 01:06 PM

Bailout Doubts: Merkel Opponent Sets Conditions for Cyprus Aid

Cyprus is badly in need of aid, but skepticism in Berlin appears to be growing. Chancellor Merkel's opponent in this year's election, Peer Steinbrück, has set a number of conditions that must be met before his party will support a bailout. There is a growing number of rebels in Merkel's camp as well.

Germany's opposition Social Democrats (SPD) have once again signalled that they are unwilling to simply rubberstamp an emergency aid package for ailing euro-zone member Cyprus. The party is demanding that several conditions be met before it grants its approval for the deal in German parliament.

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Peer Steinbrück, the SPD candidate for the Chancellery in this year's election, said that his party would like to see Cyprus' "bloated" banking industry, which holds assets many times greater than the country's annual gross domestic product, be consolidated and "one or another financial institute be liquidated."

He is also demanding that Nicosia do more to combat money laundering and modify its tax laws to reduce the country's attractiveness as a tax oasis. Finally, Steinbrück has demanded that Cyprus join the euro-zone plan to institute a financial transaction tax.

"The chancellor needs to address these criteria in a timely manner," Steinbrück said. "Our approval of the aid measures hinges on her reaction."

The SPD's skepticism of a Cyprus bailout from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the euro zone's permanent rescue fund, is not new. But the concrete list provided by Steinbrück makes the party's ultimate approval all the more doubtful. And given widespread concerns within Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition about providing emergency aid to Cyprus, a Berlin veto is a distinct possibility.

Systemically Relevant?

In votes on euro-zone bailout packages last year, lawmakers belonging to Merkel's coalition showed a decreasing willingness to back her support for euro-zone bailouts, making SPD support at times critical. Cyprus' problems have generated even more skepticism among Merkel's conservatives and her coalition partners, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Michael Fuchs, a parliamentarian with Merkel's Christian Democrats and a party economics expert, told SPIEGEL that he would prefer to allow Cyprus to slide into insolvency. "I don't see that Cyprus is systemically relevant, and only in that case is the ESM allowed to help," Fuchs said.

Michael Meister, another senior conservative in parliament, said: "If Cyprus can make huge foreign investments in Russia, then it is not clear to me today why German taxpayers should save the country."

Many in Germany and elsewhere in Europe are particularly concerned about the amount of money Russian oligarchs have deposited in Cypriot banks. There is widespread concern that a bailout of banks in the country would primarily benefit rich Russians. Indeed, that and worries that the country is a center for money laundering have increased unwillingness to help.

Even German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has indicated that he does not believe that Cyprus is systemically relevant. He was joined over the weekend by Rainer Brüderle, lead candidate for the FDP in this year's election. "We are united with our European partners, but there is no clearly agreed upon procedure for financial aid from the European Stability Mechanism that applies to Cyprus," Brüderle told the German daily Die Welt over the weekend.

Time for the Truth

Still, Steinbrück is unwilling to go quite that far. He warned in the interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE that a Cyprus euro-zone exit could send exactly the wrong signal at a time when the euro crisis appears to have, temporarily at least, lost its teeth.

"One shouldn't frivolously speculate about (an exit)," he said. "European Central Bank head Mario Draghi and European leaders have clearly signalled to the markets that the currency union will stay together. If someone now gives the impression that … it is possible for a country to leave the euro, then a fundamental message will have been contradicted."

Steinbrück was critical of Merkel for what he indicated was a lack of honesty in the euro crisis. He said that Berlin must finally tell German voters that the euro crisis is ultimately going to cost Germany money. "Angela Merkel, who at the beginning didn't want to give Greece a single cent, must finally tell people the truth," he said.

The SPD chancellor candidate also declined to join the growing optimism that the euro crisis may be fading into the background. "There are indeed bright spots. Ignoring them would be silly," he said. "But I am wary of predicting that we have seen the worst."

With reporting by Veit Medick and Roland Nelles
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« Reply #4388 on: Feb 04, 2013, 08:07 AM »

Spain: ‘The PP demands expert analysis of the Bárcenas documents to prove they are fake’

La Razón, 4 February 2013

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People's Party (PP) wants to submit the original copies of the secret financial notes alleged to have been written by his former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, to experts in order to determine whether they are genuine.

According to the account records, published by El País, key members of the PP received additional undeclared payments between 1990 and 2008. Mariano Rajoy has said publicly that he has "never" received any undeclared money.

Read the full story:

Go on the attack against the "case Barcenas' and the crisis generated by reports pointing to alleged payments opaque in Genoa. The message was very clear what the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, on the Executive Committee of Saturday and the direction of implementing the mandate PP as discussed in the next few hours. Rajoy said Saturday before his "top brass" that the PP is not going to be of "arms crossed" to what he presented as an operation to "destabilize" the government and the party itself. And among those first steps is the decision to commission an expert opinion on the aforementioned "papers" published by the newspaper "El País". In Genoa want to know when they were performed, during what period of time ... and all the minor details that serve to highlight argue, that these documents are "absolutely false." Furthermore, Genoa also ask the media originals of those "papers".

The national leadership will dosed its measures in a strategy aimed at fleshing out that claim that Rajoy will not stand against what he came to describe as "attack". This is called the meeting of the Executive and when there was no front microphones. They say they believe in the government and in the PP that behind the information reported to them is a maneuver against Rajoy, in which even suspect they are involved "some insiders' party. And the goal is to place the Prime Minister "on the ropes" to alter the balance of power 'within the PP. " The dome maintains that the alleged Barcenas information on the accounts of the PP is "false" and has been made ad hoc.

This week La Moncloa become effective Rajoy's announcement to publish their statements of income and capital. It is a public declaration of assets and capital to introduced in Congress in 2011, according to the new requirement that applies to all parliamentarians. The key is to see what date the president extends that commitment to advertising. Yesterday at Moncloa not even officially confirmed when posted on the official website the documents nor the time to be covered transparency. The personal income tax has many personal details, address, children, dependencies ... and will have to see if it is published in its literalness.

Furthermore, Genoa also try to take another dramatic effect with the publication of the affidavits of most of the leaders who have responsibilities in the national leadership of the party and who have been identified as alleged recipients of the bonuses in B. Among the issues still pending on the Executive Committee of the Sabbath is the question of whether Justice will attend. From the dome itself states that they intend to do, but so far, no nothing concrete. Featured PP territorial leaders, as Alberto Nunez Feijoo, Esperanza Aguirre and Juan Vicente Herrera, Rajoy claimed on Saturday to respond to the scandal initiating legal action against the former treasurer. In his view, if all is false, is the quickest way to expose the organizers of this "conspiracy". Genoa c ontestó asking time to study the law office reaction. And at no time took the form of what is going to materialize the demands and grievances against those who disseminate announced or reproduce "information" designed to "hurt the PP '. Cospedal be responsible to realize the appropriate legal response. "We must act with restraint and knowing that what you do is to win", are justified in the national leadership.

The same font for years

In the alleged notes of former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas striking that the font is the same for all entries, which would mean that he would have written Barcenas year after year with the same layout. It is as if the author had aimed names and figures in one sitting all data as belonging to different dates and spaced in time.


In the alleged notes of former PP treasurer Luis Barcenas striking that the font is the same for all entries.

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« Reply #4389 on: Feb 04, 2013, 08:12 AM »

United Kingdom: What have the Europeans ever done for us?

4 February 2013
The Independent London

Actually, quite a lot, argues a columnist, after the UK’s pro-Europeans rallied last week for a low-key launch of a new group to counter the nation’s infamous Euroscepticism. A fitting tribute to the subtle but profound influence that the EU has had on the country during the last 40 years.

Besides the money for infrastructure projects, EU membership has given Brits the chance to see how Europeans do things, and what we could do better.

The irony remains delicious.

Europe House in Smith Square, where the European Commission and the European Parliament have their joint London headquarters, is the very building – the former Conservative Party Central Office – where Margaret Thatcher celebrated her election victories. And when it was officially inaugurated in its new guise, a little over two years ago, much fun was had by the assembled Europhiles speculating how the Foreign Secretary might contrive not to be photographed beneath the European flag – public buildings in the UK being almost unique in the EU in not flying the blue and gold confection alongside the national flag.

So there were plenty of ghosts at the party when the troika of prominent British Europhiles chose Europe House for the launch of their proto-Yes campaign this week. Ken Clarke (Conservative, minister without portfolio), Lord Mandelson (Labour, former EU commissioner and spin doctor supreme) and Danny Alexander (Liberal Democrat, chief secretary to the Treasury) are jointly fronting the Centre for British Influence, which will argue the case for the UK to stay in – when, or if, David Cameron gets around to holding his promised In/Out referendum on the European Union.

Talk about low-key, though. The very name, the Centre for British Influence, makes the new group sound almost like an affiliate of Ukip. There are outright anti-EU organisations that sound more engaged with Europe than this. If the CBI – an unfortunate, or perhaps deliberate, overlap – is to be the kernel of a future Yes campaign, it looks awfully like a lobbying effort by stealth. Is the thinking perhaps that a below-the-radar approach is the only one that will persuade British voters to grasp the pro-EU message?

In fact, this might not be a bad strategy. Not only because polls have, until recently, shown a rise in pro-Europe sentiment only when the subject leaves the headlines, but because – rather like the EU planting its flag discreetly on London’s enemy territory – the EU’s impact on Britain has been so gradual as to be barely perceptible. Seen overall, however, from the perspective of the past 40 years, it has been enormous, and almost entirely beneficial.

You could argue that it is hard to separate the influence of the EU from the general process of internationalisation that has accompanied improvements in transport and communications. But for a glimpse of how the UK might have developed – or not – without membership of the EU, or the European Economic Community as it was, you might consider Australia as it was 20 years ago, before it reconciled itself culturally to its geography. It was self-absorbed and seemingly content with its lack of ambition, its housing frozen in time and its tasteless English food. Just as we were.

It took Britain’s entry into the EU, and the ending of Commonwealth trade ties, to force Australia back on to its own – immensely rich – resources. The same process forced Britain to discover its European self. Closer to home, you could take Malta; 20 years ago, it was introspective, parochial and potentially the object of a tussle between the UK and the Maghreb. Now, it is identifiably, positively, part of Europe.

Many benefits of EU membership are tangible, and Britain has not been excluded. There is money for infrastructure projects, which – unlike most EU countries – we choose not to announce with grateful placards. And there is the mass of common standards to be met, which make us part of a bloc that has become a global regulatory force. To Eurosceptics this is Brussels “red tape”; we might rather describe it as an entry ticket to civilisation.

But the greatest change for the better from our four decades inside the EU has to do with the country’s general outlook. Membership has given the Scots and the Welsh a sense of security that allows them to affirm their national identity in a positive way they were not able to before – an effect that could also be seen in the smaller accession countries. It may eventually do the same for the English. Most of all, though, by exposing Britons to other Europeans and vice versa, it has made us individually, and collectively, more aware of how other Europeans do things, and what we could do better, too.

It has socialised us to an extent many have perhaps not realised. Join the queue to board the Eurostar at St Pancras station, or line up at the easyJet departure lounge at almost any airport in the land, and you will meet a European world, which seems normal and familiar, but would not have been a generation ago.

The difference is not about food or café culture, or the arrival of Zara or Novotel – though the EU has improved our quality of life in all these respects. Nor is it about language per se; Britons retain a foolish pride in their hopelessness at foreign languages. What has changed is our awareness and acceptance of the different European accents and mores. I still remember that one girl in my junior school class went on holiday to Spain. It was such a novelty that the teacher had us all making a model bullring. And now? There can be no return to that parochialism. Not only because European consciousness is now lodged inside our heads – yes, even in the head of Nigel Farage – but because our friends and neighbours will do their utmost to prevent it.

Since the start of the UK’s latest in/out spasm around a year ago, I have lost count of the diplomats in London who have asked, not in glee, but in trepidation, whether it is really possible that Britain could leave the EU. They include Europeans, of course, but also Chinese, Japanese, Russians and, not least, Americans. The warning from Philip Gordon, of the US State Department, followed by President Obama’s telephone appeal to David Cameron – made public by the White House – should have left no one in any doubt. Britain’s strength, its international influence and its 21st-century identity are perceived by the outside world, above all, as European. That is how others see us. It is also, deep down, how tomorrow’s Britons will see themselves.
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« Reply #4390 on: Feb 04, 2013, 08:20 AM »

February 3, 2013

More in France Are Turning to Islam, Challenging a Nation’s Idea of Itself


CRÉTEIL, France — The spacious and elegant modern building, in the heart of this middle-class suburb of Paris, is known as “the mosque of the converts.”

Every year about 150 Muslim conversion ceremonies are performed in the snow-white structure of the Sahaba mosque in Créteil, with its intricate mosaics and a stunning 81-foot minaret, built in 2008 and a symbol of Islam’s growing presence in France. Among those who come here for Friday Prayer are numerous young former Roman Catholics, wearing the traditional Muslim prayer cap and long robe.

While the number of converts remains relatively small in France, yearly conversions to Islam have doubled in the past 25 years, experts say, presenting a growing challenge for France, where government and public attitudes toward Islam are awkward and sometimes hostile.

French antiterrorism officials have been warning for years that converts represent a critical element of the terrorist threat in Europe, because they have Western passports and do not stand out.

In October, the French police conducted a series of antiterrorism raids across France, resulting in the arrests of 12 people, including at least three French citizens who had recently converted to Islam. Converts “often need to overdo it if they want to be accepted” as Muslims, and so veer into extremism more frequently than others, said Didier Leschi, who was in charge of religious issues at the Interior Ministry under former President Nicolas Sarkozy.

There are persistent concerns that French prisons are fertile ground for conversions and for Islamic radicalism; observant Muslims are thought to make up a least a third of the inmate population, according to French news reports.

Many Muslims counter that they regularly face prejudice, and consider a 2010 law banning the full-face veil from public spaces and the growing concern with conversions as reflections of French intolerance.

Whatever the impact, there is little doubt that conversions are growing more commonplace. “The conversion phenomenon is significant and impressive, particularly since 2000,” said Bernard Godard, who is in charge of religious issues at the Interior Ministry.

Of an estimated six million Muslims in France, about 100,000 are thought to be converts, compared with about 50,000 in 1986, according to Mr. Godard. Muslim associations say the number is as high as 200,000. But France, which has a population of about 65 million, defines itself as secular and has no official statistics broken down by race or creed.

For Mr. Godard, a former intelligence officer, it is the “nature” of conversions that has changed.

Conversions to marry have long been common enough in France, but a growing number of young people are now seen as converting to be better socially integrated in neighborhoods where Islam is dominant.

“In poor districts, it has become a reverse integration,” said Gilles Kepel, an expert on Islam and the banlieues, the poor, predominantly Muslim neighborhoods that ring Paris and other major cities.

Many converts are men younger than 40, experts say, often born in France’s former African colonies or overseas territories.

Charlie-Loup, 21, a student from nearby St.-Maur-des-Fossés, converted to Islam at 19, after a troubled adolescence and strained relations with his mother. He grew up Roman Catholic but had many Muslim friends at school. “Conversions have become a social phenomenon here,” he said, asking that his surname not be used because he considered his conversion a private initiative and did not want to draw attention to himself. Some convert simply “out of curiosity,” he said.

In some predominantly Muslim areas, even non-Muslims observe Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that requires fasting during the day, because they like “the group effect, the festive side of it,” said Samir Amghar, a sociologist and an expert on radical Islam in Europe.

In many banlieues, Islam has come to represent not only a sort of social norm but also a refuge, an alternative to the ambient misery, researchers and converts say.

For Mr. Amghar, Islam provides more structure and discipline than other religions. It is a way to “refuse modernism,” get back to a society with more family values and a clearer distinction between men and women. “Islam has a peaceful effect on the converts,” Mr. Amghar said. “The world looks clearer after they’ve converted.”

In Marseille, on the southern coast, “conversions have increased at an incredible pace in the last three years,” said Abderrahmane Ghoul, the imam of the major mosque of Marseille and the president of the local branch of the French Council of the Muslim Faith. Mr. Ghoul signed about 130 conversion certificates in 2012.

Hassen Chalghoumi, the moderate imam of Drancy, another suburb near Paris, says he thinks conversions have also been propelled by France’s official secularism, which he says breeds spiritual emptiness.

“Secularism has become antireligious,” Mr. Chalghoumi said. “Therefore, it has created an opposite phenomenon. It has allowed people to discover Islam.”

Many experts note the influence of celebrity converts, particularly soccer players. Nicolas Anelka, a regular on the French national team whose parents came from Martinique, changed his name to Abdul-Salam Bilal Anelka when he converted to Islam in 2004. Franck Ribéry, a popular player from northern France, converted to Islam in 2006 to marry a Muslim woman, Wahiba, and took the name Bilal Yusuf Mohammed.

But there is rising anxiety here about the influence of Islam, especially conservative Salafist Islam, particularly among those on the center-right. Islam is regularly at the center of heated debates about the nature and future of France and its culture, and politicians can win attention and support by criticizing the expansion of Muslim customs into the wider public sphere: for example, the rise of women-only sessions in public swimming pools or the increasing availability of halal food.

In 2009, a photograph from the magazine Paris Match showing Diam, a popular female rapper, wearing a hijab, or head covering, on a Paris street set off a flood of angry comments from officials and commentators. Fadela Amara, a former secretary of state for urban affairs and founder of a feminist group, Neither Whores Nor Submissives, said that the hijab sent out a “negative image of women” and described it as “a real danger for young women in poor districts.”

But Diam’s dismissed her critics, saying that having her hijab did not make her a radical Muslim, and that her conversion was a personal choice that had helped her with depression.

Recent arrests of radical Muslim converts have also increased concern among public officials and Muslim leaders, though radical Islam is by no means the norm among converts.

Rafaello Sillitti, the owner of the bookstore Averroès, which occupies a small space in the Créteil mosque, is convinced that converts like him can be the best advocates of Islam. He sells carpets equipped with compasses to help users orient themselves toward Mecca and a wide range of books written by Muslim scholars, with titles like “Be Master of Your Physical Desire” and “How to Use a Cellphone According to Islamic Law.”

“We must get rid of an imaginary Islamic culture,” Mr. Sillitti said, referring to the clichés and misapprehensions connected to Islam in France. “We must show that French culture and Islam can live together in peace.”


Paris women allowed to wear pants after two hundred year-old ban is lifted

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 4, 2013 6:36 EST

An archaic by-law banning Parisian women from wearing trousers has finally been repealed 214 years after it was originally introduced.

The November 1799 decree stipulated that any woman wishing to wear men’s clothing in the French capital had to seek official permission from the city authorities.

It was amended two times a century later, when women were given the freedom to don “pantalons” [trousers] if they were “holding the handlebars of a bicycle or the reins of a horse.”

The decree was passed when the working class fashion of wearing long trousers (as opposed to the aristocratic knee-length “culottes”) became a symbol of the French revolution. The rule therefore symbolically barred women from the revolutionary rank and file, known at the time as the “sans-culottes”.

‘A museum piece’

In 2010, a group of Green Party lawmakers began a campaign to get the absurd by-law, held in the archives of the Paris Prefecture [police headquarters] and technically still in force, struck off permanently.

The group faced surprising resistance from the prefecture, which considered the effort “removing a piece of judicial archaeology” a “waste of time”.

A fresh application for the decree to be officially removed from the prefecture’s official documentation was made in 2012 by a member of parliament for the opposition UMP party.

This time, the request was taken seriously, and the 1799 law was last week officially confirmed null and void.

French Minister for Women’s Rights Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said the rule was “incompatible with the principles of equality between men and women that are written into the constitution, as well as in France’s European engagements.”

“Because of this incompatibility, this by-law is implicitly repealed,” she added. “It has absolutely no legal effect. The document is nothing but a museum piece.”

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« Reply #4391 on: Feb 04, 2013, 08:23 AM »

Pakistan plans $30 million amusement park for town where bin Laden was killed

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 4, 2013 6:47 EST

Pakistan is planning to build a $30 million amusement park with a zoo and adventure sports facilities in the town where Osama bin Laden was killed by US special forces, officials said Monday. The 50-acre (20-hectare) riverside development on the edge of Abbottabad, where US Navy SEALs shot the Al-Qaeda leader dead on May 2, 2011, will include restaurants, a heritage centre and artificial waterfalls.

The government of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province hopes the project, announced as a public-private partnership, will boost tourism but denied it was intended to improve the town’s image after the humiliation of the bin Laden raid.

“The amusement city will be built on 50 acres in the first phase but later will be extended to 500 acres,” Syed Aqil Shah, the provincial minister for tourism and sports, told AFP.

“It will have a heritage park, wildlife zoo, food street, adventure and paragliding clubs, waterfalls and jogging tracks.”

Work is due to begin in late February or early March, he said, and will take eight years to complete. Funds worth three billion rupees ($30 million) have been allocated, he said.

Abbottabad, a quiet, leafy town nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas around 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of Islamabad, has long been a popular spot for well-heeled families from the capital to spend weekends away.

The town also houses Pakistan’s elite military academy and the discovery of the world’s most wanted man on its doorstep prompted allegations of incompetence or complicity between the armed forces and the 9/11 mastermind.

But Shah insisted the new development, to be named, was simply about promoting tourism, not polishing the town’s tarnished image.

“This project has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden,” he told AFP.

“We are working to promote tourism and amusement facilities in the whole province and this project is one of those facilities.”

The authorities demolished the compound where bin Laden hid with his wives and children last February, fearing it could become a shrine to Al-Qaeda followers.

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« Reply #4392 on: Feb 04, 2013, 08:26 AM »

February 4, 2013

Bones Under Parking Lot Belonged to Richard III


LEICESTER, England — In one of Britain’s most dramatic modern archaeological finds, researchers here announced on Monday that skeletal remains found under a parking lot in this English Midlands city were those of King Richard III, for centuries the most widely reviled of English monarchs, paving the way for a possible reassessment of his brief but violent reign.

Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on a project to identify the bones, told reporters that tests and research since the remains were discovered last September proved “beyond reasonable doubt” that the “individual exhumed” from a makeshift grave under the parking lot was “indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”

Part of the evidence came from DNA testing by the geneticist Turi King, who told the same news conference that DNA samples taken from modern-day descendants of Richard’s family matched those from the bones found at the site.

The skeleton, with a gaping hole in the skull consistent with contemporary accounts of the battlefield blow that killed him, was exhumed in the ruins of an ancient priory. It was found in the same place as historians say Richard III was buried after perishing at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

At the news conference on Monday, researchers showed photographs of the skeleton as they found it, stuffed into a grave without a coffin, clearly displaying curvature of the spine as chronicled in historical descriptions of Richard III’s appearance.

DNA samples from the remains had been compared with the DNA of two descendants of the monarch’s family, the researchers said. One of the descendants, Michael Ibsen, is the son of a 16th-generation niece of King Richard’s. The second wished to remain anonymous, the researchers said.

The team from the University of Leicester said that the body displayed 10 wounds, 8 of them in the skull and some likely to have caused death, possibly by a blow from a halberd, a kind of medieval weapon with an ax-like head on a long pole. Other wounds seem to have been inflicted after his death to humiliate the monarch after his armor was stripped away and he was paraded naked over the back of a horse, the researchers said.

Since at least the late 18th century, scholars have debated whether Richard was the victim of a campaign of denigration by the Tudor monarchs who succeeded him. His supporters argue that he was a decent king, harsh in the ways of his time, but a proponent of groundbreaking measures to help the poor, extend protections to suspected felons and ease bans on the printing and selling books.

But his detractors cast Richard’s 26 months on the throne as one of England’s grimmest periods, its excesses captured in his alleged role in the murder in the Tower of London of two young princes — his own nephews — to rid himself of potential rivals.

Shakespeare told the king’s story in “Richard III,” depicting him as an evil, scheming hunchback whose death at 32 ended the War of the Roses and more than three centuries of Plantagenet rule, bookended England’s Middle Ages, and proved a prelude to the triumphs of the Tudors and Elizabethans.

In Shakespeare’s account, Richard was killed after being unhorsed on the battlefield, crying: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”

Officials of the University of Leicester said plans were now in hand to bury the bones in Leicester’s Anglican cathedral, barely 100 yards from where the bones were found. A spokesman for the cathedral said that reburial would likely take place early next year as part of a memorial service honoring Richard as an English king.

The bones were first located when archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar on the site of the former priory and discovered that it was not underneath a 19th century bank where it was presumed to be, but under a parking lot across the street. The remains were located within days of the start of digging.

John F. Burns reported from Leicester, and Alan Cowell from London.

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« Reply #4393 on: Feb 04, 2013, 08:42 AM »

Team recreating Shackleton’s 1916 Antarctic trip makes landfall

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 4, 2013 4:53 EST

An exhausted British-Australian expedition recreating Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 crossing of the Southern Ocean in a small boat made landfall after a perilous 12-day journey.

Led by renowned adventurer Tim Jarvis, the team of six reached Peggotty Bluff on rugged South Georgia, where they landed their vessel in the same place Shackleton and his men beached the James Caird nearly 100 years ago.

The next leg will see three of the team tackle a two-day climb to 900 metres (2,950 feet) over the mountainous, crevassed interior of South Georgia.

That will take them to the old whaling station at Stromness on the other side of the island, where Shackleton and his men, with little more than the clothes on their backs, raised the alarm about the sinking of their ship, the Endurance.

Jarvis said the boat trip, using only the equipment, navigational instruments and food available to Shackleton, was extremely tough, describing it as “truly about endurance — mental as much as physical”.

“There was just no way to keep dry. The waterproofing with wax didn’t work,” he said.

“Below deck, the boat was constantly damp and being on watch meant that you were directly exposed to the elements. On a few occasions a big wave washed over the deck and down the hatch soaking everything down below.”

Along with Norway’s Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911, Australian explorer Douglas Mawson and Briton Robert Falcon Scott, Shackleton was among the great Antarctic explorers.

When he set off on his third trip to the region in 1914 with the ship Endurance, he planned to cross Antarctica via the South Pole.

But the vessel became trapped in 1915, and sank 10 months later as it was crushed by the advancing ice. Shackleton and his crew lived on the floating ice until April 1916, when they set off in three small boats for Elephant Island.

From there, Shackleton and five crew made the treacherous voyage to South Georgia, reaching their destination 16 days later to face the mountainous trek.

All members of the Endurance mission were eventually rescued with no fatalities.

It was his granddaughter Alexandra who approached Jarvis, who in 2007 re-enacted Mawson’s 1912 odyssey across the frozen continent, about recreating their ordeal.

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« Reply #4394 on: Feb 04, 2013, 08:57 AM »

In the USA...

February 3, 2013

Broad Powers Seen for Obama in Cyberstrikes


WASHINGTON — A secret legal review on the use of America’s growing arsenal of cyberweapons has concluded that President Obama has the broad power to order a pre-emptive strike if the United States detects credible evidence of a major digital attack looming from abroad, according to officials involved in the review.

That decision is among several reached in recent months as the administration moves, in the next few weeks, to approve the nation’s first rules for how the military can defend, or retaliate, against a major cyberattack. New policies will also govern how the intelligence agencies can carry out searches of faraway computer networks for signs of potential attacks on the United States and, if the president approves, attack adversaries by injecting them with destructive code — even if there is no declared war.

The rules will be highly classified, just as those governing drone strikes have been closely held. John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser and his nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency, played a central role in developing the administration’s policies regarding both drones and cyberwarfare, the two newest and most politically sensitive weapons in the American arsenal.  

Cyberweaponry is the newest and perhaps most complex arms race under way. The Pentagon has created a new Cyber Command, and computer network warfare is one of the few parts of the military budget that is expected to grow. Officials said that the new cyberpolicies had been guided by a decade of evolution in counterterrorism policy, particularly on the division of authority between the military and the intelligence agencies in deploying cyberweapons. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record.

Under current rules, the military can openly carry out counterterrorism missions in nations where the United States operates under the rules of war, like Afghanistan. But the intelligence agencies have the authority to carry out clandestine drone strikes and commando raids in places like Pakistan and Yemen, which are not declared war zones. The results have provoked wide protests.

Mr. Obama is known to have approved the use of cyberweapons only once, early in his presidency, when he ordered an escalating series of cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. The operation was code-named Olympic Games, and while it began inside the Pentagon under President George W. Bush, it was quickly taken over by the National Security Agency, the largest of the intelligence agencies, under the president’s authority to conduct covert action.

As the process of defining the rules of engagement began more than a year ago, one senior administration official emphasized that the United States had restrained its use of cyberweapons. “There are levels of cyberwarfare that are far more aggressive than anything that has been used or recommended to be done,” the official said.

The attacks on Iran illustrated that a nation’s infrastructure can be destroyed without bombing it or sending in saboteurs.

While many potential targets are military, a country’s power grids, financial systems and communications networks can also be crippled. Even more complex, nonstate actors, like terrorists or criminal groups, can mount attacks, and it is often difficult to tell who is responsible. Some critics have said the cyberthreat is being exaggerated by contractors and consultants who see billions in potential earnings.

One senior American official said that officials quickly determined that the cyberweapons were so powerful that — like nuclear weapons — they should be unleashed only on the direct orders of the commander in chief.

A possible exception would be in cases of narrowly targeted tactical strikes by the military, like turning off an air defense system during a conventional strike against an adversary.

“There are very, very few instances in cyberoperations in which the decision will be made at a level below the president,” the official said. That means the administration has ruled out the use of “automatic” retaliation if a cyberattack on America’s infrastructure is detected, even if the virus is traveling at network speeds.

 While the rules have been in development for more than two years, they are coming out at a time of greatly increased cyberattacks on American companies and critical infrastructure. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that an American power station, which it did not name, was crippled for weeks by cyberattacks. The New York Times reported last week that it had been struck, for more than four months, by a cyberattack emanating from China. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have reported similar attacks on their systems.

 “While this is all described in neutral terms — what are we going to do about cyberattacks — the underlying question is, ‘What are we going to do about China?’ ” said Richard Falkenrath, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s a lot of signaling going on between the two countries on this subject.”

International law allows any nation to defend itself from threats, and the United States has applied that concept to conduct pre-emptive attacks.

Pre-emption always has been a disputed legal concept. Most recently Mr. Bush made it a central justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on faulty intelligence about that country’s weapons of mass destruction. Pre-emption in the context of cyberwar raises a potentially bigger quandary, because a country hit by a pre-emptive cyberstrike could easily claim that it was innocent, undermining the justification for the attack. “It would be very hard to provide evidence to the world that you hit some deadly dangerous computer code,” one senior official said.

The implications of pre-emption in cyberwar were specifically analyzed at length in writing the new rules. One major issue involved in the administration’s review, according to one official involved, was defining “what constitutes reasonable and proportionate force” in halting or retaliating against a cyberattack.

During the attacks on Iran’s facilities, which the United States never acknowledged, Mr. Obama insisted that cyberweapons be targeted narrowly, so that they did not affect hospitals or power supplies. Mr. Obama frequently voiced concerns that America’s use of cyberweapons could be used by others as justification for attacks on the United States. The American effort was exposed when the cyberweapon leaked out of the Iranian enrichment center that was attacked, and the “Stuxnet” code replicated millions of times on the Internet.

 Under the new guidelines, the Pentagon would not be involved in defending against ordinary cyberattacks on American companies or individuals, even though it has the largest array of cybertools. Domestically, that responsibility falls to the Department of Homeland Security, and investigations of cyberattacks or theft are carried out by the F.B.I.

But the military, barred from actions within the United States without a presidential order, would become involved in cases of a major cyberattack within the United States. To maintain ambiguity in an adversary’s mind, officials have kept secret what that threshold would be; so far, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has only described the “red line” in the vaguest of terms — as a “cyber 9/11.”

The Obama administration has urged stronger firewalls and other systems to provide a first line of defense, and then “resiliency” in the face of cyberattacks. It failed to get Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation that would have allowed the government to mandate standards.


January 27, 2013

Pentagon Expanding Cybersecurity Force to Protect Networks Against Attacks


WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is moving toward a major expansion of its cybersecurity force to counter increasing attacks on the nation’s computer networks, as well as to expand offensive computer operations on foreign adversaries, defense officials said Sunday.

The expansion would increase the Defense Department’s Cyber Command by more than 4,000 people, up from the current 900, an American official said. Defense officials acknowledged that a formidable challenge in the growth of the command would be finding, training and holding onto such a large number of qualified people.

The Pentagon “is constantly looking to recruit, train and retain world class cyberpersonnel,” a defense official said Sunday.

“The threat is real and we need to react to it,” said William J. Lynn III, a former deputy defense secretary who worked on the Pentagon’s cybersecurity strategy.

As part of the expansion, officials said the Pentagon was planning three different forces under Cyber Command: “national mission forces” to protect computer systems that support the nation’s power grid and critical infrastructure; “combat mission forces” to plan and execute attacks on adversaries; and “cyber protection forces” to secure the Pentagon’s computer systems.

The move, part of a push by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to bolster the Pentagon’s cyberoperations, was first reported on The Washington Post’s Web site.

In October, Mr. Panetta warned in dire terms that the United States was facing the possibility of a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” and was increasingly vulnerable to foreign computer hackers who could dismantle the nation’s power grid, transportation system, financial network and government. He said that “an aggressor nation” or extremist group could cause a national catastrophe, and that he was reacting to increasing assertiveness and technological advances by the nation’s adversaries, which officials identified as China, Russia, Iran and militant groups.

Defense officials said that Mr. Panetta was particularly concerned about a computer attack last August on the state oil company Saudi Aramco, which infected and made useless more than 30,000 computers. In October, American intelligence officials said they were increasingly convinced that the Saudi attacks originated in Iran. They described an emerging shadow war of attacks and counterattacks already under way between the United States and Iran in cyberspace.

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

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

The expansion of Cyber Command comes as the Pentagon is making cuts elsewhere, including in the size of its conventional armed forces.


Al Gore: Democracy has been ‘hacked’ by big business

By The Guardian
Sunday, February 3, 2013 11:51 EST

US democracy has been “hacked” by big business and needs to be reclaimed using the power of the internet to hold politicians to account, according to former US vice-president Al Gore.

He gave a blunt assessment of the extent to which private companies influence decision making in the US. “American politics has fallen into a state of disrepair,” Gore told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in an interview to mark the publication of his new book The Future.

He added: “It can be fixed, but we need to recognise that our democracy has been hacked … It has been taken over … and is being operated for purposes other than those for which it was intended.”

In the interview, Gore alluded to a 2010 US supreme court decision that banned restrictions on political donations by corporations in the name of free speech.

He agreed that US politics has become more divisive. “Certainly the level of partisanship and vitriol has been growing,” Gore said. “And I think it is directly connected to the influence of big money – anonymous contributors, corporations pretending to be people and pursuing their business plans in the guise of politics and encouraging many politicians to say things and do things that would not have been seen in the best interests of the public in years past.”

Gore said his own political ambitions had switched from trying to gain elected office to influencing events from the outside.

He said: “I think you can change [politics] from the outside as well. I think a grassroots movement to demand that politics be opened up, and the role of money be diminished, is really more needed now than anything else.”

Gore said the internet and the revolution in the way we communicate provided a means to rekindle democracy and purge it of corporate influence. His new book identifies global electronic communications as one of six drivers of change.

He told the BBC that it had the potential to be a force for good. “For a variety of reasons democracy has not flourished in the age of television, but the internet changes that, and once again empowers individuals to take part in a robust give-and-take that gives rise to a greater appreciation for the role of reason and facts and logic,” he said.

Gore added: “We see individual bloggers having an impact on policy debates. We see factchecking taking place on the internet that actually does change the way issues are dealt with. Television is still the dominant medium, but particularly with young people the internet is growing by leaps and bounds and I think soon will justify the optimism that individuals empowered by this new communications infrastructure will be able to reclaim their birthrights as free citizens and redeem the promise of representative democracy.”

Gore’s 2006 hit film and book, An Inconvenient Truth, did much to raise awareness of the dangers of climate change.

On the Marr show, stand-in presenter Sian Williams asked Gore to defend the sale last month of his Current TV channel to al-Jazeera – the satellite TV network partly owned by Qatar, a country with the largest per capita carbon footprint in the world.

Gore said that unlike US news networks, al-Jazeera does not carry extensive advertisements from oil companies. “Its climate coverage has been outstanding, and I hope that other networks will be encouraged by the addition of al-Jazeera to the television dial to upgrade their own climate reporting,” Gore said. © Guardian News and Media 2013


Harry Reid endorses universal background checks for gun purchases

By Eric W. Dolan
Sunday, February 3, 2013 10:46 EST

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said Sunday he supported requiring background checks for all gun purchases, but refused to endorse other proposals to curb gun violence.

Licensed gun dealers are required to run federal background checks, but private sellers at gun shows and other venues do not have the same requirement, an issue known as the gun show loophole.

“I think everyone acknowledges we should do something with background checks… We need to increase that,” Reid acknowledged on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “I’m still a supporter of the Second Amendment, but you can do things like that.”

The Democratic leader, however, refused to support the proposed assault weapons ban or restrictions on high-capacity magazines. Reid has voted against similar legislation in the past. He told Stephanopoulos he still needed to review the current gun control proposals.

“Let’s not limit this conversation to only guns,” he added. “There are other issues, very important this issue — mental health. I mean, gee whiz. We’ve gotta do something on that. That’s certainly the truth.”

At a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor last week, NRA president David Keene noted the organization had a “relatively friendly relationship with” Reid. Keene said that the senator was “under incredible pressure” over the issue of gun control and it was “anybody’s guess” on whether he would support the current proposals.


February 3, 2013

From State to State, Varied Responses to the Issue of Gun Violence


Although the debate over curbing gun violence after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., is breaking down mostly along partisan lines in the nation’s statehouses — with several Democratic governors calling for stricter gun laws and most Republicans urging tighter security or revamped mental health policies — the handful of exceptions show the political and geographical complexities of the issue.

More than a dozen governors invoked the Newtown school shooting in their State of the State addresses in recent weeks, and most have weighed in on the shooting in other forums.

Several Democratic governors, mainly along the East Coast, are calling for banning some semiautomatic weapons or large-capacity magazines, while several Republican governors have pressed for other measures, noting their opposition to more restrictive gun laws.

But the state-level debate has not always followed party lines.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican who is mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, recently noted that he had long supported his state’s laws, which he described as “some of the toughest gun-control measures in place in the country.”

Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, a Democrat, was quoted after the shooting as saying that his “reading of the Constitution is that it provides a complete permission for any law-abiding citizen to possess firearms, whichever ones he or she chooses, and the ammunition to go with that.”

Another Democrat, Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas, is likely to sign a bill working its way through the Republican-controlled legislature that would allow people to take concealed handguns into churches that choose to allow them.

But a more traditional party-line approach is being taken elsewhere. Democratic governors in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Massachusetts are among those calling for stricter gun laws, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has already won the passage of sweeping gun measures since the Newtown shooting.

“Who can watch the sad images of the last several weeks, who can see the pictures of those young faces, and honestly say that we are doing enough?” Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a Democrat, asked in his State of the State address last week. Mr. O’Malley urged state lawmakers to ban the sale of “military-style assault weapons,” require licenses for buying handguns, bolster mental health treatment and information sharing, and spend more on school security.

Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, a Republican who took office this year, said in his speech that he would seek additional money in the state budget for “a comprehensive school safety review,” but he made it clear that he would oppose limiting access to guns.

“All of us were heartbroken after every parent’s worst nightmare unfolded in Newtown, Conn.,” said Mr. Pence, a former congressman. “While others have rushed to the well-worn arguments over gun control, Hoosiers know this is not about access to firearms. It is about access to schools. Hoosiers have responsibilities to protect our kids, and Hoosiers have rights. We will protect our kids, and we will protect our rights.”

On the federal level, the Obama administration’s push for stronger gun laws faces tough opposition in the Republican-controlled House and garnered a muted reaction even from the Senate’s top Democrat.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, in an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” said, “I want to get something done on guns.” But on specific measures, his language was guarded.

He noted that he had opposed the 1994 ban on assault weapons but would consider one now. On restricting high-capacity magazines, he said, “I think that’s something we definitely have to take a look at.” Regarding universal background checks, he said, “Yeah, we need to increase that.”

But as a gun owner himself, Mr. Reid said he would not allow the influence of the National Rifle Association to prevent the Senate from acting.

As a polarized Washington debates President Obama’s proposals, the state-level debate is also unfolding at an unusually partisan moment, with more states controlled by just one party than at any time in the past six decades. Republicans have the upper hand, holding the governor’s office and legislative majorities in 24 states, while the Democrats control both the executive and legislative branches in just 13 states. The stark divide can be seen in many of the bills being weighed in states this year.

In Tennessee, which is controlled by Republicans, lawmakers have introduced bills that would allow school employees to carry guns, let people keep guns and ammunition locked in their cars in public and private parking lots, and bar state money from being used to enforce any new federal law or executive order that “imposes restrictions on citizens who lawfully possess or carry firearms in this state.”

In heavily Democratic Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick is calling for legislation to ban magazines containing more than seven rounds, require background checks for private gun sales and limit people to buying one gun a month. In his address to lawmakers, he said the proposals would “help stop tragedies like Newtown or the recent shooting of a 13-year-old boy in Roxbury on his way to choir practice.”

Most Republicans said they had drawn other lessons from the Newtown shooting. Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, a Republican, said in her speech that “the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was unimaginable” but rejected calls for stricter gun laws.

“Arizonans have reduced crime by punishing criminals, and not by infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners,” she said.

Ms. Brewer focused instead on school safety, saying her budget would call for more money for school resource officers to provide security. “Our job now is to take common-sense steps that lessen the likelihood of a similar tragedy striking Arizona — while resisting the urge to turn a school into a fortress,” she said.

Gov. C. L. Otter of Idaho alluded to the Newtown shooting in his address as he called for building a 579-bed mental health facility at a prison complex south of Boise.

“We all saw just a few weeks ago the terrible impact on a community and a nation when mental illness leads to tragedy,” Mr. Otter said, echoing a commonly held belief, although the authorities have not described the mental state of Adam Lanza, the Newtown gunman, or said if he suffered from mental illness. Mr. Otter also ordered a review of school safety.

Some Democratic governors have said they are holding out hope for a federal law. Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont, the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association who was endorsed last year by the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund, has opposed taking action on gun laws at the state level but has said he supports Mr. Obama’s recommendations.

And Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, a Democrat who has said he would pursue measures on gun control, school safety and mental health in response to the shooting that killed 20 first graders and six educators in his state, said those issues must be addressed at the national level. “As long as weapons continue to travel up and down I-95,” he told lawmakers, “what is available for sale in Florida or Virginia can have devastating consequences here in Connecticut.”


February 3, 2013

Tax Loopholes May Be Next, Obama Says


WASHINGTON — President Obama said in a televised interview on Sunday that he could foresee a budget deal in Congress that did not include further increases in tax rates but instead focused on eliminating loopholes and deductions.

Mr. Obama has generally insisted that all revenue options, including higher rates, should be considered to slow the rise of federal budget deficits. But in the interview with Scott Pelley of CBS News, he said, “I don’t think the issue right now is raising rates.”

Having just raised rates on people earning more than $450,000 a year, Mr. Obama said the focus now should be on targeted spending cuts and changes to the tax code, which he said favored the wealthy.

“Can we close some loopholes and deductions that folks who are well connected and have a lot of accountants and lawyers can take advantage of so they end up paying lower rates than a bus driver or a cop?” Mr. Obama said in the 10-minute interview in the White House.

“If you combine those things together,” Mr. Obama said, a budget deal could reduce the deficit “without raising rates again.”

Still, Mr. Obama did not rule out tax increases, saying, “There’s no doubt we need additional revenue.”

Republicans, having acquiesced to the tax increase in the year-end budget deal, are now insisting that further deficit reduction must come through spending cuts.

Budget experts say that to raise substantial revenue through loopholes and deductions, lawmakers would have to focus on deductions on mortgage interest payments and charitable donations.

Mr. Obama said the continuing fiscal crisis in Washington was to blame for the contraction in the nation’s economy in the last quarter of 2012.


February 3, 2013

Vast Oil Reserve May Now Be Within Reach, and Battle Heats Up


FELLOWS, Calif. — Secure in this state’s history and mythology, the venerable Midway-Sunset oil field near here keeps producing crude more than a century after Southern California’s oil boom. Many of its bobbing pump jacks are relatively short, a telltale sign of the shallowness of the wells and the ease of extracting their prize.

But away from this forest of pump jacks on a flat, brown landscape, a road snakes up into nearby hills that are largely untouched — save for a handful of exploratory wells pumping oil from depths many times those of Midway-Sunset’s. These wells are tapping crude directly from what is called the Monterey Shale, which could represent the future of California’s oil industry — and a potential arena for conflict between drillers and the state’s powerful environmental interests.

At one such exploratory site, tall pump jacks stood above two active wells on a small patch of federal land. For now, the operator, Venoco, has been storing the oil in two large tanks. But construction is scheduled to start soon on pipelines, and more wells are planned.

Comprising two-thirds of the United States’s total estimated shale oil reserves and covering 1,750 square miles from Southern to Central California, the Monterey Shale could turn California into the nation’s top oil-producing state and yield the kind of riches that far smaller shale oil deposits have showered on North Dakota and Texas.

For decades, oilmen have been unable to extricate the Monterey Shale’s crude because of its complex geological formation, which makes extraction quite expensive. But as the oil industry’s technological advances succeed in unlocking oil from increasingly difficult locations, there is heady talk that California could be in store for a new oil boom.

Established companies are expanding into the Monterey Shale, while newcomers are opening offices in Bakersfield, the capital of California’s oil industry, about 40 miles east of here. With oil prices remaining high, landmen are buying up leases on federal land, sometimes bidding more than a thousand dollars an acre in auctions that used to fetch the minimum of $2.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in the last three to five years in the price paid from our sales,” said Gabriel Garcia, assistant field manager at the federal Bureau of Land Management’s office in Bakersfield. “Some of that has to do with speculation on new technologies, and some of that has to do with the high price of oil.”

The Monterey Shale has also galvanized California’s powerful environmental groups. They are pressing the state to strictly regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the drilling technique that has fueled the shale oil and gas boom elsewhere but has drawn opposition from many environmentalists. In December, the State Department of Conservation released a draft of fracking rules, the first step in a yearlong process to establish regulations.

Severin Borenstein, a co-director of the Energy Institute at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, said technological advances and the high price of oil were driving interest in the Monterey Shale, just as elsewhere.

“Everyone has known that there is shale oil not just in the Monterey Shale but also in North Dakota and Wyoming and all over the country,” he said. “Back in the ‘70s, there were discussions that there’s all this oil and all we’ve got to do is get it. Now 40 years later, the technologies have become available to actually get it in a cost-effective way.”

While oil is found less than 2,000 feet below the surface in fields like Midway-Sunset, companies must pump down to between 6,000 and 15,000 to tap shale oil in the Monterey.

Though production has been declining for years, California remains the country’s fourth-largest oil-producing state, after Texas, North Dakota and Alaska. So far, little of the crude is derived from the Monterey Shale, whose untapped deposits are estimated at 15.4 billion barrels, or more than four times the reserves of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.

“There are billions of barrels of oil buried in the Monterey Shale, and as far as I know, nobody’s been able to find it yet,” said Neil Ormond, the president of Petroleum Land Management, a company based in Clovis, Calif. “But I think there’s going to be more people looking for it. You can’t let a few dry holes discourage the whole thing, because if you find oil, you make money.”

A landman, Mr. Ormond bought leases on more than 10,000 acres of federal land in an auction organized by the Bureau of Land Management. Landmen usually work for oil companies, acquiring leases that allow them to explore and drill for oil.

Landmen have also been increasingly approaching individual landowners and buying mineral rights, though these private transactions are hard to track, said Tim Kustic, California’s state oil and gas supervisor.

“That’s an early precursor to an increase in exploration and drilling activity,” Mr. Kustic said.

The two companies with the biggest stakes in the Monterey Shale, Occidental Petroleum and Venoco, are increasing their exploration efforts, including a joint three-dimensional seismic survey of one area.

Companies with experience exploiting the Bakken Shale, including the New York-based Hess, have recently set up operations in Bakersfield, too. Jon Pepper, a spokesman for Hess, said it was “too early to talk in any definitive way” about the company’s plans in the Monterey Shale.

But the oil companies’ plans for the Monterey Shale are already drawing increasing scrutiny from environmental groups. Though oil companies have engaged in fracking in California for decades, the process was only loosely monitored by state regulators.

The Monterey Shale’s geological formation will require companies to engage in more intensive fracking and deeper, horizontal drilling, a dangerous prospect in a seismically active region like California, environmental groups say.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, are suing the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Conservation to prevent the opening up of further land to oil exploration and to enforce stricter environmental practices.

“If and when the oil companies figure out how to exploit that shale oil, California could be transformed almost overnight,” said Kassie Siegel, a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Fracking poisons the air we breathe and the water we drink. It is one of the most, if not the most, important environmental issue in California.”

Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobbying group, said oil companies had safely used fracking for decades in California, mostly combined with traditional vertical drilling.

“Nobody can point to any incident or impact that has taken place,” Mr. Hull said.

After the California Department of Conservation released its draft of fracking regulations, environmental groups criticized a clause that would allow companies not to disclose the chemicals used in fracking to protect trade secrets.

Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the Department of Conservation, said companies seeking to withhold such information would have to adhere to the state’s trade secret protection laws.

“The baseline assumption of these regulations is the disclosure of what’s in the fluids,” he said. “It should be the exception when someone is trying to exercise a trade secret protection.”


January 31, 2013

North Dakota Went Boom


Long before the full frenzy of the boom, you could see its harbingers at the Mountrail County courthouse in Stanley, N.D. Geologists had pored over core samples and log signatures and had made their educated guesses, and now it was the hour of the “landmen,” the men and women whose job was to dig through courthouse books for the often-tangled history of mineral title and surface rights.

Apart from a few fanatics who sometimes turned up at midnight, the landmen would begin arriving at the courthouse around 6 a.m. In the dead of winter, it would still be dark and often 20 or 30 below zero, and because the courthouse didn’t open until 7:30, the landmen would leave their briefcases outside the entrance, on the steps, in the order they arrived. And then they would go back to their cars and trucks to wait with the engines running, their faces wreathed in coffee steam. Sometimes there were more than 20 briefcases filed on the courthouse steps. The former landman who told me this — Brent Brannan, now director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Research Program — said he sometimes thought he could see the whole boom in that one image, briefcases waiting for the day to start, and it killed him a little that he never took a picture.

For many years North Dakota has been a frontier — not the classic 19th-century kind based on American avarice and the lure of opportunity in unsettled lands, but the kind that comes afterward, when a place has been stripped bare or just forgotten because it was a hard garden that no one wanted too much to begin with, and now it has reverted to the wilderness that widens around dying towns. In a way, of course, this kind of frontier is as much a state of mind as an actual place, a melancholy mood you can’t shake as you drive all day in a raw spring rain with nothing but fence posts and featureless cattle range for company thinking, Is this all there is? until finally you get out at some windswept intersection and gratefully fall on the fellowship of a dog-faced bar with a jukebox of songs about people on their way to somewhere else.

All of which may explain the shock of coming around a bend and suddenly finding a derrick illuminated at night, or a gas flare framed by stars, or dozens of neatly ranked trailers in a “man camp,” or a vast yard of drill pipe, or a herd of water trucks, or tracts of almost-finished single-family homes with Tyvek paper flapping in the wind of what just yesterday was a wheat field. North Dakota has had oil booms before but never one so big, never one that rivaled the land rush precipitated more than a century ago by the transcontinental railroads, never one that so radically changed the subtext of the Dakota frontier from the Bitter Past That Was to the Better Future That May Yet Be.

It’s hard to think of what oil hasn’t done to life in the small communities of western North Dakota, good and bad. It has minted millionaires, paid off mortgages, created businesses; it has raised rents, stressed roads, vexed planners and overwhelmed schools; it has polluted streams, spoiled fields and boosted crime. It has confounded kids running lemonade stands: 50 cents a cup but your customer has only hundreds in his payday wallet. Oil has financed multimillion-dollar recreation centers and new hospital wings. It has fitted highways with passing lanes and rumble strips. It has forced McDonald’s to offer bonuses and brought job seekers from all over the country — truck drivers, frack hands, pipe fitters, teachers, manicurists, strippers. It has ginned up an unreleased reality show called “Boomtown Girls,” which follows the lives of “five bold and brave sisters” in the formerly drowsy farm center of Williston, N.D. Williston, whose population has tripled in the past 10 years, lies in the middle of the 150,000-square-mile Williston Basin, a depression in the crust of the earth that geologists now believe contains one of the largest oil fields in the world.

In the fall of 2011 in Crosby, N.D., Continental Resources, the oil company with the most acreage leased in the basin, erected a self-congratulatory granite monument celebrating its work in the so-called Bakken Formation, the Williston Basin rocks that, as Continental put it, ushered in “a new era in the American oil industry.” The number of rigs drilling new wells in North Dakota’s part of the basin reached a record 218 last May. It has now leveled off at around 200, as thousands of wells have been completed under deadline pressure to secure expiring mineral leases. Many thousands more will be spudded in the next two years as the boom moves from discovery to production and crews drill “infill” wells, complete pipelines, fortify roads, enlarge refineries and build natural-gas pumping stations and oil-loading train yards.

North Dakota’s last oil boom, 30 years ago, collapsed so quickly when prices crashed that workers in the small city of Dickinson left the coffee in their cups when they quit their trailers. Apostles of “Bakken gold” insist that what’s different this time is that this time is different, the history of frontier avarice notwithstanding. This is the boom that is going to change everything without the remorse and misgivings that have marked the aftermath of so many past orgies of resource extraction. This is the boom that won’t leave the land trashed, won’t destroy communities, won’t afflict the state with the so-called Dutch Disease in which natural-resource development and the sugar rush of fast cash paradoxically make other parts of the economy less competitive and more difficult to sustain. This is the boom being managed by local people certain they know how to look after their interests and safeguard the land they live on. This is the Big One that North Dakota has been waiting for for more than a century.

“This is our time,” Clay S. Jenkinson told me one morning over coffee at a Bismarck Starbucks, where he often goes to write. Jenkinson, a humanities professor, is a North Dakota author and columnist best known for his impersonation of Thomas Jefferson on public radio. “It’s our gold rush, our Silicon Valley. It reverses decades of anxiety about out-migration and rural decline and death. Suddenly the state that never had anything is in the middle of an oil boom that is larger than anybody could have predicted. We aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize it. People aren’t interested in stepping back.”

You won’t find a better ambassador of what the oil industry calls “the play” in western North Dakota than Loren Kopseng. Kopseng — 65, a deer hunter, a Bud Light drinker, a profane churchgoer with four kids and two ex-wives — refers to himself as a “petro-preneur.” The oil company he started almost 30 years ago is headquartered in Bismarck, but the thrilling part of his billion-dollar business is based 100 miles northwest in the Williston Basin. Kopseng is a conservative Republican, and like many North Dakotans, he includes government regulation in the same category of pleasant experiences as droughts, floods, grasshoppers and prairie fires. But he’s honest enough to concede (with an anguished moan) that his private-enterprise principles aren’t hypocrisy-free, given that his own bacon has been saved “many times” by the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, which became prominent when North Dakota was a bastion of radical agrarian populism in the 1930s.

It was with a touch of truant glee that Kopseng skipped out of his office to fly me around the oil fields on a windy morning last spring. He pulled on a green Fighting Sioux sweatshirt and climbed into the cockpit of his Aviat Husky, a maroon-and-yellow single-engine plane with two seats, one behind the other.

And then we were off, banking over the low-slung rooftops that ring the state’s Capitol, an 18-story stone-and-concrete landmark built in 1934. North Dakotans are as proud of their Capitol as they are of their boom-based unemployment rate (3.2 percent, lowest in the nation), and many were stung when a Minnesota state legislator last spring compared it to the headquarters of an insurance company.

We crossed the Missouri River, the plane beating on above a sea of grass. Infinity nagged at the scale of things. It was almost possible to imagine the land as it appeared to Lewis and Clark when the Corps of Discovery came up the Missouri in 1804 — but only if you looked past the toy-size trucks crawling west on Interstate 94 with drill pipe and water tanks; and the locomotives lumbering east with hundred-unit trains of black oil-tanker cars in tow. The westward march of American industry was written in the quarters of plowed earth and section line roads, in the power-transmission towers and smoke-signal steam puffs drifting from a Tesoro refinery; it was visible even on the far horizon, at the edge of a fretted but still bracing emptiness, in the shape of giant windmills and the silhouette of a coal gasification plant. Each and all were contemporary manifestations of an economic imperative that dates back to the triumph of the treaty breakers who usurped the Native Americans and commodified the land, and to the waves that came in their wake, the great white hunters who cleaned out the buffalo, the agents of the bone boom that followed who sent trainloads of buffalo skeletons back East to be used to refine sugar, the iron-horse magnates, the immigrant farmers and pioneer ranchers ruined by the “dirty ’30s,” and later the first oil and lignite coal barons and the government dam builders who tamed the Missouri.

“Keep an eye out for radio towers,” Kopseng said over the headset.

Flying was Kopseng’s dream job before he got the idea of building an oil company. He began studying for his pilot’s license as a freshman in college. When he graduated (sidetracked for a year and a half by a stint in the Army that included seven months in Vietnam), one of his first jobs was flying a small plane for a highway contractor. He always worked — he helped his parents run apartment buildings in Bismarck, and for six summers starting at age 12, he fed the chickens and pigs and bucked hay and branded cattle at his grandparents’ ranch in Slope County in the western part of the state.

Kopseng first came down with oil fever in the late 1970s, when fortunes were being made domestically in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo. He struggled for five years, learning expensive lessons. “I had a lot of lemonade wells,” he sighed. He went broke twice, maxed out his credit cards and even borrowed money from his mother — loans that came with sharp remarks about his clothes and hair. After he married and started a family, it was his wife’s friends who looked at him sideways. While they were buying houses and investing in mutual funds, he was in debt-work-out negotiations with Halliburton.

“I embarrassed myself,” he said.

In 1984, at a particularly low ebb, he met Don Russell, a merchant from Mandan, who’d done well in the not-obviously-related businesses of peddling tires and packing meat. Russell, who died in 2011, also wanted to get into oil and gas. The timing might not have seemed auspicious; companies were quitting the Williston Basin, unable to sell their product for more than it cost to produce. But with Russell handling the financial end, Kopseng began accumulating distressed oil and gas wells. He brokered oil-field equipment; he bought and sold leases; he jumped into the natural-gas market just as it was being deregulated. In 1997 he and Russell consolidated various energy-related businesses into the privately held United Energy Corporation.

U.E.C. hasn’t drilled a well of its own since 1998, but today it holds a nonoperating interest in close to 2,000 oil and gas wells. It transports by rail 82,000 barrels of oil a day to refineries. In 2012 the company earned a net profit of $44.8 million on revenues of $5.7 billion. Best of all, in a state where until recently young people often had to leave to find work, his two sons — Ryan, an oilman, and Sander, a lawyer — joined the company and built successful careers down the hall.

As the Husky droned west, the land began to change, growing drier, farms giving way to ranches. Below was the country of the Missouri Slope, where homesteaders discovered the fallacy that rain followed the plow.

And then suddenly there were oil wells. Well after well, 6,000 or more. Many were production wells — weathered pump jacks pulling up oil (or natural gas and natural-gas liquids) from holes drilled over the years. New or freshly painted pump jacks were nodding over recent discoveries. At that moment, 209 rigs were drilling fresh holes. Wells being hydraulically fractured were ringed by 20 or more water tanks spread out on square mounds of brick-red “scoria” — a clay sintered by underground coal fires and used for drill pads and roads in North Dakota. Some well sites were tucked in the lee of ravines or perched on bluffs or strung out along the line of a county road, one per mile, like square coasters on a bar.

North of the Missouri River, around the town of Parshall in Mountrail County, the wells started almost on a line that coincided roughly with the 102nd meridian. South of the river, the boundary was marked by Highway 49.

“That’s the line of death,” Kopseng said. “The edge of the thermally mature part of the oil field. If you drill to the east of that, you’re dead.”

He banked the Husky over a pennant of flare gas fire, and from the size of the flame estimated the well was producing 1,500 barrels of oil per day. More than a third of the gas that comes out of the oil wells in the basin was being flared off, but that percentage is declining as pipelines and facilities to proc­ess it come online. Night satellite photographs that were once pitch-black now show a massive gas flare luminance in the northwest corner of the state. In July the World Bank reported that flared gas from the Williston Basin was the main reason the United States has jumped to 5th from 14th (behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq) on the list of gas-flaring nations. This practice raises the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the gas primarily responsible for global warming.

Yet in the midst of so much empty, untrammeled land, the roaring fires and messy drill pads didn’t evoke images of industrial blight like the apocalyptic black wastes of the Alberta tar-sands operations or the eaten-off mountaintops of West Virginia coal country, or for that matter, the landscape of New Jersey around the port of Newark. From the Husky, it was easy to overlook environmental issues and fathom the appeal of oil development — easy to see the allure of a derrick dressed up in lights and looming 10 stories over a desolate landscape where the leading academic solution to social and economic stagnation had been to surrender and let the land lapse into buffalo commons.

We circled around the southern end of the basin above Dickinson, then flew west and north above the willows in the ravines and coulees of the Little Missouri River. Green junipers blazed on the broken rainbow clay and sandstone cliffs of the North Dakota Badlands, where 26-year-old Theodore Roosevelt came in 1884 to recuperate after the deaths of his wife and his mother on the same day. The two ranches he acquired are now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

We skimmed along the Montana border, then banked east over the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Kopseng took pictures — he’d done all the aerial photography for U.E.C.’s annual report. Rodeo winds were bucking the Husky all over the sky, but nothing could dampen his enthusiasm for the sights of the basin — nothing save my stomach. There was undisguised horror in Kopseng’s voice when he realized I had been obliged to open an airsickness bag in the back seat.

We put down at the Williston airport and hiked across a dirt lot full of mud-caked water trucks. Two dozen horn-handed men were bent over their lunches in an airport-motel restaurant; the only women in the place were the waitresses.

“People asked me why I don’t gamble,” Kopseng said, digging into his lunch. “I don’t need to gamble because the oil and gas business is gambling. But it’s also geology, chemistry, business. Every day is different.”

After the plane was replenished with $147 worth of aviation gas, we headed east toward Bismarck. Down below, dust clouds were boiling around a convoy of trucks hauling frack water and equipment on a county road. A decade ago you could have spread a picnic blanket on a lot of back roads in western North Dakota and safely taken a nap.

They have been through this before, the people of North Dakota, first in the ’60s, a decade after oil was discovered in the state. And then again in the late ’70s, when the boom was driven by rising oil prices. Monthly oil production, which peaked in 1984 at 4.6 million barrels, fell to half and then went sideways for nearly a quarter-century. By February 1999, there wasn’t a single rig drilling new wells in the state, and oil development looked to be yet another cautionary tale in the familiar boom-and-bust history of the region — no better than previous resource bonanzas at stemming the exodus of young people, or at halting the decline of prairie towns, or at doing much of anything to ameliorate the image of a place where the Legislature brooded over the icy connotations of the word “North” and twice entertained the idea of simply calling the state “Dakota.”

And then around seven years ago — driven by technological refinements that have made North Dakota a premier laboratory for coaxing oil from stingy rocks — the state’s Bakken boom began in Mountrail County. At the time, North Dakota was ranked ninth among U.S. oil-producing states. By 2010 it had climbed to fourth. In July 2012, monthly oil output reached 20.97 million barrels, and North Dakota was the largest oil producer in the country after Texas.

Viewed in the global market, the state’s oil output isn’t huge — Saudi Arabia produces about 10 million barrels a day — but North Dakota’s oil boom now accounts for 11 percent of U.S. oil production, and it is the main reason the state government currently has a $3.8 billion surplus.

What may be even more remarkable than the growth of the past two years is the extent to which the oil comes from one group of rocks. Of the 20 oil-producing geological formations in the Williston Basin — including some like the Madison that have yielded large volumes of oil for decades — the Bakken Formation now accounts for 91 percent of North Dakota’s oil production.

None of the Bakken rocks are visible on the surface — at their deepest they lie more than two miles underground — but outcrops of the brand can be seen everywhere in restaurants like Bakken Buffet, Bakken Residence Suites and a plague of Rockin’ the Bakken bumper stickers. The formation, named for Henry O. Bakken, a farmer who leased his land for an early well, consists of three layers, sandwiched, in a commonly used analogy, like an Oreo cookie. The Middle Bakken layer, a band of grayish dolomitic sandstone and siltstone from 30 to 70 feet thick, sits between the Upper and Lower Bakken intervals, carbon-rich beds of black shale between 20 and 50 feet thick.

Petroleum geologists have known the cookie was full of light, sulfur-free oil since 1953, but they didn’t know exactly how much or how to extract it economically. Most of the Bakken oil is “tight.” The rocks are not porous and permeable enough for the oil to flow on its own. If you hold a piece of Middle Bakken, it’s hard to believe it contains oil at all, or that it could function as a “reservoir” for oil migrating under pressure from the carbon-rich shale around it. It feels as hard as a flagstone terrace. But under ultraviolet light, you can see telltale “oil shows,” and it has a faint smell of diesel fuel.

Significant amounts of Bakken oil were produced from conventional vertical wells beginning in 1961, but for many years the formation was considered problematic: you had to be lucky or skillful enough to find an area of the shale that was naturally fractured. Generally the formation was too thin to provide a worthwhile pay zone for a vertical well.

What made people rethink the viability of the Bakken was horizontal drilling. The first horizontal well in the Bakken was spudded by Meridian Oil in 1987, long before the current boom. Meridian engineers went down more than 10,000 feet and then burrowed sideways into a bed of Upper Bakken shale that was only eight feet thick. Later, as improved instruments gave drillers a more precise sense of where they were and what kind of rock they were in, they were able to steer drill bits between the black halves of the Oreo. The sandstone of the Middle Bakken retained the shape of the drill bore better than the Bakken shale. Approached from the side with a horizontal shaft, the reservoir rock could be contacted for thousands of feet rather than for the hundred or so feet a vertical well would afford. The Bakken today contains some of the longest horizontal wells in the world, “laterals” that extend as far as three miles from the drill pad to otherwise unreachable oil under Lake Sakakawea or beneath the Williston airport.

Impressive as it is to execute a 90-degree turn in a well bore thousands of feet underground, horizontal drilling alone was not enough to tap the tight oil in the Bakken. About 95 percent of the Bakken won’t yield its oil unless millions of gallons of pressurized water full of sand and various chemicals are pumped down the well to crack open hairline channels. (The sand, or proppant, props the channels open.) The first areas of the Bakken to be hydraulically fractured were on the Montana side of the Williston Basin in the Elm Coulee Field, where oil was discovered in 2000. Early treatments there were called “Hail Mary fracks” because geologists and engineers would just drill a well, pump in frack fluid and pray for a robust result. The technique is more exact now. Certain grades of sand or sometimes proppant made of ceramic beads are matched to certain kinds of rock, and the wells are fracked in stages, as many as 40 stages per well.

Just how much oil is in the Bakken is still unknown. Estimates have been continuously revised upward since a 1974 figure of 10 billion barrels. Leigh Price, a United States Geological Survey geochemist, was initially greeted with skepticism when, about 13 years ago, he came to the conclusion that the Bakken might hold as much as 503 billion barrels of oil. Now people don’t think that number is as crazy as it seemed.

“Right now our best guess is there are 169 billion barrels of oil in the Bakken, and that’s undoubtedly wrong,” says Ed Murphy, state geologist at the North Dakota Geological Survey. “There’s no way to be right. It’s like guessing how many jelly beans are in a jar.”

The current recovery rates for Bakken reserves typically range from 1 to 6 percent, but recovery rates are a function of both technology and market prices. “With the best technology, we can recover 4 to 8 out of every 100 barrels of oil in the Bakken,” says Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. “Every 1 percent increase in the rate of recovery means another billion barrels.”

As long as prices stay above $60 a barrel or so, oil will be a mainstay of the North Dakota economy for a generation or more. After drilling companies finish securing leased acreage, it will take 20 years to develop the 35,000 to 40,000 production wells needed to fully exploit the “thermally mature” part of the Bakken shale, an area about the size of West Virginia. Production from a typical Bakken well declines rapidly but on average produces modest amounts of oil for 45 years and earns a profit of $20 million. But as the volume of oil in the Bakken shale is still a moving target, and recovery techniques are increasingly sophisticated, some estimates put the life of the Bakken play, and the attendant upheaval it is causing in North Dakota, at upward of a hundred years.

One rainy May morning, I headed out to see the oil patch by car, driving north from Bismarck 110 miles to Minot, then west on Route 2. Some of the most tangible effects of the boom have been tattooed into the roads. Officials calculate that each well in western North Dakota requires about 2,000 truck trips in its first year of operation. Multiply that by hundreds of annual new wells, and it’s clear why county and state highway departments are engaged in an epic struggle against potholes, rutting, asphalt shoving, alligator cracking and other pavement maladies. The biggest danger on many dirt and gravel roads is blinding plumes of dust. Many potions have been concocted to suppress the stuff. The dust busters in Williams County discovered that spraying a soy-based oil works well, but it isn’t practical because it makes the roads taste so good that cows come out of the fields and try to eat them.

Traffic used to be so scarce that drivers would wave as they passed an oncoming car; now there are record numbers of accidents. To assess the impact, the state highway department has a special van that drives around with an onboard computer, an infrared detector and six cameras and produces a ride rating for every mile of the region’s highways; the higher the number, the worse the ride. “I said I was just going to coast into retirement, and then all hell broke loose,” says Walt Peterson, the Williston district engineer for the highway department.

The rain lifted outside Stanley at the junction of Route 2 and Highway 8 — stretches of which had the worst road ratings in the state. I stopped for gas at a Cenex convenience store called Bakken Central, where help was wanted for all days, all shifts. Water trucks in the parking lot wore petticoats of mud. Inside, sooty-faced roughnecks with pale circles around their eyes and dazed expressions wandered through the aisles with armloads of beef jerky and 20-ounce cans of malt liquor. The store was selling showers: a half-hour of hot water for 10 bucks; $15 for a couple. Across the highway, workers were pouring concrete for a new Fuel Force gas station and rolling out sod on a fresh tract of homes.

Seventy-two miles beyond Stanley, I pulled into Williston, which proudly advertises itself as the boyhood home of the N.B.A. coach Phil Jackson. It’s all but impossible to find a place to stay in Williston, but on weekends many oil workers clear out, and I was lucky to get a motel room with a cracked plastic bathtub that had been cleverly patched with duct tape. Pickup trucks were waiting in long lines for drive-through dinners at Hardee’s.

One morning, Ward Koeser, president of the Williston City Commission, offered to show me around. Koeser, a 63-year-old former math teacher whose grandfather came to North Dakota to farm in 1901, started a communications company that sold field radios during the oil boom of the early ’80s. He was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 1994 and returned to office five times.

“We had 12,500 people in the 2000 census, and we wanted to grow beyond that,” he said, heading to the northern edge of town. “We tried to diversify our economy and create more permanent jobs. We brought in a plant to split and polish peas. We hosted events for developers and growers — farmers in the area grow lentils and potatoes and durum wheat — but we couldn’t get beyond 12,500. The downtown area was struggling for 25 years. Young people were leaving and not coming back, and farmers were moving to town and retiring. We were a graying community. Now. . . . ”

He seemed stunned by the pace of change; or maybe just exhausted. The twice-a-month town-commissioner meetings that used to take 45 minutes can now run from 6 p.m. to midnight. “We have 800 to 900 new houses coming onto the city tax rolls by the end of the summer,” Koeser told me as we drove around some of the embryonic neighborhoods. They had names like Bakken Heights and Harvest Hills. The city had to be careful, he said, because during the last boom, Williston got stuck with $28 million in debt after putting in streets and sewers for housing developers who bailed when oil prices collapsed. But now, land near the airport that was $500 an acre a decade ago was selling for as much as $180,000 an acre; the airport itself was slated for relocation. The town bought a 20-room apartment complex so that new city workers could have a place to live and was obliged to offer prospective police officers a housing allowance of $350 a month. Williston has hired nine cops in the last two years, trying to keep up with the crime rate, which was booming along with everything else. (Aggravated assaults in the oil patch doubled in four years.)

Koeser pulled over in the middle of a neighborhood that was nothing but curbs and driveways and empty lots.

“This whole area was a field two years ago,” he said. “By this fall every one of these lots will have a house. I love construction and new buildings. It’s new life, new families moving in. But it’s just happening too fast. Every master plan the city has prepared is obsolete by the time it’s printed. You’d like to have more time to think things through, but everybody is in such a rush.”
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