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02/18/2013 05:05 PM

Zero Hour at the Vatican: A Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church

With Pope Benedict XVI's resignation drawing closer, the struggle for power in the Vatican has gotten underway in earnest. The church badly needs to reform itself, but with Ratzinger lurking in the shadows, will it be able to? By SPIEGEL Staff

Naked and goaded viciously by hornets and wasps, his blood sucked by loathsome worms. Such was the fate of a pope in Dante's "Divine Comedy" who "by his cowardice made the great refusal."

Benedict XVI, in short, knew what could happen to one who rebelled against a centuries-old tradition in a church in which suffering is far from foreign. But he also knew that it wasn't just a matter of his own suffering -- it was a matter of the exhaustion, weakness and sickness of the church at large.

The pope from Bavaria has given up. Nevertheless, when he announced his resignation last Monday, hastily and almost casually mumbling the words as if he were saying a rosary, as if he were returning the keys to a rental car rather than the keys to St. Peter, there was still a sense of how deeply his move has shaken the Catholic empire.

Archbishop of Berlin Rainer Maria Woelki calls it a "demystification of the papal office." Already, he says, the pope's resignation has changed the church.

So was it an act of liberation? A handful of bishops have, cautiously, made their voices heard. Gebhard Fürst, the bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, called for reforms to promote the advancement of women. Although he didn't demand that women be allowed to become priests, Fürst did suggest that more women assume leadership positions in the church.

German bishops will convene for their spring meeting in the southwestern city of Trier this week. Conflicting groups are already taking shape within the German church, with fundamentalists battling reformers, and with everyone anxiously determined to preserve or expand his vested rights under a new pontiff.

And the desire for change is palpable. "A pope can be a theologian, a minister or a general," says a prominent German cardinal, and he makes it clear that he has seen enough of philosopher-popes for now. "A general is needed to lead the universal church."

Silent Battle

A shift is taking place in the otherwise immovable Catholic Church. A global struggle has begun over the prerogative of interpretation, opportunities, legacy and positions -- a silent battle for Rome.

The ultimate effects of the pope's resignation are thus far impossible to predict. But it is clear that previous certainties will now be up for debate -- certainties that were once just as firm as the understanding that the position of pope was for life.

In the modern age, a pope has never resigned from the office, one that some believe is the most important on earth. There hasn't been an ex-pontiff since the last years of the Schism, after Gregory XII and the Avignon pope agreed to resign to reunite the church. That was the last time that an ex-pope spent the rest of his days strolling around the Vatican gardens as nothing but a simple brother. Never before has the decision of a single pope presented such a challenge to the Catholic Church as this one. Zero hour has begun at the Vatican. The pope's resignation was certainly "great" within Dante's meaning. But it was not made through cowardice. On the contrary, it was probably the most courageous step in a long-drifting papacy marred by scandals and misunderstandings.

With his revolt against tradition and the church machinery, Benedict XVI may have brought more change to the church than he did in the seven years and 10 months of his papal reign.

Benedict has repeatedly raged against a "dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." And this is the man who is now weakening the office of pope, making it dependent on human deficits and efficiency?

If, as Benedict implied in his statement of resignation, the office is too difficult for one man in the modern world, power must then be ceded to Catholic bishops and to world regions. If the Petrine office can be vacated like a seat in parliament, then it's time to put an end to the church's rigid stance on other questions of doctrine. Why exactly should spouses remain together until death if the pope can simply resign from his post?

More Dirt

And if Benedict now assumes the right of resignation, shouldn't every future pope expect to face demands for his resignation, not unlike a politician, when he becomes infirm or is deficient in the discharge of his office?

It's no surprise that some at the Vatican have a bad feeling about the questions that will face Rome in the coming weeks. The pope's decision to elevate his person above his position presents a challenge to the entire Vatican system. Last week, a prelate suggested shunting the ex-pope to a monastery in Germany, in other words, as far away from Rome as possible.

Pope Benedict had hoped to bring the listing ship of the Catholic Church back onto an even keel with clear directives, even if that meant a shrinking crew. He sought to counteract the church's general dissolution by focusing on core issues. He had hoped to revive faith with reason or, to use the Greek term, logos.

Instead, more and more dirt came to light, and Benedict was confronted with a growing lack of understanding. After an endless series of scandals, he must have realized that the office was too much for him.

"It was," the Italian recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature Dario Fo said on Thursday, "the attrition in the curia, Vatileaks and all the sharks who surrounded the pope, spied on and betrayed him. Age certainly isn't the only thing that burdens him."

On Ash Wednesday, when everything was almost over, Benedict XVI is sitting, hunched over, in St. Peter's Basilica, dressed entirely in purple, the liturgical color of atonement. He seems tiny under the bronze canopy by Bernini. Gregorian chants mingle with calls from the nave. "Viva il Papa," say the faithful, as they stand up and applaud for several minutes. They form a cordon through which he is rolled toward the exit in the wheeled platform he uses because of knee pain. He seems calm and tired, but also relieved. He apologizes for his mistakes. He can do that now, because he has nothing left to lose. In stepping down from his post, the pope seems strong, almost modern. Benedict has also lightened the load for his successors. Now, future popes will not have to face being dragged out of his Vatican office on a stretcher, like someone dying in a hospice.

There is something rebellious about Benedict's action. If it is God who calls someone to the throne, abandoning the post voluntarily can be seen acting against God's will.

A Series of Last Words

Pope Paul VI once compared his job to fatherhood -- something that was impossible to give up. "One does not step down from the cross," John Paul II reportedly said. The traditional view is that the body of the pope is not his alone. As with an absolute monarch, the office and the body are inseparable.

There were signs, but few interpreted them as such. During a visit to the Italian region of Abruzzo, why did Benedict lay the pallium, the papal woolen cloak, in front of the altar containing the relics of St. Celestine? Celestine was the only one of his predecessors who had voluntarily resigned, an act for which Dante had apparently banished him to hell. Did Benedict see the hermit pope as a kindred spirit?

But no one was paying attention, just as no one had paid attention to the pope in light of the commotion surrounding the church. Benedict spoke quietly and softly, and yet his words were chosen as carefully as if they were to be set in stone. For those who listened, his message was clear: It was a series of last words.

This was especially evident in the way he addressed German Catholics. On his visit to Germany, he warned of the need to take greater care of God's creation, one of several forays into ecology. In Freiburg, he advocated "de-secularization" and called upon Catholics not to adhere to structures. But there was no response to his efforts. The German episcopate also ignored the "Year of Faith" he proclaimed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.

Tired and worn down, he completed his final tasks. He made his longtime confidant and loyal friend Georg Gänswein an archbishop, and he ensured that a conservative dogmatist, Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of the Bavarian city of Regensburg, would assume leadership of the Vatican's doctrinal office.

At the very beginning of his term in office, Benedict spoke of the "yoke of Christ" that he was now assuming, and of the willingness to suffer. But even then, in his inaugural mass, he said ominously: "Pray for me that I may not flee for fear of the wolves."

The Power of the Pope Emeritus
Now, it seems necessary to speculate whether it wasn't perhaps a few wolves in sheep's clothing that made life difficult for Benedict. He was all too familiar with the machinations of the members of the curia. But only Benedict himself can judge how greatly he despised this reality and how alien it must have been to him.

The groups are beginning to coalesce. Time is short until next month's papal conclave, but the fronts are hard-fought. Reformers (a few) face off against opponents of reform (more than a few), curial cardinals against those arriving in Rome from around the world, incorrigible Europeans against fresh non-Europeans, conservative Africans against open-minded South Americans. Four rounds of voting in 26 hours, as was the case in the Ratzinger election, are hardly likely to suffice this time.

"God has already decided," says Vienna Archbishop Christoph Schönborn, as if to console himself. Nevertheless, the princes of the church are positioning themselves to make that decision known to the general public, as well as to push it through against deaf and undiscerning colleagues.

Benedict's mumbled announcement of his resignation was the starting gun for preparations ahead of the pre-conclave. It is a time when cardinals come together -- purely coincidentally, of course, for reasons having nothing to do with Benedict's resignation. They converse quietly in small seafood restaurants outside the Vatican, they pray -- and they consider coalitions and subversions.

This was already evident in Rome on Ash Wednesday, two days after Benedict's announcement. While the line of pilgrims circled once around St. Peter's Square and Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone quickly reviewed his farewell speech, a book was being presented in a brightly lit bookstore near Rome's Termini train station, one in which facts and fiction quickly become intertwined.

The book is about the "bloody war of the cardinals before the conclave," about the Vatican bank IOR, the Opus Dei society, and a secret dossier on sexual abuse, and it describes how two favorites for the papacy eliminate each other and two others die. There is a new pope in the end -- a Chinese pope.

A Frenzy of Interpretation

It's only a novel, of course, but "Le mani sul Vaticano" is certainly inspired by the realities that exist within the curia. For several years, author Carlo Marroni has been one of the most influential Vaticanisti, the correspondents at the Vatican, and the diplomatic correspondent for the business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. His book now reads like something of a forecast of the conclave.

Vatican correspondents agree that there will be a battle for control. The focus is already on holding on to power, the threat that heads will roll and on the web of relationships within the curia after Ratzinger's departure.

Only a day after Benedict's announcement, two former enemies are appeared together in public, seemingly on good terms, with newspapers launching into a frenzy of interpretation. It was Cardinal Secretary of State Bertone, the man who wields the most power at the Vatican after the pope, and Angelo Bagnasco, the president of the Italian Episcopal Conference. Bertone has been sharply criticized for his dubious role in the Vatileaks affair, while Bagnasco was his subtle adversary. Both men are "papabili," or possible successors to Benedict.

The man whose ascension both men are trying to prevent, according to rumors spread by Italian newspapers, is Angelo Scola, the 72-year-old archbishop of Milan. Scola, a student of Ratzinger, is the favored candidate of the fundamentalist group within the curia, and is closely aligned with the conservative lay movement Comunione e Liberazione, which in turn is associated with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The conservative Scola is currently considered the Italian frontrunner for the papal election.

The battle between Secretary of State Bertone and his predecessor, Angelo Sodano, is also heating up. Sodano holds Bertone responsible for "depravity" in the "poorly run Vatican state," says Marco Ansaldo of the Italian daily La Repubblica. According to Ansaldo, both men will gain more power after Benedict's resignation, and they will also come into conflict with each other. Sodano will head the conclave, and has begun mobilizing his supporters. Bertano, who, as "Camerlengo", manages the property and revenues of the Holy See, is doing the same thing.

There is a saying in secular Rome: "morto un papa se ne fa un altro", or "if a pope dies, one simply makes another one." But it isn't that easy this time. The pope is still alive and the curia is divided, which makes everything so difficult to predict.

Influencing the Vote?

Joseph Ratzinger, Bishop of Rome emeritus, will not be present at the conclave. He is five years too old for that. For days, papal spokesman Federico Lombardi has denied that the soon-to-be-ex-pope could nevertheless influence the conclave's decision, saying that Benedict is too modest. But no one believes Lombardi.

Every word Benedict will utter in the coming days will be carefully analyzed and possibly even interpreted as a message to the conclave. This was already evident at the Ash Wednesday mass, at which Benedict spoke of "religious hypocrisy," of "individuals and rivalries" and of "sins against the unity of the church and divisions in the body of the church." All of this is unambiguous criticism, a settling of accounts, as well as an allusion to the conclave and a preview of what could come in the next few weeks.

Benedict is giving up power and, at the same time, is accusing his underlings of being obsessed with power, and of clinging to power and of thus being unable to follow their hearts, as he has done. A comparably explosive constellation hasn't been seen at the Vatican in a long time.

Power brokers and lobbyists are already nervously testing the waters to determine what snares could entrap the next pope. Most of all, what will it mean for him if his predecessor isn't already in his tomb, but is still in full command of his faculties and residing only a few steps away from the Apostolic Palace?

Benedict has been careful to point out that he intends to "hide from the world." Nevertheless, he will be a source of conflict for as long as he lives. How will the cardinals behave when a new pope makes mistakes, when he spoils his relationship with key factions in the curia or when he launches reforms blocked by his predecessor? Benedict himself won't even have to comment, as long as real or supposed confidants whisper anything about how the old man feels about the change of course -- and his successor's position will already be weakened.

Tensions are already looming. Benedict's closest confidant, Gänswein, will perhaps be serving two masters in the future. The 56-year-old curial archbishop will "remain prefect of the papal household and will also be secretary to Benedict," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.

'A Shadow Pope'

As a result, Gänswein is likely to become one of the most influential bishops in the Roman court. At the same time, he will live near Benedict's new residence in the monastery opposite St. Peter's Basilica, where they will be able to receive visitors together and discuss the condition of the church. Gänswein will also play an important role as prefect of the papal household.

"Benedict threatens to become a shadow pope," says Swiss theologian Hans Küng. One cannot simply stop being pope, says Benedict biographer Andreas Englisch. "In the worst case, a part of the church would split off, perhaps because Ratzinger believed that his successor was doing great harm to the church."

Vatican expert John L. Allen, on the other hand, believes the radicalism of Benedict's gesture could encourage the cardinals to "think outside the box and assume the risk of taking a new step." The signal, murmured in Latin on Monday, couldn't have been clearer: It can't go on like this.

In other words, it is quite possible that the conclave will bring about a change in direction, even though the current pope appointed 67 of the 117-member electorate. Perhaps it will mean that a non-European will be elected for the first time, or someone who is not as fixated on the supposed cultural decay as Benedict. Or perhaps it will lead to a McKinsey pope, a man equipped with sufficient managerial qualities to bring the wind of change into the administration of the Catholic empire.

The shadow of the "good" Pope John XXIII will also hang over the conclave -- as a hope for some and a warning for others. He was a surprise pope, largely unknown, who suddenly had the courage to open up the church. With the reform council of 1962 to 1965, John XXIII led his church into the 20th century.

A new John would have to do the same for the 21st century. He would have to transform the globalized church from an empire into a commonwealth, in which regional differences are possible and not every theologian whose views are deemed objectionable could be silenced by a papal pronouncement from Rome.

The Need for a New Beginning
Thomas von Mitschke-Collande, the former advisor to the German Bishops' Conference, deplores the pope's need for harmony. "Being Catholic also means unity in diversity. Bishops and the pope must come to terms with this tense relationship. The universal church now needs a pope who is willing to relinquish more of his power." There is no alternative, says Mitschke-Collande, in light of globalization, the diversity of regions and the differences in the nature of Catholics worldwide. He believes that the assumption that only one monolithic church is a strong church is fundamentally incorrect. "Using this approach, no corporation today would be able to market its products worldwide anymore," says Mitschke-Collande, who made his career as a consultant at McKinsey.

On the other hand Ratzinger, a former council theologian, tried to counteract the centrifugal currents. He was a pope of the Restoration, and many priests, and members of their congregations even more so, hope that those days are now gone.

It was not a happy pontificate for Benedict XVI, but rather one of suffering. The world witnessed a shy person who regards the present with deep pessimism and, no matter how hard he tried, was unable to hide his feelings.

Last year, Benedict repeatedly experienced how every step forward was weighed down by the shadows of the past, including charges of abuse and betrayal. Furthermore, his pronouncements were often thwarted, especially in his native Germany. Indeed, church attendance in his homeland has declined to 12 percent of the population and elementary religious beliefs -- that of the creed and the belief in the resurrection and the Holy Trinity -- are now held by only a minority of the population.

If he already felt worn out from these battles over faith, the years in which butler Paolo Gabriele betrayed his trust must have finally pulled the rug out from under his feet. When Secretary Gänswein assumed all of the blame and offered to resign, the Holy Father wanted nothing of it. With a sigh, he said: "But we must trust each other up here. It doesn't work without trust."

Benedict's Parting Gift

But the treachery had found its way into his own chambers. According to a report last week by the Milan newsmagazine Panorama, Dec. 17, the day on which three cardinals handed the pope the secret report describing the background of Vatileaks, complete with witness statements, was apparently the moment he decided to resign. Before that, Benedict had "learned of conditions in the curia that he would never have thought possible."

He was, after all, a teaching pope and not a governing pope. Benedict sought to use the word to exert influence. His speeches in Regensburg and in Paris, and before the parliaments in Berlin and London, were invitations to the non-Catholic world to join Catholics in thinking about the ethical basis of the political, and to consider other things, too, like the law of nature and an expanded concept of reason.

"The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur -- this is the program," the pope said in his Regensburg lecture. And quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, he added: "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God."

With his decision to resign, Benedict has given his church a final gift: the chance for a new beginning. And that is exactly what Catholics in his native Germany long for. Benedict's resignation comes at a time when the standing of the Catholic Church in Germany has arrived at a new low.

Church doctrine and social reality have drifted so far apart in many areas that even devout Catholics believe the time has come for change. Karl-Josef Kuschel, a religious scholar in the southwestern German city of Tübingen, says that the church is now confronted with "fundamental mistrust."

This cannot be blamed entirely on the outgoing pope, and yet Benedict didn't manage to stop the trend, at least not in northern countries. In 2010, the number of people leaving the church in Germany, more than 180,000, was for the first time substantially greater than the number of baptisms. Today more than a third of Germans are members of no Christian church at all. The number of baptisms, weddings and even church funerals is dropping rapidly. There is also a colossal shortage of priests.

Atmosphere of Fear and Suspicion

In total, the church lost about 3.8 million Catholics in Germany between 1990 and 2011, a number almost twice the size of the Archdiocese of Cologne. And the trend has shown no signs of reversal.

As a result, the church is losing importance in Germany. Its influence over legislation, important national debates or on culture is limited today. "The church is in a crisis of faith, trust, authority, leadership and communication," Mitschke-Collande, an active Catholic, writes in an analysis.

And then there are the devastating results of a recent study by the Sinus Institute, based in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, on the growing isolation of the Catholic Church in most social environments. The study makes it very clear that it isn't just external critics, so-called enemies of the church, but also the core and even the substance of loyal Catholics in the church that no longer has any confidence in the pope and the bishops.

The crisis has reached the center of the church, and the bishops are at a turning point. Business as usual isn't an option, and yet the bishops are only thwarting one another. "No one wants to come out from cover first," says a bishop's aide. "No one dares to go it alone, because everyone fears that the others will attack him and that, in the end, there will only be trouble with Rome."

This culture of making statements on the quiet is reminiscent of the final stage in East Germany, when an atmosphere of fear and suspicion had taken hold. But how can a church be attractive when it is internally divided, disunited and demoralized? Pope Benedict XVI and his most loyal representatives in Germany, be it in Cologne, Limburg or Regensburg, have allowed this disunity to develop, or they have even promoted it.

Referring to this issue, one cardinal's spokesman says: "You have to be able to say something without being immediately assailed, and without denunciation in Rome or on the Internet. If this climate of mutual suspicion isn't put to an end now, we will fail in our efforts to launch a new beginning. The church must be able to tolerate more criticism, more diversity and more freedom without its ranks." The role of the bishops, he adds, will be more important than that of the pope in the future, and the local mood will be crucial to people, be it in Germany, Asia, Africa or Latin America.

Easter Deadline

Catholic youth groups are calling on their bishops to address current debates from the center of the church, and not to leave the field to ultraconservative Catholics. This, they say, also includes a discussion on what "can be left up to the conscience of the individual," when it comes to sexual morality. Helmut Schüller, the co-founder of a pastors' initiative, says that the Vatican can no longer be the center of a universal church that "emanates fear and terror, where people are harassed, removed from office and denied the right to teach."

For now, such critique has been but a murmur. But it is rapidly getting louder.

Under the current papal rules, the secret election of the 266th pope, the conclave, must begin between 15 and 20 days after Benedict's resignation. As such, in mid-March, 117 cardinals will be locked in seclusion "cum clave" in the Sistine Chapel. There, they will pray, carry their folded ballots to the altar, count them, burn them and begin all over again.

Days -- in the past, even weeks and months -- can pass before a two-thirds majority materializes. But this time the electorate won't have much time. The new pope is expected to complete the traditional foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday, preside over the Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum on Good Friday and, on Easter Sunday, pronounce the Urbi et orbi from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the blessing for the city of Rome and the rest of the world.

Will the succession be decided among the Europeans, or will they succeed in bridging the gap with the non-European churches? Will the pope remain a man of the Restoration, as Ratzinger was, or will he be a reformer, like Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schönborn or Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, the notoriously progressive president of the Pontifical Council for Culture?

Can one line even exist in the stricken Catholic Church -- a single line uniting the 30 cardinals of the curia and the much larger number of cardinals traveling to Rome from all over the world?

The church faces massive and fundamental issues: connecting to the modern age and decisions on key questions such as celibacy, the ordination of women, ecumenism and large numbers of faithful leaving the church in some regions.

Looking for a Miracle
It needs a contemporary crisis manager, someone who can master the conflicts within the church with a strong hand, and can weather or, better yet, avoid scandals. He should be just as intellectually gifted as Ratzinger, as spiritually steadfast as Jesus Christ, as charismatic as Karol Wojtyla and, of course, just as young. Wojtyla was 58 when he was elected. In a nutshell, the church is seeking a mediator, a cleanup man and a tough man, and yet someone is nevertheless tender in his faith.

What it's seeking is a miracle.

The Vaticanisti agree that, given this job description, none of the six German cardinals (Paul Josef Cordes, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, Reinhard Marx, Joachim Meisner, Rainer Maria Woelki) is a possibility. If the new pope is to be a European, he will most likely be an Italian.

After almost 35 years of foreign rule, first by a Pole and then by a German, an Italian pontiff would certainly be desirable. The problem is that the Italians in the curia are divided, into both territorial groups and theological factions. Their advantage, on the other hand, is that they would not be troubled by conditions in the curia. They are accustomed to confusion, intrigues, vanities and a meticulously practiced lack of interest in reform. It's the only reality they know, both in the curia and in politics.

A few days before Benedict vacates the Apostolic See on Feb. 28, a new parliament will be elected in secular Rome. The news of Benedict's resignation is already affecting the election campaign today. It has become calmer and more objective -- for one simple reason: Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who depends so greatly on media attention, is getting much less exposure now that all eyes are on the Vatican. According to rumors in the halls of parliament, Berlusconi is livid as a result while Mario Monti and the leftists are overjoyed.

The key question is how the global composition of the College of Cardinals will affect the papal election. The conclave is still just as colorful as it was before Benedict's election. It will include cardinals from 50 countries, 61 Europeans, of which six will be German and 28 Italian, 11 cardinals from the United States, five Indians, 19 Latin Americans, 11 from both Africa and Asia, and one from Australia.

Mass Masses

The Latin Americans, among others, have great expectations. They hope to see an end to the "Eurocentric Vatican," writes respected columnist Elio Gaspari. He believes that the "theologian and bureaucrat" Benedict will now be followed by a "shepherd" from the Third World. "He would combine the useful with the pleasant."

The members of the curia are worried about the latest developments in Latin America, where there is a shortage of tens of thousands of priests, and where many rural churches are abandoned. Millions are defecting to the Protestant Pentecostal churches. The Protestant pastors are true entertainers, their services are shows for tens of thousands of people, they sing and dance, and many sell CDs by the millions.

The Catholic Church hasn't found an effective response yet, though it has made some rather helpless attempts. Some Catholic priests, known as pop padres, are now holding their services in giant venues, and their masses have come to resemble pop concerts. Still, this hasn't stopped the growth of the Protestant churches.

Africa too is hoping for a change of course. In 2010, 15.5 percent, or about 180 million of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, were Africans. Thanks to demographic changes, their continent, along with Asia, is among the major growth regions in the global faith market. Tens of thousands of church institutions built by missionaries in the last 150 years, such as schools, hospitals, orphanages and AIDS wards, feel like islands of hope on a continent plagued by mass poverty. The church wields considerable political influence in countries that are unable to perform their social duties. The Catholic Church is considered the only functioning national institution in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example.

But the popularity of Pentecostal churches and Protestant sects is also on the rise. Both proclaim a simple feel-good gospel, a much more appealing message to many of the poor than the doctrines of the Catholics, Anglicans and mainstream Protestants. An African pope could be more adept at meeting this challenge; at least many Africans think so.

The churches in Africa are still filled on Sundays. White missionaries rave about the deep religiosity and strong faith of the Africans, and about their colorful liturgy and experience of spirituality. Some believe that Africa exudes the rejuvenating force that could revive the leaderless official church of the north. The church does a lot of good in Africa, and yet it is also controversial. Catholic preachers are among those in Uganda who are fomenting hatred of gays in Uganda. And on the subject of AIDS, most Catholic dignitaries in Africa adhere to the recommendations of old men from the Vatican, demonizing the use of condoms. When it comes to birth control, same-sex marriage, homosexuality or assisted suicide, they are often even more dogmatic than the Vatican.

'Obama of the Vatican'

"For God's sake, let's hope it's not an African!" Stefan Hippler, a foreign priest in South Africa, said in April 2005 before the white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel marking the beginning of Benedict's papacy. The ultra-conservative Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria, now 80, was among the favorites at the time.

This time around, though, Hippler would consider 64-year-old Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson a good choice. The Ghanaian, already dubbed the "Obama of the Vatican," is multilingual and has been a member of the Roman curia for more than three years. He is also ranked highly on gambling sites. Turkson is relatively young and open-minded on social issues. He represents positions of Liberation Theology and advocates a cautious correction of course on the issue of condoms.

A 63-year-old Brazilian with ancestors from the German state of Saarland, Odilo Pedro Scherer, is also on the list of likely possibles, as is French-Canadian Marc Ouellet, a close friend of Ratzinger who could garner the votes of North and South Americans, thereby bridging the old and new worlds.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, 63, a representative of the wealthy US church, is also frequently mentioned as a possible candidate.

And then there is another candidate, the "Wojtyla from the Far East, Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila in the Philippines. He is said to possess the brain of a theologian and the heart of a shepherd, as well as being more charismatic than most in the College of Cardinals. But at 55, he is also the second youngest in the College of Cardinals, practically a baby by Vatican standards.

Taking Advantage of Zero Hour

In short, the result of the conclave is as difficult to forecast as it was in 1978 when, after several rounds of voting, a largely unknown Pole stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. The next pope could be a black man, an African. He could be a charismatic South American or an Italian apparatchik or a reformist European. He could be someone who continues Ratzinger's course or someone who takes advantage of zero hour.

Only one thing is certain: Next Thursday, at about 5 p.m., a white Sikorsky Sea King helicopter will lift off from the landing pad in Vatican City into the skies above Rome. The pope will be on board and sitting next to him, in all likelihood, will be his private secretary, Georg Gänswein. Their destination is less than 25 kilometers (16 miles) away: Castel Gandolfo, the beloved papal summer residence, with its beautiful view of bottle-green Lake Albano.

Three hours later, at precisely 8 p.m., the pope will no longer be a pope. His chair will then be "vacante," as the sede vacante beings. There will be a simple dinner at Castel Gandolfo. The new pope will assume his office by Easter. Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, will perform his duties until then.

Joseph Ratzinger will move out of the papal palace and into his new home in the former Convent of Mater Ecclesiae, a simple, ochre-colored, 450-square-meter (4,840-square-foot) building in the Vatican gardens, with 12 rooms, as small and sparse as prayer booths. Until November, the building was occupied by 11 nuns with the Salesian Sisters, who harvested lemons and planted tomatoes, zucchini and the whitish-yellow "John Paul II" rose. Now the building is hastily being renovated, as construction debris is carried out and the library enlarged to accommodate Benedict's books -- and the two Georgs, Gänswein and Benedict's 89-year-old brother. Both men will likely visit the ex-pope's new home for a session of ora et labora.

Georg Ratzinger remembers a day, a few months ago, when they were sitting together in the room that the pope had set up for his older brother in Rome. They talked about all kinds of things. Then Benedict said that he intended to resign from office. According to his brother, he made the announcement very matter-of-factly and unemotionally, and seemed neither relieved nor sad.

"I had a few more questions relating to the implementation, but that too was discussed matter-of-factly, and the issue was settled. It didn't play a major role in our conversation. We have a great deal to discuss when we see each other, and that was only one issue," says Georg Ratzinger.

Benedict XVI, now Joseph Ratzinger once again, will remain at the Vatican, in the midst of his church but no longer at its center. He will pray and write and talk and have discussions with the two Georgs.

It's quite conceivable that he will be happy. It will be a return home, after seven years and 10 months in an office and world that were not his own.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #4666 on: Feb 19, 2013, 08:26 AM »

02/18/2013 04:40 PM

Interview With Swiss Theologian: 'Benedict XVI Could Turn into a Shadow Pope'

By Peter Wensierski

Progressive Catholic theologian Hans Küng, whose authority to teach Catholic theology was rescinded by the Vatican in 1979, spoke to SPIEGEL about the challenges facing the next pope and the need for reform of the Catholic Church.

SPIEGEL: What will change now that Pope Benedict XVI has resigned?

Hans Küng: There is now a realization that a pope should step down when the time has come. Joseph Ratzinger made it very clear that he could no longer fulfill his duties. His predecessor felt he had to turn his death into a show. Fortunately, Benedict chose another way, in order to demonstrate that when a pope is no longer capable of doing his job, he should give it up. This is exactly how the office should be approached. In John Paul II's final years, we weren't led by a pope so much as by a curia, which governed the Church in his place.

SPIEGEL: Who would you like to see lead your Church as pope?

Hans Küng: A pope who is not intellectually stuck in the Middle Ages, one who does not represent mediaeval theology, liturgy and religious order. I would like to see a pope who is open first to suggestions for reform and secondly, to the modern age. We need a pope who not only preaches freedom of the Church around the world but also supports, with his words and deeds, freedom and human rights within the Church -- of theologians, women and all Catholics who want to speak the truth about the state of the Church and are calling for change.

SPIEGEL: Who is your ideal candidate for the office of pope?

Hans Küng: If I were to name anyone, he would most certainly not get elected. But background should not play a role. The best man for the job should be elected. There are no more candidates who belonged to the Second Vatican Council. In the running are candidates who are middle of the road and toe the Vatican line. Is there anyone who won't simply continue on the same path? Is there anyone who understands the depth of the Church's crisis and can see a way out? If we elect a leader who continues on the same path, the Church's crisis will become almost intractable.

SPIEGEL: Is there likely to be friction between the former pope and the incumbent pope?

Hans Küng: Benedict XVI could turn into a shadow pope who has stepped down but can still exert indirect influence. He has already assigned himself a place within the Vatican. He is keeping his secretary, who will also remain prefect of the papal household under the new pope. This is a new form of nepotism, and one that isn't appreciated in the Vatican either. No priest likes to have his predecessor looking over his shoulder. Even the bishop of Rome doesn't find it pleasant to have his predecessor constantly keeping an eye on him.

SPIEGEL: So the new pope will have a hard time asserting himself?

Hans Küng: If the next pope is clever, he will appoint a cabinet that will allow him to lead effectively. A solitary pope, isolated from the curia the way that Ratzinger was, will not be able to lead a community of 1.2 billion people. The pope urgently needs a cabinet made up of new, competent men (and why not women, too) in order to overcome the crisis. Unless there is an end to the tradition of the Roman royal household and an introduction of a functioning, central church administration as well as a curia reform, no new pope will be able to bring about change and progress.

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« Reply #4667 on: Feb 19, 2013, 08:31 AM »

February 18, 2013

Chávez Returns to Venezuela, Trailing Doubts


CARACAS, Venezuela — In a surprise predawn homecoming, President Hugo Chávez returned to Venezuela on Monday more than two months after having cancer surgery in Cuba, potentially clearing up some of the legal questions that have roiled the nation during his long absence but doing little to dispel the deep uncertainty over who is running the country.

Mr. Chávez’s plane touched down around 2:30 a.m., according to Vice President Nicolás Maduro, and Mr. Chávez was immediately taken to a military hospital in Caracas. Employees there said he was installed as the only patient on the top floor of one wing. Members of the presidential honor guard, with their red berets, guarded the hospital’s lobby, elevators and floors.

Unlike Mr. Chávez’s other returns from treatments in Cuba, this was hardly a triumphant arrival. There were no television images or photographs of him descending from the presidential plane in a track suit and greeting officials on the tarmac, as there were in the past, raising questions about whether the government was seeking to keep a severely weakened president out of public view.

“The only thing that has changed is the location of his seclusion,” said Vladimir Villegas, a former ambassador for Mr. Chávez’s government. “The uncertainty is the same. Nothing is certain.”

For the last two months, Venezuela has been in a state of suspense, with Mr. Chávez out of sight and the government insisting that he continued to run the country from a hospital bed in Cuba while the political opposition demanded proof that he was capable of doing so.

As news of his return spread, small groups of supporters took to the streets, setting off fireworks, chanting and painting his name on passing cars and buses. But the moment everyone had been waiting for was anticlimactic: Mr. Chávez remained sequestered, just as he had been for weeks. Beyond his ability to travel, there was little indication that his health had taken a significant turn for the better or that he could soon resume his place at the head of the nation. What might have been a sign of recovery instead provided further evidence of continued fragility.

Until now, the government has studiously avoided talking about the possibility of holding an election to replace Mr. Chávez. But on Monday, a government-run newspaper, Correo del Orinoco, ran a banner front-page headline saying that Mr. Maduro, who is Mr. Chávez’s designated successor, would win an “eventual presidential election” — a shift in tone that analysts viewed as particularly significant.

Last Friday, government officials announced for the first time that Mr. Chávez, known the world over for his volubility, now had difficulty speaking because of a tube inserted in his trachea to help him breathe. His son-in-law, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, said Mr. Chávez had lost his “characteristic voice” but still participated in meetings with top officials and had made every important decision in his government since leaving for surgery. He said Mr. Chávez sometimes writes notes and manages to make himself understood.

Such assertions have been met with disbelief by opposition leaders, who say that a man who is too sick to appear or speak to the nation cannot be capable of leading.

Even some Chávez supporters have voiced skepticism. When officials said a major currency devaluation announced this month had been approved by Mr. Chávez directly, they showed a signed document to prove it.

“If he was sick, how did he sign it? That’s what doesn’t convince me,” said José Alberto Fernández, an ardent Chávez supporter who sold plantains on a street corner a few blocks from the military hospital. He said he did not have faith in Mr. Maduro or the other officials running the government and was elated to have the president back on home soil. “We need a leader,” he said.

Beyond orating, singing, reciting poetry and lecturing on television for hours at a time, Mr. Chávez would communicate to the nation through Twitter. But even that fell silent soon after he was re-elected to another six-year term on Oct. 7. On Monday, however, his account was suddenly active again.

“We have arrived again in Venezuela,” said the first of three posts, which appeared at 3:42 a.m. “Thank you, my God!! Thank you, beloved people!! We will continue treatment here.”

Later, Mr. Maduro announced that Mr. Chávez had surpassed four million followers on Twitter after his posts went up on Monday. Then on television, he presented a 20-year-old woman, Rosnaty Jiménez, and identified her as the president’s four millionth Twitter follower, saying her prize would be a new home and a new job for her mother.

Mr. Chávez’s health remains the biggest question mark. His return raised the question of whether he will now be sworn in for the new term that started on Jan. 10, while he was incommunicado in Cuba. His absence for the start of his term set off a constitutional controversy, but the Supreme Court said he could be sworn in later.

Once he is sworn in, he could reappoint Mr. Maduro and other cabinet members, clearing up lingering questions about the legitimacy of the top government officials who have been running the country in his absence. Some constitutional experts had warned that their mandates had ended with the president’s last term.

But what comes after that remains uncertain. If Mr. Chávez dies, resigns or is incapacitated, the Constitution says that a special election should be called to replace him. Before leaving for his surgery in December, he named Mr. Maduro as his political heir and said that if anything happened to him, Mr. Maduro should be elected in his place.

“The return of the president in delicate health, running certain risks, evidently has political motives,” said Elsa Cardozo, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela. “It would appear that the president is not in any condition to begin a new term and that his presence here is meant to reinforce a political campaign for Maduro.”

But officials on Monday refrained from saying what would happen next and did not immediately provide new details about Mr. Chávez’s condition.

“He remains in a very delicate and complex situation,” Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a radio interview conducted by his brother, the former ambassador, who has a daily program. He avoided answering directly when he was asked if there were plans for Mr. Chávez to take the oath of office. “We have him here,” he said, “and we celebrate this small victory.”

Mr. Chávez has had four operations for cancer since June 2011. Mr. Arreaza, his son-in-law, said Friday that he was undergoing palliative treatment.

On the front of the red-and-cream-colored hospital, in a run-down section of Caracas, was a huge banner with the words “Revolution, Independence, Health or Nothing” and a two-story-tall picture of Mr. Chávez’s face.

From an internal parking lot, it was possible to see the part of the building that employees said had been set aside for the president, with the blinds drawn on most windows. Inside, the upper floors of the hospital were clean and hushed, with pale green walls.

But a hospital employee, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the quiet routine would soon be altered by the comings and goings of the powerful.

“This is going to become the new center of government,” he said.

María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting.

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« Reply #4668 on: Feb 19, 2013, 08:33 AM »

February 18, 2013

Unabated Violence Poses Challenge to Mexico’s New Anticrime Program


MEXICO CITY — The new Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, campaigned on a promise to reduce the violence spawned by the drug trade and organized crime, and to shift the talk about his nation away from cartels and killings.

But even as he rolled out a crime prevention program last week and declared it the government’s new priority, a rash of high-profile mayhem threatened to undercut his message and raise the pressure to more forcefully confront the lawlessness that bedeviled his predecessor.

The southwestern state of Guerrero, long prone to periodic eruptions of violence, has proved a challenge once again. Gang rapes of several women have occurred in and around the faded resort town of Acapulco, including an attack this month on a group from Spain that garnered worldwide headlines, and an ambush killed nine state police officers in a mountainous no-man’s land. Out of frustration that the state was not protecting them, rural towns in Guerrero have taken up arms to police themselves.

Elsewhere, grenades were set off this month near the United States Consulate in the border town of Nuevo Laredo during a battle among gangs, and 17 members of Kombo Kolombia, a folk band in northern Mexico, were kidnapped and killed last month.

The bloodshed continued despite some indications that the violence leveled off last year, according to a report released on Feb. 5 by the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute, which analyzed a range of government homicide statistics. Mr. Peña Nieto’s government also released statistics this month that it said showed that homicides presumably related to organized crime had dipped from December to January, but analysts have long questioned how those numbers were compiled, given the chronic lack of criminal investigations.

Still, the appetite of criminal groups for shocking violence seems unabated and presents a challenge for the president. Can he manage to avoid being drawn into the iron-fisted approach of his predecessor and effectively change the focus of the national discussion to other matters, like the economy?

“They are trying to have the president not use the crime issue as his political priority,” said Ana Maria Salazar, a security analyst who worked in the American government and now hosts a radio show here. “But at the same time, it doesn’t seem what they are talking about is confronting or going to have an impact on the current violence and criminal organizations.”

She added, “They haven’t laid out what they are going to do in the short term to retake Mexican territory in control of criminal organizations.”

Government officials have asked for patience, saying Mexico’s crime problems cannot be solved overnight.

They have made it clear that they want to break with the approach of former President Felipe Calderón, who heavily enlisted the military and the federal police against crime gangs, but the new government has taken a similar tack in recent flare-ups, including sending a cadre of federal police officers to Acapulco after the attacks there. Government officials have pledged closer coordination between the federal police and the state authorities.

Officials are promoting the less militaristic crime prevention program introduced last week as a linchpin, with Mr. Peña Nieto personally announcing it and Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong briefing reporters extensively on it. On Thursday, an under secretary presented a slick brochure on the program to foreign journalists and answered questions for 45 minutes.

“It’s clear that we must put special emphasis on prevention, because we can’t only keep employing more sophisticated weapons, better equipment, more police, a higher presence of the armed forces in the country as the only form of combating organized crime,” Mr. Peña Nieto said in announcing the program in Aguascalientes, one of the more peaceful precincts in the country.

The program calls for creating an interagency commission that would spend $9 billion in the coming years in 250 of the most violent cities and towns, beginning with the worst. The plan envisions longer school days, drug addiction programs and other social efforts in addition to public works projects, but officials said specifics were still being worked out and would be detailed later.

It resembles a plan Mr. Calderón put in place a few years ago for Ciudad Juárez, one of the bloodiest cities in Mexico, but government officials said that while they studied that project, they believed that their plan differed in ambition and scope.

Few argue with the need for such programs and alternatives to crime for young people. But security analysts faulted Mr. Calderón for not attacking corruption by building effective, accountable local and state police and judicial institutions, a herculean task that Mr. Peña Nieto so far has not shown much sign of taking on either.

“I do not see anything in his nearly first three months that show he is taking on impunity,” said Edgardo Buscaglia, a scholar of organized crime at Columbia University who has long studied Mexico and advised international panels.

Animal Politico, the political Web site, went as far as to post a discussion last week on whether Acapulco is lost and Guerrero a failed state, with most comments pointing to chronically weak institutions there that the administration has yet to address.

“The authorities should attack the root of the problem: the lack of efficient response from the institutions for security, investigation and imparting justice,” said Carlos Heredia Zubieta, the director of international studies at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, a research group in Mexico City.

Some experts saw the rollout of the crime prevention program, with government officials’ acknowledgment that it was still a work in progress, as more of a public relations move in the middle of a wave of violence than a well-crafted plan.

“It is not a program,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former Mexican intelligence agent. “It is generic instructions launched from the stratosphere.”

Mr. Peña Nieto has made other promises to improve security, including forming a paramilitary unit to police the worst of the lawless rural areas, but he has yet to announce details.

Some of the delay no doubt stems from the fact that nominees to main security posts have yet to be ratified by the country’s Senate. On Thursday, the names of two top security officials expected to be involved in forming the new unit were formally submitted to the body.

American officials have so far hung back, giving the new president time to get his team in place before assessing how well they will work together. Representatives of Mr. Peña Nieto said they were in talks with American officials to discuss using some of the $1.9 billion in the Mérida Initiative, Washington’s signature antidrug plan for crime prevention in Central America. The United States Embassy said in a statement Friday that it already supported crime prevention programs, but that it was continuing to discuss Mérida financing with the new government.

Guerrero presents a microcosm of the nation’s problems as whole. There is the typical drug trafficking, as the state is crossed by traditional transport routes for cocaine from South America, and its mountainous terrain allows for plenty of hiding spots for marijuana and poppy production. But there are also many local gangs active in drug dealing, extortion, kidnapping and robbery in and around Acapulco, and as residents tell it, they are seeping into smaller villages as well.

“Part of the problem here is that there are different types of violence going on, and each require a different sort of response,” said Chris Kyle, a University of Alabama anthropologist who has studied Guerrero’s violence. “There’s probably been a decline in the violence associated with drug trafficking, which is the part of the equation most amenable to a federal solution. The street hooliganism and small kidnapping-extortion rackets are better addressed by local police forces, and these are ineffectual in Guerrero.”

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« Reply #4669 on: Feb 19, 2013, 08:35 AM »

February 18, 2013

Chinese Army Unit Is Seen as Tied to Hacking Against U.S.


On the outskirts of Shanghai, in a run-down neighborhood dominated by a 12-story white office tower, sits a People’s Liberation Army base for China’s growing corps of cyberwarriors.

The building off Datong Road, surrounded by restaurants, massage parlors and a wine importer, is the headquarters of P.L.A. Unit 61398. A growing body of digital forensic evidence — confirmed by American intelligence officials who say they have tapped into the activity of the army unit for years — leaves little doubt that an overwhelming percentage of the attacks on American corporations, organizations and government agencies originate in and around the white tower.

An unusually detailed 60-page study, to be released Tuesday by Mandiant, an American computer security firm, tracks for the first time individual members of the most sophisticated of the Chinese hacking groups — known to many of its victims in the United States as “Comment Crew” or “Shanghai Group” — to the doorstep of the military unit’s headquarters. The firm was not able to place the hackers inside the 12-story building, but makes a case there is no other plausible explanation for why so many attacks come out of one comparatively small area.

“Either they are coming from inside Unit 61398,” said Kevin Mandia, the founder and chief executive of Mandiant, in an interview last week, “or the people who run the most-controlled, most-monitored Internet networks in the world are clueless about thousands of people generating attacks from this one neighborhood.”

Other security firms that have tracked “Comment Crew” say they also believe the group is state-sponsored, and a recent classified National Intelligence Estimate, issued as a consensus document for all 16 of the United States intelligence agencies, makes a strong case that many of these hacking groups are either run by army officers or are contractors working for commands like Unit 61398, according to officials with knowledge of its classified content.

Mandiant provided an advance copy of its report to The New York Times, saying it hoped to “bring visibility to the issues addressed in the report.” Times reporters then tested the conclusions with other experts, both inside and outside government, who have examined links between the hacking groups and the army (Mandiant was hired by The New York Times Company to investigate a sophisticated Chinese-origin attack on its news operations, but concluded it was not the work of Comment Crew, but another Chinese group. The firm is not currently working for the Times Company but it is in discussions about a business relationship.)

While Comment Crew has drained terabytes of data from companies like Coca-Cola, increasingly its focus is on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States — its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks. According to the security researchers, one target was a company with remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America. The unit was also among those that attacked the computer security firm RSA, whose computer codes protect confidential corporate and government databases.

Contacted Monday, officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington again insisted that their government does not engage in computer hacking, and that such activity is illegal. They describe China itself as a victim of computer hacking, and point out, accurately, that there are many hacking groups inside the United States. But in recent years the Chinese attacks have grown significantly, security researchers say. Mandiant has detected more than 140 Comment Crew intrusions since 2006. American intelligence agencies and private security firms that track many of the 20 or so other Chinese groups every day say those groups appear to be contractors with links to the unit.

And the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday that the allegations were ‘‘unprofessional.’’

‘‘Making unfounded accusations based on preliminary results is both irresponsible and unprofessional, and is not helpful for the resolution of the relevant problem,’’ said Hong Lei, a ministry spokesman. ‘‘China resolutely opposes hacking actions and has established relevant  laws and regulations and taken strict law enforcement measures to defend against online hacking activities.’’

While the unit’s existence and operations are considered a Chinese state secret, Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that the Mandiant report was “completely consistent with the type of activity the Intelligence Committee has been seeing for some time.”

The White House said it was “aware” of the Mandiant report, and Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said, “We have repeatedly raised our concerns at the highest levels about cybertheft with senior Chinese officials, including in the military, and we will continue to do so.”

The United States government is planning to begin a more aggressive defense against Chinese hacking groups, starting on Tuesday. Under a directive signed by President Obama last week, the government plans to share with American Internet providers information it has gathered about the unique digital signatures of the largest of the groups, including Comment Crew and others emanating from near where Unit 61398 is based.

But the government warnings will not explicitly link those groups, or the giant computer servers they use, to the Chinese army. The question of whether to publicly name the unit and accuse it of widespread theft is the subject of ongoing debate.

“There are huge diplomatic sensitivities here,” said one intelligence official, with frustration in his voice.

But Obama administration officials say they are planning to tell China’s new leaders in coming weeks that the volume and sophistication of the attacks have become so intense that they threaten the fundamental relationship between Washington and Beijing.

The United States government also has cyberwarriors. Working with Israel, the United States has used malicious software called Stuxnet to disrupt Iran’s uranium enrichment program. But government officials insist they operate under strict, if classified, rules that bar using offensive weapons for nonmilitary purposes or stealing corporate data.

The United States finds itself in something of an asymmetrical digital war with China. “In the cold war, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centers around Moscow,” one senior defense official said recently. “Today, it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.”

A Shadowy Unit

Unit 61398 — formally, the 2nd Bureau of the People’s Liberation Army’s General Staff Department’s 3rd Department — exists almost nowhere in official Chinese military descriptions. Yet intelligence analysts who have studied the group say it is the central element of Chinese computer espionage. The unit was described in 2011 as the “premier entity targeting the United States and Canada, most likely focusing on political, economic, and military-related intelligence” by the Project 2049 Institute, a nongovernmental organization in Virginia that studies security and policy issues in Asia.

While the Obama administration has never publicly discussed the Chinese unit’s activities, a secret State Department cable written the day before Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008 described at length American concerns about the group’s attacks on government sites. (At the time American intelligence agencies called the unit “Byzantine Candor,” a code word dropped after the cable was published by WikiLeaks.)

The Defense Department and the State Department were particular targets, the cable said, describing how the group’s intruders send e-mails, called “spearphishing” attacks, that placed malware on target computers once the recipient clicked on them. From there, they were inside the systems.

American officials say that a combination of diplomatic concerns and the desire to follow the unit’s activities have kept the government from going public. But Mandiant’s report is forcing the issue into public view.

For more than six years, Mandiant tracked the actions of Comment Crew, so named for the attackers’ penchant for embedding hidden code or comments into Web pages. Based on the digital crumbs the group left behind — its attackers have been known to use the same malware, Web domains, Internet protocol addresses, hacking tools and techniques across attacks — Mandiant followed 141 attacks by the group, which it called “A.P.T. 1” for Advanced Persistent Threat 1.

“But those are only the ones we could easily identify,” said Mr. Mandia. Other security experts estimate that the group is responsible for thousands of attacks.

As Mandiant mapped the Internet protocol addresses and other bits of digital evidence, it all led back to the edges of Pudong district of Shanghai, right around the Unit 61398 headquarters. The group’s report, along with 3,000 addresses and other indicators that can be used to identify the source of attacks, concludes “the totality of the evidence” leads to the conclusion that “A.P.T. 1 is Unit 61398.”

Mandiant discovered that two sets of I.P. addresses used in the attacks were registered in the same neighborhood as Unit 61398’s building.

“It’s where more than 90 percent of the attacks we followed come from,” said Mr. Mandia.

The only other possibility, the report concludes with a touch of sarcasm, is that “a secret, resourced organization full of mainland Chinese speakers with direct access to Shanghai-based telecommunications infrastructure is engaged in a multiyear enterprise-scale computer espionage campaign right outside of Unit 61398’s gates.”

The most fascinating elements of the Mandiant report follow the keystroke-by-keystroke actions of several of the hackers who the firm believes work for the P.L.A. Mandiant tracked their activities from inside the computer systems of American companies they were invading. The companies had given Mandiant investigators full access to rid them of the Chinese spies.

One of the most visible hackers it followed is UglyGorilla, who first appeared on a Chinese military forum in January 2004, asking whether China has a “similar force” to the “cyber army” being set up by the American military.

By 2007 UglyGorilla was turning out a suite of malware with what the report called a “clearly identifiable signature.” Another hacker, called “DOTA” by Mandiant, created e-mail accounts that were used to plant malware. That hacker was tracked frequently using a password that appeared to be based on his military unit’s designation. DOTA and UglyGorilla both used the same I.P. addresses linked back to Unit 61398’s neighborhood.

Mandiant discovered several cases in which attackers logged into their Facebook and Twitter accounts to get around China’s firewall that blocks ordinary citizen’s access, making it easier to track down their real identities.

Mandiant also discovered an internal China Telecom memo discussing the state-owned telecom company’s decision to install high-speed fiber-optic lines for Unit 61398’s headquarters.

China’s defense ministry has denied that it is responsible for initiating attacks. “It is unprofessional and groundless to accuse the Chinese military of launching cyberattacks without any conclusive evidence,” it said last month, one of the statements that prompted Mandiant to make public its evidence.

Escalating Attacks

Mandiant believes Unit 61398 conducted sporadic attacks on American corporate and government computer networks; the earliest it found was in 2006. Two years ago the numbers spiked. Mandiant discovered some of the intrusions were long-running. On average the group would stay inside a network, stealing data and passwords, for a year; in one case it had access for four years and 10 months.

Mandiant has watched the group as it has stolen technology blueprints, manufacturing processes, clinical trial results, pricing documents, negotiation strategies and other proprietary information from more than 100 of its clients, mostly in the United States. Mandiant identified attacks on 20 industries, from military contractors to chemical plants, mining companies and satellite and telecommunications corporations.

Mandiant’s report does not name the victims, who usually insist on anonymity. A 2009 attack on Coca-Cola coincided with the beverage giant’s failed attempt to acquire the China Huiyuan Juice Group for $2.4 billion, according to people with knowledge of the results of the company’s investigation.

As Coca-Cola executives were negotiating what would have been the largest foreign purchase of a Chinese company, Comment Crew was busy rummaging through their computers in an apparent effort to learn more about Coca-Cola’s negotiation strategy.

The attack on Coca-Cola began, like hundreds before it, with a seemingly innocuous e-mail to an executive that was, in fact, a spearphishing attack. When the executive clicked on a malicious link in the e-mail, it gave the attackers a foothold inside Coca-Cola’s network. From inside, they sent confidential company files through a maze of computers back to Shanghai, on a weekly basis, unnoticed.

Two years later, Comment Crew was one of at least three Chinese-based groups to mount a similar attack on RSA, the computer security company owned by EMC, a large technology company. It is best known for its SecurID token, carried by employees at United States intelligence agencies, military contractors and many major companies. (The New York Times also uses the firm’s tokens to allow access to its e-mail and production systems remotely.) RSA has offered to replace SecurID tokens for customers and said it had added new layers of security to its products.

As in the Coca-Cola case, the attack began with a targeted, cleverly fashioned poisoned e-mail to an RSA employee. Two months later, hackers breached Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest defense contractor, partly by using the information they gleaned from the RSA attack.

Mandiant is not the only private firm tracking Comment Crew. In 2011, Joe Stewart, a Dell SecureWorks researcher, was analyzing malware used in the RSA attack when he discovered that the attackers had used a hacker tool to mask their true location.

When he reverse-engineered the tool, he found that the vast majority of stolen data had been transferred to the same range of I.P. addresses that Mandiant later identified in Shanghai.

Dell SecureWorks says it believed Comment Crew includes the same group of attackers behind Operation Shady RAT, an extensive computer espionage campaign uncovered in 2011 in which more than 70 organizations over a five-year period, including the United Nations, government agencies in the United States, Canada, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam were targeted.

Infrastructure at Risk

What most worries American investigators is that the latest set of attacks believed coming from Unit 61398 focus not just on stealing information, but obtaining the ability to manipulate American critical infrastructure: the power grids and other utilities.

Staff at Digital Bond, a small security firm that specializes in those industrial-control computers, said that last June Comment Crew unsuccessfully attacked it. A part-time employee at Digital Bond received an e-mail that appeared to come from his boss, Dale Peterson. The e-mail, in perfect English, discussed security weaknesses in critical infrastructure systems, and asked the employee to click a link to a document for more information. Mr. Peterson caught the e-mail and shared it with other researchers, who found the link contained a remote-access tool that would have given the attackers control over the employee’s computer and potentially given them a front-row seat to confidential information about Digital Bond’s clients, which include a major water project, a power plant and a mining company.

Jaime Blasco, a security researcher at AlienVault, analyzed the computer servers used in the attack, which led him to other victims, including the Chertoff Group. That firm, headed by the former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, has run simulations of an extensive digital attack on the United States. Other attacks were made on a contractor for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, a lobbying group that represents companies that make components for power grids. Those organizations confirmed they were attacked but have said they prevented attackers from gaining access to their network.

Mr. Blasco said that, based on the forensics, all the victims had been hit by Comment Crew. But the most troubling attack to date, security experts say, was a successful invasion of the Canadian arm of Telvent. The company, now owned by Schneider Electric, designs software that gives oil and gas pipeline companies and power grid operators remote access to valves, switches and security systems.

Telvent keeps detailed blueprints on more than half of all the oil and gas pipelines in North and South America, and has access to their systems. In September, Telvent Canada told customers that attackers had broken into its systems and taken project files. That access was immediately cut, so that the intruders could not take command of the systems.

Martin Hanna, a Schneider Electric spokesman, did not return requests for comment, but security researchers who studied the malware used in the attack, including Mr. Stewart at Dell SecureWorks and Mr. Blasco at AlienVault, confirmed that the perpetrators were the Comment Crew.

“This is terrifying because — forget about the country — if someone hired me and told me they wanted to have the offensive capability to take out as many critical systems as possible, I would be going after the vendors and do things like what happened to Telvent,“ Mr. Peterson of Digital Bond said. “It’s the holy grail.”

Mr. Obama alluded to this concern in the State of the Union speech, without mentioning China or any other nation. “We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets,” he said. “Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air-traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing.”

Mr. Obama faces a vexing choice: In a sprawling, vital relationship with China, is it worth a major confrontation between the world’s largest and second largest economy over computer hacking?

A few years ago, administration officials say, the theft of intellectual property was an annoyance, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars of revenue. But clearly something has changed. The mounting evidence of state sponsorship, the increasing boldness of Unit 61398, and the growing threat to American infrastructure are leading officials to conclude that a far stronger response is necessary.

“Right now there is no incentive for the Chinese to stop doing this,” said Mr. Rogers, the House intelligence chairman. “If we don’t create a high price, it’s only going to keep accelerating.”

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« Reply #4670 on: Feb 19, 2013, 08:39 AM »

02/19/2013 11:13 AM

Cementing the Union: Early US 'Attractive Precedent for Today's Europe'

By Christian Reiermann

After the War of Independence, the United States looked a lot like the euro zone, with some states crippled by debt. In the end, under a proposal by Alexander Hamilton, the federal government assumed all the debt, securing the country's creditworthiness. A new report argues it could be a good model for Europe.

When German economists ponder how to rescue the euro, they are often inspired by a man who died after a duel 200 years ago. Academics like Hans-Werner Sinn of the Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research, and Wolfgang Franz and his colleagues on the German Council of Economic Experts, have discovered a new role model: the American Alexander Hamilton, the country's first secretary of the treasury, who was shot to death by Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.

The academics have noticed surprising parallels between the problems of today's euro zone and the United States in its early years. Like the European Union today, in the late 18th century the United States was more of a loose alliance of independent states than a federal body. The economic and political problems were also similar. Some states, like South Carolina and Massachusetts, were groaning under the burden of debts from the War of Independence, but no one wanted to lend them any more money.

Other states, especially Virginia, had cleaned up their finances but were refusing to help their less fortunate partners. The dispute over money threatened to destroy the young union. It was only newly appointed Secretary of State Hamilton, in his mid-30s at the time, who was able to solve the debt crisis and save the United States.

But can the euro zone learn any lessons from the days of early capitalism? Can the thoughts of an independence fighter who acquired his knowledge of economics from books, even be relevant today? Ifo President Sinn believes they can. The early years of the United States are an "attractive precedent for today's Europe," and Hamilton was something of a "hero," concludes a new report by the European Economic Advisory Group (EEAG), which Sinn and his co-authors plan to present next week.

A Bold Plan

Indeed Hamilton, who served as adjutant to General George Washington in the War of Independence, fashioned a bold plan in 1790. He was determined to prevent one or more of the 13 states from defaulting on debt payments, fearing that this would adversely affect the creditworthiness of the young republic.

Hamilton, a lawyer, adhered to a creed in politics and business alike: "Promises must be kept." In his view, this also applied to the repayment of debts. In his private life, however, the father of eight children had trouble keeping his resolution. He was repeatedly interested in women to whom he wasn't married. But his economic plan worked. The federal government assumed all the debts of the individual states and combined them into a fund Hamilton referred to as the debt "sinking fund". He also introduced duties and assessed luxury taxes, on spirits, for example, especially whiskey.

Hamilton used the revenues to repay the war debts, and in doing so he managed to reduce the country's high interest costs to 4 percent. The resulting low interest rates stimulated the economy, and the recovery brought more revenue into the government's coffers. Within a few years, Hamilton was able to eliminate a large portion of the US's mountain of debt.

Sinn and his colleagues believe "that the logic of an internal revenue source also applies to modern Europe." They argue that the EU should receive the revenues from the planned financial transaction tax. But that isn't all. "In the long term, and in analogy to Hamilton's system, a fundamentally reformed fiscal order would be necessary, one that provides for the joint administration of customs revenues or the value-added tax."

A Debt Repayment Pact for Europe?

Hamilton's "sinking fund" prompted the German Council of Economic Experts to envision a "debt repayment pact for Europe." Under the plan, member states would collect portions of their liabilities in a common pot and jointly repay the debt. The economic experts have nothing but effusive praise for the consequences of Hamilton's work. "It contributed to securing the creditworthiness of the United States, creating a large bond market and making it possible to refinance at low interest rates."

It remains questionable whether the leaders in Europe's capitals working to save the euro will want to learn from Hamilton, because his debt fund was ultimately a liability union. The common bonds with which he refinanced old debt are better known today as euro bonds. Both are ideas that trigger allergic reactions in some capitals, especially Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, both members of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), are only willing to accept such ideas if a political union is installed as a counterweight to the monetary union.

Nevertheless, Hamilton's approach proves that doing it in reverse isn't necessarily doomed to failure. For him, fiscal union and political union were always two sides of one coin. He didn't just see his plan as a struggle against a debt crisis, but also as vehicle to strengthen the cohesion of the former colonies by dismantling a powerful central government. Joint debt reduction and the reestablishment of joint creditworthiness "to cement more closely the union of the States," he said. Hamilton, whose likeness graces the $10 bill to this day, proved to be right. The United States still exists, and US President Barack Obama recently appointed Hamilton's 75th successor.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #4671 on: Feb 19, 2013, 08:58 AM »

In the USA...

The educational charities that do PR for the right-wing ultra-rich

By George Monbiot, The Guardian
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 1:29 EST

Billionaires control the political conversation by staying hidden and paying others to promote their brutal agendas

Conspiracies against the public don’t get much uglier than this. As the Guardian revealed last week, two secretive organisations working for US billionaires have spent $118m to ensure that no action is taken to prevent manmade climate change. While inflicting untold suffering on the world’s people, their funders have used these opaque structures to ensure that their identities are never exposed.

The two organisations – the Donors’ Trust and the Donors’ Capital Fund – were set up as political funding channels for people handing over $1m or more. They have financed 102 organisations which either dismiss climate science or downplay the need to take action. The large number of recipients creates the impression of many independent voices challenging climate science. These groups, working through the media, mobilising gullible voters and lobbying politicians, helped to derail Obama’s cap and trade bill and the climate talks at Copenhagen. Now they’re seeking to prevent the US president from trying again.

This covers only part of the funding. In total, between 2002 and 2010 the two identity-laundering groups paid $311m to 480 organisations, most of which take positions of interest to the ultra-rich and the corporations they run: less tax, less regulation, a smaller public sector. Around a quarter of the money received by the rightwing opinion swarm comes from the two foundations. If this funding were not effective, it wouldn’t exist: the ultra-rich didn’t get that way by throwing their money around randomly. The organisations they support are those that advance their interests.

A small number of the funders have been exposed by researchers trawling through tax records. They include the billionaire Koch brothers (paying into the two groups through their Knowledge and Progress Fund) and the DeVos family (the billionaire owners of Amway). More significantly, we now know a little more about the recipients. Many describe themselves as free-market or conservative thinktanks.

Among them are the American Enterprise Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Hudson Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Reason Foundation, Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, Mont Pelerin Society and Discovery Institute. All pose as learned societies, earnestly trying to determine the best interests of the public. The exposure of this funding reinforces the claim by David Frum, formerly a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, that such groups “increasingly function as public relations agencies”.

One name in particular jumped out at me: American Friends of the IEA. The Institute of Economic Affairs is a British group that, like all the others, calls itself a free-market thinktank. Scarcely a day goes by when its staff aren’t interviewed in the broadcast media, promoting the dreary old billionaires’ agenda: less tax for the rich, less help for the poor, less spending by the state, less regulation for business. In the first 13 days of February, its people were on the BBC 10 times.

Never have I heard its claim to be an independent thinktank challenged by the BBC. When, in 2007, I called the institute a business lobby group, its then director-general responded, in a letter to the Guardian, that “we are independent of all business interests”. Oh yes?

The database published by the Canadian site shows that American Friends of the IEA has (up to 2010) received $215,000 from the two secretive funds. When I spoke to the IEA’s fundraising manager, she confirmed that the sole purpose of American Friends is to channel money to the organisation in London. She agreed that the IEA has never disclosed the Donors’ Trust money it has received. She denied that the institute is a sockpuppet organisation: purporting to be independent while working for some very powerful US interests.

Would the BBC allow someone from Bell Pottinger to discuss an issue of concern to its sponsors without revealing the sponsors’ identity? No. So what’s the difference? What distinguishes an acknowledged public relations company taking money channelled by a corporation or a billionaire from a so-called thinktank, funded by the same source to promote the same agenda?

The IEA is registered with the Charity Commission as an educational charity. The same goes for Nigel Lawson’s climate misinformation campaign (the Global Warming Policy Foundation) and a host of other dubious “thinktanks”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is outrageous that the Charity Commission allows organisations that engage in political lobbying and refuse to reveal their major funders to claim charitable status.

This is the new political frontier. Corporations and their owners have learned not to show their hands. They tend to avoid the media, aware that they will damage their brands by being seen to promote the brutal agenda that furthers their interests. So they have learned from the tobacco companies: stay hidden and pay others to do it for you.

They need a network of independent-looking organisations that can produce plausible arguments in defence of their positions. Once the arguments have been developed, projecting them is easy. Most of the media is owned by billionaires, who are happy to promote the work of people funded by the same class. One of the few outlets they don’t own – the BBC – has been disgracefully incurious about the identity of those to whom it gives a platform.

By these means the ultra-rich come to dominate the political conversation, without declaring themselves. Those they employ are clever and well-trained, with money their opponents can only dream of. They are skilled at rechannelling public anger that might otherwise be directed at their funders: the people who tanked the economy, who use the living planet as their dustbin, who won’t pay taxes and demand that the poor must pay for the mistakes of the rich. Anger, thanks to the work of these hired hands, is instead aimed at the victims or opponents of the billionaires: people on benefits, trade unions, Greenpeace, the American Civil Liberties Union.

The answer, as ever, is transparency. As the so-called thinktanks come to play an ever more important role in politics, we need to know who they are working for. Any group – whether the IEA or Friends of the Earth – that attempts to influence public life should declare all donations greater than £1,000. We’ve had a glimpse of who’s paying. Now we need to see the rest of the story.

Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at © Guardian News and Media 2013


Republicans Want to Take Away Healthcare from 30 Million to Pay for More Military Spending

By: Jason Easley
Feb. 17th, 2013

Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke for many of his Republican colleagues today when he proposed avoiding the military cuts in the sequester by taking healthcare away from 30 million Americans.

Transcript of Graham on Fox News Sunday via Think Progress:

    CHRIS WALLACE: “Let me just ask you one more question about the sequestration before we let you go, Senator. You know if we go into the sequester, the president is going to hammer Republicans, the White House already put out a list of all the things, terrible things that will happen if a sequester kicks in, 70,000 children losing Head Start. 2100 fewer food inspectors and small business will lose $900 million in loan guarantees and you know, Senator, the president will say your party is forcing this to protect tax cuts for the wealthy.”

    GRAHAM: “Well, all I can say is the commander-in-chief thought — came up with the idea of sequestration, destroying the military and putting a lot of good programs at risk. It is my belief — take Obamacare and put it on the table. You can make $86,000 a year in income and still get a government subsidy under Obamacare. Obamacare is destroying health care in this country and people are leaving the private sector, because their companies cannot afford to offer Obamacare and if you want to look at ways to find $1.2 trillion in savings over the next decade, look at Obamacare, don’t destroy the military and cut blindly across the board. There are many ways to do it but the president is the commander-in-chief and on his watch we’ll begin to unravel the finest military in the history of the world, at a time when we need it most. The Iranians are watching us, we are allowing people to be destroyed in Syria, and I’m disappointed in our commander-in-chief.”.

Graham is not alone. House Republicans have twice tried to dodge the military cuts in the sequester by passing bills that would have immediately cut healthcare and food for hundreds of thousands of children and seniors. The Republican plan to eliminate healthcare for 30 million Americans is nothing news. House Republicans have attempted to repeal Obamacare 34 times. Each of these attempted repeals, if they had been successful, would have eliminated healthcare for 30 million Americans.

All Sen. Graham did was tie two Republican favorites together. (Sort of like an anti-Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of bad public policy. Two horrible things that should never be put together.)

Graham’s argument ignores the fact that repealing Obamacare would increase the deficit.

According to the CBO, repealing Obamacare would increase the deficit by $109 billion. The end result of Graham’s proposal would be 30 million people without healthcare, and over a hundred billion dollars added to the deficit. But hey, maybe this will keep Graham from facing a tea party challenger when he is up for reelection next year?

It is not a coincidence that Lindsey Graham floated this scheme on Fox News. In an attempt to avoid a tea party primary challenge next year, Graham has gone bats**t crazy. Because he is terrified of being primaried from the right, Graham has thrown reality out the window.

The Republicans now try to sprinkle the words immigration and the middle class into their comments, but nothing has really changed. Attempting to take away healthcare from 30 million people is just business as usual for the Republican Party


Paul Ryan Calls Eliminating Food and Healthcare for 600,000 Kids ‘Smarter Cuts’

By: Jason Easley
Feb. 18th, 2013

While trying to blame President Obama for the sequester, Rep. Paul Ryan referenced the smart cuts that the House passed. Those ‘smarter cuts’ would take away food and healthcare for hundreds of thousands of kids.

Transcript from ABC News:

    KARL: Well, let’s get to the biggest other issue out there right now which is these automatic spending cuts. You’ve been pretty clear. You’ve predicted for some time that you think that this so-called sequester is going to happen.

    Let me ask you this, congress is now on recess for ten days, the president is playing golf in Florida this weekend. Is there really any everyday underway to try to avert these cuts right now? Are you even trying.

    RYAN: Well, there have been from the House Republicans.

    Let’s take a step back. Don’t forget it’s the president that proposed the sequester and designed sequester and House Republicans who twice passed legislation replacing the sequester with smarter cuts in other areas of government.

Rep. Ryan proposed (R-P90X), and the House passed, the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act of 2012 last summer. After it died in the Senate, the Sequester Replacement Act was slightly tweaked and brought back by House Republicans during John Boehner’s fiscal cliff Plan B fiasco.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) noted during the Plan B debate on the House floor that the Ryan/GOP cuts would throw a combined 600,000 poor children off of food stamps and Medicaid. Literally, Paul Ryan is trying to protect the defense industry by starving hundreds of thousands of economically disadvantaged children.

The “smarter cuts” that Rep. Ryan is touting would slash food stamps, and throw 300,000 children off the program. The cuts are so extensive that they would eliminate food assistance for 1.8 million adults and children. Ryan’s cuts would also eliminate Meals on Wheels, federal funding for child protective services, and healthcare for disabled adults and children.

Children may have a “right to life” in the Republican Party, but the conservative culture of life doesn’t include food. If kids want to eat, they’re on their own.


Contrary to Republican Myth, Obama is a Better President for Business than Reagan

By: Sarah Jones
Feb. 18th, 2013

It’s Obama v Reagan as the Business President.

Republicans like to claim their party as the party of business, even though their policies (like refusing to lower taxes for small businesses unless too big to fail got some as well) aren’t exactly helpful for the economy. So on President’s Day, I thought we should pit Reagan against Obama and ask whose presidency was better for corporate profits?

In January, Bloomberg reported that corporate after-tax profits had grown 171% under President Obama. That’s more than any president since World War II.

In fact, “Profits are more than twice as high as their peak during President Ronald Reagan’s administration and more than 50 percent greater than during the late-1990s Internet boom, measured by the size of the economy.”

Corporate profits under Obama are more than twice as high as they were under Reagan.

Corporate profits are “now at their highest level relative to the size of the economy since the government began keeping records in 1947, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.”

Before conservatives busy themselves unskewing the math, the business community did it for you, my friends. No need to jump off of a building, business leaders say they are doing this well, but guess what, it’s all due to their greatness, low labor costs and low interest rates. They say Obama doesn’t deserve any credit, and no, they will not share their toys with you even though you bailed them out. Fungu.

It’s not a surprise that business leaders are surly and petulant in the face of their huge profits. You see, everyone wants to have their egos stroked and President Obama snubbed them during his first term. Liberals might not believe this, but business leaders say that the President’s refusal to sit down with them and hear them out alienated the community.

But Obama has sat down with them. For example, in 2011, they told him that regulations were inhibiting business growth. (One might ask, what regulations, but that’s for another day.) Obviously, this isn’t true, unless by inhibiting business growth they mean doubling their profits.

    The executives offered a list of policies they see as inhibiting job creation and business growth, many centered on what they see as overregulation and government indecision, one person said. Another said executives suggested the administration alter its tone when speaking about business. Another suggestion, to aid hiring, was to reduce the taxes on selling a home so it would be easier for people to move for jobs.

Yes, if only Obama would “alter his tone” about business, things would be rosy. Oh, they already are rosy for business, but not so rosy for the people? Now business is mad, even though their profits are soaring. Because, you see, they want their ideas to be heeded by the President, even if they are bad ideas. Implement the fail, President Obama, or else.

When Obama met with business leaders in December of 2012, many of them opposed his tax increases on the rich. Lloyd C. Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that higher taxes for the rich were okay, but cuts needed to be made to “entitlement programs”, “I believe that tax increases, especially for the wealthiest, are appropriate, but only if they are joined by serious cuts in discretionary spending and entitlements.”

These attitudes are what makes the business community seem as tone deaf as they accuse the President of being; while they make huge profits, they fail to grasp that the middle class and poor are suffering. Not everyone got bailed out, and not everyone is doubling their profits. It’s tough to understand how business sees further impoverishing their customers as a great business plan. Consumers are the demand side of the equation, and they need money in order to make purchases. (This explains why President Obama chose to fight for unemployment benefits over tax cuts for the rich in 2010 — it was all about a secret stimulus, and it worked, much to the chagrin of some people.)

Of course, experts disagreed with the business leaders. They say the stimulus stopped unemployment from becoming a disaster. Bloomberg reported, “In a February 2012 survey, 80 percent of senior economics professors said unemployment was lower at the end of 2010 than it would have been without Obama’s stimulus spending.”

Conservatives are probably googling how to blame Obama for this so they can resurrect their Reagan hero on President’s day. But we all know that reality, math, and expertise play very small (if any) roles in conservative “ideas” these days. Just stick with what works — self-righteous claims of persecution in the face of huge profits is always a win for public relations. If that fails, blame Obama.

Business leaders just can’t seem to face the daunting prospect of challenging their beliefs with the facts. Why not ask what, other than their greatness, low interest rates and low labor costs, might be contributing to their high profits. After all, weren’t they always “great”?

Either Obama isn’t overregulating them or regulations are not the death of business.

Which is it?

In the war of Obama v Reagan as the Business President, the math says President Obama wins by a landslide. Corporate profits are twice as high as they were under Reagan. That fact means that some of the business community’s ideas about the economy and indeed their own businesses are not accurate.

Maybe the business community needs to have a sit down where they listen instead of speak. Maybe a government that looks out for the people is not the death of business after all. Maybe the two can co-exist. Maybe common sense regulations and oversight actually help business by saving it from itself (see too big to fail).

Ronald Reagan is supposed to be the business president of all time. He’s the patron saint of trickle down deregulation. But corporate profits under Obama are double what they were under Reagan. It’s enough to make smart people question what they believe.

Happy President’s Day, America.


While Republicans Focus on Public Debt, the Real Issue is Private Debt

By: Deborah Foster
Feb. 18th, 2013

In a nation where private debt ($38 trillion) eclipses public debt ($16 trillion), too many politicians and others constantly focus on public debt as a major factor in the health of our economy. This happens despite the research of economist Alan Taylor that suggests our nation’s major economic collapses, including the Great Depression and the Great Recession, were likely both caused by the weight of private debt (which includes corporate, household, and debt by the financial sector). His research does find that when governments have spent heavily during the same period that the private sector has become indebted, a magnification of the crisis occurs. This is because when the inevitable economic collapse happens, the government finds itself unable to spend money to help the economy rebuild. Instead, it becomes tethered to austerity pressures, which subsequently deepen the financial woes of the country. The people of the nation cannot produce the demand necessary to stimulate the economy, because they are encumbered with household debt. The government is forced by people who focus on revenue declines and rising debt to do the opposite of what it needs to do, like someone trying to solve a Chinese finger trap.

Two days after President Obama was re-elected, consumer debt hit another all-time high of $2.74 trillion. At the end of that quarter, economists reported that the economy had contracted for the first time since the recovery from the disastrous Bush Recession had begun. Another major factor for this backward slide was the reduction in government spending forced by Republicans. It is the perfect mix of ingredients to send the economy back into a tailspin. Instead of responding to the dynamic with an increase in government spending, as prescribed by the ever-wise Keynes, our leaders are still forcing negotiations on sequestration to further cut back on government spending. This week, Thom Hartmann pointed out that public debt is currently about 100% of GDP. After World War II, it was about 120% of GDP. Right after the War, instead of shutting down government spending, our nation’s leaders actually did the opposite. They spent money rather copiously by investing in the country’s infrastructure. The Interstate Freeway System we enjoy today was built. The GIs returning home from war were all sent to college, if they wanted to go, on the GI bill. One of the interesting things about the time frame after the War ended is that private debt was below 50% of GDP. Marginal tax rates on the wealthy were also as high as a whopping 90%.

Fast forward to the present, and we have the opposite situation, created in many ways by Ronald Reagan. We have private debt looming over 250% of GDP. This has happened in several ways. Reagan’s policies have led to the extinguishing of the middle class through stagnation of wages. Despite the fact that Americans have steadily increased their productivity, their wages haven’t increased correspondingly. Fully 50% of workers made less than $26,000 a year in 2010. Nearly half of Americans are one paycheck away from financial disaster. Under these circumstances, it is little wonder that people have been attempting to maintain their middle class lifestyle using credit; they don’t have the cash on hand to do it any other way. Reagan set in motion the crushing of labor unions, which further depresses wages. He demonized the poor so thoroughly that cuts to the social safety net have become accepted as the norm for the country, demanded by citizens at every social stratum, including the poor themselves.

Reagan gave corporations unfettered power when he ended the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Thereafter, businesses merged into ever greater powerhouses, each time accumulating magnificent amounts of debt as vulture capitalists reaped profits. We’ve seen “bubble” after “bubble.” Each time, speculators drove up the value of stocks or homes well beyond what they are actually worth, only to skim magnificent profits, leaving behind small investors with empty pockets when the inevitable crash happens. Banks extending millions of mortgage loans to people that they knew had a dubious ability to repay them, then quickly selling the loans to profit before the scheme fell apart.

When it all went wrong, and some banks were left holding bad debt, they turned to the very people from which they had reaped unbelievable profits and said, “Give us some more money to bail us out.” Dutifully, and without consequence, the American people and their government complied. We’ve been told that the money was all repaid, but bailout guru, Matt Taibbi, says otherwise.

Economist Steve Keen  suggested a rather radical idea to stimulate the economy. It might be called a “We the People Bailout.” Or as Thom Hartmann calls it, a “Debt Jubilee.” Keen argues that we are at an impasse. Obama’s stimulus plan was unable to do as much as it should have, because when he invested dollars into American’s pocketbooks, they were so laden with debt, they simply used it to pay down that debt, rather than spent it to stimulate the economy. Further attempts to stimulate the economy are likely to be met with the same result. Thus, Keen recommends a one-time government debt payment program. In essence, this means that the government does a bailout of a sizeable proportion of household debt (e.g., credit card, mortgage, student loan).

The consequences would be two-fold. For banks, there would be much misery. They would lose out on billions of dollars in interest payments. For anyone paying attention for at least the past 30 years to their behavior, this certainly appears to be a fitting consequence. For the economy, it would be the greatest stimulus ever reckoned. People would have billions of dollars freed up to spend on goods and services. Financial literacy is very poor in this country, and offering extensive education to prevent a re-indebtedness would be exceptionally prudent. For example, how many people will ever hear that, this week, the Federal Trade Commission released a report showing that 20% of Americans have errors on their credit report that could be lowering their credit score, potentially affecting how much they pay for interest, whether they can rent or buy a home, or even whether they get a job? Worse yet, disputing those errors can be a nightmare in terms of actually getting the credit bureaus to fix the problem.

For Republicans, this notion of debt forgiveness even has precedence in the Bible, the Koran, and in many Native American traditions. Within the Bible’s Old Testament specifically, there are passages about the cancellation of debt that occurred every 49 years, when slaves were freed, people were given their original property, and freedom was celebrated. You don’t have to be religious or traditional to see to why early Judeo-Christian, Muslim, or Native American societies saw the merit in maintaining a healthy society by freeing people from debt. Conservatives are always preaching that we need to look to the past for the wisdom of our ancestors, yet here is one example where they likely wouldn’t dream of upholding that principle.


February 18, 2013

Pro-Gun Lawmakers Are Open to Limits on Size of Magazines


WASHINGTON — Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, is haunted by many things that emerged from the investigation of the December mass shooting at a Newtown elementary school. Among them is the nagging question of what prompted the gunman, Adam Lanza, to put down his rifle after killing 20 children and pick up the pistol he used to end his own life.

“We do know that historically in these instances, amateurs have trouble switching magazines,” Mr. Murphy said, referring to the high-capacity ammunition feeding device used by Mr. Lanza to shoot scores of bullets in seconds. “I believe, and many of the parents there believe, that if Lanza had to switch cartridges nine times versus two times there would likely still be little boys and girls alive in Newtown today.”

It is that conviction that has helped put fresh scrutiny on the size of magazines as Congress debates new gun laws.

While influential lawmakers in both parties view a proposed ban on assault weapons as politically toxic, lawmakers seem increasingly open to a ban on high-capacity magazines, like the 15- and 30-round devices that have been used in shooting rampages from Aurora, Colo., to Tucson, where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, to Newtown.

Constitutional lawyers, including many conservatives, generally believe that limiting magazine size falls well within the boundaries of recent Supreme Court decisions on gun rights, and evidence suggests that a ban on large magazines would have reduced the number of those killed in mass shootings.

A growing number of lawmakers say they see a distinct difference between limits on magazine sizes, which they would support, and an assault weapons ban, which they would not. “I see them as separate,” said Senator Angus King Jr., independent of Maine. “It’s the difference between appearance and functionality. High-capacity magazines have contributed to a lot of these tragedies.”

Even Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader who has long stood with the National Rifle Association and remains firmly against an assault weapons ban, has shown receptiveness to a magazine size limit for civilian gun owners. “I think it is something we ought to discuss,” he said.

But the issue also gives pause to many lawmakers, particularly Senate Democrats up for re-election in states that generally support gun rights. They seem torn over whether a restriction on ammunition erodes the rights of law-abiding gun owners, as its opponents insist, or is merely a mild annoyance for those owners in the name of public safety.

“I’m ready to step off the status quo on guns,” said Senator Mark R. Warner, Democrat of Virginia. “But I’ve got to work this one through in my mind.”

In a New York Times/CBS News poll last month of 1,110 adults nationwide, 63 percent of respondents said they would favor a ban on high-capacity magazines, while 34 percent opposed the idea. The N.R.A. has repeatedly and staunchly opposed a ban, arguing that it would have no effect on gun violence and that it would leave such equipment in the hands of criminals alone.

In a 2004 report for the National Institute of Justice that studied the impact of the 1994 assault weapons ban (which expired in 2004), the authors found that high-capacity magazines were used in crimes much more often than assault weapons were. They said that guns equipped with those magazines tended to account for a higher share of guns used in the killing of police officers and in mass public shootings, though those are a small percentage of overall gun deaths.

Many gun experts and lawmakers believe the two areas ripe for legislative consensus are a bill that would make background checks for gun buyers nearly universal, and a measure that would create a federal statute against straw purchasing, which would give prosecutors better tools to go after people who buy guns that they sell or give to others to commit crimes.

“If you prioritize things in terms of their value and likelihood of them getting passed,” said James Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, “I don’t think there is anyone who will tell you that background checks aren’t the most important thing to get done.” Law enforcement officials say that combining background checks and straw purchasing penalties would do much to reduce the criminal use of guns.

But many lawmakers, gun violence experts and victims argue that large-capacity magazines, which gun rights advocates say are convenient for target shooting, increase carnage in shootings. President Obama has called for a maximum magazine capacity of 10 rounds. The police have said that Adam Lanza had a 30-round magazine on his semiautomatic rifle in Newtown.

Mark E. Kelly, Ms. Giffords’s husband, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January that Christina Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl killed in the Tucson shooting, was shot with the 13th bullet in the assailant’s gun. “I am 100 percent sure these magazines have an effect on the number of people killed,” Mr. Kelly said in a later interview.

Such magazines “are so easy to see as a menace to our society,” said Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, who is sponsoring legislation that seeks to ban the sale of magazines of more than 10 rounds.

But gun experts say that standard may be unrealistic, because many handguns are designed to carry more than 10 rounds.

“We have to consider the millions of weapons out there that will be rendered useless,” said Robert A. Levy, a lawyer who was a principal architect of the victorious strategy in the 2008 Supreme Court decision that upheld the rights of residents in the District of Columbia to bear arms, a landmark case for gun rights. Mr. Levy supports a ban on magazines with over 20 rounds, which he said “would rule out very few weapons.”

As interviews with several lawmakers seemed to underscore, a vote to regulate high-capacity magazines would have to be separate from a bill to renew the assault weapons ban to stand a chance of passage. (Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, has offered a bill that does both.)

“There is general agreement that when we went after the cosmetic features of the guns, we didn’t pay sufficient attention to magazine capacity,” said Garen J. Wintemute, the director of the violence prevention research program at the University of California, Davis, referring to the 1994 ban. “Conceptually it has the advantage that you wouldn’t be taking anyone’s guns away. This is a reasonable price to pay for the benefit to public safety.”

Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, shared the view of many conservative Democrats that each piece of gun legislation must be considered separately. “I’m not going to vote for Feinstein’s bill,” he said. “Beyond that I just want to wait and see what we have.”

In another sign of the growing focus on gun magazines, Colorado’s House of Representatives on Monday narrowly passed a measure that would limit magazines to 15 rounds. Its backers in the Democrat-controlled chamber cited the shootings in Newtown and at an Aurora movie theater in July.


February 18, 2013

Democrats’ Man for Battles Will Lead New Senate Charge


WASHINGTON — After two grueling election cycles, Guy Cecil, the brains behind the Democrats’ improbable Senate showings in 2010 and 2012, was expected to set aside his political combat boots for tasseled loafers and a sinecure somewhere in this city that pays handsomely for success.

Then his old boss, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, reluctantly took the helm of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, looking at another brutal map for Democrats eager to stay in control of Congress’s upper chamber. He had one demand: Keep Guy Cecil aboard.

“It was critically important that Guy stay in the job,” said Mr. Bennet, now reunited with Mr. Cecil, the former chief of staff who spent the last months of his 2010 campaign sleeping in the senator’s Colorado basement. “He is just excellent at what he does.”

Mr. Cecil’s return as executive director of the committee is notable in a city accustomed to political consultants cashing in for big money “downtown” — at lobbying firms and with influence peddlers off Capitol Hill. In 2010, Mr. Cecil helped engineer Mr. Bennet’s successful defense of his seat, one of the unexpected wins that kept Democrats in control of the Senate even as the party suffered a historic defeat in the House. Most assumed Democrats would lose the Senate as the 2012 season began. With Mr. Cecil directing forces, the party gained two seats.

But do not tell the reigning Democratic political wunderkind that he has a tough job. That only gets him started.

At 23, he was a Southern Baptist minister in Miami. Then he came out as gay, left a conservative church that would not accept him and went to Boston because it seemed diametrically opposite of the world he had fled. His first job was in retail, paying $19,990 a year.

His grandmother had started the family’s hard-knock cycle, running from an abusive marriage in Ohio to Miami, where she raised five children as a waitress for 40 years. His father is a boat mechanic in South Florida. His brother, born with a malignant neuroblastoma, was not supposed to walk, if he survived his first birthday. He is 32 now, with chronic health problems — and two children.

“I really have no need to complain about how hard my job is,” Mr. Cecil, 38, said with a shrug.

Which is a good thing, because he could have a lot to complain about.

After the struggles of 2010 and 2012, the road ahead for Senate Democrats does not look much smoother. Incumbents are likely to face tough races in the red states of Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina. Democratic retirements in Iowa and West Virginia have opened new fronts for Republicans eager to avoid a third strike in their quest to regain Senate control. Both parties are awaiting a decision by Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat, about whether to run again in South Dakota.

Beyond that, freshman Democrats, swept to power in the Obama wave of 2008, face their first re-election campaigns in the swing states of Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon. Only once in 75 years has the president’s party not lost seats in the midterm election of his second term.

Mr. Cecil’s goal: “To hold the majority, that’s it,” he says.

Rob Jesmer, who in 2012 was Mr. Cecil’s opposite number at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called him “smart and relentless.”

“I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” he said.

Mr. Cecil’s approach to Senate elections goes back to the vicious 1998 re-election campaign of South Carolina’s Ernest Hollings, the last Democratic Senate victory in that state, and 2000, when he helped former Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri defeat John Ashcroft, a Republican, despite the fact that Mr. Carnahan had died in a plane crash three weeks before Election Day.

Mr. Cecil tries to resist national political winds and tailor each campaign to the particular candidates and the states they are running in. Republican campaigns tend to ride national waves, running on broad national issues like the size and scope of government, the level of taxation and the defense of the homeland. Mr. Cecil had different ideas for different Democratic candidates.

For instance, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota ran on “North Dakota values,” a languishing farm bill and essential air service to rural America. Sherrod Brown, practically buried under an avalanche of Republican advertising, ran as David against Goliath, even if he was the incumbent in Ohio.

“Each one of our candidates campaigned to their strengths,” said Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, who won re-election in November in a race many expected him to lose. “I hate to use a basketball analogy, but you don’t put a point guard under the basket and tell him to rebound. Sherrod Brown has a different set of strengths than I do.”

At times last cycle, Mr. Cecil courted controversy. In Wisconsin, he backed the candidacy of Representative Tammy Baldwin, a liberal lesbian from Madison, when many Democrats wanted a more moderate voice from a rural corner of the state. Ms. Baldwin won, beating a four-term governor, Tommy Thompson, the Republicans’ candidate of choice.

In Missouri, Mr. Cecil encouraged Senator Claire McCaskill to pull off one of the most clever feats of the campaign cycle, an advertisement just days before the Republican primary that “blasted” Representative Todd Akin as the most conservative, most vehemently anti-Obama candidate in the Republican field. The effort was seen as a boost for Mr. Akin, the opponent she preferred.

“He understood the complicated needle I had to thread, running a disciplined campaign and seeing if we could end up with a general election candidate we could beat,” Ms. McCaskill said.

Mr. Bennet sees his executive director as something of a not-so-secret weapon. The usual cycle of wholesale staff turnover at the campaign committees robs them of experience and “wisdom.” With Mr. Cecil’s return, the Senatorial Campaign Committee is “battle-tested,” he said.

Mr. Cecil’s background, growing up in a working-class family, with his own personal struggles to deal with, has made his approach to campaigning different as well, Mr. Bennet said. He is a true believer in the Democratic cause, not a hired gun waiting to cash out.

Republicans are not arguing with success. True, candidates like Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Mr. Akin in Missouri lent a hand with controversial comments on rape and pregnancy. But Democrats also beat mainstream Republicans once given an inside shot at victory, like Mr. Thompson in Wisconsin, and former Representatives Denny Rehberg in Montana and Rick Berg in North Dakota.

“Obviously,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who headed the Republican effort in 2012, “they cleaned our clock.”
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« Reply #4672 on: Feb 20, 2013, 07:45 AM »

Three young Indian sisters aged between six and 11 raped and murdered

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 4:04 EST

Three sisters aged between six and 11 were raped and murdered before their bodies were dumped down a village well in rural western India, police said on Wednesday.

The bodies of the three schoolgirls were found last week, two days after they went missing on February 14 from their home in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra state, police superintendent Aarti Singh told AFP.

“The bodies of the three young girls were found in a well, with their schoolbags and footwear,” Singh told AFP by phone from Nagpur, adding they were aged six, nine and 11.

“The post-mortem has confirmed that the girls were raped and then murdered.”

No arrests have been made but Singh said four people had been detained for questioning and investigations were still under way.

Family members said the girls had gone out to look for their mother who was out of the house and no one heard from them again.

The incident led to protests by villagers, Singh said, echoing angry rallies in the capital New Delhi after the brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in December.

That incident sparked a nationwide debate about the treatment of women and girls and their safety in India.

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« Reply #4673 on: Feb 20, 2013, 07:47 AM »

Tunisian leader Hamadi Jebali resigns

Prime minister steps down after failure to reach agreement on forming new government of 'apolitical technocrats'

Reuters, Tuesday 19 February 2013 19.20 GMT   

Tunisia's prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, resigned on Tuesday after his attempt to end a political stand-off by forming a government of technocrats failed.

"I vowed that if my initiative did not succeed I would resign and … I have already done so," Jebali told a news conference after meeting the president, Moncef Marzouki.

Jebali had proposed a cabinet of apolitical technocrats to quell the turmoil caused by the assassination on 6 February of the secular opposition politician Chokri Belaid. The shooting dead of Belaïd, a left-leaning lawyer and outspoken critic of the government, shocked Tunisia and left the government reeling. It prompted mass protests aimed in part at the ruling moderate Islamist party Ennahda, to which Jebali belongs.

No one claimed responsibility for the killing, but it deepened the misgivings of secularists who believe Jebali's government has failed to deal firmly enough with religious extremists threatening the country's stability.

The crisis has disrupted efforts to revitalise an economy hit hard by the disorder that followed the overthrow in 2011 of the veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was president from 1987 up to that date.

Jebali proposed forming a cabinet of apolitical technocrats to restore calm and take Tunisia onwards to elections, but he did not consult his own party or its secular coalition partners.

He had threatened to quit if the proposal failed. But his party scuppered the plan by rejecting the idea of a technocratic government.

Announcing his resignation on Tuesday Jebali said he would not lead another government without assurances about the timing of fresh elections and a new constitution.

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« Reply #4674 on: Feb 20, 2013, 07:56 AM »

February 19, 2013

Israel: Deal Gives Netanyahu Rival Palestinian Portfolio


JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Tuesday night that Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister who has long been a harsh critic of his handling of the Palestinian conflict, would join his next government, serving as justice minister and leading negotiations with the Palestinians.

Ms. Livni’s new Hatnua Party is the first to sign an agreement with Mr. Netanyahu, who has been struggling for weeks to set up a coalition of at least 61 of the 120 Parliament members elected Jan. 22. The move came amid reports that talks with two larger factions — Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Jewish Home — had broken down, and analysts said it was an effort to put pressure on those parties to join the coalition quickly or risk being left out.

“This is an agreement Netanyahu formulated as a sort of doomsday deal,” said Idan Kveller, Army Radio’s political reporter. “Even Livni’s great accomplishment still depends on whether Netanyahu forms a government. Otherwise this deal goes down the drain.”

Giving Ms. Livni a role in the peace process could also be an attempt to placate Washington ahead of President Obama’s planned visit to Jerusalem next month. She campaigned largely on the Palestinian issue, and is among the Parliament’s strongest advocates for the creation of a Palestinian state as the only path to preserve Israel as a Jewish democracy.

“This is an Israeli interest,” Ms. Livni told a conference of American Jewish leaders here last week. “It’s not a favor to the Palestinians, it’s not a favor to the Arab world, and it’s not a favor to the president of the United States.

“There is no status quo,” she added. “Stagnation and stalemate means deterioration; this is something we cannot afford.”

Ms. Livni would hardly be given a free hand. Any negotiating team would include Isaac Molho, who as Mr. Netanyahu’s special envoy has presided over four years of impasse in the peace talks. Any deal with the Palestinians would also have to be approved by the cabinet and the Parliament, and possibly a voter referendum.

Ms. Livni, a 54-year-old lawyer, began her political life as a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party, but broke away to help form the centrist Kadima faction in 2005. Under her leadership, Kadima won more Parliament seats than Likud in 2009, but she failed to form a coalition, handing Mr. Netanyahu the premiership. After several years of leading the opposition, she was ousted by Kadima voters in primary elections early last year, and quit politics, only to return several months later under the new banner of Hatnua, Hebrew for the Movement.

At a news conference announcing the deal on Tuesday night, Mr. Netanyahu and Ms. Livni acknowledged their past disputes but said they paled next to the challenges Israel faced, including the Palestinian conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s civil war and domestic issues including a sagging economy and the integration of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military and workforce.

“We must set aside our disagreements and join forces for the state of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “The state of Israel now needs a large national unity government. Today we’re making the first step towards this end.”

Ms. Livni said that though she had “criticized the government’s action during the past four years,” she and Mr. Netanyahu had “sat down for many long and calm conversations” since the elections, and had “reached the conclusion that we must truly put all this behind.”

Before Tuesday’s announcement, Ms. Livni repeatedly said Hatnua’s six lawmakers would not join Mr. Netanyahu’s government without other center-left parties. One likely candidate is Kadima, which has dwindled to two seats.

That would give Mr. Netanyahu 39, including the 31 members of his own Likud-Beiteinu faction. The two ultra-Orthodox parties have 18, not enough to put him over the top. So he still needs either the Labor Party, which has rebuffed his entreaties in recent days, or the parties headed by Mr. Lapid and Mr. Bennett, whose united front is said to have angered Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Lapid, who won 19 seats, and Mr. Bennett, with 12, were the darlings of the recent election, and both are eager to join the government, but on their own terms. The Livni deal suggests they may have overplayed their hands. Mr. Lapid’s platform centered on integrating the ultra-Orthodox, making a partnership with their parties problematic. Mr. Bennett also supports drafting the ultra-Orthodox into national service and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, a direct contradiction with Ms. Livni’s stance.

Neither leader reacted publicly to the Livni announcement Tuesday night.

On Monday, Mr. Bennett told his Jewish Home faction there had been no “significant negotiations” for a week, according to Israeli news reports, while Mr. Lapid started a session with his Yesh Atid colleagues by joking, “It is the weekly meeting during which I report that nothing has happened.”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.
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« Reply #4675 on: Feb 20, 2013, 07:58 AM »

February 19, 2013

Sudan Troops Battle Rebels in Border Area


KHARTOUM, Sudan — Sudanese forces said late Monday that they had captured an area from rebels in the restive state of Blue Nile in fierce fighting that led to the deaths of 66 rebels and several government soldiers.

A statement by the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North, however, disputed the Sudanese Army’s claims, saying its fighters had killed 86 soldiers, and a spokesman said the rebels still held the contested area, called Mufu.

The Sudanese government has been struggling to control territory in Blue Nile and other areas along the border with South Sudan. Fighting in Blue Nile broke out in June 2011, a month before South Sudan seceded from Sudan, when fighters once allied with rebels in the south refused to disarm.

Sudan says that South Sudan is supporting the rebels north of the border, a charge South Sudan denies.

Fighting was also reported this week in the border state of South Kordofan, which has had more battles than Blue Nile. The Sudanese Media Center, a semiofficial news service believed to be close to Sudan’s security apparatus, said the fighting along the badly marked border was between the Messeiriya tribe and the South Sudanese military and had left 23 people dead.

A resident of the area, who gave his name only as Yassir, confirmed the fighting, but he said it was unclear who was involved. Different tribes have historically clashed over grazing rights and water resources.

A spokesman for the South Sudanese Army, Philip Aguer, could not be reached for comment.

During the dry season, the Messeiriya, an Arab tribe, have historically moved south into what is now South Sudan to find more fertile grazing lands for their cattle. Unresolved issues between Sudan and South Sudan have mainly stopped the migration this year, leaving thousands of cattle vulnerable.

The two countries remain at an impasse over issues like the creation of a buffer zone and what Sudan says is the South’s support for the rebels. As a result, South Sudan refuses to restart production of oil that flows through pipelines to the north and could aid the economies of both countries.

On Friday, the United States issued a statement urging “both sides to refrain immediately from any actions that could further destabilize the border areas between South Sudan and Sudan.”
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« Reply #4676 on: Feb 20, 2013, 08:02 AM »

02/19/2013 03:08 PM

How the Mossad Works: The Mystery of Israel's 'Prisoner X'

By Ulrike Putz

An Israeli agent commits suicide in his prison cell. Was he a traitor? The mysterious case of "Prisoner X," reported to be Australian-born Benjamin Zygier, provides an insight into the workings of the Mossad.

The Milan office building exudes elegance with its stucco facade, brass name plate, concierge service and expensive wooden furniture inside. There's nothing to suggest that the firm based here, which specializes in the sale of satellite communications technology, is a front for the Israel foreign intelligence service Mossad.

But the Milan company is reported to have hired Israeli agents who needed legends for their operations in enemy territory. One of them was Ben Zygier, an Australian Jew and a committed Zionist who emigrated to Israel as a young man. The company is reported to have vouched as Zygier's employer when he applied for a work visa at the Italian consulate in Melbourne in 2005. That, at least, is what Australian intelligence agents claim.

Ben Zygier died aged 34, just four days after the birth of his second child, on December 15, 2010, in a solitary confinement cell in the Ayalon high-security prison near Tel Aviv. He was reported to have hanged himself, even though he was the country's best-guarded prisoner, monitored by four cameras. His lawyer had met him one or two days beforehand and said Zygier had seemed normal.

His case made headlines last week after an Australian news program identified Zygier as Israel's mysterious "Prisoner X." What crime can the agent have committed to prevent even his guards from knowing his identity?

Israeli officials said he had been a danger to national security. His lawyer said the accusations against him were "serious." When Zygier died, Israel issued a gag order preventing media from covering the case.

'Access to Secret Installations'

The agent was arrested in February 2010, shortly after the Mossad had murdered the weapons dealer of Hamas in Dubai. Now there's speculation that Zygier was involved in that killing, and that he may have divulged secrets. Or did he have something to do with the killings of Iranian scientists or software attacks against Iran's nuclear program?

There are no answers, but Zygier and two other Australian Jews who also worked for the Milan firm were reported to have been successful agents. "The nature of their business gave them access to military and secret installations," said an Austrialian intelligence source.

Zygier's case provides insight into the methods of Mossad. It shows how the service recruits agents and masks operations.

As a young man, Zygier got involved with the "Community Security Group" in Melbourne, a kind of Jewish citizens' defense league. These groups often have links to Mossad and are instructed by agents. Ben Zygier was probably recruited in this way. At around the same time, Paul Y. and David Z. were recruited.

Australian Jews are particularly attractive to the Mossad because of a quirk in the law: Australians are allowed to change their first and last names once a year. It's a wonderful way to adopt a new identity.

After he completed his education, Zygier emigrated to Israel. Y. and Z. also moved there. The three of them -- all holding Israeli and Australian citizenship -- got jobs with the Milan-based firm. Back in Australia, they applied for new names. Ben Zygier got the names Benjamin Burrows and Benjamin Allen. Y. and Z. also changed their names at least twice.

Under Surveillance

But in 2009 their repeated name-changing aroused the interest of the Australian authorities -- especially when Zygier handed in his old passports, filled with Iranian entry visas. Paul Y. spent a lot of time in Syria, Iran, Egypt and Dubai. David Z., too, travelled to Iran several times. That wasn't just evident from his passport stamps. During one trip in 2004, he sought help from the Australian consulate in Tehran.

The three men were now put under surveillance whenever they went back to Australia. Britain's MI6 foreign intelligence agency also began to take an interest in David Z., who possessed a British passport as well.

Ben Zygier also attracted attention with his choice of friends. During a trip to Melbourne in 2009, his followers noticed that he was approaching Iranian and Saudi-Arabian students at Monash University.

Soon after that, a source told the Australian journalist Jason Koutsoukis that the three men were caught up in espionage. When he confronted Zygier with these accusations, he denied it. "I asked him why he changes his name so often," said Koutsoukis. "He replied he had personal reasons for that."

They spoke three more times before mid-February 2010. Zygier was getting increasingly annoyed, he said he just wanted to build a normal life for himself in Israel. During the last telephone call he shouted: "Fuck off!"

At this point the Australian authorities already planned to arrest Zygier for espionage. But the Israeli authorities were quicker. On Feb. 24, Israel informed a liaison officer from the Australian secret service in Tel Aviv that Zygier had been arrested.

Zygier died in December. Calls to the firm in Milan are only answered by voicemail. Paul Y. and David Z. are reported to be still living in Israel. Possibly under new names.


February 19, 2013

Israel Releases Part of Report on Prisoner X’s Death


JERUSALEM — The man known as Prisoner X was found dead at 8:19 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2010, hanging by his neck in the shower of his cell. The noose was fashioned from a wet bedsheet, rolled and tied to the window bars. There was a hint of a sedative in his stomach and a wound on his left hand, but neither contributed to his demise, which was caused by asphyxiation.

These and other details were revealed on Tuesday with the publication of part of a report on the Israeli government’s investigation of the death of the man, who was identified in news reports last week as Benjamin Zygier, an Australian-Israeli. Mr. Zygier was held secretly in solitary confinement for months, awaiting trial on serious charges relating to national security.

The judge who conducted the investigation concluded that Mr. Zygier’s death was a suicide and was not “caused by a criminal act,” according to the report. Still, it said, gaps in prison procedures created “a suicidal window of opportunity” that demands further investigation into possible negligence by the authorities, including “the higher echelons.”

“There was no disagreement that a willing act of the deceased is what brought about his suicide,” wrote the judge, Daphna Blatman Kedrai. “But the fact is that the mission of supervising the deceased according to known orders was not carried out.” She added, “There is possible evidence to the guilt of elements in the prison authority in causing the death.”

Much remains unclear about Mr. Zygier, who used the name Ben Alon in Israel and was 34 when he died. He grew up in a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne, Australia, and immigrated to Israel as a young man, serving in the Israeli military and working for a year as a lawyer in a prominent firm. News reports have suggested that he was an agent for Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, and that when he was arrested in February 2010, he might have been about to reveal secrets about how Israel used false Australian and other passports in intelligence operations.

But late Tuesday, the Israeli prime minister’s office released a terse statement saying Mr. Zygier “had no contact with the Australian security services and organizations,” rebutting news reports that suggested otherwise. The statement was issued, it said, “to clarify that there is excellent cooperation, full agreement and complete transparency between the State of Israel and its various organizations and the government of Australia and the Australian security organizations, as far as handling issues on the agenda are concerned.”

An Israeli lawyer who met with Mr. Zygier said he was considering a plea bargain at the time of his death, which came a few days after the birth of his second daughter.

The investigative report was released Tuesday after Israeli news organizations contested a broad court order blocking coverage of the case. It came as the Executive Council of Australian Jewry issued a statement welcoming further investigation of the death by Australia’s Foreign Ministry and an Israeli parliamentary committee, and after a member of Mr. Zygier’s family spoke publicly about the case.

“We demand that Israel tell us exactly what happened to Ben,” an unidentified family member was quoted by the Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot as saying. The part of the report that was released — 10 of 29 pages, skipping paragraphs 15 to 33 — indicates that the Zygier family supported the investigation, including an autopsy, and participated in the process. Three lawyers represented Mr. Zygier during the investigation, and his wife went before the judge at least once, the report says.

Judge Blatman Kedrai said in the report that she reviewed “extensive investigative material,” including a “large number of testimonials” and “thick binders of documents.” There were police photographs and diagrams of the area where Mr. Zygier was found, objects taken from the cell, the prisoner’s administrative and medical files, a diary of phone calls and video images from security cameras. Among the witnesses interviewed were his wife, mother and lawyer, the report said, as well as prison medical workers, social workers, guards and commanders, the report said, including “testimony taken under warning from workers of the prison authority with the suspicion of negligence in carrying out their jobs.”

“The regulations for special supervision to prevent the danger of suicide were given,” the judge wrote. “These regulations were not carried out.”

The prison service released a statement late Tuesday saying it was examining the judge’s report and had “drastically reduced” the number of suicides behind bars in recent years. “The prison service is aware of the weight it carries with regards to protecting the life of every prisoner or detainee no matter who he may be,” the statement said. “The organization therefore regards the topic” of suicide among prison inmates “with the utmost importance.”

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.

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« Reply #4677 on: Feb 20, 2013, 08:05 AM »

February 19, 2013

Maoists Block Deal to Break Nepal’s Long Political Deadlock


NEW DELHI — Nepal’s major political parties failed on Tuesday to complete an expected agreement to settle a years-long political standoff, after Maoists insisted that the accord include amnesty for past crimes.

The amnesty issue derailed a tentative deal reached on Monday to appoint as interim prime minister the chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court, Khil Raj Regmi, to lead Nepal until elections in June. Now it appears that the wrangling will continue indefinitely, worsening the paralysis of the country’s civic functions.

Nepal has been trying to establish a working representative democracy since 2008, when a constituent assembly was elected to replace the former monarchy. But the assembly has been unable to draw up a constitution or settle on when or how to hold further elections. Maoists, who fought a long civil war against the monarchy, now control the most important government posts, but the ethnic, caste, religious, ideological and regional differences that permeate Nepalese society have made even the most basic political agreements impossible.

Meanwhile, the country’s judiciary has been arresting former Maoist fighters from the bitter civil war, which cost at least 13,000 lives, prompting the Maoist party to call for amnesty and for a less punitive reconciliation process, such as a parliamentary committee that the party could influence.

“Amnesty is still under consideration,” said Devendra Poudel, adviser to the present Maoist prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai. “Instead of addressing one or two issues separately, why not deal with them all in the same package?”

But the country’s other political parties and civil-society organizations have insisted on a process in which war criminals are jailed.

“The Maoists are very much afraid of the regular judiciary of this country,” said Rajendra Dahal, a spokesman for President Ram Baran Yadav, a leader of the centrist Nepalese Congress party. “But until there is an agreement, they will control the government,” he said of the Maoists. “So they benefit from the standoff.”

Mr. Dahal said that the president had welcomed the tentative deal to put the chief justice in charge temporarily. “The president’s single mission is to have elections,” he said early Tuesday. “Any way the parties get some consensus in the goal of having elections, the president will support.”

By late Tuesday evening, however, the optimism surrounding the tentative agreement had faded.

Kanak Mani Dixit, a civil rights activist and commentator, said he was worried that the Maoists supported the deal in hopes of discrediting the Supreme Court, which he said is the last civic institution in Nepal with any credibility.

“The Maoists agreed because they have already destroyed every other important institution of the state,” Mr. Dixit said.

Mr. Regmi was expected to be appointed to a three-month term as prime minister, after which he would return to the court. If Mr. Regmi had been unable to oversee elections in that time, a new agreement would have had to be reached.

The Maoist leader, Mr. Bhattarai, rejected all previous proposals to replace him, and other political parties have refused to allow elections while Mr. Bhattarai and his allies hold the crucial levers of government, saying that his oversight would make the elections unfair.

In the meantime, basic civil functions in Nepal have begun to fail one after another, and the country’s economy, never robust, has stalled. As a result, Nepalis have been emigrating to neighboring countries in large numbers, to the exasperation particularly of India, where many of the migrants settle.
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« Reply #4678 on: Feb 20, 2013, 08:08 AM »

Indian workers plan nationwide strike against anti-labor policies

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 22:35 EST

Millions of Indian workers were expected to join a two-day nationwide strike starting Wednesday in protest against “anti-labour” economic reforms introduced by the embattled Congress government.

Premier Manmohan Singh has appealed to unions to abandon the strike, the latest in a string of protests against liberalisation, warning it would cause a “loss to our economy” already poised for its slowest annual growth in a decade.

A one-day strike against reforms last September cost Asia’s third-largest economy $2.3 billion in lost output and trade, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry.

But talks following Singh’s appeal this week collapsed after the government refused to bow to union demands to roll back reforms, which are aimed at jumpstarting the economy and averting a downgrade in India’s credit rating.

“The workers are being totally ignored and this is reflected in the government’s anti-labour policies,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of the umbrella Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

The 11 unions behind the strike plan to block rail and road traffic, and said operations of state-run banks would be disrupted.

The government’s “big ticket” reforms include opening retail, insurance and aviation sectors to wider foreign investment, hiking prices of subsidised diesel used by farmers and reducing the number of discounted cooking gas cylinders.

The steps aimed at freeing up the still heavily state-controlled economy and lowering India’s ballooning subsidy bill and fiscal deficit have stirred wide public anger, especially among the poor.

“The last time that we called a strike (in February 2012), nearly 100 million workers participated. This time we’re expecting a bigger number,” Sen told AFP.

The protest was expected to have maximum impact in eastern West Bengal, where unions enjoy significant clout. The walkout could also have a big effect in southern Kerala state where strikes are common.

It might be business as usual however in financial hub Mumbai, where some unions said they would not protest.

An overtly patchwork response indicating a lessening of union influence would be welcome news for the government, which has been buffeted by graft scandals, the weakening economy and stubbornly high inflation, analysts said.

* Indian-workers-breakdown--009.jpg (35.67 KB, 460x276 - viewed 82 times.)
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« Reply #4679 on: Feb 20, 2013, 08:15 AM »

David Cameron defends lack of apology for Amritsar massacre

First serving British prime minister to visit the scene of 1919 shootings says it would be wrong to 'reach back' into history

Nicholas Watt in Amritsar, Wednesday 20 February 2013 09.04 GMT   

David Cameron has defended his decision to stop short of delivering a formal British apology for the Amritsar massacre in 1919, in which at least 379 innocent Indians were killed.

As relatives of the victims expressed disappointment, the prime minister said it would be wrong to "reach back into history" and apologise for the wrongs of British colonialism.

Cameron was speaking shortly after he became the first serving British prime minister to visit the scene of the massacre, which emboldened the Indian independence movement.

The prime minister bowed his head at the memorial, in the Jallianwala Bagh public gardens. In a handwritten note in the book of condolence for victims of the massacre, Cameron quoted Winston Churchill's remarks from 1920. He described the shootings, in his own words, as a "deeply shameful event".

As he prepared to leave Amritsar, the prime minister explained why he had decided against issuing an apology. "In my view," he said, "we are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as 'monstrous' at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time. So I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.

"I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.

"That is why the words I used are right: to pay respect to those who lost their lives, to remember what happened, to learn the lessons, to reflect on the fact that those who were responsible were rightly criticised at the time, to learn from the bad and to cherish the good."

His remarks came after a relative of one of the victims expressed disappointment that the prime minister had not apologised. Sunil Kapoor, whose great-grandfather, Waso Mal Kapoor, died in the shootings, said: "If he said it is shameful, why did he not apologise?"
Sunil Kapoor, whose great grandfather died in the Amritsar massacre Sunil Kapoor's great-grandfather was among the dead at Amritsar

Kapoor, who is president of the Jallianwala Bagh Freedom Fighters' Foundation, said: "I am not satisfied that he did not meet the families. We have waited 94 years for justice."

The prime minister said Britain could still be proud of its former empire – while acknowledging the mistakes – as he rejected demand to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India from the British crown jewels.

He said: "I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British empire did and was responsible for. But of course there were bad events as well as good events. The bad events we should learn from, and the good events we should celebrate.

"In terms of our relationship with India, is our past a help or a handicap? I would say, net-net, it is a help, because of the shared history, culture, and the things we share and the contributions that Indians talk about that we have made."

Asked whether Britain should return the Koh-i-Noor diamond, he said: "I don't think that is the right approach. It is the same question with the Elgin marbles. It is for the British Museum and other cultural centres to do exactly what they do do, which is link up with museums all over the world to make sure that the things we have, and are looked after so well, are properly shared with people around the world. No, I certainly don't believe in returnism."

At least 379 innocent Indians were shot dead in the massacre by riflemen acting on the orders of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. No 10 believes there is no need to apologise because the British state condemned Dyer's actions at the time.

As war secretary in 1920, Churchill described the shootings as "a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation".

But a relative of one of the victims expressed disappointment that the prime minister had stopped short of an explicit apology. Sunil Kapoor, whose great-grandfather, Waso Mal Kapoor, died in the shootings, asked: "If he said he is shameful, why did he not apologise?"

Kapoor, who is president of the Jallianwala Bagh Freedom Fighters' Foundation, was disappointed the prime minister was not meeting relatives of the victims. He said: "I am not satisfied that he did not meet the families. We have waited 94 years for justice."

But Sukumar Mukhajee, secretary of the memorial committee, whose grandfather survived the shootings, welcomed the prime minister's remarks. Mukhajee, who met Cameron, said: "He has come here. He has paid his tribute. It is more than an apology."

Anita Anand, the BBC presenter, tweeted during the prime minister's visit: "My grandfather was one of the lucky few who survived."
Cameron visit to India, day 3 The Golden Temple, the holiest site in the Sikh religion, receives at least 100,000 visitors a day. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The prime minister hopes his strong condemnation of the shootings, which emboldened the Indian independence movement, will help Britain and India to move on from what the Queen has described as the sadness of the past. He believes he is on firm ground in declining to apologise because of Churchill's strong language a few months after Dyer was forced to retire.

Churchill told the House of Commons on 8 July 1920: "That is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population."

The prime minister, who has an eye on the Sikh vote in Britain, paid an hour-long visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Out of respect for the holiest Sikh site, he wore a dark-blue covering over his head.

The prime minister said he had been moved by his visit to the Golden Temple. He said: "Today was fascinating and illuminating — to go to the place that is so central to the Sikh religion. I am proud to be the first British prime minister to go and visit the Golden Temple and see what an extraordinary place it is — very moving, very serene, very spiritual. It was a huge honour and a great thing to be able to do. I learnt a lot. "

"In coming here, to Amritsar, we should also celebrate the immense contribution that people from the Punjab play in Britain – the role they play, what they give to our country. What they contribute to our country is outstanding.

"It is important to understand that, to pay respect to that, and to seek a greater understanding of the Sikh religion. And that is why the visit to the holy temple, the Golden Temple, was so important."


David Cameron's India trip hits wobble with concern over helicopter deal

Indian PM Manmohan Singh highlights worries over corruption allegations and urges Britain to improve its visa system

Nicholas Watt in Delhi, Tuesday 19 February 2013 10.12 GMT      

David Cameron's trip to India has run into trouble after his Indian counterpart raised "very serious concerns" about a £483m helicopter deal, and urged Britain to improve its visa system.

An attempt by Cameron to recast Anglo-Indian relations as a "special partnership" was in danger of being overshadowed by the carefully worded intervention from Manmohan Singh.

Singh said at a joint press conference in Delhi that he had sought British assistance in the investigation into allegations that corrupt payments were made during negotiations to purchase 12 AgustaWestland luxury AW101 helicopters, manufactured in Yeovil.

Giuseppe Orsi, the chairman and chief executive of AgustaWestland's parent company, Finmeccanica, has been arrested by Italian police as part of an investigation into allegations that bribes were paid to Indian government officials. Orsi, who denies the allegations, resigned on Friday.

Singh said: "I conveyed to the prime minister our very serious concerns regarding allegations of unethical means used to secure the 2010 contract for AgustaWestland helicopters. I told him that we have sought an explanation from the company by 22 February to examine if the contractural conditions on unethical practices and the integrity pact have been violated.

"I have sought full assistance from the UK in this case. Prime minister David Cameron has assured me of co-operation of his government in the investigations."

Cameron said Britain would co-operate, though he pointed out that Finmeccanica was an Italian company. "We will respond to any request for information," he said. "I am glad that the Italian authorities are looking into this issue in detail as Finmeccanica is an Italian company, the parent company of AgustaWestland.

"Let me make absolutely clear that in Britain we have introduced anti-bribery legislation that is probably the strongest anywhere in the world. We will root out any problems of bribery or corruption wherever they appear and whenever they appear."

Singh also showed Indian concerns over Britain's tough visa system, which has been heavily criticised by British and Indian business leaders for acting as a barrier to links between the countries.

The Indian prime minister said: "Education and science are special areas of India-UK co-operation. I have impressed upon the prime minister the need for a visa regime that facilitates greater movement of people between our two countries so this co-operation can be further recharged."

Cameron said Britain had taken steps to relax visa rules, and that Britain and India should reduce barriers to trade. Britain believed the greatest barrier imposed by India was restrictions on service industries, in which Britain was strong.

The prime minister said: "We discussed today about how we should both be looking at how we reduce the barriers to investment in our countries. Specifically, the British have said we are going to bring in a same-day visa service for Indian business. We made absolutely clear there is no limit on the number of Indian students that can study in British universities, so long as they have a place and an English-language qualification."

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