Tunisia: Killer of Opposition Leader Remains at Large, Authorities Say
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Published: February 26, 2013
The police have arrested four ultraconservative Islamists who are suspected of being accomplices to the assassination of the leftist leader Chokri Belaid this month, but they have not arrested the killer himself, Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh said Tuesday. Earlier reports citing unnamed sources had said the assassin was under arrest. Mr. Laarayedh said the police believed they had identified the killer as a hard-line Islamist who is still on the run.
Kadhafi’s former prime minister in critical condition after being tortured in prison
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, February 27, 2013 7:25 EST
Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmudi, the last premier of deposed Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, is in critical condition after being tortured in a Libyan prison, his Tunisian lawyer said on Wednesday.
Mahmudi “is in critical condition as a result of the torture he has suffered,” said Mabrouk Kourchid, adding that “he could die”.
The lawyer did not provide any further details nor reveal his sources for fear they could suffer reprisals.
Mahmudi fled to neighbouring Tunisia in September 2011, shortly after rebels seized Tripoli and effectively put an end to more than four decades of Kadhafi’s iron-fisted rule.
He was arrested there and extradited to Libya last June, despite warnings from rights groups that he could face the death penalty.
He went on trial in November for what the prosecutor general’s spokesman said were “prejudicial acts against the security of the state and financial crimes.”
In July, Mahmudi protested his innocence to journalists visiting his prison.
“I am not guilty, not guilty, not guilty,” he told reporters during a visit organised by the authorities in an apparent bid to quash rumours he had been tortured.
A physician by training, Mahmudi was loyal to Kadhafi until the end, serving as premier from 2006 up to the final days of his regime.
Along with Seif al-Islam, the toppled dictator’s most high-profile son who is also on trial, Mahmudi is one of the few remaining keepers of the many state secrets under Kadhafi, who was captured and killed by rebels in October 2011.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
February 26, 2013
U.N. Official Sees Desperation, Hunger and Fear on Visit to Mali
By RICK GLADSTONE
A top United Nations relief official who just returned from a trip to northern Mali said Tuesday that desperation, hunger and fear had pervaded the region in the year since Islamist militant extremists seized control, and that only $17 million of the organization’s appeal for $373 million in emergency aid had been donated so far.
The official, John Ging, the operations director of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said some conditions had begun to improve in northern Mali since a French-led military operation began last month in an effort to expunge the militants from cities like Gao and Timbuktu. But Mr. Ging said that during his four-day trip to the northern part of Mali, an area twice the size of Germany, he had heard harrowing tales of rapes, amputations and brutalities committed against children.
He said that many Malians had been terrorized by the violence committed by the militants, and that many were fearful of ethnic reprisals by Malian government troops, who presumably will retake control of northern Mali as forces from France and a coalition of other African nations extend their campaign to rout the militants.
“People of the north are traumatized by the past year,” Mr. Ging told reporters at the United Nations. He said some of the accounts of violence he heard had “moved men to tears; it’s really very raw and heartfelt.”
Mr. Ging said that at least 700,000 children had been affected by the chaos in northern Mali and that at least 200,000 had gone without any education after January 2012 because many schools were damaged or closed by militants who imposed a violent and repressive version of Islamic law. One of the biggest problems, he said, was that most teachers fled the north after groups of armed Islamists, including Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, overran the region. “The numbers are huge and the disruption very profound,” he said.
At least 585,000 people, he said, “are in need of immediate food assistance.”
Mr. Ging said that 431,000 people had fled northern Mali since January 2012, and that many were reluctant to return out of concern for their own security. Among Malians who stayed, he said, “there is less confidence that the conflict is behind them — they are very fearful.”
An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Islamist militant fighters have retreated to areas in the mountainous reaches of northern Mali since the French-led campaign began in mid-January to halt and reverse their southward surge. France, the former colonial power in Mali, is eager to relinquish its leadership role, however. French officials have said a withdrawal of French troops, which total about 4,000, might begin in a few weeks.
Africa's broken promises on improved sanitation exact deadly toll
Hundreds of thousands of people in Africa are dying because governments have failed to provide safe toilets and water
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 February 2013 12.30 GMT
The number of people in Africa lacking access to safe sanitation is rising, despite repeated promises by the continent's national leaders to tackle the problem.
Poor sanitation is causing hundreds of thousands of deaths a year in Africa, where 600 million people – about 70% of the population – do not have a safe toilet, according to NGO WaterAid. That number is up 210m from 1990, largely because the continent's population has increased and more people have moved to urban slums, where there has been no corresponding increase in sanitation.
At the current rate, the millennium development goal of halving the number of people living with dangerously poor sanitation by 2015 will not be met in Africa until the middle of the next century.
Funding for sanitation services is falling well short of the commitments made by governments, according to WaterAid's latest report, entitled "Keeping promises: why African leaders need now to deliver on their past water and sanitation commitments" (pdf). Under the eThekwini declaration of 2008, African governments pledged to spend at least 0.5% of GDP on sanitation and hygiene, but only one state – Equatorial Guinea – has met that target. Many national leaders have also set their own targets, but few of these are on track.
John Garrett, senior policy analyst at WaterAid, said one of the problems was that governments were prioritising other areas of need, such as health and education. However, when people do not have access to adequate sanitation and clean water, money spent on health and education is often wasted because people fall ill from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea.
This restricts the potential for growth in affected countries, since people are frequently unable to work; the lost productivity amounts to billions each year. According to estimates from the UN Development Programme, the shortfall in water and sanitation services costs sub-Saharan African countries about 5% of GDP a year. In 2010, this equated to about $55bn – over a 10th more than the $48bn provided in development aid to the whole continent in the same year.
Aid donors also tend to prioritise other policy areas, to the detriment of spending on water and sanitation. The problem is compounded because, in many African countries, responsibility for water infrastructure is often shared by several different ministries.
Donor funding for sanitation amounts to about $9bn annually, but WaterAid is urging donor countries to double those sums. Doing so will help African countries' economies to progress, and save money in health and education, the NGO argues.
"Africans waste over 40bn hours every year looking for somewhere to go to the toilet, and you can add to this the costs of illness and medical bills of those contracting diseases due to the unhygienic conditions," said Nelson Gomonda, pan-Africa project manager at WaterAid. "Now is the time for African governments to meet their financial commitments on sanitation, and end sanitation and water poverty and their daily toll on human life, health and livelihoods."
February 26, 2013
New Report on Syrian Missiles Shows Extent of Death and Damage
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government fired at least four ballistic missiles last week that hit civilian neighborhoods in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, killing more than 141 people, including 71 children, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday.
Syrian antigovernment activists had reported the missile strikes last week, corroborated by video of the aftermath posted on the Internet, but the Human Rights Watch report contained new details about the number of missile strikes and the scope of destruction, with a death toll that was far higher than previously thought.
“The extent of the damage from a single strike, the lack of aircraft in the area at the time, and reports of ballistic missiles being launched from a military base near Damascus overwhelmingly suggest that government forces struck these areas with ballistic missiles,” the report said.
The assessment came as both sides’ international backers called with increasing urgency for a political solution but remained unable to get the antagonists to talk. That impasse has been the main focus of the first foreign trip by John Kerry, the new American secretary of state, who met with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, on Tuesday to try to push the Syrian combatants into talks.
Fighting intensified in Aleppo, including around the 12th-century Umayyad Mosque, one of the architectural centerpieces of Aleppo’s Old City, and around a long-contested police academy, according to rebels and the government.
The ballistic missile strikes felled entire buildings in destruction that stands out even after months of fighting, according to Human Rights Watch. Its researchers visited all four sites, in residential areas, and found no evidence of military targets nearby, making the attacks a violation of international law, the organization said.
A resident of Ard al-Hamra, one of the neighborhoods hit, said he had just left his brother’s house after evening tea on Friday when “the sky was lit up by a tremendous flash and all air was sucked away.”
He ran back to find that “my brother’s house was gone,” he told Human Rights Watch. “We managed to find my five young nieces and nephews, aged between 3 and 17 years old. They were all dead under the rubble. We still have not found my brother. When will somebody stop this madness?”
As the death toll from the Syrian conflict exceeds 70,000, according to United Nations estimates, and the destruction of major cities continues unabated, fears are mounting that the conflict will spread throughout the region.
Jeffrey D. Feltman, the United Nations’ top political official, told the Security Council during a Middle East briefing, “The destructive military spiral churns more forcefully each day and threatens to pull its neighbors, most notably and worrisomely Lebanon, into its vortex.”
Lebanon, torn apart by political disagreements over Syria and longstanding sectarian divides exacerbated by the increasingly sectarian killing in Syria, last week became the country hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees, even though it is Syria’s smallest and most politically vulnerable neighbor.
“Even tentative steps to dialogue are struggling to take root,” Mr. Feltman said, referring to offers of negotiations issued — with caveats and conditions — by both the Syrian opposition and government in recent days. “Regrettably, the warring parties remain locked in military logic which is bound to bring more death and destruction.”
Before a meeting in Rome on Thursday of the opposition’s international backers, the main opposition group remains under pressure to further unify and organize itself — in part to make sure there is someone for the government to meet with should talks become possible.
The opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has said that on Saturday it will select a prime minister to run an interim government to be established in rebel-held areas of northern Syria. But the group has set and missed such deadlines in the past, and members say there is no consensus yet on who should fill the post.
Even if a prime minister is appointed and empowered to negotiate with the Syrian government, it is unclear if talks will take place. The government of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, has long insisted that Mr. Assad be part of the process, while the opposition coalition, backed by the United States, declares that he cannot be.
Seeking to resolve that impasse, Mr. Kerry had his first meeting as secretary of state with Mr. Lavrov of Russia on Tuesday in Berlin.
The meeting covered the range of American-Russian issues, from economic relations to adoption of Russian orphans. But more than half of the session was devoted to the situation in Syria.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Kerry’s predecessor as secretary of state, believed she had worked out an agreement with the Russians in Geneva in June that would have established the framework for negotiations on a political transition to a post-Assad government. But the Russians interpreted the agreement differently, saying that the understanding that Mr. Assad should leave power could not be a precondition for the talks.
Mr. Kerry, who has said he has new ideas on how to advance diplomacy on Syria, has been looking for a way to secure Russian backing for a transition.
“It was a really serious and hard-working session,” said Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s spokeswoman. Much of the discussion, she said, “focused on Syria and how we can work together to implement the Geneva agreement.”
Mr. Lavrov told Russian news agencies after the meeting that Russia would try to establish the conditions for initiating “a dialogue between the government and the opposition.”
Hania Mourtada and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Michael R. Gordon from Berlin.
The Christian Science MonitorScientists reconstruct Russia meteor trajectory (+video)
By Eoin O'Carroll, Staff / February 26, 2013 at 3:38 pm EST
A duo of Colombian scientists say they have reconstructed the orbit of the meteor that exploded earlier this month over Chelyabinsk, Russia.
Relying on videos of the meteor from Chelyabinsk's Revolutionary Square and in the nearby city of Korkino, astronomers Jorge Zuluaga and Ignacio Ferrin at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia, triangulated the speed and position of the meteorite as it fell to Earth.
Zuluaga and Ferrin's conclusion rests on the assumptions that a 20-foot hole in the ice of Lake Chebarkul was caused by a fragment of the meteor, and that this fragment was traveling along the same trajectory as its parent body. Divers have yet to find a meteorite in the lake.
The pair were inspired by blogger Stefan Geens, who analyzed video of the shadows cast by light poles in Revolutionary Square as the blazing meteor passed overhead. Using simple trigonometry, Geens estimated the path of the meteor, noticing that it squared nicely with an image of the meteor's contrail that just happened to have been picked up by a European weather satellite.
In a paper published online at arXiv.org, Zuluaga and Ferrin took Geen's analysis further, using a gravitational analysis to reconstruct the path of the rock going back four years before impact. Their analysis indicates that the meteor was one of the Apollo asteroids, a class of space rocks whose elongated orbits occasionally cross that of our planet. There are about 5,200 known Apollo asteroids, the largest of them being 1866 Sisyphus, a six-mile wide rock discovered in 1972. Sisyphus is comparable in size to the impactor thought to have caused a global extinction event some 66 million years ago, ending the age of the dinosaurs.
In an effort to prevent a repeat of this sort of event, European Space Agency officials announced a plan to smash a spacecraft into an Apollo asteroid in 2022 to alter its orbit, just for practice. The target of the joint European/US Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, a rock named 65803 Didymos, poses no threat to our planet in the foreseeable future, unless of course the mission goes seriously wrong and Didymos is knocked into our path.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5DgXLbjaQQ&feature=player_embedded
Comet could collide with Mars in 2014
By David Ferguson
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 14:34 EST
Astronomers say that a comet will make an close flyby next year, not of Earth, but of our neighbor planet, Mars. According to a Monday report on Discovery.com, the recently discovered comet, named C/2013 A1 will fly close to Mars on Oct. 19 of 2014.
Comets are balls of ice and debris flung off in the process of forming planets and stars. Comet c/2013 is believed, like many others that pass through our solar system, to have originated in what is known as the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is a massive field of many billions of comets that surrounds our solar system. The cloud was theorized by astronomer Jan Oort in 1950, but it has never been seen and scientists, while mostly accepting that it exists, argue about its size and where the comet nuclei floating in it came from.
Comets have struck planets in our solar system before. In 1994, comet Shoemaker-Levy slammed into Jupiter. The surface of Mars is pockmarked with ancient comet craters, and some astronomers theorize that our own oceans were formed by the impact of water-bearing comets on the Earth.
C/2013 A1 was discovered on Jan. 3 of this year by “ace comet hunter” Robert McNaught at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. When it was spotted, astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Arizona studied its size, speed, path and velocity. They also looked back over “pre-recovery” observations made of the comet since December of 2012 and were able to determine that the object should pass within 63,000 miles of the Martian surface.
Caveats apply, of course. Scientists only have a total of about 75 days of data on the comet, making it difficult to determine exactly where the flying chunk of rock and ice will be in 20 months. One one edge of the calculated possible path of C/2013 A1, the comet could pass by Mars at much more than a safe distance. On the other hand, one set of calculations puts Mars directly in the comet’s path.
Comets typically are not small objects, and even small bodies can make a big impact when they strike a planet while moving at about 35 miles per second (126,000 miles per hour). For Mars, the collision would be a global event. As astronomers say, however, the likelihood of a direct Mars collision is very slim.
Earlier this month, a meteor exploded in the atmosphere over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia, sending out a shockwave that injured hundreds and destroyed property for miles. Meteors are much smaller than comets and do not follow an orbital path around the sun like comets do.
[image via Shutterstock]
02/27/2013 12:02 PM
Mikhail's Milieu: Gorbachev Memoir Shows World of Love and Deceit
By Christian Neef
In a new book, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev provides an intimate look at his life in the Kremlin and at his relationship with his wife Raisa. It reads like a final attempt to convince Russians to love the former Soviet first lady -- and depicts a party leadership that was plagued with deceit and infighting.
It's immediately apparent that he is in poor health. He is overweight, his face is puffy and, as he says, he has spent the last one-and-a-half years "almost entirely in the hospital." He has had four operations in five years and suffers from severe diabetes. He was even erroneously reported dead on Twitter last May. All of this has left its mark on him. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, who turns 82 on Saturday, has spent these last five years working on a new book. The original Russian title translates as "Alone With Myself," a melancholy title that describes his mood more accurately than the title of the German translation, "All in Good Time," to be released in March.
Are we interested in reading yet another book penned by the first and last president of the Soviet Union? By someone who left the political stage 21 years ago? Gorbachev has already written five books. The first, published in 1989, was about perestroika, the rebuilding of Soviet society. Then he wrote one about German reunification and, in 1995, a book simply entitled "Memoirs." Hasn't everything been said by, and about, Mikhail Gorbachev? Don't we know enough of his truths by now?
Not quite. "Alone With Myself," published in Russia last fall, is the most personal book to date by the tragically failed reformer. He dedicated it to his wife, Raisa Maximovna, who died in September 1999. Gorbachev suggests that it wasn't her leukemia that killed her, but his perestroika, and her grief and profound mortification regarding how the Gorbachevs were treated in Russia after 1991.
"Fate was generous to me. It gave me a rare chance," writes the former Kremlin leader. But he also rails against his own fate, two decades after his forced departure from office.
Raisa Gorbachova, the former first lady of the Soviet Union, who was not very popular among Russians, is everywhere in this book. The couple had been married for almost 46 years when Raisa, who held a doctorate in sociology, died at Münster University Hospital in Germany, shortly before a planned bone marrow transplant. "We were happy together. She helped me overcome the darkest days," writes Gorbachev.
He describes how they met, how Raisa loved to wear nice clothes and how she didn't use lipstick until she was 30. He tells stories of how they celebrated their wedding in a student dormitory in 1953 on the anniversary of the October Revolution, of their first night together two weeks after their wedding, and of Raisa's abortion a few months later.
He writes about the mild stroke his wife had in the Crimea in the days following the 1991 coup, about her declining vision and the gradual onset of depression. He also describes her struggle with death, and the last days they spent together in Münster.
Some of the book is very intimate. Do we even want to know these details? But it's important to Gorbachev to arrive at such deep, inner confessions. When he has guests, the first thing he does is take them to see his wife's portrait.
The book also helps the reader understand what every Russian perceived during perestroika: Raisa Gorbachova wasn't just the wife of the Kremlin leader, but a driving force who went beyond her role as first lady. "You were lucky to find me," she reportedly said to Gorbachev on many an occasion. This is most certainly true of this Pisces, who was always more open to dreams and fantasizing than his tenacious, decisive and seemingly cold Capricorn wife.
Gorbachev now tries to correct the public image of his Raisa. Yes, she did have an aristocratic manner, he admits, which some felt was too mannered. But, in reality, she was an open-minded and, most of all, interested person.
"All the talk that she made political decisions and exerted pressure on me is nonsense," Gorbachev writes. "She didn't even know how the politburo works. She was more affected by what was written about those things in the newspapers. When Raisa was hovering between life and death, and when I and the family were at her side, people must have finally understood that we were united by deep feelings."
A Difficult Rise to Power
Politically speaking, "Alone With Myself" offers an insight into the innermost circle of power in the last two decades of the Soviet era. What went on there had little to do with the much-vaunted "unity and closeness of the party." Instead, the center of political power was full of intrigues and attacks, as well as haggling over every position.
For a long time, Gorbachev had nothing to do with all of this. After studying law, he didn't even manage to get a job with the public prosecutor's office, as he had intended. Instead, he faced the prospect of being assigned to Siberia or Tajikistan, in Central Asia. To avoid these fates, he returned to his native Stavropol, in the Caucasus region, where he laboriously worked his way up the party ladder.
It was a well-known fact that he owed his rise to prominence to Yuri Andropov, who would later become general secretary of the Communist Party for a short time. But now he reveals just how close he was with the then-chairman of the KGB -- and to his second mentor, Dmitriy Ustinov, the defense minister under Leonid Brezhnev and Andropov. Both men believed in the young Gorbachev and, in 1978, brought him into the fold as a counterweight to the ruling old boys' club at the Kremlin. Indeed, he couldn't have had better patrons in the Soviet system.
But Andropov knew how cautiously one had to proceed in intrigue-ridden Moscow in order to bring a newcomer like Gorbachev into the Politburo, and he shied away from the step a number of times. And when Andropov, already on his deathbed, wrote a letter to the party's Central Committee and proposed giving Gorbachev control of the Secretariat of the Central Committee, the sentence mysteriously disappeared from the copy sent to Central Committee members.
At the time, the Soviet Union was the biggest power in the communist world, and yet some of the things Gorbachev describes fall somewhere between tragicomedy and farce. For instance, when he invited Andropov, who had a dacha near his, to a private lunch, the head of the KGB turned him down. "I would hardly have been out the door with my wife before they would report it to Leonid Ilyich (Brezhnev), and the malicious chatter would begin: Who? Where? Why? Where to?"
Gorbachev describes how, in 1985, then-General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko, who was ill and two weeks from dying, was paraded before TV audiences as he threw his vote into the ballot box in the election for the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. But the whole thing actually took place in a hospital room, and the trembling Chernenko fell down in the process -- which, of course, was edited out of the TV report.
Old Excuses and New Revelations
My God, many will say, we've always imagined that this is what it was like. And, of course, it is also more significant that Gorbachev addresses his own political performance, and perestroika, more critically in this 600-page tome.
He didn't want revolution, Gorbachev writes, and he believed that it would take 25 to 30 years to restructure the country. This is an example of his old argument in self-defense: He, the head of the Kremlin, was on the right path, but he became a victim of circumstances. But then he also admits to having made mistakes. He writes that he should have been more ruthless in using the party machine, which was still powerful in 1985, to get his way. And he failed to replace the old guard quickly enough, he concedes. Placing himself at the head a new party, as many had advised him at the time, was "not that easy." And there he is again, Gorbachev the compromiser.
But now he openly discusses when it became clear to him what a forlorn mission he had taken on. It was in 1986, Gorbachev writes, when oil prices had dropped to $10 a barrel, wiping out two-thirds of the country's foreign currency revenues. At the same time, the government had raised salaries and pensions, and then substantial tax revenues were lost as a result of an anti-alcohol campaign. That was "the first stab in my back," Gorbachev writes. "But we were incapable of changing our policy."
He sees the second turning point in the country's first halfway free election in March 1989, when the Communist leadership lost by a landslide, prompting Gorbachev's opponents to launch a counteroffensive. The Communist Party should have learned its lesson from the defeat and become the moral leaders of a pluralistic society, Gorbachev writes. What an illusion! The party was already hopelessly discredited.
And now? Yeltsin. Always Yeltsin. Gorbachev still can't get over the fact that he was the one who paved the way to the Moscow stage for the provincial secretary from Sverdlovsk, the man who would topple him in 1991. He can't get over the fact that Yeltsin received many privileges when he resigned, while Gorbachev himself received only the equivalent of a $2 pension and no immunity from prosecution. He also claims not to understand why the Americans were so lenient toward Yeltsin's sins, such as the shelling of the parliament building in 1993.
But there is one story he is now telling that he had previously disclosed to only a very small group of people: Yeltsin tried to commit suicide on Nov. 9, 1987, after he had compared Gorbachev to Stalin before the assembled party leadership. The Central Committee fired Yeltsin, the head of the party in Moscow at the time, and transferred him to a construction agency. But it was only temporary.
It was generally known that Yeltsin was suddenly admitted to the hospital at the time, allegedly after having a "heart attack." But now Gorbachev reveals that his rival tried to kill himself in his office with a pair of scissors.
Gorbachev doesn't say it, of course, but if Yeltsin's suicide attempt had succeeded, wouldn't everything have turned out differently? And would Gorbachev perhaps still be president today?
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
In the USA...
February 26, 2013
Hagel Approved for Defense in Sharply Split Senate Vote
By JEREMY W. PETERS
WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Chuck Hagel as defense secretary on Tuesday after he survived a bruising struggle with Republicans. At the same time,President Obama’s nominee to be Treasury secretary moved closer to approval with bipartisan support, suggesting that the Republican blockade against the administration’s second-term nominees was beginning to ease.
After escaping a filibuster from members of his own party, Mr. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, prevailed in a 58-to-41 vote — the smallest margin for a defense secretary since the position was created in 1947, according to Senate records. Fifty-two Democrats, two independents and four Republicans backed Mr. Hagel, and 41 Republicans opposed him.
The narrow victory raised questions about whether Mr. Hagel would arrive at the Pentagon as a diminished leader as it faces deep budget cuts that are set to take effect on Friday.
Hours before the final vote on Mr. Hagel, the Senate Finance Committee approved the nomination of Jacob J. Lewas Treasury secretary on a 19-to-5 vote. Attention is now turning to the coming vote by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the president’s nominee as C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan.
The chances for Mr. Brennan remained good, though his confirmation was not expected to be entirely smooth, as both Republicans and Democrats have raised objections over the agency’s use of drones to kill terrorism suspects. Republicans also see the Brennan vote, like the fight over Mr. Hagel, as leverage to press other issues with the White House.
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said on Tuesday that he favored a longer confirmation process to force the White House to disclose more about the drone program. “There’s an old saw that after somebody is confirmed, they don’t even owe you a holiday card,” he said. “This is the time for vigilant oversight.”
Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, has called for similar disclosures on drones and has threatened to use “every procedural option at my disposal” to hold back Mr. Brennan’s nomination.
Senators John McCainof Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, have threatened to delay the nomination over another issue altogether: the attack last year on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Both men made similar demands for information during the confirmation of Mr. Hagel, who, unlike Mr. Brennan, has had no role in formulating the Obama administration’s defense and national security policies.
Even if these efforts serve only to inconvenience the White House and cause the president and his nominees some mild political damage, Republicans say they are satisfied that they are forcing the confirmation process to be more deliberative.
“Probably the best-known power of the United States Senate is advise and consent,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee. “Movies have been made about it, books have been written about it. It’s what we do. And we’d be derelict in our duty if we didn’t examine the qualification of our president’s cabinet.”
But Democrats said the process, particularly with Mr. Hagel, had hardly been reflective, let alone worthy of the Senate.
Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, allowed that her Republican colleagues were entitled to ask questions. “But I understand that Jack Lew had 638 questions that he had to answer from one senator,” she said. “Now, really? If you don’t want the guy or gal, vote against them. But don’t drag it out. That’s not politics, that’s petulance.”
Republicans in the Senate, joined by an array of conservative activists, waged an all-out campaign to discredit Mr. Hagel, digging into his financial records for evidence that he was paid by anti-American groups and scouring his old speeches for signs that he was hostile to Israel. Those efforts produced little, forcing Republicans to acquiesce after filibustering his nomination in an initial vote this month.
But even before Mr. Hagel takes office, questions are growing about whether the fight will wound his ability to lead the Pentagon at a time of upheaval both at home and overseas. With a series of huge budget cuts known as sequestration set to go into effect — cuts that will fall hard on the Defense Department if Congress cannot negotiate a compromise — Mr. Hagel will inherit myriad challenges.
The four Republican senators who voted for his confirmation were Thad Cochranof Mississippi, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Mr. Paul and Richard Shelby of Alabama.
Asked at a Defense Department news conference on Tuesday whether Mr. Hagel could still be effective despite the difficult confirmation process, George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, was unambiguous: “Absolutely.”
“He has spent much of his life in the halls of the United States Congress,” Mr. Little said. “He understands the importance of a healthy debate.”
Privately, even some Democrats said they were concerned. One Congressional official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was alarming that Mr. Hagel was not confirmed with the broad bipartisan support that the Senate usually extends to nominees for defense secretary.
“This is unprecedented territory,” the official said. “He is not just weakened with Republicans. Just think about the Democrats who put their neck out for a Republican nominee for defense secretary. You think it was easy keeping all those Democrats on board? No.”
Nearly all recent defense secretaries have sailed through their final votes, usually receiving just one or two “no” votes. The exception was John G. Tower, the nominee of President George Bush, defeated in a 47-to-53 floor vote in 1989 amid allegations of alcohol abuse and womanizing.
Mr. Hagel was the only nominee for defense secretary to face a filibuster, which Republicans achieved a week and a half ago. On Tuesday, 18 Republicans joined Democrats in voting to cut off debate, while 27 voted to continue the filibuster.
As ugly as the clash over Mr. Hagel became, there were some indications that Republicans were moving on. The vote on Tuesday brought to a close an unusually contentious nomination fight, one that surprised many in Washington for how personal and bitter it became, considering that Mr. Hagel worked alongside many of his antagonists until just four years ago.
One of those senators, Mr. Shelby, who initially supported the filibuster, said, “I wish him well.”
Thom Shanker and Jada F. Smith contributed reporting.
February 26, 2013
Voting Act Challenge Hinges on a Formula
By ADAM LIPTAK
The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Wednesday in a major voting rights case. Here is some of the history of the law and the issues that are likely to be raised before the court.
Q. What did the Voting Rights Act do?
A. The Voting Rights of Act of 1965 addressed pervasive lawless conduct by Southern officials bent on denying blacks the right to vote. The act’s central innovation was its requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination get permission from the federal government — the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington — before making changes to voting procedures. The requirement, in Section 5 of the law, applied to changes large and small, from moving a polling place to redistricting an entire state. It was a significant intrusion on state sovereignty and was initially meant to last for just five years.
Q. Which states does it apply to, and how was that list determined?
A. Section 5 at first applied to states and localities that met two criteria. The first was using a device like a literacy test to restrict the opportunity to register and vote. The second applied if fewer than 50 percent of people old enough to vote were registered in November 1964, or if fewer than 50 percent of them voted in the presidential election that year. Using that formula, all of Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia were covered, along with parts of Arizona, Hawaii and Idaho.
The law was extended for five years in 1970, using data from 1968.
In 1975, Congress extended the law for seven years. It also expanded it to cover discrimination against members of “language minority groups” in places that used only English-language ballots even though substantial numbers of people spoke another language. The extension relied on data from 1972. The new formula meant that all of Alaska, Arizona and Texas were covered, along with parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.
Later renewals, for 25 years each in 1982 and 2006, used the coverage formula from 1975.
Q. Why has it lasted so much longer than five years? What reasons has Congress given for extending it?
A. Congress has repeatedly found, by large majorities, that Section 5 continues to be needed to combat voting discrimination that is more widespread and persistent in the places covered by the law. That conclusion is contested by some Southern states and officials, who say that continued coverage is an unwarranted badge of shame.
One question at the heart of the case to be argued Wednesday, Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96, is how much deference the Supreme Court owes Congress in light of provisions of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which give Congress the power to enforce their guarantees of equal protection and the right to vote through “appropriate legislation.”
Q. What has changed that has caused its critics to bring a legal case against it?
A. The challengers say that black voter registration and turnout rates now are high and that black elected officials are commonplace. They say the election of a black president, unimaginable in 1965, shows that the country has moved past the violations that gave rise to the law.
Q. What is the heart of the legal dispute?
A. When the Supreme Court last considered the constitutionality of Section 5 in 2009 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for eight justices, avoided the question but suggested that Congress should act to update the coverage formula based on data fresher than 1972.
“Things have changed in the South,” he wrote. “Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”
Section 5 is an important tool, the chief justice said. But he said making distinctions among states requires justification.
“The evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance,” he wrote. “The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old, and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions. For example, the racial gap in voter registration and turnout is lower in the states originally covered by Section 5 than it is nationwide.”
The nudge failed. Congress did not act.
Q. What do court observers see as the most likely outcome?
A. Many predicted that the court would strike down Section 5 in 2009, and they were wrong. Observers who make the same prediction today may suffer the same fate. But evidence suggests that the court’s five more conservative members may be prepared to take on at least one aspect of the law.
They could stop short of striking down Section 5 itself. But if they say only that the current coverage formula must end, sending the question back to Congress, that would almost certainly have the practical effect in the current climate of legislative gridlock of striking down the section altogether.
Q. What would be the practical effect of overturning part of the law?
A. In the last election, changes to early voting and identification requirements were rejected by courts under Section 5. Should it be struck down, such changes to voting procedures and voting districts in the covered jurisdictions would be subject to ordinary after-the-fact lawsuits, which are expensive and time-consuming.
February 26, 2013
Justices Wrestle Over Allowing DNA Sampling at Time of Arrest
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — About halfway through a Supreme Court argument on Tuesday over whether the police may take DNA samples from people they arrest, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. reflected on just how momentous the issue was.
“I think this is perhaps the most important criminal procedure case that this court has heard in decades,” he said, adding: “This is what is at stake: Lots of murders, lots of rapes that can be solved using this new technology that involves a very minimal intrusion on personal privacy.”
“Why isn’t this the fingerprinting of the 21st century?” he asked.
But the value of such evidence to law enforcement was only one side of the equation, Justice Antonin Scalia said after hearing that Maryland had obtained 42 convictions based on DNA from people arrested there.
“Well, that’s really good,” Justice Scalia said. “I’ll bet you if you conducted a lot of unreasonable searches and seizures, you’d get more convictions, too. That proves absolutely nothing.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to agree that the practice may run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, which generally requires a warrant or individualized suspicion before police may conduct a search. “This is a very reliable tool,” she said, “but it’s not based on any kind of suspicion of the individual who’s being subjected to it.”
The case arose from the collection of DNA in 2009 from Alonzo Jay King Jr. after his arrest on assault charges in Wicomico County, Md. His DNA profile, obtained by swabbing his cheek, matched evidence from a 2003 rape, and he was convicted of that crime. Last April, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that a state law authorizing DNA collection from people arrested but not yet convicted violated the Fourth Amendment.
In July, before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. issued a stay of the lower court decision, saying that collecting DNA from people accused of serious crimes is “an important feature of day-to-day law enforcement practice in approximately half the states and the federal government.”
Collecting DNA from people convicted of crimes was not at issue in the case argued Tuesday, Maryland v. King, No. 12-207. The question was, rather, whether the Fourth Amendment allowed collecting it from people who have merely been arrested and so are presumed innocent.
The chief justice seemed wary of going too far, too fast. The Maryland law, he said, is limited to people arrested for serious crimes. But other laws are broader, and the state’s argument did not have an obvious stopping point.
“Under your theory, there’s no reason you couldn’t undertake this procedure with respect to anybody pulled over for a traffic violation?” Chief Justice Roberts asked Katherine Winfree, the state’s chief deputy attorney general. She said drivers might have a reasonable expectation of privacy that people arrested for serious crimes do not.
She added that people under arrest lose an array of rights. Last year, the court ruled that they may be subjected to strip searches if admitted to a jail’s general population.
Justice Elena Kagan said there must be limits, saying an arrest would not justify the search of an individual’s home for possible evidence of an unrelated crime. She added that under the state’s theory, the law enforcement interest in solving crimes could be used to justify obtaining a DNA sample in many settings.
“Why don’t we do this for everybody who comes in for a driver’s license because it’s very effective?” she asked, rhetorically.
Chief Justice Roberts wondered whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in genetic material that may be easy to obtain in other ways. “You disclose all of this intimate private information,” he said, “when you take a drink of water and leave the glass behind.”
Much of the argument concerned whether DNA is like fingerprint evidence. Kannon K. Shanmugam, a lawyer for Mr. King, said the two were different, as fingerprints are generally used to identify suspects. DNA, on the other hand, he said, is used for a purpose unrelated to the arrest: to solve cold cases, he said.
Several justices seemed interested in a third way DNA could be used: to assist judges in making bail determinations. For now, they were told, turnaround times are too long to make that practicable.
But Michael R. Dreeben, a lawyer for the federal government, which supported Maryland, said the day would soon arrive when DNA could be analyzed in 90 minutes. Ms. Winfree agreed. “This is not science fiction,” she said. “We are very, very close to that.”
Chief Justice Roberts said that left the court in a difficult position. “How can I base a decision today on what you tell me is going to happen in two years?” he asked.
For now, Justice Scalia said, the law’s purpose is “to catch the bad guys, which is a good thing.” But, he added, “the Fourth Amendment sometimes stands in the way.”
February 26, 2013
Justices Turn Back Challenge to Broader U.S. Eavesdropping
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday turned back a challenge to a federal law that broadened the government’s power to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails.
The decision, by a 5-to-4 vote that divided along ideological lines, probably means the Supreme Court will never rule on the constitutionality of that 2008 law.
More broadly, the ruling illustrated how hard it is to mount court challenges to a wide array of antiterrorism measures, including renditions of terrorism suspects to foreign countries and targeted killings using drones, in light of the combination of government secrecy and judicial doctrines limiting access to the courts.
“Absent a radical sea change from the courts, or more likely intervention from the Congress, the coffin is slamming shut on the ability of private citizens and civil liberties groups to challenge government counterterrorism policies, with the possible exception of Guantánamo,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at American University.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that the journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates who challenged the constitutionality of the law could not show they had been harmed by it and so lacked standing to sue. The plaintiffs’ fear that they would be subject to surveillance in the future was too speculative to establish standing, he wrote.
Justice Alito also rejected arguments based on the steps the plaintiffs had taken to escape surveillance, including traveling to meet sources and clients in person rather than talking to them over the phone or sending e-mails. “They cannot manufacture standing by incurring costs in anticipation of nonimminent harms,” he wrote of the plaintiffs.
It is of no moment, Justice Alito wrote, that only the government knows for sure whether the plaintiffs’ communications have been intercepted. It is the plaintiffs’ burden, he wrote, to prove they have standing “by pointing to specific facts, not the government’s burden to disprove standing by revealing details of its surveillance priorities.”
In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the harm claimed by the plaintiffs was not speculative. “Indeed,” he wrote, “it is as likely to take place as are most future events that common-sense inference and ordinary knowledge of human nature tell us will happen.”
Under the system of warrantless surveillance that was put in place by the Bush administration shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, aspects of which remain secret, the National Security Agency was authorized to monitor Americans’ international phone calls and e-mails without a warrant.
After The New York Times disclosed the program in 2005 and questions were raised about its constitutionality, Congress in 2008 amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, granting broad power to the executive branch to conduct surveillance aimed at persons overseas without an individual warrant.
The Obama administration defended the law in court, and a Justice Department spokesman said the government was “obviously pleased with the ruling.”
The decision, Clapper v. Amnesty International, No. 11-1025, arose from a challenge to the 2008 law by Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups and individuals, including journalists and lawyers who represent prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The plaintiffs said the law violated their rights under the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches, by allowing the government to intercept their international telephone calls and e-mails.
Justice Alito said the program was subject to significant safeguards, including supervision by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret, and restrictions on what may be done with “nonpublic information about unconsenting U.S. persons.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the dissent.
Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U., said the decision “insulates the statute from meaningful judicial review and leaves Americans’ privacy rights to the mercy of the political branches.”
Justice Alito wrote that the prospect that no court may ever review the surveillance program was irrelevant to analyzing whether the plaintiffs had standing. But he added that the secret court does supervise the surveillance program.
It is also at least theoretically possible, he added, that the government will try to use information gathered from the program in an ordinary criminal prosecution and thus perhaps allow an argument “for a claim of standing on the part of the attorney” for the defendant.
Mr. Jaffer said the situations were far-fetched.
“Justice Alito’s opinion for the court seems to be based on the theory that the secret court may one day, in some as-yet unimagined case, subject the law to constitutional review, but that day may never come,” Mr. Jaffer said. In many national security cases, he added, the government has prevailed at the outset by citing lack of standing, the state secrets doctrine or officials’ immunity from suit.
“More than a decade after 9/11,” he said, “we still have no judicial ruling on the lawfulness of torture, of extraordinary rendition, of targeted killings or of the warrantless wiretapping program. These programs were all contested in the public sphere, but they have not been contested in the courts.”
James Risen and Charlie Savage contributed reporting.
February 26, 2013
With Virginia Shipyard as Backdrop, Obama Warns Again on Cuts
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and THOM SHANKER
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — President Obama flew on Tuesday to the vast shipyard where the nation’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers are built to send a warning that automatic cuts in the Pentagon budget, only three days away, threatened the jobs of tens of thousands of workers and America’s fragile economic recovery.
“This work, along with hundreds of thousands of jobs, are currently in jeopardy because of politics in Washington,” the president told a crowd of several hundred at Newport News Shipbuilding, which employs 21,000 people in Virginia and is the state’s largest industrial employer. “These cuts are wrong. They’re not smart. They are not fair. They are a self-inflicted wound that doesn’t have to happen.”
In a sign of the deepening intransigence on both sides, Republicans dismissed Mr. Obama’s remarks as political grandstanding and accused him of trying to scare Americans by exaggerating the impact of the cuts. They mocked Mr. Obama’s recent trips to sound alarms about the budget cuts as campaign-style events that would not ease the nation’s fiscal problems.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said the president was using the country’s “military men and women as a prop in yet another campaign rally,” and showed no willingness to accept Mr. Obama’s demands for more revenue by closing tax loopholes. “Spending is the problem, and spending cuts are the solution,” Mr. Boehner said on Capitol Hill. “Yes, we should close loopholes, but we should do it as part of tax reform that lowers rates and helps create jobs.”
But any compromise seemed increasingly elusive and Republican lawmakers appeared divided about how to proceed. Senate Republicans emerged Tuesday from a policy meeting at odds over what they should offer to replace or mitigate across-the-board spending cuts slated to hit Friday, probably postponing a showdown in the Senate on the parties’ two approaches.
Newport News Shipbuilding is the nation’s only builder of the Navy’s nuclear-powered carriers and one of only two builders of nuclear-powered submarines. Pentagon officials say the prospect of the automatic cuts, known as the sequester, has delayed the Navy’s overhaul of the carrier Abraham Lincoln at the shipyard, and would also delay construction of a future aircraft carrier, the John F. Kennedy. The Navy has already signaled that the cuts would delay the routine deployment of a second carrier to the Persian Gulf region.
But Mr. Obama’s trip to the shipyard was intended to draw attention to what officials say would have a far bigger financial impact at home — the loss of economic activity and jobs at private companies that do contract work for the military. White House officials said the cuts could cost thousands of jobs at the shipyard and at the many suppliers around the country who provide the raw materials to build the nation’s fleet of warships.
“Already, the uncertainty around these cuts is having an effect,” Mr. Obama said. “Companies are starting to prepare for layoff notices. The longer these cuts are in place, the greater the damage.”
The visit was part of a continuing effort by the Obama administration to dramatize the real-world impact of the budget cuts, which were enacted 18 months ago by both parties as a way of persuading lawmakers to compromise on less onerous ways of reducing the deficit. Joining Mr. Obama on Air Force One for the brief flight from Washington was Representative Scott Rigell, Republican of Virginia, whose district includes Norfolk and parts of Newport News near the shipyard.
He told reporters that he agreed with the president on the need for tax increases to go along with spending cuts — a view that splits him from his conservative colleagues.
“I believe that a position that says we will reject a proposal if it has even a dollar increase in revenue, I don’t think that’s a wise position and I don’t hold that value,” Mr. Rigell said, adding he favors getting rid of “lobbyist-inspired, lobbyist-written loopholes. I am in favor of that.”
But he criticized the president for not offering a specific proposal to resolve the impasse.
“I think both parties are responsible for where we are now,” Mr. Rigell said.
The president, however, praised Mr. Rigell at the event, giving him credit for being willing to join Democrats in calling for the closing of tax loopholes rather than letting the automatic spending cuts happen. “That’s not always healthy for a Republican, being with me,” Mr. Obama said.
The president said the budget cuts set to take effect on Friday would severely affect companies that depend on the defense industry and their workers.
Although military officials say there will be little visible impact on the country’s fighting ability immediately after the cuts begin, they say the damage would build over weeks and months as ground brigades scheduled to go to Afghanistan do not receive the training they need.
Military officials have said that within a year it is possible that two-thirds of Army and Marine Corps ground combat brigades would not have been trained or equipped to merit a rating of full readiness. Likewise, Air Force and Navy pilots eventually may not be able to fly the required training hours for readiness certification.
“This is not a government shutdown,” said George Little, the Pentagon press secretary. “But it will start the erosion of our military readiness, and we will soon see impacts to bases and installations around the world.”
The Defense department has already notified 800,000 civilian employees that they may be subject to temporary furloughs that would require them to take leaves without pay in the remaining seven months of the current budget year.
Before his remarks, Mr. Obama toured the sprawling facility, where sections of the John Warner and the Illinois, two Virginia-class submarines, were under construction. The company, which has built more than 800 military ships since it was formed in 1886, has revenues of $3.5 billion per year.
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting from Washington.
February 26, 2013
Mass Release of Immigrants Is Tied to Impending Cuts
By KIRK SEMPLE
Federal immigration officials have released hundreds of detainees from detention centers around the country in recent days in a highly unusual effort to save money as automatic budget cuts loom in Washington, officials said Tuesday.
The government has not dropped the deportation cases against the immigrants, however. The detainees have been freed on supervised release while their cases continue in court, officials said.
But the decision angered many Republicans, including Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, who said the releases were a political gambit by the Obama administration that undermined the continuing negotiations over comprehensive immigration reform and jeopardized public safety.
“It’s abhorrent that President Obama is releasing criminals into our communities to promote his political agenda on sequestration,” said Mr. Goodlatte, who, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is running the House hearings on immigration reform. “By releasing criminal immigrants onto the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives.”
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, said the detainees selected for release were “noncriminals and other low-risk offenders who do not have serious criminal histories.”
Officials said the releases, which began last week and continued on Tuesday, were a response to the possibility of automatic governmentwide budget cuts, known as sequestration, which are scheduled to take effect on Friday.
“As fiscal uncertainty remains over the continuing resolution and possible sequestration, ICE has reviewed its detained population to ensure detention levels stay within ICE’s current budget,” the agency’s spokeswoman, Gillian M. Christensen, said in a statement. The agency’s budget for custody operations in the current fiscal year is $2.05 billion, officials said, and as of Saturday, ICE was holding 30,773 people in its detention system.
Immigration officials said Tuesday that they had no plans to release substantially more detainees this week, though they warned that more releases were still possible depending on the outcome of budget negotiations.
They refused to specify exactly how many detainees were released, or where the releases took place. But immigrants’ advocates around the country have reported that detainees were freed in several places, including Hudson County, N.J.; Polk County, Tex.; Broward County, Fla.; New Orleans; and from centers in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and New York.
While immigration officials occasionally free detainees on supervised release, immigration advocates said that the surge of recent releases — so many in such a short span of time — was extraordinary.
Under supervised release, defendants in immigration cases have to adhere to a strict reporting schedule that might include attending appointments at a regional immigration office as well as wearing electronic monitoring bracelets, officials said.
Advocacy groups, citing the cost of detaining immigrants, have for years argued that the federal government should make greater use of less expensive alternatives to detention for low-risk defendants being held on administrative charges.
One such group, the National Immigration Forum, estimated last year that it cost from $122 to $164 a day to hold a detainee in the federal immigration system. In contrast, the organization said, alternative forms of detention could cost from 30 cents to $14 a day per immigrant.
Among those released in the past week was Anthony Orlando Williams, 52, a Jamaican immigrant who spent nearly three years in a detention center in Georgia. “I’m good, man,” he said. “I’m free.”
Mr. Williams, in a telephone interview from Stone Mountain, Ga., said he became an illegal immigrant when he overstayed a visa in 1991. He was detained in 2010 by a sheriff’s deputy in Gwinnett County, Ga., when it was discovered that he had violated probation for a conviction in 2005 of simple assault, simple battery and child abuse, charges that sprung from a domestic dispute with his wife at the time. He was transferred to ICE custody and has been fighting a deportation order with the help of Families for Freedom, an immigrant support group in New York.
Mr. Williams was released last Friday. “That was a long, long, long run,” he said of his detention, adding that he has an appointment this Friday at an immigration office in Atlanta at which he expects to receive the terms of his supervised release — “a list of things I have to abide by.”
Human Rights First, another advocacy group in New York, which has been pressing for reform of the immigration detention system, said that 96 percent of immigrants enrolled in ICE’s alternatives-to-detention program attended their final hearing in 2011. That figure was up from the year before, in which 93 percent attended their final court hearings, said the group, citing statistics provided by B.I., a private contractor that provides monitoring and supervision services to ICE.
Immigrants’ advocates applauded the releases but pressed the Obama administration to do more, including adhering more closely to its declared enforcement priorities and leaving alone immigrants accused of low-level crimes and administrative immigration violations.
“It shouldn’t take a manufactured crisis in Washington to prompt our immigration agencies to actually take steps towards using government resources wisely or keeping families together,” said Carolina Canizales, a leader of United We Dream, the nation’s largest group of young illegal immigrants.
But Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is also holding immigration hearings, said the releases “lessened the chances” that legislators might reach a bipartisan accord on comprehensive immigration reform.
“It is clear the administration is using the sequester as a convenient excuse to bow to political pressure from the amnesty groups,” he said. “With this new action, the administration has further demonstrated that it has no commitment to enforcing the law and cannot be trusted to deliver on any future promises of enforcement.”
Other Republicans, however, shrugged off the releases, saying they expected that the administration would use the excuse of sequestration to take attention-grabbing action and that they were prepared for more in the coming days.
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.
February 26, 2013
Austerity Kills Government Jobs as Cuts to Budgets Loom
By BINYAMIN APPELBAUM
WASHINGTON — The federal government, the nation’s largest consumer and investor, is cutting back at a pace exceeded in the last half-century only by the military demobilizations after the Vietnam War and the cold war.
And the turn toward austerity is set to accelerate on Friday if the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration start to take effect as scheduled. Those cuts would join an earlier round of deficit reduction measures passed in 2011 and the wind-down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that already have reduced the federal government’s contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product by almost 7 percent in the last two years.
The cuts may be felt more deeply because state and local governments — which expanded rapidly during earlier rounds of federal reductions in the 1970s and the 1990s, offsetting much of the impact — have also been cutting back.
Federal, state and local governments now employ 500,000 fewer workers than they did on the eve of the recession in 2007, the longest and deepest decline in total government employment since the aftermath of World War II.
Total government spending continues to increase, but those broader figures include benefit programs like Social Security. Government purchases and investments expand the nation’s economy, just as private sector transactions do, while benefit programs move money from one group of people to another without directly expanding economic activity.
The Federal Reserve and other economic forecasters say that the latest round of government austerity is not likely to return the economy to recession, thanks to stronger private sector growth. But the spending cutbacks and actions to raise taxes could reduce growth by roughly 1.5 percentage points this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, leaving the sluggish economy operating well below capacity.
In testimony to lawmakers on Tuesday, the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, urged Congress and the Obama administration to replace the scheduled budget cuts with a plan to reduce federal deficits more gradually.
“Although monetary policy is working to promote a more robust recovery, it cannot carry the entire burden of ensuring a speedier return to economic health,” Mr. Bernanke said. He warned that the combination of previous spending cuts and the looming mandatory reductions “could create a significant headwind for the economic recovery.”
The shrinking government is a normal response to an extraordinary situation. Government spending generally rises during recessions and falls as the economy recovers. Spending always declines at the end of one war, let alone two. And three years after a recession, the American economy typically is restored to full bloom.
But this time is different. Growth has remained sluggish and millions remain unemployed even as the federal government, riven by partisan differences, has largely turned its attention to deficit reduction.
Mr. Bernanke, like many critics of sequestration, said the government could not ignore the need to reduce its annual deficits and curtail the growth of its debt. But he said short-term cuts would worsen those problems by slowing the economy. Moreover, sequestration mostly spares Medicare and Medicaid, the health care programs that are the primary reason federal spending is projected to increase.
Congress and the administration, he said, should “introduce these cuts more gradually and compensate with larger and more sustained cuts in the future.”
Others, however, say that it makes no sense to postpone inevitable cuts. They note that government cutbacks may cause short-term pain, but also tend to provide long-term benefits by making resources available to the private sector.
“People focus on the upfront cost and they don’t think through the whole timeline,” said Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and an occasional contributor to the Sunday Business section of The New York Times. “You have to cut spending within the next 10 years anyway. It may be time to take some lumps.”
The current round of austerity does not yet approach the depth or the duration of the earlier round of cutbacks. Between 1969 and 1974, as spending on the Vietnam War declined, the government reduced consumption and investment by 24 percent after adjusting for inflation. Between 1991 and 1999, the government reduced consumption and investment by an inflation-adjusted 14 percent.
Over the last two years, federal consumption and investment declined by 6.9 percent. Including state and local consumption, a larger category that has declined more slowly, the inflation-adjusted reduction since 2011 was 4.9 percent.
But Alec Phillips, an economist at Goldman Sachs, estimated that federal consumption could fall by another 11 percent over the next two years. Mr. Phillips also noted that those earlier rounds of cuts in the 1970s and the 1990s came primarily from the military budget. The sequester is designed to be indiscriminate, cutting everything from air traffic control to nursery schools.
That could increase the resulting pain, because economic research suggests that military cuts are less painful than other kinds of spending reductions.
“It is cutting some of the best spending that government does,” Professor Cowen said of the cuts that would fall on the domestic side of the ledger. He said Congress should focus instead on cuts to military spending, farm subsidies and health care programs like Medicare that he regarded as ripe for reductions.
He said that military contractors and personnel might be able to find new jobs with relative ease, because unemployment rates are fairly low for well-educated workers; it is those with less education who are struggling most.
An important reason for the depth of the current cutbacks is that the federal government mounted an unusually large response to the recession, even adjusting for its severity, according to research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
Federal spending expanded to equal almost 25 percent of annual economic output in 2009, well above the 23 percent share that would have been expected based on past recessions, the San Francisco Fed found.
But that pattern has now flipped. While federal spending remained above the historical trend until earlier this year, scheduled cuts over the next two years would push government spending well below the trend.
“History shows that discretionary fiscal policy often helps to support a recovery,” Janet Yellen, vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, said in a recent speech. “Discretionary fiscal policy this time has actually acted to restrain the recovery.”
She added: “I expect that discretionary fiscal policy will continue to be a headwind for the recovery for some time, instead of the tail wind it has been in the past.”
February 26, 2013
Attacked at 19 by an Air Force Trainer, and Speaking Out
By JAMES RISEN
SAN ANTONIO — After her Air Force training instructor raped Virginia Messick, a young recruit, he told her it was fun and they should do it again, she remembers. Then he threw her clothes at her and ordered her to take a shower.
Ms. Messick was unable to move, cry or scream. She was a 19-year-old from rural Florida, in her fifth week of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, and she had just been assaulted by the man the Air Force had entrusted with her life.
After the April 2011 attack, Ms. Messick completed basic training, following orders from the instructor for nearly a month more. Afraid of the consequences, she did not tell anyone what he had done. “How am I supposed to go about reporting something,” asked Ms. Messick, “when the person I’m supposed to report to is the person who raped me?”
Now, after leaving the Air Force, Ms. Messick is the first victim of a still-unfolding sexual assault scandal at Lackland to speak publicly about what she has endured. Since accounts of sexual violence at the base began to surface in late 2011, it has emerged as the largest such episode in Air Force history.
Ms. Messick, now 21, is one of 62 trainees identified as victims of assault or other improper conduct by 32 training instructors between 2009 and 2012 at Lackland, a sprawling base outside San Antonio that serves as the Air Force’s basic training center for enlisted personnel. So far, seven Air Force instructors have been court-martialed, including Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, now serving a 20-year sentence for crimes involving 10 women, including Ms. Messick. Eight more court-martial cases are pending. Fifteen other instructors are under investigation, and two senior officers have been relieved of command.
While Air Force officials say they have taken steps to better protect their most vulnerable personnel, including appointing a female commander to oversee basic training and tightening supervision of instructors, critics say they do not go far enough in addressing an issue across the military: a high rate of sexual assaults that are often not reported because women fear reprisals. None of the victims at Lackland told Air Force officials of the attacks, and the episodes came to light only when a female trainee who had not been assaulted disclosed what she knew.
The reforms undertaken by the Air Force do not alter a fundamental fact of military life: commanders have final say over whether criminal charges are brought in military courts, and victims are expected to report crimes to those who oversee their careers.
In response to the growing outcry over sexual violence, the Pentagon last year ordered that charging decisions in sexual assault cases be determined by more senior commanders than in the past, but the directive stopped short of taking the decision out of the chain of command. Some other nations, including Britain, have taken steps to create a more independent military judicial system, but experts on military justice said that the United States has been unwilling to do so.
“The military justice system is not only to judge innocence or guilt, but is also designed to help a commander ensure good order and discipline,” said Dwight Sullivan, an appellate defense counsel for the Air Force. “Those things sometimes come into conflict.”
While more than 3,000 sexual assault cases were reported in 2011 throughout the military services, Leon E. Panetta, the departing defense secretary, has said the real figure could be as high as 19,000. The Defense Department has found that about one in three military women has been sexually assaulted, a rate twice as high as that among civilians.
“It’s no mystery why they don’t come forward,” said Laurie Leitch, a psychologist who deals with assault cases in the military. “It is like going to your boss to report that you have been sexually assaulted. How realistic is that?”
Air Force commanders say they have taken preventive action at Lackland. “There wasn’t much supervision,” said Maj. Gen. Leonard A. Patrick, who is in charge of the Air Force’s enlisted training. “But now we want to put more leadership into the equation, and more accountability.”
Several female recruits said in recent interviews that they feel safe under the new system, in which instructors no longer have sole oversight for a group of trainees and a buddy system has been instituted. “The scandal was kind of in my mind when I signed up, but I haven’t had any problems,” said Chanler May, a 19-year-old from Texas.
But Ms. Messick is skeptical. “It’s not like anything has really changed,” she said in an interview.
Identified by the news media during her assailant’s court-martial only as “Airman 7,” Ms. Messick suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she decided to speak out because she believes doing so will be therapeutic, and she hopes to help change how the military deals with victims of sex-related crimes. “I don’t want anyone else to go through this,” she said.
When she joined the Air Force in March 2011, Ms. Messick was excited to leave her hometown, Baker, Fla. She was assigned to an all-female “flight” — a training group — overseen by Sergeant Walker. About 25 percent of those in basic training are women; the Air Force has the highest proportion, 19 percent, of women on active duty in any of the services, Pentagon statistics show.
Ms. Messick recalled that her group rarely saw any supervisor other than Sergeant Walker. He quickly began to single her out for special treatment.
He repeatedly allowed her to use his office computer to check her e-mail, a violation of basic training rules. On one office visit, Sergeant Walker grabbed her and began to grope her, Ms. Messick said. She demanded that he stop. “He said, ‘I swear it won’t happen again,’ ” she recalled.
But not long after that, Sergeant Walker ordered Ms. Messick to deliver towels to an empty floor in the trainee dorm. There, she said, he raped her.
Afterward, Ms. Messick tried to cope in silence. In May 2011, only a month after the assault, she impulsively married a friend in the Air Force. “I think I was trying to find some kind of protection,” she said. They divorced just months later.
But later that year, while she was in an advanced training program in Mississippi, a friend from basic training contacted her, reporting that Sergeant Walker was sending explicit photos of himself and demanding that she do the same. In the process, he had threatened to ruin Ms. Messick’s military career. Ms. Messick said she told her friend that the two had had sex, but did not describe it as rape. When Air Force investigators looking into the instructor’s conduct tracked down the friend, she told them about Ms. Messick.
After two and a half hours of questioning by the investigators, Ms. Messick said she provided a “watered down” version of the episode with Sergeant Walker — acknowledging they had sex but refusing to offer details. “I was scared to death. And I kind of blocked out what happened,” she said. “It took me a long time to say the word ‘rape.’ ”
But in testifying at Sergeant Walker’s court-martial in 2012, she recalled, she faced the instructor and accused him of raping her. Lt. Col. Mark Hoover, an Air Force lawyer involved with the Lackland prosecutions, does not dispute Ms. Messick’s account. But because she had not disclosed the rape in pretrial interviews, Sergeant Walker was only charged in her case with a lesser count of engaging in an unprofessional relationship involving sodomy and sexual intercourse.
In July 2012, he was convicted on 28 counts, including rape, sexual assault and aggravated sexual contact involving 10 trainees. Joseph A. Esparza, one of Sergeant Walker’s lawyers, declined to comment, saying that his case is on appeal.
After the court-martial, Ms. Messick said she felt lost. Out of the Air Force because of an injury, she went back home to Florida, but her PTSD grew worse. One day she smashed a vase and used the broken shards to slice her hands. “I just wanted to stop hurting,” she said.
Her mother, Marla Simmons, called the Air Force lawyer who had dealt with her daughter. “I was really upset and I told him he had to get her some help, right now, or somebody is going to pay for what they have done to her,” she said.
The lawyer arranged for Ms. Messick to get into a therapy program at a nearby Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, which she said helped. Last December she remarried.
Still, she said that her PTSD often paralyzes her. She added that other Lackland victims are also suffering from the disorder. “There are some women who can’t say what happened to them,” she said. “They have nightmares. It takes over your life.”
Today, she laments that the military experience she had dreamed would change her life has turned out to be such a bitter one.
“They are not doing anything for the people who have been through it,” she said of the Air Force’s treatment of the assault victims. “They haven’t come to me or any of the other girls to ask them what to change. They basically have left me to fend for myself.”
Thursday: Female veterans in limbo.
Italy: ‘A serious warning to Europe’
26 February 2013
Süddeutsche Zeitung, De Volkskrant, I Kathimerini & 3 others
The narrow victory of the centre-left coalition in elections on February 24 and 25 has left the country without a clear majority. The European press wonders about the implications of the vote and considers the consequences for Europe.
The result of general and senatorial elections amounts to a rejection of the austerity policies of outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, who was the major loser. This is the underlying logic of the surge in support for the unashamedly populist comic, Beppe Grillo, and the extraordinary comeback of former PM Silvio Berlusconi, in spite of the fact that many consider the former prime minister to be the main instigator of the crisis affecting the country.
“Populism and the clamour of lies hold sway,” remarks Süddeutsche Zeitung, in the wake of general and senatorial elections in Italy. Without Mario Monti, the major loser in the vote, Italy would never have survived the crisis, points out the Munich daily. The newspaper continues —
Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich
The Italian vote should be a lesson to all of the participants in the EU crisis: he who hesitates will lose and he who stammers will be punished, because half measures simply do not count. In casting their ballots, Italian voters sent a very simple message: “we don’t understand a thing.” We should not insult them for this reason, because they have the misfortune to live in a political climate of half-truths, where satire has become a "raison d'état". With Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo, there were two comics running for office, and both of them have been rewarded for their libellous ranting.
“The electorate has plunged Italy into chaos,” complains De Volkskrant, which argues, in the light of Mario Monti’s defeat, that “Europe was the main loser in the elections” —
De Volkskrant, Amsterdam
In Brussels and most European capitals, the hope was that Monti, who took office and saved Italy from financial collapse in 2011, would be able to pursue his policy of reforms by forging a coalition with Pier Luigi Bersani [...] The rise of Silvio Berlusconi and the protest vote accorded to [Beppe] Grillo should be serious cause for concern among European leaders, all the more because the toxic mix of anger over austerity and corruption has also emerged in Spain.
In Athens, Kathimerini worries about “the risk of anarchy in Italy”. Almost a year after elections plunged Greece into a political deadlock that could only be resolved by a fresh vote, the daily examines the parallels between the two countries —
I Kathimerini, Athens
In Greece, the election divided the "indignados" into three groups: those who voted for the radical-left coalition Syriza, which was already present in parliament, those who backed the populist Independent Greeks and those who gave their support to Golden Dawn. In Italy, the entire population fell under the spell of the tragedian’s pose adopted by the anti-establishment and non-fascist Grillo, and a much smaller number succumbed to the theatrical gestures of political veteran, Berlusconi. Along with their populist rhetoric, Grillo and Berlusconi have demonstrated a degree of similarity in their opposition to German hegemony and their appeals to national pride.
“It seems that new PM [Pier Luigi] Bersani will have his hands tied by a strong conservative opposition, which will prevent him from continuing reforms begun by Mario Monti,” writes Rzeczpospolita in Warsaw. For the conservative daily —
Several scenarios may be in the offing. One possibility is fresh elections. However, the problem is that to avoid a repeat of the current situation, the electoral law must be changed. But how can this be done in a split parliament? Can a new parliament be elected for just one bill? Italy is in a trap.
Le Monde's editorial describes the political deadlock in the wake of the Italian elections as amounting to a “Basta Così!” [Enough is enough!] on the part of Italian voters, a slogan that is not only “worrying for Italy but also alarming for Europe” —
Le Monde, Paris
The Italian deadlock is a serious warning to Europe. In a country that has helped cement commitment to Europe since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, more than half of the electorate gave its support to candidates who based their campaigns on opposition to a “German Europe” (Berlusconi), or a simple ‘no’ to Europe and the constraints imposed by the euro (Grillo). As a result, Brussels, Berlin and Paris will now have to come up with answers to a number of questions: To what extent is it possible to impose austerity policies on a public that is increasingly hostile to them, not just in Italy, but also in Spain, Greece and Portugal? How can this be done without further undermining Europe’s democratic legitimacy? And how can this contradiction be overcome without threatening the future of the European Union? Europe’s leaders can no longer expect to stand back from these issues.
“Europe stumbles over Berlusconi”, headlines ABC in Madrid, which examines the options for a European Union faced with the “the obstacle of populism". In the light of the success of former prime minister Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo, Mario Monti’s failure amounts to a failure of the “orthodox reformist agenda in Europe.” It follows that “the EU and the political leaders who were responsible for ‘operation Monti’ will have to think seriously about the reasons for this debacle,” remarks the daily. The newspaper’s columnist Ignacio Camacho also wonders if the success of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement can be replicated elsewhere in Europe, notably in the South, adding —
The strong surge in support [for Grillo] has highlighted a social pathology in the Mediterranean region, which, in the political doldrums of Italy, has found expression in an anti-establishment sentiment. Attempts to imitate him will be facilitated by the plummeting prestige of political elites in countries like Spain.
February 27, 2013
Gridlock Fear Rises in Italy as Comedian Rejects Deal
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
ROME — The comedian who emerged from general elections in Italy this week as a leading political force on Wednesday ruled out joining a government alliance, a step that experts say would help avert a long period of uncertainty that could damage the Italian economy.
The comedian, Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Star Movement, rejected an appeal by Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, to work with others to govern the country. Mr. Grillo’s Five Star Movement won 25 percent of the vote, becoming the third-largest bloc in Parliament.
The Democratic Party won the elections, with a razor-thin edge over the party of the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, but it does not have enough seats to form a majority.
Writing on his blog, Mr. Grillo reiterated the caustic, take-no-prisoners position that was a leitmotif of his campaign. Mr. Bersani, he wrote, “is a dead man talking” and “a political stalker” who should resign.
His movement, he added, would not back any political alliance. Instead, “in Parliament it will vote those laws that reflect its program, regardless of who presents them.”
This model — evaluating each law on its merits — has been used in Sicily, where Mr. Grillo’s party won nearly 18 percent of the vote in regional elections last October, becoming the largest party there.
Considerable gains by the party in the region in the general election — nearly 35 percent in the lower house and nearly 30 percent in the Senate — suggest that Sicilians “like the presence of the Five Star Movement in Parliament,” said Roberto Biorcio, a professor of sociology at Bicocca University in Milan and the author of a book on Mr. Grillo’s party. “They are passing laws that people like.”
President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy will hold talks with political leaders in mid-March after Parliament has been installed to determine whether a government can be formed, avoiding a return to the polls.
Italy: ‘Protest vote’
27 February 2013
Handelsblatt, 27 February 2013
“Following the Italian elections on February 24 and 25, the euro has been caught in turbulence. The Italians voted against Mario Monti’s policy of reforms, and against the diktat of austerity,” imposed by Germany, notes the business daily.
“All eyes are now on the European Central Bank,” adds the newspaper, which points out that the ECB will “not supply any aid in the absence of reforms”.
Before the election, the ECB’s Italian President Mario Draghi warned Italian voters of this when he revealed that the bank had bought close to €100bn of Italian bonds since the onset of the crisis.
Merkel’s Europe hits the skids in Rome
27 February 2013
Il Sole-24 Ore Milan
The voters rejected the tutelage of Mario Monti and Angela Merkel, sabotaging the Chancellor's strategy of postponing the euro crisis until after Germany's September elections. To avoid a complete disintegration of the European consensus, the integration process must get back on track now.
Angela Merkel has done everything she could to clear away the danger of new outbreaks of instability in Europe in the lead-up to the German elections in September.
In Italy, she played the Monti card to the full – without going beyond declarations of esteem – anxious as she is to avoid the boomerang effect that caught her on the hop when her unequivocal support of Nicolas Sarkozy helped contribute to his defeat at the polls.
After that, she was forced to deal with his successor, François Hollande. And to keep the markets calm, she even went as far as removing the penalties for France's failure to hold to its commitments to reduce its deficit, formalising the new softening of the rules in a letter to the European Commission – which merely confirms the de facto state of affairs in Greece, Portugal and Spain.
The Chancellor's strategy has not worked. The response of the voters in Italy has dramatically reopened the wound of instability, both inside and outside Italy. As expected, the markets are back on the attack. Europe is trembling and, to limit the damage, is dreaming of putting our country back under trusteeship, of sending it back for good to the outer orbit of countries that are already being closely watched – Greece & Co.
Challenging a united Europe
In reality, the crisis of the electoral hysterics in Italy has moved far beyond the national dimension of discontent and is now pushing the notion of a united Europe, always slipping away, hard up against some awkward truths. It is, rather, pushing its nose into the badly stirred soup of European unity, and the many lumps in the broth are beginning to pop to the surface.
That could put the euro to the test once again. Not so much because of the new eruption of the Italian question, but because Italy, the third-largest economy of the euro club, has touched on the problems of the single currency that the Union, until now, has tried to patch up in a hurry – or rather, hastily to sweep under the carpet.
The vote on Sunday and Monday certainly speaks volumes about the general exasperation with austerity and taxes in a country knocked low by the recession and unemployment. It expresses above all the revolt against the mandarins of a system that, having decided to enter the circle of the single currency, failed to make the choices it had to make to stay in it. There was no modernisation. There was no self-reform. There was no liberalisation to become more competitive and in tune with its partners. This system created in the Italians the illusion that the country could still muddle on by as it always had, perpetuating monopolies, from the smaller to the juiciest, without ever paying the price.
The Italians are not the only ones in Europe, though, who failed to weigh up the consequences of getting into the single currency. This is what has given rise to the dilemma of "More Europe, or less Europe", and "To be or not to be in the euro." It's not a dilemma solely for the Italians. It is, though, a taboo subject much more widespread among the euro club members and those who want to enter the club than one would believe.
This sore has continued to fester for four years during the crisis, while the club seems unable to come up with any answer other than the dogma of austerity and the shock reforms forced by the Germans, yet without having the shock absorbers of growth and still less those of intra-European solidarity. Not to mention the refusal to go through the normal democratic process – in the name, of course, of a technocratic option that is supposedly more efficient.
All this while the north-south divide is getting worse and while Europe and its industries continue to lose ground on the global market. The sacrifices are pleasing no one. And even less so those who, more or less everywhere, note that "Europe has the money to save the banks but not to restore growth and employment."
The markets, on the other hand, need some certitude about the future and integrity of the euro before they will calm down again. Will the guarantee offered by the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, be enough for that? And until when, now that Italy risks opening Pandora's box and letting everyone get a very look indeed at the many unresolved problems of the euro and the EU?
Accelerate euro integration
While the popular consensus on Europe is crumbling all across the continent, the single currency, ironically, needs to resist its internal troubles and accelerate its integration by ratifying the triple union in banking, budgeting and policy. It needs to decide once and for all if it will truly accept and see through to the end, a shared destiny at all levels and under the German model, which is now dominant and pervasive.
The German elections and the European elections in 2014 have temporarily put the debate and the negotiations on ice, pushing back for a few months the moment of truth, putting off the choices among the too many contradictions that Europe is made of. But the worries remain, and they are even growing in many parts of Europe. Even in France under François Hollande.
Will the easing of discipline conceded by Angela Merkel be enough to calm the markets and hold on until September without major upsets? Italy has sounded the alarm, a thundering alarm. It would be dangerous to ignore it. For Europe and for everyone.
View from Germany
Was Monti Merkel’s latest victim?
Did Angela Merkel lose the Italian elections? For the German press, the “political chaos in Italy” is a reflection of the failure of the austerity policy advocated by the Chancellor.
Süddeutsche Zeitung points out that —
in the EU, Berlin’s cold reality and its insistence on reforms are perceived as a hostile diktat. Neither Monti or Bersani — nor indeed Berlin or Brussels — has been able to communicate to the Italians that the drastic regime of austerity will result in a cure.
Clever politicians should avoid following Merkel’s economic lead, remarks journalist Eric Bonse in Cicero. Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Mark Rutte in the Netherlands and now Mario Monti have demonstrated that those who “take lessons from Angie... learn how to lose!“
It remains to be seen why Merkel appears to be unaffected by all of this. But let no one say that the scorched earth she has left behind her has nothing to do with her policies...
However, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is eager to do just that. The conservative daily deplores the “degenerate political parties that will continue to plunder” Italy —
The destabilisation of the nation and the European Union was only made possible by a baffling voting system established by cunning politicians — during the Berlusconi era — to protect the interests of Il Cavaliere. [...] Let’s not forget that the four candidates and Italy’s president have a combined age of 357, a historic record in these elections. This country continues to be a paradise for pampered politicians while millions of young Italians are unable to find work, or training, or places in functional universities. These elections will change nothing for them.
The aspirant Chancellor: "Elect two clowns And Napolitano: "I demand respect for Italy:
Canceled the meeting with Steinbrück: "phrase out of place." The SPD adds: "For Berlusconi concept tender"
28 February 2013
Corriere della Sera
Declarations of Peer Steinbrück, SPD politician, possible candidate to succeed in the role of Angela Merkel Cancelleiere, open a political-diplomatic when visiting Napolitano in Germany. The President of the Republic would have to meet the SPD candidate at the Registry of Peer Steinbrück (German federal elections in September). '' But the Berlin meeting was canceled: "The President of the Republic has the mandate of the Constitution to represent national unity - said Giorgio Napolitano met the Italian community in Monaco of Bavaria - I think it's very different from being the national dignity, I felt invested in both of these mandates and duties. We deeply respect Germany for his achievements, was able to rise from the ruins and build a new Europe together with Italy. We respect it, but we demand respect for our country "
"In Italy, two clowns' means a phrase that has angered Napolitano
TWO CLOWNS: "OUT OF PLACE OR WORSE" - What is the reason for taking pèosizione Napolitano? Tuesday Steinbrück had commented on the Italian vote claiming to be "horrified by the success of two clown" (a reference to Berlusconi and Grillo). The head of state said: "It seems to me that there were no conditions after the statements completely out of place, or worse, that he had done," pointing instead as "what was said by Schaeuble is an example of restraint and respect." The German finance minister, the CDU, it was limited to: "It's democracy." Wednesday, however, in an interview with Reuters, he added: " The result of the elections in Italy has littered the market doubts about the formation of a stable government. When there are doubts, there is the danger of contagion . "
THE TESTOSTERONE - Steinbrück was addressing a meeting of party in Brandenburg and had commented on the success of Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi those of "two populist" and "that the electoral uncertainty emerged from the polls in Italy and the possible inability to form a Government may exacerbate the problems eurozone. " About horror "for the fact that they have won two clowns," the Social Democrat leader, former finance minister, added that one "is the professional and is not offended if it is defined that," while the other "is definitely a clown with a high level of testosterone. " Steinbrück, then asked about the possibility of asking an apology to those affected or Napolitano, he added, "What is said is said," but then make sure that you fully understand the needs of a head of state. The German parliamentarian, who phoned to clarify Napoletano, is no stranger to gaffes and phrases out of line, so much so that last January the weekly Der Spiegel had devoted a cover page with the subtitle: "Why Peer Steinbrück so wrong?".
The no Napolitano after the statement by Steinbrück
"You CLOWN CONCEPT SOFT '- Defending Steinbrück provide, however, members of his party. It increased the coverage dose. Andrea Nahles, SPD general secretary, said: "Clown is the concept that I personally will be softer in the head of Silvio Berlusconi in this context." The deputy leader of the SPD in the Bundestag, Axel Schäfer, called "incomprehensible" the cancellation of the meeting by Napolitano. "What Berlusconi has done for years - he said - is the destruction of every political culture. With the definition of clown I think it went too well. "
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THE ELEPHANT AND THE STEP BACK - Replica Michael Meister, president of the Members of the CDU, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel: " Steinbrück is behaving like a bull in a china shop glassware . " Also from the CDU, through the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag Ruprecht Polenz, also comes a request for a step back, "Steinbrück did the bully as a knight Prussian and did not behave like a man who wants to be chancellor in Germany» , said in an interview to be published Thursday in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
"A CENTRAL ROLE '- Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, declined to comment on the incident, while about the outcome of the election Napolitano explained that" a central role "in view of the formation of a government." Seibert added that the German government does not believe much "an explanation with a single cause," that is, the rejection of the austerity policy of the Eurozone, and that Berlin will work closely and responsibly with any government that emerges in Rome. The President of the Italian Republic Merkel will meet Thursday: "This will give you the opportunity to hear from the lips of Napolitano its assessment of the Italian situation."
The emotion of Napolitano: "We want respect"
Populisms - Napolitano is in Monaco of Bavaria, where he participated in a closed-door meeting in a hotel in the Bavarian town with a number of intellectuals, scholars and writers in Germany. The President said he was "very concerned about the growing populism in Europe", the "danger of a lack of democratic legitimacy" due in part "to the errors of the European ruling classes." During the meeting also spoke at length about the EU, its integration difficulties and the need to "consolidate the reforms." The reported sources present at the meeting.
EUROPE - To the journalists who asked if there were any other questions about Italian elections, he replied, explaining that no one asked for the vote. He added: "They are serious people who know what it means mutual respect." The President then said that the discussion was centered "on the feelings of Europe", the reasons of the European project and the critical elements that provides the relationship today between the European construction and the citizens. "
THE POPE - A thought also went to the German Pope Joseph Ratzinger, on Thursday night fall permanently from the papacy: Benedict XVI "go my heartfelt and affectionate thoughts, and my admiration for the liability shown before the trials of his teaching in a crucial moment for the Catholic Church, "said Napolitano remembering that Bavaria is the birthplace of the Pope.
Silvio Berlusconi under investigation for alleged bribery in Naples
Latest scandal to engulf former premier involves alleged €3m bribe to centre-left senator to switch sides in 2006
Reuters in Rome
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 28 February 2013 13.25 GMT
Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is challenging for a share of power after this week's election, has been placed under investigation on suspicion of bribing a senator to change sides in parliament in 2006, sources in the inquiry said on Thursday.
Two of Berlusconi's lawyers, Niccolo Ghedini and Piero Longo, said they had not yet received any official notification of the investigation from Naples magistrates and would not comment until they had.
The fresh accusations come as parties including Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) struggle to form a government after this week's inconclusive election, which left no party with a majority in parliament.
The prosecutors are investigating claims that a senator, Sergio De Gregorio, was paid €3m (£2.6m) to leave his party and join the PDL, the sources told Italian news agencies.
De Gregorio's move helped trigger the fall of the last centre-left government, headed by Romano Prodi.
No comment was immediately available from De Gregorio's lawyer.
The PDL did not confirm the investigation but a statement from party secretary, Angelino Alfano, said "the aggression by magistrates against Silvio Berlusconi is beginning again". He said the party would organise a demonstration "to defend the sovereignty of the People of Freedom and Italian democracy".
In a separate case, prosecutors in Reggio Emilia have opened an investigation into Berlusconi's campaign pledge to return property taxes paid last year if the centre-right won the election.
The case was opened after two formal complaints filed by citizens, alleging that the offer constituted vote-buying. In a statement, PDL official Deborah Bergamini said the investigation was "an illogical action aimed at intimidating anyone whom magistrates do not like".
Renewed scandal surrounding Berlusconi could reduce the willingness of the other major political groups, the centre-left and the Five Star Movement, to form a government with the former prime minister.
The new allegations emerged during a separate corruption probe against De Gregorio, who left the Italy of Values party in September 2006 and was re-elected as a senator, this time for the PDL, in 2008.
Berlusconi is currently on trial for: tax fraud, in a case centring on the purchase of broadcasting rights by his Mediaset group; for allegedly making public the taped contents of a confidential phone call; and for allegedly paying for sex with an underage girl.
He has faced up to 30 prosecutions for fraud and corruption over his career, but has never been definitively convicted.
Janša is gone. Now what?
28th February 2013
And he went. If it is December, when the Constitutional Court "reversal" for the introduction of weak banks and the Slovenian national holding company (SDH), seemed to have Janez Janša in the hands of this whole last phase transition, for two months later again goes down in history. This time, not only as Prime Minister, but as far the most common name on posters protesters and one of the symbols (post) independence elites, who for two decades dominated by Slovenia.
Photo: Matthew Povše
A newly minted majority in the National Assembly should not have the slightest reason to open champagne. Problems in which the state are much larger than Janša. Slovenia still has one year of the red, and is by no means necessarily that we are in a crisis has hit the bottom. Promises to be a negative economic growth of two per cent, a higher budget deficit, which should be by the end of above five percent, and at least an equal number of unemployed (125,000). Home, often over-indebted companies with the exception of major exporters hit financial indiscipline, declining orders and "zombie" banking system.
It is no exaggeration to note that Slovenia is in the fifth year of the crisis almost clinically dead. Economic stagnation, together with the excesses of political and human capital elites strengthened neperspektivnosti feelings and disappointments. In a country where once each, who had five minutes, marketed mutual funds, like mushrooms after the rain grow odkupovalnice gold, symbolizing the quiet poverty. Large regional employers are falling one after the other, some hospitals have more money for drugs. Young people leaving the country, the elderly are increasingly difficult to push through the month, middle class rapidly falling apart. In such an environment, it may be the country over the reins of the new government mandatarke Alenka Bratušek. This will have major problems at the outset. Its President for the time being still temporary water party, which was built solely around a personality cult Mayor of Ljubljana. If Janša "Taliban" ideologically homogeneous follow misguided economic dogma saving as anesthetic and a medicine in that it does not require upgrades to other measures will cost North Bratuškovo Alliance - ideological and interest is very colorful coalition of parties with their backgrounds. New mandatarka that the statesmanlike policy almost no mileage will be patching coalitions need drnovškovske, almost miraculous abilities. How will a common language on the sale of state-owned companies found in SD, where it is seen as high treason, in the PS that the quarter divided between the employees and the DL, that would be (un) sold immediately? What will be the compromise for the bad bank and that the government will really advance an expiration date?
It will Bratuškova contrary to Janša collided with a large balloon to expect when adopting measures will have even harder work. The spirit of rebellion is finally out of the bottle. On the street they went unions, public sector and students, and will have a new government - if it wishes to regulate public finances - take it one at least once his "base", which went to the streets because Janša cuts. Government waiting for far-reaching decisions relating to bail out banks. At zero tolerance to people sideways political elites will have to accept reform and to negotiate with unions, while "correct wrongs" of Janša Zujfa and find money for their coverage.
An important part of the answer to the question, what is the real scope of the new government will be clear at the time of confirmation of any ministerial team and clarifying who the new prišepetovalci mandatarke. This would be your advice to their political strategy does not build (only) on the recovery of cultural ministry speeches in Dražgoše, rožljanju with the arrival of the troika or cheap populism promises that Slovenia "safe" before changes. Country more than ever needs action to content. Without these will go quickly forgotten by the fact that in Slovenia the incriminating findings of the public authorities, however, can lose the Prime Minister's position.
An important part of the answer to the question, what is the real scope of the new government will be clear at the time of confirmation of any ministerial team and clarifying who the new prišepetovalci mandatarke.
Integrity. Futile attempt to limit the power of Parliament "damage" caused by ANI
USL first major defeat. Will start war with CCR?
28 February 2013
New pressures on the Constitutional Court. Will USL by PSD Baron de Arges, to annihilate National Integrity Agency today?
Constitutional Court rejected yesterday as the USL voted Senators and Members of Parliament status, due to shortcomings in the revocation elect integrity problems. The solution given by the Court reflects the limits of USL comfortable majority in parliament.
PDL Constitutional Court upheld complaint of unconstitutionality and PP-DD amendments to the Statute of MPs on the increase from 15 to 45 days the period within which a choice can challenge a report years for a decision of incompatibility.
Under these conditions, the status will return to Parliament to be put in line with the Court. Basically, the decision yesterday cancels a liberal initiative which came into force in the middle of this month. On 13 February plenum of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies adopted with 298 votes for, 101 against and 36 abstentions, the new amendments to the Statute so that their MPs to be allowed to appeal the decision from ANI to triple - 15 to 45 days.
The measure would have allowed elected officials with integrity problems to delay their withdrawal from parliament, which drew criticism repeatedly Romania's foreign partners. Moreover, such a provision was in total disagreement with the recommendations contained not only the positions of the European and U.S. officials, and MCV reports that reflect the perception that the European Commission has on progress in justice.
Yesterday's decision was reached after CCR - despite the consensus of USL - PDL and PP-DD filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court on the draft amendment to the Statute of MPs. Cristian Radulescu, leader of the PDL senators said then that the basis on which parliament was attacked Statute refers to Article 16 of the Constitution, which provides that in Romania there are privilege and that all citizens are equal before the law. Court held yesterday necons-tituţionalitatea this provision, some voices argue that such reasoning was that it would create discrimination against people who have a period three times lower.
Antonescu, one step back
Liberal leader Crin Antonescu, said before the vote that "in principle USL groups support this amendment." Yesterday, immediately after the decision of the Court, Antonescu said: "We respect the decision of the Court and, of course, the final form of the law will be consistent with Court decision. We who voted Amendment Mr Chiuariu, we started from the idea that between MPs and civil servants are big difference. In other words, lawmakers are not public servants are nothing. That did not mean, in our thinking, our intention that MPs are above the law. "
Basescu to Vienna: "Yes!"
A reaction was yesterday and presidents-ing Traian Basescu. Located in Vienna, the President welcomed the Court's decision, adding that "probably found unconstitutional in 45 days can not be other than 15 as well as to others."
Yesterday, Secretary of the Chamber of Deputies, Eugen Nicolicea UNPR member said that the Constitutional Court on the Statute for Members and Senators is correct. "The Court's decision was predictable, I had an opinion on this and previous delivery. I want to emphasize that statute was declared unconstitutional, but only those articles aimed within 45 days - are two articles. It's the right decision, enables us to turn the error that had made within 45 days whether to terminate the mandate is attacked or not. "
Report on the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism criticized a number of amendments to the Statute of MPs. "The credibility of Parliament would benefit from clearer procedures for case management parliamentarians subject to judgment or integrity in relation to allegations of corruption. Presumption should be that, within constitutional norms established, the prosecution may be able to work in the same way as other citizens, "the report said.
02/27/2013 05:38 PM
Alpine Agitator: Frank Stronach's Crusade to Transform Austria
By Walter Mayr
Frank Stronach left Austria as a boy to make his billions in Canada. But now the 80-year-old has returned home to launch a political party that is challenging established heavyweights. But many have one question: Why?
The man gets right to the point. "You can call me 'Du,'" he mutters at the beginning of the conversation, inviting me to address him informally. "Write it down, or you'll forget it," he says, whenever his interviewer doesn't immediately make a note of what he says. "Do you want coffee?" he asks, finally. But then he adds: "Oh well, you're going to have some ginger tea instead."
Anyone who manages to secure a meeting with billionaire Frank Stronach doesn't call many shots.
On this afternoon, the 80-year-old Austro-Canadian's Mercedes glides silently through a wintry landscape near Vienna. Stronach, sitting in the back seat, is on his way to an event in the town of Gloggnitz, at the Semmering Pass. He is campaigning for his party for the upcoming parliamentary election in Lower Austria, a northeastern state in the Alpine country, though he doesn't want a seat himself.
The car is rushing through the landscape of the state, which is divided into four regions with names referring to wine, woods, cider and industry. Until the election on March 3, Stronach will continue crisscrossing Austria's largest state in a last-minute bid for votes.
Sitting in the car, Stronach tells stories from the past: about his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin; about former US President Bill Clinton, who is now appearing in a campaign commercial saying that he is "proud" of his friend Stronach; and about the dramatic day in May 2009 when he, Stronach, CEO of Magna International at the time, was at the German Chancellery into the early morning hours, negotiating the rescue of automaker Opel with the German government -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
The billionaire says he holds nothing against Chancellor Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, her then-finance minister and current Social Democratic challenger in September's elections. But the two politicians are unfortunately "amateurs when it comes to economic policy," he adds, as Merkel's failure in the euro crisis also demonstrates. Stronach advocates a united Europe but calls for flexible exchange rates within the euro zone, arguing that a German or Austrian euro should be worth more than a Greek euro.
The real down-to-earth work awaits him in Gloggnitz, nicknamed "City in the Mountains." The chauffeur parks on the factory grounds of a pressed felt manufacturer. Stronach gets out, smiles and shakes hands. In September, he founded a new party, Team Stronach for Austria. In almost no time, the party had already reached 10 percent in the polls.
"Many of my friends ask: 'Frank, why are doing this to yourself?'" says Stronach, his voice trembling as he speaks to trainees in the pressed felt factory. He immediately answers: "Because I want to serve my country."
A Big Thinker and Doer
Wiry despite his advanced age, the billionaire is bustling across Austria's political stage, flanked by blondes, as his party's top candidate in the election to Lower Austria's state parliament. Stronach, born in the southeastern state of Steiermark, emigrated to Canada in 1954. Decades later, he has turned his attention back to his native Austria. To the delight of political comedians, he still speaks German with a strong Canadian accent, and he occasionally hurls bilingual insults at the national elites, calling them "bulls without balls."
"I'm establishing a do-tank, because there are already plenty of think-tanks in Austria," Stronach says derisively.
Wherever he looks, from Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann on down, Stronach sees nothing but weaklings "raised on the government's milk," and no one who, as he says, can hold a candle to him, the man "from the real economy." Speaking to a crowd of hooting supporters in Tulln, he says that Lower Austria has been run for more than two decades by a conservative, Christian, "tough-talking braggart," and has practically deteriorated into a dictatorship controlled by small-minded party loyalists.
Stronach, by contrast, is thinking big. The proof lies in Magna International, the automotive-parts giant that he co-founded and that now employs 115,000 people and boasts annual sales of $28 billion (€21.4 billion). Magna means "big" in Latin, and it is evidenced by both the employee constitution, carved into granite and dubbed the "Magna Charta," and by Stronach himself, who ran the company until 2010. For a time, he earned an annual salary greater than the combined salaries of the heads of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Trend magazine estimates his personal fortunate at €4 billion.
He once garnered astonished looks when he whipped out a bundle of purple €500 bills to pay for himself and his guests at the upscale San Pietro restaurant in the Austrian city of Graz. It was like a scene from Ödön von Horváth's play "Tales from the Vienna Wood," in which the "Mister," a wealthy Austrian expat on a visit home, shouts out during a feast at Maxim: "Everything just happens to be more brutal in America."
And bigger. Like the mansions built on Stronach's 320-hectare (790-acre) property outside the Canadian city of Aurora, Ontario. Stronach had dozens of the houses, which go for up to $4 million apiece, built on the edge of a golf course. Sometimes, after eating a plate of Shrimp Catalan at the club restaurant, he has his chauffeur Paul drive him around the property in his Cadillac.
The Magna International headquarters are also on the grounds. Stronach sold his Magna shares in 2010 for a little under $1 billion. Nevertheless, here he is standing on the balcony in front of the office of his board of directors, gazing out at the enormous property, with its French country chateau architecture, and suddenly shouting: "It's all mine!"
Stronach has "the highest form of intelligence: street smarts," says Rudolf Streicher, a former presidential candidate for the Austrian Social Democrats. "I don't want to comment on Frank's political ideas, but I do believe that he has a desire to change things."
A Threat to the Establishment
The fact that Stronach still feels misunderstood by many fellow Austrians has structural reasons. Postwar Austria has a political system deliberately designed for consensus and the accommodation of differing views. It is a place with little room for megalomania and a tradition of wheeling and dealing across political lines. But today's Austria is still foreign to Stronach, who once shipped out in third class on a freighter to work hard and eventually succeed in Canada.
Stronach is about as out of place on this political stage as a jackhammer at a chamber music concert. He threatens the political class merely by being different -- and by calling for the prosecution of those responsible for past bribery scandals. "If you want to drain a swamp, a swamp of corruption," he says, "you shouldn't ask the frogs first."
While one in three Austrians can now "imagine" voting for Stronach, the liberal Vienna coffeehouse crowd is already groaning about the crusade of the unpolished Austro-Canadian politician. Stronach has dismissed Armin Wolf, a popular host with Austrian public broadcaster ORF, as a "schoolboy," saying he knows nothing about the economy. And he has berated the publisher of the newsmagazine profil as "the guy with the purple socks who knows how to ask stupid questions, but not much else."
The patriarch isn't used to being contradicted. At an event attended by 600 people, he rudely reprimanded a man who had asked the only critical question of the evening, saying: "Are you with the central-socialist party?"
In his 2004 biography "Let's Be Frank," author Norbert Mappes-Niediek describes how Stronach, the capitalist, shocked the establishment after returning to his native Austria. Suddenly there was "a fat, glittering fish in exotic colors standing in the middle of the tank, staring everyone else in the face," Mappes-Niediek writes.
Stronach promptly applied an approach he had already used successfully in Canada: He brought former politicians of various stripes into his corporate empire. Various pupils of former right-wing populist politician Jörg Haider came on the heels of former Socialist Chancellor Franz Vranitzky. According to his biographer, Stronach's strength lay in an "environment with the greatest possible mixing of private and public interests," in other words, precisely where he now hopes to combat Austria's apparent weaknesses.
"Truth, transparency and fairness" are the values that Team Stronach promotes, values the party leader proclaims in the style of modern US revivalist preachers. His comrades-in-arms, moderately prominent defectors from other parties, repeat the words of their leader with the fervor of members of a sect. Many can rattle off the beginning of Stronach's creed, even mimicking his accent: "What drives the economy…is smart managers, industrious workers and investors."
Notable experts or politicians are rare in Stronach's environment. He has only managed to convince two German euro critics, Professors Wilhelm Hankel ("I see the beginnings of a new Europe in Frank Stronach") and Hans-Olaf Henkel, to come to his support and appear at his solidarity rallies in Vienna so far.
Austrian self-made millionaires, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz and top executive Siegfried Wolf, show little inclination to risk their reputations. Eyewitnesses say that Wolf, a former co-CEO at Magna, was in such awe of Stronach that he used to "walk out of Stronach's office backwards." Now Stronach hasn't even been able to convince Wolf to join his cause with the flattering remark that Wolf could be "a very qualified chancellor."
An Ambitious Alternative for Disgruntled Voters
Austria will elect a new National Council, the lower house of parliament, this summer. In addition to reforming the euro zone, the cornerstones of Stronach's platform will include: reducing the number of government officials and stimulating the economy; limiting representatives from his party to no more than two legislative terms; refusing to be part of a coalition; sending randomly selected citizens to the parliament; and promoting healthy nutrition and more exercise facilities for young Austrians.
At events related to the Lower Austria parliamentary election, however, where visitors are served free beer and two free bratwursts each, the platform of Stronach's party isn't really that significant yet. What's more important is getting a photograph with the billionaire and having the certainty that a political outlet has been created for the resentments of the disadvantaged and the fury of upright citizens -- and not one on the extreme right.
Stronach's rise benefits from the sharp decline of the competition. In the early 1980s, the two big-tent parties, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), captured more than 90 percent of the vote. According to recent polls, their margin has almost been cut in half. Along with the nationalist right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), Team Stronach is scrambling for the votes of the disgruntled.
"The situation, as we know, is absolutely lousy because our beautiful country is somehow in the doldrums." Hard to believe, but these are the words of a song with which Stronach -- the global citizen and recipient of both the Order of Canada and the Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria (gold with star) -- is currently celebrated by his flag-waving supporters. The refrain goes like this: "Steirermen (natives of Steiermark) are very good, not just over there in Hollywood and not just in Canada, but also here at home in Austria."
After giving speeches, the party founder stands on stage and tells anyone willing to listen how he -- a child of poor parents from "the huts" in Kleinsemmering, where corn porridge was served "three times a day" -- became a billionaire. It's a story that congeals more and more into a collection of anecdotes the more he tells it.
In the town of Weiz, where there are still people living in formidable townhouses with hipped roofs who remember the austere prewar period, they have dedicated the Frank Stronach Room in the local cultural center to their most famous son, in appreciation for a donation of €1 million. In fact, the honoree's name as a young man was Franz Strohsack ("straw sack"), which he later had changed in Canada to Frank Stronach.
In Canada, he started out as a dishwasher in a hospital in Waterloo. Chief engineer, Fred Gingl, who still works there, remembers that accommodations were so tight in those days that people sometimes had to sleep in the bathtub. Gingl warns against not taking Stronach's political commitment seriously: "To those who are now saying that Frank doesn't need to go into politics, I say that this is what he wants now, and he'll do it."
Dominance by 2018?
So, why is he doing it? Some Viennese, who claim to be in the know, derisively say that it is because the billionaire is "bored" and having trouble dealing with his diminished importance. Others say he is looking for "a new toy," just as he did once before, in 1999, when he discovered soccer as a new pastime, invested millions in the club FK Austria Vienna, and went through nine coaches in five years, including Christoph Daum and Joachim Löw, the current trainer of Germany's national squad.
In the ORF satire "Frankie Goes to Ballhausplatz," the brash Stronach is lampooned as a jack-of-all-trades who pays his respects to Jesus by essentially treating him as an equal and making the following comparisons: Jesus also started out small and was "born on a sack of straw" (an allusion to Stronach's original name); he also worked hard and made it big ("His first company consisted of only 12 people, and today it's a global corporation"); and he also refused to be broken ("He died on Friday and was back at work on Monday.").
When asked about the satire, Stronach say: "Never heard of it." He has neither an appreciation nor the time for things like that, he adds. Instead of heading for the Ballhausplatz, the square in Vienna where the Austrian Chancellery is located, he is crisscrossing the countryside as part of his campaign.
"I'm going back to Canada on March 4," says Stronach. On the day after the election in Lower Austria, he'll disappear across the Atlantic in his three-engine Dassault Falcon jet. He plans to spend six weeks here and six weeks there, as he always has. Stronach doesn't understand why there should be anything wrong with that.
The Austrian public has recently been debating why the billionaire manages most of his money from Zug, a canton in central Switzerland, where it is taxed at a favorable flat rate. Or why a convoluted system of deposits starts in Switzerland and ends up at Enzian Investments Limited on the Channel island of Jersey. To minimize his tax liability in Austria, he pays additional taxes in Canada. This, in turn, means that Stronach has to spend at least 183 days a year across the Atlantic.
He has already conceded that he doesn't plan to enter the Lower Austrian state parliament. But what if he is elected to the National Council this fall? "Then I'll go there often, but not always," Stronach says.
In his mind, however, he is already well beyond that. He predicts that his Team will become the strongest party in the country after the elections scheduled for 2017. He would be 85 at that point. But fortunately, Stronach says, age isn't an obstacle. "The nice thing is that the brain keeps growing."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
02/27/2013 06:09 PM
Bad King Klaus: The Failings of a Czech President
By James Kirchick
Vaclav Klaus will leave office next week after a decade as president of the Czech Republic. Although he played an important role in his country's history, his legacy is likely to be marred by his controversial positions on the European Union, climate change and often blatant populism.
An interview earlier this month with outgoing Czech President Vaclav Klaus was routine: spiteful, hysterical, and disparaging of his predecessor, the late poet, playwright and dissident, Vaclav Havel.
In a discussion with the Polish weekly Rzeczy, Klaus ridiculed the widely admired first president of the Czech Republic as promoting "Havelism" while in office. Havel's governing philosophy, Klaus explained, was similar to Jacobinism, the murderous ideology of the 18th century French revolutionaries which ended at the guillotine. Klaus' outburst earned him a rebuke from the Czech chapter of PEN International, which asked him to stop "dirtying" his predecessor's memory, as well as from former dissident and Defense Minister Sascha Vondra, who correctly pointed out that had Havel really been a Jacobin, Klaus -- Havel's long-time political nemesis -- would have been decapitated.
"Havelism" is but the latest creed coined by the controversial Czech president, who has generously appended the suffix "ism" to a variety of phenomena he detests: "humanrightsism," "NGO-ism" and "homosexualism," in addition to railing against more recognized movements like environmentalism and "globalism."
As he departs office on March 7, Klaus leaves behind a contentious legacy as the most influential Czech political figure of the post-communist period next only to Havel, who died in December of 2011. Known internationally for his denial of anthropogenic climate change and fiercely critical stance against the European Union, Klaus is credited, even by his detractors, as playing a constructive role in the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the privatization of the Czech economy in the early 1990's when he served as prime minister. In light of the "other post-communist federations that fell apart in a more violent way," Jiri Pehe, a former Havel advisor, says, his leadership during the "Velvet Divorce" that led to the independent Czech and Slovak Republics is "no small thing." Robert Kron, an analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, credits Klaus' early 90's voucherization policy that privatized public industries as "yield(ing) a society that began to learn capitalism."
A Man Given to Contrarianism
But Klaus' decade in the presidency, marked by his frequent testing of the job's constitutional limits and outbursts on matters ranging from gays to global warming, more accurately capture his influence and character. Forced to step down as prime minister over a party financing scandal in 1997, Klaus remained in parliament and succeeded Havel as president in 2003. Not content with merely carrying out the duties of the largely ceremonial post, he used his newfound visibility to revamp himself as a public intellectual on the world stage. He published a book on the subject of global warming, "Blue Planet in Green Shackles," and challenged former US Vice President Al Gore to a debate. In 2009, despite approval from the Czech parliament and a constitutional provision mandating his signature, he delayed his approval of the EU Lisbon Treaty until a provision was added prohibiting the descendants of Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II from reclaiming their property (Klaus has compared the EU to the Soviet Union, and recently instructed Czech military officers that they must defend the country "against unification tendencies in Europe").
So given to contrarianism is Klaus that even his eulogy of Havel (an awkward speech given the men's mutual enmity) caused some listeners' eyes to roll. "(Havel) also played an important role through the concrete steps he took so consciously and decisively to support those of us who did not see in 1989 simply another 1968 or another attempt to create socialism with a human face," Klaus said before the audience of assembled international dignitaries. Paul Wilson, the Canadian translator of Havel's works, later remarked that, "It was as though Klaus, aware of the momentousness of the occasion, were reserving a top spot for himself in an eventual rewriting of history. In that sense, he was true to form."
While Klaus has gained notoriety for the things he's said, it is often the things he doesn't say, or that his closest of aides say, which generate the most controversy. Deputy Chancellor Petr Hajek, Klaus' right-hand man, for example, has claimed that the 9/11 attacks were the work of the American government. Following Osama bin Laden's assassination two years ago, Hajek declared that the al-Qaida leader was a "media fiction." In a book published last year on the 23rd anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, "Death in Velvet," Hajek wrote that Havel "served as a tool of Satan" spreading "hatred and lies" (Klaus endorsed the book). When Hajek denounced homosexuals as "deviant fellow citizens" before Prague's first gay pride parade in 2011, Klaus defended the term "deviant" as "value-neutral."
Perhaps no episode was more infamous than that of Klaus' stealing a pen during a signing ceremony with his Chilean counterpart in 2011. Video of the event went viral around the world. But while the pen-snatching incident earned laughs, it also seemed to embody a man whose blunt speaking and often bewildering behavior has made him one of the most divisive figures in European politics.
A 'Dr. No' Philosophy
"He has a 'Dr. No' philosophy, seeing external forces with skepticism, asking 'How do we protect our interests against the encroaching foreigner?'" Kron of the Center for European Policy Analysis says of Klaus' worldview. Such attitudes, which former Havel advisor Pehe believes have drifted from mere euroskepticism to outright "europhobia" over the years, skilfully play upon popular feelings in this small land wedged between large and historically aggressive neighbors, doubly occupied in the 20th century, and repeatedly betrayed by its putative allies.
"The Czechs, as a nation, are very provincial and very bourgeois and Klaus fits this profile perfectly," Pehe says. Whereas Havel spoke to the world with his plays, essays and appeals to a common humanity, Klaus is a "sort of leader who was much more in tune with what the Czechs think than Havel." Klaus has disparaged the Czech dissident movement in a way that assures Czechs -- the vast majority of whom went about their lives during the communist era and did nothing to oppose the regime -- that they have nothing to feel guilty about. He has similarly downplayed Western efforts at bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union. "The West's policies toward Eastern Europe, the Helsinki Process -- none of that really helped us," he told SPIEGEL in an interview in 2006. No doubt envious of the acclaim his predecessor earned, Klaus has ironically fashioned himself as a dissident in the Havel mold with his stands against European integration and likening of climate change to a communist conspiracy.
Penchant for Populism
Klaus demonstrated his penchant for populism in the country's presidential election this January, when he weighed in on the side of left-wing former Prime Minister Milos Zeman over the center-right Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. After Schwarzenberg criticized the country's post-war expulsion of ethnic Germans, Klaus coyly remarked that his successor should be someone who has spent their entire life in their homeland (Schwarzenberg's family fled Czechoslovakia following the 1948 communist coup; he lived in exile in Austria). Klaus' family joined in the attacks; his wife stated that the first lady ought to speak Czech (Schwarzenberg's wife does not) and Klaus's son alleged that Schwarzenberg's father was a Nazi collaborator (it has since emerged that Klaus' father-in-law was an official in the Slovak fascist regime).
Though Klaus' effective endorsement of Zeman (who proved victorious) might have seemed odd given that the men represent the opposite poles of the political spectrum, it was emblematic of Klaus' deeply personal political style: not only does Schwarzenberg's internationalist and cosmopolitan political outlook jar with Klaus' chauvinism, but Schwarzenberg was a close friend and ally of Havel. (As if to stress the cynicism behind his intervention, Klaus reassured the press after Zeman's victory that the incoming president remained his "old and eternal enemy" and that he "disagrees with almost every statement he has ever made.")
In his 25 years in politics, it is hard to find a single geopolitical issue on which Klaus' position has differed from that of Russia, the country that brutally invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and occupied it for 20 years. Kron attributes this affinity to Klaus' "very pragmatic and economic and not ideological or emotional-based approach" to politics, which stands in stark contrast to the views of Havel, who was deeply suspicious of Russian influence, particularly once Vladimir Putin rose to power at the turn of the century. "He sees the only advantage of European integration in economics," says Pavol Szalai, a Slovak political analyst. "Anything that's political in the EU is like the Soviet Union."
But strangely for a free-market enthusiast constantly likening anything he disagrees with to resurgent communism, Klaus has been very warm with the revanchist government in Moscow. Klaus opposed the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia to prevent genocide in the Balkans and has long been against independence for the former Serbian province of Kosovo, in contradiction to official Czech government policy. When war erupted between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and as a series of leaders of former Soviet bloc countries vocally sided with Tbilisi, Klaus was outspoken in his support for Moscow, once again putting him at odds with the Czech government position. And at a Russia-EU summit the following year, Klaus said that the regional body should pay greater attention to the concerns of Russia at the expense of "small Estonia or Lithuania." In 2007, Klaus was awarded the Pushkin Medal on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin for his "helping to spread the Russian language and culture."
Trusted among Czechs
Throughout his 10 years at the helm, and despite his frequently controversial statements, Klaus remained generally popular and trusted among Czechs. That was until his surprise announcement, however, of a far-reaching amnesty on Jan. 1st. Klaus' decree freed all those prisoners serving sentences of less than a year, people sentenced for non-violent crimes with less than two years remaining in their sentence, and individuals over the age of 70 whose remaining jail terms are less than three years -- some 7,000 prisoners in all. Most troubling about the amnesty was a provision that cancelled ongoing criminal proceedings of 8 years or longer in which the defendant faced less than 10 years in jail. This measure ended a number of serious embezzlement and fraud cases originating out of the "mafia-style" capitalist days, as Havel termed them, which Klaus presided over as prime minister in the 1990's.
Ultimately, this move may produce what will likely be the most lasting aspect of Klaus' legacy. Almost immediately after the amnesty was announced, mayors and school principals across the country began to remove Klaus' portrait from their walls. A recent survey by the Czech daily newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes found that, nationwide, most schools and town halls have decided to forgo hanging the president's official portrait -- a tradition extending back to the founding of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 -- altogether. For a man who so relished being the center of attention, it is hard to think of a more punishing verdict.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. He was formerly writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Libery based in Prague.
February 27, 2013
Foes Want Czech Leader Prosecuted Over Amnesty
By DAN BILEFSKY
It was supposed to be a moment of quiet dignity as President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic steps down next week after two five-year terms as head of state. Instead, his presidency threatens to end in ignominy as his opponents try to press charges of high treason against him over his granting of amnesty to dozens of people accused of corruption.
Few analysts believe that the attempt to charge Mr. Klaus, which is expected to be debated on Monday in the Senate, has much chance of succeeding. And even if it does, his last day in office is March 7, so losing his job — the most onerous punishment he would face — is unlikely to have much bite.
But Karel Janecek, the 38-year-old entrepreneur and anticorruption campaigner pressing to charge Mr. Klaus, said the seeming absurdity of going to such extraordinary lengths just days before he leaves office was beside the point. He said Mr. Klaus’s decision to grant an amnesty that resulted in the freeing of about 6,000 inmates and the halt in prosecutions of prominent businessmen and officials charged with financial fraud and corruption had incensed him and millions of fellow Czechs in a country where corruption is a scourge.
After Mr. Klaus announced the amnesty in January, irate Czechs ripped his portrait off the walls of offices and schools across the country.
“The reason to do this was to fight against evil, and to show those who have lost faith in democracy in this country that even the president is not above the law,” Mr. Janecek said by phone. “People who stole billions from the state have been freed from responsibility. The amnesty was a crime.”
The Senate said Wednesday that 28 lawmakers — one more than needed — had requested the high treason debate. In order to garner support, Mr. Janecek said, he spent $100,000 of his own money to pay for online videos and newspaper advertisements urging Czechs to sign a petition calling Mr. Klaus to account. He said he collected 74,000 signatures over the past month for the petition, which was published on a Web site called “high treason” in Czech.
Mr. Klaus, an economist known for his fiery iconoclasm, has previously said he did not regret the amnesty. On a visit to Slovakia on Wednesday, he dismissed the move by rival lawmakers as “political games.”
Prime Minister Petr Necas, chairman of the Civic Democratic Party, which Mr. Klaus founded, said he felt ashamed by the attempt to tarnish the president.
Mr. Janecek said the Senate had the power to file a treason complaint at the Constitutional Court, which then has the power to charge Mr. Klaus. He said the complaint must first be approved by a majority of lawmakers present in the 81-seat house, which is controlled by the left-wing opposition.
But Tomas Sedlacek, once an adviser to former President Vaclav Havel and an outspoken critic of Mr. Klaus, said that even if the complaint was filed — and it was unclear senators would be willing to take such a drastic action — it would largely be a symbolic gesture.
There was also unlikely to be much enthusiasm to charge the president with treason. “He may have abused his constitutional rights or behaved like a god, but high treason is very severe,” he said, before adding, “But you never know; this is the Czech Republic.”
The Czech government has been buffeted in recent months by a series of corruption scandals that have threatened to bring it down. Corruption is so endemic that one industrious Czech started a corruption safari bus tour. Stops include a nonexistent house that 589 companies have registered as their headquarters.