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« Reply #7725 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:26 AM »

Stone-throwing extremists mar first gay pride parade in Montenegro

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 19:07 EDT

Riot police in Montenegro on Wednesday clashed with stone-throwing extremists protesting against the first gay pride parade held in the staunchly conservative country that is seeking to join the European Union.

More than 100 anti-gay protesters, mostly young hardline football fans, chanted “Kill the gays!” as they hurled rocks and bottles to disrupt a march by several dozen gay activists in the coastal town of Budva.

Police officers pushed back the attackers and formed a cordon around the marchers, who waved rainbow flags and blew whistles.

Five of the protesters were detained.

No one was seriously injured in the scuffles but police later used boats to escort the marchers away from the town’s historic centre in an attempt to avoid further incidents.

“This is a success for the (Montenegrin) gay community… and for European Montenegro,” one of the organisers, Zdravko Cimbaljevic, told the activists after the march.

The parade was supported by the Montenegrin government which began EU membership talks with Brussels in June 2012 and has since adopted a strategy to protect the gay community and improve gay rights.

“I have come to show that the principle of equality is in effect in Montenegro and I congratulate you on holding the Gay Pride parade,” said Jovan Kojicic, an advisor to Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.

Several gay activists came from neighbouring Balkan countries, most of which are facing rising conservatism and anti-gay sentiments.

“Even though it was a bit uncomfortable, I feel really happy as many brave people are walking with us,” said 21-year old Elvis from neighbouring Albania, which has yet to host its first gay march.

In a highly patriarchal society, surveys show 70 percent of Montenegrins still consider homosexuality an illness, while 80 percent believe it should be kept private.

Sexual minorities are largely invisible in the tiny Adriatic state with some 650,000 inhabitants.

Gays and lesbians live in isolation in fear of hate attacks, claiming they do not trust the authorities to protect their rights.

There are few openly gay-friendly bars, restaurants and hotels and gay people mostly meet in private homes or in the offices of the few rights groups that deal with gay issues.

On the coast, there are several gay-friendly beaches which are largely avoided by other visitors.

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« Reply #7726 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:28 AM »

Denmark bans Kurdish TV station and fines it £1.2m

Roy Greenslade   
Thursday 25 July 2013 12.30 BST     

A Kurdish TV station based in Denmark has appealed to the country's supreme court after a lower court revoked its licence and ordered it to pay a fine of £1.2m.

Roj TV, in company with its parent company Mesopotamia Broadcasting, was convicted on 3 July of promoting terrorism by supporting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The station's lawyer, Bjørn Elmquist, has requested that the withdrawal of the broadcast licence is delayed until the appeal is complete.

Roj TV's board, which has pledged to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, issued a press release saying:

    "Kurds have been denied free speech in many countries and now also in Denmark. It is unavoidable that Kurds will see the verdict as demonstrating that [the Danish state] doesn't want to discuss the actual factual situation and that political and other motivations were instead at play."

The Danish court decision has been condemned by Kurdish organisations who regard the move as evidence of cooperation between the authorities in Denmark and Turkey, which has long pressured to have the Kurdish news channels closed down.

The Turkish ambassador to Denmark explicitly called on the Danish authorities to shut down Roj TV. And Wikileaks cables point to political bargaining between the two countries.

The decision comes a delicate time when a peace process between Turkey and the Kurds is continuing and a ceasefire remains in place.

A petition to save Roj TV has been launched. Among the first signatories are Noam Chomsky and John Berger.
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« Reply #7727 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:31 AM »

Catholic church in Scotland 'anxious to move on' after scandal

Monsignor Leo Cushley appointed as archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, succeeding Cardinal Keith O'Brien who admitted inappropriate sexual conduct

Press Association
The Guardian, Wednesday 24 July 2013 20.17 BST   

Mgr Leo Cushley, the archbishop-elect of St Andrews and Edinburgh
Mgr Leo Cushley has served as a papal interpreter and speech writer and accompanied the pope on visits to English-speaking countries, including Pope Benedict's trip to the UK in 2010. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

The Catholic church can recover from "the battering" it has taken in recent months, according to Monsignor Leo Cushley, who is to succeed disgraced Cardinal Keith O'Brien as the archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

The priests and people are "anxious to move on" from the scandal involving Cardinal O'Brien, who left the post earlier this year after admitting inappropriate sexual conduct, Mgr Cushley said.

He said he would take stock of what happened within the governance of the archdiocese when he is ordained on 21 September.

The 52-year-old also expressed surprise at being appointed archbishop, given his background as part of the Vatican's diplomatic team, although he described the challenges of his new role as "comparatively easy" compared with previous situations he has faced.

"I am humbled that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has nominated me for such an important task here in our ancient capital. I know it's a delicate moment and that there is a lot to be done but, with God's grace and the kind support of the clergy and people of Edinburgh, I will work cheerfully and willingly with all the energy I can muster," he said.

"I think [the Church] has taken a bit of battering. I think that is fair. But also, as I said before, I think the fundamentals are good and they are right. The priests and the people are very anxious to move on, and I am with them on that."

Cardinal O'Brien stepped down after 27 years at the end of February when three priests and a former priest made allegations of inappropriate behaviour against him dating to the 1980s.

He later issued an apology, saying "there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me".

Mgr Cushley said he has "very little knowledge" about Cardinal O'Brien's situation other than what he has read in the press, and that he has never discussed it with Pope Francis, despite working closely with him in Rome.

"There are certain important questions that I will also have to familiarise myself with. I have no jurisdiction in the diocese until after I have been ordained in late September. Only then will I be able to take stock of what has happened and see what can be done," he said.

Asked how difficult and challenging the role of archbishop will be, given what has unfolded in recent months, Mgr Cushley referred to his experiences working in Burundi towards the end of the civil war, during which 400,000 people were killed.

"That gives you an idea of what we are talking about. You have to get a grip of yourself and say 'What do I believe here?' because your life is on the line," he said.

"So you have a very different attitude to coming to this kind of thing. It is a question of getting to know this country … getting to know the archdiocese, the priests and the people, and taking it from there. It is a comparatively easy task.

"I think there will always be a difference between what the Catholic church preaches and teaches and the individuals who propose that message, who are sinful.

"We believe that you can recover from that, and there is reconciliation and there is forgiveness. You are not characterised by how you fall but by how you pick yourself up."

Mgr Cushley is currently head of the English language section of the Vatican's secretariat of state and returns to Scotland where he was born and ordained a priest in Uddingston, South Lanarkshire, in 1985.

He has served as a papal interpreter and speech writer and accompanied the pope on visits to English-speaking countries, including Pope Benedict's trip to the UK in 2010, and has worked as part of the Vatican's diplomatic team.

Mgr Cushley studied to become a priest at St Mary's College in Blairs, Aberdeen, and then transferred to Scots College in Rome.

Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, said: "I wish to pass on my warmest congratulations to Mgr Cushley on his appointment today as archbishop-elect of the archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

"The Catholic church is integral to Scotland, making an enormous contribution to Scottish life and society, and I look forward to this outstanding leadership continuing under the guidance of the new archbishop."

Congratulations were also offered by shadow Scottish secretary, Margaret Curran, and the moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Rev Lorna Hood.

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« Reply #7728 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:38 AM »

Pakistan strikes back against Taliban with burqa-clad female superhero

Burka Avenger cartoon series, bankrolled by one of country's biggest pop stars, aims to promote girls' education

Associated Press in Islamabad, Wednesday 24 July 2013 18.52 BST   

Wonder Woman and Supergirl now have a Pakistani counterpart in the pantheon of female superheroes – one who shows a lot less skin.

Meet Burka Avenger: a mild-mannered teacher with secret martial arts skills who uses a flowing black burqa to hide her identity as she fights local thugs seeking to shut down the girls' school where she works.

Sadly, it's a battle with which Pakistanis are all too familiar in the real world.

The Taliban have blown up hundreds of schools and attacked activists in Pakistan's north-west because they oppose girls' education. The militants sparked worldwide condemnation last October when they shot 15-year-old schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai in the head in an unsuccessful attempt to kill her.

Action in the Burka Avenger cartoon series, which is scheduled to start running on Geo TV in early August, is much more lighthearted. The bungling villains evoke more laughter than fear and are no match for the Burka Avenger, undoubtedly the first south Asian ninja who wields books and pens as weapons.

The Urdu-language show is the brainchild of one of Pakistan's biggest pop stars, Aaron Haroon Rashid – known to many as simply Haroon – who conceived of it as a way to emphasise the importance of girls' education and teach children other lessons, such as protecting the environment and not discriminating against others. This last point is critical in a country where Islamist militants wage repeated attacks on religious minorities.

"Each one of our episodes is centred around a moral, which sends out strong social messages to kids," Rashid told AP in his first interview about the show. "But it is cloaked in pure entertainment, laughter, action and adventure."

The decision to clothe the superhero in a black burqa – a full-length robe commonly worn by conservative Muslim women in Pakistan and Afghanistan – could raise eyebrows because some people view the outfit as a sign of oppression. The Taliban forced women to wear burqas when they took control of Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The version worn by the Burka Avenger shows only her eyes and fingers – though it has a sleeker, more ninja-like look than the bulky robes of an actual burqa.

Rashid, who is certainly no radical Islamist, said he used a burqa to give a local feel to the show, which is billed as the first animated series ever produced in Pakistan.

"It's not a sign of oppression. She is using the burqa to hide her identity like other superheroes," said Rashid. "Since she is a woman, we could have dressed her up like Catwoman or Wonder Woman, but that probably wouldn't have worked in Pakistan."

The series is set in Halwapur, a fictional town nestled in the soaring mountains and verdant valleys of northern Pakistan. The Burka Avenger's true identity is Jiya, whose adopted father, Kabbadi Jan, taught her the karate moves she uses to defeat her enemies. When not dressed as her alter ego, Jiya wears neither a burqa nor a less conservative headscarf over her hair.

The main villains are Vadero Pajero, a balding, corrupt politician who wears a dollar sign-shaped gold medallion around his neck, and Baba Bandook, an evil magician with a bushy black beard and mustache who is meant to resemble a Taliban commander.

The show, which is slickly animated using high-powered computer graphics, does a good job of mixing scenes that will entertain children with those that even adults will find laugh-out-loud funny.

In one episode, Bandook builds a robot to take over the world's major cities, including London, New York and Paris. As he outlines his dastardly plan with a deep, evil laugh, one of his minions butts in and says, "But how will we get visas to go to all those places?" – a reference to how difficult it can be for Pakistanis to travel, given their country's reputation.

Rashid, the pop star, funded much of the programme himself, but also had help from an outside donor who preferred not to be credited.

He leveraged his musical background in the process. Each of the 13 episodes completed so far contains songs written and performed by him and other major Pakistani rock stars, such as Ali Azmat and Ali Zafar. Rashid is producing an album of 10 songs and music videos that will be broadcast alongside the show. He has also created a Burka Avenger iPhone game and a fully interactive website that will accompany the show's launch.

In one of the music videos, Rashid and local rap star Adil Omar sing in praise of the Burka Avenger, while standing in front of a pair of colourfully decorated Pakistani trucks festooned with bright lights.

"Don't mess with the lady in black, when she's on the attack," they sing.

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« Reply #7729 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:42 AM »

July 24, 2013

Principal of Indian School That Served Tainted Lunch Is Arrested


NEW DELHI — Nine days after she disappeared, the principal of a school in eastern India where 23 children died after eating a lunch tainted with pesticide was arrested Wednesday by the police.

The principal, Meena Kumari, had been on her way to surrender before a judge in Chapra when she was detained by the police, the district police chief, Sujeet Kumar, said by telephone.

Ms. Kumari was among the most wanted people in India after she fled her school in the village of Dharmasati Gandawa in Bihar’s Saran district when the children in her school started vomiting soon after eating a free lunch. Forensic tests have confirmed that the cooking oil used to prepare the meal of rice, beans, potato curry and soy balls was contaminated with pesticide. Ms. Kumari bought the cooking oil from a store owned by her husband, who might have kept the cooking oil in a container once filled with pesticide, the police said.

Since the only other adult at the school was the school’s cook, who also fell deathly ill, Ms. Kumari’s departure meant that the ailing children were left to fend for themselves, according to villagers and state officials. Some staggered home to die in the arms of their parents.

The children complained that the meal tasted odd, but Ms. Kumari insisted that it was fine, officials said.

In the days after, television journalists picked through parts of Ms. Kumari’s empty house, showing rooms filled with old bicycles and other items. Some parents buried their children in front of the school as a way of protesting the deaths.

School lunch programs became universal in India after a 2001 order by the country’s Supreme Court, and free meals are now served to 120 million children — by far the largest such program in the world. The program has been credited with improving school attendance. With some surveys suggesting that nearly half of Indian children suffer some form of malnutrition, it also serves a vital health purpose.

But like many government programs in India, it is underfinanced and plagued by corruption and mismanagement. Cases of tainted food are fairly routine, and in the days after the Bihar case Indian news media reported other instances of children sickened by school lunches.

School facilities in India are often poor and many lack kitchens and dining areas. Lunches are sometimes prepared outside with dirty water and amid trash and animals. In other places, well-organized charities prepare nutritious and tasty meals in centralized kitchens under strict conditions.

The Bihar poisoning case has reverberated politically. Nitish Kumar, Bihar’s chief minister, has been widely criticized for failing to visit the parents of the dead children and sharing their grief. Mr. Kumar was widely regarded for helping to spur growth and development in Bihar, long one of India’s poorest and most chaotic states. But he recently undertook an acrimonious split with his longtime ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, after he criticized that party’s rising leader, Narendra Modi.

Speculation has been rampant that Mr. Kumar might join the governing United Progressive Alliance ahead of next year’s national elections. A recent poll showed that Mr. Kumar remains popular in Bihar, but his handling of the school lunch case may tarnish his image. Mr. Kumar has suggested that the poisoning may have been a conspiracy.

In a news conference on Wednesday evening, Mr. Kumar again insisted, “This is not a simple case of accidental poisoning.”

He did not say more about the cause of the poisoning. “The police are investigating the case,” he said. “They have arrested the key accused. It is a matter of further investigation.”

Mr. Kumar promised to help those harmed.

“We can’t bring back the dead children,” he said, “but we will do whatever we can for the development of the village and to help the families.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.


India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
July 24, 2013, 11:27 am

A Kitchen That Prepares Lunch for Schoolchildren in Delhi


NEW DELHI — In the Chandni Chowk area of north Delhi, a dilapidated mansion built in 1923 houses a government-run primary school. Every day, Raj Kumar, 42, a contractor, transports boxed free lunches to the school. Earlier this week, he opened a container to show out how it was still half full.

“Look how much food went to waste today,” he said. “These children have been eating less since they heard about the deaths in Bihar.”

That day, the children in New Delhi had received a meal of chickpeas and semolina pudding as per the menu set by the government department that administers the school lunch program. The food was prepared in a central kitchen run by a nongovernmental organization, unlike in Bihar, where the meal that killed 23 children last week was prepared inside the school complex. The principal of the school was arrested Wednesday by the police.

Around one million children are fed through the midday meal program in Delhi. The free lunch program, which covers nearly 120 million schoolchildren across the country, aims to tackle malnutrition and encourage school attendance.

The Chandni Chowk school has 60 students from Grades 1 through 5. The school principal and his staff have been trying to reassure the students that the food served to them is not contaminated.

“We taste the food first before serving it to the children,” said S. P. Sharma, the school principal.

The seal of the packed food containers is opened in front of Mr. Sharma. He said the children were served in dishes that they bring from their homes. After the children are served, the food supplier returns the leftovers to the central kitchen.

“The children are fed fresh food every day,” Mr. Sharma said.

The food served at Mr. Sharma’s school is prepared by Stri Shakti, a nongovernmental organization, which runs a central kitchen out of a compound in the Nangloi area of west Delhi, around 19 miles away.

The organization runs five kitchens that daily prepare lunch for around 300,000 children enrolled in government schools of New Delhi.

“We have been doing this for almost 10 years in Delhi,” said Saravjeet Kaur, who is a director with Stri Shakti, which also operates centralized kitchens to feed schoolchildren in other cities, including Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Chandigarh.

Mrs. Kaur watched over the kitchen staff from her office through a monitor connected to a camera in the kitchen.

In a 1,500-square-foot kitchen, a staff of 80 people, including 50 women, works two shifts to meet the daily demands of preparing the food that fills nearly 950 steel containers, which are sealed with plastic tape before being loaded onto vehicles. The staff starts as early as 7 a.m. to prepare the first round of meals for students enrolled in regular school, who are supposed to receive their free lunch at 10:30 a.m. The afternoon batch is fed at 2:30 p.m.

Men and women go about their routine tasks in the kitchen wearing uniforms, which include a bandanna and a separate pair of slippers, the only footwear allowed inside the kitchen. Men wore brown loose pants with a shirt, and women were dressed in a red-checkered salwar kameez, traditional Indian attire.

On this particular day, a fresh batch of rice had just been unloaded onto an aluminum tray from a rice cooker that can handle up to 330 pounds of rice. Approximately 5,000 kilograms are cooked on a day when rice is on the menu.

“Most of the food in the kitchen is steam cooked, a more economical and safer mode of cooking,” said Gurcharan Singh, a manager at Stri Shakti. Two gargantuan steam boilers fitted outside were connected to 13 cookers through pipes that ran across the roof of the kitchen.

Huge cauldrons sat empty in a corner, which are used as a backup when food needs to be cooked on stoves.

A woman and two men handled rice with a ladle and packed it into clean steel containers. None of them wore gloves during the process. Mr. Singh explained that the government-authorized agency, which conducts regular inspections in the kitchen, had advised against the use of gloves. The steam-heavy operations causes the temperature in the kitchen to soar, he said, and plastic disposable gloves could make hands sweaty, increasing the chances that sweat could drip into cooked food.

In another section of the kitchen, women were cleaning the dishes through a three-fold process. First, the dirty dishes were washed with water, then dipped into a basin filled with soap and finally drowned into another basin of water treated with potassium permanganate, before setting the utensils aside to dry. The kitchen floor looked clean, with one woman mopping it religiously.

The level of hygiene maintained in a centralized kitchen seems to be more of a personal choice as there are no strict government standards for cleanliness. However, a sample of the food from the kitchen is tested in a government-authorized laboratory five times a month, Mrs. Kaur said.

Most of the staff at Stri Shakti is recruited from the neighboring areas. The nongovernmental agency has formed self-help groups comprising 10 women each, who divvy up the daily tasks in the kitchen. Each group earns approximately 30,000 rupees, or $504, at the end of a month.

The daily supplies of wheat and rice in the kitchen come from the government, but all the other ingredients including the lentils, cooking oil, potatoes (for the only vegetable-based preparation in the menu) and condiments are bought by them from the open market.

The government pays 3 rupees and 11paisa (5 U.S. cents) to the nongovernmental agencies for every child they feed.

According to the nutritional requirements set by the government every child is supposed to gain 450 calories from a meal that should include 12-15 grams of protein as well. A rice-based lunch is about 250 grams and a wheat-based one has to be 200 grams.

Uma Sharma, 35, a kitchen supervisor, works from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day. She has been with the organization for five years. “I love to ensure that kids get clean food,” she said.

Yet there have been days when the supplies from the government have been late or the quality of the grains has been poor.

“We pay from our own pocket when the government does not provide the food supplies on time,” Mrs. Kaur said.

Until 2003 the government schools in Delhi offered only dry food like roasted chickpeas and biscuits to schoolchildren, she said, but even the current meals provided by the government are not nutritious enough. The government needs to provide more money so that more nutrition can be given to children, she added.

“I have two children of my own who studied in a boarding school, and when they would complain about food being served in their hostel, I didn’t like it,” she said. “This job is my way of making up for it.”

She emphasized the need to improve the existing conditions in schools, which include clean drinking water and to impart better lessons in health and hygiene to schoolchildren. “If they don’t get clean utensils from home, what can we do about that?” she said. “Every time children fall sick, the midday meal cannot get a bad name.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 25, 2013

An earlier version of the post misstated that 3 rupees and 11paisa was equivalent to 53 U.S. cents, the correct figure is 5 U.S. cents.

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« Reply #7730 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:45 AM »

North Korea to put US spy ship captured in 1968 on display

USS Pueblo, seized off North Korean coast and still listed by US as commissioned navy vessel, to be unveiled at war museum

Associated Press in Pyongyang, Thursday 25 July 2013 11.20 BST      

The only US navy ship being held by a foreign government is expected to go on display this week as the centrepiece of a North Korean war museum.

With a fresh coat of paint and a new home along the Pothong river, the USS Pueblo – a spy ship seized off North Korea's east coast in the late 1960s – will be unveiled at a renovated war museum to mark what Pyongyang calls Victory Day, the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean war 60 years ago on Saturday.

The ship is North Korea's greatest cold war prize, a potent symbol of how the country has stood up to the great power of the United States, once in an all-out ground war and now with its push to develop nuclear weapons and sophisticated missiles.

Many of the crew who served on the vessel, who spent 11 months in captivity in North Korea, want to bring the Pueblo home. Throughout its history, they argue, the navy's motto has been "don't give up the ship".

The Pueblo is still listed as a commissioned navy vessel, the only one being held by a foreign nation. But the US has made little effort to get it back. At times outsiders were not even sure where North Korea was keeping the ship or what it planned to do with it.

The Pueblo incident is a painful reminder of miscalculation and confusion, as well as the unresolved hostilities that continue to keep the two countries in what seems to be a permanent state of distrust and preparation for another clash despite the truce that ended the 1950-53 war.

Already more than 40 years old and only lightly armed so that it would not look conspicuous or threatening as it carried out its intelligence missions, the USS Pueblo was attacked and easily captured on 23 January 1968. Surrounded by half a dozen enemy ships with MiG fighter jets providing air cover, the crew was unable to put up much of a fight.

They scrambled to destroy intelligence materials but soon discovered they were not well prepared for even that. A shredder aboard the Pueblo quickly became jammed with the piles of papers anxious crew members shoved into it. They tried burning the documents in waste baskets, but smoke quickly filled the cabins. And there were not enough weighted bags to toss all the secret material overboard.

One US sailor was killed when the ship was strafed by machine gunfire and boarded. The remaining 82, including three injured, were taken prisoner. The North Koreans sailed the Pueblo to the port of Wonsan, where for the survivors the real ordeal began.

"I got shot up in the original capture, so we were taken by bus and then train for an all-night journey to Pyongyang in North Korea, and then they put us in a place we called the barn," said Robert Chicca, a marine corps sergeant who served as a Korean linguist on the Pueblo. "We had fried turnips for breakfast, turnip soup for lunch, and fried turnips for dinner … There was never enough to eat, and personally I lost about 60 pounds over there."

Although the ship was conducting intelligence operations, crew members say most of them had little useful information for the North Koreans. They say they were beaten severely during interrogations.

"The Koreans basically told us, they put stuff in front of us, they said you were here, you were spying, you will be shot as spies," said Earl Phares, who was cleaning up after the noon meal in the galley when the attack began. "Everybody got the same amount of beatings in the beginning."

North Korea said the ship had entered its territorial waters, though the US maintained that it was in international waters 15 miles off the nearest land. The incident quickly escalated. The US, already deeply embroiled in the Vietnam war, sent several aircraft carriers to the Sea of Japan and demanded the captives be released.

North Korea responded by putting members of the crew before cameras to confess publicly. The crew members planted defiant codes into forced letters of confession and extended their middle fingers in images sent around the world. That led to further beatings when the North Koreans figured out the gesture's meaning.

On 21 December 1968, Major General Gilbert H Woodward, the chief US negotiator, signed a statement acknowledging that the Pueblo had "illegally intruded into the territorial waters of North Korea" and apologising for "the grave acts committed by the US ship against" North Korea. Before and after, he read into the record a statement disavowing the confession.

The hostages were released across the demilitarised zone that divides the two Koreas two days before Christmas, 335 days after their capture.

The navy considered a court martial for the ship's captain, Commander Lloyd M "Pete" Bucher, for letting the Pueblo fall into enemy hands without firing a shot and for failing to destroy much of the ship's classified material. But he was never brought to trial. John H Chafee, secretary of the navy at the time, said Bucher and the other crew members had "suffered enough".

To this day members of the Pueblo crew say Bucher made the right decision, though years later his second-in-command publicly questioned Bucher's decisions not to fight. "It would have been nice to take out some of the guys, some of them, and maybe go down fighting, but it would have been total suicide," said Phares. "We never thought anything would happen, and we weren't supposed to create an international incident."

In 2002 the former US ambassador to South Korea Donald P Gregg said a North Korean foreign ministry official had hinted at a deal to return the Pueblo. But when he later visited Pyongyang, he said he was told the climate had changed and a return was no longer an option.

In January the next year, the Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell reintroduced a resolution in Congress asking North Korea to return the ship. There has been no progress since, however – at least none that has been made public.

"The ship was named after Pueblo, Colorado, and they would have loved to have the ship back," Chicca said. "It's very disappointing to have it still there, and still being used as anti-American propaganda."

The planned display of the ship by North Korea hangs over the heads of the crew members who have long campaigned for its return. "I'll never give up, but I don't think it's ever coming back," Phares said. "It's just unfortunate that we got put in that situation, and that the top brass blamed us, or blamed Bucher, for everything."

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« Reply #7731 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:47 AM »

China indicts Bo Xilai for corruption

Stage-managed downfall of former Chongqing Communist party boss shows new leadership is keen to clear air, say analysts

Tania Branigan in Beijing, Thursday 25 July 2013 06.43 BST   

The disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai is to stand trial for bribery, corruption and power abuses, state media have announced, bringing the end of the country's biggest scandal for decades one step closer.

The 64-year-old's case will be heard in Jinan, in eastern Shandong province, probably within weeks. He has not been seen since last spring when the affair erupted before the Communist party's once-a-decade power transition, training an unwelcome spotlight on infighting and corruption among the political elite.

Bo, the charismatic party secretary of south-western Chongqing, had once been seen as a possible candidate for China's most senior political body. But his evident ambition alienated peers and he was spectacularly toppled after allegations surfaced that his wife, Gu Kailai, had killed a British businessman.

Gu received a suspended death sentence for the murder of Neil Heywood; the punishment is almost always commuted to life imprisonment.

The state news agency Xinhua reported on Thursday that prosecutors had handed Bo's case to a court in Jinan.

Quoting the indictment, it said Bo "took advantage of the privileges of his office to gain benefits for others and illegally received money and items in extremely large amounts".

It added that he "embezzled an extremely large amount of public funds and abused his powers of office, causing heavy losses to the interests of the nation and the people in an extremely serious way".

The short report did not mention the previous claim that he had helped conceal his wife's role in the killing, made in September, when officials first announced he would face criminal charges.

A Beijing-backed newspaper in Hong Kong, Ta Kung Pao, said Bo was accused of wrongly taking 25m yuan (£2.65m). The railways minister Liu Zhijun was last month given a suspended death sentence after being convicted of taking 64m yuan.

Several analysts suggested Bo would be jailed for 15 to 20 years. "It is well understood internally in the Communist party that politburo members do not get death sentences. It is a protection for everybody and a privilege for senior party members," said Willy Lam, an expert on elite Chinese politics.

"[At] first Bo refused to co-operate, but now they have struck a balance where he will get less than 20 years … After a few years of jail, he will get medical parole so he will get to spend most of his sentence at home and be very comfortable."

Zhang Ming, professor of political science at Renmin University, said officials had sought to "turn a big event to a small event, and a small event to an unending one".

He said Bo's most serious crime had been his ruthless anti-gang campaign, which was not mentioned at all.

While the drive against organised crime in Chongqing proved highly popular with residents, critics saw it as unprincipled, violent and highly selective, and suggested it had as much to do with satisfying grudges and grabbing assets as protecting the public. They noted that those with ties to Bo were left unscathed and questioned brutal tactics that trampled over basic rights and the law. There was particular concern at the prosecution of a lawyer for "falsifying evidence" after he said his client had been tortured.

Bo's case – along with other high-level corruption scandals – has fuelled the public's cynicism about officials.

Xi Jinping, the country's new leader, has sought to restore the party's credibility by attacking "flies and tigers" – corrupt officials at all levels.

An editorial published by the official China News Service said Bo's indictment sent the message that "no matter who you are, no matter how high your ranking, you will be seriously investigated and severely punished if you violate party discipline and state law".

But Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said cases such as Bo's seemed to have more to do with political manoeuvres and their outcomes appeared to have been agreed before charges were laid.

"If you look at these trials, the defendants all admit their guilt quietly; they don't claim to offer important revelations about other networks and supporters; and they get very lenient sentences," he said.

"You try to avoid cases having an adverse impact on factional balances and solidarity. You never see leaders who are defiant and suddenly jump up in court saying 'Aha – so-and-so was also involved'."

Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Tsinghua University, noted: "We all know Bo's trial resulted from the struggles between the different interest groups inside the party."

He said that charging Bo with economic rather than political crimes suggested a deal because they were "using the way of handling a fly to handle a tiger".

Analysts said holding a trial before a major party meeting this autumn would show that Xi could tackle difficult issues.

Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, added: "I guess it shows a secure leadership who have got the big business of the transition out of the way and now want clear water between them and the past, so tidying up this issue now the real poison has been sucked out of it is good. They don't want this sort of thing lingering forever."

Bo, the "princeling" son of a famous Communist veteran, made waves as leader of Chongqing with high-profile populist campaigns such as the drive against organised crime.

He was toppled after his former police chief Wang Lijun fled to the US consulate in Chengdu to allege Gu had murdered Heywood.

Wang was jailed for 15 years for his part in covering up the murder, defection and other offences.

Bo remains popular in his old fiefdoms – where many say he helped ordinary citizens and was no more corrupt than other leaders – and among leftists.

"Often after problematic officials are rooted out, we see the media looking back wistfully at their time in office saying how they dedicated themselves to the people … Success may be success, but mistakes are mistakes," Xinhua said in a commentary.

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« Reply #7732 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:52 AM »

Israeli-Palestinian talks to begin next week, says minister

Negotiators are expected to meet in Washington for first talks in almost three years

Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, Thursday 25 July 2013 12.24 BST   

The first talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators for almost three years are scheduled to begin in Washington next Tuesday, according to an Israeli minister. The statement was not immediately confirmed by officials from either side.

Silvan Shalom, speaking after meeting the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in the West Bank city of Jericho, told reporters: "We hope that the talks between Israel and the Palestinians in Washington will begin next week, hopefully Tuesday. We want and are interested in moving forward in the negotiations."

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, announced a breakthrough in moves towards preliminary talks six days ago, saying that if further discussions went "as expected" he expected negotiators to meet "within a week or so".

A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said he was aware of Shalom's statement "but at the moment I can't confirm this". As of Wednesday night, he added, there was no firm date for a meeting.

A Palestinian official said their side was making preparations to travel to Washington on Sunday or Monday, but still needed firm assurances on the parameters for talks and a commitment by Israel to release scores of Palestinian prisoners.

The Palestinians want a letter from Kerry stating that the US is committed to the pre-1967 border as the basis for negotiations on the territorial boundaries of an Israeli and Palestinian state, with agreed compensatory land swaps for any deviations.

"We are expecting to receive a letter from the US by the end of the week. I believe it will come," said the official. "The leadership has made it clear that without a letter we will not go."

The talks will initially focus on the framework and timescale of proper negotiations. The justice minister, Tzipi Livni, will represent the Israelis – the Palestinians will field Erekat. Both are veterans of previous – and failed – efforts to reach an agreement to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even preliminary talks will be seen as a major triumph for Kerry, who has devoted more than four months of intensive diplomacy to reviving the moribund process amid repeated warnings that time is running out for a two-state deal. However, Kerry acknowledged the potential pitfalls, saying last Friday that "the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead".

Israel has agreed to free more than 80 long-term Palestinian prisoners in four stages once talks begin. The release of men who have been in jail for more than 20 years is of prime importance to Palestinians, but is divisive among Israelis, many of whom oppose freedom for those responsible for the deaths of citizens in suicide bombings and gun attacks.

Netanyahu is believed to be seeking the backing of his cabinet or security cabinet in a vote which could take place this Sunday.

Another issue yet to be ironed out is the timeframe for talks. The Palestinians, who fear Israeli foot-dragging, want a limit of six months, whereas the Israelis are thought to be pressing for talks to last up to a year. Both sides have pledged to put any eventual outcome of negotiations to a referendum.

Meanwhile, a former US general has warned that the absence of a peace deal and continued Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem could lead to an apartheid state. James Mattis, head of the US Central Command until his retirement two months ago, said in an interview that the present situation was "unsustainable".

"We've got to get [to a two-state solution], and the chances for it are starting to ebb because the settlements, and where they're at, are going to make it impossible to maintain the two-state option," he told CNN.

He warned that, without a separation of the populations, "either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don't get to vote – apartheid. That didn't work too well the last time I saw that practised in a country. So we've got to work on this with a sense of urgency."

The US, he added, "paid a military security price every day … because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel".


Palestinian leadership matches Israeli PM's peace deal referendum pledge

Mahmoud Abbas announcement follows that of Binyamin Nethanyahu, who has promised Israelis referendum on any deal

Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, Monday 22 July 2013 14.28 BST   

The Palestinian leadership will put to a referendum any deal reached in US-brokered talks with the Israelis on settling the historic conflict – matching a pledge made by the Israeli prime minister.

Amid continuing uncertainty about whether Palestinian negotiators have fully committed to beginning preliminary talks in Washington next week, the president, Mahmoud Abbas, said: "Any agreement reached with the Israelis will be brought to a referendum."

On Sunday Binyamin Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet that any deal would be put to the public for endorsement. "I do not think that such decisions can be made, if indeed an agreement is achieved, by this or that coalition process; it must be put to the people for a decision," the Israeli prime minister said.

Israel has never held a referendum in its 65-year history and such a move would require legislation.

Opinion polls suggest a majority backing on both sides for a two-state solution to the conflict, but the details of any agreement will be crucial in determining the outcome of any plebiscites. There are also strong opponents of concessions on both sides; notably, Israelis settlers and their supporters, and Hamas in Gaza.

Abbas made his referendum pledge in an interview with a Jordanian paper, Al Rai, in which he also said: "The United States is serious in formulating a solution to the Palestinian issue, through introducing a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital."

He added: "We want to reach a two-state solution … but as of now we have not achieved anything."

The Palestinians are wary of beginning preliminary talks with the Israelis without a firm assurance from the US secretary of state, John Kerry, that the pre-1967 border will be the basis of territorial negotiations.

In a statement on Sunday evening, Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Adu Rudeineh, said discussions over the parameters for talks were continuing. Abbas had agreed to send a delegate to Washington to continue thrashing out the terms for negotiations, he added.

A Palestinian source told the Guardian on Sunday that Kerry had written a letter giving a US assurance that the basis of territorial talks would be the pre-1967 border, but it was not clear whether the letter had been delivered.

"If we have well defined terms of reference and a clear timeframe – by which we mean the end of the year – we will go into talks," the source said.

More details about the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails – part of a pre-talks agreement – were reported in the Israeli media. Eighty-two long-term prisoners would be freed in four stages. The first releases would come after four to six weeks of talks, and the remaining prisoners would be released at similar intervals.

The Palestinians demanded the release of 103 prisoners who have been in jail since before the Oslo accords were signed almost 20 years ago.

Netanyahu is expected to seek approval from his cabinet or security cabinet of the prisoner release amid opposition from some government ministers and members of parliament.

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« Reply #7733 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:54 AM »

July 24, 2013

Ultra-Orthodox Candidates Elected as Israel’s Chief Rabbis


JERUSALEM — In a victory for the ultra-Orthodox political parties that were shut out of Israel’s governing coalition this year, two candidates they backed were elected as Israel’s chief rabbis on Wednesday, defeating a rabbi who had promised, in an unusually aggressive campaign, to transform the troubled rabbinate.

Rabbi David Lau, 47, the chief rabbi of Modi’in, a large bedroom community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, was elected for the Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent), and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, 61, the head of a yeshiva and an author of 40 books on Jewish law, for the Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin). Both are sons of renowned former occupants of the post: Rabbi Lau’s father, Yisrael Meir Lau, served as Ashkenazi chief from 1993 to 2003 and now is the head rabbi of Tel Aviv; Rabbi Yosef’s father, Ovadia Yosef, was Sephardi chief from 1973 to 1983 and, at 92, remains a powerful force as the spiritual leader of the Shas Party.

The younger Rabbis Lau and Yosef were elected to 10-year terms in the $100,000-a-year job. They will rotate leadership of Israel’s rabbinical courts, which control marriage, divorce and adoption for the nation’s six million Jews. The rabbinate also oversees the supervision of kosher food, conversion and other aspects of daily life here, and it is condemned by many critics as a corrupt patronage farm. (Rabbi Lau will replace Yona Metzger, who is under house arrest on suspicion of fraud, bribery and embezzlement.)

The rabbis were chosen not by a popular vote of the citizenry but by 150 mayors, rabbis, ministers, judges, lawmakers and electors handpicked by politicians who met for three hours on Wednesday afternoon at a Jerusalem hotel. Each won 68 votes in three-way contests.

Their election capped an ugly and intense campaign that galvanized public attention largely because of Rabbi David Stav, a member of the so-called religious Zionist camp who promised to revolutionize the rabbinate by, for starters, helping brides and grooms prove their Jewish roots and thus ease their path to marriage. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had denounced Rabbi Stav as wicked and dangerous and said his election would be like “bringing idolatry into the temple.”

Rabbi Lau, too, promised during the campaign to make the rabbinate “more welcoming” and said he would represent not just the ultra-Orthodox but also the religious Zionist — modern Orthodox — and secular Jews. Upon his election Wednesday night, he told an Israeli television station that the rabbinate would “continue tradition.”

“I see myself as a person who can bring parts of the public closer together,” Rabbi Lau said on Channel 10 news. “With God’s help, the rabbinate will belong to us all.”
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« Reply #7734 on: Jul 25, 2013, 06:57 AM »

July 24, 2013

Gaza’s Economy Suffers From Egyptian Military’s Crackdown


JABALYA, Gaza Strip — The only sound that could be heard on a recent weekday at Abu Eida’s concrete-mixing plant in the north of Gaza was birdsong. The pumps, mixers and other heavy vehicles had been idle for days.

The factory floor was empty. In a prayer room inside the air-conditioned management section, five men were taking an afternoon nap. Work here has been at a virtual standstill since the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi early this month, staff members said.

Along with the takeover in Cairo, the Egyptian military stepped up its campaign against Islamic militants operating against its forces in the rugged Sinai Peninsula, which borders Gaza. The clampdown has resulted in the destruction or closing of around 80 percent of the tunnels that run beneath the Egypt-Gaza border, long used for smuggling weapons and fugitives but also for construction materials restricted by Israel, cheap fuel and other goods.

So now, Abu Eida has no cement or gravel to operate his factory, one of the biggest in Gaza, the Palestinian coastal territory. Manar al-Batsh, an accountant at the plant, said 40 employees were sitting at home.

“If the crisis lasts until the end of this month, we won’t be able to keep those workers on our payroll,” he added.

For Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic militant group that runs Gaza and has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Morsi’s ally in Egypt, the upheaval next door means the loss of an important friend and a looming economic crisis if the tunnel restrictions continue.

Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and is considered a terrorist organization by much of the West, faces increasing physical and political isolation.

New restrictions at the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s main gateway to Egypt and the outside world, limit travel to holders of foreign passports and to patients with official medical referrals from the Hamas-run Ministry of Health. Hamas officials are unable to leave Gaza, and given the security situation in Sinai, aid missions are not coming in.

More materially, Hamas relies on the taxes it collects from the underground trade. Experts have estimated the group’s annual budget at $900 million. Hamas employs almost 50,000 government workers in Gaza, and two-thirds of the budget is said to be spent on salaries.

Omar Shaban, a Gaza economist and the director of PalThink, an independent research institute, said taxes collected from the tunnel trade made up about a third of the budget. Additional income has come from taxes on local businesses, many of which also depend on cheap commodities from the tunnels that are now in short supply. Fuel from Egypt is sold here at half the price of fuel imported from Israel.

Hamas had already been suffering from a sharp drop in financing from Iran in recent months because it did not stand by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, its former patron, in his struggle against rebel forces.

Yasser Othman, Egypt’s representative to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, told a Palestinian newspaper this week that the security measures along the border were not directed against the Palestinian territory but were to “protect Egypt’s national security.” He added that the measures would end “once the exceptional situation ended.”

But in Egypt, a news media campaign is under way against Hamas, as critics of Mr. Morsi associate the group with the violence along the Sinai border. Egyptian military officials have told state news media that scores of Hamas fighters and snipers have been making their way into Egypt to battle the anti-Morsi demonstrators, and newspaper columnists have accused Hamas of interfering in Egypt’s affairs.

Salah al-Bardawil, a Hamas official in Gaza, said in a telephone interview that the Egyptian news media were being “pushed by the enemies of resistance” and some Arab states that want to see Hamas toppled like the Brotherhood in Egypt. He acknowledged that Hamas’s options for dealing with the crisis were limited but said that the Palestinian people were used to putting up with hardship to preserve their “dignity and national principles.”

Some analysts have questioned whether a weakened Hamas would remain committed to its cease-fire with Israel. In November, Mr. Morsi played an instrumental role in brokering a truce, ending a fierce eight-day Israeli offensive. Hamas has since worked to rein in rocket fire against southern Israel.

For a while after Mr. Morsi’s election victory last year, Hamas felt empowered. In October, the emir of Qatar became the first head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas took full control in 2007, and he pledged $400 million for major housing and infrastructure projects here. But because of a lack of supplies, most infrastructure projects, including the Qatari-financed ones, have come to a temporary halt.

Abdul-Fattah al-Zeri of the Hamas-run Ministry of Economy said this week that 50,000 workers who depended directly or indirectly on the construction sector, like carpenters, engineers and aluminum window manufacturers, were out of work.

“Today we are seeing a crippled economy, postponed contracts and losses among contractors,” he said.

Israel eased its blockade on Gaza in 2010 under intense international pressure. The increased flow and variety of goods from Israel freed up the smuggling tunnels for more industrial materials, setting off a building boom in Gaza. Unemployment had dropped to 26 percent from nearly 36 percent over the last three years. Mr. Zeri said there are worries that it will rise again, adding, “We are on the brink of a crisis in terms of economy.”

Other commercial sectors are also feeling the effects of the Egyptian clampdown. Most of Gaza’s fishermen have not been going out to sea for lack of cheap fuel. And Gaza’s fish market was almost empty of fish and buyers.

One fisherman, Ali Ayyad, 28, stood on the deck of his family’s fishing boat, which remained anchored in the harbor, and tried to catch some mullets with a rod.

“It’s better than begging,” he said.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo.


July 24, 2013

U.S., in Sign of Displeasure, Halts F-16 Delivery to Egypt


WASHINGTON — President Obama, in his first punitive response to the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt, has halted the delivery of four F-16 fighter planes to the Egyptian Air Force.

Mr. Obama, administration officials said, wanted to send Egypt’s military-led government a signal of American displeasure with the chaotic situation there, which has been marked by continued violence, the detention of Mr. Morsi and other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a transition that has not included the Brotherhood.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel relayed the decision to Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the head of Egypt’s military, a senior official said, and did not say when the Pentagon might reschedule the delivery.

“Given the current situation in Egypt, we do not believe it is appropriate to move forward at this time with the delivery of F-16s,” the Pentagon press secretary, George Little, said Wednesday. He did not cite any specific actions by the Egyptian military.

The White House emphasized that the decision did not have implications for $1.5 billion in American aid to Egypt, which it has said it does not want to cut off for now. The administration is reviewing that aid but has scrupulously avoided referring to Mr. Morsi’s ouster as a coup d’état, which could force its suspension on legal grounds.

In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Morsi’s ouster, the administration said it did not plan to halt the F-16 shipment. But officials said they were disturbed by how events have unfolded since then. Holding up planes is a modest, but unmistakable, symbol of that concern — “an inside fastball to the military,” in the words of a Pentagon official.

“We’ve been very clear with the military: we understand this is a difficult situation but we want things to get back on track,” said a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the diplomatic sensitivities of the decision. “Trying to break the neck of the Brotherhood is not going to be good for Egypt or for the region.”

The warplanes are part of a deal the United States and Egypt reached in 2009 for the delivery of 20 F-16 C/D fighters during 2013. The first batch of aircraft was delivered in January, with more scheduled for this summer and another delivery late this year.

The summer delivery already had been delayed once, for logistical reasons, when it was determined that the American pilots who would ferry the F-16s to Egypt might have difficulty leaving the country on commercial carriers because of the mushrooming political unrest.

The decision was described by some Pentagon officials as carefully calibrated to signal American displeasure but not go so far as to rupture the relationship or put Egypt’s security at risk.

The jet fighters have little role in Egypt’s domestic unrest, and Egypt is not facing an imminent external threat that would require adding four more warplanes to its security forces, said one Pentagon official. The greatest blow might be to the pride of the Egyptian military.

“This is like throwing an inside fastball to brush a batter back from the plate — just a warning that you can ‘bring the heat’ if you have to,” another Pentagon official said. If the political transition within Egypt moves ahead, the shipment of warplanes could be rescheduled.

Pentagon officials also noted that while the F-16 shipment was halted, other military-to-military cooperation remained. For example, American planning for a major, annual joint military exercise with Egypt, called “Bright Star,” would continue.

“We remain committed to the U.S.-Egypt defense relationship as it remains a foundation of our broader strategic partnership with Egypt and serves as pillar for regional stability,” said Mr. Little, the Pentagon spokesman.

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« Reply #7735 on: Jul 25, 2013, 07:01 AM »

Zimbabwe blogger takes on Robert Mugabe

Anonymous 'party insider' becomes online hit for exposing government secrets on Facebook in run-up to presidential election

Rebecca Regan-Sachs for Think Africa Press, part of the Guardian Africa Network, Thursday 25 July 2013 11.30 BST

On Wednesday, Robert Mugabe, will seek another term as Zimbabwean president in a rematch of the contentious 2008 election with challenger Morgan Tsvangirai.
Baba Jukwa's Facebook profile picture Baba Jukwa

But this time, 33 years after the 89-year-old first took office, the icon of the African independence era is being hounded by a creation of the Internet age. In March, a self-proclaimed disaffected insider of the ruling Zanu-PF party created the Facebook page of "Baba Jukwa". With the disarming profile picture of a cartoon old man, Baba Jukwa traffics in political napalm, spilling damaging details of high-level party meetings, allegations of voter fraud, and embarrassing gossip – all replete with private phone numbers for citizens to harass the officials in question.

Most notably, Baba has warned Zanu-PF's political targets when they enter the party's crosshairs. Last month he declared that top officials were "planning to sink Edward Chindori Chininga and replace him with their puppet". Chininga, an MP who had released a damning report on corruption in the country's diamond mines, died nine days later in a suspicious car accident.

"Heartless maggots", raged Baba Jukwa the next day. "The politics of killing each other in my party, as I always told you, will intensify … I am going to expose my party worse so that they will know that killing other people is wrong."

In a country with one of the world's most restrictive press environments, Baba Jukwa has become a social media sensation. Each post garners hundreds of comments, likes, and shares, with nearly 280,000 people and counting "liking" the page. (By contrast, the pages of Mugabe and Tsvangirai have only about 100,000 likes each.)

The state-controlled Herald newspaper has denounced the mole's "malicious motives and puerile endeavour", and Mugabe has reportedly offered a six-figure sum for his identity.

It seems plausible that Baba Jukwa could indeed be a disaffected member of Zanu-PF, as the party is increasingly factionalised by internal power struggles to succeed the ailing Mugabe. Many believe the account is operated by more than one person, perhaps a cohort of Zanu-PF insiders and intelligence operatives. Still other theories suggest that it is controlled by Tsvangirai's opposition MDC-T party, or is even a creation of American or British intelligence agencies, hoping to hasten Mugabe's departure.
Do not retreat

As the election date nears, Baba Jukwa has mounted an aggressive call for voter registration and turnout in order to oust his own party at the ballot box. Asijiki! (Do not retreat!) is his signature sign-off.

But the potential impact of the political mole may be somewhat limited. While a large proportion of Zimbabweans have some internet access through their mobile phones, the internet penetration rate for regular usage is low. And many of those most likely to follow Baba Jukwa – young, technologically-savvy urbanites – would already count themselves in the opposition camp.

"The majority [of Zimbabweans] on Facebook are people who already are disgruntled and know the corruption in government…the majority of voters in Zimbabwe are rural-based and they do not access the internet," says Loughty Dube, chairman of Transparency International's chapter in Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, after decades under an authoritarian regime, much of Zimbabwe's populace is shackled by fear and mistrust. The cost of participating in political discourse, even online, was underscored in 2011 when a man was arrested and jailed for a month after posting a comment supportive of the Egyptian revolution on Tsvangirai's Facebook page.

Ndashaishei Ndashaishei (a pseudonym), a 35-year-old development researcher in Mutare, reads Baba Jukwa's page every day. "I cherish the many different views and comments that follow the posts", he says. But while he sometimes discusses them in private with trusted colleagues, he says that these conversations are "limited to people within your circle, people who one really knows. You cannot do that in public places because you do not know whether the person next to you is a secret agent informer or not", he says.

Donnie Carlos, a 40-year-old Zimbabwean social worker living in New Zealand, was brave enough to try calling an official after finding out his number and misdeeds in a Baba Jukwa post, but said he has only used his real name once when commenting on the page. "It's so frustrating that I am unable to [use my real name]", he says, noting that he had relatives in the military and Zanu-PF structures and didn't want to cause them trouble. "Besides, I might be a target when I go home next year, assuming Mugabe wins."

Carlos represents one of as many as five million Zimbabweans thought to be living abroad, a group that is likely to be disproportionally active on Baba Jukwa's page due to the lessened fear of repercussions. However, the Zimbabwean diaspora has been barred by the Mugabe regime from participating in the upcoming election, despite a directive issued in February from the African Commission on Human and People's Rights.

Real change will require more than just votes anyway, says Melody, a 31-year-old technology firm employee from Zimbabwe who asked to be identified only by her first name. "I do not think that Baba Jukwa has caught the imagination of the security sector, so they will not protect the win by MDC at the polls", she says. "The key is on whose side the SADC [South African Development Community] and AU [African Union] observers are. If they declare the elections free and fair after Zanu-PF has rigged the elections, there is not much MDC can do."

The genie's out the bottle

Regardless of the short-term political implications, Baba Jukwa represents the Zimbabwean people's growing appetite for information and transparency, which will only be fuelled by increasing access to information technology. Perhaps more importantly, the page has provided many citizens with a taste of free speech, releasing a genie that will be impossible to put back in the bottle.

"Baba Jukwa has given us freedom of expression, which is something that is never heard of in Zimbabwe", says Succeed Bhekizitha Dewa, a 31-year-old Zimbabwean living abroad. "He created a platform where we could discuss issues that really affect our country whilst updating us with on-the-ground with news of every dirty thing the ruling party is doing to our people."

Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Washington, DC, agrees. "To some degree, Baba Jukwa has encouraged ordinary Zimbabweans to be a bit bolder, to be less afraid, and to voice their displeasure with the repressive Zanu-PF regime", he says.

But whether the Facebook page remains a political release valve or the first wave in a sea change for Zimbabwe society depends on the populace's ability to shift their discontent from online to on the ground. "If even a slight majority of Zimbabweans actively choose change and summon the courage necessary to overcome the harassment, intimidation, and widespread repression they have routinely faced over the course of the past three decades, then nothing will stop democratic progress from taking place", says Smith. "That will remain the bottom line in Zimbabwe, regardless of whether Baba Jukwa remains popular on social media or not."

The voice of the voiceless

From his new home outside of Zimbabwe, Dewa holds fast to the hope of that prospect. His middle name Bhekizitha means "Look out for enemies" in the Ndebele language, as he was born at the beginning of the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s, in which Mugabe's forces killed tens of thousands of his people. As an adult, he joined the country's security forces only to realise that "we were not serving the country's interest but only the interest of a few political elite". He escaped to a city thousands of miles away.

When a friend told him about Baba Jukwa's page, he said he felt "greatly relieved" that someone had broken through the government's wall of propaganda. And he hopes that Baba Jukwa's identity will stay secret – for now. "I wish he remains anonymous as long as it takes for the good of the cause", he says. "But I would love to meet him one day in a new Zimbabwe and shake his hand for taking the bold step of becoming the voice of the voiceless."

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« Reply #7736 on: Jul 25, 2013, 07:03 AM »

Colombian conflict has killed 220,000 in 55 years, commission finds

Report says rightist paramilitaries responsible for more killings, while leftist rebels kidnapped more and caused more destruction

Associated Press in Bogotá, Thursday 25 July 2013 12.19 BST   

Colombia's internal conflict has claimed at least 220,000 lives since 1958, and more than four of every five victims have been civilian non-combatants, a government-created commission said in a report.

The National Centre of Historical Memory was created under a 2011 law designed to indemnify victims of the conflict and return stolen land. The law prefaced peace talks now being held in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or Farc, Colombia's main leftist rebel group.

Its 434-page report, titled Enough Already: Memories of War and Dignity, says most of the killings occurred after far-right militias backed by ranchers and cocaine traffickers emerged in the 1980s to counter the Farc and other leftist rebels.

The centre's director, Gonzalo Sánchez, who presented the report to President Juan Manuel Santos, said the rightist paramilitaries were responsible for more killings, while rebels kidnapped more and caused more destruction.

He said the report showed that "we have serious problems as a society". He added: "The only way to end this horror is to consolidate a peace process. That's the only way to stop it."

Sánchez said the conflict's most violent period was 1996-2002, the "apogee of paramilitarism" that included most of the militias' most notorious massacres as well as the Farc's biggest military victories and failed peace talks with the peasant-based rebel army.

From 1996 to 2005, on average someone was kidnapped every eight hours in Colombia, and every day someone fell victim to an anti-personnel mine, the report says. Last year, the Farc vowed to halt ransom kidnappings in condition for the peace talks. Mines continue to claim victims.

Santos said: "We must recognise that we have hit bottom and that war dehumanises and dehumanises us." Last weekend, 21 soldiers were killed by the Farc in a single day.

The report documents 1,982 massacres between 1980 and 2012, attributing 1,166 to paramilitaries, 343 to rebels, 295 to government security forces and the remainder to unknown armed groups. It estimates the number of Colombians forcibly displaced by the conflict at 5.7 million.

The centre is currently involved in 16  different investigations of violence in Colombia. Its staff comprises Colombian academics who are assisted by a team of international consultants from Europe, Latin America and the United States.

Part of its mandate is the establishment of a museum, which a spokesman said would probably be built in the north of Bogotá.

* Colombias-president-Juan--008.jpg (33.49 KB, 460x276 - viewed 92 times.)
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« Reply #7737 on: Jul 25, 2013, 07:06 AM »

Astronomers reveal how galaxies go from burst to bust

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, July 24, 2013 17:11 EDT

Images from a nearby galaxy may have explained how star factories can bizarrely slow down, astronomers reported on Wednesday.

Astrophysicists have long puzzled why the Universe has very few galaxies with a high mass, even though there are many galaxies that create stars at a phenomenal rate, sometimes a hundred times greater than our own Milky Way.

In theory, these “starburst” galaxies should have become super-sized — but until now, no one has known why.

Using a new telescope perched high above Chile’s Atacama desert, where ultra-dry air makes for great viewing conditions, astronomers have seen billowing clouds of hydrogen and other gases — the fuel for making new stars — fleeing a starburst galaxy called NGC 253.

Located 11.5 million light years away, NGC 253 was discovered in 1783 by Caroline Herschel, sister of William Herschel, who was the first to spot the planet Uranus.

It has been dubbed the “Silver Coin” or “Silver Dollar” galaxy because of its round, shiny form.

In spite of this name, NGC 253 has in fact a slightly askew orientation when viewed from Earth. This gives sky-gazers an excellent chance to pore over super-clusters of stars near its centre.

These clusters are where stars are being formed — and they are also an exit point for massive ejections of gas, according to the investigators.

“We can clearly see for the first time massive concentrations of cold molecular gas being jettisoned by expanding shells of intense pressure, created by young stars,” said Alberto Bolatto of the University of Maryland in College Park.

“The amount of gas we measure gives us very convincing evidence that some growing galaxies blow out more gas than they take in, slowing star formation down to a crawl.”

The pressure on the gas comes from winds of particles disgorged from these bright, brash young stars, the astronomers believe.

The other main theory to explain the dearth of high-mass galaxies is that the precious gas is gobbled up by supermassive black holes at the centre of galaxies.

But there is no indication that NGC 253′s central black hole is currently active, says the paper, published in the journal Nature.

Measurements by the ALMA telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile estimate that the galaxy’s stellar fuel is fleeing at between 40 and 250 kilometres (25 to 150 miles) per second.

Despite this great speed, the gas could take millions of years to completely escape the galaxy’s gravitational clutch. It may even get recycled by the galaxy to create new stars, but only further observations can confirm the theory.

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« Reply #7738 on: Jul 25, 2013, 07:27 AM »

In the USA...

07/24/2013 06:04 PM

War on Whistleblowers: Has Obama Scrapped the First Amendment?

By Marc Pitzke

President Obama is cracking down on leakers. Both Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning face prosecution under the Espionage Act, while a New York Times reporter was ordered to reveal his sources or risk jail time. Is Washington turning its back on freedom of the press?

The New York Times published James Risen's most recent article last Wednesday. It focused on the bipartisan backlash President Barack Obama's administration faces in the wake of revelations about the domestic surveillance operations of America's National Security Agency (NSA). "Lawmakers from both parties called for the vast collection of private data on millions of Americans to be scaled back," it read.

The comprehensive article, written by arguably one of the most distinguished investigative journalists in the United States, fails to mention the fact that Risen himself has become the subject of surveillance. For a number of years now, his telephone conversations and emails have come under scrutiny by the US government. Adding insult to injury, Risen learned last week that he could face jail time for contempt of court if he fails to give evidence at the criminal trial of a former CIA agent -- one of his most trusted sources.

A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that Risen would receive no First Amendment protection safeguarding the confidentiality of his sources -- in this case former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling. The matter relates to Risen's 2006 bestseller "State of War," which included classified information about CIA efforts to foil Iranian nuclear ambitions allegedly leaked by Sterling.

The ruling could not have come at a more volatile time. In the midst of the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the Risen trial sheds further light on the Obama administration's unparalleled clampdown on official leakers. The 118-page judgment, which sets a precedent that could create significant hurdles for investigative journalism, has dealt a further blow to First Amendment protections for reporters in the US.

Unrelenting Pursuit

President Obama's war on the whistleblower is now being fought on multiple fronts -- in the Russian capital, where Snowden has been given temporary documents and is soon expected to leave the airport he has been holed up in for weeks, and in South America, where the American hopes to be granted asylum. The battle is also being waged in Maryland, where Bradley Manning, a former US Army private, currently faces military trial for passing documents to WikiLeaks. And last week it took hold in Virginia's fourth circuit appeals court, where Risen is likely to be compelled to give evidence.

The fact that Risen is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner will do little to protect him from what many commentators have described as a "disappointing" ruling. In "State of War," Risen exposed the CIA's attempts in 2000 to channel flawed blueprints to Tehran's weapons designers. The abortive mission, dubbed Operation Merlin, misfired when a Russian double agent on the CIA payroll tipped off Iranian officials about the defects. In his book, Risen describes the mission as "grossly negligent," and brands it one of the most ridiculous gaffes in CIA history.

When the Times decided not to publish the story, Risen decided to do so of his own accord. Shortly after the book's publication in 2006, the Bush administration embarked on an unrelenting pursuit of the leaker, with Obama reopening the case at the beginning of his first term by renewing the Risen subpoena. His decision to do so underscores the emphasis Obama's government is placing on the whistleblower crackdown. It also exposes the increasing tension between the US government and news organizations: In order to get to Sterling, Risen's phone calls, emails -- even his bank statements -- were scrutinized by intelligence services.

Potential Jail Time

Sterling was indicted in 2010. Risen was called to testify, but the New York Times reporter refused, citing the irreconcilable damage it would do to his work if he were to betray his sources. A district court judgement initially backed him up, granting Risen protection against being forced to testify. The appeal court judges, however, found that Risen was the "only witness" who could provide a "first-hand account of the commission of a most serious crime indicted by the grand jury."

If Risen continues to ignore the subpoena, he could face jail time. A similar situation played out in 2007, when fellow Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to testify about her sources in a scandal surrounding the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. At the time, the scandal was widely perceived as a one-off. The same cannot be claimed in Risen's case -- against the backdrop of the Snowden revelations and the Manning trial, this latest judgment could be interpreted as part of a veritable crusade.

The judgement does, however, include a dissenting opinion. Judge Roger Gregory argued that there was sufficient evidence to convict Sterling without Risen's testimony and took issue with the notion that a journalist should necessarily be compelled to reveal sources against his or her will in a criminal case. "The majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society," Gregory argues.

Standing Strong

The legal landscape now facing US journalists appears to be a bleak one. Senior reporters and media experts, most notably the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, expressed their disappointment over the ruling, arguing that the protection of sources was the most important of the fourth estate privileges for US reporters.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, expressly supported the decision, with a spokesperson announcing that the next steps in the prosecution of the case were already being examined. Ironically, the statement comes shortly after the Justice Department published new guidelines for leak investigations designed to protect the interests of reporters. The revision was a response to public outcry over the department's aggressive investigative tactics, including subpoenaing Associated Press reporters' phone records.

Despite the ruling, Risen has pledged to uphold his decision not to testify. "I remain as resolved as ever to continue fighting," he argued last week in a public statement. "I will always protect my sources." He previously said that he would not shy away from taking the appeal to the Supreme Court.

Yet a reporter took a similar case to the country's highest court in 1972 -- and lost. The court invalidated the journalist's use of First Amendment freedoms as special protection from a summons to testify before a grand jury on a case related to the radical Black Panther movement.


July 23, 2013 02:00 PM

Fourth Circuit Guts National Security Investigative Journalism Everywhere It Matters

By CrooksAndLiars

The Fourth Circuit — which covers CIA, JSOC, and NSA’s territory — just ruled that journalists who are witnesses to alleged crimes (or participants, the opinion ominously notes) must testify in the trial.

    There is no First Amendment testimonial privilege, absolute or qualified, that protects a reporter from being compelled to testify by the prosecution or the defense in criminal proceedings about criminal conduct that the reporter personally witnessed or participated in, absent a showing of bad faith, harassment, or other such non-legitimate motive, even though the reporter promised confidentiality to his source.

With this language, the Fourth applies the ruling in Branzburg — which, after all, pertained to the observation of a drug-related crime — to a news-gathering activity, the receipt of classified information for all the states in which it most matters.

The opinion goes on to echo DOJ’s claims (which I recalled just yesterday) that Risen’s testimony is specifically necessary.

    Indeed, he can provide the only first-hand account of the commission of a most serious crime indicted by the grand jury –- the illegal disclosure of classified, national security information by one who was entrusted by our government to protect national security, but who is charged with having endangered it instead.


    There is no dispute that the information sought from Risen is relevant. Moreover, it “can[not] be obtained by alternative means.” Id. at 1139. The circumstantial evidence that the government has been able to glean from incomplete and inconclusive documents, and from the hearsay statements of witnesses with no personal or first-hand knowledge of the critical aspects of the charged crimes, does not serve as a fair or reasonable substitute.


    Risen is the only eyewitness to the crime. He is inextricably involved in it. Without him, the alleged crime would not have occurred, since he was the recipient of illegally-disclosed, classified information. And it was through the publication of his book, State of War, that the classified information made its way into the public domain. He is the only witness who can specify the classified information that he received, and the source or sources from whom he received it.


    Clearly, Risen’s direct, first-hand account of the criminal conduct indicted by the grand jury cannot be obtained by alternative means, as Risen is without dispute the only witness who can offer this critical testimony.

This language will enhance the strength of the reservation DOJ made to its News Media Policies, allowing it to require testimony if it is essential to successful prosecution.

The only limit on the government’s authority to compel testimony under this opinion is if the government is harassing the journalist, which (with proof of the way the government collected phone records, which remains secret) might have been proven in this case. There is a strong case to be made that the entire point of this trial is to put James Risen, not Jeffrey Sterling, in jail. But Leonie Brinkema has already ruled against it. I think the subpoena for 20 AP phone lines might rise to that level as well, except that case is being investigated in the DC Circuit, where this ruling doesn’t apply.

This pretty much guts national security journalism in the states in which it matters.

Golly. It was just last week when the press believed DOJ’s News Media Guidelines would protect the press’ work.


House vote reflects growing revolt over NSA surveillance

Six weeks ago, only a few in Congress were ready to challenge the government on surveillance – but opposition has grown

Ewen MacAskill in New York, Wednesday 24 July 2013 22.14 BST         

The House vote to block NSA funding for one of its data collection programmes is the biggest manifestation yet of a revolt that has steadily grown over the last two months.

When the Guardian and Washington Post first revealed the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, there were relatively few in Congress prepared openly to challenge the government over intrusions into privacy.

The challenge was largely restricted to the two long-term sceptics, senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall. This left Barack Obama able to claim that the surveillance was not secret because every member of Congress had been briefed about it, and that every piece of legislation since 2006 related to it had been passed with large bipartisan majorities.

Towards the end of June, opposition to the surveillance programme  began to grow. Wyden and Udall were joined by 24 other senators to send a joint letter to to intelligence chiefs complaining about a secret body of laws and misleading statements by officials.

At a House judiciary hearing last week, member after member said that while they had little sympathy for Snowden, they were glad about the revelations and repeatedly challenged the NSA and justice department officials at the hearing.

The scheduled House vote brings together a potent combination of progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans. Such is the strength of feeling that they are prepared to defy not only pleas from the White House and personal appearances on the Hill by intelligence chiefs, but their own congressional leaders.

The very fact that the vote was to be held enraged the Wall Street Journal, which, in an editorial, wrote: "Few things are more dangerous than Congress in heat, and so it is this week as a libertarian-left wing coalition in the House of Representatives is rushing to neuter one of the National Security Agency's anti- terror surveillance programs."

It added: "The last thing Congress should do is kill a program in a rush to honor the reckless claims of Mr Snowden and his apologists."

Congress is due to begin a five-week recess at the start of August, and much of the momentum will go out off the issue, at least on the Hill. But there will be more hearings in in the autumn, and more votes. Proposed reform of the Patriot Act, which authorises much of the surveillance, has already been introduced. One of the changes would require the government to demonstrate a clear link to terrorism or spying before being allowed to collect Americans' private information.

Changes are also proposed to reform the ultra-secret Fisa court, which issues warrants for surveillance. Many members of Congress vote because they regard such issues as a matter of principle but others are also motivated by pressure from voters.

Wyden mentioned this on Tuesday in speech in Washington, saying Americans were stunned by the scale of the surveillance. "And, boy, are they angry. You hear it in the lunchrooms, town hall meetings and senior citizen centres," Wyden said.

And the public will almost certainly be still engaged in that debate when Congress returns in September. A Washington Post/ABC News poll published Wednesday showed concerns about personal privacy have grown. The poll suggested about three-quarters of Americans see the NSA programmes as infringing on their rights to privacy.

In the aftermath of 9/11, when there was overwhelming concern over security, the balance has gradually shifted, with the poll finding 57% in favour of unfettered investigations and 39% seeing protection of privacy as the more important.

There will likely be more disclosures in the media that will keep the debate alive. And legal actions are pending. A preliminary court hearing is scheduled for Thursday in New York at which the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the constitutionality of the NSA's mass collection of phone records. The ACLU said it will be the first time that the government has been forced to address NSA surveillance in court.

All this puts pressure on the White House to act. The Obama administration responds that it has already made gestures but these are so minor and modest they have made little impact on public consciousness. Big concessions will be required  to allay public concerns.

The growing revolt helps Snowden. The Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a drop in public support for him, with 53% saying he should be charged with a crime for his leaks against 43% less than a month ago. But the debate he started can only help him if he is ever arrives back on US soil. Given the debate he has started, it makes it harder for the justice department to argue that he is not a whistleblower,

For the moment, Snowden is at the mercy of the Russian authorities, possibly doomed to a life of exile there unless they relent and allow him to leave for Latin America – assuming a way can be found for him to get there avoiding US attempts to intercept him.

But he can at least have the satisfaction of feeling that the revolt has vindicated the disclosures he made in Hong Kong.


Republicans prepare for ‘Obamacare’ showdown, with eye to 2014 elections

By Reuters
Thursday, July 25, 2013 7:30 EDT

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With the Obama administration poised for a huge public education campaign on healthcare reform, Republicans and their allies are mobilizing a counter-offensive including town hall meetings, protests and media promotions to dissuade uninsured Americans from obtaining health coverage.

Party officials, political analysts and lobbyists say the coming showdown will mark a new phase in the years-old battle over healthcare reform by shifting the focus from political ideology to specific examples of how “Obamacare” allegedly falls short, just as the administration presses the public on its benefits.

President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy is the first major social program to face a highly organized and well-financed opposition years after enactment. The forces arrayed against it could undermine the aim of extending health coverage to millions of uninsured people at affordable rates, if not enough younger adults sign up to make it economically viable.

Political analysts say Republicans hope to use the healthcare issue to win a bigger majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and gain control of the Senate in the 2014 mid-term elections, by leveraging the law’s unpopularity to send voters to the polls in key swing states.

“The best way to get the juices of that right-wing electorate and activist group going is to attack Obamacare – make everything that happens look awful and voters will rebel against it,” said Norman Ornstein, an expert on congressional politics at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“It’s a belief that if they highlight this, and sabotage it as much as they can, and if it’s disruptive, that that will work for them in the mid-terms.”

The White House and Department of Health and Human Services are well aware of their opponents’ political maneuvers.

“There are folks out there who are actively working to make this law fail,” Obama said in a speech on Wednesday, condemning the opponents’ effort as “a politically motivated misinformation campaign.”

The administration, reform advocates and companies including health insurers are expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on an education campaign to reach an estimated 7 million people, including 2.7 million young adults aged 18 to 35 who are expected to sign up for subsidized coverage next year.

A new political playbook for Republicans in the House encourages lawmakers who have voted nearly 40 times to repeal or defund the law to showcase their concerns at town hall meetings and special forums with like-minded young adults, healthcare providers and employers.

“Make sure the participants will be 100 percent on message,” the House Republican Conference’s August planning kit advises for events with businesses. “While they do not have to be Republicans, they need to be able to discuss the negative effects of Obamacare on their employees.”

Obama’s 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is also due for public attack at town halls featuring Democratic lawmakers, where Tea Party activists plan to air their opposition under an initiative by FreedomWorks, the Washington-based grassroots lobby that helped found the movement.

The planned campaign against the law promises to accelerate an already ugly partisan battle, analysts say. Until now, the opponents’ message has amounted to unanswered Republican advertising painting the healthcare law as bad for the country.

“You’ll start to see that change, because Democrats won’t be able to overlook it anymore,” said Elizabeth Wilner, who monitors political advertising at Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.


Political analysts say the Republican onslaught could prove short-lived. Beginning on October 1, Obama’s health reform will help millions of uninsured people buy subsidized health insurance for the first time. Should enough people sign up by the time enrollment ends in March, the law’s value as an election issue may run dry.

“The fear is that the law will start to work and people will like it. They’ll like having insurance, a safety net if you lose your job. Then Republicans are stuck with it,” Ornstein said.

One Republican ploy is to target the law’s individual mandate, which requires most Americans to have insurance in 2014, or pay a penalty. It is the only lever the government has to require the participation, but it is also unpopular with voters. Republicans have sought to stoke discontent since the administration delayed a separate requirement that larger employers provide insurance coverage for workers.

“They’ll start to feel impacts that are completely in contrast to what they were told when the bill was passed. That’s what we’re seeing in internal polling from districts that will determine control of the House – Obamacare becoming more unpopular,” said Daniel Scarpinato, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Republicans need a net pickup of six seats to win control of the Senate next year, and their most likely path is to focus on Democratic-held seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, according to the Cook Political Report. All are Republican-led states that went to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 and most have done little or nothing to help implement the healthcare law.

“The Republican strategy is to focus on messages that this is not working in states where the law is still unpopular with voters and where there are really going to be competitive races,” said Robert Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health.

FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative issue group financed by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, known for funding conservative causes, are planning separate media and grassroots campaigns aimed at adults in their 20s and 30s – the very people Obama needs to have sign up for healthcare coverage in new online insurance exchanges if his reforms are to succeed.

“We’re trying to make it socially acceptable to skip the exchange,” said Dean Clancy, vice president for public policy at FreedomWorks, which boasts 6 million supporters. The group is designing a symbolic “Obamacare card” that college students can burn during campus protests.

Americans for Prosperity launched a $1 million TV ad campaign against the healthcare law this summer to test its message in swing states of Virginia and Ohio. The 30-second ad presents a young pregnant mother who asks questions that suggest the law will raise premiums, reduce paychecks, prevent people from picking their own doctors and leave her family’s healthcare to “the folks in Washington.”

The group plans a bigger push on TV and social media to persuade young people, especially men under 30, to see the healthcare law as a high-cost liability directed at them.

“This is a good time to be out there explaining what the law means to people,” said the group’s president, Tim Phillips.

Crossroads GPS, the political group co-founded by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, is designing a fall push aimed at elderly voters angered by Republican allegations that the Medicare program for senior citizens is being used to pay for the healthcare law.

“As people who previously didn’t believe they would be affected by it are finding out that they will be affected by it, there may be some traction to repeal the worst parts of the law and eventually repeal the law entirely,” said Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Fred Barbash and Mohammad Zargham)


July 24, 2013

Senate Approves College Student Loan Plan Tying Rates to Markets


WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday approved a bipartisan plan that would tie interest rates for college student loans to the financial markets, bringing Congress close to finally resolving a dispute that caused rates to double on July 1.

But the 81-18 vote, which drew overwhelming support from Republicans, masked deep divisions among members of the Senate Democratic caucus. Seventeen of them voted “no.”

Many liberals, who are upset that the plan would replace the fixed-rate subsidized federal student loan program, criticized their colleagues for leaving lower- and middle-income students vulnerable to swings in the market.

As the bill was debated, a discordant scene played out as conservative Republicans like Richard M. Burr of North Carolina praised the Democrats they had worked with to strike a deal, and liberal senators like Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Bernard Sanders, independent of Vermont, accused their colleagues of forcing through a bill that betrayed their party’s promises to working-class families.

“What I don’t understand,” Mr. Sanders said, “is when you have a Democratic president, a Democratically controlled U.S. Senate, why we are producing a bill which is basically a Republican bill?”

Noting that the government stood to bring in nearly $200 billion over the next 10 years because of the higher rates, Ms. Warren denounced the bill.

“This is obscene,” she said. “Students should not be used to generate profits for the government.”

House Republicans, who had approved a plan similar to the one the Senate passed, although with slightly higher loan rates, are expected to pass the Senate bill before Congress leaves for its summer recess next week.

Republicans did not even try to contain their delight that a plan they championed had passed over the objections of liberal senators. Speaker John A. Boehner’s office released a chart comparing the House bill with the Senate bill, noting wryly, “The final legislation is a permanent fix, and it protects taxpayers by not adding to the deficit — things that never would have come to pass if Senate Democrats had gotten their way.”

The Democrats defected despite arm-twisting from Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, and deep involvement from the White House, which supported a market-rate compromise.

The White House was pressing for a fix to rates on Stafford loans, which jumped to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent on July 1 after Congress failed to come up with a plan to replace the rate structure that expired last summer. Congress had also failed to reach an agreement then and just extended the rates a year.

In that sense, the trouble over student loans was like so many other disputes on Capitol Hill today: self-inflicted and prolonged.

“Congress has trouble with deadlines. I think we all know that,” said Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who helped broker the deal. “We’re here today trying to fix the problem we have with the government’s student loan programs because we kicked the can down the road last year.”

The Obama administration estimated that the fix would help 11 million borrowers who will take out loans this school year. The new rates would apply retroactively to people who had borrowed since July 1.

Under the new rate structure, loans to undergraduates, graduate students, and their parents under the PLUS program would be subject to a fixed rate tied to the 10-year Treasury note — specifically the yield on the 10-year note as determined by the last auction held before each June.

Rates for loans taken out after July 1 of this year would be 3.9 percent for undergraduates, 5.4 percent for graduate students and 6.4 for those receiving PLUS loans. The rates would be fixed over the life of the loan.

In a compromise that pleased many Democrats who had initially been wary of using a rate that fluctuated with the markets, Congress set a cap on all loans: 8.25 percent for undergraduates, 9.5 for graduate students and 10.5 for PLUS recipients.

Liberal critics said that while interest rates are low now, forecasters predict they will rise considerably.


July 24, 2013

Federal Judge Halts Legal Challenges in Detroit Bankruptcy Case


DETROIT — A federal bankruptcy judge on Wednesday cleared the way for Detroit’s case to go forward without legal challenges.

The decision by Judge Steven Rhodes of the United States Bankruptcy Court freezes all litigation against the city, its emergency manager and Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan during Detroit’s bankruptcy process.

Judge Rhodes said challenges to the city’s Chapter 9 filing, including protests by retired city employees about potential pension cuts, would be addressed in coming hearings. The federal bankruptcy court has “exclusive jurisdiction” over the case, he said.

It was a dramatic beginning to the largest municipal bankruptcy case in American history. As protesters circled the courthouse downtown, the judge heard arguments about whether Mr. Snyder had overstepped his authority in forcing the city into bankruptcy.

He was attempting to resolve a legal muddle that began almost immediately after Detroit filed for bankruptcy last Thursday.

The next day, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina of Ingham County Circuit Court ruled that the filing violated the Michigan Constitution, which protects the pensions of retired public employees. The city, led by the state-appointed emergency financial manager, Kevyn D. Orr, is expected to seek reductions in pensions in bankruptcy as part of its broader efforts to reduce Detroit’s estimated $18 billion in debt.

Judge Aquilina’s ruling was appealed by the state attorney general to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which on Tuesday issued a stay of her order pending an appellate decision.

But on Wednesday, in the first hearing in the case, Judge Rhodes settled the matter by approving a motion by Mr. Orr to freeze all litigation against the city during its bankruptcy. The judge said that concentrating all legal issues in federal court increased the chances that Detroit could reorganize its debts and emerge from bankruptcy in better financial shape.

“My orders enhance the likelihood of Chapter 9 reorganization, speeds the bankruptcy case and cuts costs to taxpayers,” he said.

The judge also extended protection from litigation to Mr. Orr, Governor Snyder and other state officials directly involved in the bankruptcy.

Mr. Orr attended the court arguments, but was not present when the judge made his decision. Afterward, a spokesman for the emergency manager, William Nowling, said he was pleased with the court’s action. “This clears the way so we can proceed in an orderly fashion with bankruptcy proceedings and restructuring Detroit,” Mr. Nowling said.

Lawyers representing retired police officers, firefighters and other city employees declined to say whether they would appeal the ruling by Judge Rhodes.

Union officials gathered outside the courthouse said they expected to raise the pension issues and the constitutional questions at future hearings on whether Detroit has met all legal requirements for a bankruptcy filing.

“We are going to fight this all the way,” said Edward McNeil, an official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “We don’t believe the city should even be in bankruptcy court.”

Both Mr. Snyder and Mr. Orr have said that a bankruptcy filing was the only option to reverse Detroit’s long decline, improve city services and settle its crushing debt load. But city workers, retirees, bondholders and other creditors have accused Mr. Orr of failing to negotiate deals on outstanding debts that could have averted the filing.

Judge Rhodes made it clear on Wednesday that he had not ruled on whether the filing violated the state’s Constitution, or whether pensions should be protected.

“All of the issues in which the court is not ruling are fully preserved,” he said.

Those issues and others will be part of what is likely to be a protracted legal battle over the city’s eligibility to file for bankruptcy. Hearings will begin later this summer, and will include testimony by Mr. Orr on the dismal condition of Detroit’s finances.

Mr. Nowling said the eligibility hearings were the first critical step in Mr. Orr’s road map for the city’s recovery. “One thing that was clear was that Judge Rhodes wanted an efficient and speedy process, and we think that’s essential for turning the city around,” he said.

The bankruptcy filing has riveted the attention of the city and surrounding region, and spurred a small but loud group of protesters to form outside the courthouse on Wednesday.

About two dozen men in red T-shirts representing the Detroit Fire Department chanted “Help us help you” as they marched down Lafayette Boulevard.

Darryl Brown, a firefighter who went on disability last year, criticized Mr. Snyder and other state officials for targeting retiree pensions. “They can’t touch it; it’s protected by the Constitution,” Mr. Brown said. “But they’re still doing everything they can to figure out how to get at it.”

A Detroit police officer, Rodney Fresh, said he feared the bankruptcy would gut what was left of the city’s dwindling middle-class population.

He accused Mr. Snyder of failing to consider the hardship the bankruptcy would cause retirees. “I want him to look at the situation and just be fair,” Mr. Fresh said. “He’s looking at everything from his point of view.”

Mary M. Chapman contributed reporting.


July 24, 2013

Mental Health Cuts in Utah Leave Patients Adrift


SALT LAKE CITY — H. Rachelle Graham, who has spent the last 15 years in hospitals and in therapy battling depression’s chokehold, was finishing up an exercise session at Utah’s largest mental health provider when she got the news that she would no longer be treated there.

Citing budget cuts, the nonprofit agency, Valley Mental Health, was removing Ms. Graham and some 2,200 other people from its roster and transferring them to other providers, a change that mental health advocates said was striking in its size and sweep, even in these austere times.

“It was devastating,” Ms. Graham said.

Officials with Valley Mental Health emphasized that no one would be left without mental health coverage. All of the 2,200 patients will be able to receive similar services from a network of clinics, counselors and treatment centers across Salt Lake County, the most populous in Utah.

Still, the changes have shaken providers and recipients of mental health care in Utah while testing the resilience of its safety net as hundreds of Medicaid patients try to find new psychiatrists and counselors and wonder who will fill their next prescription. Some patients said they felt whipsawed by the shift, and were reluctant to part with counselors or support groups they had known for a decade or more.

“There’s a level of anxiety hanging over everyone,” said Rebecca Glathar, executive director of the Utah office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The tremors at Valley Mental Health come as politicians at the Republican-led Statehouse confront broader questions about what level of care Utah should provide to its poor residents. Utah still has not decided whether to accept the Medicaid expansion offered under President Obama’s health care law, and officials here are steeped in a debate pitting this conservative state’s reflexive distaste for bigger government against calls to extend care to more needy Utahans.

Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican, has asked a group of politicians and health care officials to look at the state’s Medicaid options, including an idea to steer people eligible for the Medicaid expansion into private health insurance.

Advocates said Utah had long struggled to meet the needs of its people with mental illness, especially poorer residents and people living in rural corners of the state. A 2012 report by the state’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health found that only 31 percent of those in need were receiving mental health care. In part, it blamed lingering stigmas against mental illness, a view echoed by people in treatment.

“Utah still has this old-fashioned view of mental illness,” Ms. Graham said. “Like, you just need to pray, or snap out of it.”

Ms. Graham, 35, said she started cycling in and out of hospitals when she was 20. She was raised Mormon, but said she struggled as a teenager to reconcile the church’s views on homosexuality with the realization that she is bisexual. She said she had tried to kill herself with a drug overdose, and had struggled to fight off crippling depression and anxiety while juggling the demands of holding down a job and keeping an apartment.

She found an outlet in writing — she has published one young-adult novel through a small publisher of lesbian fiction — and found solace in group therapy and group discussions at Valley Mental Health with other people trying to cope with mental illness.

Valley Mental Health, which had about 10,000 clients before the recent reductions, is by far the largest and most expansive mental health agency in the state. It treats autistic children, recently released prisoners, people who have just attempted suicide and those who need little more than prescription refills to help manage their depression or anxiety.

The organization has also faced years of money problems. In 2009, it announced plans to lay off more than 100 employees and slash several programs to cope with drastic budget shortfalls. Over the past two years, Valley Mental Health said, its $28 million budget fell by more than $5 million, as the county received less in Medicaid payments and a for-profit company took over managing mental health services in Salt Lake County.

County officials hired that company, OptumHealth, a subsidiary of the UnitedHealth Group, to bring more efficiency and wider services to public health care. But Valley Mental Health seemed to struggle under the new layer of private management.

“We were the safety net,” said Gary Larcenaire, Valley Mental Health’s chief executive. “We went from ‘We want to take care of you’ to ‘Can we have your insurance card?’ ”

As the money dwindled, Mr. Larcenaire said, Valley Mental Health made a decision: it would stop serving some 2,200 people and shift its focus to patients with more severe problems who needed more intensive care. It started sending letters to clients, telling them, “For those who are doing well, we will stop providing services.” The letter gave a phone number for patients to call to find new services.

Therapists and county officials said the decision had caught them off guard and had created waves of alarm and uncertainty. Ben McAdams, the mayor of Salt Lake County, called the decision an outrage and has asked for an audit of mental health services in the county.

Officials from Salt Lake County, OptumHealth and Valley Mental Health said they were trying to make the change as easy as possible. But for people like Christina Osburn, 33, it was a gaping disruption. She said she had been seeing the same psychiatrist for a decade and had been unable so far to find a new doctor.

“I’m completely at a loss,” she said. “They leave you with nowhere to go.”


July 24, 2013

Obama Focuses on Economy, Vowing to Help Middle Class


WARRENSBURG, Mo. — President Obama tried to move past months of debate over guns, surveillance and scandal on Wednesday and reorient his administration behind a program to lift a middling economy and help middle-class Americans who are stuck with stagnant incomes and shrinking horizons.

In speeches in two small college towns in the Midwest, Mr. Obama lamented that typical Americans had been left behind by globalization, Wall Street irresponsibility and Washington policies, while the richest Americans had accumulated more wealth. He declared it “my highest priority” to reverse those trends, while accusing other politicians of not only ignoring the problem but also making it worse.

“With this endless parade of distractions and political posturing and phony scandals, Washington’s taken its eye off the ball,” Mr. Obama told an audience at Knox College, in Galesburg, Ill., the site of his first major economic speech as a young senator eight years ago. “And I am here to say this needs to stop. This needs to stop. This moment does not require short-term thinking. It does not require having the same old stale debates. Our focus has to be on the basic economic issues that matter most to you — the people we represent.”

The hourlong speech in Galesburg, his first speech of the day and one of the longest of his presidency, at times resembled a State of the Union address. The president mainly offered revived elements of his largely stalled economic program, like developing new energy, rebuilding manufacturing, spending more on roads, bridges and ports, expanding preschool to every 4-year-old in the country and raising the minimum wage.

But he and his aides hoped to use the speech both to claim credit for the progress made since the recession of 2008-9 and to position himself as the champion of a disaffected middle class that has yet to recover fully.

He chastised Republicans in Congress for not focusing on economic priorities and obstructing his initiatives. “Over the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse,” he said.

And he challenged them to come up with their own plans. “I’m laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot,” he said, addressing himself to Republican leaders. “So now it’s time for you to lay out your ideas.”

In Warrensburg, Mr. Obama repeated his economic themes in a packed gymnasium at the University of Central Missouri. To bursts of applause, he called Americans “gritty and resilient” and added that in the last five years “we’ve been able to clear away the rubble of the financial crisis.”

He focused on the need for investments in education to help generate more growth in jobs in the future. “If we don’t invest in American education, we are going to put our kids, our companies, our workers at a competitive disadvantage,” Mr. Obama said, standing in front of a sea of young children in matching red or white T-shirts.

The president also said the government must do more to make college affordable and pledged that his administration would work toward connecting 99 percent of American schools to high-speed Internet in the next five years.

Republican leaders were not impressed by Mr. Obama’s renewed push on the economy. Speaker John A. Boehner said beforehand that a speech would not make a difference.

“What’s it going to accomplish?” Mr. Boehner asked on the House floor. “You’ve probably got the answer: nothing. It’s a hollow shell. It’s an Easter egg with no candy in it.”

Republicans said they had in fact advanced ideas for improving the economy, particularly in education, energy, tax changes and regulation. They noted that a House panel was taking up bills intended to relieve businesses of what Republicans consider burdensome regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Mr. President, just get the federal government out of the way,” said Representative Kevin Brady, Republican of Texas, the chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. “Instead of putting handcuffs on job creators, try shaking their hand for a change.”

Senior advisers to the president said he frequently referred to his first speech at Knox College in 2005, long before the economic crisis that seized the country three years later. They said Mr. Obama was eager to discuss how much had changed in the nation’s economy since that speech.

“Now, today, five years after the start of that Great Recession, America has fought its way back,” Mr. Obama said, citing the recovery of the auto industry, growth in energy sectors, higher taxes on the wealthy, new regulation on banks and 7.2 million more private sector jobs.”

But he said too many Americans had been left behind. He said nearly all of the income gains of the past 10 years had gone to the richest 1 percent of Americans, and said the average chief executive had seen raises totaling 40 percent since 2009, while the average American earned less than in 1999.

“This growing inequality, it’s not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics,” he said. “Because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what? Businesses have fewer consumers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America, that idea that if you work hard, you can make it here.”

He called on Republicans to pick up his economic proposals and to pass legislation overhauling the immigration system. He also scolded Republicans for trying to undercut his health care program and argued that it would expand coverage and trim costs.

But he also challenged members of his own party to stop defending outdated government programs and resisting change.

“I will be saying to Democrats, we’ve got to question some of our old assumptions,” he said. “We’ve got to be willing to redesign or get rid of programs that don’t work as well as they should.”

Michael D. Shear reported from Warrensburg, and Peter Baker from Washington.


North Carolina Senate Passes the Most Draconian Voter Suppression Bill Ever

By: Adalia Woodbury
Jul. 23rd, 2013

Now that the Supreme Court got that pesky preclearance provision in the Voting Rights Act out of the way, Republican voter suppressors everywhere are doing  their damage.  Today, North Carolina’s Senate passed the most extreme vote suppression bill ever after a very generous 2-hour debate.

This bill makes registering hard and voting harder – with the added bonus of longer voting lines.  To add insult to the pretense that this is about preserving election integrity, they are making it easier for thugs like True the Vote and the Voter Integrity Project to intimidate voters and for outside groups to help Art Pope buy the government.

In terms of suppressing the vote, you name it this bill has it.

The bill eliminates pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds.  It eliminates paid voter registration as well as voter awareness month.  Say goodbye to same day registration.  The bill reduces early voting, prevents counties from allowing votes on the Saturday before an election or extending voting hours by one hour on Election Days in special circumstances (like long lines that will be an inevitable result of reduced early voting)

The bill also got rid of voter owned judicial elections (making it easier for Art Pope to buy the Judiciary) and straight party voting is gone, because we all know what a threat that was to integrity in the election process.

Voter registration polls will be purged more often.

The bill contains a provision that requires the state to provide acceptable ID free of charge.  As we know when other Republicans tried this trick under the pretense that they weren’t trying to keep icky poor people from voting for free stuff they also knew that the money it costs to get the ID needed to get the free ID would be cost prohibitive.  Unlike the comparatively mild House version, the allowed voter ID excludes student ID’s.  Voters will have to have a passport, a driver’s license, a non-drivers license ID, a Veteran’s ID or a Military ID.  That’s all, folks!

To add insult to what remains of the election process in North Carolina, the Senate bill proposes making it much easier for outside groups, like Art Pope’s best buds, the Koch Brothers, to buy the elections.  They did this by raising the maximum campaign contribution to $5,000 with an increase of the limit every two years and reducing transparency requirements.

Would you like to take a wild guess who will be hit the hardest by this law?

Poor people, because getting the id needed to get the few pieces of state issued ID that would be acceptable under this bill still amounts to a prohibitive poll tax.

Young people, since they can’t pre-register. Also, their student ID’s no longer count as valid ID.

Black voters who are more likely to vote early.  But that’s just a coincidence, right?  According to the Supreme Court, those icky times when the south prevented Black people from voting are over.

For several reasons, older voters will get hit hard.  Some older voters don’t have a birth certificate which is needed to get the few pieces of government issued ID allowed under this bill.  Since the bill reduces early voter days and hours, it means they will have to wait in line much longer than before.  Even then, since the bill also prevents poll stations from extending their hours on Election Day to accommodate people who have been waiting in a long line, there is no assurance that voters regardless of age will actually get to vote at all.

Since 56% of North Carolinians,  used early voting in 2012, this bill will have a negative impact on the majority of North Carolina’s voters.

Even if voters survive the restricted registration process, manage to afford and obtain the few accepted forms of voter ID, and endure the inevitably longer wait in line, thugs from True the Vote, the Voter Integrity Project and others will be there to intimidate them.  In the name of assuring more voter intimidation, Pope’s Puppets will increase the number of “poll observers”.  You may recall the Romney army of “poll observers”  purposely misled voters in Wisconsin.

Obviously, Pope and company are determined to dethrone Rick Scott as the most draconian voter suppressor in chief ever.

Update: To clarify, the bill was passed in Committee on Tuesday. In response, Voting rights advocates announced their intentions to fight this bill, “in and outside  of the courts”  should it become law.


Voters think Republican climate dissenters are ‘ignorant, out of touch or crazy,’ bipartisan poll finds

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Thursday, July 25, 2013 7:45 EDT

Results show risks that deniers in Congress pose to GOP as majority of younger constituents back Obama’s carbon plans

Republicans in Congress who reject the science behind climate change could soon be reduced to political fossils, with new polling on Wednesday suggesting three-quarters of young voters find such views “ignorant, out of touch or crazy”.

The bipartisan poll conducted for the League of Conservation Voters found solid 80% support among under-35 voters for Barack Obama’s climate change plan – and majority support even among those who oppose the president.

On the flip side the poll found three-quarters of voters, or 73%, would oppose members of Congress who stood in the way of Obama’s climate action plan.

The findings could prove awkward for Republicans in Congress who have adopted climate contrarianism as a defining feature.

Some 55% of Republicans in the House of Representatives and 65% of those in the Senate reject the science behind climate change or oppose action on climate change, according to an analysis by the Centre for American Progress.

The house speaker, John Boehner, dismissed Obama’s plan to reduce carbon emissions as “absolutely crazy”. If the poll is right that would hurt Boehner even among members of his own party, with the poll finding 52% of young Republicans less inclined to support a candidate who opposed Obama on climate change.

The implications were even more harsh for those Republicans who block Obama on climate action and dispute the entire body of science behind climate change. “For voters under 35, denying climate change signals a much broader failure of values and leadership,” the polling memo said. Many young voters would write such candidates off completely, with 37% describing climate change deniers as “ignorant”, 29% as “out of touch” and 7% simply as “crazy”.

The climate cranks were unlikely to pick up many points with their base either; just under half of young Republicans said they would be less likely to vote for a climate change denier.

The poll, a joint effort by the Democratic firm Benenson Strategy Group and the Republican firm GS Strategy Group, could provide further evidence to a small group of moderate Republicans – mainly retired from politics – who have been trying to nudge the party to engage with the issue of climate change.

“As a Republican party strategist I believe that Republican candidates, Republican elected officials, need to find ways to demonstrate tolerance and understanding of what a young generation of voters need to see occurring,” said Greg Strimple of GS Strategy.

A few former Republican members of Congress – and an anonymous congressional aide – have publicly warned the party will lose voters, especially among the young, if it is seen as anti-science.

Obama, who has grown more high-profile about climate change in his second term, has played into those perceptions, calling out Republican climate cranks as “flat-earthers” in his climate speech last month.

At the moment there is no sign elected Republicans are eager for a climate makeover. At a Senate environment and public works hearing this week on climate change Republican Senators freely aired their personal doubts on established climate science and attacked Obama for failing to show “tolerance” to their alternative views.

In the house, meanwhile, Republicans were preparing bills to drastically reduce the powers and cut the budget by one-third of the Environmental Protection Agency – the main executor of Obama’s climate plan.

Outside Washington, however, Strimple said a rethink was under way. “I think there is a broad soul-searching going on with Republicans,” he said. © Guardian News and Media 2013


Gohmert likens minorities to prairie chickens and ‘various lizards’

By David Edwards
Thursday, July 25, 2013 9:15 EDT

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) on Wednesday mocked an effort by Democrats to protect the rights of African-Americans by saying their amendment was actually meant for “the snail darter, various lizards, the lesser prairie chicken, the greater sage grouse and so many other insects.”

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Sunshine for the Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act, a Republican-sponsored bill that Democrats say is unnecessary and is written so broadly that it could block individual discrimination lawsuits brought forth by federal employees.

Think Progress obtained video of Gohmert objecting to an amendment offered by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) that would have stopped third parties from blocking regulatory actions that were intended to prevent discrimination based on sex, race or national origin.

The Texas Republican argued that the amendment was more about protecting wildlife than minorities and other groups.

“There is nobody in this chamber who is more appreciative than I am for the gentleman from Tennessee and my friend from Michigan standing up for the rights of race, religion, national religion of the Delta Smelt, the snail darter, various lizards, the lesser prairie chicken, the greater sage grouse and so many other insects who would want someone standing for their religion, their race, their national origin and I think that’s wonderful,” Gohmert quipped.

He added that the original Republican bill would actually “protect interests” of minorities because it provided for greater transparency.

“It will not allow for some conservative or radical right-wing administration or group in the fish and wildlife to cut a deal with some right-wing radical group and we never know about it so nobody can intervene and stop it,” Gohmert insisted. “So you don’t have some group that is directly aligned with somebody in the administration at that point coming together, cutting a sweetheart deal between themselves, to the determent of the race, religion and national religion of snail darters and other animals and fish and wildlife.”

“I’ve got to express umbrage at the idea that African-Americans and Jews are like snail darters,” Cohen replied.

“The gentlemen will take note what this bill is about!” Gohmert shouted. “It’s not about race, it’s about endangered species.”

“The amendment is about civil rights!” Cohen shot back.

“If the gentlemen can point to an endangered species in this country that is a human being, I am with him 100 percent!” Gohmert exclaimed

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) told Think Progress that Gohmert’s claim that the amendment was about wildlife was ridiculous.

“This is not a snail darter’s amendment, it is not an environmental amendment, it is a civil rights amendment, and we’re talking about the civil rights of people — the civil rights of people that have been violated egregiously for generations in this country,” Nadler explained.

In the end, Cohen’s amendment was defeated along party lines in a 13 to 16 vote. The Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act passed the committee along party lines, but it has little chance of advancing in the Senate.

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07/26/2013 12:33 PM

Three Different Prisms?: Parliament Seeks Clarity in NSA Scandal

By Veit Medick and Philipp Wittrock

A Thursday meeting in German parliament was supposed to shed light on NSA surveillance activities in Germany. It only added to the mystery. A US response to a Berlin inquiry claims that there are actually three unrelated Prism programs.

The meeting lasted for three hours, partially the result of the complex nature of the material being addressed. The oppressive heat hanging over Berlin this week didn't help.

"Mr. Prism is an important witness," Hans-Christian Ströbele said into the microphone, adding that he would love to ask "Mr. Prism" a few questions. Ströbele is the senior Green Party representative on the Parliamentary Control Panel, the body in the Bundestag assigned to keep tabs on the activities of Germany's intelligence agencies. And the hot weather would seem to be taking its toll. He was referring to Edward Snowden, the former US intelligence officer who revealed the full extent of American data surveillance operations to the world in June and who is still stuck in the transit area of Moscow's international airport.

When he was made aware of his slip-up, Ströbele grabbed his head. But he is far from the only one who is having a hard time keeping things straight these days. It seems that hardly a week goes by without the name of yet another top-secret computer program hitting the headlines -- combined with accusations, assertions and denials. The spying scandal focused on the activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) has continued even as Berlin politics slows down for the summer break.

On Thursday, for the fifth time since the first revelations from Snowden were published in the beginning of June, the Parliamentary Control Panel met, and there were hopes that it might finally shed some light onto the true nature of Germany's cooperation with the NSA. Snowden, of course, wasn't present. Instead, Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla -- who is the senior Chancellery official tasked with monitoring Germany's intelligence activities -- was there.

An Analytical Tool

So too were the heads of Germany's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, there to provide more information about the programs they use. According to those present at the closed-door meeting, the officials presented several different types of software that are already in use or are planned, spending extensive time discussing the program XKeyscore, the comprehensive surveillance software written about by SPIEGEL this week.

Gerhard Schindler, head of Germany's Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), said that his foreign intelligence agency had used the program since 2007. But it was not, he said, according to meeting participants, used to collect data. Rather, he insisted, it was an analytical tool. He also stated that his agency's use of XKeyscore in no way represented a violation of German law. Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, said that his agency had been using a test version of XKeyscore since 2012.

The acknowledgement marks a significant step forward in the German debate over US surveillance techniques. Even as the German populace has been extremely unnerved by revelations that the NSA monitors some 500 million data communications each month, Merkel's government has done little to answer questions regarding the extent to which Berlin cooperates with Washington on surveillance activities. This week's article in SPIEGEL also cited an NSA document indicating that the German was "modifying its interpretation of (privacy laws) to afford the BND more flexibility in sharing protected information with foreign partners."

Schindler on Thursday appeared to be taking such accusations seriously. He issued an official statement in which he denied trying to weaken German data protection laws. He did, however, confirm that his agency feels that some paragraphs of the "G-10" law relating to passing on data should be softened. That, Schindler said, is something that he also told his US counterparts.

'Focused, Targeted and Legal'

In addition to testimony from Schindler and Maassen, officials also read a written statement from the NSA in response to a query from the German government. According to the statement, there are three separate Prism programs, all of them unconnected to each other. Meeting participants say the NSA response said that one of the Prism programs was only used internally. That program had thus far remained secret. Another of the programs was used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan. Yet another NSA tool -- vaguely described in the statement and allegedly "totally unrelated to the first" -- carries the name PRISM and "tracks and queries requests pertaining to our Information Assurance Directorate."

The NSA response, meeting participants said, focused primarily on the Prism program that whistleblower Edward Snowden made public -- a tool that allows the NSA to engage in the vast surveillance of electronic communication connections. In the response, the US intelligence agency vehemently denied that the program is used to indiscriminately collect huge quantities of data in Germany. The collection of data, the response said, is subject to court authorization and is primarily used to combat terrorism. Its use is "focused, targeted, judicious and far from sweeping" the one-page response says.

The document sounds reassuring, but so too have many denials issued in recent days. In fact, the NSA response says little about how the monitoring of 500 million data connections each month can be considered focused or targeted. Furthermore, the court the statement refers to, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), is secret and, according to US media reports, confirms virtually every surveillance request made by US intelligence.

Pofalla too tried to do his part to counter the recent criticism that he, Merkel and the rest of the government had done too little to clear up the accusations of vast US surveillance. And he seemed well prepared. He issued a statement that German intelligence activities, including cooperation with foreign agencies, are vital for the protection of German citizens. As an example, he mentioned the transfer of data in connection with kidnapping cases abroad.

Interrogating "Mr. Prism"?

Still, he was unable to conceal the fact that the central questions have not yet been answered. What exactly is the nature of NSA activity on German soil? And is the German government as oblivious as it has claimed -- and if so, why? Pofalla declined to answer questions from journalists following the Parliamentary Control Panel meeting.

Mostly, though, it was evident on Thursday that the issue is becoming a central one in the German election campaign ahead of the vote this September. Representatives of Merkel's coalition government noted that close intelligence cooperation with the US began following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US -- at a time when the center-left Social Democrats and the Greens were running the country. The Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partner, even said they would like to bring senior SPD member Frank-Walter Steinmeier in front of the Parliamentary Control Panel for questioning. Steinmeier was Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's chief of staff in 2001. The SPD and the Greens, for their part, once again accused Merkel's government of refusing to answer decisive questions about the Prism scandal.

She will have another chance. Pofalla is to appear before the panel once again in August. It remains unlikely, however, that Ströbele will be able to interrogate "Mr. Prism."


07/25/2013 09:32 PM

NSA Spy Scandal: Merkel Aide Says 'Data Protection Being Upheld'

Chancellor Merkel's chief of staff testified before a parliamentary committee on Thursday to explain Berlin's role in alleged NSA spying in Germany. He denied any illegal activity, but opposition politicians were not happy with his answers.

Berlin did nothing to violate German law when it comes to alleged involvement in the activities of the United States National Security Agency, Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff said on Thursday.

Facing a closed-door special parliamentary committee, Ronald Pofalla, who supervises the country's intelligence agencies, strongly denied that they had illegally supported the US in surveillance activities recently brought to light by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"Data protection is being 100 percent upheld by the German intelligence agencies," he told the media afterwards. "There is not a single indication that points to data protection not being adequately observed."

He also said that German citizens' data had not been transferred to the US, but admitted he could not yet provide a comprehensive report on the activities of US intelligence activities in Germany. Such a report remains contingent on getting further information from Washington, he said.

Opposition politicians, who have questioned whether Berlin was really in the dark about the NSA's spying as it has claimed, said they were not satisfied with his answers and that many questions remained.

Center-left Social Democrat and committee chairman Thomas Oppermann demanded further explanation. "The most important question is: How it can be that millions of German citizens and companies had their entire communication activity monitored by a foreign intelligence service, and the federal government claims that it only found out about it from the newspaper," he said, adding that it remained an "intolerable state of affairs."

As more details emerge about the scope of the NSA's worldwide spying program and Germany's alleged role in the surveillance, the scandal is becoming a central issue in the country's campaign for the upcoming general election in September. Germans are particularly sensitive about data protection because of their history of state encroachment on civil liberties, first under the Nazis and then in communist East Germany. And if it turns out that Berlin knowingly tolerated and participated in the NSA activities, many would see it as a betrayal by the government.

While Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) continues to lead polls ahead of the vote, the opposition has been increasing pressure on the Chancellor to explain her position and take a tougher stance against Washington.


Edward Snowden and the NSA files – timeline

What has happened to NSA whistleblower who leaked files to Guardian since he decided to reveal his identity to the world and began his asylum battle

Mirren Gidda   
The Guardian, Friday 26 July 2013   

20 May Edward Snowden, an employee of defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the National Security Agency, arrives in Hong Kong from Hawaii. He carries four laptop computers that enable him to gain access to some of the US government's most highly-classified secrets.

1 June Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and documentary maker Laura Poitras fly from New York to Hong Kong. They meet Snowden in a Kowloon hotel after he identifies himself with a Rubik's cube and begin a week of interviews with their source.

5 June The Guardian publishes its first exclusive based on Snowden's leak, revealing a secret court order showing that the US government had forced the telecoms giant Verizon to hand over the phone records of millions of Americans.

6 June A second story reveals the existence of the previously undisclosed programme Prism, which internal NSA documents claim gives the agency "direct access" to data held by Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants. The tech companies deny that they have set up "back door access" to their systems for the US government.

7 June Barack Obama defends the two programmes, saying they are overseen by the courts and Congress. Insisting that "the right balance" had been struck between security and privacy, he says: "You can't have 100% security, and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience."

The Guardian reports that GCHQ has been able to see user communications data from the American internet companies, because it had access to Prism.

8 June Another of Snowden's leaks reveals the existence of an internal NSA tool – Boundless Informant – that allows it to record and analyse where its data comes from, and raises questions about its repeated assurances to Congress that it cannot keep track of all the surveillance it performs on American communications.

9 June Snowden decides to go public. In a video interview he says: "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong."

10 June Snowden checks out of his Hong Kong hotel.

12 June Hong Kong's South China Morning Post publishes the first interview with Snowden since he revealed his identity. He says he intends to stay in the city until asked to leave and discloses that the NSA has been hacking into Hong Kong and Chinese computers since 2009.

14 June The Home Office instructs airlines not to allow Snowden to board any flights to the UK.

16 June The Guardian reports that GCHQ intercepted foreign politicians' communications at the 2009 G20 summit.

20 June Top secret documents published by the Guardian show how US judges have signed off on broad orders allowing the NSA to make use of information "inadvertently" collected from domestic US communications without a warrant.

21 June A Guardian exclusive reveals that GCHQ has gained access to the network of cables which carry the world's phone calls and internet traffic and is processing vast streams of sensitive personal information it shares with the NSA. The US files espionage charges against Snowden and requests that Hong Kong detain him for extradition.

23 June Snowden leaves Hong Kong on a flight to Moscow. In a statement, the Hong Kong government says documents submitted by the US did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law" and it had no legal basis to prevent him leaving. Snowden arrives in Moscow. In a statement, WikiLeaks said it was assisting him, in part by providing adviser Sarah Harrison as an escort, and said he was heading to a democratic country, believed to be Ecuador, "via a safe route".

24 June Journalists board a flight from Moscow to Havana amid reports Snowden is about to board – but he doesn't.

    Standing next to Edward Snowden's seat on flight to Cuba. He ain't here.

    — max seddon (@maxseddon) June 24, 2013

25 June Barack Obama vows to extradite Snowden while John Kerry, US Secretary of State, urges Russia to hand him over.

25 June Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claims Snowden never crossed the border into Russia. But Putin later says Snowden is at Sheremetyevo airport and is free to leave Russia.

26 June Putin says Snowden will not be extradited to America. He denies that his security services had contacted Snowden.

26 June Ecuador warns that it may take months to decide whether to offer Snowden asylum, pointing out that it took two months to decide whether to do so in the case of Julian Assange.

26 June Hong Kong claims, amid growing Sino-American tensions, that the US got Snowden's middle name wrong in documents submitted for his arrest.

27 June Obama declares he will not spend much geopolitical capital on apprehending Snowden. He also claims that he hasn't spoken to Russia nor China about extradition.

27 June Ecuador maintains its defiant stance, renouncing the Andean Trade Preference Act it has with America. The country also offered the US $23m (£15m) for human rights training.

28 June President Rafael Correa of Ecuador revokes Snowden's safe conduct pass amid irritation that Assange was taking over the role of the Ecuadorean government.

29 June Correa reveals that US vice-president Joe Biden asked him to turn down Snowden's asylum request.

1 July A consular official in Russia reveals that Snowden has applied for asylum there. WikiLeaks later reveal that he has applied for asylum in a further 20 countries, amongst them France, Germany, Ireland, China and Cuba.

1 July Snowden releases a statement through the WikiLeaks website in which he claims that he left Hong Kong because "my freedom and safety were under threat". He says it is hypocritical of Obama to promise no "wheeling and dealing" but then instruct Biden to encourage other nations to deny him asylum.

2 July Snowden retracts his request for Russian asylum after Putin says he must stop "bringing harm" to US interests. Meanwhile Brazil, India, Norway and Poland refuse Snowden asylum, while Ecuador, Austria, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain and Switzerland say he has to apply from their countries.

2 July Lon Snowden, Edward Snowden's father, and his father's attorney, Bruce Fein, pen an open letter to Edward Snowden praising him, comparing him to Paul Revere and noting the US supreme court decision that "statelessness is not to be imposed as a punishment for crime".

2 July Bolivia throws its hat into the ring with president Evo Morales declaring on Russian television that he would "shield the denounced".
Bolivian president, Evo Morales, at Vienna airport Evo Morales at Vienna's airport after his plane, flying from Moscow, was inspected by Austrian officials. Photograph: Helmut Fohringer/AFP/Getty Images

3 July Morales's plane, en route from Moscow to Bolivia, is forced to land in Vienna after other European countries refused it airspace, suspecting that Snowden was on board. Bolivian vice-president Alvaro Garcia says Morales was "kidnapped by imperialism".

3 July Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay and Bolivia denounce the treatment of Morales, who was held in Vienna airport for 12 hours while his plane was searched for Snowden. Bolivia files a complaint at the UN.

3 July UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon says that Snowden misused his rights to digital access and created problems greater than the public benefit of disclosure.

4 July Morales calls the rerouting of his flight an "open provocation" of "north American imperialism" and urges some European countries to "free themselves" from America.

4 July Ecuador distances itself from Snowden saying that he is under Russia's authority and would have to reach Ecuador before being granted asylum. Correa said the Ecuadorean consul acted without authority when it issued Snowden a temporary travel pass.

5 July The Washington Post, despite having published stories based on Snowden's leaks, now writes that he should be prevented "from leaking information that harms efforts to fight terrorism and conduct legitimate intelligence operations".

6 July Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela, says he has decided "to offer humanitarian asylum" to Snowden. Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega says he could accept Snowden's asylum request "if circumstances permit".

7 July Alexei Pushkov, chair of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, tweets that Venezuela's asylum offer may be Snowden's "last chance" to avoid extradition to the US.

8 July The Guardian releases the second part of its original video interview with Snowden. In this extract Snowden says he believes the US government "are going to say I have committed grave crimes, I have violated the Espionage Act. They are going to say I have aided our enemies".

10 July Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who has written many of the stories based on Snowden's information, says that Snowden maintains he didn't give classified information to China or Russia, following erroneous claims from the New York Times on 24 June that China had been "draining the contents of his laptop".
Edward Snowden Edward Snowden attends a meeting at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on 12 July. Photograph: Tanya Lokshina/AP

12 July Snowden sends a letter to human rights groups asking them to meet him at Sheremetyevo airport and claiming there is "an unlawful campaign by officials in the US government to deny my right to seek and enjoy... asylum". At the meeting he says he will be applying for temporary asylum in Russia while he applies for permanent asylum in a Latin American country.

24 July Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer advising Snowden, states that the NSA leaker's asylum status has not been resolved and he will stay at Moscow airport for now. Kucherena claims that Snowden "intends to stay in Russia, study Russian culture", implying perhaps that Snowden may live in Russia for good.


House leaders defend voting against bill to rein in NSA spying

By Reuters
Thursday, July 25, 2013 18:49 EDT

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican and Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives on Thursday defended their support for a spy program that sweeps up vast amounts of electronic communications after it survived a surprisingly close vote a day earlier.

The House voted 217-205 on Wednesday to defeat an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have limited the National Security Agency’s ability to collect electronic information, including phone call records.

The strong support for the amendment – bolstered by an unlikely alliance of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans – surprised many congressional observers because House leaders and members of the Intelligence Committee had strongly opposed it.

The vote reflected deep concern among members from both parties about the extensive data gathering exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which worries many Americans and could become an issue as members prepare for next year’s election.

Republican Representative Justin Amash and Democratic Representative John Conyers co-sponsored the measure.

The White House and senior intelligence officials opposed the amendment, which had been prompted by Snowden’s revelations. Snowden, a fugitive from the United States, has been holed up at a Moscow airport for the past month, unable to secure asylum.

Although Speaker John Boehner said he was glad the House had the debate, he was unapologetic about his vote, echoing the contention of the Obama administration and intelligence chiefs that the NSA program was essential for national security.

“I voted last night because these NSA programs have helped keep Americans safe. There are, in my view, ample safeguards to protect the privacy of the American people,” he told a news conference on Thursday.

“I’m proud of my colleagues who stood up for what I think they believe was a program that really is working to help protect the American people,” Boehner said.

More Democrats than Republicans voted for the amendment. The House vote split the parties, with 111 Democrats in favor and 83 opposed, while 94 Republicans were in favor and 134 against.

Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, who voted against the amendment, said Democrats voted on both sides of the resolution, but “stand together” in their concerns about the program.

“I don’t want anybody to misunderstand a vote against the Amash resolution yesterday,” she told her weekly news conference.

On Thursday, Pelosi sought signatures among her colleagues for a letter to President Barack Obama listing “lingering questions and concerns” about the data collection program and seeking more information, including whether the bulk metadata telecommunications collection sufficiently protects Americans’ privacy.


NSA surveillance critics to testify before Congress

Democrat congressman Alan Grayson says hearing will help to stop 'constant misleading information' from intelligence chiefs

Paul Lewis in Washington, Friday 26 July 2013 12.00 BST   

Congress will hear testimony from critics of the National Security Agency's surveillance practices for the first time since the whistleblower Edward Snowden's explosive leaks were made public.

Democrat congressman Alan Grayson, who is leading a bipartisan group of congressman organising the hearing, told the Guardian it would serve to counter the "constant misleading information" from the intelligence community.

The hearing, which will take place on Wednesday, comes amid evidence of a growing congressional rebellion NSA data collection methods.

On Wednesday, a vote in the House of Representatives that would have tried to curb the NSA's practice of mass collection of phone records of millions of Americans was narrowly defeated.

However, it exposed broader-than-expected concern among members of Congress over US surveillance tactics. A majority of Democrat members voted in support of the amendment.

Grayson, who was instrumental in fostering support among Democrats for the the amendment, said Wednesday's hearing would mark the first time critics of NSA surveillance methods have testified before Congress since Snowden's leaks were published by the Guardian and Washington Post.

"I have been concerned about the fact that we have heard incessantly in recent weeks from General Keith Alexander [director of the NSA] and Mr James Clapper [director of National Intelligence] about their side of the story," he said. "We have barely heard anything in Congress from critics of the program.

"We have put together an ad hoc, bipartisan hearing on domestic surveillance in on the Capitol. We plan to have critics of the program come in and give their view – from the left and the right."

Grayson said the hearing had bipartisan support, and was backed by the Republican congressman Justin Amash, whose draft the amendment that was narrowly defeated.

"Mr Amash has declared an interest in the hearing. There are several others who have a libertarian bent – largely the same people who represented the minority of Republicans who decided to vote in favour of the Amash amendment."

The hearing will take place at the same time as a Senate hearing into the NSA's activities. That will feature Gen Alexander and possibly his deputy, Chris Inglis, as well as senior officials from the Department of Justice and FBI.

The simultaneous timing of the hearings will lead to a notable juxtaposition between opponents and defenders of the government's surveillance activities.

"Both Congress and the American people deserve to hear both sides of the story," Grayson said. "There has been constant misleading information – and worse than that, the occasional outright lie – from the so-called intelligence community in their extreme, almost hysterical efforts, to defend these programmes."

Although not a formal committee hearing, Grayson's event will take place on Capitol Hill, and composed of a panel of around a dozen members of Congress from both parties.

Grayson said those testifying would include the American Civil Liberties Union as well as representatives from the right-leaning Cato Institute.

"They are both going to come in and make it clear that this programme is not authorised by existing law - and if it were authorised by existing law, that law would be unconstitutional," Grayson said.

The congressman added that Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who first revealed details of the surveillance programmes leaked by Snowden, had also been invited to testify via video-link from his base in Rio.

"Even today, most people in America are unaware of the fact the government is receiving a record of every call that they make, even to the local pizzeria," added said.

"I think that most people simply don't understand that, despite the news coverage, which my view has been extremely unfocused. There has been far too much discussion of the leaker, and not enough discussion of the leak."

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