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« Reply #8625 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:20 AM »

Japan considers stationing workers on disputed islands

China says it will not tolerate 'any provocative acts of escalation' in dispute over uninhabited islands in East China Sea

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing, Tuesday 10 September 2013 12.45 BST   

China and Japan have exchanged fiery diplomatic rhetoric about a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea, with a Japanese government spokesperson suggesting the country may station workers on the islands, after an unidentified drone nearly entered Japanese airspace.

A territorial dispute over the uninhabited islands, called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkakus by Japan, has strained political and economic ties since last year, when the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from a private owner. This Wednesday will mark the one-year anniversary of the purchase.

On Monday Japan scrambled an unspecified number of fighter jets after an unmanned aerial vehicle flew within 130 miles of the islands. The drone, which did not bear a national flag, circled the islands before flying north-west towards China, according to Japan's defence ministry. It did not enter Japanese airspace.

"Japan will enforce increased security to protect our land, sea, and airspace around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea," Japan's chief cabinet secretary and top government spokesperson, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters on Tuesday, according to Kyodo News International. He said stationing government workers on the islands was an option.

China's foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, responded to Suga's remarks at a regular news briefing on Tuesday. "The Chinese government has an unshakeable resolve and determination to protect the country's territorial sovereignty and will not tolerate any provocative acts of escalation over China's sovereignty," he said. "If the Japanese side recklessly makes provocative moves it will have to accept the consequences."

China blames Japan for never properly atoning for atrocities committed during the 1930s and 40s, when Japanese forces occupied huge swaths of territory along the country's east coast.

Over the past year, China has sent numerous air and sea vehicles near the disputed islands to conduct what it calls routine patrols. On Tuesday morning the Chinese coastguard sent a seven-ship fleet near the islands, in what the state newswire Xinhua called the country's "59th Diaoyu Islands patrol".

On Monday two Chinese navy frigates passed through Japanese waters near Okinawa. On Sunday two Chinese H-6 bombers skirted Japanese airspace on a flight from the mainland to the Pacific Ocean.

China's maritime watchdog has announced plans to build 11 drone bases along the country's east coast to conduct maritime surveillance missions. Last autumn a senior People's Liberation Army colonel told state media that the drones would be used to monitor the islands.

"Around the Diaoyu Islands, the Japanese authority is able to identify vessels approaching the area very quickly, and this is exactly what we lack," Senior Colonel Du Wenlong told the state-run broadcaster China Radio International.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US deployed the advanced reconnaissance drone to monitor damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami on Japan's north-east coast.

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« Reply #8626 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:28 AM »

September 9, 2013

Norway Elects a Conservative as Its Premier


LONDON — A little more than two years after a far-right, anti-immigrant militant killed 77 people, many of them teenagers, Norwegian voters ousted their center-left government on Monday, paving the way for the conservative leader, Erna Solberg, to assemble a governing coalition that may include an anti-immigration party.

Ms. Solberg, 52, a former Girl Scout leader nicknamed “Iron Erna,” will be Norway’s first conservative leader since 1990 and its second female prime minister.

“We will give this country a new government,” Ms. Solberg said after Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg conceded defeat.

The campaign had been centered largely on economic issues, like extending already generous welfare payments (Labor) versus cutting taxes and privatizing hospitals (Conservatives). But the massacre on the island of Utoya, where Anders Behring Breivik attacked youth members of the Labor Party on July 22, 2011, was never far from the surface.

Mr. Stoltenberg, whose pledge after the attack for “more democracy, more openness and more humanity” won him praise at the time, saw his party’s standing decline after a commission on Norway’s preparedness for terrorist attacks reported last year that the massacre could have been avoided if security protocol had been followed properly.

In a twist that is causing unease in parts of the country, the Progress Party, to which Mr. Breivik once belonged, could be a kingmaker in the coming coalition talks. The party could enter government for the first time.

Ms. Solberg has said she would be prepared to enter a coalition with Progress, which somewhat toned down its anti-immigrant oratory.

With 97 percent of the vote counted, Ms. Solberg’s Conservatives, Progress and two small center-right parties were on course to obtain 96 seats in Parliament, 11 more than needed for a majority.

Mr. Stoltenberg and his allies looked set to win only 72 seats.

Mark Lewis contributed reporting from Stavanger, Norway.

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« Reply #8627 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:32 AM »


Alexei Navalny demands recount in Moscow mayoral election

Challenger refuses to recognise result, while other opposition candidates win handful of regional elections

Alec Luhn in Moscow, Monday 9 September 2013 17.52 BST

The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has demanded a recount in Moscow's mayoral election after the incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, narrowly avoided a second-round runoff.

Opposition candidates won a handful of regional elections in a surprisingly strong showing on Sunday, leading many pundits and officials to suggest the elections marked a turn towards more competitive and transparent politics in Russia.

However, Navalny's claims of vote falsifications in the capital called into question just how much competition pro-Kremlin forces were willing to allow. His supporters gathered for a protest on Monday night.

One of the most notable results of Sunday's elections was the anti-drugs activist and off-road racing champion Yevgeny Roizman's narrow victory over his opponent from the ruling United Russia party in the race for mayor of Russia's fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg.

The opposition candidate Galina Shirshina won the mayoral race in Petrozavodsk, capital of the northern Karelia region, against another United Russia candidate.

The opposition RPR-Parnas, which put forward Navalny in Moscow, won seats in the Yaroslavl regional legislature, and the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's Civic Platform party, which put forward Roizman, also won city council seats in Yekaterinburg and Krasnoyarsk.

Pro-Kremlin officials including the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, who is also the chairman of United Russia, praised the elections for their competitiveness and transparency.

In 2011 thousands of Russians took to the streets after state Duma elections were marred by irregularities in the vote count. The following year the protest movement continued to grow after Pig Putin returned to the presidency in a vote that many saw as fraudulent.

The general consensus of pundits and observers was that there were far fewer violations in Sunday's elections. "There was a pretty high level of competition, and this was allowed by the Kremlin," said the conservative political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko. He predicted that the level of transparency would continue to improve.

Sobyanin and the Moscow region's acting governor, Andrei Vorobyov, both of whom are closely aligned with the Kremlin, helped opposition challengers make it on to the ballot.

Prokhorov, who ran for president in 2012 without ever criticising Pig Putin by name, said Sunday's results showed that the Kremlin would allow opposition candidates to compete in and even win mayoral races, but not regional ones. "The most important points of control are governors and regional legislatures … The money is all at the level of governor," he told Ren-TV.

Nonetheless, Navalny's campaign refused to recognise the results in Moscow, arguing that vote falsifications and violations, especially with ballots cast by elderly voters at home, had allowed Sobyanin to avoid falling beneath the 50% threshold for a runoff.

Navalny supporters working as observers at a polling station in south-central Moscow told the Guardian on Sunday that they had found no violations in votes cast from home or at the polling place. But a reporter for the New Times magazine followed an electoral worker and observer as they collected ballots from elderly women in their homes, noting minor infractions that should have nullified some votes.

The official count gave Sobyanin 51.37% and Navalny 27.24%, a result that far exceeded expectations for the opposition leader. A compilation of observers' results from different organisations found that Sobyanin received 49.5%, but the margin of error made it difficult to determine whether a runoff was in order.

Sobyanin refused offers to negotiate with Navalny after previously offering to meet with his challenger, and Navalny said he was prepared to challenge the results in court. The anti-corruption campaigner called his supporters to a protest on Bolotnaya Square.

Navalny was freed pending appeal of his politicised conviction for embezzlement and allowed to run in what many saw as a move by Sobyanin to lend his victory legitimacy and gain political status. The manoeuvre appears to have backfired, however, now that the election came so close to a second round.

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« Reply #8628 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:37 AM »

Going Dutch: why the country is leading the way on sustainable business

The Netherlands continues to punch above its weight when it comes to sustainability. So what's its sustainability secret?

Oliver Balch   
Guardian Professional, Tuesday 10 September 2013 07.00 BST   
Thursday is a big day in the corporate sustainability calendar. The latest Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) series is out.

The frontrunners remain unknown, yet if previous years are anything to go by, there's a good chance that a hatful of Dutch companies will be among them. Netherlands-based global brands such as Philips, Unilever, AkzoNobel, DSM and PostNL have emerged as DJSI stalwarts.

Home to less than 17 million people and with an economy less than a third the size of France's, this small European state continues to punch far above its weight in the sustainability stakes. So why is this?

On the face of it, all the pieces are in place for companies to embrace a progressive approach to business. In MVO Nederland (CSR Netherlands), the country boasts an active industry-led advocacy group. Public awareness is also high, with sustainability issues integrated into the school curriculum. A robust and active civil society, coupled with consistent business-friendly governments, helps too.

But the Netherlands is not the only nation to have a good framework for sustainability. Think of Sweden, or Germany, or even the UK. Nor does having the right conditions necessarily lead to achieving the right outcomes. Just because you can act sustainably doesn't mean you will. What's more, the conditions are changing in the Netherlands. Companies' purse strings are tight, just as everywhere else in Europe.

Keeping the sea at bay, together

For Ton Büchner, chief executive and chairman of paints and coatings firm AkzoNobel, the answers lie in the country's history and culture. Life, for a long time, was tough in the Netherlands. With around one fifth of the country situated below sea level, floods were commonplace. "People were standing up to their knees in mud and trying to build a society", he says. According to Büchner, this forced people to work together. For more than four centuries, the Dutch have been installing dykes and drains to reclaim land from the sea and keep the water at bay. "It takes a lot of people to keep your feet dry," he notes.

As a result, The Netherlands is relatively unique in practising a strong consensus-driven approach to decision-making. Dutch NGOs, politicians, academics and business people knew all about "multi-stakeholder" negotiation long before the sustainability field picked up on it. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when the government began to develop long-term environmental strategies and targets, it did so in conjunction with business.

Such cross-sector co-operation has increased business buy-in as a result, according to Professor Jacqueline Cramer, director of the Utrecht Sustainability Institute and a former minister of the environment: "More than in other countries, the relationship between government and industry is very important in establishing the commitment of the companies themselves."

This week, for instance, business participants in a network initiative called Sustainable Tuesdays are proposing a range of sustainability measures in an attempt to inform the annual budget. Chief executives from the country's largest eight companies, meanwhile, regularly meet under the umbrella of the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition.

Looking beyond its borders

Another important cultural factor is the Dutch trait of being relatively "open and outward-driven", AkzoNobel's Büchner adds. This is partly because it is such a small country (Spain is more than 12 times larger, for example). The habit of always looking beyond its own borders partly explains why the country has such a disproportionate number of multinational companies (and former colonies, for that matter). It has also kept Dutch opinion-formers in touch with what's happening in the wider world, argues Büchner.

Alexander Collot D'Escury, chief executive at Dutch carpet-maker Desso, echoes this view. The historic threat of the sea means the Dutch expect to "live with nature". Today, taking climate change seriously is therefore an easy sell given the prospect of rising sea levels. Likewise, for a country that imports a large proportion of its raw materials and its energy, talk of impending resource scarcity gets a ready audience among Dutch businesses.

Sustainability appeals to the practical, problem-solving side of the Dutch too. "The Cradle to Cradle approach gives answers to these [social and environmental] issues", Collot D'Escury says, referring to the "reduce, reuse, recycle" methodology adopted by Desso. A reputation for sustainability makes sense to the country's commercial nous as well. Having products that are healthier, cheaper (due to greater efficiencies) and more environmentally friendly distinguishes them in the international market, Collot D'Escury maintains. Desso's UK sales, for example, have close to doubled in the past three years.
Leading from the front

Dutch culture not only gives the country's business leaders an instinct for sustainability, it also prompts them to act. The classic leader in Dutch society is direct, optimistic and impatient of formal hierarchies, according to Muriel Arts, co-founder of the SEAL Institute, a specialist sustainability research, training and strategy firm in the Netherlands. This makes them confident about running against the tide and looking for innovative alternatives to problems, she says. Paul Polman, chief executive of Unilever and a vocal advocate of "uncoupled growth", provides an illustrative case in point.

"We're not a people who stay long with a problem. The Dutch have a capacity to see a dilemma for what it is and look for solutions" says Arts. She draws on her own experience as a former senior manager at Unilever: "During my time there, it was often the Dutch who would set the direction and have strong opinions on issues."

Of course, it might be just that the Dutch are more considerate than the rest of us. Lieve Declercq, the Belgian-born chief executive of Dutch water supply company Vitens, is impressed by the "strong belief" in Dutch society of caring for the next generation and for the wider world. The Netherlands has historically been one of the world's most generous nations in terms of international aid, for instance. On the home front, welfare payments have been traditionally high too.

Declerq puts such civic mindedness down to the country's strong Calvinistic background. "It's not only living for today, but living for tomorrow that is important", she notes. As a general truth, she may well be right. This week in particular, however, the Dutch sustainability community is living mostly for Thursday.

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« Reply #8629 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:39 AM »

Italy's racism is embedded

The shocking abuse of minister Cécile Kyenge stems from the country's failure to face up to its past

Maaza Mengiste   
The Guardian, Tuesday 10 September 2013     

Last week in Rome three mannequins doused in fake blood were discovered in front of a municipal building ahead of a visit from Italy's first black minister, Cécile Kyenge. Flyers scattered around the area declared: "Immigration is the genocide of peoples. Kyenge resign!" This is only the latest in a succession of shocking attacks and threats since Kyenge took office in April. She's been compared to an orangutan by a former government minister; likened to a prostitute by a deputy mayor; and had bananas thrown at her while making a speech.

Her appointment has not only shed light on the country's problems with racial tolerance, it has begun to strip away at the Italian stereotype: Italians are friendly and kind, love to laugh, and enjoy the good life. They are, after all, more Mediterranean than European, a bit disorganised, but more likely to welcome you with open arms than insult or threaten you. It is a concept that goes by the term Italiani brava gente: "Italians are decent people". It was this idea that drew me to Italy as the subject for my new book. It ran counter to the experiences of my grandfather and his generation, who fought against the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia and endured a five-year Italian occupation. That contradiction took me to Rome, where I lived for an extended time, and where I researched Italy's colonial-era archives.

The Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, and his party ruled from 1922–1943, during which time Italy moved to expand its empire beyond Libya, Eritrea and Somalia. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia. Its people faced a devastating combination of aerial warfare and ground assault. They were subjected to mustard gas, concentration camps, and massacres. These were tactics Italy had developed in Libya in what would be a brutal 30-year struggle, one that Italy euphemistically labelled a "pacification campaign".

Italy routinely censored accounts of the war in Ethiopia; reports stressed instead Italy's civilising mission. Language was carefully crafted to bolster Italians' confidence not only in their right to take another people's land, but in the benevolence in that act. Italy emphasised the construction of infrastructure without revealing that these roads, bridges and telephone lines were built to improve mobility and communication between military forces and came at the expense of human lives.

While Italy's efforts to shroud the bloody side of imperial ambition don't make it any different from other colonising countries, most striking is the near-absence of this history from textbooks and national dialogue. It was not until 1996 – 60 years after the fact – that the Italian ministry of defence admitted its use of mustard gas.

If Germany had its Nuremberg trials and South Africa its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, then what is missing in Italy is the kind of postwar accountability that forces harsh truths to light and begins the difficult journey towards reconciliation. What these moments of acknowledgement have shown us is this: addressing painful facts cements collective memory, establishes a collective ethos, and helps develop a vocabulary for repentance. It brings together those who once held the power to hurt and those who have the power to forgive.

It is through language that a nation transforms itself, and creates national identity. Italy's task since unification in 1861 has been to forge a unifying set of traits from strikingly different and often contentious groups of people. There is a popular quote attributed to the statesman Massimo d'Azeglio that says: "We've made Italy. Now we have to make Italians." Any kind of collective character has come from deliberate and careful construction. It is one that has historically included white skin. It is this that's challenged by Kyenge's presence.

Italy, whether it wants to or not, is undergoing transformation. First- and second-generation and native Italians are creating some of that momentum: striving to change discriminatory laws; and fighting for greater awareness not only of Italy's past, but its future potential. There is hope, but there is far to go.

I am reminded of a dinner in Rome with friends and colleagues. The celebratory night was soured by a comment shouted out that involved my skin colour and food and a vulgar sexual innuendo. The friends beside me were aghast. When I looked around, an elderly man winked at me. I started to protest and he threw up his hands and laughed. Then he went back to his conversation, and pretended I didn't exist.

If one hadn't heard what he'd just said, he would have looked like a good-humoured man misunderstood, unduly put upon. He would have been the typical easygoing Italian, another member of la brava gente. The attacks on Kyenge have been much more virulent; it has been hard to see the jovial Italian behind the vehemence. But the myth persists in the absence of harsher sanctions against those politicians and groups who are responsible. A national reckoning must involve all Italians.

On hearing of the latest abuse directed at Kyenge, I contacted an Italian friend of Somali descent and asked what she thought. "This is my country," she said. "We're working to improve it. Now more than ever, Italy needs people like me."

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« Reply #8630 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:41 AM »

Spain has let Catalonia down, now it must let it go

The government in Madrid stands in the way of an independent Catalonia. We march on our national day for a referendum

Francesc Homs, Tuesday 10 September 2013 11.33 BST        

Catalonia is at a crossroads. The demand of our people is to hold a free vote on our future path – just as Scotland plans next year, just as other European countries have done in the last few decades. The Spanish state must now find a route to accommodate the wishes of our citizens.

With the return of democracy after Franco's dictatorship, we – the Catalans – were able to rebuild our country and our heritage. For over 30 years, Catalonians have worked with Madrid to build a democratic, modern, European Spain, to create a state which could be ours. We had hoped that Spain would be understanding, tolerant, and above all respectful of Catalonia's personality, of its culture and its language, and of the hopes for progress and wellbeing of the Catalan people.

But recent events have forced us to think differently. Our statute of autonomy, agreed between our parliament and the Spanish parliament in 2006, and then supported by our people in a referendum, was unilaterally rewritten by the Spanish constitutional court in 2010, in a case brought by Mariano Rajoy, now prime minister of Spain. The Spanish education minister has made explicit threats against Catalan language education. These events have changed the relationship between our citizens and the Spanish state.

When we proposed to Madrid in 2012 that we should have the same fiscal relationship with the central government as is enjoyed by the Basque country and Navarre, our approach was brusquely rejected. Although we contribute much more to the Spanish treasury than most regions, we get disproportionately less in return – Catalonia ends up with considerably less per capita public expenditure then the average for all Spanish regions. Madrid has not even honoured its financial commitments to us under the revised autonomy statute. The Catalan people are effectively being told that we are not partners but subjects.

Some in Madrid have stated that there is no possible legal path for us to vote on our future. We disagree. Our own analysis suggests a number of perfectly workable options. The issue is clearly not legal but political. If Britain could delegate powers to Scotland to conduct its independence referendum, Madrid can respond to our people's demands with similar flexibility and imagination.

The will of our people is clear. On 11 September 2012, a million and a half people demonstrated in the streets of Barcelona for "Catalonia – Europe's new state". In our regional elections on 25 November 2012, parties supporting Catalonia's right to self-determination won 107 of the 135 seats. Polls show that 75% of those asked now support the right of citizens to be consulted in a referendum. The Catalan people have given a clear mandate to their representatives to move forward with the self-determination agenda.

This process must be, and will be, scrupulously democratic, and endorsed by the direct decision of our people. We will be demonstrably transparent about our plans. We intend to be absolutely peaceful, with a positive and open attitude. And of course we are and will always be European – Catalonia is already fully integrated with the European Union Catalonia and intends to remain within the internal market framework of the EU and the euro. With its innovative, dynamic, export-led economy, an independent Catalonia would be an asset to the wider EU economy – not a liability.

We do not seek isolation. Barcelona and Catalonia have always been diverse, dynamic and open, at the centre of trade routes across the Mediterranean and further afield, absorbing from the world's cultures, and contributing our own creativity in turn. But the terms on which business is conducted are crucial, and our mutual understanding with Madrid has collapsed. Reasonable offers are rejected out of hand; agreements are subverted by biased court rulings. The Spanish state has not discharged its obligations to Catalonia and its citizens.

On 11 September this year, our national day, hundreds of thousands of people will form a human chain throughout Catalonia, from the Pyrenees to our southern limits, inspired by the Baltic peoples who demonstrated in favour of restoring their freedom in 1989, united in demanding, "Let Us Vote!" For democratic states and people, there can be only one answer. Spain should follow Britain's example and allow the referendum to take place.

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« Reply #8631 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:43 AM »

Painting theft suspect wants trial moved to Netherlands

Suspected ringleader in theft of seven paintings from Dutch museum refuses to surrender artworks unless trial moved

Reuters in Bucharest, Tuesday 10 September 2013 12.15 BST   

The suspected Romanian ringleader in the theft of seven paintings from a Dutch museum last year will never reveal where they are unless his trial is moved to the Netherlands, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

A Bucharest court began a trial on Tuesday of six Romanians charged with stealing artworks worth tens of millions of euros, including a Picasso and a Monet, a month after hearings were suspended to clear up procedural issues.

Defence lawyer Catalin Dancu told reporters that five of the seven paintings, originally believed to be in Romania, were being moved to a different country, possibly neighbouring Moldova.

"All the five paintings that were in Romania are now abroad, in the east – in my opinion, in Moldova. A Russian Lipovan took the paintings abroad," Dancu said, referring to a member of an ethnic Russian minority living in Romania. He said the other two stolen artworks were in Belgium.

"Radu Dogaru has refused to tell where the five paintings are. Radu said: 'If the Dutch don't want to take me, no one sees the paintings'," Dancu said.

"Radu does not want to co-operate any more with Romanian authorities because he does not trust the justice system in Romania."

He reiterated that no paintings had been burned.

A Romanian team of experts earlier assessed that three of the paintings could have been destroyed by fire. Dogaru's mother said she had burned them to protect her son as police closed in. She later retracted her statement.

The paintings, which also included works by Matisse, Gauguin and Lucien Freud, were snatched from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum in October in one of the art world's most dramatic heists of the past few years and among the biggest ever in the Netherlands.

When they were stolen, specialists in recovering missing artworks said there was a good chance of getting them back. They said such pieces were so well known that it was almost impossible to sell them on the open market.

The start of the trial was attended by five of the six suspects. One of the five has been freed while on trial, while the sixth remains at large and is being tried in absentia.

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« Reply #8632 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:47 AM »

09/09/2013 06:22 PM

'Project 6': CIA Spies Operating in the Heart of Germany

For years, intelligence services from the US and Germany conducted a secret project on German soil. Together, they developed a counter-terrorism database -- with even a journalist coming under suspicion. By SPIEGEL Staff

Neuss, near Düsseldorf, is one of Germany's oldest cities. Schoolchildren are taught that the city dates back to the ancient Romans, who founded it in 16 B.C. Neuss was occupied by the French from 1794 to 1814, and by the British occupying force after World War II.

What no one knew until now, however, is that a small, select group of Americans were also stationed in the city on the Rhine River until a few years ago. Working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), they ran a project under a cloak of secrecy in an inconspicuous office building not far from the cobblestone streets of Neuss' pedestrian zone. It was a joint project with two German intelligence agencies, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and the Federal Intelligence Service (BND).

The Neuss undercover agents referred to their operation as "Project 6" or just "P6," and to this day only a few dozen German intelligence agents are even aware of the project. In 2005, as part of the fight against Islamist terrorism, the unit began developing a database containing personal information associated with what is believed to be thousands of people, including photos, license plate numbers, Internet search histories and telephone connection data. The information was intended to provide the intelligence agencies with a better understanding of the web of relationships among presumed jihadists.

From Germany's perspective, this raises the question of whether the US intelligence service, through its outpost in downtown Neuss, had direct access to data relating to German Islamists and their associates -- that is, to data relating to uninvolved third parties.

A Global Surveillance Network

The secret German-American project shows that the National Security Agency (NSA), in its thirst for information, wasn't the only US agency to establish a global surveillance network. In fact, Project 6 shows that the CIA also sought out strategic partners for the fight against terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

With the bombing attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 still fresh in their memories, the Germans didn't want to close their minds to the Americans' request. The Interior Ministry actively pursued cooperation, especially with US agencies. Then Interior Ministry state secretary August Hanning, who had previously headed the BND, sent a BfV go-between to Washington.

In keeping with this logic, the BND and the BfV still believe today that their clandestine database in the city on the Rhine was a legally flawless project. Some domestic and legal policy experts, when confronted with the basic elements of P6, are not quite as convinced, calling the P6 project a legal gray area.

The Neuss group, which operated under the aegis of then BfV President Heinz Fromm, was established on the initiative of the Americans, insiders say today. "The issue at the time was that we weren't cooperating with the Americans enough, whereas today we're accused of cooperating too much," says an intelligence agent familiar with the Neuss project. According to the agent, when the Americans presented the idea for the project to the Germans, they pointed out that it had already been introduced in other countries and was going very well. The CIA provided the computers and software that made up the core of the operation.

Identifying Potential Jihadist Informants

The software, a program called "PX," was designed to enable the spies to gain a better understanding of the environment in which presumed supporters of terrorism operated. The primary purpose of the information was apparently to identify potential informants in the jihadist community and approach them in a more targeted manner and with more prior knowledge. An insider explains that PX was never connected online, but instead was consistently treated as a self-contained unit within the network of agencies.

A series of events in 2010 exemplify the work of the group, which moved from Neuss to the BfV's Cologne headquarters after several years. In a letter dated May 6, 2010 and classified as "secret," the Americans requested information from the P6 analysts. They wanted a list of contacts Yemeni terrorists had in Germany. The CIA request was titled: "Potential operational targets for Project 6 -- German telephone numbers lined to Yemeni numbers associated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula."

The letter included a request to identify 17 German phone numbers that had been used to contact the "suspicious" Yemeni numbers. "If possible, our agency would appreciate any dates of birth, or passport information, your servers may be able to obtain for the subscribers of the German phones," the CIA request read.

And the Germans delivered. "Our agency greatly appreciates your Service's information on the subscribers of German telephones found possibly associated with AQAP [al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula]-related Yemeni numbers," the Americans wrote effusively on June 29, 2010.

Letter of the Law Not Always Applied
The American search request suggests that the letter of the law is not always applied in the war on terror. Among the individuals identified by the intelligence agencies was Stefan Buchen, a journalist with North German Broadcasting (NDR). As the CIA agents wrote in their letter, Buchen's telephone number had been "identified due to its association with Abdul Majeed al-Zindani," a radical cleric in Yemen who the United States believed was a key supporter of former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

The Americans do not describe what exactly the reporter's "association" to the red-bearded Islamist was. But even if there was such an association, it should be relatively easy to explain. The NDR journalist has been conducting research in Arab countries for many years. He was in Yemen in 2010 to track down two Germans who young Muslims from Germany had been instructed to smuggle into radical Koran schools in Yemen. Buchen was doing his research into the isolated environment of Islamists, canvassing their mosques in the capital Sana'a. In the end, he did manage to find one of the two men.

Buchen was a "journalist from Hamburg who specializes in investigative journalism on terrorism," the CIA officials claimed, including his passport number and date of birth in their letter. They also wrote that "our agency believes Buchen may have visited Afghanistan multiple times in the past five years."

The BfV, which considers its collaboration with other agencies to be "in need of secrecy," assures that such projects are conducted "exclusively on the basis of the provisions of German law." At least the BND confirms the existence of P6, but it also notes that the cooperative venture ended in 2010. It was "not a project to monitor telecommunications traffic," and the German agencies had consistently acted "on the basis of their legal authority."

'Significant Security Interests'

In fact, Section 19 of the German Act on the Protection of the Constitution prohibits the release of personal data to foreign agencies, even if they can claim "significant security interests." But the law also states that the intelligence service requires a so-called file order "for every automated file." In addition, before such an order can come into effect, the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information must be consulted.

Peter Schaar, who has held this office for almost 10 years, is unaware of any of this. "I have no knowledge of such a database, nor was any of this reported to me in the context of a file order," says Germany's top data privacy official. If the database had been declared, he adds, he would probably have objected. In Schaar's opinion, a construct like P6 is "at least comparable with the counter-terrorism file," a collection of data about suspicious terrorist structures, to which dozens of German government agencies have had access since 2007. "Anyone who conducts such a project would certainly have to guarantee that all activities are fully documented and subjected to a data privacy review," says Schaar.

Another supervisory body was also seemingly kept in the dark about Project 6. Several longstanding members of the parliamentary control committee of the German parliament, the Bundestag, cannot recall having been informed about a jointly organized exchange of data involving the BfV, the BND and the CIA -- neither in Neuss nor in any other secret location. By law, the German government is required to inform the committee about "events of special importance" -- a phrase that remains open to interpretation.

A Productive German-American Collaboration

Security experts among the opposition, at any rate, are irritated. The committee has met several times since the NSA affair began, and representatives of the government and the intelligence services were repeatedly asked about the nature and scope of cooperation with the Americans and British. However, the term "P6" was never mentioned. "The administration should have informed us about this, at least within the last three months," says Left Party politician Steffen Bockhahn, "if this isn't an especially important procedure, what then?"

Even the termination of Project 6 has had no effect on the productive German-American collaboration. Last year, the BfV alone sent 864 data sets to the CIA, NSA and seven other US intelligence agencies.

They returned the favor in the same year by sending the Germans information on 1,830 occasions. It included communications data, which the Americans had intercepted in the arenas of global jihad and, with the help of the BND, forwarded to the German domestic intelligence service. The BfV stores relevant telephone data in a state-of-the-art IT system. A program called Nadis WN, created in June 2012, is accessible to the BfV and its 16 state agencies.

The functions of the P6 software are apparently also integrated into this program. Officially, no one on the German side knows what happened to the data from the project that was sent from the United States.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


09/09/2013 05:59 PM

NSA Affair: Germans Conduct Helicopter Flyover of US Consulate

By Matthias Gebauer

Under orders from Germany's domestic intelligence agency, a federal police helicopter conducted a flyover of the US Consulate in Frankfurt, the government in Berlin has confirmed. Officials were apparently searching for surveillance equipment.

The German government on Monday confirmed that a previously reported operation targeting potential American eavesdropping facilities located on German soil took place at the end of August. Both a spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Interior Ministry admitted on Monday that a Federal Police helicopter had conducted a low-altitude flyover of the United States Consulate in Frankfurt in order to take high-resolution photographs. The apparent aim of the mission was to identify suspected listening posts on the roof of the consulate.

According to the newsmagazine Focus, the Eurocopter circled over the US representation at an altitude of just 60 meters (200 feet). The magazine quoted an unnamed government official stating that Germany wanted to send a message to the Americans that it would not tolerate eavesdropping technologies on German soil. "The message to the American friends was meant to be: Stop. Germany strikes back!" The flyover was first reported last week by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

On Monday, the government in Berlin sought to play down the incident. The Interior Ministry said merely that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which had ordered the helicopter flyover, is responsible for the security of foreign installations in Germany, but also for defending the country from the spying activities of foreign countries. The spokeswoman refused to answer dozens of follow-up questions on whether the surveillance flight over the consulate had been a routine operation or whether it was a targeted search for hidden antennas. "I neither can nor want to provide any response," the spokeswoman said.

American Security Surprised by Action

But it doesn't appear there was anything routine about the Eurocopter mission -- if there had been, police would have almost surely notified the Americans beforehand. Instead, security personnel at the consulate appear to have been surprised by the flyover. They even took pictures as it happened during the morning of August 28. A short time afterwards, the deputy US ambassador telephoned with the German Foreign Ministry to discuss the issue. But what the ministry is now describing as an "information exchange," was apparently a complaint.

The flight appears to be connected to the revelations of vast US surveillance made by former intelligence service contractor Edward Snowden. According to the American whistleblower, the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance service has established secret eavesdropping posts at 80 US embassies and consulates around the world. In the internal documents exposed by Snowden, these are referred to as the "Special Collection Service". The papers also state that the bugging units should be kept secret from partner countries. If it were leaked, a document reads, this would "cause serious harm to relations between the US and a foreign government."

The response by domestic intelligence would seem to belie German government attempts to play down the surveillance affair. The report in Focus claims that the Frankfurt operation was ordered by Ronald Pofalla, Merkel's chief of staff and the German government point man for intelligence services. The politician, a member of Merkel's conservative CDU party, has made extensive public comments suggesting that the NSA affair has passed. But the report suggested he was furious at reports of spying technology at US diplomatic outposts in Germany.

The German government left open on Monday the question of whether the flyover had provided any clarity about the suspected eavesdropping technology. The spokesperson said that only relevant committees in the national parliament would be informed. Still, experts believe the move was intended more as a symbolic gesture that as a serious effort to try to find surveillance equipment. They believe that the Germans just want to show that if push comes to shove, they can also get more aggressive. One official spoke of a symbolic "shot across the bow."

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« Reply #8633 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:50 AM »

09/09/2013 04:51 PM

Pioneering Care: Berlin Clinic Takes on Female Circumcision

By Jane Paulick

The Desert Flower Center, opening in Berlin this week, is the first facility in Europe to offer a comprehensive treatment package to victims of female genital mutilation. While they welcome the project, some activists believe the problem is more effectively adressed at its roots.

The leafy suburb of Zehlendorf in southwest Berlin is a far cry from the dusty villages of Somalia. But the opening this week of the Desert Flower Center marks an invisible bridge between Germany and the dozens of African countries that practice female genital mutilation (FGM). Housed in the Waldfriede Hospital, it is the first medical facility in Europe to offer victims an integral treatment package, ranging from surgery to psychological support.

The patron of the project is Waris Dirie, the Somalia-born former supermodel and one-time Bond girl who has become one of the world's most prominent campaigners against FGM.

"The plan is to open Desert Flower Centers all over Africa and worldwide," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "All victims of FGM who wish to receive psychological and physical treatment deserve free access to surgery and psychological counseling. (This) is an important step toward a self-determined and free life."

According to managing director Bernd Quoss, the first two patients will be admitted this week. He is confident that demand exists. "Around 50,000 women in Germany are affected by FGM and some 20,000 of them are in Berlin," he estimates, stressing that the costs of treatment will be covered for women with health insurance.

Awareness of a practice described by Dirie as "a brutal crime" appears to be growing in Germany. In late June, the German parliament redefined FGM as a criminal offence in its own right, punishable with a jail term of up to 15 years. Previously, it fell under the grievous bodily harm category, with sentencing restricted to a maximum of ten years.

The Role of Education

Defined by the World Health Organization as "partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons," FGM's immediate complications include severe pain, hemorrhage, bacterial infection and injury to surrounding genital tissue. With long-term consequences including recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility and an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, the Waldfriede hospital's expertise in intestinal and pelvic floor surgery lends itself well to treating victims of FGM, as Quoss points out.

Despite the risks, it remains commonplace in nearly 30 countries in western, eastern, and northeastern Africa, even though many of them have either signed or ratified the 2003 Maputo Protocol, which calls for an end to FGM. For the time being, it remains a deeply rooted social and cultural requirement for girls before marriage, a supposed guarantee of sexual chastity and fidelity.

Against this backdrop, the Desert Flower Center is also focusing on education. "One of the main goals is to train medical staff from Africa," explains Dirie.

Hadja Kitagbe Kaba, founder of Mama Afrika, a Berlin-based organization that campaigns against FGM, sees this is as the most effective of the center's strategies.

She comes from Guinea, where 98 percent of women have suffered FGM, and, although she welcomes the opening of the Desert Flower Center, she believes that female circumcision reversals are not a priority. She would like to see more funds put to use in the field, with projects geared to raising awareness among public health workers, community elders and, of course, the women who still insist on subjecting their daughters to the procedure.

"Doctors in Germany will be repairing damage done in Africa," she says. "It should never have to come to that. Any program that addresses the issue is helpful. But above all, the problem needs to be tackled at its source."

In Guinea, she points out, the practice is upheld as much for economic as for socio-cultural reasons. "The women who perform female circumcision have no other way to earn a living," she says.

Cultural Sensitivity

Not only does challenging a tradition dating back thousands of years take time -- "I'm not sure I will see an end to the practice in my lifetime," says Hadja Kitagbe Kaba -- there is also a fear in the Western world that denouncing and combatting a cultural practice will bring with it charges of racism.

It's an attitude that enrages Waris Dirie. "People in the West would never accept the mutilation of a white girl. Do black girls not have the same rights? FGM is torture. These uneducated people should read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and be quiet!" she says.

But she is well aware that cultural sensitivity must be of paramount importance at the new Desert Flower Center, and that staff need to grasp the extent to which seeking treatment for FGM could potentially alienate many women from their communities.

"Waris Dirie was adamant that the patients shouldn't be accommodated in a separate ward," says Bernd Quoss. "We want to avoid the women feeling 'different' in any way. Hence the participation in the program of counselors and social workers, many of whom have special training in cultural diversity. We also intend to cooperate closely with local African associations."

But it's not only the women themselves who need convincing. "I spoke to a woman recently who said she'd like to undergo reconstructive surgery at the new center," says Hadja Kitagbe Kaba. "But she didn't think she would do it. 'How could I ever explain it to my husband?,' she asked me."

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« Reply #8634 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:52 AM »

Venezuela minister claims sabotage was behind oil blast

Rafael Ramirez alleges bolts were loosened at refinery to release gas leading to explosion in which 42 people died

Associated Press in Caracas, Tuesday 10 September 2013 07.17 BST   

Venezuela's oil minister has said sabotage caused an explosion and fire in 2012 that killed more than 40 people at the country's main oil refinery.

Rafael Ramirez claimed someone deliberately loosened bolts and released highly flammable gas. The minister did not say whether anyone specifically was suspected and ruled out employees of the state-owned PDVSA oil company.

Separately, President Nicolás Maduro blamed the political opposition, although without providing evidence, continuing a line of invective against his opponents for any and all of the country's ills.

A former PDVSA security chief questioned Ramirez's explanation, calling it speculative and saying it raised questions about why the leak had not been detected.

Shortly after the conflagration at the Amuay refinery on 25 August 2012, reports emerged of faulty maintenance at the facility including dozens of accidents in the months before the disaster.

Ramirez alleged the blaze was caused by the loosening of seven bolts at a pump, releasing gas that exploded when national guard troops stationed at the refinery started up vehicles nearby to evacuate.

He said the disaster caused £700,000 worth of damages. It took four days to extinguish the fire.

Forty-two people died and five were reported missing Only recently has the refinery restored production to 645,000 barrels a day of crude.

The former PDVSA security chief, Gustavo Benitez, said he found it difficult to believe that insurers would pay for damages caused by the disaster based on Ramirez's explanation.

Benitez said that "the pump would have had to have been damaged, the sensors [that detect leaks] would have had to have been damaged" as well as mitigation systems. He said it appeared, rather, that "maintainance had been highly inefficient".

Since winning the election in April, Maduro – the handpicked successor of the late president Hugo Chávez – has accused the opposition of sabotaging the overstrained power grid, causing food shortages through hoarding and mounting four alleged plots to assassinate him. In no instance has Maduro substantiated the claims.

Political opponents led by Henrique Capriles, who insists Maduro stole the 14 April presidential election through fraud, scoff at his claims of sabotage. They say he is making them a scapegoat for his government's inadequacies and his waning popularity and to cover up corruption in this country with the world's biggest proven oil reserves.

A report for an insurance carrier published widely right after the disaster found failures in the complex's maintenance and listed dozens of accidents. It said the refinery had 222 accidents in 2011, including 100 fires mostly caused by breaks and leaks in pipes carrying combustible liquids.

Critics say that in addition to refinery failures, PDVSA's operations have suffered from the firing of nearly 18,000 oil workers in 2003 – about 45% of the payroll – after they joined a strike called by Chávez's political opponents to press demands that the president resign.

Chávez died in March after 14 years in power.

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« Reply #8635 on: Sep 10, 2013, 07:54 AM »

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff accuses U.S. of spying for ‘economic’ interests

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 5:40 EDT

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff accused the United States of spying on oil giant Petrobras for its own “economic and strategic” reasons — not for national security.

The latest allegations of online snooping by the National Security Agency emerged Sunday night when TV Globo reported Brazilian oil giant Petrobras — world leader in deep-water oil exploration — was among those targeted, along with Google and the French foreign ministry.

Rousseff said in a statement that, “if the facts are confirmed, it would be clear the espionage was not for security or the fight against terrorism, but to respond to economic and strategic interests.”

“Without doubt, Petrobras is not a threat to the security of any country,” the president said.

These attempts to steal “data and information are incompatible with democratic co-existence between friends,” she added, saying Brazil would “take all measures to protect the country, the government and its companies.”

Petrobras said in a statement it has highly qualified and constantly updated systems to protect its internal communications network.

Brazil’s foreign minister headed Monday to the Untied States where he is to meet this week with National Security Advisor Susan Rice over the spying row.

The meeting between Luiz Alberto Figueiredo and Rice is planned for Wednesday or Thursday in Washington, though the date has not been confirmed, a spokesman for the Brazilian foreign ministry told AFP.

Rousseff had expressed her “personal indignation” over the allegations of online snooping by the US National Security Agency during comments on the sidelines of the G20 summit last week in Russia.

The Brazilian leader had been scheduled to make a state visit October 23 to Washington, but Brasilia now says the trip depends on the US response to the spying allegations.

“The Brazilian government is determined to get clarification from the US government … and require specific action to remove the possibility of espionage once and for all,” Rousseff said Monday.

TV Globo reported Sunday a leaked US intelligence document highlighted Google, Petrobras, the French foreign ministry and SWIFT, a provider of secure financial messaging services to 10,000 banks and other financial institutions in 212 countries, as “targets” of the US online snooping.

The channel said it obtained the information from Glenn Greenwald, a blogger and columnist for the Guardian newspaper, who got secret files from former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

US National Intelligence director James Clapper responded to the allegations in a statement, saying the US “collects foreign intelligence — just as many other governments do — to enhance the security of our citizens and protect our interests and those of our allies around the world.”

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« Reply #8636 on: Sep 10, 2013, 08:00 AM »

Mars One: The psychology of isolation, confinement and 24-hour Big Brother

By Chris Chambers, The Guardian
Monday, September 9, 2013 7:59 EDT

Those sent to live and die on the Red Planet face untold risk of mental illness

Since April, thousands of people have applied to take a one-way trip to Mars. Following further stages of selection and training, the plan is for the first four astronauts to lift off in 2022. After a 7-month journey they will settle permanently on the Red Planet to conduct scientific experiments and do whatever it takes to survive. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be able to watch their lives unfold on reality TV.

The Mars One program is daring but is it realistic? NASA is skeptical about a private one-way mission and instead plans to send more rovers followed by a manned return mission sometime in the 2030s. Others have questioned Mars One’s business model, technical feasibility and the health risks posed by radiation.

On top of these concerns, Martian colonists will face extreme psychological conditions. Mars One claims to have discussed their plans “with experienced and respected psychologists” but doesn’t name them or refer to any supporting evidence. At the same time they have called for applicants who are resilient, adaptable, curious, trusting, and creative but without saying why these particular traits are the most important, how they will be measured, or how the standards for selection will be set. Even Professor Raye Kass, who appears to be one of their few advisors on mental health issues, offers little more than anecdotes as evidence for the psychological feasibility of the program.

Existing research suggests that the colonists will face at least four major psychological challenges. Individually, each of these is serious enough to raise a red flag. In combination, they are a disaster waiting to happen.

Social isolation

The Mars One colonists will be the most isolated humans to have ever lived. Because of their distance from Earth, real time interaction with people back home will be impossible – the shortest delay for sending transmissions will be about 10 minutes. For the rest of their lives they will be able to interact directly with only their fellow colonists, who will increase from 3 people in the first two years to 23 people after 10 years.

These circumstances will probably cause mental illness in at least some of the colonists. Decades of research shows that prolonged social isolation in astronauts can lead to depression, insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, boredom, and emotional instability. Mars One believes that selecting applicants with the right attitude will help prevent such problems. As Kass puts it:

It all starts with attitude. Think of it. When a person finds herself, or himself, on Mars, with no way of being able to come home, and potentially questioning the decision that they have made, what is going to ground them in the choice they have made?

But we know that even the most highly trained astronauts suffer the side effects of isolation – and these are people who know they will be coming home, and who have years (sometimes decades) more experience than the Mars One crew will have. Professor Nick Kanas, a NASA-funded expert in the psychological effects of space exploration, says that when Earth is out of view for an extended time, “crewmember psychology may result in increased feelings of isolation, homesickness, dysphoria, or even suicidal or psychotic thinking.”

The notion that “attitude” will somehow inoculate the colonists against these conditions is at best naïve, at worst irresponsible. How will the Mars One program react when a colonist who was deemed psychologically fit suffers a major breakdown after years of isolation, with no way to get home? Who will be responsible then?


A life on Mars will be a life indoors. The atmosphere is unbreathable and the global temperature averages -60 degrees C. From the moment they land, the colonists will spend at least 80% of their time within units that offer about 50 square metres per person – that’s the size of two average-sized bedrooms. Consider a normal day in your own life and the variety of environments you find yourself moving between, as well as the different sensory experiences you take for granted. Compared with Earth, the colonists will live out their entire lives with a fraction of this exposure.

Not surprisingly, long-term confinement in a small space is associated with many of the same problems triggered by social isolation: depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment, among other symptoms. Animal studies show that captivity can stunt the normal development of young primates, leading to abnormally high fear and reduced exploration behaviours. What does this say about the side effects for children being born and raised in such an environment?

Loss of privacy

While the colonists go about their business, Earth will be watching them 24-7. We already know that surveillance can cause stress, fatigue, depression and anxiety, which will add even more weight to an already extreme mental health burden. The Mars One team have made no public comment on the effects of combining the risk factors of social isolation and confinement with surveillance, but we do know that the program depends on the money raised by reality TV contracts. So presumably the show must go on.

What happens when the colonists get fed up with the interplanetary Truman Show and turn the cameras off? Will Mars One be forced to abandon them?

Lack of mental health services

Perhaps the most worrying concern is that the colonists won’t have real-time access to mental health services such as counselling and psychotherapy. Recent studies have found that simulated psychotherapy via an automated computer program called Deprexis can yield small-to-moderate benefits in depression, but this approach is only about 50% as effective as normal psychotherapy. And given that the colonists are likely to suffer from a wider range of psychological problems than depression, automated mental health interventions simply won’t cut it.

Where does all this leave us? Mars One may be audacious and media-savvy but it is built on a psychological vacuum. In addition to the issues raised here, the planners have given no visible consideration to how they will address the lack of modern medicine, sexual relationships, pregnancy, raising children, ageing, and death. And that’s not even considering the public trauma on Earth that would follow a televised tragedy on Mars.

Mars One is either ignoring the psychological consequences of colonisation or failing to disclose them. Either way, if their plan goes ahead – and for the sake of the colonists we might hope that it doesn’t – then NASA’s manned mission in the 2030s may well be dubbed Mars Rescue. © Guardian News and Media 2013


Space cadets line up for one-way Mars trip

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, September 9, 2013 20:32 EDT

More than 200,000 people from 140 countries have applied to go to Mars and never return, the group behind an ambitious venture to colonize the inhospitable red planet said Monday.

Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur, plans to establish a permanent base on Mars in a mission he hopes will take off in 2022 if he can find the necessary $6 billion.

One in four of the 202,586 applicants for the one-way trip are Americans, said Mars One, the non-profit group which initiated its hunt for “would-be Mars settlers” in April.

There are also hopefuls from India (10 percent), China (six percent) and Brazil (five percent), among other countries, it said.

By 2015, Mars One expects put up to 10 four-member teams through intensive training, with the first of those teams reaching to Mars in 2023 on a high-risk journey that would take seven months to complete.

If they survive the trip, the human Martians will have to deal with minus 55 degrees C (minus 67 F) temperatures in a desert-like atmosphere that consists mainly of carbon dioxide.

They’ll also have to consent to being observed back on Earth full-time as stars of a reality TV show that would help cover expenses.

The project has the support of Gerard ‘t Hooft, the Dutch joint winner of the Nobel prize for physics in 1999.

“The long term aim is to have a lasting colony,” said ‘t Hooft in New York in April. “This expansion will not be easy. How soon that will be accomplished is anyone’s guess.”

Space agencies including NASA have expressed skepticism about the viability of Lansdorp’s plan, saying the technology to establish a human colony on Mars does not exist.

Mars One says on its website that the mission is a decade-long endeavor, with funding intended to come from the global audience of an interactive, televised broadcast of every aspect of the mission.

So far, there have only been unmanned missions to Mars undertaken by NASA, which has signaled its intent to send astronauts there within 20 years.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #8637 on: Sep 10, 2013, 08:22 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

Profile Of NSA Boss General Keith Alexander Reveals: He Wants All The Data, And He Doesn't Care About The Law

By Techdirt
Monday, September 9, 2013 13:34 EDT

Shane Harris has an explosive and fascinating profile of NSA boss General Keith Alexander for Foreign Policy magazine. You should read the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight a few key points that are really kind of eye-opening.

    His predecessor, General Michael Hayden, thought Alexander is a loose cannon who doesn't understand or care about the law. One of Alexander's strongest defenders since the Snowden leaks came out has been Hayden -- the guy who called NSA critics just a bunch of internet shut-ins who can't get laid. However, the FP report suggests that Hayden felt Alexander was dangerous, not right for the job at the top of the NSA, and not clued in to basic legal realities. Specifically, after 9/11, Alexander (at the time in charge of the Army's Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM)) tried to get the NSA to hand over its firehose of data directly to him to analyze. But that's a no, no.

        By law, the NSA had to scrub intercepted communications of most references to U.S. citizens before those communications can be shared with other agencies. But Alexander wanted the NSA "to bend the pipe towards him," says one of the former officials, so that he could siphon off metadata, the digital records of phone calls and email traffic that can be used to map out a terrorist organization based on its members' communications patterns.

        "Keith wanted his hands on the raw data. And he bridled at the fact that NSA didn't want to release the information until it was properly reviewed and in a report," says a former national security official. "He felt that from a tactical point of view, that was often too late to be useful."

        Hayden thought Alexander was out of bounds. INSCOM was supposed to provide battlefield intelligence for troops and special operations forces overseas, not use raw intelligence to find terrorists within U.S. borders.

    This is fairly incredible, considering that Hayden was the guy who oversaw the infamous illegal warrantless wiretapping program under President Bush. The fact that he felt Alexander wanted to go way too far in spying on Americans should say something.

    General Alexander apparently has no problem playing word games to justify what he wants. This shouldn't be a surprise given all we've seen so far, but from the article, you realize that this isn't just someone trying to keep secret things secret with word games, but rather someone who has a rather Machiavellian outlook on things. He decides what he wants to do, and then he'll come up with the justification for it.

        "He said at one point that a lot of things aren't clearly legal, but that doesn't make them illegal," says a former military intelligence officer who served under Alexander at INSCOM.

    That's not something that someone trying to stay inside the law says. That's someone trying to stretch the law to do his personal will.

    General Alexander is obsessed with collecting every bit of data possible, with little concern for the legal issues associated with such a desire. This one isn't new. We'd already seen that Alexander's infamous mantra was "collect it all," but the FP article shows this going to ridiculous lengths:

        "Hayden's attitude was 'Yes, we have the technological capability, but should we use it?' Keith's was 'We have the capability, so let's use it,'" says the former intelligence official who worked with both men.

    Later in the article, someone who worked with General Alexander notes that he believes the legal justifications for any data collection can come later:

        "If he becomes the repository for all that data, he thinks the resources and authorities will follow."

    Having the capability doesn't automatically make it legal. General Alexander seems to think that point is subservient to his own desire to collect all the data, incorrectly believing that the way you find the necessary needles is to collect more haystacks.

    General Alexander gets so overwhelmed by big data that he starts finding needles in those haystacks where none really exist. This is kind of the key point. The profile makes it clear that General Alexander loves digging through big data, but seems unable to recognize that what comes out of looking at a giant data set isn't automatically true. Multiple instances are discussed of him claiming connections where none actually existed.

        "He had all these diagrams showing how this guy was connected to that guy and to that guy," says a former NSA official who heard Alexander give briefings on the floor of the Information Dominance Center. "Some of my colleagues and I were skeptical. Later, we had a chance to review the information. It turns out that all [that] those guys were connected to were pizza shops."

        A retired military officer who worked with Alexander also describes a "massive network chart" that was purportedly about al Qaeda and its connections in Afghanistan. Upon closer examination, the retired officer says, "We found there was no data behind the links. No verifiable sources. We later found out that a quarter of the guys named on the chart had already been killed in Afghanistan."

        [....] Under Alexander's leadership, one of the agency's signature analysis tools was a digital graph that showed how hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, places, and events were connected to each other. They were displayed as a tangle of dots and lines. Critics called it the BAG -- for "big ass graph" -- and said it produced very few useful leads.

    Loving big data, but not being aware of its limitations is not a good sign -- especially for someone who's trying to always collect even more data.

    General Alexander's fascination with big data was in part driven by a "mad scientist" friend who followed Alexander from job to job implementing massive projects that were done poorly and with little planning, and rarely did anything useful. To get the full extent of this, you really need to read the article, but the details of James Heath and Alexander's reliance on him -- as well as his inability to actually get stuff working -- are fairly incredible. Here's just one example, and there are many more.

        Heath was at Alexander's side for the expansion of Internet surveillance under the PRISM program. Colleagues say it fell largely to him to design technologies that tried to make sense of all the new information the NSA was gobbling up. But Heath had developed a reputation for building expensive systems that never really work as promised and then leaving them half-baked in order to follow Alexander on to some new mission.

        "He moved fairly fast and loose with money and spent a lot of it," the retired officer says. "He doubled the size of the Information Dominance Center and then built another facility right next door to it. They didn't need it. It's just what Heath and Alexander wanted to do." The Information Operations Center, as it was called, was underused and spent too much money, says the retired officer. "It's a center in search of a customer."

    This is what happens when you have a combination of people who believe very strongly in one key point -- "big data solves all" -- and then provide them with massive amounts of money and almost no real oversight. It's a "kids in a candy store" mentality that is a serious problem when you realize what kind of "candy" is available.

    He's somewhat oblivious to the reasons why people are concerned about all of this, because he thinks of himself as a trustworthy guy. This fits with previous things we've heard about General Alexander. He's genuinely perplexed by why people are so upset about this, believing strongly in two things: that he's protecting the safety of Americans, so they should thank him for that, and on top of that, that since he's trustworthy, there's nothing to worry about. This is incredibly naive.

        "You'll never find evidence that Keith sits in his office at lunch listening to tapes of U.S. conversations," says a former NSA official. "But I think he has a little bit of naivete about this controversy. He thinks, 'What's the problem? I wouldn't abuse this power. Aren't we all honorable people?'...."

    This fits with our earlier article about how he appears to be focused on intentions over actions. And, to some extent you can actually understand how the incentives in his job lead him in exactly that way. He knows that if there's another terrorist attack, he'll take some of the blame for it. Given that, it's no wonder that protecting the 4th Amendment or the legal rights of Americans is low on the priority list. He doesn't get any credit for that. He only loses credit if there's an attack under his watch.

Again the entire profile is worth reading -- including the bits about how he's apparently obsessed with the stupid puzzle game Bejeweled Blitz, and how he once hired a Hollywood set designer to make his base of operations look just like the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek (complete with wooshing doors) to better "wow" politicians who came to visit. The overall profile is fascinating to read, but scary, because it suggests someone with little actual concern for the Constitution, a strong (if faulty) belief in his own capabilities, and immense power. That's a bad combination, even if he doesn't have "nefarious" intent.


September 9, 2013

The Border Is a Back Door for U.S. Device Searches


Newly released documents reveal how the government uses border crossings to seize and examine travelers’ electronic devices instead of obtaining a search warrant to gain access to the data.

The documents detail what until now has been a largely secretive process that enables the government to create a travel alert for a person, who may not be a suspect in an investigation, then detain that individual at a border crossing and confiscate or copy any electronic devices that person is carrying.

To critics, the documents show how the government can avert Americans’ constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, but the confiscations have largely been allowed by courts as a tool to battle illegal activities like drug smuggling, child pornography and terrorism.

The documents were turned over to David House, a fund-raiser for the legal defense of Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Pfc. Bradley Manning, as part of a legal settlement with the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. House had sued the agency after his laptop, camera, thumb drive and cellphone were seized when he returned from a trip to Mexico in November 2010. The data from the devices was then examined over seven months.

Although government investigators had questioned Mr. House about his association with Private Manning in the months before his trip to Mexico, he said no one asked to search his computer or mentioned seeking a warrant to do so. After seizing his devices, immigration authorities sent a copy of Mr. House’s data to the Army Criminal Investigation Command, which conducted the detailed search of his files. No evidence of any crime was found, the documents say.

“Americans crossing the border are being searched and their digital media is being seized in the hopes that the government will find something to have them convicted,” Mr. House said. “I think it’s important for business travelers and people who consider themselves politically inclined to know what dangers they now face in a country where they have no real guarantee of privacy at the border.”

A spokeswoman from Customs and Border Protection said the agency declined to comment about the settlement with Mr. House, or answer questions about travelers’ rights when their devices are seized or inspected during a border crossing.

While many travelers have no idea why they are singled out for a more intrusive screening at a border, one of the documents released in Mr. House’s settlement shows that he was flagged for a device search months before he traveled to Mexico.

On July 8, 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigators in New York created an alert, known as a TECS lookout, for Mr. House, noting that he was “wanted for questioning re leak of classified material” and ordering border agents to “secure digital media” if he appeared at an inspection point.

TECS is a computer system used to screen travelers at the border, and includes records from law enforcement, immigration and antiterrorism databases. A report from the Department of Homeland Security about border searches of electronic devices says a traveler may be searched “because he is the subject of, or person-of-interest-in, an ongoing law enforcement investigation and was flagged by a law enforcement ‘lookout’ ” in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement computer system.

On Oct. 26, 2010, an automated message notified investigators that Mr. House had an airline reservation on Oct. 30, traveling on American Airlines flight 865 from Dallas-Fort Worth to Los Cabos, Mexico; a later query noted that he would be returning to Chicago O’Hare on American flight 228, landing at 6 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Since airline passengers are required to provide carriers with their birth date and passport number before a flight to or from the United States, and airlines pass that information to Homeland Security (as part of the Advance Passenger Information System), computers matched the lookout alert with Mr. House’s itinerary. Agents were then dispatched to meet him.

“It is clear from these documents that the search of David House’s computers had nothing to do with protecting the border or with enforcing immigration laws,” said Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. House along with the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts. “The government used its broader powers at the border to conduct a search of House’s devices that no court would have approved.”

The documents, released by the A.C.L.U. on Monday, also detail the extent of the government’s examination of Mr. House’s computer. After a search using 183 keywords that turned up more than 26,000 files, the investigation concluded that “no data was found that constituted evidence of a crime.”

As part of the settlement, the government agreed to destroy all copies of the data taken from Mr. House, and update his file so he will not automatically be detained when he returns to the United States after traveling abroad, which has happened repeatedly since 2010.

Courts have largely supported the government’s authority to search electronic devices when travelers, including citizens, enter the United States. The so-called border search exception to the Fourth Amendment is based on the government’s interest in thwarting illegal activities.

But in March, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California set a new limit on device searches at the border, ruling in United States v. Cotterman that reasonable suspicion of criminal activity was required for a forensic search of a device — for instance, using software to analyze encrypted or deleted data, as opposed to performing a more cursory look at documents, photos or other files.

Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, said that it conducted electronic media searches on 4,957 people from Oct. 1, 2012, through Aug. 31, 2013, or about 15 a day, which is similar to the average during the previous two years. About 930,000 people are screened daily by border agents.

But for those pulled aside for a secondary inspection (about 35,000 travelers a day), the experience can be distressing, resulting in a missed connecting flight, a prolonged interrogation, and in Mr. House’s case, the loss of a laptop necessary for his livelihood.

“I was worried about losing my job, and not being able to pay my rent, and what I was going to tell my parents,” said Mr. House, 26, who was working as a computer programmer at the time. He was also concerned about the government getting access to names stored on his laptop of individuals who had donated money to Private Manning’s legal defense. Private Manning was sentenced by a military judge last month to 35 years in prison for providing more than 700,000 government files to WikiLeaks.

Mr. House’s lawsuit was among a handful of cases challenging the government’s authority to search devices at the border. Pascal Abidor, a graduate student in Islamic studies, sued the government after he was detained and his laptop was seized during an Amtrak trip from Montreal to New York in 2010. A decision in that case is expected soon, according to the case manager for Judge Edward R. Korman, who is writing the opinion for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Mr. Abidor is also being represented by Ms. Crump of the A.C.L.U.

For now, the law remains murky about any limits on intrusive border inspections, including how long travelers can be detained, whether they are required to provide passwords for their devices — Mr. House refused — and whether they must answer any question an agent asks. Responses may be recorded in a traveler’s TECS file and shared with other government agencies.


September 9, 2013

Russian Proposal Catches Obama Between Pig Putin and House Republicans


WASHINGTON — President Obama woke up Monday facing a Congressional defeat that many in both parties believed could hobble his presidency. And by the end of the day, he found himself in the odd position of relying on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, of all people, to bail him out.

The surprise Russian proposal to defuse the American confrontation with Syria made a tenuous situation even more volatile for a president struggling to convince a deeply skeptical public of the need for the United States to respond militarily in yet another Middle Eastern country, this time in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. It could make the situation even more precarious. Or it could give Mr. Obama an escape from a predicament partly of his own making.

In effect, Mr. Obama is now caught between trying to work out a deal with Mr. Putin, with whom he has been feuding lately, or trying to win over Republicans in the House who have made it their mission to block his agenda. Even if he does not trust Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama will have to decide whether to treat the Russian proposal seriously or assume it is merely a means of obstructing an American military strike.

“Putin knows that everyone wants an out, so he’s providing one,” said Fiona Hill, a former national intelligence officer and co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.” “It seems like a bold idea that will get everyone, including Obama, out of a bind that they don’t want to be in.”

But, she said, it may be an idea that derails a strike for now without solving the underlying problem. Indeed, the Senate quickly postponed plans for a vote authorizing an attack.

“It just adds to the uncertainty and makes a vote soon a little more difficult,” said Howard Berman, a Democrat and former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It just gets dragged out and causes the Congress to say let’s wait to see what happens with this before they vote.”

All of which had White House speechwriters revising their drafts before Mr. Obama addresses the nation Tuesday night in what is shaping up as one of the most challenging moments of his presidency. He hoped to explain why it was necessary to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack that, according to United States intelligence, killed more than 1,400 in Syria, but also reassure Americans the result would not be another Iraq war.

Now Mr. Obama needs to also explain why Congress should still vote to authorize such a strike in the face of a possible diplomatic solution and what if any conditions would satisfy him enough to order American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea not to act, at least for now. And he has to win over a public that by significant margins opposes American military action.

“Their path to success is really, really tough,” said Joel P. Johnson, who was a counselor to President Bill Clinton. “I don’t think there’s any question that they went into this eyes wide open, knowing how tough this was going to be, and volatile and unpredictable, and probably will be hour to hour until there’s a vote.”

The twists and turns in the Syria debate have whipsawed the nation’s capital and by some accounts imperiled Mr. Obama’s presidency. Democrats are mystified and in some cases livid with Mr. Obama for asking Congress to decide the matter instead of simply ordering one or two days of strikes and getting it over with.

By most estimates, the Republican-controlled House would reject authorizing such an attack if the vote were held now, and it is not clear whether the Democrat-led Senate would approve it. Few presidents have lost such a major vote on war and peace in the almost century since the Senate rejected Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations.

In their private moments, Mr. Obama’s allies said even the argument that his presidency would for all intents and purposes be over did not sway some unsympathetic Democrats, frustrated over how few victories there have been to hang on to in Mr. Obama’s fifth year in office.

Although Mr. Obama’s decision to ask for a Congressional vote has come to be seen as a strategic mistake, White House officials consider that hypocritical second-guessing from lawmakers who want to have it both ways. “One of the things we heard with near unanimity was a desire by Congress to have its voice heard and its vote counted,” said Antony Blinken, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama.

Some Democrats argue that their colleagues worry too much. Even if Mr. Obama lost the vote, they argue, this would not be the decisive moment many anticipate. “Yes, it’ll take some wind out of his sails temporarily,” said Matt Bennett, a former aide to Mr. Clinton. “But our sense is it’s not going to be long lived.”

The Russian proposal came days after Mr. Obama returned from a tense trip to St. Petersburg, where Mr. Putin hosted a meeting of the Group of 20 and rallied opposition to any American strike on Syria.

Mr. Obama cautiously embraced Russia’s plan on Monday to avert a strike by having President Bashar al-Assad of Syria turn over chemical weapons to the international community, but it remained uncertain whether it would succeed. Russia has tried to intervene before other American-led military actions. But none of the moves proved meaningful.

Lawmakers seized on the Russian proposal while urging caution. “Just the fact the Russians have moved tells me having this debate on military action is having a positive outcome,” said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who leads the House Intelligence Committee and supports a strike. But he added, “They’re going to have to prove they mean it.”

Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was more cautious. “If this thing is real, I think we should look at it,” he said. “But the question is this: Do you trust Assad, and do you trust the Russians?”

Former Representative Tom Perriello of Virginia, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said the answer might be no. “There’s every reason to believe so far that Russia is playing Congress like fiddles,” he said, “and not playing peacemaker.”

Eric Schmitt and Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.


September 9, 2013

In New Health Law, a Bridge to Medicare


THE sweeping federal health care law making its major public debut next month was meant for people like Juanita Stonebraker, 63, from Oakland, Md., who retired from her job in a hospital billing office a year and a half ago.

She was able to continue her health insurance coverage from the hospital for a time, but when she tried to find an individual policy on her own, none of the insurers she contacted would cover her because she was diabetic.

“I didn’t even get to tell them about the heart attack,” said Ms. Stonebraker, who has been without health insurance since July. She is a little over a year away from qualifying for Medicare, the federal insurance program for people 65 and older. She now worries a recent hospitalization will leave her several thousand dollars in debt.

Under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, insurers must now offer coverage to people like Ms. Stonebraker, and they will not be able to set the premiums they charge on the basis of someone’s health. Starting Oct. 1, she and millions of other Americans are expected to be able to buy one of the plans available through newly created online state marketplaces, or exchanges, for coverage that begins in 2014. For those with low incomes, subsidies are available to help pay premiums.

“The state and federal exchanges create a great opportunity for pre-65 retirees to get coverage like never before,” said John Grosso, a senior executive overseeing retiree health care for Aon Hewitt, a benefits consultant.

While older people could pay up to three times as much as younger people buying coverage, because rates can take account of age, the marketplaces could allow them to buy a policy for much less than they would pay today in some states, particularly those people with expensive medical conditions.

Early retirees are “the big group of winners in this equation,” said Edward A. Kaplan, a senior benefits consultant at the Segal Company, who said many of the premiums he had seen so far in the states that had made them public were relatively low, with subsidies making them even lower.

“You may get significant relief,” he said.

For those who are already well insured, through Medicare or private coverage, the law seems like a threat. Even after its long and rocky rollout, the 2010 law continues to face strong opposition from many Americans, especially older people who worry that their Medicare benefits will be cut to pay for coverage for the uninsured.

While the Affordable Care Act seeks hundreds of billions of dollars in savings from the Medicare program over 10 years, the benefits of people covered under the program were essentially untouched by the law; instead, the law focuses on curbing payments to providers and insurers, which could make them less inclined to accept Medicare patients in the future.

But the growth in health care spending has slowed since the law was passed, making it less likely that Congress will try to cut back the program significantly anytime soon. Nor have payment cuts to date been particularly disruptive for hospitals and the private insurers participating in Medicare Advantage plans.

At contentious town hall meetings held by lawmakers before the law’s passage, critics also claimed that “death panels” would sharply limit care at the end of life. But the focus of the ire of many, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a government body created to try to control costs, has yet to get off the ground. Many lawmakers still seek to eliminate the board altogether.

It could be years before it is clear how well, or poorly, the law works, and many people do not understand how the law will affect them. “Most of the conversations so far that have been in the public have been about the politics of it,” said Ron Pollack, the executive director of Families USA, a Washington consumer advocacy group that has supported the law and is working to persuade people to enroll.

The idea is to enroll enough young and healthy people to spread the costs over a sufficient number. But people could ignore the requirement that they buy insurance, because the penalty for not doing so is low ($95 or 1 percent of family income for adults in the first year, whichever is higher, versus potentially thousands of dollars a year for a policy without any subsidies). If proportionately too many old and sick people sign up for coverage, premiums, even if they are moderate so far, could easily skyrocket, especially in those states with low enrollments. And the law’s subsidies could end up costing the government too much at a time when lawmakers are trying to tame the federal budget.

The law’s many skeptics argue that people, including early retirees, could be disappointed. The most affordable plans require substantial out-of-pocket spending and may not offer much in the way of a choice of hospitals and doctors, said Robert Laszewski, who heads a health policy consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. Even with the subsidies, many people will not feel as if the money is worth it, he said.

The problem with the less expensive plans is they are “going to be a Medicaid-style plan,” he said, referring to the state and federal government program for the poor.

As it approaches its biggest milestone to date in three weeks — the first open enrollment period for the state exchanges — public awareness of the law remains low, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. But even those focusing on the law and on next year, when most of it takes effect, are finding concrete information hard to come by.

While a few states, like California, are far enough along to make it possible for a 60-year-old to determine what she will pay for different plans, other states and the federal government have made few details public. Ms. Stonebraker, who lives in Maryland, does not know how much a policy will cost her, and she worries that it could be more than $1,000 a month.

“I can’t afford that kind of money for insurance,” she said.

As for next year, experts say retirees who already have Medicare should see no surprises as a result of the law. Those eligible can still opt for traditional Medicare, along with a drug-only plan, or one of the Medicare Advantage plans run by private insurers, but they do not have to select their plans through the new exchanges.

“Medicare has not been radically altered,” said Gerry Smolka, a policy expert at AARP Public Policy Institute. “This is the same for you as it was last year.”

AARP has also been a proponent of the law.

But experts agree that the law could represent a fundamental change for people who find themselves in early retirement. With the exception of a few states, insurers have been able to choose whom to cover, avoiding those people who could have potentially expensive medical conditions, and older Americans are much more likely to have a chronic health condition like diabetes or heart disease.

Nine million Americans between 50 and 64 years old were uninsured in 2010, according to a recent analysis by the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Greg Burke, for example, is 61 and he retired in 2008. While he still had insurance from his former employer, he had a knee replacement.

“After my knee replacement, I found that the insurers didn’t love me anymore,” Mr. Burke said.

He and his wife were eventually covered under a special federal government program aimed specifically at people with potentially expensive medical conditions, to help provide coverage until the exchanges were up and running. Together, they pay around $700 a month for coverage.

But programs like that one, unless they become state-run and financed, are going to be phased out. The Burkes believe they may qualify for the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies. Because they live in Ohio, a Republican-run state that declined to set up an exchange on its own, the marketplace will be run by the federal government, and final details about plans are not available. Mr. Burke said he was checking the government’s Web site,, for information every week.

“We’re really in new territory now,” he said

An early analysis of premiums in a dozen states showed that 60-year-olds are likely to pay about $615 a month in premiums for a midlevel plan, before the impact of any subsidies, according to Avalere Health, a Washington research firm, but there is wide variation among the states. Ohio’s rates average $150 higher than those in Maryland for the same type of plan.

Experts say making apples-to-apples comparisons is difficult. The law requires more generous coverage than many individual policies offer today, and today someone who is healthy may be offered a policy at a much lower rate than someone with a chronic medical condition.

But other alternatives are also dwindling. While companies sometimes offered their retirees health coverage as a bridge to Medicare, as well as a kind of additional coverage, they are less and less likely to do so, according to an October 2012 analysis by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The percentage of employees who work for a company offering coverage dropped to 18 percent in 2010 from 29 percent in 1997. Some companies are also moving retirees eligible for Medicare to privately run exchanges. I.B.M. and Time Warner became the latest to make the shift.Even some at financially strained local governments seem inclined to encourage their early retirees to enroll in the exchanges rather than foot their high medical bills. Detroit, for example, is considering moving retired workers who are not eligible for Medicare to the exchanges as a way of reducing its spending.

Early retirees may well be better off on the exchanges, with a range of plans from which to choose and the possibility of subsidies, said Paul Fronstin, who leads the research into health benefits for the research institute. Because subsidies are based on income, individuals, even those with considerable nest eggs, may be able to defer payments under a pension or withdrawals from a 401(k) so they qualify; subsidies, through tax credits, begin for people whose modified adjusted gross income is under the threshold of 400 percent of poverty, around $62,000 for a couple with both buying coverage.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a research group, has developed a calculator at for people trying to determine whether they might be eligible and how much they could receive.

Whether the new plans will be more attractive than the coverage early retirees have now will also depend on where you live and how much you make. Some states, like New York, have long required insurers to offer coverage to all residents and charge the same in premiums, regardless of health and age. State officials say the plans on the exchange are much less expensive than the one available today in New York because the new law will create a much larger pool of people being insured.

But some plans may not be cheap, especially for those receiving no help in the way of subsidies. In San Diego, for example, a 60-year-old can choose a plan from Anthem Blue Cross ranging in cost from under $500 a month, with a $5,000 deductible, to a little over $1,000 a month for a plan with no upfront deductible.

Individuals who are considering making the switch should also make sure the policies they are comparing have similar coverage, said Ms. Smolka at the AARP policy institute. AARP has also created a site where consumers can learn more about it,

The federal law’s requirement that insurers charge older Americans no more than three times what they charge the youngest policy holder is also serving to keep rates lower than they might otherwise be for similar coverage. Age and smoking status are the only factors insurers can use to determine an individual’s premiums within the set of health plans, divided into four tiers, ranging from bronze to platinum.

“From the individual’s perspective, older adults are shielded from the premium extremes they could have otherwise faced in the private marketplace,” said Tricia Neuman, a senior official at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Retirees 65 or older with coverage under Medicare are not much affected, but experts worry that there is significant potential for confusion. The open enrollment period for Medicare, which runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, overlaps with the enrollment period for the exchanges. There have already been reports of fraud involving Medicare retirees who are told they need to buy another policy to avoid paying the tax penalty associated with people who do not have enough coverage.

If anything, Medicare enrollees enjoy more robust coverage under the earlier provisions of the law, which expanded coverage for preventive care and prescription drugs. The law will eventually close the so-called doughnut hole, a gap in Medicare prescription-drug coverage between the initial coverage limit and a higher threshold that leaves individuals paying in full out of pocket until their coverage kicks back in.

“It really strengthened Medicare,” said Paula Muschler, who leads a Medicare plan selection service for Allsup, a company that helps people get Social Security disability and Medicare benefits.

She worries that people who are confused about what is happening in October may not bother to see if there are important changes to the Medicare Advantage plans they can select. “There are always new plans that come out, and formularies change,” she said, which alter the prescription drugs that may be covered.

Early retirees considering making a change or those contemplating leaving their employer because they can now get insurance should be cautious, according to financial planners. Reed C. Fraasa, who advises people at Highland Financial Advisors, says he and his colleagues are just starting to work through the details of the offerings themselves. “Our advice would be to wait and see,” he said.

But individuals could start incorporating the new reality into their thought processes in a way that was never possible before. People approaching retirement typically stayed in jobs longer than they wanted to only because they needed the insurance or their spouse was too young for Medicare. The exchanges now make it possible for such people to consider early retirement because many for the first time will be able to find insurance coverage even if they have a pre-existing medical condition.

“It really helps to disconnect decision-making around employment and health care,” said Diahann W. Lassus, a fee-only financial planner at Lassus Wherley. “That’s a tremendous change in dynamic.”


John Boehner’s Do Less Than Nothing Congress Refuses To Get To Work

By: Rmuse
Sep. 9th, 2013

Most Americans have no idea how it feels to enjoy a 5-week vacation from the rigors of going to work to do nothing but hamper economic recovery and vote to defund the Affordable Care Act. The United States Congress returns today with a laundry list of important items to address and only 9 days to solve some very important issues. If history is any indication, it is unlikely this Congress will get down to work to accomplish anything except attempting to defund the Affordable Care Act, shut down the government, and cause a national credit default, but the President has asked them to decide whether or not America should take action against the Assad regime for using banned chemical weapons in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

It is apparent that either the President has great faith that Republicans will put aside their racially-motivated obstructionist ways and finally do the jobs they were sent to Washington to do, or continue bickering amongst themselves about how best to sabotage the economy and let Syrians sort out their own civil war. It is entirely possible that was the President’s intent all along, but of course that is purely speculation; and maybe brilliant.

Over the past five weeks Republicans have spent their vacation sucking up to the oil industry and attempting to convince their constituents that defunding the Affordable Care Act is more pressing than immigration reform, government funding levels, increasing the federal debt limit, fixing the sequester, reworking the Voting Rights Act, and restoring food stamp funding in the farm bill. Now their demand to have input into whether or not America should take limited action against Syrian forces is before them and they appear astonished they are tasked with making a decision with so many pressing domestic issues waiting for their attention. In fact, a 10-term representative from New Jersey, Republican Frank A. LoBiondo said upon leaving a briefing on Syria that “We’re having trouble walking and chewing gum already. This doesn’t make it any easier.”

It may be that the idea of intervening in the Syrian conflict and assisting the rebels in their attempt to overthrow the Assad regime is not in America, or the region’s best interests and doubtless that thought is not lost on President Obama. Let’s face it, the President has resisted repeated calls from Republican warmongers to get involved in giving the rebels an advantage for a good reason and it has everything to do with Syria’s considerable cache of chemical weapons that are the source of consternation among regional and world governments today. The rebels have promised that if the United States weakens the Syrian army, they will launch a ferocious assault to overthrow the Assad regime and there is no way of knowing whether or not a new government will be a serious threat to American interests or its allies in the region.

The specter of an extremist Islamist regime with access to a twenty-year buildup of chemical weapons and the means to deliver them does not bode well for anyone in the region, but especially Israel that activated their Iron Dome defense system over the weekend in anticipation of Syrian retaliation against America’s closest ally in the region in the event Congress gives the go-ahead for an America-only military strike. The President intimated on Sunday that turning “a blind eye to images like the ones we’ve seen out of Syria, and failing to respond to this outrageous attack would increase the risk that chemical weapons could be used again; that they would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them against us, and it would send a horrible signal to other nations that there would be no consequences for their use of these weapons.” The President is absolutely right and there is no guarantee that “terrorists” he alluded to will be none other than a hostile Syrian government controlled by Islamist extremists within the rebel movement fighting to overthrow the Assad regime.

President Obama has suggested over the course of the Syrian civil war that intervening on behalf of the rebels is ill-advised because there is no way of knowing who is behind the rebel forces. Likely, it is why the President spent considerable time and energy at the G20 summit attempting to marshal international support to hold the Syrians accountable for the chemical weapon attack on a Damascus suburb that claimed countless lives of innocent civilians. Now, any American involvement is in the hands of an impotent Congress that is unable to manage passing a budget, farm bill, and immigration reform because they are too focused on defunding the Affordable Care Act, shutting down the government, and bickering over whether or not to default on the nation’s debt obligation.

Republicans in Congress, particularly the dependable warmongers who lust to bomb the Middle East, have shown no inclination to set aside their hatred for this President and support him; even to kill Muslims accused of using chemical weapons against their own countrymen. It is reasonable to assume that it may be the outcome the President hoped for after all. America cannot be the world’s police and the civil war in Syria is an internal matter and frankly, the rebels attempting to overthrow the legal government have given no assurance they have not already acquired some of the considerable chemical weapons few in the world cared to address.

The Syrian issue is a very complex problem that falls under the aegis of the United Nations and not just America. As the President has noted several times, 98% of the world’s governments signed treaties banning chemical weapons and mandated their destruction, and yet over the past twenty years Russia, Iran, European nations, and even American companies helped Syria buildup of a very substantial chemical weapons stash. The question the 188 signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention now have to answer is just how committed they are to banning chemical weapons, and if as a group they will hold the Syrians who deployed them accountable for their actions or continue turning a blind eye.

President Obama has made America’s position clear that its commitment to banning chemical weapons is not confined to signing a treaty, and sending the decision to Congress sent a message to Americans that the democratic process will decide whether America takes action. There are valid arguments on both sides why America should or should not intervene in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs, and it is up to Congress to make the final decision. For his part, the President has silenced critics that he is not willing to take a principled stand and defend America’s interests abroad, or that he is adhering to the Bush doctrine of unilaterally deciding when America goes to war. The signal to Congress is that it is long past time for them to get to work for the American people and maybe resolving the question of military action against Syria will inspire them to quickly decide that it is not in America’s best interest to risk the possibility of a new Syrian regime unafraid to use chemical weapons against America or its allies.

With only 9 days to oppose raising the debt ceiling and funding the government, Republicans in Congress have their work cut out for them and it is likely their automatic opposition to President Obama will decide the Syria issue quickly and put responsibility for addressing chemical weapons use where it belongs in the hands of the United Nations. It is unreasonable that Republicans will want to miss an opportunity to waste 9 days creating another economic crisis over funding the government and threatening the nation’s credit, and it is possible the President counted on them to reject his request all along.


Michele Bachmann Says Only God Can Defeat Hilary in 2016

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Sep. 10th, 2013

bachmann-fbiSpeaking with Jan Markell of Olive Tree Ministries, Michele Bachmann in the course of an hour-long chat said that only God can defeat Hilary in 2016. Probably, only God can keep Bachmann out of jail, but that’s another story.

Where Hilary is concerned, Bachmann is trusting to the Lord God Almighty:

    I don’t at all [fear Hilary will win] because I look at the story of David and Goliath, all David needed was one smooth stone to fell the giant. It wasn’t the stone, it wasn’t David, it was the strong right arm of a Holy God.

Bachmann is forgetting that Republicans were trusting to God to defeat Obama in 2008, and God gave them Barack Obama, whom they now accuse of plotting to establish an Islamic Caliphate (presumably then, he was killing Osama bin Laden as a potential rival for the role).

As a matter of fact, they have trusted in their god to do a lot of things (end abortion, lower the price of gas, etc) he has declined to do.

It’s almost as if they are turning their god into a tool or a weapon to be deployed to accomplish tasks they can’t.

Which doesn’t make him much of a god, when you think about it, occupying, as he does, such a subservient role to his alleged worshipers. Shouldn’t God’s voice be thundering down from heaven warning us not to vote for Hilary?

Not happening. Bachmann knows its not happening. That’s why so many Republicans are pretending to speak for their god.

Just like Bachmann said God told her to run for Prez in 2012. If she’s listening to God, doesn’t that also mean he told her to break election laws? And look where that’s getting her.

And yes, that’s another story. I’m sorry. It’s such an attractive story….

Bachmann apparently wants to hedge her bets, saying the GOP needs a “positive, big picture message solution.” Positive and GOP are not words that go together these days, when a message built on hate and exclusion permeates American conservatism.

Look at their platform last time around, written by a bunch of religious fanatics, a platform based on the Old Testament rather than the United States Constitution.

And they wonder why they lost.

And, of course, Bachmann says we have to stick with Israel and, speaking of exclusion, reject immigrants. “I got to tell you,” she said, “I’ve been shocked and appalled by the conservatives who have gotten on board this train of amnesty for illegal aliens. I’ve been absolutely floored.”

Appalled…wait till she gets to federal prison. Then she will be appalled and…floored.

Oh, sorry! I promised that was another story. I won’t do it again. Promise.

Anyway, Bachmann said,

    For some reason they’re [naughty Republicans] on a political suicide journey to make sure this [immigration reform] happens. This will hurt and forever structurally change our country into the future and I think it will hurt us from a national security perspective as well.

Right. Republican fantasies of immigrants with explosives smuggled across the border in their anuses with those beefy cantaloupe calves.

And in a sort of shout-out to Iowa, where Ted Cruz is carrying on with her particular brand of crazy, Bachmann could not ignore Republican millennialism:

    We are in times that are unprecedented. These are the times of birth pangs, we’re seeing the intensity of age and the speed and rapidity that these events are starting to speed up so fast that we can hardly get our minds about it.

Well, her mind, at any rate, which was never one of the world’s finest. I mean, she thinks David Barton is a constitutional expert. ‘Nuff said.

Jan Markell opined “that many are heartbroken because we’ve watched this wonderful country of ours just tank more and more and more because of this secular humanist, hardcore, atheistic, left who is hell bent on socialism for America.”

Oh those nasty secular humanists and their United States Constitution. Just as Republicans won’t forgive Obama for being a black man, they won’t forgive the Founding Fathers for writing a secular Constitution. The Founding Fathers aren’t around to blame anymore so they blame those of us who defend that Constitution instead, while they try to turn the Founding Fathers into religious fanatics.

What’s funny is that Americans seem well aware of its choice coming down to that between rampant and unbridled capitalist corporatism and a people-friendly socialism and the corporatist message has been rejected in two consecutive national elections.

And now we have Bachmann’s open admission that 2016 will bring yet a third rejection – unless the Lord God Almighty steps in and smites Hilary hip and thigh in the best Old Testament sense.

Good luck with that, Michele.


Fox anchor asks viewers to consider if bombing Syria is a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ

By David Edwards
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 9:36 EDT

Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto on Monday devoted an entire segment to the possibility that a United States attack on Syria could be a sign of the End Times, a period in which Christians believe that Jesus Christ will return to face the emergence of the Antichrist.

“This Syria stuff is way old,” Cavuto explained. “I mean Old Testament old. That’s how old I’m talking about. Don’t laugh. Some biblical scholars say it’s all there in black and white.”

The Fox News host invited author Joel Rosenberg to weigh in on the link between the Syrian conflict and the Bible passages, which he said were “uncanny” and “kind of scary.”

“These are prophecies more than 2,700 years old, some of them, but they have not actually been fulfilled,” Rosenberg said. “But this prophecy, as you just pointed out, talks about the complete and utter destruction of Damascus. That’s an End Times or eschatological prophecy.”

“It’s a very sobering thought to think that a judgment of a city or a country could happen in which an entire city could be wiped out, but that is, in fact, what the Bible is predicting,” he added. “I think it’s wrong for people who teach Bible prophecies to guess — I mean, in a sense try to say for certain it’s going to happen now.”

“But you have 7 million Syrians that are already on the run, 2 million have left the country, 5 million are internally displaced. That Jeremiah 49 prophecy says that people will flee, but there will still be people in Damascus when the prophecy happens. So, the bottom line is that we don’t know if these two prophecies — Isaiah 17 and Jeremiah 49 — will happen in our lifetime or soon, but they could because they haven’t happened yet.”

“Amazing,” the Fox News host observed. “It’s in in there. It’s worth a read.”

Cavuto and Rosenberg did not speculate if one of the current world leaders could be the Antichrist at the time of Christ’s Second Coming.

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« Reply #8638 on: Sep 11, 2013, 06:06 AM »

Syria pledges to sign chemical weapons treaty and reveal scale of stockpile

Assad government offers measure as Russia and western powers wrangle at UN over necessity of military threat

Julian Borger, Dan Roberts and Spencer Ackerman in Washington and Nicholas Watt   
The Guardian, Tuesday 10 September 2013 21.36 BST 

Syria said on Tuesday night it would sign an international chemical weapons treaty and admit the scale of its chemical weapons stockpile for the first time.

The foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said his country would halt production of chemical arms, disclose the location of its existing arsenal and allow access to UN inspectors in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Joining the convention implied a commitment to destroy the poison gases and nerve agents thought to be in Syria's possession, but a battle was looming at the UN over whether the timetable for Syrian disarmament should be enforced by the threat of military action.

The US, Britain and France are preparing a hard-edged security council resolution backed by the possible use of force. Russia is proposing a much milder non-binding council declaration. As both sides manoeuvred for tactical advantage, Russia first summoned an emergency council meeting for 4pm on Tuesday then abruptly cancelled it.

Pig Putin, the Russian president, insisted the disarmament process would work "only if the US and those who support it on this issue pledge to renounce the use of force, because it is difficult to make any country – Syria or any other country in the world – unilaterally disarm if there is military action against it under consideration".

Russia proposes to work with the Assad regime and the UN secretariat to lay out a "workable, precise and concrete" disarmament plan with a timetable but no enforcement mechanism.

After a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, admitted: "As I understood, the Russians at this stage were not necessarily enthusiastic – and I'm using a euphemism – to put all that into the framework of a UN binding resolution."

The US, UK and France all stressed that they would not allow Russia or Damascus to play for time. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, told a hearing of the House of Representatives armed services committee that the US was waiting for details of the Russian proposal, "but we're not waiting for long".
Link to video: Syria: US 'will not wait long' for Russia's diplomatic plan, says John Kerry

He said: "President Obama will take a hard look at it. But it has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable. We have to show Syria, Russia and the world we are not going to fall for stalling tactics."

US officials later said that Kerry would meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday for further talks. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that Lavrov and Kerry spoke by telephone and the two "agreed to continue contacts, including the possibility of holding a personal meeting in the coming days."

David Cameron delivered the same message in Westminster, saying the UK did not want the Russian disarmament proposal to be "some delaying tactic, some ruse to buy time for a regime that must act on chemical weapons".

Referring to the planned UN resolution, the prime minister said "there would have to be consequences" if it wasn't done.

However, the western powers' tough rhetoric is weakened by the lack of enthusiasm at home for military action. Parliament has ruled out British involvement in punitive strikes, and Barack Obama faces stiff resistance in Congress.

"I think there is a high risk of another car crash at the security council," said Richard Gowan of the centre for international co-operation at New York University. "It will be very, very difficult for Obama to accept a resolution that doesn't involve a threat to Assad. Putin is daring him to walk away from the UN and go back to Washington, knowing he can't count on support there. The Russians hope that when he's faced with that trap he will climb down."

The White House abandoned its earlier plan to seek open-ended authorisation for punitive air strikes in response to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons in a civilian massacre in eastern Damascus on 21 August. Instead, the Obama administration was working with a bipartisan group of eight senators to craft a new resolution that would set a deadline for Syrian co-operation with the UN on disarmament, and authorise the use of force if that deadline was broken.

The Senate suspended plans to vote on military authorisation after meeting with Obama to discuss the proposed Russian deal. The majority leader, Harry Reid, said "it's important we do this well, not quickly" but called on Syria to show that its offer to hand over chemical weapons to international observers was "not a ploy".

A fellow Democrat, Joe Manchin, who has opposed military action, said he was heartened by the meeting and said he would pursue a separate resolution giving the Syrians time to comply.

On Tuesday Human Rights Watch said evidence from the massacre of civilians in eastern Damascus last month strongly suggested the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attacks.

The report based its conclusions on testimony from witnesses and medical staff as well analysis of the armaments used, which HRW said were of a type used only by the Syrian military. The effect on the victims pointed to a nerve agent, "most likely sarin".

It said it was impossible so far to give an exact death toll, but noted that the estimate in just one district was over 700 and that Médecins Sans Frontières had reported that at least 3,600 people were treated for symptoms consistent with exposure to neurotoxins.


Syria crisis: Obama leans to diplomacy on chemical weapons impasse

In a televised address, president cites Russian-backed disarmament plan as reason for postponing military action

Paul Lewis in Washington, Wednesday 11 September 2013 11.43 BST   

Link to video: Barack Obama addresses the nation on Syria – video

Barack Obama has used a televised address to lay the path for a possible diplomatic resolution to the impasse over Syria, pledging to work directly with Russia to force the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons but insisting military strikes remain a possibility.

The US president said that although he had suspended a congressional vote to authorise force against Syria, he had ordered the military to "maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails".

However in what were his most dovish remarks since his administration began briefing two weeks ago that a strike was imminent, Obama said he would wait for the United Nations inspectors to complete their report on the 21 August chemical attacks outside Damascus before taking further action. He said there were "encouraging signs" of a political resolution.

Just a few days ago the White House dismissed the UN inspection process as irrelevant and said Russian intransigence had held the security council hostage.

The 15-minute speech from the White House capped a dramatic 36 hours in which the Obama administration, faced with increased opposition in Congress to the use of military force, seized on a Russian-backed proposal that would involve Syria giving up control of its chemical weapon stockpiles under the remit of a possible UN resolution.

Obama said he had asked congressional leaders to postpone the vote authorising force "while we pursue this diplomatic path", adding that he was dispatching the secretary of state, John Kerry, to meet his Russian counterpart in Geneva on Thursday. The president said he had a "deeply held preference" for a peaceful solution and welcomed an initiative by Russia that would put Syria's chemical weapons under international control. "It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments, but this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies," Obama said.

At the start of the week Obama had been planning to use this special address to the nation to persuade a largely sceptical US public of the need for military strikes in response to the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons in eastern Damascus on 21 August. The White House had argued it would pursue strikes without waiting for the UN inspection report, which it said was irrelevant because it was already widely accepted that the Syrians had used chemical weapons.

Earlier on Tuesday, after abandoning its previous plan to seek open-ended authorisation from Congress for punitive air strikes, the administration began to focus its efforts on a bipartisan plan in the Senate to craft a new resolution that would set a deadline for Syrian co-operation with the UN on disarmament and authorise the use of force if that deadline was broken.

Despite a week of intensive lobbying and a rare personal visit to Capitol Hill by Obama on Tuesday, analysts predicted a straight vote for military force against Syria was going to fail in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Few had expected Obama's address to the nation was likely to change that. Obama acknowledged the lack of appetite for military action in his address, saying that "after the terrible toll of Iraq and Afghanistan the idea of any military action, no matter how limited, is not going to be popular".

His speech mostly repeated previous arguments he has made in recent television interviews, and in an address from the White House 10 days ago, for holding Assad to account over the chemical weapons attack, which the US says killed more than 1,400 people. The president emphasised pictures of children suffering after the "sickening" gas attack.

Although Syria has pledged to sign the convention, which would require it to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, there is international disagreement about how any disarmament would be enforced. The US, UK and France are seeking a tough security council resolution, bolstered with the threat of force if Syria does not comply with its obligations. But that approach is opposed by Russia, which first pushed for the diplomatic solution but is now proposing a much milder, non-binding security council declaration.

Amid confusion over the terms of any UN deal, Russia summoned an emergency council meeting for 4pm on Tuesday then abruptly cancelled it. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, insisted any disarmament process would work "only if the US and those who support it on this issue pledge to renounce the use of force, because it is difficult to make any country – Syria or any other country in the world – unilaterally disarm if there is military action against it under consideration".

Obama implicitly rejected that demand in his speech, saying the the US should still be prepared to take military action against Syria and arguing that a tough response would punish President Bashar al-Assad and deter other dictators from using chemical weapons.

However amid congressional opposition, and Obama's pledge to pursue a diplomatic route, strikes against Syria now appear less likely than they have since 26 August, when Kerry gave a tough speech that was widely interpreted as a prelude to military action.

In the intervening two weeks the US administration first appeared to be on the cusp of launching strikes and then rowed back, reacting to a decision by the British parliament to reject the use of force.

Observers in Washington are divided over how Obama has handled the Syria crisis, which is likely to become one of the defining moments of his second term in office. Some argue the president has dithered, pulling back from the brink of military strikes after initially indicating they were imminent. They say he has appeared to an indecisive commander in chief, buffeted by events outside of his control and outsmarted by Pig Putin.

Others contend Obama has proved a shrewd and patient strategist in a game of brinkmanship that may ultimately result in Syria relinquishing chemical weapons without the president resorting to unpopular military strikes.


Syria: a path worth exploring

For the first time in two and a half years, everyone in the Syrian crisis – except the rebels – appears to be on the same page

Guardian G logo
The Guardian, Tuesday 10 September 2013 23.05 BST     

However the plan emerged – whether it was the US secretary of state John Kerry going off-piste at a press conference, whether it had been floated at the G20 summit last week, or whether it had been worked over in back-channel discussions for some time – it soon acquired momentum. Within 24 hours, China and Iran had backed the emerging Russia-US idea for Syria to surrender its chemical arsenal – although Iran added that this should include the chemical weapons it alleged were in rebel hands. Barack Obama, increasingly uncertain of winning congressional backing for a strike over Syria's alleged chemical weapons use, put that idea on hold and said the plan for Syria to sign the chemical weapons convention (CWC) could be a significant breakthrough. For the first time in two and a half years, everyone in the Syrian crisis – except the rebels – appears to be on the same page.

This is welcome, although that momentum was already slowing over the insistence by the US, UK and France to make a UN resolution enforceable with military action. Vladimir Putin said that a draft resolution could only work if the use of force was off the table. As the CWC process contains its own timetable and enforcement procedures, there must still be room for compromise although the meeting at the UN was postponed. The international securing of Syria's chemical weapons should be explored, however, not least because it may simultaneously stop a military strike and chart a way back to the negotiating table at Geneva. If successful, Syria's putative agreement to admit inspectors to verify and seal its chemical weapons stockpile could be accompanied by a wider ceasefire negotiated in Geneva. One agreement could lead to another.

This is emphatically not the case with a military strike. The closer Mr Obama comes to pulling the trigger, the more difficulty his advisers and spokesmen have in defining the mission. Is it an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort" (Mr Kerry) or does "The US … not do pinpricks" (Mr Obama)? Are the strikes intended to tip the balance of power or just as a shot across the bows? The original project of arming the rebels, proposed by Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, then secretary of state and head of the CIA, had one purpose in mind – regime change. The military option morphed, in British and French hands, into a plan to force Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table by securing rebel gains on the ground.

Yet, as the war drags on, an Assad defeat looksincreasingly unlikely. His forces are cohesive and their lines of supply from Russia and Iran not in doubt. The rebels' forces are anything but unified. They have been Balkanised along ethnic, religious and local lines, and follow competing military strategies. Some jihadi groups are now using Syria as a base to attack Iraq.

We could swiftly reach the point, if we have not got there already, where it is not in international interests for any side to win.

If the twists and turns of the Lebanese civil war become a template for the Syrian one, peace would be a long way down the line. And if and when it came, it might not deliver a country liberated from a single dictator. Rather, it might produce a landscape dominated by lots of them, each in control of his own patch. The sooner the fighting stops, the greater the chances of stopping such Balkanisation.The diplomatic option has real advantages. The first steps are clear – Mr Assad's signature on an agreement to join the CWC – and could even be achieved almost as quickly as Mr Kerry is urging. The next steps are more difficult, but they are automatic and intrusive. Thirty days after signing, any use or stockpiling of chemical agents would be illegal and make Syria liable to emergency inspections. The practical problems of delivering this, in the midst of a civil war, should not be underestimated.

But for now, the problem and doubts over enforcement should not be allowed to obscure the ultimate goal – that if Syria signs the CWC, and it said it would, a procedure will be put in place that is more thorough and more targeted at Syria's chemical weapons stock than any military action, barring full scale invasion, could achieve.

If the CWC route takes time, so be it. Renouncing the use of force – that Mr Obama's administration is deeply divided about and struggling to define –may be the price that has to be paid.

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« Reply #8639 on: Sep 11, 2013, 06:08 AM »

Kenya's deputy president William Ruto denies murder at ICC

First serving government official to stand trial at Hague court is charged with orchestrating violence after 2007 election

David Smith, Africa correspondent, Wednesday 11 September 2013 08.27 BST   

Looking relaxed in the crowded courtroom, Kenya's second most powerful man secured an ignominious place in history on Tuesday as he was accused of orchestrating violence in which women and children were "burned alive, hacked to death or chased from their homes".

William Ruto is the first serving government official to stand trial at the international criminal court. The deputy president of Kenya is charged with crimes against humanity in the aftermath of the 2007 election in which more than 1,100 people died.

His appearance at The Hague in the Netherlands, to be followed by the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, in November, is widely seen as a watershed for the international criminal court, which has prosecuted only Africans and secured only one conviction in its 11-year existence.

Taking his place in the courtroom, Ruto appeared calm, smiling and laughing with his lawyers, according to Reuters. The 46-year-old's wife and daughter were in the front row of a public gallery packed with dozens of supportive Kenyan MPs. Broadcaster Joshua arap Sang, 38, also standing trial, gave a reporter a thumbs-up sign.

The two defendants are both accused of murder, deportation and persecution of political opponents in the Rift Valley region in late 2007 and early 2008.

"The crimes of which Mr Ruto and Mr Sang are charged were not just random and spontaneous acts of brutality," Fatou Bensouda, the ICC's chief prosecutor, told the court. "This was a carefully planned and executed plan of violence - Ruto's ultimate goal was to seize political power for himself and his party in the event he could not do so via the ballot box."

Ruto used networks within his Kalenjin tribe to target political opponents and members of the rival Kikuyu tribe, Bensouda alleged. More than 200 people were killed in the Rift Valley and 1,000 injured while thousands more were forced from their homes.

"Mr Ruto, as a powerful politician" planned the crimes "to satisfy his thirst for political power", Bensouda told the court. "It is difficult to imagine the suffering or the terror of the men, women and children who were burned alive, hacked to death or chased from their homes by armed youths.

"Mr William Ruto and Mr Joshua arap Sang are most responsible for these crimes."

While Ruto allegedly armed and organised the attackers, Sang is accused of using his popular radio show to whip up hatred against Kikuyu tribe members and even broadcast coded instructions to direct attackers to their targets.

Ruto, wearing a grey suit and red-and-silver striped tie, answered each of the three counts of murder, persecution and forcible transfer of people in turn: "Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty." Sang, who shook his head as Bensouda spoke, also protested his innocence.

Ruto's lawyer, Karim Khan, described the case against his client as "a very clear and glaring conspiracy of lies" and accused prosecutors of failing to properly investigate the case.

"We say that there is a rotten underbelly of this case that the prosecutor has swallowed hook, line and sinker, indifferent to the truth, all too eager to latch on to any … story that somehow ticks the boxes that we have to tick" to support charges, he said.

Prosecutors have complained of widespread witness intimidation ahead of the trial and some witnesses have refused to testify. Bensouda told judges that it was an achievement to bring the case to trial. The hearings are expected to take years.

For some observers, it is not Ruto so much as the ICC itself that is on trial. Kenya's parliament voted last week to quit the ICC, although the decision has no bearing on the trials of Kenyatta and Ruto. Public opinion appears split between those seeking justice for victims and those who claim the court is neo-colonialist and "anti-African".

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