September 11, 2013
Afghan Army Struggles in District Under Siege
By AZAM AHMED
SANGIN, Afghanistan — Some days, the Afghan soldiers worry that the mud walls around their headquarters in this embattled district are barely enough to keep the Taliban out. Perhaps more problematic is that the crumbling facade appears to be keeping the soldiers in.
Nolay Base takes direct fire almost every day from the Taliban. With more forces lost here than almost any other district in the country, the Afghan soldiers seldom leave the installation, and mostly refuse to conduct missions — too dangerous, they say. And when soldiers head out to go on brief home leaves, a growing number of them desert rather than return, their commanders say.
“It’s difficult to find local people who are against the Taliban,” said the executive officer of the brigade here, Col. Abdulhai Neshat. “This place is like a prison.”
In this corner of Helmand Province, widely agreed to be the most critical running battle in the country today, Afghan forces are in trouble. Though it does not reflect the broader security situation in Afghanistan, Sangin (pronounced SANG-in) offers a troubling portrait of life where the Taliban decides to make its mark and the Americans no longer fight, a situation that is likely to multiply as coalition forces completely withdraw next year.
Since launching their major offensive in late May, the Taliban have easily weathered the halfhearted attempts by the Afghans to reclaim Sangin, despite aid from international forces. In the past week alone, the Taliban have cleared out several villages, displacing up to 1,000 people and overrunning several security checkpoints, locals and Afghan officials say.
Coalition commanders are quietly growing alarmed, concerned that if the situation gets worse they may have to intervene for the second time this summer in an area officially turned over to Afghan security control.
Since the war’s beginning, the district, in the heart of Afghanistan’s poppy-growing country, has been home to the fiercest fighting in the country. British and American forces struggled here for years, taking heavy casualties to create even just a modest security bubble to free the district center from insurgent pressure.
Those gains have started to evaporate under the Afghans this year, as casualties mount and as a reluctance to confront the Taliban allows the insurgents to broaden their territory.
About 120 soldiers and police officers have been killed this summer, with more than double that number wounded, according to the district governor and others. Among the ranks of soldiers, attrition hovers near 50 percent, counting deaths, debilitating injuries and soldiers who never return from leave, according to the executive officer of the main unit in northern Helmand Province, the Second Brigade of the 215th Afghan Army Corps.
While elsewhere in the country Afghan forces are taking the fight to the Taliban, American commanders complain that their counterparts in Sangin have developed an “addiction to bases” — building new fortified posts instead of leaving the ones they have to attack the insurgents.
Even then, they are losing ground. Afghan forces have dismantled many security checkpoints they felt they could not defend, and at least six have been captured and held by the Taliban since May. In the past week, more have been taken down, and at least four new posts have been overrun, local officials say.
Desperate to regain momentum, the Afghan Army has been chewing through senior officers here. The commander of the Second Brigade has been fired, as has the battalion commander in Sangin. Casualties have taken a toll on the leadership, too: last month, the Taliban killed the district intelligence chief.
“Right now, Sangin is like an open space for the Taliban,” said the Sangin district governor, Habibullah Shamlanai. “Anyone can enter, and anyone can leave.”
Sangin became the focal point of the fighting season in late May, when the Taliban kicked off their biggest assault of the year. Massing around 600 fighters in a 36-hour blitz, the insurgents attacked about 20 Afghan patrol bases in a strategic area of the district that borders the river.
The Afghans were overrun in some locations, while other outposts were abandoned when the local police staffing them ran out of ammunition. An initial attempt to reclaim the lost ground in the aftermath of the embarrassing assault was somewhat successful, but several bases still remain in Taliban hands.
In July, the Afghans mounted a major counteroffensive, drawing in an entire battalion from the Third Brigade of the 215th Army Corps in Marja and bringing both British soldiers and American Marines onto the battlefield to assist.
But after a strong start, participants say, the Afghans refused to continue. Losses mounted, momentum dissipated, and the mission was left less than half complete, leaving the green zone, a lush strip of foliage that hugs the waters of the Sangin River, largely in the control of the Taliban.
In August, after the end of Ramadan, the Afghan commanders were nervous, expecting another major Taliban assault. To safeguard some of the more remote bases, the brigade sergeant major, Zabiullah Syeddi, assembled a quick reaction force to move farther into the hostile green zone.
As his men prepared to leave Nolay Base, taking up positions beside a row of idling Humvees and tow trucks, a large explosion suddenly shook the ground. Several soldiers ran to see whether they were under attack. Sergeant Major Syeddi, a veteran soldier, swung the door of his Humvee open to investigate.
When he returned, he ran his hand over his face and shrugged. The insurgents, he said, had laid an improvised explosive device on the driveway of the brigade headquarters, in plain sight of the guard towers.
At 2 a.m. that night, the sergeant major began making a series of scheduled check-in calls to three neighboring base commanders. Two responded immediately — all clear. But there was no answer at the third, the Mahmud Agha outpost, several hundred yards away.
His voice grew more desperate with each call, until finally he disappeared out of sight. He reappeared a few minutes later, walking slowly.
“They were sleeping,” he said.
The next morning, on the way home, the convoy drove through the Sangin bazaar, the largest in Northern Helmand. Fabrics, food and electronics lined the shelves of dozens of storefronts as merchants and shoppers stood along the bustling road.
A line of soldiers was on a rare foot patrol in the bazaar, bunched together, guns slung loosely over their shoulders.
Near a central roundabout, the convoy stopped to allow reporters from The New York Times to speak with a handful of residents, who offered bleak assessments.
“I just stay in the shop and don’t go outside,” said one merchant, Hayatullah, standing at the edge of his electronics store. “This is my job, how can I leave?”
A crowd gathered, describing the district as a land divided — the center, which was somewhat secure, and everywhere else, a wasteland.
“There is fighting every day — every day, bullets are flying,” said Hayatullah, 20, who like many Afghans goes by a single name.
Eager to leave, the soldiers returned to their vehicles. They roared past the foot patrol as they pulled out of the market.
Suddenly a loud explosion ripped through the air, sending up a cloud of smoke and dust near the road. A rocket-propelled grenade aimed at the convoy had missed. The turret gunners aimed their weapons in the direction of the boom while the drivers sped off.
Seconds later, the real ambush began — against the patrol left behind at the bazaar. A 10-minute firefight raged in the heart of the market district, claiming at least two soldiers, one shot through the eye. The Taliban, for all anyone knew, suffered zero casualties.
The soldiers visiting the wounded in the brigade hospital, a clean facility manned by a single medic, offered words of comfort to their comrades. But a sense of fatalism had already gripped the base.
Still, Colonel Neshat seemed temporarily jolted from the complacence that has plagued his men. He swore to search and clear the area where the ambush was staged.
“We have to, we have to,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “If we don’t find them my plan is to put a good post in place to disrupt them.”
Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
September 12, 2013, 4:39 am
Hospital Confronts Childbirth Deaths in Mumbai Slum
By MICHAEL EDISON HAYDEN
DHARAVI, Maharashtra— Elizabeth Nadumani, 40, pulled up the bottom of her sari as she stepped over a hole filled with milky fluid and floating debris toward the entrance of a shack in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. Inside the tiny home, a 23-year-old mother named Chaya, who goes by one name, breastfed her one-month-old son. When Ms. Nadumani parted the thin curtain that served as a door, Chaya covered her breasts and straightened her matted hair. In hushed tones, Ms. Nadumani reminded the young mother of her son’s pending appointment for a polio vaccination, and then slipped her a package of government condoms.
“Just a reminder,” Ms. Nadumani said quietly in Marathi, “because Vishnu is your third,” she said of Ms. Chaya’s son.
Ms. Nadumani is a paid volunteer at The Urban Health Centre for Sion Hospital, in central Mumbai, and one of the unsung heroes in India’s battle against maternal and infant mortality. The center where she works is a small building commonly known by residents of Dharavi slum as Chhota Sion. Just a dusty five-minute walk from Sion’s larger government hospital, Lokmanya Tilak General Hospital. The space is easy to miss, scattered among the chai stalls, dumpsters, and repair shops that currently shield Dharavi’s complex web of poverty from the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Mumbai’s Eastern Expressway. But to the new mothers and soon-to-be mothers living in Dharavi who rely on Chhota Sion for free prenatal and early infancy check ups, the building and its staff represent, especially during that fragile period from conception to a baby’s first steps, the very center of their lives.
It is no secret that high maternal and infant mortality rates continue to haunt the vast legions of India’s poor. According to World Bank statistics, 220 mothers died for every 100,000 live births from 2008-12 in India. As a point of comparison, China’s maternal death rate was 37 out of 100,000 live births during the same period, or one-fifth India’s rate. Babies were not much luckier during those years, as India lost 47 out of every 1000 infants, or close to four times worse than China’s rate during that time.
The fight to give birth safely, is among many obstacles facing women in India, where reports of rape and acts of female infanticide continue to dominate headlines. Doctors insist that the problem requires more public attention and there is a dire need to replenish outdated equipment, expand existing work spaces, and hire more qualified staff in poorer communities for making childbirth a safer experience. For evidence, they say, look no further than the slums of Mumbai.
“Mumbai should be seen as a beacon of hope for India in terms of improving the safety of childbirth,” explained Dr. Arun Nayak, 50, an obstetrician and professor at Sion Hospital. “But because of the density of population here, many total lives are still lost, and that means that we still have work to do.”
Dr. Nayak, who heads up a commission on maternal deaths for Sion Hospital, estimates that roughly 15,000 births have occurred in his ward this year, and somewhere between 50 and 60 mothers have died. These estimates would be much closer to the slightly better maternal mortality rates of China than to those of the rest of India. According to the most recent statistics from the Indian government’s Planning Commission, the state of Maharashtra ranked third best among Indian states in maternal and infant mortality rates between 2007 and 2009, behind Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but Dr. Nayak’s estimates would eclipse even those state figures, and by a considerable margin. He attributes this success to the wide range of resources available to patients at Mumbai’s larger government hospitals, where the equipment is modern, resources are plentiful, and medical teams are fairly large.
“We have resources here in Sion, like a large blood bank,” Dr. Nayak said. “But many peripheral government hospitals and rural hospitals quite simply do not.”
According to Dr. Nayak, poorly financed government hospitals located outside the city limits are to blame for the majority of deaths he sees in the obstetrics wing of Sion. Peripheral hospitals, as doctors commonly refer to them, often lack space or sufficient manpower, making it extremely difficult for workers to deal with the potential complications that can arise during childbirth. When a peripheral hospital cannot sufficiently care for a patient, Dr. Nayak explained, the expectant mother is then transported to a larger government hospital like Sion, where her ambulance can sometimes spend hours stuck in traffic along the way. The length of this trip often amounts to a dangerous waiting game.
“Sometimes at a peripheral hospital there is only one person caring for a hundred patients at once,” Dr. Nayak said. “There is only so much these doctors can do to help.”
On a recent afternoon, Dr. Nayak was forced to perform an emergency operation on a woman who had incurred life threatening vaginal injuries while giving birth in a peripheral hospital located in the city of Bhiwandi, nearly 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, from Sion. The woman, who was not named out of respect for her privacy, was treated in a ward filled with 10 other pregnant women. To anyone who has seen a maternity ward of a private hospital, the idea of giving birth in a cramped room with other women might seem extraordinarily uncomfortable. But Sion is among the most spacious government hospitals available to women in Mumbai. And Dr. Nayak believes that space helped to save his patient’s life, and the life of her child.
“We lost four women here this August that were transferred from peripheral hospitals,” Dr. Nayak said. “She became uncomfortably close to becoming the fifth.”
Space is a precious commodity in a city of 18.4 million residents, and more of it cannot be simply willed into existence Chotta Sion was built over two decades ago as Dharavi swelled to become one of the most populated slums on the planet. A more direct means of providing health care to residents was needed to clear room from its larger parent hospital, Lokmanya Tilak General.
One wall in the health station bears signs that detail the sobering statistics of Dharavi slum’s ever-surging populace, setting the stage for that herculean task of caring for all of them:
“Total Population – 87,388, Birth Rate – 13.89%, Death Rate – 5.24%, Infant Mortality – 27.14%, Maternal Mortality – 0.06%.”
Monitoring those 87,388 people is the team working out of Chotta Sion’s primary health post, a rectangular room saturated with fluorescent lights and stacked to the ceiling with boxes of tuberculosis medications. Overseeing this room is Dr. Girish Gaikwad, 29, an energetic post-graduate doctor who, along with immunizing patients and attending to emergency cases, gives direction to the many paid volunteers like Ms. Nadumani, who go door-to-door checking on people in Dharavi during pregnancy and early infancy.
“If someone is pregnant, the volunteers find out and advise the mother on where to go and what to do,” Dr. Gaikwad said. “If the women remain reluctant to seek medical help, they will counsel them on the benefits.”
Ignorance and superstition are major obstacles to overcome in rural villages, where dangerous home deliveries are commonplace. But Dr. Gaikwad estimates that 90 percent of expectant mothers in Dharavi are booked for hospital stays well in advance, a testament to the goodwill and strong communication lines that have been established here between medical staff and the local community. The process of registering patients for delivery begins as soon as one of the door-to-door volunteers learns of a new pregnancy. A file is then prepared for the mother-to-be, charting her progress leading up to and after the moment of childbirth. Along the way, crucial medicines and vitamins are freely distributed to balance out deficiencies in the diets of women who oftentimes cannot afford adequate nutrition in their daily meals.
While another post-graduate will eventually replace Dr. Gaikwad, Ms. Nadumani and her colleagues have been serving their community for two decades now.
“I remember when I first started these shifts, 20 years ago,” Ms. Nadumani said. “I had to warn so many more women about the dangers of passing HIV/AIDS to their babies back then.”
She is satisfied that her efforts in the community are paying off not because of what shows up in statistics, but because of the reduction in HIV-positive patients she now witnesses first hand.
“People listen to me because I live here,” Ms. Nadumani explained. “I’m part of the neighborhood.”
Today, however, Ms. Nadumani’s most important duty is not educating people about a disease like HIV/AIDS, or even advising pregnant women, but helping to control the population itself. After women give birth to a second child, Ms. Nadumani and the other volunteers urge them to try using condoms in the hopes of reducing the birth rate. There are certain stigmas against using condoms, however, and these women can instead opt for temporary or permanent sterilization. The government then compensates those who apply for such measures with checks of 500-1000 rupees ($8-$15). The community here can ill afford any increases to its 13.89% birth rate.
While Chhota Sion has made impressive progress in improving the safety of childbirth in Dharavi, workers fear that they are working against the clock: the birth rate of 13.89%, for example, indicates the percentage rise of new people born into the slum each year, and the death rate, 5.24%, indicates the numbers of human beings taken away from it. In concert, those numbers paint a picture of a population that increased roughly 8.5% percent over the course of the last calendar year, not to mention migration to the area. Should that trend continue apace, Sion could eventually find itself stretched as thin as those peripheral hospitals mentioned by Dr. Nayak, erasing what has become a bright spot in the war against maternal and infant mortality. It is an outcome that everyone who works here is eager to avoid.
Michael Edison Hayden is an American writer currently living in Mumbai. You can follow him on twitter @MichaelEHayden
North Korea suspected of restarting Yongbyon nuclear reactor
Satellite imagery shows reactor capable of producing plutonium for weapons is likely to be operating, says US research institute
Tania Branigan in Beijing
theguardian.com, Thursday 12 September 2013 10.09 BST
North Korea appears to have restarted a reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, according to analysis of satellite imagery and a US official.
White steam can be seen rising from a building near the hall housing steam turbines and electric generators at Yongbyon nuclear complex in an image taken on 31 August, said the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Pyongyang announced it would restart the reactor this spring, amid high tensions on the peninsula. Relations have since improved, with North and South Korea saying on Wednesday that their joint industrial complex at Kaesong, closed in April, would reopen on a trial basis on Monday.
The US-Korea Institute said the gas-graphite reactor was capable of producing 6kg of weapons-grade plutonium a year. It believes that the North already has 34-36kg, sufficient for around a dozen weapons.
"The white coloration and volume are consistent with steam being vented because the electrical generating system is about to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation," wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis on 38 North, the website of the Washington-based institute.
Previous images had shown that the North was repairing the reactor, which was mothballed in 2007 as part of a six-party aid-for-denuclearisation deal that subsequently broke down.
A US official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters that he believed the North Koreans had restarted the reactor, saying that the amount of steam suggested it was being tested.
The official suggested Pyongyang was showing it would not abandon its nuclear programmes, rather than trying to force major powers to resume nuclear talks so that it could extract concessions.
He said the North "wants to create a fait accompli and be accepted as a [nuclear] power and nuclear weapons state." The only way to counter it would be to "raise the cost to them of taking this path, and increasing multilateral pressure, with China an active participant".
Andre Lankov, of Kookmin University in Seoul, said: "If the US behaves as if North Korea does not exist, they will become even more of a problem. Neglect, also known as strategic patience, is not, on balance, a bad approach, but cannot be sustained for a long time.
"The North Koreans won't just sit and beg or enjoy visits from eccentric basketball players. They are going to develop their nuclear capabilities."
Pyongyang announced in April that it would reopen the nuclear complex, which also includes a uranium enrichment facility. Experts had predicted it would take up to six months to restore operations at the reactor.
Although the North destroyed the Yongbyon cooling tower in 2008 as a confidence-building step, the US-Korea Institute had already said that it would not need to reconstruct the tower and could instead connect the reactor to a new pump-house.
Repeated attempts to use carrot and stick to halt the North's nuclear programme have faltered. While some have called for a return to multinational negotiations, Glyn Davies, the US special representative for the North, said on Monday that it was "very hard to imagine how the six-party [talks] could be fruitful at the moment".
Russian concerned about North Korea’s ‘nightmarish’ nuclear reactor re-start
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, September 12, 2013 7:47 EDT
Russia said on Thursday that North Korea was apparently conducting work on a nuclear reactor, warning that the ageing facility was in such a “nightmarish state” it could cause a disaster.
“It is obvious that some works are being conducted, and for a long time at that. According to some signs, steps were indeed being taken to relaunch it,” the Interfax news agency quoted a diplomatic source as saying.
The source said that Russia did not have definite information that Pyongyang had restarted the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, as US analysts have suggested based on satellite imagery, but warned of dire consequences if this happened.
“We do not have any information that the reactor has been relaunched,” the source said.
“Our main concern is linked to a very likely man-made disaster as a consequence. The reactor is in a nightmarish state, it is a design dating back to the 1950s.”
“For the Korean peninsula this could entail terrible consequences, if not a man-made catastrophe.”
The white steam picked up by satellites rising from a building next to the reactor “could simply be testing of the generator,” the diplomatic source cautioned, however.
In a separate dispatch, Interfax cited a diplomatic source as saying there was little hope for constructive talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme.
“The North Koreans are saying ‘We are ready to renew talks,’ but it’s not clear what about,” the source said.
“So far the situation is complicated.”
‘Siberian Mowgli’ returns to civilization after 12 years in wilderness
By The Christian Science Monitor
Thursday, September 12, 2013 7:05 EDT
A young man who spent the past 12 years in the Siberian wilderness has appeared before the Russian public – and then disappeared – alarming local officials and gaining media attention as the “Siberian Mowgli.”
Agence France-Presse reports that locals near the resort area of Belokurikha found the man, whose parents decided to leave society and live in the forest when he was about four years old. His parents left their family hut in May and did not return, and when summer ended the young man asked a nearby village for help.
A local woman brought him to authorities because she was concerned that he might need help through the winter. But he eventually disappeared back into the forest.
Roman Fomin, a local prosecutor, told the AFP that the young man looked healthy and normal but spoke slowly because he did not communicate often.
His “Siberian Mowgli” nickname refers to the feral child character Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”
Though not a feral child by definition, the boy’s hidden upbringing echoes a mystery that has surrounded feral children ever since the Age of Enlightenment, when thinkers turned their attention to the development of language.
In 1800, villagers in southern France captured an apparently abandoned child who had been living alone in the forest.
The so-called Wild Boy of Aveyron was brought to Paris, where a medical student named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard took great interest in studying the child, whom he named Victor.
Victor presented the perfect opportunity to test a major question of the time: How was man different from beast? Itard’s goal was to teach Victor to speak, although he only managed to teach him to read and speak a few words.
Other feral children fared better in their assimilation. The “Wild Girl of Champagne,” discovered in France in 1731, eventually learned to speak and eventually became a nun.
Children raised by animals often feature in mythology – Romulus and Remus, for example, were said to have been brought up by wolves. In reality, many children isolated from society are abandoned or abused by their parents because of perceived mental disabilities.
In the 1970s, California officials discovered the shocking tale of “Genie,” a 13-year-old girl who spent most of her life tied up and locked in a room by her father. Her father said she was mentally disabled, and he hid her away from the rest of the world, beating her if she made noises and feeding her mainly infant food. Although she acquired basic language skills, some experts speculate that she missed out on a critical period of language development during her years of abuse and isolation.
How might Siberian locals react to the well being of their own “wild child”?
“He was just afraid that he won’t survive the winter without his parents,” Mr. Fomin told the AFP. “But maybe they have already come back.”
Queensland parliament delays endorsing Barry O'Sullivan for Senate
Campbell Newman says O'Sullivan will not get the nod for Senate seat while he is under investigation by Crime and Misconduct Commission
Bridie Jabour and agencies
theguardian.com, Thursday 12 September 2013 09.55 BST
Barnaby Joyce’s replacement in the Senate has been denied endorsement by the Queensland parliament because he is under investigation by the state’s corruption watchdog.
In May Barry O’Sullivan, Queensland’s former Liberal treasurer, won preselection to fill the Senate vacancy created by the senior National party politician’s move to the lower house.
But he has to be endorsed by the Queensland parliament before taking his seat – and on Thursday state premier Campbell Newman – also a Liberal – announced that his parliament would not endorse O’Sullivan while he was being investigated by the Crime and Misconduct Commission.
O’Sullivan has been accused of bribery over allegations he was involved in offering LNP Queensland MP Bruce Flegg an inducement - believed to be a diplomatic posting to New York - to resign from his seat of Mogill in 2011 so that Newman, then Brisbane’s lord mayor, could take Flegg’s spot and run for premier.
Flegg did not leave the state parliament and Newman instead ran in the seat of Ashgrove, taking the place of a pre-selected LNP candidate, and defeated sitting Labor MP Kate Jones in the 2012 state election.
Newman said it was important to uphold the integrity of the national Senate and to ensure the chamber had all the information it needed to make the best choice.
"Many people get investigated and are cleared by the CMC," he said. "Mr O'Sullivan is entitled to the presumption of innocence until investigations are concluded."
O'Sullivan issued a statement saying he wrote to the premier asking him to defer the debate on his appointment until the investigation's conclusion.
"Whilst I am intent on taking up the seat in the Senate as soon as possible, I am also anxious to see this CMC investigation resolved, thereby removing any perceived issue on the part of our party or me in relation to these affairs," his statement says.
O’Sullivan was cleared of any wrongdoing by the CMC in the original investigation but it was reopened after the Courier-Mail published recordings that allegedly showed O’Sullivan involved in a conversation in which Flegg was offered a diplomatic posting to resign his seat.
LNP Queensland president Bruce McIver released a statement praising O'Sullivan for taking the right action.
"Mr O'Sullivan has the full support of the LNP and I am confident he will soon be in a position to take his place as Senator," McIver said.
Secret deal allows NSA to share Americans’ data with Israel
By Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 12:56 EDT
The National Security Agency routinely shares raw intelligence data with Israel without first sifting it to remove information about US citizens, a top-secret document provided to the Guardian by whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals.
Details of the intelligence-sharing agreement are laid out in a memorandum of understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart that shows the US government handed over intercepted communications likely to contain phone calls and emails of American citizens. The agreement places no legally binding limits on the use of the data by the Israelis.
The disclosure that the NSA agreed to provide raw intelligence data to a foreign country contrasts with assurances from the Obama administration that there are rigorous safeguards to protect the privacy of US citizens caught in the dragnet. The intelligence community calls this process “minimization”, but the memorandum makes clear that the information shared with the Israelis would be in its pre-minimized state.
The deal was reached in principle in March 2009, according to the undated memorandum, which lays out the ground rules for the intelligence sharing.
The five-page memorandum, termed an agreement between the US and Israeli intelligence agencies “pertaining to the protection of US persons”, repeatedly stresses the constitutional rights of Americans to privacy and the need for Israeli intelligence staff to respect these rights.
But this is undermined by the disclosure that Israel is allowed to receive “raw Sigint” – signal intelligence. The memorandum says: “Raw Sigint includes, but is not limited to, unevaluated and unminimized transcripts, gists, facsimiles, telex, voice and Digital Network Intelligence metadata and content.”
According to the agreement, the intelligence being shared would not be filtered in advance by NSA analysts to remove US communications. “NSA routinely sends ISNU [the Israeli Sigint National Unit] minimized and unminimized raw collection”, it says.
Although the memorandum is explicit in saying the material had to be handled in accordance with US law, and that the Israelis agreed not to deliberately target Americans identified in the data, these rules are not backed up by legal obligations.
“This agreement is not intended to create any legally enforceable rights and shall not be construed to be either an international agreement or a legally binding instrument according to international law,” the document says.
In a statement to the Guardian, an NSA spokesperson did not deny that personal data about Americans was included in raw intelligence data shared with the Israelis. But the agency insisted that the shared intelligence complied with all rules governing privacy.
“Any US person information that is acquired as a result of NSA’s surveillance activities is handled under procedures that are designed to protect privacy rights,” the spokesperson said.
The NSA declined to answer specific questions about the agreement, including whether permission had been sought from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (Fisa) court for handing over such material.
The memorandum of understanding, which the Guardian is publishing in full, allows Israel to retain “any files containing the identities of US persons” for up to a year. The agreement requests only that the Israelis should consult the NSA’s special liaison adviser when such data is found.
Notably, a much stricter rule was set for US government communications found in the raw intelligence. The Israelis were required to “destroy upon recognition” any communication “that is either to or from an official of the US government”. Such communications included those of “officials of the executive branch (including the White House, cabinet departments, and independent agencies), the US House of Representatives and Senate (member and staff) and the US federal court system (including, but not limited to, the supreme court)”.
It is not clear whether any communications involving members of US Congress or the federal courts have been included in the raw data provided by the NSA, nor is it clear how or why the NSA would be in possession of such communications. In 2009, however, the New York Times reported on “the agency’s attempt to wiretap a member of Congress, without court approval, on an overseas trip”.
The NSA is required by law to target only non-US persons without an individual warrant, but it can collect the content and metadata of Americans’ emails and calls without a warrant when such communication is with a foreign target. US persons are defined in surveillance legislation as US citizens, permanent residents and anyone located on US soil at the time of the interception, unless it has been positively established that they are not a citizen or permanent resident.
Moreover, with much of the world’s internet traffic passing through US networks, large numbers of purely domestic communications also get scooped up incidentally by the agency’s surveillance programs.
The document mentions only one check carried out by the NSA on the raw intelligence, saying the agency will “regularly review a sample of files transferred to ISNU to validate the absence of US persons’ identities”. It also requests that the Israelis limit access only to personnel with a “strict need to know”.
Israeli intelligence is allowed “to disseminate foreign intelligence information concerning US persons derived from raw Sigint by NSA” on condition that it does so “in a manner that does not identify the US person”. The agreement also allows Israel to release US person identities to “outside parties, including all INSU customers” with the NSA’s written permission.
Although Israel is one of America’s closest allies, it is not one of the inner core of countries involved in surveillance sharing with the US – Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. This group is collectively known as Five Eyes.
The relationship between the US and Israel has been strained at times, both diplomatically and in terms of intelligence. In the top-secret 2013 intelligence community budget request, details of which were disclosed by the Washington Post, Israel is identified alongside Iran and China as a target for US cyberattacks.
While NSA documents tout the mutually beneficial relationship of Sigint sharing, another report, marked top secret and dated September 2007, states that the relationship, while central to US strategy, has become overwhelmingly one-sided in favor of Israel.
“Balancing the Sigint exchange equally between US and Israeli needs has been a constant challenge,” states the report, titled ‘History of the US – Israel Sigint Relationship, Post-1992′. “In the last decade, it arguably tilted heavily in favor of Israeli security concerns. 9/11 came, and went, with NSA’s only true Third Party [counter-terrorism] relationship being driven almost totally by the needs of the partner.”
In another top secret document seen by the Guardian, dated 2008, a senior NSA official points out that Israel aggressively spies on the US. “On the one hand, the Israelis are extraordinarily good Sigint partners for us, but on the other, they target us to learn our positions on Middle East problems,” the official says. “A NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] ranked them as the third most aggressive intelligence service against the US.”
Later in the document, the official is quoted as saying: “One of NSA’s biggest threats is actually from friendly intelligence services, like Israel. There are parameters on what NSA shares with them, but the exchange is so robust, we sometimes share more than we intended.”
The memorandum of understanding also contains hints that there had been tensions in the intelligence-sharing relationship with Israel. At a meeting in March 2009 between the two agencies, according to the document, it was agreed that the sharing of raw data required a new framework and further training for Israeli personnel to protect US person information. It is not clear whether or not this was because there had been problems up to that point in the handling of intelligence that was found to contain Americans’ data.
However, an earlier US document obtained by Snowden, which discusses co-operating on a military intelligence program, bluntly lists under the cons: “Trust issues which revolve around previous ISR [Israel] operations.”
The Guardian asked the Obama administration how many times US data had been found in the raw intelligence, either by the Israelis or when the NSA reviewed a sample of the files, but officials declined to provide this information. Nor would they disclose how many other countries the NSA shared raw data with, or whether the Fisa court, which is meant to oversee NSA surveillance programs and the procedures to handle US information, had signed off the agreement with Israel.
In its statement, the NSA said: “We are not going to comment on any specific information sharing arrangements, or the authority under which any such information is collected. The fact that intelligence services work together under specific and regulated conditions mutually strengthens the security of both nations.
“NSA cannot, however, use these relationships to circumvent US legal restrictions. Whenever we share intelligence information, we comply with all applicable rules, including the rules to protect US person information.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer on NSA data requests: ‘You don’t comply, it’s treason’
By Dominic Rushe, The Guardian
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 22:51 EDT
Mark Zuckerberg joins Mayer in hitting back at critics of tech companies, saying US government did ‘bad job’ of balancing people’s privacy and duty to protect
Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook struck back on Wednesday at critics who have charged tech companies with doing too little to fight off NSA surveillance. Mayer said executives faced jail if they revealed government secrets.
Yahoo and Facebook, along with other tech firms, are pushing for the right to be allowed to publish the number of requests they receive from the spy agency. Companies are forbidden by law to disclose how much data they provide.
During an interview at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, Mayer was asked why tech companies had not simply decided to tell the public more about what the US surveillance industry was up to. “Releasing classified information is treason and you are incarcerated,” she said.
Mayer said she was “proud to be part of an organisation that from the beginning, in 2007, has been sceptical of – and has been scrutinizing – those requests [from the NSA].”
Yahoo has previously unsuccessfully sued the foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court, which provides the legal framework for NSA surveillance. In 2007 it asked to be allowed to publish details of requests it receives from the spy agency. “When you lose and you don’t comply, it’s treason,” said Mayer. “We think it make more sense to work within the system,” she said.
Zuckerberg said the government had done a “bad job” of balancing people’s privacy and its duty to protect. “Frankly I think the government blew it,” he said.
He said after the news broke in the Guardian and the Washington Post about Prism, the government surveillance programme that targets major internet companies: “The government response was, ‘Oh don’t worry we are not spying on any Americans.’ Oh wonderful that’s really helpful to companies that are trying to serve people around the world and that’s really going to inspire confidence in American internet companies.”
“I thought that was really bad,” he said. Zuckerberg said Facebook and others were pushing successfully for more transparency. “We are not at the end of this. I wish that the government would be more proactive about communicating. We are not psyched that we had to sue in order to get this and we take it very seriously,” he said.
On Monday, executives from Yahoo, Facebook, Google and other tech leaders met the president’s group on intelligence and communications, tasked with reviewing the US’s intelligence and communications technologies in the wake of the NSA revelations.
The meeting came as Yahoo and Facebook filed suits once more to force the Fisa court to allow them to disclose more information.
In its motion, Yahoo said: “Yahoo has been unable to engage fully in the debate about whether the government has properly used its powers, because the government has placed a prior restraint on Yahoo’s speech.”
It went on: “Yahoo’s inability to respond to news reports has harmed its reputation and has undermined its business not only in the United States but worldwide. Yahoo cannot respond to such reports with mere generalities,” the company said.
Microsoft and Google also filed their latest legal briefs on Monday to force the Fisa court to disclose more information.
In a blogpost, Google said it was asking for permission to publish “detailed statistics about the types (if any) of national security requests” it receives under Fisa. “Given the important public policy issues at stake, we have also asked the court to hold its hearing in open rather than behind closed doors. It’s time for more transparency,” said Google.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
Ex-supermodel opens help center for female genital mutilation victims
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 17:30 EDT
Somali-born activist and former supermodel Waris Dirie on Wednesday opens a centre in Germany to treat victims of female genital mutilation, which she was subjected to as a child.
About 8,000 young girls are circumcised every day in Africa and the Middle East, and the Desert Flower Medical Center, located in a Berlin hospital, will offer reconstructive surgery and psychological help to those among the 50,000 girls and women in Germany who need it.
The centre is a pilot for others planned in Europe, Africa and Asia.
Dirie’s genitals were mutilated as a Somali nomads’ daughter at about age four, a fate she recalled in her bestselling autobiography “Desert Flower”, which was turned into a 2009 movie.
“Female genital mutilation has nothing to do with religion, culture or tradition. It is a crime against innocent girls” that must be punished, Dirie, the 48-year-old patron of the centre, was quoted as telling Berlin daily the Tagesspiegel.
Female genital mutilation, or female circumcision, involves removing the external genitalia of young girls with the aim of ensuring their chastity as women.
The painful and sometimes fatal operation is usually carried out on girls between infancy and age 15. It can cause infections and, later, infertility and childbirth complications.
The UN World Health Organization says about 150 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of what is known as FGM.
The Berlin medical centre, located in the Waldfriede Hospital, will treat about 50 to 100 women a year, its chief surgeon Roland Scherer told AFP. Two patients this week will be women from Djibouti and Ethiopia.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Archaeologists uncover tomb of ancient female ‘prime minister’ to China’s first empress Wu Zetian
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, September 12, 2013 8:00 EDT
Archaeologists have discovered the tomb of a 7th-century female politician who was one of the most powerful women in China’s ancient history, local media said on Thursday.
Shangguan Wan’er — who lived from 664 to 710 in the Tang dynasty — was a trusted aide to China’s first empress Wu Zetian and is sometimes described as effectively her prime minister.
She married Wu’s son, while having relationships with both the ruler’s lover and her nephew.
As a sequence of murders, coups and affairs enveloped the dynasty, Shangguan Wan’er’s husband Li Xian briefly became emperor — only to be killed by his senior wife, who took power herself.
She was deposed in turn by Li Longji, who killed both her and Shangguan Wan’er.
The site was discovered near an airport in Xianyang, in the northern province of Shaanxi, and confirmed by an inscription, China Radio International said on its website.
Pictures showed deep excavations of ochre-coloured earth, arched passageways and a number of ceramic horses.
“The discovery of the tomb with the epitaph is of major significance in the study of the Tang Dynasty,” the China Daily said, citing a historian specialising in the era, Du Wenyu.
The grave was badly damaged, suggesting a “large-scale, organised” and possibly “official destruction”, Geng Qinggang, a Shaanxi-based researcher told the China News Service on Thursday.
No gold or silver treasures, or complete bones, had been found at the site, he added.
Shangguan Wan’er was also recognised for her poetry.
NASA identifies three potential asteroids to capture and drag into orbit around the Moon
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, September 12, 2013 6:36 EDT
The US space agency has narrowed its hunt for an asteroid to capture to three, NASA said.
The asteroids fit the requirements of being between seven to 10 meters (yards) in size, and further study should be able to narrow the choice even more, scientists said at a conference in San Diego, California.
“We have two to three which we will characterize in the next year and if all goes well… those will be valid candidates that could be certified targets,” said Paul Chodas, senior scientist at the NASA Near-Earth Object Program Office.
The plan is to send a robotic spacecraft to capture the asteroid and drag it into orbit around the Moon.
Once there, astronauts could visit the asteroid and take samples of it back to Earth for study.
The spacecraft used for travel there and back would be the Orion multi-purpose vehicle, which is being built but has not yet been used, as well as a new deep space rocket launcher.
The program aims to break new ground by increasing NASA capabilities beyond low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station circles the globe.
NASA has touted the planetary defense capabilities the project would build toward protecting the Earth from a potential hazardous asteroid collision, as well as the technology it would boost for future human missions to deep space.
President Barack Obama has proclaimed the project would be a key step on the way to sending humans to Mars by the 2030s.
Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, described the asteroid mission as “pretty compelling.”
“If you think about grabbing an object in space and then manipulating it for our use and putting it into a destination where we could go back and routinely visit and let commercial companies go visit, I think that is a pretty compelling activity.”
Obama’s 2014 budget for NASA asked for $100 million for the asteroid project, but the overall costs may be as high as $2 billion.
“It’s a little different way than just a date and a destination. We are really good at just picking dates and destinations. But that’s really hard in this budget environment where things are constrained and we have flat budgets, et cetera et cetera, to pull that off,” said Gerstenmaier.
“It is not just a one-time thing. It actually feeds forward into the broader context of what we want to do with humans in space.”
The launch could happen as early as 2017 or as late as 2019.
After launch of the robotic mission, the journey to the asteroid would take a year and a half, and the act of towing it toward the moon could take another three and a half years, NASA said.
The project would use a new fuel technology called solar electric propulsion.
“We are talking about engineering the solar system, in a way. We are talking about taking an asteroid which was once here, and then putting it into a useful orbit for our purposes,” said Chodas.
“This is a very large idea here that we are talking about and I think it will reinvigorate interest in the space program,” he said.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXvsi7DRyPI
Outer space demilitarization agreement threatened by new technologies
By Owen Bowcott, The Guardian
Thursday, September 12, 2013 0:17 EDT
Security experts warn weaknesses in treaties and exploitation of GPS are compromising the prohibition against space weapons
Developments in satellite technologies and cyber-warfare are threatening the internationally agreed demilitarisation of outer space, according to legal and security experts.
Weaknesses in existing treaties and military exploitation of GPS location systems are compromising the prohibition against space weapons established during the cold war, a conference in London has been told.
“Policy, law and understanding of the threat to space is lagging behind the reality of what is out there,” warned Mark Roberts, a former Ministry of Defence official who was in charge of government space policy and the UK’s “offensive cyber portfolio”.
“If you think about something unpleasant happening in cyber [warfare], someone somewhere is probably working on it.” One state or another is likely to be devising mechanisms to disable satellities through cyber-attacks, he said.
Professor Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, who organised the conference, said: “We are moving rapidly into an era when most space assets have dual use: civilian and military. There have been UN resolutions on the prevention of an arms race in outer space. Every country has voted in favour with the exception of the USA and Israel.”
The disabling of satellites would have a disastrous impact on society, knocking out GPS navigation systems and time signals. Banks, telecommunications, power and many infrastructures could fail, Roberts told the conference.
Agreements such as the 1967 Outer Space treaty and the 1979 Moon treaty are supposed to control the arms race in space. Some states have signed but not ratified them, said Maria Pozza, research fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at Cambridge University.
Existing treaties do not specify where air space ends and outer space begins – although 100km (62 miles) above the Earth is becoming the accepted limit.
The Navstar constellation of satellites was used to provide surveillance of Iraq during the Gulf war in 1991. Was that, asked Pozza, an aggressive use of space, a “force-multiplier”? Satellites may have also been used to photograph and locate al-Qaida bases, Osama bin Laden or even assess future strikes against Syria.
The Chinese government has recently moved to support a 2012 EU code of conduct for space development, which, Pozza said, was a softer law. The draft Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space treaty has not yet been agreed. “Are we dismissing the possibility of a hard law or giving it a good chance?” Pozza asked.
The Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 that destroyed a defunct orbiting vehicle and showered debris across near Earth orbits. Other satellites have been jammed by strong radio signals. BBC transmissions to Iran were disrupted during this year’s elections through ground signals ostensibly sent from Syria, the conference was told.
In 2011, hackers gained control of the Terra Eos and Landsat satellites, Roberts said. The orbiting stations were not damaged. “The threat can now be from a laptop in someone’s bedroom,” he added.
Professor Richard Crowther, chief engineer at the UK Space Agency, said scientists were now exploring the possibility of robotic systems that grapple with and bring down disused satellites or laser weapons to clear away debris in orbit.
Both technologies, he pointed out, had a potential dual use as military weapons. 3D printing technologies would, furthermore, allow satellite operators to develop new hardware remotely in space.
The UK is formulating its space security policy, group captain Martin Johnson, deputy head of space policy at the MoD, said. Fylingdales, the Yorkshire monitoring station, has been cooperating for 50 years with the USA to enhance “space awareness” and early warning systems. The UK, Johnson said, was now working with the EU to develop a complementary space monitoring system.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
In United Surveillance America.....
The NSA's next move: silencing university professors?
A Johns Hopkins computer science professor blogs on the NSA and is asked to take it down. I fear for academic freedom
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 September 2013 17.40 BST
This actually happened yesterday:
A professor in the computer science department at Johns Hopkins, a leading American university, had written a post on his blog, hosted on the university's servers, focused on his area of expertise, which is cryptography. The post was highly critical of the government, specifically the National Security Agency, whose reckless behavior in attacking online security astonished him.
Professor Matthew Green wrote on 5 September:
I was totally unprepared for today's bombshell revelations describing the NSA's efforts to defeat encryption. Not only does the worst possible hypothetical I discussed appear to be true, but it's true on a scale I couldn't even imagine.
The post was widely circulated online because it is about the sense of betrayal within a community of technical people who had often collaborated with the government. (I linked to it myself.)
On Monday, he gets a note from the acting dean of the engineering school asking him to take the post down and stop using the NSA logo as clip art in his posts. The email also informs him that if he resists he will need a lawyer. The professor runs two versions of the same site: one hosted on the university's servers, one on Google's blogger.com service. He tells the dean that he will take down the site mirrored on the university's system but not the one on blogger.com. He also removes the NSA logo from the post. Then, he takes to Twitter.
I received a request from my Dean this morning asking me to remove all copies of my NSA blog post from University servers.
— Matthew Green (@matthew_d_green) September 9, 2013
The professor says he was told that someone at the Applied Physics Laboratory, a research institute with longstanding ties to the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency, determined that his blog post was hosting or linking to classified material, and sounded the alarm, which led to the takedown request from the dean. He says he thought Johns Hopkins University, his employer, had come down "on the wrong side of common sense and academic freedom", particularly since the only classified material he had linked to was from news reports in the Guardian, the New York Times and ProPublica.org – information available to the public.
Word gets around, and by late afternoon, the press starts asking questions. Now, Johns Hopkins is worried about how it looks in the media. The university bureaucracy scrambles the jets and comes up with a statement:
The university received information this morning that Matthew Green's blog contained a link or links to classified material and also used the NSA logo. For that reason, we asked professor Green to remove the Johns Hopkins-hosted mirror site for his blog Upon further review, we note that the NSA logo has been removed and that he appears to link to material that has been published in the news media. Interim Dean Andrew Douglas has informed professor Green that the mirror site may be restored.
So the university backs down, leaving many unanswered questions. Possibly, they will be addressed today. (Update: Johns Hopkins dean apologizes.) Here are some on my list:
Who was it in the Applied Physics Laboratory, with its close ties to the NSA, that raised the alarm about what a (very effective) critic of the NSA was writing ... and why?
Did that person hear first from the government and then contact the Johns Hopkins officials?
Why would an academic dean cave under pressure and send the takedown request without careful review, which would have easily discovered, for example, that the classified documents to which the blog post linked were widely available in the public domain?
Why is Johns Hopkins simultaneously saying that the event was internal to the university (that the request didn't come from the government) and that it doesn't know how the whole thing began? The dean of the engineering school doesn't know who contacted him about a professor's blog post? Really? The press office doesn't know how to get in touch with the dean? Seems unlikely. Johns Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea told me this morning that university officials "were still trying to trace" the events back to their source. Clearly, there's a lot more to the story.
Matthew Green said the original request to take down his post could have referred to his Blogger.com site and the site hosted on Johns Hopkins servers. Since a request to unpublish your thoughts is one of the most extreme and threatening that any university can make of a faculty member, what kind of deliberation went into it? That Johns Hopkins backtracked so quickly after the press started asking questions suggests that the reasoning was pretty thin. But the request was momentous. These things don't fit together. What gives?
Dennis O'Shea told me the original concern was that Matthew Green's post might be "illegally linking to classified information". I asked him what law he was referring to. "I'm not saying that there was a great deal of legal analysis done," he replied. Obviously. But again: given the severity of the remedy – unpublishing an expert's post critical of the NSA – careful legal analysis was called for. Why was it missing?
In commenting critically on a subject he is expert in, and taking an independent stance that asks hard questions and puts the responsibility where it belongs, Matthew Green is doing exactly what a university faculty member is supposed to be doing. By putting his thoughts in a blog post that anyone can read and link to, he is contributing to a vital public debate, which is exactly what universities need to be doing more often. Instead of trying to get Matthew Green's blog off their servers, the deans should be trying to get more faculty into blogging and into the public arena. Who at Johns Hopkins is speaking up for these priorities? And why isn't the Johns Hopkins faculty roaring about this issue? (I teach at New York University, and I'm furious.)
Notice: Matthew Green didn't get any takedown request from Google. Only from Johns Hopkins. Think about what that means for the school. He's "their" professor, yet his work is safer on the servers of a private company than his own university. The institution failed in the clutch. That it rectified it later in the day is welcome news, but I won't be cheering until we have answers that befit a great institution like Johns Hopkins, where graduate education was founded on these shores.
And another thing: America's system of research universities is the best in the world. No one argues with that. It's one of biggest advantages this nation has. If it becomes captive to government and handmaiden to the surveillance state, that would be an economic and cultural crime of monstrous proportions. What happened to Matthew Green's blog post yesterday is no small matter.
September 11, 2013
A Rare Public View of Obama’s Pivots on Policy in Syria Confrontation
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — When President Obama strode into the Rose Garden last month after a week of increasing tension over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, many assumed it was to announce that the attack that had been broadly hinted at by his own aides had begun. Instead, he turned the decision over to Congress. And when Mr. Obama appeared on television Tuesday night, a speech initially intended to promote force made the argument for diplomacy.
Over the last three weeks, the nation has witnessed a highly unusual series of pivots as a president changed course virtually in real time and on live television. Mr. Obama’s handling of his confrontation with Syria over a chemical weapons attack on civilians has been the rare instance of a commander in chief seemingly thinking out loud and changing his mind on the fly.
To aides and allies, Mr. Obama’s willingness to hit the pause button twice on his decision to launch airstrikes to punish Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people reflects a refreshing open-mindedness and a reluctance to use force that they considered all too missing under his predecessor with the Texas swagger. In this view, Mr. Obama is a nimble leader more concerned with getting the answer right than with satisfying a political class all too eager to second-guess every move.
“All the critics would like this to be easily choreographed, a straight line and end the way they’d all individually like it to end,” said David Plouffe, the president’s former senior adviser. “That’s not the way the world works for sure, especially in a situation like this. I think it speaks to his strength, which is that he’s willing to take in new information.”
But to Mr. Obama’s detractors, including many in his own party, he has shown a certain fecklessness with his decisions first to outsource the decision to lawmakers in the face of bipartisan opposition and then to embrace a Russian diplomatic alternative that even his own advisers consider dubious. Instead of displaying decisive leadership, Mr. Obama, to these critics, has appeared reactive, defensive and profoundly challenged in standing up to a dangerous world.
“There’s absolutely no question he’s very uncomfortable being commander in chief,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a Republican who worked with the White House to support force against Syria, said in an interview. “In personal meetings, he comes across very confident. I wish I could deliver a speech as well as he does. But it’s like he wants to slip the noose. It’s like watching a person who’s caged, who’s in a trap and trying to figure a way out.”
For good or ill, and there are plenty who argue both points of view, Mr. Obama represents a stark contrast in style to George W. Bush. The former president valued decisiveness and once he made a decision rarely revisited it. While he, too, changed course from time to time, Mr. Bush regularly told aides that a president should not reveal doubts because it would send a debilitating signal to his administration, troops in the field and the country at large.
Mr. Obama came to office as the anti-Bush, his candidacy set in motion by his opposition to the Iraq war amid promises to be more open to contrary advice, more pragmatic in his policies and more contemplative in his decisions. When it came time to decide whether to send more troops to Afghanistan in 2009, he presided over three months of study and debate that even aides found excruciating at times but were presented as a more thoughtful process.
Known as a disciplined candidate and personality, Mr. Obama earned praise for boldness with the daring Special Forces operation in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, although that obscured the months of secret deliberations the public did not see. He likewise expanded drone strikes against people suspected of being terrorists and until recently expressed little doubt about their wisdom and necessity.
“President Obama was elected in part because when Washington followed the conventional wisdom into Iraq, he took a different approach,” said Dan Pfeiffer, his senior adviser. “The American people appreciate the fact that he takes a thoughtful approach to these most serious of decisions.”
But Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official under Mr. Bush who broke with his old boss and has been supportive of Mr. Obama at times, is highly critical of the way he has handled Syria. “Words like ad hoc and improvised and unsteady come to mind,” Mr. Haass said. “This has been probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”
With the civil war in Syria, Mr. Obama has telegraphed uncertainty for two years, clearly pained by the deaths of 100,000 people yet unsure what the United States could do about it that would succeed without dragging the country into another quagmire. He set a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons without defining what it would entail.
Once a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 killed more than 1,400 civilians, according to American intelligence, Mr. Obama agreed that a military response was needed while making clear how much he wished it were not.
“I would much rather spend my time talking about how to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education than I would spending time thinking about how can I prevent 3- and 4-year-olds from being subjected to chemical weapons and nerve gas,” he lamented during a visit to Sweden last week. “Unfortunately, that’s sometimes the decisions that I’m confronted with as president of the United States.”
Despite his penchant for process, he decided to ask Congress for authorization over the objections of his staff and without consulting his secretary of state, John Kerry, or his secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel. When Russia proposed averting a strike by having Syria give up its chemical weapons, Mr. Obama cautiously embraced the same concept even after Mr. Kerry had dismissed it as implausible and unworkable.
“Each time he’s done an about-face or a sharp turn, other people who kept marching in the same direction look kind of foolish,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor who worked on the National Security Council staff under Mr. Bush and Bill Clinton. “It’s clear he didn’t fully think through the implications of going to Congress and prepare for that.”
Defenders said that too much attention was being paid to the path instead of the destination, and that if Syria gave up its chemical weapons, all history would remember is that Mr. Obama had made it happen. “I’d rather always have a president who will make the right decisions at the right time,” said Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, “than a president who makes the wrong decisions because he doesn’t want to give more time.”
September 11, 2013
House Ethics Panel Continues Inquiries of 3 Lawmakers
By ASHLEY PARKER and TRIP GABRIEL
WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee announced Wednesday that it would continue investigations into three lawmakers, including Representative Michele Bachmann, but it stopped short of taking the most aggressive action it could.
The committee also extended investigations into Representatives Timothy H. Bishop, Democrat of New York; and Peter Roskam of Illinois, the No. 4 Republican in the House. But the panel unanimously decided to close its inquiry into whether Representative John Tierney, Democrat of Massachusetts, intentionally failed to disclose some of his wife’s income on his taxes. The panel deemed that the available evidence was “inconclusive.”
In the Bachmann case, a 79-page report released by the panel found evidence of campaign finance law violations during her presidential campaign.
Investigators said Mrs. Bachmann appeared to have illegally paid a consultant from a political action committee that was separate from her campaign; used campaign staff members to promote her book, “Core of Conviction”; and improperly turned a book tour paid for by her publisher into a campaign trip.
Mrs. Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, said in a statement that she had complied with all laws and House ethics rules, and that “the report released today makes no finding that I or anyone on my campaign staff did anything to the contrary.”
Mrs. Bachmann briefly led the Republicans’ 2012 primary field in polls, and her campaign has been the subject of overlapping ethics investigations, including one by a federal grand jury.
The House ethics investigators raised questions about $40,000 in payments in December 2011 to a consultant to the campaign from MichelePAC, controlled by Mrs. Bachmann, that was not authorized to subsidize her campaign.
In November 2011, the report also said, Mrs. Bachmann scheduled book-signing events as part of her campaign and used campaign staff members to promote sales. The report includes a Nov. 25, 2011, e-mail from her Iowa campaign manager to staff members asking them to do a better job of bringing people to book signings. “All — the Mason City event was a disaster,” it reads.
The book tour, financed by Sentinel, her publisher, crossed a line forbidding corporate contributions to a campaign, the report said. Photographs included in the report show her and staff members at a West Des Moines bookstore handing out campaign signs and enlisting volunteers.
In her statement, Mrs. Bachmann said the report “simply has referred certain matters to the committee responsible for reviewing these issues.”
“Although I do not believe a referral was warranted,” she said, “I respect the committee process, and I look forward to a successful conclusion to this matter.”
In the case of Mr. Roskam, an investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics found that he and his wife accepted a trip to Taiwan in 2011 worth about $25,000 that was organized and conducted by the government of Taiwan and could constitute an “impermissible gift.”
Official travel rules prohibit lawmakers from accepting trips from foreign governments, unless they are allowed under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, known as Mecea. But, the report found, “because Representative Roskam’s wife traveled with him to Taiwan, the trip could not have been conducted under Mecea.”
Mr. Roskam said he believed that the trip was being financed by the Chinese Culture University, but the ethics office report found that it was organized and paid for by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, which it described as “Taiwan’s de facto embassy.”
When the allegations first came up in July, Mr. Roskam’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Kittredge, said the congressman “fully complied with all laws, rules and procedures related” to the Taiwan trip, adding that his trip “was vetted and approved by the House Ethics Committee.”
The accusations against Mr. Bishop were first raised publicly during his 2012 campaign. He was accused of working — in return for a campaign donation — on behalf of a constituent to help him obtain a fireworks permit for his son’s bar mitzvah.
The Congressional ethics office report includes e-mails from May 21, 2012, that show Mr. Bishop intervening in the fireworks permit process. The next day, Mr. Bishop wrote in an e-mail that “we are all set,” before asking an intermediary to solicit a donation from the constituent. “Hey, would you be willing to reach out to him to ask for a contribution?” Mr. Bishop wrote.
Mr. Bishop has previously said there was no quid pro quo involving the permit, and in an e-mail on Wednesday, he said that he expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing.
“The report released today confirms that the allegations made against me last summer were politically orchestrated, and I am confident that the ongoing review of this matter will show that I acted in good faith to assist a constituent in need,” Mr. Bishop said.
Although the Ethics Committee will continue to investigate the three House members, it did not take the additional, and stronger, step of creating special investigative committees to pursue the inquiries.
And as the panel states on its Web site, its decision to conduct a further review “does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the committee.” All four cases in question were referred to the committee in June by the ethics office, a nonpartisan and semi-independent group, and the panel had until Wednesday to decide whether to continue the investigations.
Ashley Parker reported from Washington, and Trip Gabriel from New York.
September 11, 2013
Unions’ Misgivings on Health Law Burst Into View
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE and JONATHAN MARTIN
LOS ANGELES — When President Obama phoned the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. last month, he shared some news that the labor leader had long wanted to hear — the administration would propose measures to reduce workplace exposure to disease-causing silica dust.
But their conversation soon moved to what has become a contentious topic this summer: labor’s renewed anger over Mr. Obama’s health care law and decisions surrounding it, especially the postponement of an employer mandate to ensure coverage for workers and the potential effects of the coming health insurance exchanges on existing plans.
According to officials briefed on the call, the president voiced concern about labor’s criticisms, prompting the union federation’s leader, Richard Trumka, to promise that he would try to soften the harshly worded resolutions that several unions planned to push at this week’s A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention in Los Angeles.
Despite overtures on both sides — with Mr. Obama agreeing on the call to sit down with some union leaders to address their concerns at the White House, and Mr. Trumka initially hoping to quash such a public rift between the president and his party’s traditional allies — labor leaders criticized the administration and Congress on Wednesday at their convention.
While praising the overall legislation, the delegates overwhelmingly passed a sharply worded resolution that demanded changes to some of its regulations, although Mr. Trumka made sure to strip out some proposals that called for repealing the legislation.
At the convention, though, several labor leaders spoke their minds.
“If the Affordable Care Act is not fixed and it destroys the health and welfare funds that we have fought for and stand for, then I believe it needs to be repealed,” said Terence M. O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. “We don’t want it to be repealed. We want it to be fixed, fixed, fixed.
“We’ve had our asses kicked on retirement security and we know our health funds are under siege,” he added. “We ask the president and Congress to do the right thing for the men and women we represent.”
The resolution asserts that the law, by offering tax credits to workers seeking insurance from for-profit and other companies in the exchanges, will place some responsible employers at a competitive disadvantage and destabilize the employment-based health care system.
The administration and health officials have repeatedly tried to assure critics that the legislation will not encourage companies to dump workers from employer-based plans into newly created health insurance exchanges, even if the employer-based coverage stands out as more generous and therefore more expensive for companies and even municipalities.
At the convention, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez’s cautious response to questions about the leaders’ concerns underscored how the complexities of the president’s signature domestic accomplishment and a longstanding goal of labor continue to present political difficulties for Mr. Obama.
In his speech before A.F.L.-C.I.O. members, Mr. Perez praised labor for helping enact the health law, but acknowledged that “challenges remain.”
During an interview here, he said, “The administration has been working to address questions and concerns raised by a wide array of stakeholders.”
Mr. Trumka declined to offer details about his telephone conversation with Mr. Obama, except to say: “We’re trying to solve problems.”
He and a group of union leaders also met late last month at the White House with Denis McDonough, the chief of staff, and Mr. Perez. Two other sessions have taken place since then with more junior administration officials, union officials said. The sit-down with Mr. Obama himself, Mr. Trumka and the union presidents is set for Friday.
Any erosion of health care benefits poses a singular threat to labor leaders, whose arsenal of tools to attract workers into union membership has dwindled alongside the decline of their organizations and their concomitant loss of influence around the country. Many unions and retirees have lost some benefits since the recession began, especially in the public sector as governments froze pension plans.
Several union presidents also expressed intense frustration with an administration that they have repeatedly aided on policy and politics, some citing their lingering disappointment over Mr. Obama’s decision not to campaign aggressively for labor’s signature legislative goal, a bill that would have helped unionize more workers.
Conservatives, of course, have bashed the Affordable Care Act since before it was passed in 2010, and aspects of the legislation remain unpopular across the country.
Ahead of the opening on Oct. 1 of the health insurance marketplaces created to cover the uninsured by the law, the president is facing rising anger from some of the most loyal members of his party base. Compounding the unions’ anger, the business community — often labor’s archenemy and a frequent Obama critic on health care — received an important reprieve this summer when the administration delayed for one year the requirement that employers offer their workers’ health coverage or face a penalty of $2,000 for each uninsured full-time employee.
“Our members are the exact type of people that Obamacare was supposed to take care of,” said D. Taylor, president of Unite Here, a union of hotel and restaurant workers that has about 200,000 members with Taft-Hartley plans, employer-provided coverage named after the 1947 labor law. “We were the first union to endorse Obama. We were big supporters of health care reform.”
Mr. Taylor cast doubt on the president’s assurances that those Americans who liked their health plans could keep them.
“Under the way the A.C.A. has been rolled out by the Treasury and I.R.S. regulations, it will make it completely impossible to live up to that,” he said. “We think this is an example of unintended consequences. And it’s completely disheartening that the biggest earlier supporter of the president hasn’t gotten the same listening and benefit of big business with the one-year delay in the $2,000 penalty.”
Labor’s dismay is not new, but union leaders had been restrained, waiting for their closed-door negotiations with the administration on this issue to bear fruit. That anger burst into the open this summer when the so-called employer mandate was postponed.
Some state labor federations have passed resolutions excoriating the health law. Mr. Trumka, torn between trying not to anger the administration while mollifying some of his unions, may have headed off a full-throated call to repeal the law entirely, but some union presidents say they believe they have no other choice.
Union leaders note that under the law, workers whose family income is less than four times the poverty line will qualify for subsidies in the form of tax credits to obtain health insurance in the exchanges, with insurance sold by for-profit, nonprofit and cooperative companies. The union leaders say they want similar treatment — for unionized workers to qualify for those tax credits to help finance their Taft-Hartley insurance plans, which covers about 20 million workers and retirees.
“We just want to be treated like equals — we don’t want special treatment,” Mr. Taylor said. “An employer will say, ‘O.K., your plan costs about $10,000 a year. Let me get this straight. I only pay a $2,000 penalty if I drop you. That’s an $8,000 saving for me.’ That’s actually going to happen all over this country.”
But others doubt that unions would get such a carve-out because it would also encourage many nonunion workers to seek tax credits to help with their employer-based plans.
Republicans are already trying to prevent any accommodation of unions on this issue. Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, introduced a bill earlier this week that would amend the health law to specifically bar Taft-Hartley plans from receiving any subsidies.
Republicans say unions are double dipping — through these new insurance subsidies as well as the tax breaks that union members receive by not having to pay income tax on the value of the health coverage their employers provide.
Steven Greenhouse reported from Los Angeles, and Jonathan Martin from Washington. Robert Pear contributed reporting from Washington.
September 11, 2013
Top California Lawmakers Back Raising Minimum Wage
By IAN LOVETT
LOS ANGELES — California’s top lawmakers on Wednesday pledged their support for a plan to raise the minimum wage in the state to $10 an hour, which could soon give California workers the highest minimum pay rate in the country.
In a rare show of backing for pending legislation, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, announced his “strong support” for a bill in the State Legislature that would raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour from $8 by the start of 2016. Currently, Washington has the highest minimum wage of any state, at $9.19 per hour.
Leaders of the Legislature, where Democrats hold majorities in both houses, also announced their support for the bill on Wednesday, all but guaranteeing its passage before the legislative deadline on Friday.
“The minimum wage has not kept pace with rising costs,” Mr. Brown said in a statement. “This legislation is overdue and will help families that are struggling in this harsh economy.”
The increase offers one of the clearest examples yet of the effect of one-party rule in California.
Efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, which remains at $7.25 per hour, have gained little traction in Washington. And Republicans here, along with business groups, have opposed the state minimum wage increase, calling it a job killer.
But their objections matter little as Democrats here, who hold all statewide offices and overwhelming majorities in the Legislature, are poised to approve the increase, with the backing of organized labor.
Bob Huff, the Republican leader in the California Senate, conceded that blocking the bill was unlikely. “This is just going to drive more jobs out of the state at a time when California can’t afford to do that,” he said.
He noted that businesses were already adjusting to a sales tax increase, which voters approved last year, and were preparing for the phase-in of the federal health care law. “It’s too much too soon,” he said.
If approved, the bill will raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour next July 1, then to $10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016. Only eight states currently offer a minimum wage of at least $8 per hour.
State Assemblyman Luis Alejo, who wrote the bill, called the increase modest, saying that it did not include built-in cost-of-living increases, which some other states use. “The cost of gasoline, food and all kinds of things has been going up,” he said. “This is simply the opportunity to give dignity and respect to those who simply want to be able to provide for their families.
Bernie Sanders, ‘This country is never going forward unless we end right wing rule in the House.’
By: Jason Easley
Sep. 11th, 2013
Sen. Bernie Sanders issued a battle cry for the left on The Ed Show by speaking the truth and telling the world that right wing rule must end in the House of Representatives.
Sen. Sanders said:
This president has got to say, and be honest about it, our country today faces enormous crisis. We are moving in the wrong direction. We used to be number one in terms of college graduates. Today, we are number sixteen, etc. etc. And the reason that we are not moving forward is that we have right wing extremists who are now controlling the House of Representatives, and this country is never going to go forward unless we end right wing rule in the House. He’s got to point a finger at them. He’s gotta work with us in coming forward with a progressive agenda. You’ve raised virtually all of the issues.
Not to mention that this is the fifth anniversary of the Wall Street disaster. We need to break up our large financial institutions. This issues are out there, but what this president has got to understand, he can not be sitting down with right wing extremists and trying to talk about how we are going to cut Social Security, cut Medicare, not raise revenue as a result of corporate tax reform. He’s gotta say like Franklin Deleno Roosevelt did, I stand with the working families of the United States, and if the millionaires hate me, so be it. He’s gotta draw the line in the sand, not on Syria, but on the class warfare that is going on in America.
If he does that, he will wake up people who have given up on the political process. The vast majority of the people, as you’ve just indicated, on issue after issue after issue are on our side. They know the rich are getting richer. Corporations are making record breaking profits. Wall Street is doing phenomenally well, while the middle class disappears. The president has got to draw that line, stand with working families, support a progressive agenda. In that case, I think we can do some phenomenal things.
What Sen. Sanders laid out happens to be the long reported agenda that President Obama will campaign on for Democrats in 2014. Sanders put the blame for the lack of progress in this country exactly where it belongs. The far right wing Republicans that are leading John Boehner around by the nose in the House are the problem, and there will no progress in this country as long as these people occupy seats in the House.
Bernie Sanders wants the president to launch an all out campaign against these extremists in order to take back the House. Due to the excessive gerrymandering of House districts this will be a challenge even with presidential support, but each extremist that is successfully defeated in 2014 will be another step in the right direction. If Democrats don’t defeat enough of them to take back the House, but they do take out 5 or 10 of them it will thin the ranks of the extremist element in the House majority.
President Obama and Sen. Sanders can’t win this battle alone. They need Democrats to be engaged in 2014. The country can’t afford another year like 2010 when dispirited Democrats stayed home. The message is that when Democrats show up to vote, Democratic candidates win elections.
The movement to reverse the Republican caused decline of our country begins and ends with all concerned Americans showing up on Election Day.
Bad News GOP: 51% Would Blame Republicans for a Government Shutdown, Up from 40%
By: Sarah Jones
Sep. 11th, 2013
It’s bad news for the embattled Speaker of the House and the Republican congressional leadership. Just months ago, the public was much more confused about whom to blame if the government were shut down. But according to a new CNN/ORC International survey, the public would now blame congressional Republicans much more than they would blame President Obama.
“Only a third would consider President Barack Obama responsible for a shutdown, with 51% pointing a finger at the GOP – up from 40% who felt that way earlier this year,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland explained.
In March of this year, 38% would have blamed President Obama while 40% would have blamed Republicans and 19% would have blamed both. The September poll has Republicans bearing the brunt of the blame, with 51% blaming them and only 33% blaming Obama and 12% blaming both. Thus Republicans stand to bear the brunt of the blame if the government is shut down.
Things are even worse for Republicans when it comes to the debt ceiling. If the debt ceiling is not raised, only 25% would blame Obama while 54% would blame Republicans. In July of 2011, 30% would have blamed Obama and 51% would have blamed Republicans.
House Republican leaders delayed a vote on a bill to avert a government shutdown Wednesday because they lack the votes. The Tea Party is insisting that Republicans do anything, including shutting down government, to defund ObamaCare, but leadership knows that this is not only an unpopular idea, but it could be politically deadly.
The CNN poll only reinforces what non Tea Party Republicans already know – they can’t afford to be blamed for a government shutdown.
This can only be seen as a warning shot for Republicans who are still threatening to shut down government and are childishly tying raising the debt ceiling to delaying the implementation of ObamaCare. But Republicans may not have the courage to do what they need to do in order to save their party from the tea fallout.
Boehner Throws a Tantrum and Refuses to Stop Sequester Until Republicans Get Their Way
By: Sarah Jones
Sep. 11th, 2013
In case you are still wondering who’s behind the sequester, with Republicans publicly laying it at the President’s feet every chance they get, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) just refreshed everyone’s memory if a House Republican leadership aide is to be believed. The answer is Republicans. House Republicans, to be specific.
A House Republican leadership aide told Roll Call Wednesday morning that Boehner made the “political reality” of Thursday’s scheduled meeting clear: “(T)he sequester won’t be replaced until Democrats agree to a whole host of cuts and overhauls.”
Congressional leaders (Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)) are meeting Thursday morning to discuss the upcoming fiscal issues — or rather, how the House is going to dodge the angry Tea Partiers as they fail once again to defund ObamaCare after all of those promises.
In case you missed it, this isn’t the first time Boehner or an aide has taken ownership of the sequester cuts. In March of this year, he admitted that Obama didn’t want the sequester cuts.
Boehner further owns the sequester cuts because he refused to allow a vote on the replacement bill, knowing that he didn’t have his own party votes behind him.
Boehner and several House Republicans like Paul Ryan (R-WI) have crowed publicly about getting the sequester cuts they always dreamed of, Eric Cantor (R-VA) even claimed that he and Paul Ryan were the driving force behind the sequester. But when Republicans aren’t talking to the base, they suddenly get Romnesia and blame Obama for the sequester. That’s probably because their sequester is doing all kinds of nasty things, like leaving veterans homeless.
The reason Head Start isn’t funded and government workers are being furloughed is that House Republicans refuse to sit down for budget reconciliation process with the Senate. They prefer instead to pretend that they won the 2012 elections and are in charge of all three branches of government, even though the people voted against austerity as clearly laid out by Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan (see above where he championed sequestration since 2004). Since our government is supposed to force compromise between the chambers, Republicans have to keep finding new ways to hold us all hostage in order to get their way.
It’s about time they were at least held accountable for the sequester.
Ted Cruz gushes: We need 100 more like Jesse Helms in the Senate
By Arturo Garcia
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 23:26 EDT
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) reached back into conservative history during a speech on Wednesday, lauding late Republican icon Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) as an example for his present-day colleagues, Mediaite reported.
“The willingness to say all those crazy things is a rare, rare characteristic,” Cruz told the audience at a gathering held by the conservative Heritage Foundation. “And you know what? It’s every bit as true now as it was then. We need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.”
Cruz said during his speech that Helms’ propensity for saying “crazy things” was the reason actor John Wayne reportedly donated $5,000 to Helms’ first campaign for Senate. Cruz also said someone like Helms was needed in this day and age, when pressure cookers can be turned into explosives.
“I know if Jesse Helms were still with us, he would not shy away from this stuff,” Cruz said at an event with the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, before telling the audience that as a child, he donated $10 to Helms — his first political contribution, representing 20 weeks’ worth of his allowance — “’cause they were all beating up on him, they were coming after him hard, and I thought it wasn’t right.”
As Mother Jones reported, people “beat up” on Helms for his racist and homophobic beliefs, including statements that gay Americans were “weak, morally sick wretches;” his 1990 campaign commercial denouncing affirmative action as a “racial quota law;” and his 1983 filibuster against a bill to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday, among other incidents.
“It’s easy in this age to say that Helms, who carried his dislike of African-Americans like a badge of honor for 30 years around the U.S. Senate, was a son of the South who was simply honoring good, old-fashioned Southern values,” then-CNN contributor Roland S. Martin wrote following Helms’ death in 2008. “But when you stand in opposition to a bill that would, for the first time, give African-Americans from border to border the constitutionally guaranteed right to cast a vote, then I refuse to call you a stand-up person for the rights of every man, woman and child.”
« Last Edit: Sep 12, 2013, 08:39 AM by Rad »
Syria: US and Russia revive hopes for 'Geneva 2' peace talks
John Kerry hails 'constructive' meeting and says he plans to meet Sergei Lavrov in New York to agree date for conference
Reuters in Geneva
theguardian.com, Friday 13 September 2013 11.41 BST
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have said they hope that talks on chemical weapons will help revive an international plan for a "Geneva 2" conference to end the war in Syria.
Kerry, who described the talks as "constructive", told a news conference in Geneva that he and Lavrov planned to meet in New York later this month and hoped to agree a date for the Geneva 2 conference then.
Russia and the US were working hard to find common ground for a negotiated solution to the crisis, but both needed to do some homework first, Kerry said, without giving any details.
"We've both agreed to do that homework and meet again in New York around the time of the UN general assembly, around the 28th[of September], in order to see if it is if possible to find a date for that conference, much of which will depend on the capacity to have success here in the next hours, days, on the subject of the chemical weapons."
Lavrov said Russian and US experts needed to engage with the UN Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to design a roadmap to resolve the issue as soon as practical.
He said the work on chemical weapons would go on in parallel with preparatory work for the Geneva peace conference.
"We agreed to meet in New York on the margins of the general assembly and see where we are and see what the Syrian parties think about it and do about it, and we hope we would be able to be a bit more specific when we meet with you in New York."
09/12/2013 05:38 PM
What Pig Putin Wants: Moscow's Fear of Jihad Drives Policy on Syria
A Commentary by Uwe Klussmann
Russian President Pig Putin is clearly enjoying his role as a key player in the Syrian conflict. But Moscow also has a very real concern: If Islamist extremism prevails in Syria, there could be serious consequences for Russia.
Whenever Russian President Pig Putin makes a proposal, skepticism is the first reaction from the West. This week has provided the most recent example: He had hardly finished making his suggestion that Syrian chemical weapons be put under international control before German weekly Die Zeit wrote of "Russia's cynical game in the Middle East" and the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wondered "if it was a feint from Moscow." In a piece for the New York Times on Thursday, Putin sought to explain his position to the global public.
Russia, Pig Putin has made clear, is interested in the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles for three reasons. First, the existence of such weapons could trigger a foreign intervention in Syria, to which Moscow is opposed. Second, there is a danger that the poison gas could fall into the hands of fundamentalist extremists. And third, armed Syrian rebels could use these weapons against Israel.
In his piece for the New York Times, he reminds readers of the US military interventions undertaken in the last 12 years -- including Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya -- and noted that neither peace nor stability have been the result. He also welcomed the readiness shown by US President Barack Obama to continue the dialogue with Russia over Syria.
The Pig's piece is the result of a cool calculation: The vast majority of Americans are opposed to an intervention. Despite a strong push from the hardliners at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), among others, to convince Congress to back a military strike, such an intervention has been shelved for now.
Possible and Necessary
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear relieved that the proposal from Moscow provides an opportunity to avoid a war -- of which neither of them was particularly convinced. Despite all of Washington's recent frustrations with the Russian offer of asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the US government knows that a partnership with Putin is both possible and necessary.
One reason for this is the fact that armed Islamist extremism, which is growing in strength from Kabul to Damascus, is more of a threat to Russia that it is to the US. It was no accident that the Sept. 9 meeting of the Russian Security Council, chaired by Putin, was focused on the situation in the Muslim region of the North Caucasus.
During the meeting, Pig Putin spoke of the dramatic situation in Russia's south. "A high level of corruption," widespread unemployment and a high birth rate, he noted, provide a "breeding ground for extremists." Moscow security officials are aware that centers of Islamism such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of which support Syrian rebels, also subsidize the militant underground in the Russian Caucasus.
Jihadist fighters in Central Asian countries allied with Russia -- Moscow has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- are also a threat. And Moscow's fear of the armed jihad is a key factor in its foreign policy. A victory by the Islamists in Syria, which would provide wind in the sails of jihadists around the world, is in the interests of neither Russia nor America, not to mention Israel.
That's why there's a need for world powers, above all the members of the United Nations Security Council, to take action. For one thing, it will give the Russians the gratifying feeling of negotiating at eye level with the US. Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Moscow has been little more than a regional power.
The Pig Says What Many Think
Indeed, Russia has often felt its own interests are of no concern to the United States -- like when the administration of George W. Bush administration sought to quickly lure Russia's neighbors Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Such plans have not been pursued further under Obama.
Yet disagreement remains between Moscow and Washington, one cited by Pig Putin in his New York Times editorial. While Putin cites "growing trust" between him and Obama, he outright rebukes the case Obama made for American exceptionalism in his speech to the nation on Sept. 10.
Obama said the United States' willingness to act when its ideas and principles are challenged abroad is "what makes us exceptional." Putin, an Orthodox Christian, calls this idea "extremely dangerous," and cautions Americans that "when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
What at first glance appears to be a small quip actually touches on an important point. The American elite holds stubbornly fast to the belief that their country can use its military to act as the arbiter of global democracy, even without a mandate from the UN. That leads God's own country to look down with sovereign contempt upon "Old Europe," and other states.
But this view is coming up against increasing opposition in the world. Pig Putin simply says openly what many in Berlin and elsewhere are saying in a shamed whisper.
September 12, 2013
Making Administration’s Case, Kerry Finds Six Words That Spell Trouble
By MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — In the last three weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has uttered tens of thousands of words about Syria — in Congressional hearings, on Sunday news programs, from the State Department and the British Foreign Office, and now in a Geneva hotel, where he and the Russians are hashing out a plan that could avert a military strike.
Six of those words have gotten him into trouble.
Making the case on Sept. 3 for military action before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry acknowledged a worst case that would entail American “boots on the ground” in Syria. Six days later, at a news conference in London, he promised that any military strike against Syria ordered by President Obama would be “unbelievably small.”
Critics on the left and right seized on Mr. Kerry’s comments as proof of two contradictory theories about the president’s threatened strike: that it would be a slippery slope to another American war in the Middle East; or that it was a token gesture that would do nothing to alter the deadly stalemate between the Syrian government and the rebels.
In Mr. Kerry’s zeal to persuade different audiences, administration officials concede, he leaned too far in both directions. But these slips of the tongue laid bare a more basic contradiction in the Obama administration’s Syria policy: it is a call for military action by a president who has desperately wanted to avoid being drawn into military action.
Given his boss’s ambivalence, it was fitting that what many initially saw as Mr. Kerry’s third major gaffe — suggesting in London that President Bashar al-Assad could avert a military strike by immediately turning over his chemical weapons — instead set in motion a diplomatic process that might end up being Mr. Obama’s salvation.
With Russia taking up Mr. Kerry on his seemingly offhand suggestion, it now falls to the secretary of state to try to work out an international plan to take over and ultimately destroy Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons. With such a central role, his public statements will continue to receive a level of scrutiny unusual even for a secretary of state.
Mr. Kerry’s early missteps are hardly unusual, but they have gotten more attention than those of his two immediate predecessors, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, former diplomats say, because of the intensity of the Syria crisis and Mr. Kerry’s own intensity in responding to it.
“Every secretary I’ve worked with has said things that were impolitic,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East diplomat who has worked for Republican and Democratic administrations. But Mr. Kerry, he said, has done so on a bigger stage than many of his predecessors.
“It’s the combination of Kerry’s supreme self-confidence, his desire to be out there, and his own forceful style, which has led him to an imprecision of language,” said Mr. Miller, who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Despite the missteps, Mr. Kerry has kept the backing of the White House, where officials said they appreciated that he had gone “all in” on advocating a difficult policy.
“It’s a complicated balancing act to persuade people of the necessity to act, while also having the necessity to prove that it will be limited,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
As a former senator who spent nearly three decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry is used to speaking at length and with authority on world affairs. At the committee hearing last week, he was speaking to former colleagues with whom he had shared a dais for years.
So when the committee’s current chairman, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, asked him whether a Senate resolution authorizing force should contain an absolute prohibition on deploying American soldiers to Syria, Mr. Kerry responded candidly that he could think of scenarios that would require “boots on the ground.”
“In the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of Al Nusra or someone else,” Mr. Kerry said. When that upset the ranking Republican, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, Mr. Kerry replied that he had been “thinking out loud about how to protect America’s interests” and hastened to add, “There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”
A week later, after a meeting with the British foreign secretary, William Hague, Mr. Kerry faced a different question. Why, a reporter asked him, had the Obama administration’s arguments for a strike fallen flat with voters in the United States, Britain and France?
Mr. Kerry answered that people were understandably wary of another Iraq or Afghanistan. Compared with those wars, he said, the operation Mr. Obama had in mind was a “very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons.” It would, he added, be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”
Within minutes, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who had been pushing the White House for a more robust response to Syria, posted a scathing Tweet: “Kerry says #Syria strike would be ‘unbelievably small’ — that is unbelievably unhelpful.”
Fortunately for Mr. Kerry, that turned out to be a footnote. Minutes earlier, when he was asked whether Mr. Assad could do anything to head off a strike, he said: “Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
Sensing another gaffe, Mr. Kerry’s aides insisted he had been speaking rhetorically. But Mr. Kerry had been told by the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, that Mr. Obama had discussed this issue with President Vladimir V. Putin in St. Petersburg days earlier. As soon as Mr. Kerry opened the door, the Russians walked through it.
The State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Marie E. Harf, said of the situation, “We’re in Geneva today talking about a possible peaceful path to eliminate the regime’s chemical weapons precisely because John Kerry issued a hypothetical challenge that smoked out our private conversations with the Russians.”
September 12, 2013
Listing Demands, Assad Uses Crisis to His Advantage
By ROBERT F. WORTH
WASHINGTON — Not long ago, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria seemed a remote and embattled figure, with the United States threatening airstrikes and other Arab leaders denouncing him for having used chemical weapons against his own people.
Yet in recent days, he appears, paradoxically, to have turned the crisis to his advantage, making clear to a global television audience that he aims to use President Obama’s own “red line” against him.
In exchange for relinquishing his chemical arsenal, Mr. Assad said Thursday, he will require that the United States stop arming the Syrian opposition — a demand that might seem wishful from the leader of a devastated country where civil war has left 100,000 dead, two million living as refugees and large swaths of territory beyond his control.
Mr. Assad outlined his demands on Thursday, telling a Russian TV interviewer that the arms-control proposal floated by his patron in Moscow would not be finalized until “we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists.”
Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a blunt response to Mr. Assad’s comments after meeting Thursday with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, saying the standard procedures for identifying and securing the weapons were too slow in Syria’s case. “There is nothing standard about this process,” Mr. Kerry said. “The words of the Syrian regime, in our judgment, are simply not enough.”
Mr. Assad, sounding relaxed and confident, hinted in his interview that the Russian proposal — which requires Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention — could become a lever for endless negotiations and delays, much as Saddam Hussein delayed arms control inspectors during the 1990s. “It doesn’t mean that Syria will sign the documents, fulfill the obligations, and that’s it,” Mr. Assad said.
The state-owned Syrian newspaper Al Watan put it bluntly in a headline on Thursday: “Moscow and Damascus pull the rug out from under the feet of Obama.”
Mr. Assad’s comments on Thursday were the latest chapter in a rhetorical offensive by the Syrian president and his surrogates, who seem to feel that global perceptions of the Syrian opposition — with its strong component of Islamic radicalism — have shifted in their direction. Mr. Assad has granted interviews to American and French reporters in recent weeks, and has brought back the media adviser who had largely disappeared from public view for the past two years, a Western-educated interpreter and author named Bouthaina Shaaban.
Ms. Shaaban is a skilled interlocutor who helped Mr. Assad shape his image in the West as a reform-minded leader during the years before the uprising in 2011. Her re-emergence has “signaled a coherent determination to launch a media blitz,” said Jon Snow, a veteran anchor for Britain’s Channel 4 news.
In recent weeks, thousands of Syrians have recorded personal appeals to members of Congress and the American public urging them to oppose an airstrike, though it is not clear whether those efforts are coordinated with their government.
For the rebels, who could often use a tip or two in the area of public relations, all of this is unqualified bad news. “It is disappointing,” said Najib Ghadbian, the main Syrian opposition group’s special representative to the United States. “If the regime wants to play with this, it could take months or years. This is why we need accountability.”
A rebel brigade commander named Moaz al-Yousef, reached by telephone, spoke bitterly of Mr. Obama’s interest in the Russian proposal — and the delay of the Congressional votes — as a betrayal.
“We had hopes, it was a dream, and now it’s gone and we feel disappointed,” he said. “We should completely cut off our relationship with him — Obama has completely lost his credibility.”
The rebels’ foreign backers were almost equally derisive. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, dismissed the Russian proposal in a speech in Istanbul on Thursday, saying that Mr. Assad was merely buying time for “new massacres.”
In his interview with Russian television, Mr. Assad hinted at another possible stumbling block in the prospective chemical weapons agreement by saying Israel should ratify it first. Israel has signed the accord but not ratified it, and is extremely unlikely to do so in light of the difficulty of verifying Syrian compliance in the midst of a civil war.
For Mr. Assad, the Russian proposal comes as a welcome reprieve. Even before the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, his military was effectively locked in a stalemate with the opposition, despite the intervention of militia fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement, in recent months. Although Mr. Assad won a few important victories, he has still not pushed the rebels from the Damascus suburbs. That, many analysts say, was the goal of the chemical weapons attack, in a rebel-held part of the eastern suburb of Ghouta.
After the attack, Mr. Assad was clearly bracing for an American strike, with the military moving key units and the capital largely emptied out. But the Congressional debate over military intervention suggested — to the Syrians — a lack of American resolve, and the Russian proposal bolstered Mr. Assad’s confidence, even at the cost of admitting for the first time the existence of Syria’s chemical weapons program.
“Assad appears to have the impression that the Americans may want him to go, but not now,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So you can now expect him to go on the offensive.”
Some analysts cautioned that Mr. Assad could be overplaying his hand.
“The Syrian regime swings between nihilism and triumphalism; there’s nothing in between,” said one Damascus-based analyst who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “The chemical weapons deal — there is no deal, it’s very impractical, and if that becomes clear, it could put Obama in a stronger position vis-à-vis airstrikes.”
The analyst added that Mr. Assad’s comments on Thursday could be less a reflection of his own thinking than of what the Russian leadership wants him to say. “Syrian foreign policy has been contracted out to Russia, and Assad was speaking to Russian talking points,” the analyst said. “That is troubling in itself.”
Brian Stelter contributed reporting from New York; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; and Michael R. Gordon from Geneva.
09/12/2013 04:53 PM
After the Islamists: Fearing for the Future in Northern Mali
By Bartholomäus Grill
Residents of the battered northern Mali city of Gao are attempting to rebuild after French troops helped drive out jihadists early this year. Now local leaders are hoping the world won't forget them.
The same annoying woman is rattling the glass door again. She's come several times today already, and each time the governor of Gao sends her away again. It's the same every day, from morning to night -- petitioners line up at his door and Mamadou Adama Diallo, 55, has to turn them away. Diallo is the highest government representative in this dusty city of 90,000, but that doesn't mean he's able to help people here, because the government doesn't exist anymore -- at least not here in northern Mali.
The governor's makeshift office contains a kitchen table for a desk and a wobbly ceiling fan. A mouse scampers across the floor of the bare room. Out front in the reception area, 11 secretaries work on documents of one sort or another, but even their boss doesn't know exactly what they're doing. "I have the most difficult task anyone in Mali could take on," Diallo says.
Gao exists in a perpetual state of emergency. First, Tuareg rebels invaded in March 2012, and then Islamists terrorized the city. The place has been left with such enormous problems that the governor doesn't know what to do first. Should he begin by rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure? Or should he start by fighting water shortages, power outages and the anarchy that reigns in the countryside around the city? Or by providing the necessary aid to the traumatized population?
Reaching Gao isn't easy. It requires passing through seven military checkpoints and traversing run-down roads where bandits are a constant threat. The traveler who negotiates these obstacles then arrives in a battered city. The facades of the mud-brick buildings are riddled with bullet holes. Ruins are all that remain of the once magnificent courthouse and the police station. At intersections, signs depicting skulls and crossbones warn of mines and unexploded bombs. Many storefronts are boarded up and all of the banks are closed.
Yet Governor Diallo, who oversees this chaos while wearing an immaculate general's uniform, is one of those stoic optimists of a type it seems only Africa can produce. Since French forces liberated the city in January of this year, Diallo says, 15,000 refugees have returned to Gao and life is gradually returning to normal. Then he turns to the statistics.
"Look at the results of the presidential election in August, which went peacefully despite extremely adverse circumstances," he says. Voter turnout in the Gao Region was 58.7 percent, a figure the governor is proud of. Since last week, Mali has had a new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, a man everyone calls simply his initials, "IBK." Keïta took over a government in shambles.
"What we hope now is that the world won't forget us, and will help us rebuild," Diallo says. "After the war, now we need to win peace, and that is much more difficult."
Donor countries have promised more than €3 billion ($4 billion) in aid. The question, though, is how much of that will end up being pocketed by corrupt officials. Mali is already "over-aided," experts warn. The country has been showered with development aid for decades -- but little to none of it ever arrived in the marginalized north.
Comparison to East Germany
Gao's chief of police compares the situation to Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. "What for you was the east, for us is the north," says Colonel Nia Coulibaly. Aside from his dashing uniform, Coulibaly has little left. A suicide bomber blew up his old office, and now he too performs his duties from a ramshackle substitute location. Coulibaly is supposed to restore law and order here, but his 85 officers lack equipment, radios, even office materials. There is just one usable patrol car.
Schools and hospitals are in similarly desperate straits. The city's few pharmacies were destroyed by the Islamists, because they advertised their business with green neon crosses, a symbol of hated Christianity. Gao was the insurgents' base of operations, meant to become the capital of their Islamic state. Their tyrannical rule lasted precisely 213 days and the central square still bears signs of those months of terror. The words "Place de la Sharia," although now painted over, can still be made out above an archway.
Truck driver Mokhtar Touré, 27, avoids this place. Islamists caught him with two assault rifles he had found by the side of the road and accused him of arms trading. "They tied me up," he says, "then a young bearded man, an Egyptian, pulled out a carving knife and cut off my right hand, without anesthesia, very slowly, as if he were cutting up a chicken." Touré says he passed out during the half-hour ordeal. While telling his story, he suddenly pulls the brown plastic prosthetic from the stump of his arm. "My hand fell off like that," he says. He dreams of it every night, and every day finds himself drowning in profound sadness.
Touré now lives on charity and says he feels like a leper. Many of the victims of terror in Gao feel much the same -- the women who were raped, the merchants with amputated limbs, the unfortunate individuals who were beaten half to death with metal rods for the sin of drinking beer.
Fearing an "Afghanization" of the Sahel region, former colonial power France intervened militarily to end the madness. An elite group of French troops drove out the jihadists over the course of just 19 days earlier this year.
'Vive la France!'
Now women once again ride through the streets on mopeds, dressed in colorful clothing and not wearing veils, with their hair blowing in the wind -- just as they always did in Mali, a tolerant Muslim country in which fanatical religion is a foreign concept.
The covered market has been rebuilt with French aid, and now bears the name Damien Boiteux, in commemoration of the first French soldier to die in "Opération Serval." People here are deeply grateful to their former colonial rulers for intervening, and French soldiers are celebrated wherever they go. In front of the Tomb of Askia, Gao's most iconic structure, which miraculously survived the conflict unscathed, children and teenagers surround two French tanks, dancing and chanting, "Vive la France!"
French soldiers who are here on their last day in Gao photograph the children with their smartphones. Paris plans to reduce its troop presence from 4,000 to 1,000 by the end of the year, with the United Nations' MINUSMA mission replacing the French forces. On July 1, more than 12,600 UN peacekeepers working under a robust mandate took over responsibility for safeguarding the fragile peace here. People in Gao, though, would have preferred for the French to stay. They have little confidence in soldiers from Senegal, Togo or Benin, and even less in the Malian army.
A Military 'Mess'
"The media called us a big mess, and they were right," says military spokesman Diaran Koné. The army, lacking strong leadership and the willingness to fight, was unable to stop the rebels. It was incapacitated after a March 2012 military coup, which was supposed to turn the tide of the fight against the Tuareg rebels, but instead drew international condemnation. Newly elected President Keïta used a feeling of collective humiliation to his advantage in the recent election campaign, which he won under the slogan, "For Mali's honor."
"Everything will be all right," predicts military spokesman Koné. "We're restructuring the armed forces, with support from Europe." The lieutenant colonel praises the European Union's training mission that is taking place near Bamako, the capital, with the goal of transforming the "big mess" into a disciplined force.
And what has become of coup leader Amadou Sanogo? "He is in charge of the commission that is reforming the army," says Koné. Such news from the capital reinforces people's doubts about their country's own army. Who will protect them when the peacekeepers' one-year mandate expires?
"The reasons behind the uprising haven't been taken care of," says one official. "The Tuareg rebels, who started the war, will continue to fight." This man asks to remain anonymous, as he is Tuareg himself and fears retaliation. The Tuareg still seek to establish an independent state and their MNLA liberation movement controls Kidal, a desert town 300 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Gao.
The Islamists, who originally allied themselves with the secular rebels, likewise have not just disappeared into thin air. It is believed that about 800 of them were killed, but most were able to escape. They have gone underground, hiding in the desert or fleeing to neighboring Mauritania, Algeria and Niger to regroup.
"The jihadists should stay where they came from," says Abdou Cissé, 53, a muscular man in a colorful robe. He points to his guitar, a ruby red Ibanez. "They weren't able to destroy this, because I smuggled it into Bamako," he says. All of the rest of his instruments were seized and burned by the Islamists, Cissé explains. Now, he can once again play music without facing the punishment of whipping.
"The nightmare is over for now, but the fear remains," Cissé says. He means a fear that it will start all over again, that the Islamists will return, that Mali will become a "failed state" once and for all. Part of it, too, is a fear that he will no longer be able to play "Tole, Tole," a song that has nothing to do with politics, but rather is an ode to the beauty of Malian women.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
Bizarre prosecutions of Tunisian journalists
Friday 13 September 2013 11.29 BST theguardian.com
Two Tunisian journalists are facing legal action in bizarre circumstances.
Zouhaer al-Jiss has been charged with defaming a public official simply because he was presenting a radio programme in which a guest criticised Tunisia's president.
And Zied al-Heni has been summoned to appear in court because he criticised the arrest of a cameraman whose "offence" was to film a man throwing an egg at the country's culture minister (which I reported here).
Al-Jiss, who works at Express FM radio, told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the complaint against him was filed in the name of the president Moncef Marzouki.
In March, he during his radio show, he did a phone interview with Lebanese journalist Salem Zahran who alleged that Marzouki had received €50,000 from Al-Jazeera.
Al-Jiss told Zahran that he needed evidence for such serious allegations.
Now al-Jiss, the director of Express FM and Zahran have been charged with two violations of the penal code and one of the press code.
Al-Heni, speaking on a TV programme, criticised the arrest of cameraman Mourad Mehrezi on a charge of conspiracy to assault a public servant and harming public morals. He has been summoned to appear on a charge of accusing a public agent of violating the law.
HRW spokesman Joe Stork said the Tunisian judicial authorities "are resorting again and again to the same articles in the penal code as a repressive tool against free speech.
"Instead of trying to silence critics, the government should look into their allegations, and fix the laws from the old repressive government that criminalise criticism of public figures."
South Africa secrecy law surprise as Zuma rejects controversial bill
Campaigners celebrate after president sends protection of state information bill back to parliament
David Smith in Johannesburg
theguardian.com, Thursday 12 September 2013 15.47 BST
Campaigners in South Africa were celebrating on Thursday after President Jacob Zuma rejected controversial secrecy laws that threatened journalists and whistleblowers with long prison terms.
In a surprise move, Zuma refused to sign the protection of state information bill because it did not pass "constitutional muster" and knocked it back to parliament for revision. It had been widely assumed that the president's approval was a mere formality.
The proposed "secrecy bill" puts those in possession of classified information at risk of jail sentences of up to 25 years. Activists have compared it to apartheid-era crackdowns and warned of a "chilling effect" on investigative journalism and those seeking to expose government corruption. Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela's foundation have spoken out against the proposed legislation.
But it is also widely conceded that, after heated national debate, the current bill is a significant improvement on legislation first drawn up five years ago. The president's unexpected decision to send it back means that it is now likely to be watered down further still.
"I have given consideration to the bill in its entirety and the various opinions and commentaries regarding the constitutionality and tagging of the bill," Zuma told the parliamentary press gallery association on Thursday. "After consideration of the bill and having applied my mind thereto, I am of the view that the bill as it stands does not pass constitutional muster."
He added: "The constitution requires that the president must assent to and sign the bill referred to him or her by the national assembly. However, in terms of section 79(1) of the constitution, if the president has reservations about the constitutionality of the bill, he or she may refer it back to the national assembly for reconsideration.
"In this regard, I have referred the bill to the national assembly for reconsideration insofar as sections of the bill, in particular sections 42 and 45, lack meaning and coherence, consequently are irrational and accordingly are unconstitutional."
In April, the bill was passed in parliament's national assembly with 189 votes in favour, 74 against and one abstention. It is intended to repeal an old apartheid law, the protection of information act of 1982, which is not in line with the democratic constitution.
But it faced opposition from rival political parties, editors, lawyers and civil society groups as well as international organisations. They argued that the bill is unconstitutional because it lacks a clause to protect those who publish information that they deem to be in the public interest.
Despite being accused of ramming the legislation through, Zuma's party, the African National Congress, said it "welcomes" his ruling. The office of its chief whip said: "We appreciate the president's views on the bill. Indeed, parliament must ensure that an appropriate process is instituted to ensure that amendments are accordingly effected. It is important that the laws parliament pass are of highest quality and are not in conflict with the constitution.
"We are confident that the amendments would further strengthen the bill and its objectives of protecting citizen's information and enhancing national security through protection of sensitive government information."
Zuma's intervention was welcomed by Mandela's long-time friend and lawyer George Bizos, who said: "I said before they passed it there will be a long queue of lawyers at the constitutional court, so he must have received good advice. I'm very pleased. It would have been a threat to freedom of expression."
Murray Hunter of the civil society group the Right2Know campaign told the eNews Channel Africa: "I think we are definitely celebrating. This is an important day. While it's not over, this is a sign that as citizens working together, mobilising, we certainly are able to bring change."
Zuma sent the bill back to the drawing board despite reportedly speaking out against the media earlier this week. Addressing a group of journalism students, he was quoted as saying: "Who do you think in reality you serve when reporting: the interest of the public that you claim, as the media you stand for, or the interest of the owners and managers of the paper?"
Zuma reportedly said the South African media claimed to act as society's watchdog, but "they were never elected. I've argued with them that they were never elected, we were elected and we can claim that we represent the people. They do say they represent the people. [But] does the population or public determine what is reported? They don't."