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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1080379 times)
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« Reply #9510 on: Oct 23, 2013, 07:53 AM »

Rana Plaza factory disaster: victims still waiting for compensation

Leading brands yet to agree arrangements for injured workers and families of 1,129 people killed in Bangladesh six months ago

Sarah Butler and Saad Hammadi in Dhaka, Wednesday 23 October 2013 12.52 BST   

Six months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh, more than 15 brands whose clothes were produced there have yet to agree to pay long-term compensation to injured workers or the families of the 1,129 people who died.

The Clean Clothes Campaign, an international workers' rights pressure group, has written to brands including Spanish fashion brand Mango, UK workwear producer Premier and US supermarket Walmart, all of which had sold clothing made within Rana Plaza, calling on them to help victims of the disaster.

It says: "Clean Clothes Campaign would like to see all brands who were sourcing either directly or indirectly from factories housed in Rana Plaza commit, and implement, the payment of full and fair compensation for all victims' families and the survivors of Rana Plaza.

"They must also agree a way forward in dealing with compensation when accidents do occur, to avoid making a tragic situation worse with months of uncertainty for the survivors and families left behind, who are left with no income, high medical bills and a real risk of destitution."

In recent weeks, Benetton, the Italian fashion brand, finally joined nine other companies, including Primark, Matalan and Bonmarché from the UK and Loblaw from Canada, in discussing long-term compensation arrangements for Rana Plaza victims. But workers are likely to have to wait until the new year to receive that money as negotiations continue about the scale of payments and how workers will be paid.

Primark and other brands have paid out short-term financial aid to Rana Plaza workers but that money will run out at the end of this month and no firm plans for further financial assistance are in place at this point.

Jyrki Raina, the general secretary of international union IndustriALL, says: "The immediate concern is to keep the money flowing to victims."

The debate about compensation comes amid a fraught atmosphere in Dhaka as the Bangladeshi government prepares to announce an increase in the minimum wage which will affect millions of factory workers. Workers have demanded 8,000 taka (£64) a month, more than double the current 3,000 taka rate, but the government is expected to set rates at 5,500 taka.

Anger at low wages could be fuelled by protests about compensation timed to take place six months after the Rana Plaza collapse and by political unrest as the country prepares for an election early next year.

The Bangladeshi government is also moving to improve factory safety in the garment industry, which accounts for the majority of the country's exports. It is supporting a £15m programme backed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as well as the UK and Dutch governments, that will provide technical expertise for building and fire safety assessments, strengthen and support labour, fire and building inspections and build occupational safety and health awareness and systems. It is hoped that the deal will focus on those factories which are not covered by two other international safety deals supported by brands and retailers.

Under those two agreements, leadership teams have been appointed and have set up offices in Bangladesh, but they have yet to start inspecting more than 2,000 factories used by their signatories or begin action to improve building safety. However, individual brands have inspected more than 500 factories themselves and it is hoped that work will meet the standards of the international safety deals.

Sam Maher, a campaigner from pressure group Labour Behind the Label, says: "Today workers in Bangladesh probably are safer than they were in April as brands had never looked at building safety before and now they are. Some factories have been closed or improved but there is a long way to go before Bangladeshi workers can feel sure that the factory they work in is safe."

Katherine Kirk, Primark's ethical trading director, says: "We've no doubt that Rana Plaza has been a big wake-up call for the industry as a whole. From Primark's point of view we are having a lot of constructive conversations with suppliers."

She also believes Primark's work on building a compensation system can be picked up by other companies.

The British retailer, which bought clothes from a factory that took up one floor of the Rana Plaza building, has built a database of just over 3,600 people who were affected by the collapse, including family members of those who died. This took months because of poor record keeping and the loss of documents in the disaster. About 300 people have yet to be identified and some have slipped through the net.

Nazrul Islam, 28, worked as a sample man at New Wave Style on the eighth floor of Rana Plaza. He broke his spinal cord when the factory collapsed but says he has only received financial aid from other members of the public and the government.

Kirk admits a small number of those due compensation are still to be registered but Primark has worked with a local bank to sign up thousands of people to bank accounts to enable two rounds of short-term support to be paid to those workers. This system should ensure that funds from the international compensation effort can be distributed easily.

Primark has also developed software to help the medical and vulnerability assessment of everyone affected by the factory collapse. Trials of its system, which runs off tablet computers which can be taken to workers' homes across Bangladesh, will begin next month.

The process is being assessed by experts from the ILO and may be used as the basis for all compensation, which would be split between brands, the government and factory owners. IndustriALL is supporting the idea but has said it would prefer a simpler system funded by a central pot of money.

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« Reply #9511 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:00 AM »

10/22/2013 05:53 PM

Shutdown Specter: US Fumbling Puts China at Risk

By Marc Hujer and Daniel Sander

The whole world looked on as the United States embarrassed itself for three weeks with its government shutdown. China, the only other superpower, profited from the domestic dispute -- but as Washington's largest creditor, it also has cause for concern.

A little before 11 a.m. last Wednesday, a newly crowned Miss America announced her presence at the White House via Twitter. At the time, most US politicians had nothing on their minds except their country's budget conflict, with Democrats and Republicans in Congress unable to agree on a new national debt limit for nearly three weeks.

Then, on Wednesday, Congress was set to begin a decisive round of voting to save the country and the global economy. Even as television commentators feverishly awaited the results of the Congressional vote, this year's Miss America, 24-year-old Nina Davuluri, tweeted: "Had the pleasure of having a conversation with President @BarackObama in the Oval Office today!"

"President Barack Obama appears to be multitasking," news channel CNN scoffed about the president simultaneously steering the nation through a budget crisis and finding time to talk to the beautiful Indian-American Davuluri.

In the preceding weeks, however, Obama seemed to find it difficult to multitask, cancelling meetings with a number of important, influential allies and investors and even calling off a trip to Asia during which he had planned to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Global Embarrassment

The United States had embarrassed itself on the global stage when Republican members of Congress blocked President Obama's healthcare reform, also known as "Obamacare," by refusing to approve an increase to the country's debt limit necessary to fund the reform. This forced the government to shut down its administration, making 800,000 government employees take unpaid mandatory leave, and amounted to the US voluntarily inflicting damage on itself. The political opponents didn't manage to reach an agreement -- and even then, only a temporary one -- until last Wednesday, under enormous pressure and at the last minute. Is this how a superpower behaves?

Those weeks during which the US feared for its financial solvency showed just how vulnerable the country is. Yet at the same time, the episode showed America's strength. No other country could afford to engage in such drama without being punished by financial markets, creditors and trade partners.

But can even the US really afford it? Credit rating agency Standard & Poor's calculates the shutdown inflicted $24 billion (€18 billion) in economic damage. But the true damage here is of a political nature, with China, the world's other superpower, now openly expressing its doubts about the US.

'Building a De-Americanized World'

In a commentary published last week by Xinhua, Beijing's state-owned news agency, commentator Liu Chang wrote: "As US politicians of both political parties are still shuffling back and forth between the White House and the Capitol Hill without striking a viable deal to bring normality to the body politic they brag about, it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world."

Creating such a world calls for "several corner stones," the commentary continued, among them all countries adhering to "the basic principles of international law" and recognizing the international authority of the United Nations. "That means no one has the right to wage any form of military action against others without a UN mandate," Xinhua wrote.

The global financial system would also require "some substantial reforms," the news agency said. "The developing and emerging market economies need to have more say in major international financial institutions including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund." Xinhua also suggested "the introduction of a new international reserve currency that is to be created to replace the dominant US dollar, so that the international community could permanently stay away from the spill-over of the intensifying domestic political turmoil in the United States."

There are many reasons for China's current self-assuredness, and one of them is embodied by a grand, granite-colored building at 32 Chengfang Street in Beijing. This is the headquarters of China's central bank, and every month its accounts receive around $3 billion from Washington, in interest on American treasury securities -- debt of the world's largest economy held by its second largest.

The Chinese government is sitting atop a mountain of cash unlike anything seen before. Its foreign currency reserves totalled $3.66 trillion at the end of September, $163 billion more than in June. Two more quarters of such inexorable growth would see that figure nearly reaching the $4 trillion mark.

China Attracting Money Faster Than Ever

And while Washington was arduously averting national bankruptcy last week, Beijing broke another financial record when China's currency, the yuan, reached its highest value against the dollar since 1993. Although investors are pulling back from most emerging markets, money is flowing into China faster than ever.

Around one third of China's foreign currency reserves -- even the People's Bank of China doesn't cite an exact figure -- are invested in US bonds. That makes China the US's largest foreign creditor, and that fact poses a problem for Beijing as well.

China has been issuing warnings to the US since the start of the recent shutdown crisis. Beijing is keeping "a close eye" on the conflict in Washington, said Premier Li Keqiang, who is also his country's top economic policy specialist. Deputy Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao added: "In the long term, America needs to solve its debt problem, to prevent the global economy from slumping."

Even so, China has been only too glad to make use of the vacuum the US budget crisis has created on its own doorstep. President Xi attended one of the two summits in Asia that his counterpart Obama skipped. Xi also traveled to Jakarta, where Obama spent part of his childhood, and to Malaysia. During this time, Xi signed trade agreements worth $30 billion. Premier Li, meanwhile, traveled to a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei, then continued on to Thailand and Vietnam.

The World's Largest Creditor
But even as America's current weakness plays to China's political advantage, it also poses financial risks. Seldom has a single quotation summed up the state of global politics like one uttered by late US billionaire J. Paul Getty: "If you owe the bank $100 that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem."

As the world's largest debtor and creditor, the US and China are mutually dependent on one another. Chinese economists are advising their central bank to start selling off its US bonds before the next round of the American budget crisis hits. Time is of the essence, with the conflict in Washington likely to start up again by Jan. 15 at the latest, when the newly negotiated interim budget expires.

But by selling bonds, Beijing's central bank would be hurting itself as well. The value of the dollar would drop, meaning China's dollar wealth, too, would decline. The two economic giants are inseparably entwined.

At the moment, it looks like Washington will encounter problems in its next round of budget negotiations as well. The frontline between the Republicans and Obama's Democrats hasn't budged from where it has been ever since the two parties first dug in. And the radical minority of Tea Party Congressional representatives within the Republican Party isn't giving up in the face of its recent defeat. Quite the opposite, in fact. "The fight revved up the four-year-old Tea Party movement," the Washington Post wrote on Oct. 17.

Tea Party's Firm Hold

Republicans similarly paralyzed their country's government, then under President Bill Clinton, for 26 days in 1995-1996, but eventually backed down, fearing voters' anger. These days, representatives from the right-wing Tea Party have little need to fear their supporters turning away from them. Their electoral districts have been redrawn in such a way over recent years that losing to a Democratic challenger has become almost an impossibility. At most, Tea Party candidates could post a challenge to other Republican politicians.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, spokesman and architect of the weeks-long blockade, is being hailed as a hero by his supporters. In a straw poll at a conservative "Values Voter Summit" last week, Cruz received a majority of the votes, leading to speculation that he would run for his party's nomination in the 2016 presidential election.

The pro-business Wall Street Journal has been smug in tone in recent weeks in its coverage of voices abroad that are critical of the US and of government ministers and central bank directors wringing their hands over the situation. The newspaper has written of "Shutdownfreude."

But the critics include the Chinese, as well. America's budget conflict has served as a "wake-up call" for China, says American economist Nicholas Lardy. Lardy advises Chinese decision-makers to "quit adding to their foreign reserves." Kenneth Rogoff, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), describes this as "a kick in the pants" for China. The US budget situation has led to China signing currency swap agreements with the European Central Bank (ECB) sooner than expected. These agreements make the yuan internationally tradable, a step toward competing with the dollar as a reserve currency.

Pacific Power

A few years ago, Obama was still able to stave off China's growing power in the Pacific region by focusing his attention on Asia's emergent economic powers. He invested a great deal in this new approach, sending troops to Australia, signing new trade agreements and promising Malaysia and Indonesia he would regularly attend ASEAN summits -- something he has now called off.

With the departure of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Tom Donilon as National Security Advisor, the US government has lost further important advocates of a pro-Asia course. And Obama himself now seems more concerned with the Arab Spring, Syria and Iran than with the Pacific. In his most recent speech at the UN General Assembly, the US president mentioned Syria, Egypt, Iran and Israel a total of 68 times, according to Time magazine, but China only once.

Another country in the same region gets barely a mention these days: Japan. America's Pacific ally is deeply at odds with China, but does have one concern in common with its Asian rival. Its $1.1 trillion in US bonds make Tokyo the US's second biggest foreign creditor after Beijing.

In Japan, where the magazine Newsweek still appears in print, despite existing only in digital form in the US, last week's cover bore the image of a frayed American flag and above it the headline: "Ruined America -- a Superpower Destroys Itself."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


Chinese temple's garish restoration prompts outrage

Officials sacked over botched repainting of Qing dynasty art as experts bemoan China's lack of care for cultural relics

Tania Branigan in Beijing, Tuesday 22 October 2013 12.30 BST   

With its bright colours and bold lines, the new fresco on display at a Chinese temple is certainly eye-catching. Unfortunately, it bears no resemblance to the delicate historical images it replaced – prompting anger and the sacking of officials who authorised the botched restoration.

The case is reminiscent of the ham-fisted retouching of an image of Christ in a Spanish church, which earned comparisons to a hairy monkey. That restoration was so spectacularly bad that an estimated 40,000 visitors flocked to Borja, near Zaragoza, to see it.

Whether the crude, cartoon-like images at the Yunjie temple in Chaoyang, Liaoning province, have the same pull remains to be seen. What is clear is that they have little in common with the delicate wall paintings that preceded them, in a hall built during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

Li Haifeng, a senior official with the Chaoyang government, said the official in charge of temple affairs and the head of the city's cultural heritage monitoring team had both been sacked. The party chief of the management office for Phoenix Mountain scenic area, where the temple is based, was given a warning.

Li told the state-run Global Times newspaper that the temple's abbot had applied for restoration permission, because the buildings needed maintenance work. But the area management office failed to request approval from the provincial government, despite instructions from the city to do so, and the work was done by an unqualified local company.

While the original frescos were badly faded and damaged, the new versions have horrified observers.

Li Zhanyang, an archaeologist with Henan's Culture Relics Bureau, condemned the local government as "uneducated, unreasonable and ignorant of the law". It warned that similar incidents happened each year.

"They just use the name 'restoration' for a new project," he said.

He complained he had not heard of anyone being punished with legal action in such cases, adding: "We have the law, but we don't implement the law."

He Shuzhong, the founder of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, said most restorations were "over-restored". Experts as well as officials lacked understanding of the value of cultural relics and the need to preserve the original – rather than recreating or altering it. They also wanted to finish projects quickly, while real restoration was a process of scientific research requiring time rather than high levels of investment, he said.

"China's modern circumstances … lead to the situation where either no one cares about the cultural relics, or there is over-investment, and over-restoration," he added.

But He also blamed the Chinese public's aesthetic standards.

"Most Chinese people do not enjoy the beauty of ancient, real ruins. Instead, they like dazzling, new, high, big things … The restoration of old architecture, in the hutongs [narrow alleys in cities with traditional courtyard houses], at Badaling [a stretch of the Great Wall] and the Forbidden City are like this."

Wujiaofeng, the internet user who first highlighted the changes on his blog, wrote: "The last trace of history inside [the temple] has been erased".

* Additional research by Cecily Huang


Chinese newspaper calls for journalist's release

New Express in Hunan province makes rare appeal, saying Chen Yongzhou was targeted over corruption stories

Associated Press in Beijing, Wednesday 23 October 2013 07.33 BST   

A Chinese newspaper has made a rare front-page appeal for police to release one of its reporters after he was detained for writing reports alleging financial misdeeds at a large construction equipment company.

The New Express newspaper said there was no evidence the journalist, Chen Yongzhou, had committed any crime.

The paper said Chen was being punished for a series of reports he wrote that scrutinized the finances of Zoomlion, a construction company listed on the Hong Kong and Shenzhen stock exchanges.

Police in the Hunan provincial capital, Changsha, said on their official microblog that the journalist had been detained for alleged "damage to business reputation".

Zoomlion is the second-largest construction equipment maker in China and its largest shareholder is the Hunan provincial government.


October 22, 2013

China Tries to Clean Up Toxic Legacy of Its Rare Earth Riches


TIANJIN, China — In northern China, near the Mongolian border, radioactively contaminated leaks from two decades of rare earth refining have been slowly trickling underground toward the Yellow River, a crucial water source for 150 million people.

In Jiangxi province in south-central China, the national government has seized control of rare earth mining districts from provincial officials after finding widespread illegal strip-mining of rare earth metals.

And in Guangdong province in southeastern China, regulators are struggling to repair rice fields and streams destroyed by powerful acids and other runoff from open-pit rare earth mines that are often run by violent organized crime syndicates.

Communities scattered across China face heavy environmental damage that accumulated through two decades of nearly unregulated rare earth mining and refining. While the Chinese government has begun spending billions of dollars to clean up the damage, the environmental impact is becoming an international trade issue, with a World Trade Organization panel in Geneva expected to issue a crucial draft report on Wednesday.

Arriving three years after an international tempest over the rare earths trade and 19 months after the World Trade Organization litigation was actually filed, the coming decision may not make a big difference to the rare earth industry itself, industry executives and officials said. But the case does seem to have had the unintended effect of helping to goad China into a major environmental cleanup.

China, the world’s dominant producer of rare earth metals, quietly and unilaterally imposed taxes and annual tonnage limits on its rare earth exports seven years ago. It then gradually raised the taxes and lowered the tonnage limits in subsequent years, slowly throttling supplies to overseas manufacturers.

China contends that these export restrictions are needed to protect its environment. The United States, the European Union and Japan have challenged China’s taxes and quotas at the World Trade Organization. They note that China has done little to limit rare earth consumption within its borders.

The rare earth case “will be a landmark case in terms of both export restrictions and the environment,” said James Bacchus, the former two-term chairman of the W.T.O. appeals tribunal in Geneva.

China has made ample supplies available to manufacturers within China that produce crucial components for a host of products like laptop computers, compact fluorescent bulbs, wind turbines and electric cars. Some Western and Japanese companies have moved factories to China to make sure that they have access to rare earths.

The W.T.O. panel faces some of the trickiest issues in international trade. Environmentalists have been wary of the trade organization ever since its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, rejected an American ban in the early 1990s on the import of tuna caught in ways that are hazardous to dolphins.

The Chinese export restrictions have become less important over the last several years for two reasons. Alternative rare earth mines have gone into production in the United States and Australia, reducing China’s share of global production to 85 percent, from 95 percent three years ago. And companies have become much more efficient about economizing on rare earths, especially the costliest ones, the so-called heavy rare earths like dysprosium.

The change is visible in the supply warehouse here of one of the world’s few factories producing rare earth powders for use in very powerful magnets. Whether in smartphones or missiles, the most advanced applications for rare earths tend to involve the manufacture of miniature but crucial components using the powerful magnetic qualities of rare earths.

The rare earth complex here in Tianjin is owned by Molycorp, an American company, although the factory buys its processed rare earths almost entirely from Chinese refineries. The warehouse has neatly arranged stacks of barrels of rare earths. The bright blue barrels holding neodymium, another highly magnetic rare earth, are only two feet high and a little more than a foot in diameter, but weigh more than 550 pounds because of the material’s extraordinary density.

Sitting by itself on a wooden pallet is a single gray can of dysprosium, a rare earth that sells for $243 per pound. Dysprosium prices soared as high as $1,135 per pound two years ago in a speculative bubble that followed China’s imposition of an unannounced embargo on rare earth shipments to Japan from September to November 2010, during a territorial dispute.

That spike in prices has prompted companies to economize in use of rare earths. Molycorp now mixes half as much dysprosium into its magnetic powders as it did even a year ago. Many of its customers have decided that their magnets do not need dysprosium, which is added in trace quantities to help rare earth magnets retain their magnetism at temperatures above the boiling point of water.

“People in Sichuan think they would die without their chili peppers, but they can live without them,” said Chen Kerong, the production director at the Molycorp factory here. “People love dysprosium, but they can live without it, too.”

The global oil industry has similarly begun using less lanthanum, another rare earth, during oil refining. Only 1.5 percent of the latest catalyst formulations for oil refining are now lanthanum, down from 4 or 5 percent three years ago.

But the case before the World Trade Organization appears to have made a difference already by prompting a broad environmental cleanup. In a white paper issued in June last year, China’s cabinet described at length the environmental harm caused by the rare earth industry, an admission that although embarrassing for Beijing may have buttressed its case at the W.T.O. that the rare earth industry is a dirty business for which export restrictions are justified. “Excessive rare earth mining has resulted in landslides, clogged rivers, environmental pollution emergencies and even major accidents and disasters, causing great damage to people’s safety and health and the ecological environment,” the white paper said.

Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that their newfound concerns for the environmental consequences of rare earth mining and refining are driven by a desire to help avoid defeat at the W.T.O., although the cleanup could help on that.

Whole villages between the city of Baotou and the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia have been evacuated and resettled to apartment towers elsewhere after reports of high cancer rates and other health problems associated with the numerous rare earth refineries there.

The most hazardous refineries are those that crack the tight chemical bonds that tie rare earths found in mineral ores to a variety of hazardous materials, notably radioactive thorium. Many tons of extremely concentrated sulfuric acid are used to break the chemical bonds. Then the valuable rare earth metals, which are not radioactive themselves, can be purified. But a hazardous stew of toxic chemicals and low-level radioactive waste is left behind. Most of that waste has been dumped into the world’s largest mine tailings pond, which covers four square miles near the Yellow River on the western outskirts of Baotou.

Built in the 1950s under Mao Zedong, the tailings pond lacks a liner to prevent the leaking of radioactive waste and toxins into the groundwater, where they have been gradually seeping toward the Yellow River. There is no evidence that the waste and toxins have reached the river, but the Chinese government plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars pumping out as much contaminated groundwater as possible and pumping enormous quantities of fresh water into the earth to dilute what is left before it reaches the Yellow River.

On orders from Beijing, state-controlled enterprises have dismantled Baotou refineries and rebuilt them at an enormous mining complex at Bayan Obo in the Gobi Desert, which mines about half the world’s rare earths. Chinese state-controlled media have reported that tens of thousands of goats and other livestock there have died and many baby goats have been born severely deformed, possibly because of radioactive contamination from the rare earth industry.

Located in an arid area nearly uninhabited except for mine workers, the refineries have been rebuilt there with extensive wastewater treatment facilities, according to industry officials in Beijing.

The W.T.O. panel will send its confidential draft report on Wednesday to China and the countries that brought the case, which will then be allowed to suggest changes before the final decision is made on Nov. 21.

Whoever loses the decision is likely to appeal to the trade organization’s appellate body — two-thirds of decisions are appealed, and sometimes even winners have appealed to obtain better-worded verdicts. Each party has six weeks to decide whether to appeal after the decision is published in mid-December, and then the appellate body has another three months to rule.

The betting in most of the rare earth industry and among international trade lawyers is that China will lose the W.T.O. case and will comply by removing its export quotas and export duties. But these changes may not make a big difference, because China has spent the past few years forcing mergers so that 99 percent of the country’s legally mined rare earths are produced by just 10 companies, all with varying degrees of state control.

But if they push prices up too quickly, they could face competition from Molycorp, which has reopened a mine in the California desert, and from Lynas of Australia, which mines rare earths in Western Australia and refines and processes them in Malaysia.

Market forces may have more of an effect on China’s ability to control the market in the coming years than export restrictions, said Dudley Kingsnorth, a former rare earths mining executive who is now a business professor and the director of the Critical Materials Initiative at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

“If it were decided five years ago,” he said, “it might have had an impact.”

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« Reply #9512 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:04 AM »

New Zealand cuts postal service to three days a week

Government says Monday to Friday mail deliveries are no longer needed in urban areas but will be maintained in countryside

Associated Press in Wellington, Wednesday 23 October 2013 07.27 BST      

New Zealand's government has agreed to allow its postal service to deliver mail as infrequently as three days a week to most customers from 2015, saying the the volume of letters has declined in the era of electronic communication.

The move could signal similar changes in other developed nations as businesses and residents increasingly move online to communicate and pay their bills.

The New Zealand government on Wednesday announced it was changing its agreement with the postal service effective June 2015.

Instead of delivering mail six days a week, the service would be required to deliver a minimum of three days a week in urban areas and five days a week in rural areas, which tend to rely more on mail.

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« Reply #9513 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:12 AM »

Australian firefighters brace for the worst in a wildfire ‘flare up’

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 22:48 EDT

Firefighters in Australia braced for hot, dry winds and soaring temperatures Wednesday with lightning also posing a problem as they battle to prevent a week-long bushfire disaster getting worse.

As the crisis entered its seventh day, 59 fires were raging across the state of New South Wales with 19 of them uncontained and warnings again issued for people to leave their homes or be extra vigilant.

“On days like today, minutes really matter,” NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said, with the focus again on the Blue Mountains region west of Sydney, a popular tourist area home to 75,000 people where three huge infernos have been out of control for days.

So far more than 120,000 hectares (296,500 acres) of land has been burnt across the state and more than 200 homes destroyed. But only one person has died as residents heed advice to either flee or head to evacuation centres.

Temperatures were heading towards the mid-30 degrees Celsius range Wednesday and coupled with low humidity and forecast wind gusts of up to 100 kilometres (62 miles) per hour, the fire chief called the conditions “as bad as it gets”.

Drizzle fell overnight but it only hampered the mostly volunteer crews fighting the blazes.

“Whilst that is some welcome relief in terms of moderating the current fire behaviour, it has compromised considerably the ability to continue with the backburning operations that were planned throughout the evening,” Fitzsimmons said.

Backburning is a tactic aimed at creating firebreaks to control the path of blazes.

This has been a key focus of operations ahead of Wednesday, which authorities fear will be the toughest day so far.

The light rain meant many firefighters had to be withdrawn from forest trails due to fears that their trucks could get bogged down.

Much of the dampness has already dried out and Fitzsimmons said: “It’s only a matter of hours before we see a flare up of fire activity.”

While the Blue Mountains is the main concern, fires are breaking out across the vast state with reports from Broken Hill in the north of lightning strikes sparking new blazes.

“What can’t be denied is there is something like 1,600 kilometres (992 miles) of fire perimeter that we’re dealing with. Now, that’s all active to one degree or another,” said Fitzsimmons.

“Noone knows where that fire activity will stir up under today’s weather.”

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell drove home the message, saying regardless of what happens on Wednesday “we’re not out of the woods yet”.

“We hope of course that today’s conditions, today’s potential events do not occur. As the commissioner has said repeatedly, we’ve planned for the worst, but we continue to hope for the best,” he said.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]


Tony Abbott: Australia's bushfires not linked to climate change - video

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott rubbishes a suggestion by the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, that there is a link between global warming and bushfires, as the fire danger-level in regions of New South Wales was raised on Wednesday amid worsening weather conditions

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« Reply #9514 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:16 AM »

Archaeologists find 4,000 year-old tomb of prominent doctor to pharaohs southwest of Cairo

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 13:27 EDT

Archaeologists have unearthed a 4,000 year old tomb outside the Egyptian capital containing what they believe are the remains of a prominent doctor to the pharaohs, officials said on Tuesday.

The tomb, part of a 21 metre (70 foot) by 14 metre (46 foot) plot, with four-metre (13 feet) high walls, was discovered at Abusir, southwest of Cairo, senior antiquities ministry official Ali al-Asfar said.

“This discovery is important because this is the tomb of one of the greatest doctors from the time of the pyramid builders, one of the doctors closely tied to the king,” Antiquities Minister Ibrahim Ali said in a statement.

Asfar said the area in which the grave was found appeared to be a family plot and the Czech team of archaeologists was now looking for mummies of relatives.

Abusir, a vast necropolis dating back to Egypt’s Old Kingdom, houses the pyramids of several pharaohs of the Fifth Dynasty, which began its rule shortly after 2,500 BC.


October 22, 2013

Egyptians Abandoning Hope and Now, Reluctantly, Homeland


CAIRO — In his years as a dissident, the book publisher had taken on Egypt’s autocratic government and its censors, aided revolutionaries during the uprising and protested in the streets to protect freedoms he thought he had helped the country win.

But like many other Egyptians these days, the publisher, Mohamed Hashem, says he feels defeated by the latest tragic turn, toward growing violence, repression and civil strife after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July. Tired of waiting for better days, the publisher announced last week that he would emigrate, stunning his friends and a legion of young fans.

“I won’t postpone happiness until I die,” he said.

Egypt has surrendered citizens to more prosperous countries for generations, unable to provide much hope or opportunity at home. But like Mr. Hashem, many Egyptians who say they are joining a new exodus had been loath to give up on their country; some had postponed the urge to leave, hoping the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 would pave the way to a better life.

Their change of heart signals a dark moment. Many people said they saw no end to the conflict between the military and its Islamist opponents, and no place for those who did not profess loyalty to either one.

Others lamented Egypt’s narrowing political horizons and what seemed like the growing likelihood that a military officer will become Egypt’s next leader. Some people said they were shocked at how cavalier their friends and neighbors had become about the rising level of bloodshed.

And for everyone, there was still no relief from the grinding frustrations of daily life, the traffic, the rising prices, the multiplying mounds of trash in the streets.

There is no statistical evidence that more people are emigrating, and the notion remains far from the reach of most Egyptians, reserved for those with the qualifications or connections to find opportunities abroad. In interviews over several days, though, people said their conversations had turned more frequently, and urgently, to leaving; those who considered travel possible were just deciding when.

As he studied in a cafe for medical exams, Tareq Nour, 23, reeled from the headaches. His regular commute to work, at a public hospital, was blocked by protests by Morsi supporters, and government checkpoints. His salary, roughly $45 a month, was too measly to even call an insult, he said. The nightly curfew imposed by the military-backed government further constricted his life.

He had faced peril to build a different future, volunteering in a field hospital during the 18-day revolt against Mr. Mubarak, when Mr. Nour was injured by birdshot. “We’re going back to the old system,” he said. “We didn’t change the country.” So he said he was preparing to travel to the United States, out of necessity more than choice.

“I need to get out of here,” he said.

As citizens grow ever more weary, the government insists that Egypt is moving along a democratic path, and will soon have a constitution that will lead to new elections. At the same time, many fear that elections will simply confirm the restoration of the old order, as the names of generals and security officials are floated as candidates for president, including Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s powerful defense minister.

Fearing that the future is already written, Sarah Radwan, 33, a graphic designer, was waiting to receive her contract to work in Qatar, having few regrets about leaving Egypt behind. After the uprising against Mr. Mubarak, “I had hoped things would get better,” she said. “This was a kind of utopia.”

Ms. Radwan said she had been disappointed by Mr. Morsi’s year as president, and was now worried about the return of the military. Frustration over the last two and a half years had led her, as it had others, to damning conclusions about her society’s capacity to change — to say things that were unthinkable just two years ago.

“The corruption is deep inside us,” she said. “I thought it would take five years. But we’re not even taking the first step.”

Like generations of Egyptians, her father had worked abroad, in Saudi Arabia, and warned about the loneliness of self-exile. “I never thought I would leave,” Ms. Radwan said, saying that in the past she had considered moving only as far as the coast, to Alexandria on the Mediterranean or Hurghada on the Red Sea.

“I love this country,” she said. “I want people to calm down.”

The desperation cuts across ideological lines and threatens to sustain the “brain drain” that stunted Egypt’s development for decades. As the government has cracked down on Mr. Morsi’s supporters, killing hundreds at protests and imprisoning thousands more, Islamists are being hounded from the country, repeating grim cycles of repression and exile from Egypt’s past.

And some who had hoped that the military-backed government would deliver stability — even if it meant using an iron fist — said they were leaving because security had not come soon enough.

Mostafa Sobhy, 32, a pharmacology lecturer, said his salary depended on tutoring foreign students at his university. With Egypt frozen in political crisis, and fears of a militant insurgency growing, the foreigners had all stayed away. Mr. Sobhy said he had taken a job in Najran, a town in Saudi Arabia.

“Mubarak’s days were better,” he said.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Hashem, the book publisher, announced his decision to leave on Facebook, writing that the “nightmare” of exile would become a reality for him.

“I will refuse, fiercely and until I die, to choose between the bitterness of the military or manipulators of religion,” he wrote. “I will emigrate, because I don’t find that which expresses the spirit of the great revolution between those conflicting interests.”

“Until we meet at the next revolution,” he wrote.

In an interview a few days later in the tumbledown offices of Merit, his publishing house, Mr. Hashem laughed as he recalled the bitter response to the post.

Some of his friends, including Egypt’s best-known poets and artists, had called to curse at him. “They said, ‘You’re being a coward, and running away,’ ” he said. Other people understood. One online commenter, Mohamed Abdel Nasser, wrote that Mr. Hashem’s was the only proper response until Egypt’s “madness” was over.

The walls around Mr. Hashem were lined with the hundreds of books Merit had published, including some about taboo subjects that other publishing houses had been afraid to touch. His Facebook post seemed to have been more a manifesto than a plan: he had not settled on a destination, but thought of going to one of the countries where he had won awards for literary freedom over the years, like Germany or the United States.

Visitors, including young artists who had spent hours in Mr. Hashem’s nightly literary salons, stopped by to greet him. He said they made him want to reconsider his decision to leave.

“People are deifying Sisi, and others are deifying Morsi,” he said. “All of Mubarak’s men are out there as if nothing ever happened. There is no place for the likes of us.”

“I am lost,” Mr. Hashem added. “I am very, very lost.”

Marwa Nasser and Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

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« Reply #9515 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:22 AM »

Kerry holds urgent talks as US-Saudi rift deepens over Middle East policy

Secretary of state on charm offensive amid criticism from Riyadh that the US is not providing sufficient help to Syrian rebels

Dan Roberts in Washington, Tuesday 22 October 2013 22.57 BST

A deepening diplomatic rift between Saudi Arabia and the US burst open on Tuesday after secretary of state John Kerry acknowledged that Washington's key strategic ally had serious misgivings about US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Kerry held urgent talks with his Saudi counterpart in Paris on Monday amid complaints from Riyadh that the US was not doing enough to help Sunni-dominated rebels in Syria following a decision not launch US military action.

"We know that the Saudis were obviously disappointed that the [Syria] strike didn't take place," Kerry told reporters in London on Tuesday.

"It is our obligation to work closely with them – as I am doing," he added, referring to multiple meetings he had on Monday with Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. "The president asked me to come and have the conversations that we have had."

Kerry insisted relations remained fundamentally sound, but news of the meetings appears to confirm reports in the Wall Street Journal that the Saudis had threatened to scale back their regional co-operation with the US in protest at what it saw as a misguided Middle East strategy.

The Journal said Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who is leading the kingdom's efforts to support rebels fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, had invited diplomats to Jeddah over the weekend to voice Riyadh's frustration with the Obama administration and its regional policies.

Reuters also quoted Prince Bandar telling European diplomats that the kingdom would be making a "major shift" in relations with Washington over perceived inaction towards the conflict in Syria, and a possible rapprochement with Iran over its nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia is understood to be upset at perceived US weakness over Iran – and wants more aggressive steps taken to prevent Tehran's development of nuclear weapons technology – and Egypt, where the US has severed military ties with the new government in protest at crackdowns on demonstrators.

Speaking to reporters at the State Department daily briefing, US spokeswoman Marie Harf admitted all three issues were causing tension but also insisted "the fundamental relationship with the Saudis is a strong one".

"We we working together on some challenging issue,s and we share the same goals, whether it's ending the civil war on Syria, getting back to a democratic government in Egypt, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," said Harf.

"The question of how you get there all on these issues is what we're working through right now – with the Saudis and other international partners."

Harf said that a two-hour lunch between Kerry and the Saudi foreign minister remained "productive and enjoyable".

"They have a warm friendship, and even during moments of disagreement have always found ways to have an honest and open discussion," added Harf.

"Obviously we talked about some of the challenging issues that we want to confront together. We share the same goals – whether it's Syria, Egypt or Iran."

These are the latest signs that a US policy of rapprochement with Iran is causing friction with existing allies in the region, following similar concerns expressed by Israel.

Washington is also struggling to maintain good relations with France, Brazil, and Germany over separate arguments about surveillance by the National Security Agency.

But the row with Saudi Arabia threatens to destabilise one of the strongest diplomatic ties in Washington, based historically on mutual oil and security interests. Last week, Riyadh snubbed a US-backed offer to take a seat on the United Nations security council.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said this was "of course its own decision" but added that a seat on the UNSC "affords member states the opportunity to engage directly on issues of great importance, including issues like Syria, Iran, Egypt and the Middle East peace process."

He said the US will continue "close bilateral co-operation with Saudi Arabia on the host of shared challenges we face, including those issues that the security council takes up directly".

"We also have core relationship in national security areas that is very stable and important to US interests as well as Saudi interests," added Carney.


U.S. official denies strain in relationship with Saudi Arabia

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 19:55 EDT

Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia remain strong, a US official insisted Tuesday, brushing aside a report its key Gulf ally was seeking to distance itself from Washington amid differences over Syria.

Asked if Riyadh had told Washington that it planned to cut back cooperation, the official replied: “Not to my knowledge has that message been sent to the State Department by the Saudis.”

“The fundamental relationship and partnership with the Saudis is a strong one. We value their efforts on a wide range of issues,” added State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf.

Her comments came after the Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud, told European diplomats he would scale back cooperation with the US on arming and training Syrian rebels.

It also coincides with Riyadh’s rejection of a prized seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, in protest at the world body’s failure to do more to end the Syrian war.

“This was a message for the US, not the UN,” Prince Bandar was quoted by diplomats as saying, according to the Journal.

Prince Bandar also told the diplomats, in a private weekend meeting in Riyadh, that he would roll back Saudi Arabia’s work with the CIA to train Syrian rebels, and work with other allies including Jordan and France.

The Saudis had been particularly angered by the US decision not to go ahead with strikes against the chemical weapons arsenal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Journal said.

And they wanted the US or the UN “to come up with a more effective plan of action for helping rebels overthrow Mr Assad and end the Syrian war,” the US business daily added.

The Sunni majority Gulf kingdom has also watched warily as Washington has made moves to improve ties with Shiite Muslim Iran.

“We’re working together on some challenging issues, and we share the same goals, whether it’s ending the civil war in Syria, getting back to a democratic government in Egypt, preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Harf said.

“The question of how you get there on all of these issues is what we’re working through right now with the Saudis and our other international partners.”

She highlighted that US Secretary of State John Kerry held a “productive” two-hour meeting over lunch in Paris with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal on Monday.

“They have a warm friendship and even during moments of disagreement have always found ways to have honest and open discussion,” she said.

During the meeting, Kerry pressed Faisal to reconsider Riyadh’s decision not to take up the Security Council seat.

Top decisions in Saudi Arabia come from King Abdullah, and it was not immediately clear whether Prince Bandar’s remarks signified a division within the monarchy on how to pressure the US to take a more hands-on role in Syria, the Journal added.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]


October 22, 2013

Obama’s Uncertain Path Amid Syria Bloodshed


WASHINGTON — With rebel forces in Syria in retreat and the Obama administration’s policy toward the war-ravaged country in disarray, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived at the White House Situation Room one day in June with a document bearing a warning. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had used chemical weapons against his people, the document said, and if the United States did not “impose consequences,” Mr. Assad would see it as a “green light for continued CW use.”

President Obama had signed a secret order in April — months earlier than previously reported — authorizing a C.I.A. plan to begin arming the Syrian rebels. But the arms had not been shipped, and the collapse of rebel positions in western Syria fueled the atmosphere of crisis that hung over the June meeting.

Yet after hours of debate in which top advisers considered a range of options, including military strikes and increased support to the rebels, the meeting ended the way so many attempts to define a Syrian strategy had ended in the past, with the president’s aides deeply divided over how to respond to a civil war that had already claimed 100,000 lives.

The State Department’s June warning, laid out in a document obtained by The New York Times, proved to be prophetic. A devastating poison gas attack on Aug. 21 killed hundreds of civilians, touching off a crisis that brought the United States close to launching military strikes in Syria and that ended only when Mr. Obama seized on a Russian-sponsored agreement to secure Syria’s chemical weapons.

Now, two years after Mr. Obama publicly declared that Mr. Assad had to go, he is banking on the success of that Russian-initiated plan — which relies on Mr. Assad’s cooperation and which the Syrian president offered in a recent interview as a convenient shield against American intervention.

But as Mr. Kerry held meetings in London with representatives of Syrian opposition groups on Tuesday in the hopes of reviving a proposed peace conference, the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough appeared dim. Mr. Assad’s position is stronger, and the rebellion has grown weaker, more fragmented and more dominated by Islamic radical factions.

A close examination of how the Obama administration finds itself at this point — based on interviews with dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials — starts with a deeply ambivalent president who has presided over a far more contentious debate among his advisers than previously known. Those advisers reflected Mr. Obama’s own conflicting impulses on how to respond to the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring: whether to side with those battling authoritarian governments or to avoid the risk of becoming enmeshed in another messy war in the Middle East.

And, as the debate dragged on, the toll of civilian deaths steadily rose, Syria’s government was emboldened to use chemical weapons on a larger scale, and America’s relations with some of its closest allies were strained.

Some of Mr. Obama’s defenders argue that, while the past two years of American policy on Syria have been messy, the events of the past six weeks have been a successful case of coercive diplomacy. Only under the threat of force, they said, has Mr. Assad pledged to give up his chemical weapons program. They argue that this might be the best outcome from a stew of bad alternatives.

“We need to be realistic about our ability to dictate events in Syria,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “In the absence of any good options, people have lifted up military support for the opposition as a silver bullet, but it has to be seen as a tactic — not a strategy.”

But others are far more critical, saying that the administration’s paralysis left it unprepared for foreseeable events like the Aug. 21 gas attack. Decisive action by Washington, they argue, could have bolstered moderate forces battling Mr. Assad’s troops for more than two years, and helped stem the rising toll of civilian dead, blunt the influence of radical Islamist groups among the rebels and perhaps even deter the Syria government from using chemical weapons.

As one former senior White House official put it, “We spent so much damn time navel gazing, and that’s the tragedy of it.”

A War Drags On

At first, the future of Syria did not seem so complicated — nobody believed that Mr. Assad would survive.

In the summer of 2011, the momentum of the Arab uprisings appeared to be sweeping all before it. Gone were the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt, and in Libya, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi would fall later in the year.

American intelligence agencies gave regular briefings at the White House and the State Department concluding that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered, and on Aug. 18, 2011, Mr. Obama released a statement declaring that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Some in the administration worried about making such a declaration in the absence of a strategy to help make it happen. But those voices were rare.

At the time, the popular uprising was five months old, and the Syrian government’s widespread torture and killing of protesters had drawn global condemnation; some in the United States Congress had already criticized the administration for not acting yet.

But from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a slide-show presentation in the Situation Room in early 2012 that helped take any military option off the table. Imposing a no-fly zone, he said, would require as many as 70,000 American servicemen to dismantle Syria’s sophisticated antiaircraft system and then impose a 24-hour watch over the country.

By late summer 2012, however, American intelligence agencies began picking up communications with ominous signals that Mr. Assad’s military was moving chemical weapons and possibly mixing them in preparation for use.

Mr. Obama ordered a series of urgent meetings, and on Aug. 20 he made a comment that would come to haunt him. Though he was determined to keep the American military out of Syria, “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said at a news conference. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

In the first high-level discussion about wading into the conflict a few days later, the C.I.A. director, David H. Petraeus, presented a plan to begin arming and training small groups of rebel forces at secret bases in Jordan. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed Mr. Petraeus’s plan. She said it was time for the United States to get “skin in the game.” Mr. Obama went around the table asking what his aides thought about the C.I.A. plan.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and General Dempsey backed it. But others thought the proposal by Mr. Petraeus, a former four-star general who championed covert paramilitary operations, offered high risks with few rewards. Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, spoke up by videophone, warning that arming the rebels would draw the United States into a murky conflict that could consume the agenda of the president’s second term and would probably make little difference on the chaotic battlefield.

Mr. Obama, who had said at the beginning of the meeting that he would make no immediate decisions, appeared skeptical. He cautioned against a “haphazard” plan to arm the rebels, and asked about tactics — who would get the weapons, how to keep them out of the hands of jihadists.

The president’s view, according to one administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing debates about classified operations, seemed to be that “we’d be taking a lot of risk without a clear plan.”

Fears of a Quagmire

For Mr. Obama, the Libya precedent loomed heavily over the Syria debate. That intervention in 2011 was strictly limited in scale and scope, and had the legal imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council as well as regional and international support. Even so, the Libya campaign had dragged on for seven months and expanded from protecting civilians to engineering the ouster of Colonel Qaddafi. Mr. Obama raised Libya repeatedly in debates as an example of how difficult it would be to prevent “mission creep,” if the United States were to cross the line to military operations.

As the president and his advisers debated their options in Syria, two American allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, were steadily funneling money and weapons to the rebels — and urging the Obama administration to join them.

But at the State Department, some officials were fuming about what they felt was a broken process and a lack of strategy.

The administration took more than a year to nominate a replacement for Jeffrey D. Feltman, a veteran Arabic-speaking diplomat who had coordinated the State Department’s Middle East policy and left in June 2012 for a job at the United Nations. Much of the department’s time was now being devoted to what was called the “post-Assad project,” the planning for political transition in Syria. Many State Department officials began to dismiss the project as a useless academic exercise. They believed that its premise — that Mr. Assad’s government was on the verge of collapse — was becoming outdated.

After Mr. Obama’s sweeping re-election victory, some of those officials, and others in the administration, expected a change in the White House’s position on Syria — and an end to what they saw as the stalemate of the previous year. Those expectations, however, were dashed during a meeting in early December. Michael J. Morell, who had taken over at the C.I.A. when Mr. Petraeus resigned after acknowledging an extramarital affair, renewed his predecessor’s pitch to begin arming the rebels. The agency had tinkered with the proposal made by Mr. Petraeus, partly to address directly the president’s skepticism about the plan.

Mr. Obama expressed thanks for everyone’s comments and said he wanted to think about it. One former White House official at the meeting said it was clear from Mr. Obama’s body language that he was not convinced. “They could have tweaked this thing till kingdom come, it wouldn’t have made any difference,” the official said. “He just didn’t think it was a good idea, period.”

The second term also brought a new national security team, including a secretary of state, Mr. Kerry, who came to his job convinced that the United States could step up military support to the Syrian rebels while also working with Russia to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser and one of the biggest skeptics about American intervention in Syria, was promoted to White House chief of staff. Mr. McDonough had clashed frequently with his colleagues on Syria policy, including with Samantha Power, a White House official who had long championed the idea that nations have a moral obligation to intervene to prevent genocide.

Ms. Power came to believe that America’s offers of support to the rebels were empty.

“Denis, if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am,” Ms. Power told Mr. McDonough at one meeting, according to two people who attended.

“Samantha, we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” Mr. McDonough responded crisply.

Battlefield’s Balance Tips

But a new American intelligence assessment at the beginning of 2013 revived the discussions about whether to give arms to the rebels.

In a reversal from what spy agencies had been telling administration officials for more than a year, the new assessment concluded that Mr. Assad’s government was in no danger of collapsing, and that Syrian troops were gaining the upper hand in the civil war. The pace of Syrian Army defections had slowed, and Iranian munitions shipments had replenished the stocks of army units that had once complained of shortages in arms and ammunition.

The opposite was true for the rebels, who were running out of ammunition and supplies. Morale was low, American spy agencies concluded, and Qaeda-linked groups like the Nusra Front were becoming increasingly dominant in the rebellion.

Besides the Syrian government’s gains, there was mounting evidence that Mr. Assad’s troops had repeatedly used chemical weapons against civilians.

Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.

In private conversations with aides, Mr. Obama described Syria as one of those hellish problems every president faces, where the risks are endless and all the options are bad. Those views would then be reflected in larger groups by Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, and Mr. McDonough.

“You could read the president’s position through Tom and Denis,” one former senior White House official said.

Slowly, however, Mr. Obama’s position began to change, in no small part because of intense lobbying by foreign officials. During a three-day trip to the Middle East in March, Mr. Obama met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who warned him that the Assad government’s chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The pressure was even more intense the next day in Jordan, where Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon and Mr. Kerry had a late-night dinner with King Abdullah II. Jordan was straining under the weight of more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, and the king urged Mr. Obama to take a more active role in trying to end the war.

Jordanian officials were even offering to allow the C.I.A. to use the country as a base for drone strikes in Syria — offers that the Obama administration repeatedly declined.

By April, senior officials said, one of the major skeptics, Mr. Donilon, had shifted in favor of arming the rebels. Another strong opponent in the fall, Ms. Rice, had also shifted her position, partly because of the alarming intelligence about the state of the rebellion.

Mr. McDonough, who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria. Accompanying a group of senior lawmakers on a day trip to the Guantánamo Bay naval base in early June, Mr. McDonough argued that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage, according to Congressional officials.

But debate had shifted from whether to arm Syrian rebels to how to do it. Discussions about putting the Pentagon in charge of the program — and publicly acknowledging the arming and training program — were eventually shelved when it was decided that too many legal hurdles stood in the way of the United States’ openly supporting the overthrow of a sovereign government.

Instead, Mr. Obama decided to make the rebel training program a “covert action” run by the C.I.A. He signed a secret finding allowing the agency to begin preparing to train and arm small groups of rebels in Jordan, a move that circumvented the legal issues and allowed the White House to officially deny it was giving the lethal aid.

Besides the legal worries, there were other concerns driving the decision to make the program a secret.

As one former senior administration official put it, “We needed plausible deniability in case the arms got into the hands of Al Nusra.”

Dragging Its Feet

The president signed the finding in April, but months went by without any movement on the C.I.A. program. The White House waited to ask Congress for money for the secret mission, further evidence of Mr. Obama’s continued misgivings.

Through the spring, Iran continued to step up support for Syrian government troops, and Hezbollah fighters joined the offensive against rebel forces. The rebellion was collapsing, and a classified State Department briefing paper on June 10, which mentioned the rebel commander Gen. Salim Idris, painted a grim picture.

“We are headed toward our worst case scenario: rebel gains evaporating, the moderate opposition — including Salim Idriss — imploding, large ungoverned spaces, Asad holding on indefinitely, neighbors endangered, and Iran, Hizbollah, and Iraqi militias taking root,” the paper concluded.

With the policy on Syria foundering, Mr. Obama’s top advisers met in the Situation Room on June 12.

Mr. Kerry had recently announced a deal with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, to hold an international peace conference in Geneva to try to end the fighting. But rebel setbacks had cooled any enthusiasm for talks among many American officials at a time when Mr. Assad held all the leverage and leading opposition figures were refusing to attend.

“We need to go slow on Geneva given the SOC’s disarray and the worsening situation on the ground,” said a sheet of talking points, referring to the Syrian opposition coalition, prepared for Mr. Kerry to take to the meeting.

And the administration faced another problem. There was no longer doubt among American intelligence agencies that Syrian troops had repeatedly used chemical weapons against civilians. With the president’s “red line” having been crossed, the White House had to come up with a public pronouncement that showed it was prepared to enforce consequences. What came next was a surprise across the government, from the Pentagon to the State Department to the C.I.A.

The day after the meeting, Mr. Rhodes held a news conference and told reporters that Mr. Obama had made a decision — a decision that actually had been made two months earlier and that would be carried out in secret as a C.I.A. covert action. Mr. Rhodes said the United States would give additional military support to the rebels, although he refrained from spelling out that it would involve arming and training them, and that the C.I.A. would supervise the effort.

Mr. Obama made no public statement on the issue.

A Surprising About-Turn

An administration that had spent nearly two years telling members of Congress it was determined to avoid direct military intervention in Syria now had to persuade lawmakers to pay for the arming and training program.

The lobbying began, with Mr. Kerry holding closed meetings with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Immediately, he was deluged with questions from both Republicans and Democrats: How would he ensure that arms did not fall into the hands of Islamic extremists? Would arming the rebels tip the balance on the battlefield? What was the overall strategy?

It took weeks to overcome skepticism on Capitol Hill, but the intelligence committees eventually approved the administration’s plan to give light arms to the rebels, but not the antiaircraft weapons the rebels insisted they needed the most. But the Aug. 21 poison gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus changed those plans — and suddenly put Syria, for the first time, on top of the president’s agenda.

Within hours, administration officials began signaling that they were preparing for an immediate military strike to punish the Syrian government — an idea dismissed repeatedly in the past and a hard sell with some allies, a war-weary public and Congress. But after the British declined to participate in the operation, and Mr. Obama abruptly decided he would seek Congressional support for the strike, many lawmakers were led to suspect that Mr. Obama still was not convinced that intervention was a good idea.

A senior White House official said that one reason the president had decided to get Congressional approval was his fear that alienating lawmakers might undermine their support on other tough foreign policy issues, most notably Iran. In early July, Mr. Obama had asked Ms. Rice, who had succeeded Mr. Donilon as national security adviser, to undertake a review of American policy in the Middle East and North Africa, and to make Syria part of a broader strategy involving both Iran and the Middle East peace process.

Two days after his announcement that he would go to Congress for approval of a strike, Mr. Obama met in the Oval Office with Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the two Republicans who are the Senate’s most outspoken advocates of military intervention in Syria. Mr. Obama agreed with the senators that American efforts to arm the rebels had been slow, but told them that the first group of 50 Syrian rebels — trained by the C.I.A. in Jordan — would soon cross into Syria, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

The goal was for that group to train larger numbers of rebels in Syria — expanding the impact of the limited C.I.A. training effort in Jordan. But Mr. Obama acknowledged that having the C.I.A. carry out the training covertly had slowed the pace of the program and suggested that he was considering expanding the program and carrying it out publicly, an allusion to having the Pentagon take over.

The president’s enthusiasm for that approach soon cooled again. A week after the meeting with the two senators, Mr. Obama seized on a proposal by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, aimed at forcing the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles. That effort, adopted by the Security Council in late September, appears to have overshadowed the arming project.

While the training mission in Jordan continues, officials now say there is no immediate plan to drastically expand it under the Pentagon’s control. The White House appears to be concerned that a public effort might undermine the diplomatic initiative to remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and convene a peace conference. Mr. Assad, meanwhile, told a Lebanese newspaper in mid-October that he was happy to trade his chemical arsenal, which he dismissed as “obsolete,” in order to “spare Syria” from aggression by the United States.

During his Senate confirmation hearing this month, the Obama administration’s nominee to run special operations policy at the Pentagon was asked whether the rebel training program — currently run by the C.I.A. — might significantly change the balance of power in Syria.

The nominee, Michael D. Lumpkin, a former member of the Navy SEALs, was candid in his answer.

It would not, he said.

Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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« Reply #9516 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:23 AM »

Madagascar takes first step on the road back to democracy

A coup in 2009 has led the island republic into poverty. But presidential elections on Friday could reverse that trend

Emilie Filou in Antanifotsy
The Guardian, Tuesday 22 October 2013 16.42 BST   

It is 4pm in the highland village of Antanifotsy and the Ranaivo family is hard at work, catching the last hour of daylight before heading home. Amid the terraced rice paddies so typical of the central plateaux of Madagascar, they are building a huge kiln, laid with about 15,000 bricks. They hope to finish it today so that they can fire it tomorrow; the bricks should be ready within three days, selling for Ar50 each (about 1p).

For farming families like the Ranaivos, brick-making is a lifeline, an income-generating activity to tide them over the dry winter months. The trouble is, there are many more brick-makers these days than there are brick-buyers.

"There are no jobs so everyone wants to be a brick-maker," said Naina, the head of the family. "People who had gone to Antananarivo [the capital] to find work have had to come back to the village because they can't find anything and they are all making bricks now."

It's not just the brickmakers who are struggling to make ends meet. Since a coup in February 2009, life in Madagascar has become increasingly precarious. The coup, led by Andry Rajoelina against the president, Marc Ravalomanana, was widely condemned by the international community. Sanctions swiftly followed: Madagascar was suspended from the Africa Growth Opportunity Act, which led to the collapse of the textile sector; international aid, which accounted for 75% of the infrastructure budget, was put on hold; and foreign investment stalled.

As a result the economy has nosedived. Some 92% of the population now lives below the poverty line. According to the World Bank, that makes Madagascar the poorest country in the world among those that have not suffered a conflict. For a nation blessed with so many resources – oil, precious stones, iron, coal, uranium, fisheries, agricultural land – it is a damning indictment of its governance.

On Friday, Madagascar will hold its first presidential elections since the coup. The polls are seen as a necessary step out of the crisis, although the Malagasies are under no illusion.

"The only thing we can expect is for Madagascar to stop being seen as a pariah state," said René, who owns a shoe shop in Antsenakely market in Antsirabe, Madagascar's third largest city. "But in terms of real change, I'm sceptical." His fellow stallholders are equally dubious. In the seamstress quarter, Clarisse barely looks up from her clattering sewing machine to answer questions. "The elections won't solve the crisis," she said flatly. "There are too many candidates [33 in total] and they all say the same thing. How can you tell who will be capable of managing the country?"

It is not just the profusion of candidates that is leaving voters perplexed. Cenit, the electoral commission, is replacing the one-candidate-one-ballot-paper system with a new single-ballot paper. With 33 candidates, it is huge (A3 format) and rather daunting for the millions of illiterate voters. The commission is running an education campaign to explain how to use it, but Madagascar is vast, with few roads and a low population density, which makes reaching remote rural areas a tall order.

In Antanifotsy, the Ranaivos say they saw the commission's demonstration on the village TV; Sahondra, Naina's sister-in-law, mimes how the paper must be folded: like a triptych lengthways, before folding it in half and dropping it in the ballot box.

The Ranaivos are relatively lucky to have access to a TV. Their village is located off the RN7, one of the most important (and sealed) roads in the country. And it has electricity. For the millions who live miles from a road, let alone a sealed one, and whose only source of information is a crackling radio, any civic education – electoral campaign, voting procedure or otherwise – is as remote as their location.

On the sand dunes of Andavadoaka, a large fishing village located in the south-west of the country more than 1,000km from Antananarivo, the locals are still in the dark about the polls. "When are they?" asks one lady when questioned about whether she will vote or not.

Life in Andavadoaka was never extravagant before the coup, but people got by. That has changed, says a local notable. The price of rice, the local staple, has nearly doubled while the price of fish, the main commodity along the coast, has remained relatively stable. "This is the main reason people have taken their children out of school," the notable said. "They can't afford to pay any more."

Since 2009, the World Bank and Unicef estimate that the proportion of primary school-aged children out of school has risen from 18% to 25%, totalling 1.5 million. Other public services have suffered too. The state of the roads has gone from bad to dismal, and health services are struggling. Steven Lauwerier, the Unicef representative in Madagascar, said his organisation ran two mother-and-child health campaigns this year. Half of all vaccinations in the country took place during those two weeks. "That means that the campaigns are replacing the health system; normally, they should complement it," he said.

Despite their reservations, most Malagasies say they will vote on Friday. The second round will take place on 20 December, along with the legislative elections. Provided it all goes well, Madagascar can look forward to starting 2014 with a democratically elected government and picking up where it left off nearly five years ago.
Political wrangling

It has taken more than four years for the transitional government to organise elections. The election date had to be wrenched out of the authorities by the international community. At the heart of the problem is the deep, personal feud between Andry Rajoelina, the president, and his predecessor, Marc Ravalomanana, who fled to South Africa after the coup that deposed him. Both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana wanted to run in the forthcoming elections, but Rajoelina blocked every attempt by the former president to return to Madagascar.

In the end, neither candidate will be allowed to run because of pressure from the international community. For some Malagasies, it is good riddance, but others feel they have been robbed of the opportunity to settle the dispute at the polls once and for all.

Either way, Madagascar hasn't seen the back of them just yet. Ravalomanana, who still enjoys great popular support, is backing one of his former ministers, Jean-Louis Robinson. Unsurprisingly, Robinson has promised that if he were elected, his priority would be the return of the former president to the country.

As for Rajoelina, his party has two official candidates, Edgard Razafindravahy and Hery Rajaonarimampianina, but he himself is focusing on the legislative elections, hoping to win a majority and become prime minister.

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« Reply #9517 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:26 AM »

Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat wins second term after tough election race

Secular incumbent sees off challenge from Moshe Lion, who was backed by two of Israel's leading rightwing political figures

Associated Press in Jerusalem, Wednesday 23 October 2013 09.12 BST   

The secular mayor of Jerusalem has won a second term after a hard-fought campaign that saw him fending off a challenge by a candidate backed by two of Israel's biggest kingmakers.

Challenger Moshe Lion conceded defeat to Nir Barkat at about 2.30am local time on Wednesday.

"Jerusalem won!" Barkat wrote on his Facebook page.

With 70% of the votes counted in Tuesday's election, Barkat held a commanding lead of 55% to Lion's 42%. Israeli TV stations said the 14,000-vote margin was all but insurmountable.

The 2008 election victory of Barkat, a former hi-tech entrepreneur, followed years of dominance by ultra-Orthodox Jews over the city's affairs. His first term – characterised by high-profile tourism and cultural projects meant to boost the economy and halt an exodus of secular residents from the city – was generally seen as a success.

But Lion, a former director of the prime minister's office, was backed by two key politicians jostling to reclaim their former political glory. Lion's allies, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Ariyeh Deri, both had much at stake.

Lion, an observant Jew, was counting heavily on ultra-Orthodox voters. In a last-minute blow, two leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis declined to endorse him late on Monday, telling their adherents to vote according to their conscience.

Jerusalem is one of the world's most difficult cities to govern. It lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is the centre of secular-religious battles for control in Israel.

The city's 800,000 residents include secular, modern Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox Jews as well as Palestinians.

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« Reply #9518 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:28 AM »

Cuba ends unpopular dual-currency system after 19 years

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 18:10 EDT

Cuba announced Tuesday it was ending an unpopular 19-year-old dual currency system that has contributed to a growing wealth gap between Cubans with access to dollars and those without.

Cubans who have access to convertible pesos are mainly those who work in the tourist industry or who receive money from family members living abroad, who send an estimated $2.5 billion a year.

The official Communist Party newspaper Granma said the new unified currency would be phased in over time.

Under the current system, Cuba exchanges dollars received through tourism, trade and overseas remittances into convertible Cuban pesos at a rate of one for one.

But the state pays workers’ salaries and charges for services in ordinary pesos, which are worth far less, 24 to one convertible peso.

Many basic necessities here are available only in convertible pesos at special state-run stores, a source of tension between Cubans who have access to dollars and the majority who don’t.

Ending the dual system, which has been in effect since 1994, was a key demand raised at the VI Communist Party Congress in April, 2011.

Under President Raul Castro, Cuba has been slowly overhauling its Soviet-style economy, allowing private enterprise on a small scale as it tries to slim down hulking state-run bureaucracies.

The gap between the haves and have nots, meanwhile, has become more noticeable as more Cubans turn to a nascent private sector to make a living.

Some 430,000 Cubans are now privately employed, mostly as owners of small restaurants, beauty parlors and taxi drivers.

While a medical doctor earns a monthly salary of 500 ordinary pesos, a mechanic working for himself can make 400 convertible pesos a month, or 9,600 ordinary pesos.

Granma said Cuba’s council of ministers approved a timetable for implementing “measures that will lead to monetary and exchange unification.”

While it was not clear how long the changeover will take or exactly how it will function, Granma said it would begin with companies operating in Cuba and extend to individuals at a later date.

Granma said the change would contribute to efficiency, improve the way economic events are measured and serve as a stimulus to enterprises that export goods and services, as well as to those that produce for local consumption.

Besides the social inequalities it has bred, the double currency system also has made a mess of national accounting, “distorting all economic reality,” said Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist at Colombia’s Universidad Javeriana.

“This distortion of economic measures falsifies all decisions taken by companies and all centralized planning,” he said.

In 2004, then president Fidel Castro withdrew the dollar from circulation in Cuba in response to US tightening of a half-century-old embargo.

At the same time, he devalued the convertible peso, known as the CUC, by eight percent and increased the commission for changing money by 10 percent.

Raul Castro, who succeeded an ailing Fidel two years later, re-established the CUC’s parity with the dollar in 2001.

In making the latest change, Granma assured that the government would not resort to “shock therapies.”

Moreover, it said they would not affect legitimate earnings in either convertible or ordinary pesos, nor people with savings in Cuban banks.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9519 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:32 AM »

Space tourism: U.S. firm offers 20 miles-high balloon ride

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 9:07 EDT

Seeking to cash in on the space tourism boom, a US firm is offering rides in a helium balloon 30 kilometers (20 miles) up to gaze down on Earth.

The Arizona-based company World View Enterprises said in a statement Tuesday the trip will cost $75,000 (55,000 euros) and travelers will stay aloft for about two hours in an eight-seat “luxuriously appointed space-qualified capsule”.

The capsule will ultimately detach from the balloon and glide to the earth with a parachute.

The flights are scheduled to start in three years.

“Passengers will be among the few to have seen the curvature of the Earth with their own eyes,” the statement said.

“They will be able to gaze at the astounding views, the blackness of space, the brilliance of stars and the thin veil of atmosphere enveloping our planet ? scenes previously witnessed exclusively by astronauts ? for $75,000,” it added.

“Seeing the Earth hanging in the ink-black void of space will help people realize our connection to our home planet and to the universe around us, and will surely offer a transformative experience to our customers,” said Jane Poynter, CEO of World View.

She is also the co-founder of Paragon Space Development Corporation, which developed the capsule and brought together investors to create the balloon flight venture.

The Federal Aviation Administration has classified the World View capsule as a spacecraft, according to an FAA letter published Tuesday by the company.

Technically, space begins at an altitude of 100 kilometers (60 miles). From there on up, aerodynamic flight is no longer possible because there is no atmosphere.

Virgin Galactic, created by British billionaire Richard Branson, plans flights to that sub-orbital altitude starting in 2014.

Virgin Galactic has already sold nearly 650 tickets. The price has gone from an original $200,000 to $250,000 (180,000 euros).

Paragon is working with multi-millionaire Dennis Tito, the world’s first space tourist, in 2001. He plans a 500-day round-trip journey around Mars with two astronauts.

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« Reply #9520 on: Oct 23, 2013, 08:50 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

Top White House security official fired over critical tweets

Jofi Joseph, who was involved in Iranian nuclear talks, used Twitter to insult key members of Obama administration

Haroon Siddique, Wednesday 23 October 2013 08.51 BST   

A senior White House national security official has been fired after being unmasked as the voice behind a Twitter account that embarrassed the Obama administration by aiming stinging criticism at government figures.

As director of nuclear non-proliferation, Jofi Joseph was helping to negotiate nuclear issues with Iran. But for more than two years, he also sent hundreds of tweets, many of them containing personal insults, using the Twitter handle @NatSecWonk.

In his Twitter biography, which has been taken down, Joseph described himself as a "keen observer of the foreign policy and national security scene" who "unapologetically says what everyone else only thinks".

In one tweet, he said: "'Has shitty staff.' #ObamaInThreeWords." In another, he made fun of the choice of husband by one of Hillary Clinton's top aide, comparing their partnership unflatteringly to two senior White House officials.

"Was Huma Abedin wearing beer goggles the night she met [former congressman] Anthony Weiner? Almost as bad a pairing as Samantha Powers and Cass Sunstein ...." he wrote.

He also offered support to Republican representative Darrell Issa in his attempts to hold former secretary of state Clinton responsible for last year's attack on the US diplomatic post in Libya.

"Look, Issa is an ass, but he's on to something here with the @HillaryClinton whitewash of accountability for Benghazi," Joseph tweeted.

He lashed out at Sarah Palin "and the rest of her white trash family" and mocked the personal appearance of a number of female figures, including Senate Republican candidate Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney's wife, Ann. Joseph also used the account to hurl abuse at journalists, including Daily Beast reporter Josh Rogin, who broke the story of his sacking. "Just a hunch, but I have the sense lots of people would like to punch @joshrogin in the face," he tweeted earlier this month.

The White House has confirmed that Joseph was fired last week but has declined to comment further.

Joseph, 40, told Politico he deeply regretted his tweets.

"What started out as an intended parody account of DC culture developed over time into a series of inappropriate and mean-spirited comments," he said in an email. "I bear complete responsibility for this affair and I sincerely apologise to everyone I insulted."

An administration official told Politico that Joseph had been about to move from White House duty to a senior role in the Pentagon


Nothing’s changed: Both political parties aim to protect and reinforce the capitalist system

By Richard Wolff, The Guardian
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 11:41 EDT

Democrats like moderate Keynesianism. Republicans favor free markets unfettered. The crisis-ridden system is never challenged

The economic aim of both major US political parties is, in the end, the same: to protect and reinforce the capitalist system.

The Republican party does so chiefly by means of a systematic, unremitting demonization of the government. They blame it for whatever ails the capitalist economy. If unemployment grows, they point to government policies and actions, and attack particular politicians for what they did or did not do to stimulate the economy, directing criticism away from the employers who actually deprive workers of their jobs.

Republican solutions for capitalism’s ills always involve reducing the government’s demands on private capitalists – lower their taxes, deregulate their activities, and privatize government production of goods and services. Their program for the future is always: free the private capitalist system from government intervention, and you will get “prosperity” and growth.

The Democrats protect and reproduce the system by assigning to the government the task of minimizing the problems that beset capitalism. So, for example, they want the business cycles that are an inherent affliction of capitalism to be foreseen, planned for, minimized and overcome by government intervention. This is the underlying purpose of Keynesian economics and the monetary and fiscal policies it generates.

Beyond cycles, capitalism’s more long-term problems, such as tendencies to produce great inequalities of income and accumulated wealth, lead Democrats to propose very modest government redistribution programs. Minimum wages, progressive tax structures, food, housing and other subsidies, and freely-distributed public services exemplify Democrats’ Bandaids meant to protect capitalism from its own potentially self-destructive tendencies.

From the GOP, you will hear denials that such self-destructive tendencies even exist. Economic problems always reduce to pesky and unwarranted government tampering in the free market. The few Republicans who will admit that capitalism is responsible for its own ailments also see capitalism as a fully self-healing system. The best solution for capitalism’s problems, they insist, is to let the system function and correct them. Anything else will just make matters worse.

Most Democrats will paint Republicans as slavish servants of short-sighted corporations and the few whom they make rich. These, say Democrats, threaten capitalism’s survival by failing to utilize government solutions to problems that consequently become worse and increasingly dangerous, putting the whole global economy – and capitalism’s reproduction – at systemic risk.

Republicans will disregard Democratic economic policy as steps toward what they call “socialism“: socialism defined as government ownership and operation of what should be private enterprises.

Neither party, though, has figured out how to prevent capitalism’s business cycles. Both consistently fail to make sure that cycles they failed to prevent would be shallow and short. So, today, Republicans blame the crisis since 2007 on government over-regulation and interventions in the housing and finance markets (and they blame Democrats for championing those policies). Democrats blame the crisis on too little regulation of those markets and insufficient redistribution (and – you guessed it – they blame Republicans for opposing those government policies). In short, crises, like everything else, are just opportunities to be explained and exploited politically to advance each party’s characteristic policies and their electoral strategies.

In what were “normal times”, US capitalism would reproduce itself with nice, calm oscillations between Republican and Democratic presidencies and congresses. For the minority of Americans who legitimately cared about which party was in or out, their interests focused on issues usually disconnected from any structural debate about the capitalist economic system. These included local and regional issues, foreign policy, social issues like sexuality, access to guns, flag-burning, draft protests, and so on. Capitalism rolled along, in part, because both parties functioned as alternative cheerleaders for it, treating it as beyond criticism.

Recent political gridlock, shutdowns, etc suggest a “new normal” has arrived. Political combat between the parties has become more intense and intractable, because capitalism has changed since the 1970s. By then, the post second world war boom in western Europe, north America and Japan – and also anxieties about the USSR, China, and their allies – had lofted real wages and government-funded social services far above their levels in capitalism’s global hinterland, especially Asia, Africa and Latin America. Capitalists in western Europe, North America, and Japan were therefore eager to evade both the high wages and the taxes they faced.

Major technical breakthroughs at the time made evasion possible. The ubiquitous availability of jet travel made movement around the globe much easier, cheaper, and faster. Computer and telecommunications advances enabled enterprise headquarters to monitor, command and control production facilities anywhere on the planet. It suddenly became practical to move production and distribution sites from locations of high wages and taxes, to locations of poverty and weak government. Sharp competitors led the way as, first, manufacturing and then, service jobs were increasingly “exported” or “outsourced”. Laggards suffered and so learned the importance of following their more nimble competitors.

Most Republicans and Democrats facilitated the process by endlessly promoting “free trade” and arguing that any constraints on free enterprises’ relocations were unthinkable, inefficient and other synonyms for “really bad”. As more and more jobs left the US, and formerly prosperous cities and states entered long-term declines, the two parties blamed their favorite targets: one another.

The idea that capitalism and capitalists were the problem was something neither Democrats or Republicans allow into their debates and talking-points. Yet, it was precisely capitalists’ profit-driven, self-interested decisions to move that have caused our economic problems. And so they remain. © Guardian News and Media 2013


Sebelius defends Obamacare website performance: ‘We’re early in the first quarter’

By Arturo Garcia
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 22:38 EDT

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius reiterated her defense of the online sign-up process for health care under the Affordable Care Act in an interview on Tuesday with CNN host Dr. Sanjay Gupta, insisting that the problems users have reported have come early in the roll-out process.

“We’re early in the first quarter, in football terms,” Sebelius told Gupta. “We have a six-month open enrollment period, and I am confident that millions of Americans, at the end of open enrollment, March 31st, will have affordable health coverage for the first time in their lives.”

Sebelius did concede to Gupta that, since she already has a health insurance plan, she has not done more than create an account on the website,, which has been plagued with technical issues to the point that President Barack Obama issued a statement calling for an improved performance.

“Did you find it challenging?” Gupta asked Sebelius. “What did you think of it?”

“I think there certainly are some challenges,” Sebelius conceded again. “It could be smoother. It could be easier to access, and that’s really what we’re working on. Nobody said the site is working the way we want it to. Certainly the president acknowledged that yesterday.”

At the same time, Sebelius noted to Gupta that despite the online issues, anyone who manages to sign up by Dec. 15 will still have health insurance effective Jan. 1, 2014. She also told Gupta that delaying the Oct. 1 launch date was not an option even after the site crashed during a test run with only a few hundred users signed on.

“There are people in this country who have waited for decades for affordable health coverage for themselves and their families,” Sebelius argued. “People who were waiting for this to happen. And what’s clear is, we have a product. The product really works. We have created a market where there wasn’t a market.”


October 22, 2013

As Drug Costs Rise, Bending the Law Is One Remedy


Lee Higman, a 71-year-old artist from Bellevue, Idaho, who considers herself a law-abiding citizen, was shocked last month when she got a notice from the Food and Drug Administration telling her: “A mail shipment addressed to you from a foreign country is being held.”

The 90 tablets of Vagifem, prescribed by her physician, that she had ordered from a Canadian pharmacy had been impounded as an illegal drug at Los Angeles International Airport.

First marketed in 1988, Vagifem estrogen tablets are used by millions of women to relieve symptoms of menopause. There is no generic version available in the United States, and brand-name drugs are expensive here. So about five years ago, Mrs. Higman started ordering the tablets from Canada, where a year’s supply that would cost about $1,000 in the United States sells for under $100.

“The price went up. And we’d lost a lot on the stock market, and we’re living on fixed incomes,” Mrs. Higman, who is an artist, said in an interview. She and her husband, a writer, are covered by Medicare. In an e-mail to the Food and Drug Administration, she sought the release of the package, explaining, “When it became economically imperative I ordered it from Canada, a country with strict drug requirements.”

The high price of many prescription drugs in the United States has left millions of Americans telling white lies and committing fraud and other crimes to get their medicines. In response to a New York Times article about the costs, hundreds of readers shared their strategies, like having a physician prescribe twice the needed dose and cutting pills in half, or “borrowing” medicines from a friend or relative with better insurance coverage. But an increasingly popular — though generally illegal — route is buying the drugs from overseas.

The Canadian International Pharmacy Association, a 10-year-old group, said its members fill prescriptions for one million Americans each year. “It’s the Americans who are seeking us out,” said Tim Smith, the group’s general manager. “Clearly there’s a need.”

In surveys from 2011 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 2 percent of adults and about 5 percent of the uninsured said they had bought prescription drugs from other countries. The figures most likely underestimated the practice because people may be reluctant to admit to doing something illegal, even though the law is rarely enforced in such cases.

The Food and Drug Administration says on its Web site that “in most circumstances it is illegal to import drugs into the U.S. for personal use” because the agency cannot guarantee they are safe and effective. The government also prohibits “reimportation” of drugs made in the United States because it cannot guarantee the medications were not tampered with or stored improperly.

The agency said it does not track the volume of such imports. However, it “typically does not object” to people buying imported medicine for personal use “under certain circumstances,” the agency said. Those include using the drug to treat a serious condition for which an effective alternative is unavailable in the United States and purchasing less than a three-month supply. But those ambiguous edicts have left patients wary.

Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist and health care advocate in North Carolina, said he has saved thousands of dollars buying medicines from overseas in the past decade. “It may be technically illegal, but I don’t think anyone would ever get prosecuted,” he said, adding that such laws reflected “protectionism” for drug makers. Although the Obama administration initially proposed allowing some importation of drugs, the idea was dropped from the Affordable Care Act after intense opposition from the pharmaceutical industry.

Mr. Smith, of the Canadian pharmacy group, said members follow strict pharmacy and prescription protocols and dispense only medicines approved by Health Canada, which regulates them. Members also broker purchases from licensed pharmacies in other countries, like Britain and Australia, which may further reduce the costs. Package inserts in foreign languages must be translated into English.

He acknowledged that consumers must take care to ensure an online pharmacy is legitimate, noting that in 2011 his association sent hundreds of cease-and-desist letters to Web sites — some of which were not based in Canada and were not even pharmacies — that were fraudulently using the group’s certification seal.

Dr. Barrett said he uses Web sites like to screen online pharmacies and prefers products from English-speaking countries.

Some purchases from overseas pharmacies are identical to products sold in the United States. When a Food and Drug Administration compliance officer told Mrs. Higman that her order of Vagifem was held because it was an “unapproved” drug, she responded, “This drug might come from Turkey, however, it is in the same box, the same packaging, the same labels, the same manufacturer, Nordisk, as the outrageously priced Vagifem in the United States.”

Identical drugs sold in other countries may have different package inserts, slight variations in dose or different brand names. But that is frequently a function of patent law and business decisions by drug makers, rather than medical efficacy.

Diana Simonson, 42, a freelance computer programmer in Glens Falls, N.Y., said she started ordering her inhalers from Canada after she nearly died of an asthma attack in the United States, where she cannot afford her preventive treatments.

For decades, she was able to control her asthma with a steroid inhaler. But it was banned a few years ago because it contained a propellant that was deemed environmentally harmful. The replacement product cost $250 a month. “That was like another car payment — I couldn’t do it,” said Ms. Simonson, who has a high-deductible insurance policy through the Freelancers Union.

With an income of about $35,000 and a child to raise, she tried to do without. But at an air show with her 7-year-old son, she became so short of breath that she had to be rushed by ambulance to an emergency room.

The inhalers she gets from Canada every three months are the same brand, and by the same manufacturer, that she used to buy in the United States. But often they are produced in a third country, like Turkey or Malaysia.

Kristen Bailey of Colorado started ordering medicine by mail from India when she was given a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease after graduating from college in 2011 with no insurance. Her medicine retails for tens of thousands of dollars in the United States.

The process is simpler for patients who live near the border. Joshua Kalish, 70, of Silver City, N.M., said that before he was eligible for Medicare, he drove to Mexico to fill his prescriptions, calling it a “common practice.”

Mrs. Higman said she is also heading for the border. Despite her pleas, the Food and Drug Administration told her that her Vagifem tablets would be returned to Canada or destroyed.

To tide her over, she has spent $233 for two months of Vagifem at a local pharmacy. “Fortunately my children and grandchildren live in Seattle, so the next time we go over there, I’ll take a little trip up to Vancouver, British Columbia, to buy my medicine,” she said. “I’ll save enough money to get room service in a five-star hotel there and still have enough left to claim I saved a couple of bucks.”


Democrats, It’s Time to Say I’m Done With Out of Control Republicans

By: Sarah Jones
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013, 7:48 pm

No, no, no, these glitches are the biggest deal of all big deals like EVER in the history of presidential fails! This will be remembered for decades!!!!!! Forget Katrina, hello FAIL WHALE glitch: President tries to save lives of Americans, some minor tech delays keep them from enrolling long before coverage actually starts so there’s no loss here just some irritation but…


Reince tweeted yesterday, “Rose Garden infomercial (minus real info), brutal press briefing from @PressSec…does WH win worst Monday in DC? #trainwreck #FireSebelius” because you know if you add a hashtag your totally irrelevant and delusional thoughts, they immediately catch fire. The entire country can be heard dropping their demands for jobs and healthcare, and instead focusing on how Kathleen Sebelius should be fired over a glitch in a website.

All of those Republicans who swore we needed to invade Iraq though? They’re all good. Mistakes happen, you see. God forgives Republicans, but glitches we cannot tolerate. Commence witch hunt against Kathleen Sebelius. Yes, there is an “investigation” and please do not tell me this is not what you paid for when you didn’t vote for these people. It’s not as if Republicans can pass legislation. Doing so might actually help people and they’ve sworn off doing anything positive for five years now.

So Reince thought if he called Obama President Sham Wow, he’d really make a mark because oh yeah, that hurts:

    #PresidentShamWow: the flaws aren’t just in your website…they’re in the law itself.

    — Reince Priebus (@Reince) October 22, 2013

Apparently you need to be Republican to get these borrowed “jokes”, and by Republican, I mean totally lacking in any sense of irony or humor, causing said person to mistake dense, juvenile, preschool level taunting for wit. Like some never ending national nightmare, Republicans haven’t stopped cheering the death of the uninsured – they’ve just moved on to mocking the person who saved the uninsured. If you feel sick it’s because we (as in, humans with a conscience) find this stunning lack of morality repugnant, as a warning sign against soulless predators.

Senator Dick Durbin left a disturbing note on his Facebook page:

    “Many Republicans searching for something to say in defense of the disastrous shutdown strategy will say President Obama just doesn’t try hard enough to communicate with Republicans. But in a ‘negotiation’ meeting with the president, one GOP House Leader told the president: ‘I cannot even stand to look at you.’ What are the chances of an honest conversation with someone who has just said something so disrespectful?” — Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)

The rudeness toward this president is astonishing in its boldness. The good news is that Republicans must not really believe that Obama is Hitler, contrary to the posters in their campaign offices, or they would never say these things about or to him. But these are folks who are still making watermelon “jokes” about Obama. Snicker. Yes, it’s all so cute and funny when an entire party is less cultured than children.

Senator Durbin is probably referring to the meeting that only House leadership attended. That is 18 members who were at the meeting — and you will see certain names repeated on the list of attendees to the GOP-promise-to-destroy-Obama meeting of 2009.

Remember Robert Draper’s book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives”, revealing the GOP meeting to destroy Obama as he celebrated his first term inauguration? “As President Barack Obama was celebrating his inauguration at various balls, top Republican lawmakers and strategists were conjuring up ways to submarine his presidency at a private dinner in Washington.”

This kills the media narrative that Obama somehow did something to hurt the GOP’s feelings and that is why they have been such tyrant babies. No, they have behaved like nihilistic babies because that is what they have become, per their own choice.

Sam Stein at Huffington Post reveals the guest list that night:

    According to Draper, the guest list that night (which was just over 15 people in total) included Republican Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Paul Ryan (Wis.), Pete Sessions (Texas), Jeb Hensarling (Texas), Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) and Dan Lungren (Calif.), along with Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.). The non-lawmakers present included Newt Gingrich, several years removed from his presidential campaign, and Frank Luntz, the long-time Republican wordsmith. Notably absent were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) — who, Draper writes, had an acrimonious relationship with Luntz.

    For several hours in the Caucus Room (a high-end D.C. establishment), the book says they plotted out ways to not just win back political power, but to also put the brakes on Obama’s legislative platform.

The above rudeness, ‘I cannot even stand to look at you’, was delivered by someone who was at the 2009 meeting centered around destroying this President, after five years of outrageously destructive behavior. This tells you everything you need to know about Republicans.

And these are the people the press thinks Obama should “bring along” to meet in the “middle”, eh? Yes, haven’t you heard, President Obama is to blame for Republican extremism. Somehow by getting elected, he really upset them and forced them into devoting their entire careers to destroying him and American under him because petty revenge for two lost elections is “leading”, mainstream media style.

Meanwhile Republicans can’t stop mocking this President, who cared enough about the millions of uninsured to spend all of his political capital passing the Affordable Care Act, thereby saving untold number of lives, because the website has some glitches. Their President lied us into a war that killed hundreds of thousands (nearly half a million Iraqis died from war related causes), and they haven’t “fixed” that or even apologized for it. But they mock this President over “glitches”.

They call for the firing of Sebelius over “glitches” but killing hundreds of thousands and losing millions of dollars in Iraq, a country we never should have invaded in the first place, a country we only invaded because we were deliberately lied to and great effort was put into distorting intelligence and cheery picking it to make a case for weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds, was no biggie.

Not a word about Mitt Romney’s epic ORCA failure because that would just be mean, and as you can see, Republicans haven’t got much left but dreams of website glitches bringing down a massively popular president and magically redoing the 2012 election and all of the GOP’s behavior since. But of course, Mitt Romney is allowed “glitches” since he is white, rich and straight.

Yes, I went there. I’ve lived in the South and I know sugary, smug racial privilege when I see it. Republicans are out of control, and I’m done pretending this is a political discussion. It’s clear that they are suffering from a party-wide mental illness and are a danger to this country. Pundits and reporters who don’t call this out are guilty of enabling the impending destruction and they’d better hope it’s not as ugly as it appears it will be.


Never Have Republicans Been More Disliked Than Right Now as GOP Unfavorables Hit 64%

By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013, 9:30 am

The latest CNN/ORC poll finds that the Republican Party has never been more disliked than right now. The government shutdown fallout continues as 64% of Americans have an unfavorable view of the GOP.

The CNN poll shows that the Republican Party has been badly damaged by their government shutdown. Speaker of the House John Boehner’s unfavorable rating has gone from 48% to 55% in less than a month. Mitch McConnell’s unfavorable rating increased from 39% to 42%. Ted Cruz’s unfavorable rating grew from 36% to 42%. John McCain’s unfavorable rating stayed unchanged at 42%. The real damage occurred to the Republican Party itself. The unfavorable rating of the Republican Party has reached its highest level ever in the history of the question. The Republican Party’s unfavorable rating has been steadily increasing since March of this year. The GOP’s unfavorable rating has increased from 59% to 64%. Only 30% of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of the Republican Party.

This poll also revealed that both parties aren’t being blamed for the government shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s unfavorable rating fell 5 points from 45% to 40%. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi’s unfavorable rating fell from 51% to 47%, and the Democratic Party’s unfavorable rating fell from 52% to 51%.

The message is simple. Republican unfavorable ratings all went up due to the shutdown. Democratic unfavorable ratings went down. It’s clear where the American people have decided to place the blame. What these numbers mean for the Republican Party is that the government shutdown isn’t gone and forgotten. Republicans have been obsessed with coming up with a magic tweak that will allow them to win elections with the same ideas that they are losing with right now. The government shutdown has pushed the Republican Party beyond needing a rebrand.

Republicans don’t need to repaint the party house. They need to burn it down and start over. The idea that there was no political harm caused by the shutdown is absurd.

Since CNN began asking the question nearly 22 years ago, the Republican Party has never been as unpopular as they are right now. The havoc that Republicans unleashed on the American people during the month of October is not going to be soon gone or forgotten.


Ted Cruz: Has the Tea Party ‘Golden Boy’ gone too far this time?

By: Dennis S
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013, 9:24 pm

Texas Senator Ted (Rafael Edward) Cruz has often been depicted on this site and other venues where progressive pundits ply their craft, as a blithering buffoon emerging from a political clown car leaning so far to the right that it’s bumpers scrape the roadway. Well, he is that, but he’s also a man of parts who, if he was a progressive Democrat, would be in the very Shelby, Palin, Gingrich, Huckabee and Trump crosshairs as the president. In other words Cruz would be targeted by the same birther crowd that’s convinced that Barack Obama is a Kenyan interloper without portfolio of a legitimate birth certificate and a MUSLIM to boot and hangs with COMMIES.

Work with me here. Cruz was born elsewhere and not elsewhere in America, but elsewhere in the cold confines of neighboring Canada. If I may borrow liberally from Wiki and its sources, Rafael came to be in Calgary, Alberta some 42 years ago. Pop was Cuban and not a citizen at the time; mom was an Irish/Italian from Wilmington and was an American citizen. So there’s a similarity with Obama insofar as one parent was an American citizen, another parent was a citizen of another country. It is a fact that even if both parents of the president were non-citizens, as long as Barack was born in the U.S. he’s one of us by golly.

Another interesting intersection in their backgrounds is a connection with COMMIES. Obama’s alleged connection was more direct as he was accused (falsely) of being best buds (he wasn’t) with left-wing radical and self-described Commie bomb-thrower, Bill Ayres who was behind the Weatherman anti-Vietnam radicals. Padre Cruz was a freedom fighter with the COMMIE revolutionary, Fidel Castro.

Whether it’s revisionist history to now claim that Rafael was a mere 14-year-old lad charging up the hill with the rebel leader and thereafter renouncing Castro and becoming disenchanted (Fidel suppressed dissent don’t you know) with the cigar puffing bearded one, I don’t know. But historical accuracy notwithstanding, the elder Cruz fought along side communists. Can you imagine what the right would do with that indisputable fact had Ted Cruz taken the more reasonable path to the Democratic Party?

In any event, Papa Cruz emigrated to Texas and earned a degree in math. He later started an oil-related business and took up residence in Canada. He and the Mrs. were living and working there when Cruz was born in December of 1970. The father didn’t become a U.S. citizen until 2005.

The last coincidental tie between Cruz and Obama takes us to the editorial offices of the Harvard Law Review. Yes, Cruz was the so-called “primary” editor of the same publication that Obama edited, presumably as THE editor.

Now that it’s been established that the two political foes are, in many respects, comrades in arms so to speak, let’s see what makes Cruz tick. Dumb he’s not. Misguided from his early teens, yes; but anything but dumb. He was valedictorian of his high school graduating class. While still in high school he joined a group called the “Free Market Education Foundation” where his brain was filled with the ‘mush’ (as Rush would say) of Friedman and Hayek economics. He never recovered. From there he matriculated to Princeton, graduating cum laude and winning the “American Debating Championship” whatever that is. He packed his bags for Harvard Law and upped his cum laude one rung to magna cum laude.

I’m not going to track all the stops Cruz made on his way to filibuster infamy; suffice to say they were the right ones in every sense of the word. A clerkship for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a quicky stop at a hot shot law firm where he served as attorney for John Boehner’s lawsuit against fellow Representative, Democrat, Jim McDermott over releasing a tape of a Boehner phone conversation. Then after working with the Bush-Cheney campaign team for a couple of years, it was a full swan dive into the Texas political pool.

Cruz was the nation’s youngest Solicitor General, a position he occupied from 2003-2008. He returned to private law practice with an eye toward the U.S. Senate. He won that seat when the sketchy incumbent, Kay Bailey Hutchison, decided to hang ‘em up. No telling what was behind that move. Cruz cruised to victory over a hapless Democrat by 16 percentage points.

For some reason he made an immediate impact on the Senate, the House and the country in general. With the extreme right-wing Tea Party line as his political balancing pole, he navigated the critical issues of the budget and ACA like a veteran wirewalker navigates a wire he’s conquered for a decade. Only Cruz had just arrived and was saying all the right things to get his face and voice on both the right and left Media outlets; incessantly, repeatedly and relentlessly. He’s not particularly telegenic or, dare I say, sexy; the kind of guy who stops your wife in her tracks in front of the TV, suddenly interested in debt ceilings for the first time in her life. No, that’s not Cruz. What he does have going for him is the residue from his national debating championship. He’s glib and clever and he can talk forever, or at least 22 hours as we painfully discovered.

Speaking of pain, Cruz might just be easing into the political version of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). You probably know it by its more common reference of a staph infection. Maybe all his ugly babble has started crawling across the skin of not only his detractors, but possibly his supporters as well. 22-hour theatrics will pretty much tell you that Cruz is one infection that is immune to the antibiotic of reasonable limitations. That’s why Cruz will never be president. He’s human MRSA capable of spreading his radical infection throughout the land.

Even the National Chamber of Commerce is telling him in a nice way to shut his pie-hole. The U.S. News and World Report quoted Chamber President Tom Donahue as telling Cruz, through the media, to “sit down and shut up” after Cruz was “credited” with being a driving force behind the 16-day federal government shutdown and credit default flirtation.

More disturbing to Cruz’ Tea Party minions were subsequent statements about ACA. While still critical of certain aspects of health care reform, the Chamber president still made nice about the necessity of lowering health care cost and getting results rather than “political grandstanding.” Ouch! It gets worse. Apparently the chamber has taken to reading tea leaves and not Tea Party leaves in revealing that some of their campaign millions are going to Democrats in the next election.

Talk about a safe falling from the 14th floor. Will the bright young solicitor get the drift or will his extremism throw him under the bus?


Chris Matthews mocks GOP poll plunge: Their name is worse than ‘Mud,’ it’s ‘Ted Cruz’

By Arturo Garcia
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 21:44 EDT

MSNBC host Chris Matthews picked apart the Republican Party’s continued slide in the polls on Tuesday, tying it to Tea Party Sen. Ted Cruz, who he described as the “Mrs. O’Leary’s cow” of the political tumult now associated with the GOP.

“I always tell people that they will only get one reputation in life,” Matthews said. “Someone should have told the Republicans that. Today, their name is ‘Mud.’ Actually, it’s worse: it’s ‘Ted Cruz.’”

Matthews pointed to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll saying the 16-day government shutdown did more damage to Republicans than it did Democrats, leaving the GOP with a favorable impression among just 32 percent of the public, an all-time low.

Matthews also mocked former Vice President Dick Cheney (R) for a Fox News interview in which he argued that the real “extremist” in Washington politics is not the Tea Party, but President Barack Obama, arguing that Cheney was only saying so to boster his daughter Liz Cheney’s own political ambitions.

“I don’t believe a word he said,” Matthews told MSNBC contributor and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D). “He’s the most hawkish guy, and all those Tea Partiers are anti-hawkish. He’s a big government guy, he’s establishment, he’s been in leadership his whole life, and now he’s portraying himself as some soddie buster from out there in Wyoming with a pitchfork.”


October 22, 2013

Koch Brother Wages 12-Year Fight Over Wind Farm


OSTERVILLE, Mass. — If the vast wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound is ever built, William I. Koch will have a spectacular view of it.

Of course, that is the last thing he wants. Mr. Koch, a billionaire industrialist who made his fortune in fossil fuels and whose better-known brothers underwrite conservative political causes, has been fighting the wind farm, called Cape Wind, for more than a decade, donating about $5 million and leading an adversarial group against it. He believes that Cape Wind’s 130 industrial turbines would not only create what he calls “visual pollution” but also increase the cost of electricity for everyone.

Now, as if placing a bet on the outcome of the battle, Mr. Koch, 73, who has owned an exclusive summer compound here for years, has acquired an even grander one — Rachel Mellon’s 26-acre waterfront estate in the gated community of Oyster Harbors, for $19.5 million. He has also bought the nearby 12-plus-acre Dupont estate. All of this adds up to a prime perch over Nantucket Sound.

“I love the area,” Mr. Koch said in an e-mail. “The ability to acquire a special property where I can create a family compound for my children and extended family was and is very meaningful to me.” (His current home, in the same gated community, is on the market for $15 million.)

At one time, Cape Wind — which would produce 75 percent of the power for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket — was expected to be the first offshore wind farm in the country, and supporters hoped it would serve as a catalyst for other offshore wind projects like those that ring Europe. But after more than a dozen years, the $2.6 billion proposal remains on the drawing board, thanks in large part to the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, of which Mr. Koch is chairman.

Still, Jim Gordon, Cape Wind’s developer, who has spent $70 million of his own money on the project since 2001, vows that it will go forward. He said that he would qualify for certain federal tax credits by the end of the year and that the necessary financing would be in place, but he declined to disclose details, saying he did not want to give Mr. Koch a “road map” of his plans.

“This is a very sophisticated adversary,” Mr. Gordon said. “Koch has already spent a decade trying to push us off the path toward a better energy future.”

The two men have circled each other for a decade in an escalating test of wills. Mr. Gordon has tried unsuccessfully to enlist Mr. Koch, who once financed green energy plants, in his cause; Mr. Koch has successfully delayed Cape Wind for years by tying it up in court. A few lawsuits, some of them backed by the Nantucket Sound alliance, remain to be settled.

Audra Parker, chief executive of the alliance, is skeptical that Mr. Gordon can move ahead. His plans, she said, are “built on a house of cards.”

Mr. Gordon, for his part, contends that Mr. Koch “lives in a billionaire bubble” and that his efforts to block Cape Wind are self-defeating because climate change is already assaulting Cape Cod.

“Their beach is eroding, houses are falling into the sea, the ocean is getting warmer, lobsters are migrating away,” Mr. Gordon said in an interview in his Boston office. “It’s just sad that somebody who has the means to spend millions of dollars can hold something up that’s going to produce a lot of benefits for Massachusetts and this region.”

Mr. Koch is not the only opponent of Cape Wind. The late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, whose Hyannis family compound also looked out on Nantucket Sound, opposed the project too, as do many fishermen and business owners on the Cape who worry it will hurt their livelihoods. Hundreds of people have made donations to the alliance; Mr. Koch’s $5 million in contributions account for only part of the $30 million raised.

But he is one of the few wealthy homeowners here who has taken a public role in the fight. And his ties to the fossil-fuel industry, and the fact that he is a Koch brother, make him a convenient target for pro-wind supporters.

Major environmental groups support the wind farm as a necessary step toward reducing carbon emissions, and they are furious with Mr. Koch. But when he was warned last year that environmentalists were going to start attacking him and try to stop his other projects, he said he welcomed the fight.

“The environmentalists are already after me,” he told CommonWealth magazine in April. “I’ve had the Turkish government after me, I’ve had the I.R.S. after me and I’ve had a $50-billion-a-year corporation after me. I’ve had the Turkish mafia after me, so bring it on, baby.”

Combative, flamboyant and litigious, Mr. Koch does not shy away from public scrapes. He has been involved in dozens of lawsuits over the years, including a tangled case against his own brothers that went on for two decades and that Forbes called “perhaps the nastiest family feud in American business history.”

Like his brothers David and Charles, who own Koch Industries Inc., Bill Koch is a billionaire, though not on the same order of magnitude. Forbes listed him in September as the 122nd richest person in the United States, with a net worth of $3.8 billion; his brothers are tied for fourth, with a net worth of $36 billion each.

David and Charles Koch, who are more conservative, use their money to promote political movements like the Tea Party, to back a libertarian social agenda and to protect their extensive fossil fuel holdings; Bill spends his on an array of passions, including sailing (he won the America’s Cup in 1992) and collecting wine, art (a wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is named for him) and Western memorabilia (he bought a ghost town in Colorado and is converting it into an authentic frontier settlement).

But Bill Koch, who founded Oxbow, a fossil-fuel-based company, three decades ago, has also been stepping up his political donations. He is spending millions to beat back environmental regulations and giving more than ever to like-minded politicians. He told CommonWealth magazine that he wanted to help elect people “who understand how foolhardy alternative energy is.”

His political contributions are generally less ideological than those of his brothers and are focused chiefly on advancing his business interests. Last year, Oxbow donated its largest amount ever, $4.35 million, to so-called super political action committees, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Mr. Koch has donated to both Democrats and Republicans; the determining factor, he said, is whether they support policies that will benefit Oxbow. Recently, most of his recipients have been Republicans, including many House leaders who are seeking re-election next year.

Some say his protection of his fossil fuel interests goes hand-in-hand with his opposition to Cape Wind.

“No renewable energy resource holds as much potential as offshore wind to displace many, many, many gigawatts of dirty, carbon-intensive resources,” said Sue Reid, vice president and director of the Massachusetts office of the Conservation Law Foundation, which supports Cape Wind.

Mr. Koch has said that the most persuasive arguments against Cape Wind are economic, arguing that the project relies on government subsidies that could vanish tomorrow and that it would raise the cost of electricity, not lower it.

That point was bolstered last month by news that the biggest utilities in Massachusetts had signed contracts to buy land-based wind power from Maine and New Hampshire for 8 cents per kilowatt-hour; Cape Wind, by comparison, has contracts with those same utilities to start at 19 cents per kilowatt-hour, with built-in escalation clauses of 3.5 percent a year. Ms. Parker of the Nantucket Sound alliance called this news “the death knell for Cape Wind.”

But Mr. Gordon, the Cape Wind developer, said that his offshore turbines would produce power more consistently, at peak demand, than those in Maine and New Hampshire, and that he would be delivering power reliably to “the fastest-growing electric load demand center in New England.”

And, he said, he was confident that Cape Wind would one day be up and running.

Mr. Koch was just as certain that it would never be built. “I am equally confident,” he said in his e-mail, “that the project’s lack of merit will result in its demise.”


Boston Marathon bombing suspect linked to triple murder case

Tamerlan Tsarnaev took part in 2011 homicide in which three men's throats were cut, according to man later killed by police

Associated Press in Boston, Wednesday 23 October 2013 09.38 BST   

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was named as a participant in an earlier triple homicide by a man who was shot to death while being questioned by authorities, according to a filing by federal prosecutors in the case against his brother, surviving suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

According to the filing on Monday, Ibragim Todashev told investigators Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was shot dead by police shortly after the bombing, took part in a triple murder in Waltham on 11 September 2011.

In that case, three men were found in an apartment with their throats cut and their bodies reportedly covered with marijuana. One of the victims was a boxer and friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Todashev, a 27-year-old martial arts fighter, was fatally shot at his Orlando home during a meeting with an FBI agent and two Massachusetts state troopers in May, according to authorities. He had turned violent while being questioned, they said.

The filing is the prosecutors' attempt to block Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from getting certain information from authorities, including investigative documents associated with the Waltham killings.

"The government has already disclosed to Tsarnaev that, according to Todashev, Tamerlan Tsarnaev participated in the Waltham triple homicide," prosecutors wrote.

According to prosecutors, the investigation into the 2011 murders is reason not to allow Dzhokhar Tsarnaev access to documents.

"Any benefit to Tsarnaev of knowing more about the precise 'nature and extent' of his brother's involvement does not outweigh the potential harm of exposing details of an ongoing investigation into an extremely serious crime, especially at this stage of the proceeding," prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors also said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not entitled to the information because his brother's criminal history would be relevant only at a possible future sentencing hearing, if at all.

A phone message left for a spokeswoman for the US attorney's office was not immediately returned on Tuesday night. A message left for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's federal public defender was also not immediately returned.

Authorities allege that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 20, and 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, ethnic Chechens from Russia, planned and carried out the twin bombings near the finishing line of the marathon on 15 April. Three people were killed and more than 260 injured in the attack.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces 30 federal charges, including using a weapon of mass destruction and 16 other charges that carry the possibility of the death penalty.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in a gun battle with police as authorities closed in on the brothers several days after the bombings.

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10/24/2013 10:48 AM

Merkel's Phone: Spying Suspicions Put Obama in a Tight Spot

By Sebastian Fischer in Washington

Berlin has reacted strongly to suspicions that US intelligence spied on Chancellor Merkel's mobile phone. If the accusations turn out to be true, it will put President Obama in a rather awkward position.

Jay Carney is used to dicey situations. By now, it has become routine for US President Barack Obama's press secretary to somehow put a positive spin on bad news. But, on Wednesday, Carney found himself in particularly treacherous territory when he was asked during a press briefing whether US intelligence services had monitored the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of one of America's staunchest allies.

To be on the safe side, Carney read from a prepared statement. He said that Obama had spoken on the telephone with Merkel to discuss the accusations, and that the president has assured the chancellor that the United States "is not monitoring and will not monitor" her communications. "The United States greatly values our close cooperation with Germany on a broad range of shared security challenges," he added.

The reaction was a defensive one, and Carney had to carefully choose each word. Indeed, many suspect that the scandal could strain not only official, bilateral relations between the countries, but also personal ties between Merkel and Obama. Carney's comments came after SPIEGEL reported that American intelligence may have been monitoring the chancellor's mobile phone communications for several years. Berlin's suspicions were strong enough to prompt Merkel to telephone Obama and air her complaints directly to him -- a strong signal of the usually cool-headed chancellor's anger over the scandal.

'A Grave Breach of Trust'

Unlike Carney's explanation, the one offered by Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert sounded much less restrained. What's more, these are the toughest statements heard yet from Merkel on the issue of US spying.

Seibert said: "The federal chancellor spoke with President Obama today by telephone. She made it clear that, if the indications prove to be correct, she unequivocally disapproves of such practices, and considers them totally unacceptable. Among friends and partners, like the Federal Republic of Germany and the US have been for decades, such surveillance of communication of heads of government should not take place. This would be a grave breach of trust. Such practices must immediately be put to a stop."

Merkel has clearly gone to the limits of what can be called diplomatic between friends with phrases such as "unequivocally disapprove," "totally unacceptable," and a "grave breach of trust." Naturally, everything preceded by the word "if." All in all, it doesn't really sound like Merkel was reassured by her conversation with Obama. According to the British Daily Telegraph, Merkel's reaction is "the most direct confrontation with a world leader since Edward Snowden began leaking details of the US's global surveillance network."

There is really no reason for reassurance if one listens closely to what Obama's spokesman Carney said. Again: "The President assured the Chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel." That statement is made in the present and future tenses. But what about the past? Has Merkel's phone been under surveillance in the past, or not? When asked by SPIEGEL, a spokeswoman of the US National Security Council would not say if Obama's assurance that the chancellor is not being monitored also applied to the past. This point also was being emphasized in political circles in Berlin Wednesday night.

The unusually strong reaction from the Chancellery was prompted by SPIEGEL research. After the information was examined by the country's foreign intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), and the Federal Office for Information Security, Berlin seems to have found their suspicions plausible enough to confront the US government.

And, from what one can gather from US media commentary on the scandal, Germany's anger has been unambiguously communicated. The phone conversation "must have been just horrendously uncomfortable," wrote Max Fisher, the foreign affairs blogger for the Washington Post. "If indeed American intelligence was listening to Ms. Merkel's phone, or registering calls made and received," the New York Times wrote, "the trust between Berlin and Washington could be severely damaged." The major TV news outlets are also covering the developing scandal in detail -- and repeatedly noting how Germans are particularly sensitive about privacy issues given the two dictatorships they lived through in the recent past.

Merkel Government Downplayed NSA Spying

If the accusations are substantiated, Obama will be in an extremely tight spot. On Monday, the US president spoke on the phone with his French counterpart François Hollande, who also expressed "deep disapproval" after French daily Le Monde reported that the NSA had eavesdropped on more than 70 million private phone calls of people in France. Washington rejected the report as flawed. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and the Mexican government also protested alleged eavesdropping on their private communications.

Obama is increasingly putting the credibility of the US on the line, even with the country's allies -- all the while calling for America to go back to using its "soft power." The repeated line from the US government that all intelligence services employ similar methods is hardly believable any longer. One thing has become clear: Not all intelligence services have the same capabilities as those of the United States.

Merkel, for her part, has an entirely different problem. She would like to appear as the victim here, but her government this summer talked down reports stemming from the Snowden leaks, in some cases flatly denying them. Those statements now sound absurd. In an interview with German public broadcaster ARD in July, Merkel reacted with surprise to the question of whether she had personally been eavesdropped on. "I'm not aware of anything, otherwise I would have reported it to the parliamentary control committee," she said. On another occasion, she assured the public that she had no reason "to doubt the United States' compliance with German law."

Merkel's comments were surpassed by her Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich and Chief of Staff Ronald Pofalla. Friedrich said in August that the "suspicions" had "dissolved into air" and that there were no indications that German government agencies had been spied on. Pofalla similarly declared the spying affair completely over, saying, "The accusations are off the table."

President Obama's reassurances fron early July, when the spying revelations began to develop, now sound stale. If he wanted to know what Chancellor Merkel thinks, he said, he would simply call her.


Angela Merkel's call to Obama: are you bugging my mobile phone?

Germany sees credible evidence of US monitoring of chancellor as NSA surveillance row intensifies
Live coverage of reaction to reports of Merkel surveillance

Ian Traynor in Brussels, Philip Oltermann in Berlin, and Paul Lewis in Washington
The Guardian, Thursday 24 October 2013    

The furore over the scale of American mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden shifted to an incendiary new level on Wednesday evening when Angela Merkel of Germany called Barack Obama to demand explanations over reports that the US National Security Agency was monitoring her mobile phone.

Merkel was said by informed sources in Germany to be "livid" over the reports and convinced, on the basis of a German intelligence investigation, that the reports were utterly substantiated.

The German news weekly, Der Spiegel, reported an investigation by German intelligence, prompted by research from the magazine, that produced plausible information that Merkel's mobile was targeted by the US eavesdropping agency. The German chancellor found the evidence substantial enough to call the White House and demand clarification.

The outrage in Berlin came days after President François Hollande of France also called the White House to confront Obama with reports that the NSA was targeting the private phone calls and text messages of millions of French people.

While European leaders have generally been keen to play down the impact of the whistleblowing disclosures in recent months, events in the EU's two biggest countries this week threatened an upward spiral of lack of trust in transatlantic relations.

Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, made plain that Merkel upbraided Obama unusually sharply and also voiced exasperation at the slowness of the Americans to respond to detailed questions on the NSA scandal since the Snowden revelations first appeared in the Guardian in June.

Merkel told Obama that "she unmistakably disapproves of and views as completely unacceptable such practices, if the indications are authenticated," Seifert said. "This would be a serious breach of confidence. Such practices have to be halted immediately."

The sharpness of the German complaint direct to an American president strongly suggested that Berlin had no doubt about the grounds for protest. Seibert voiced irritation that the Germans had waited for months for proper answers from Washington to Berlin on the NSA operations.

Merkel told Obama she expected the Americans "to supply information over the possible scale of such eavesdropping practices against Germany and reply to questions that the federal government asked months ago", Seibert said.

The White House responded that Merkel's mobile is not being tapped. "The president assured the chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor," said a statement from Jay Carney, the White House spokesman.

But Berlin promptly signalled that the rebuttal referred to the present and the future and did not deny that Merkel's communications had been monitored in the past.

Asked by the Guardian if the US had monitored the German chancellor's phone in the past, a top White House official declined to deny that it had.

Caitlin Hayden, the White House's National Security Council spokeswoman, said: "The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel. Beyond that, I'm not in a position to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity."

Obama and Merkel, the White House said, "agreed to intensify further the co-operation between our intelligence services with the goal of protecting the security of both countries and of our partners, as well as protecting the privacy of our citizens."

The explosive new row came on the eve of an EU summit in Brussels opening on Thursday afternoon. Following reports by Le Monde this week about the huge scale of US surveillance of France, Hollande insisted that the issue be raised at a summit which, by coincidence, is largely devoted to the "digital" economy in Europe. Hollande also phoned Obama to protest and insist on a full explanation, but received only the stock US response that the Americans were examining their intelligence practices and seeking to balance security and privacy imperatives, according to the Elysee Palace.

The French demand for a summit debate had gained little traction in Europe. On Wednesday morning, briefing privately on the business of the summit, senior German officials made minimal mention of the surveillance scandal. But by Wednesday evening that had shifted radically. The Germans publicly insisted that the activities of the US intelligence services in Europe be put on a new legal basis.

"The [German] federal government, as a close ally and partner of the USA, expects in the future a clear contractual basis for the activity of the services and their cooperation," Merkel told Obama.

In 2009, it was reported that Merkel had fitted her phone with an encryption chip to stop it being bugged. As many as 5,250 other ministers, advisers and important civil servants were supplied with similar state-of-the-art encryption technology. Merkel is known to be a keen mobile user and has been nicknamed "die Handy-Kanzlerin" ("Handy" being the German word for mobile phone).

When asked how he had communicated with Merkel during an EU summit in Brussels in 2008, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy said: "We call each other's mobiles and write text messages."

Katrin Goring-Eckhart, parliamentary leader of the Greens, said: "If these allegations turn out to be true, we are dealing with an incredible scandal and an unprecedented breach of trust between the two countries, for which there can be no justification."

On social media, a number of Germans mocked Merkel's change of tone over the NSA affair, given her previous reluctance to talk about the controversy. Jens König, a reporter for the news weekly Stern, tweeted that it was "the first time that Merkel is showing some proper passion during the NSA affair".

The European Commission has thrown its weight behind new European Parliament proposals for rules governing the transfer of data from Europe to America and demanded that the forthcoming summit finalise the new regime by next spring.


Germany summons US ambassador over claim NSA bugged Merkel's phone

Allegations that US spying has reached highest level of government met with outrage and disappointment in Germany

Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Thursday 24 October 2013 10.56 BST      

Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, has called the US ambassador to a personal meeting to discuss allegations that US secret services bugged Angela Merkel's mobile phone.

The decision to call in John B Emerson, who has only been the US representative in Berlin since mid-August, is an unusually drastic measure. During previous upheavals in relations, such as over the Syrian crisis, conversations have taken place between diplomats.

Allegations that the US government's spying had reached the highest level were met with outrage and disappointment in Germany on Thursday. The country's defence minister, Thomas de Maiziere, told ARD television that it would be "really bad" if the reports turned out to be true. Washington and Berlin could not return to "business as usual", he said.

Merkel was said by informed sources in Germany to be "livid" over the reports the NSA had bugged her phone and convinced, on the basis of a German intelligence investigation, that the reports were utterly substantiated.

The German news weekly, Der Spiegel, reported an investigation by German intelligence, prompted by research from the magazine, that produced plausible information that Merkel's mobile was targeted by the US eavesdropping agency. The German chancellor found the evidence substantial enough to call the White House and demand clarification.

The outrage in Berlin came days after President François Hollande of France also called the White House to confront Obama with reports that the NSA was targeting the private phone calls and text messages of millions of French people.

While European leaders have generally been keen to play down the impact of the whistleblowing disclosures in recent months, events in the EU's two biggest countries this week threatened an upward spiral of lack of trust in transatlantic relations.

On Wednesday Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, made plain that Merkel upbraided Obama unusually sharply and also voiced exasperation at the slowness of the Americans to respond to detailed questions on the NSA scandal since the Snowden revelations first appeared in the Guardian in June.

Merkel told Obama that "she unmistakably disapproves of and views as completely unacceptable such practices, if the indications are authenticated," Seifert said. "This would be a serious breach of confidence. Such practices have to be halted immediately."

The sharpness of the German complaint direct to an American president strongly suggested that Berlin had no doubt about the grounds for protest. Seibert voiced irritation that the Germans had waited for months for proper answers from Washington to Berlin on the NSA operations.

On Thursday Suddeütsche Zeitung conveyed a strong sense of the depth of disillusionment with the US president in Germany when it wrote that "Barack Obama is not a Nobel peace prize winner, he is a troublemaker".

In a comment piece in the German broadsheet, Robert Rossmann wrote that during his last visit to Germany, "the American president had flamboyantly promised more trusting collaboration between the countries. Even Merkel seems to have lost faith in that promise by now. One doesn't dare imagine how Obama's secret services deal with enemy states, when we see how they treat their closest allies."

Die Zeit wrote that Obama's "half-hearted denial" of the allegations raised more questions that it answered. "Was Merkel's mobile the target of NSA surveillance in the past? … It is time for Obama and the US Congress to be ruthlessly transparent about the macabre practices of the NSA and restrain them strongly. They promised it months ago, but until recently very little has happened. With each revelation trust is eroded further. If America wants to stop annoying its friends and allies, it only has one option. Get on the front foot and be open."

Criticism was not focused only on the US president, but has extended to the German chancellor, whose chief of staff had only recently declared the NSA scandal as "finished". Many feel Merkel had failed to react appropriately to the Snowden revelations, and was only stepping up the rhetoric now that she had been personally affected.

Germany's data protection commissioner, Peter Schaar, said that the reports showed "the absurdity of politicians trying to draw to a close the debate about surveillance of everyday communication here". He went as far to say that it had been irresponsible of politicians not to be more upfront in calling for the US to clear up the matter.

Anke Domscheit-Berg of the German Pirate party, told the Guardian: "In the past few months, Chancellor Merkel did very little to make the US government answer all those questions that should have had highest political priority. Now she gets a taste of what it feels like when foreign secret services spy on all your communication. We have stopped trusting empty promises and so should Angela Merkel. It is about time to get all dirty secrets on the table."

The debate in the coming days is likely to focus on how the allegations will affect new data protection regulation at the European level, with some MEPs calling for a Europe-only data cloud. In Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Georg Mascolo and Ben Scott warned of the creation of a "digital Maginot line" between Europe and the US, and instead called for a "no-spy treaty" between European countries.

"Storing data and surveillance would only be allowed for previously agreed goals – the fight against terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as grave acts of crime. All forms of political and economic espionage would be banned. The privacy of every EU citizen has be respected by each EU secret service as if they were their own".


Angela Merkel phone-bugging claims are result of Snowden leaks, MP claims

David Winnick says disclosure shows wisdom of decision to hold Commons debate on oversight of UK spying agencies

Nicholas Watt and Rowena Mason, Thursday 24 October 2013 12.45 BST      

The international debate prompted by the leaking of the NSA files by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden led to the disclosure that Angela Merkel's mobile telephone was allegedly monitored by the US, a Labour MP has claimed.

David Winnick, a member of the home affairs select committee, said the disclosure showed it was right for parliament to hold a debate on an "orchestrated campaign of intimidation" against the Guardian, which has published a series of articles about mass surveillance based on the leaked NSA files.

Shortly after Winnick spoke it was announced that parliament would hold a three-hour debate next week on the oversight of the UK's spying agencies.

The debate, which will be held in Westminster Hall, was granted after an application by Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP and civil liberties campaigner, Tom Watson, the Labour MP who investigated phone hacking, and Dominic Raab, the Tory MP who led a rebellion against the communications data bill, otherwise known as the "snooper's charter".

The debate will be held next Thursday afternoon and follows one led by Tory MP Julian Smith to highlight his call to the Metropolitan police to investigate whether the Guardian has broken the law.

The announcement of the debate came as the allegation that the US National Security Agency monitored Merkel's mobile phone threatened to overshadow a two-day European summit that opens in Brussels on Thursday afternoon.

François Hollande, the French president, who complained to the White House earlier this week when Le Monde reported that the NSA was targeting the private phone calls and text messages of millions of French people, is expected to discuss the latest surveillance allegations with Merkel in Brussels.

Downing Street indicated that David Cameron was unlikely to join Hollande in calling for the matter to be formally placed on the summit agenda. Asked whether the prime minister has received assurances from the US that his phone has not been bugged, the spokesman said: "I am not going to comment on matters of security or intelligence."

Asked whether Cameron had any views about the monitoring of Merkel's phone, the spokesman said: "Again, I am not going to comment. Same answer."

David Winnick said the allegations about the monitoring of Merkel's mobile telephone would not have been aired without the Snowden leaks.

Speaking during the weekly session of business questions in the Commons, Winnick said: "Would the leader [of the Commons] agree that if we had a debate in the chamber on the orchestrated campaign of intimidation against the Guardian newspaper, that would be an opportunity for some of us to point out that if it hadn't been for the Snowden disclosures the fact that the German chancellor's mobile phone had been monitored for some time by the US intelligence gathering would not have been known?

"Surely the message should be about Snowden, let's have more disclosures because undoubtedly what the Guardian is publishing is in the national interest."

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader of the Commons, said: "Clearly I don't agree with him in terms of what he says is an orchestrated campaign against the Guardian newspaper. I think clearly there is a need for the issues of public interest the Guardian wants to highlight to be balanced with any security implications of any material they put out into the public domain."


10/24/2013 01:17 PM

'Out of Hand': Europe Furious Over US Spying Allegations

The newest allegations of US spying have unleashed a torrent of criticism and concern in Europe. If suspicions unearthed by SPIEGEL that the US tapped Chancellor Merkel's cell phone turn out to be true, the ramifications for trans-Atlantic ties could be immense.

Leading politicians and media commentators in Germany expressed serious concern on Thursday following allegations that US intelligence agencies had tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone. Merkel's spokesman confirmed that she placed an angry call Wednesday night to United States President Barack Obama to discuss the suspicions, which arose from an inquiry by SPIEGEL.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle took the unusual step Thursday morning of summoning the US ambassador, John B. Emerson, who is set to meet with the minister in the afternoon. A source at the Foreign Ministry told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Thursday that Westerwelle will meet with the ambassador "in person."

Sharp criticism also came from German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière. "If what we are now hearing is true, that would be really bad," he told broadcaster ARD. "The Americans are and remain our closest friends, but this is completely unacceptable." De Maizière went on to say that he had assumed for years his own phone had been tapped. "However, I did not expect the Americans," he added. Asked about possible effects on US-German and US-European relations, de Maizière said: "We can't simply return to business as usual. There are allegations in France, too." Diplomatic relations between France and the US have been strained following reports that millions of French calls had been monitored by US intelligence agencies.

'Our Fears Have Been Confirmed'

"The allegation shows once again that our fears have been confirmed," said Thomas Oppermann, chairman of the Parliamentary Control Panel, which is responsible for monitoring Germany's federal intelligence services. "The NSA's monitoring activities have gotten completely out of hand and evidently take place beyond all democratic controls," continued the center-left Social Democrat, who called an emergency meeting of the Control Panel for 2 p.m. on Thursday.

German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has called for Merkel's government to suspend the SWIFT deal between the EU and US, which governs the transfer of some bank data from the EU to anti-terror authorities in the United States. "The new suspicion exceeds all bounds. The NSA affair is not over," she said, calling for EU bodies to "decide quickly" on the matter.

German media commentators also reacted angrily on Thursday. "A greater affront by a friendly country is hardly conceivable," wrote the prominent center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung in a front-page commentary that criticized Merkel's government for initially downplaying the US spying scandal. "But the new allegations also cast a new light on Obama and the US intelligence community. During his visit to Germany, the US president grandly promised a trustful cooperation. But even Merkel now seems to have lost her belief in that. It's hard to even imagine how Obama's intelligence services deal with hostile states when one sees how they behave toward their closest allies."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung cautioned readers that nothing had yet been proven regarding the chancellor's mobile phone, but it also emphasized the extent to which the US spying scandal has already damaged diplomatic relations. "As Obama's cool reaction shows, the government in Washington has apparently not yet understood the level of damage that continues to be caused by the activities of American intelligence agencies in Europe. They have diminished the trans-Atlantic relationship -- even to a major degree."

Outrage Ahead of EU Summit

Elsewhere in Europe, other editorialists also reacted with outrage to the latest spying allegations. Conservative Paris daily Le Figaro called the news "a warning shot in the direction of the US and a call for a resolute response from the EU. Europe is not discovering the NSA wiretapping scandal now. But with a personal accusation from Angela Merkel, the matter takes on a spectacular new scale."

Even if the cell-phone allegation turns out to be false, writes right-leaning Milan daily Corriere della Sera, "it doesn't change anything of the substance. ... The real central issue is that a threshold has already been crossed. No one can and must be indignant that a global power like the US has such an efficient information-gathering service. But, in the sensitive area of security, the monstrous possibilities offered by modern technologies oblige states to work alongside friendly and allied countries with the maximum degree of coordination, with respect to the limits and rules that should govern such activities."

"With each leak, American soft power hemorrhages, and hard power threatens to seep away with it," wrote Britain's left-wing Guardian newspaper on Wednesday evening. The commentary went on to question what it means "to be an American ally in the 21st century."

The revelations are likely to overshadow the other issues on the agenda at an EU summit due to take place Thursday afternoon in Brussels. The summit was originally meant to address Europe's economic recovery and immigration, as well as the EU's digital economy and innovation. Now, however, it's quite likely American spying in Europe will steal much of the spotlight.

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« Reply #9522 on: Oct 24, 2013, 06:33 AM »


Russian 'borderisation': barricades erected in Georgia, say EU monitors

Border construction work by Russian guards draws attention as Georgian presidential elections approach

Shaun Walker in Georgia, Wednesday 23 October 2013 14.46 BST      

Tina Bidzinashvili and her husband have harvested apples, quinces and peaches from the orchard behind their house since the perestroika years, when they were given it by the local collective farm in reward for hard work. But one morning recently, she woke up to find armed Russian border guards erecting a barbed wire barricade around one side of the orchard.

Her house might be in the Georgian village of Gugutiankari, the Russians explained to her, but her orchard is in the territory of South Ossetia, a small province that the international community believes is part of Georgia, but which since the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 is recognised as an independent country by Russia.

The wire is part of a process of "borderisation" by Russian border guards, during which EU monitors claim about 40km of fencing or barbed wire have been erected, augmented with hi-tech surveillance cameras mounted on poles. The fence follows a Soviet administrative boundary that was never previously applied in practice, and which runs through villages, and in some cases, through individual houses. For residents, it is the equivalent of a fence being erected to demarcate Kent and Sussex.

The process has received a sudden flurry of attention as Georgian presidential elections approach this Sunday. Locals say that the fence-building has been going on for months, but now with the vote approaching, being tough on Russia is important and politicians are rushing one after another to travel to the affected villages and show solidarity.

Georgian politicians say the border construction is one part of an increasingly provocative policy towards the country from Moscow, despite the victory in elections a year ago of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire oligarch who made his fortune in Russia and promised to improve Georgia's relations with its northern neighbour.

This year, exports of Georgian wine and mineral water, under trade embargo since 2006, were allowed back on to the Russian market. More than 10m bottles of wine have made their way across the border since the summer, according to Georgian data. An agreement appears forthcoming that would also allow citrus fruits back into Russia, which would provide a stimulus for Georgia's largely agrarian economy.

But the conciliatory noises from Tbilisi, and the gradual restoration of trade relations, has been overshadowed by the fence-building and by the Russian government's decision to invite a military pilot who bombed Georgia during the 2008 war to be one of its high-profile torch bearers in a 2014 Winter Olympics ceremony. There is public pressure in Georgia to boycott the Olympics, which take place in Sochi, just a few miles from the border with Abkhazia, another breakaway province of Georgia that Russia has recognised as an independent state.

"Taking part in the Olympics was a difficult decision for us, but we decided it was the right one," the Georgian government's point man for relations with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, said. "But these provocative actions make it difficult for us. If it continues in this way, it is possible that we will have to rethink."

A veteral political analyst, Alexander Rondeli, said the recent events proved president Mikheil Saakashvili, whose government sparked the 2008 war with Russia, was not entirely to blame for poor relations with Georgia's northern neighbour: "Ivanishvili did everything to please them and what is the result? Russia hasn't liked any of our presidents. For us, normalisation of relations means being good neighbours, for them, it means turning Georgia into a satellite."

Both sides of the border are militarised, even though the ceasefire agreement forbids it, which leads to fears that a small misunderstanding or scuffle could spark something much larger. On the Georgian side, heavily armed men in military fatigues keep guard at a camouflaged base built into the cemetery at Zemo-Nikozi, on the hills overlooking the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. The police labels attached to their military fatigues fool nobody. On the South Ossetian side, Russia has built 19 border guard bases. Technically not soldiers, the border guards are nevertheless heavily armed, and part of Russia's FSB security services.

An EU monitoring mission, set up under the ceasefire agreement that ended the war brokered by then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, patrols the borderline where Russia is erecting the fences. But the monitors have little real power. They are unarmed, and are not allowed to cross into the South Ossetian side. Instead, they make daily missions in their armoured Land Cruisers along the rutted dusty tracks on the Tbilisi-administered side of the fence, reporting back satellite co-ordinates of the new constructions. In some places the fence cuts off villages from neighbouring settlements they have visited for as long as anyone can remember,; in other places it cuts off families from the graves of their loved ones. In extreme cases, such as in Gugutiankari, it runs through individual houses.

"They told us that if we continue to farm our orchard, we'll be taken to Tskhinvali and put in prison," said Tina Bidzinashvili of the border guards, who put up the barbed wire fence that has cut off her orchard from her house. "They said the only option is if we enter South Ossetia through a legally recognised checkpoint."

The nearest checkpoint is miles away and difficult to cross. Getting to her own back garden would entail Bidzinashvili making a six-hour round trip each day. The house itself is uninhabitable – it was bombed during the war, and the family are living six to a room in the former local school, now a shelter for people who lost their homes. Their last hope was the orchard, and now that has gone too.

"We have worked hard all our lives," she said. "And now we live like pigs."


Greenpeace activists have piracy charges dropped by Russia

Protesters who were aboard Arctic Sunrise and have been held over a month now face far lesser charges of hooliganism

Staff and agencies, Wednesday 23 October 2013 18.03 BST   

Russia has dropped piracy charges against 30 people involved in a Greenpeace protest over Arctic oil drilling, replacing them with lesser charges, the Itar-Tass news agency reported on Wednesday, citing federal investigators.

Investigative committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said the charges against activists who protested at an oil platform last month had been changed from piracy, which carries a maximum jail sentence of 12 years, to hooliganism which has a lesser punishment, Itar-Tass reported.

The boat was seized by Russian coastguards last month as it approached the Prirazlomnaya oil rig, an offshore Arctic drilling platform operated by the state energy giant Gazprom.

President Pig Putin said it was "completely obvious" that the environmentalists were not pirates, but Russia's investigative committee went ahead with the charges.

The activists come from 18 different countries and include six Britons. Investigators also claim that they found drugs on board the ship and have hinted that new charges could be forthcoming.

All of the activists have been refused bail, despite bail securities being pledged, and the head of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, offering in an open letter to Pig Putin to come to Russia as a human bail guarantee ahead of trials.


Russians deny US spying allegations in Washington

Russian embassy says spy claims are 'echoes of cold war' as FBI reportedly investigates cultural exchange boss Yury Zaitsev

Associated Press in Moscow, Thursday 24 October 2013 09.48 BST   

A Washington-based Russian cultural exchange official suspected of spying has denied the allegations, a news agency has reported.

A source in Washington told AP that the FBI was investigating whether Yury Zaitsev, the head of a Russian government-run cultural exchange programme, tried to recruit young Americans as intelligence assets. The inquiry was first reported by the magazine Mother Jones.

Zaitsev dismissed the accusations as an attempt to hurt ties between Moscow and Washington. Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying: "It's a shame that echoes of the cold war are heard in Russian-American relations from time to time."

Evgeniy Khorishko, at the Russian embassy in Washington, also denied the claims, telling Itar-Tass that "such horror stories smack of cold war times".

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« Reply #9523 on: Oct 24, 2013, 06:36 AM »

Silvio Berlusconi faces trial for allegedly bribing senator

Former PM accused of bribing Sergio De Gregorio as part of attempt to bring down Romano Prodi's government in 2006

Reuters in Naples, Wednesday 23 October 2013 18.33 BST   

Silvio Berlusconi has been ordered to stand trial for corruption, in a fresh legal blow following his conviction for tax fraud in August and a string of other cases.

Prosecutors in Naples accuse the former prime minister of bribing Sergio De Gregorio, a former senator in the small Italy of Values party, to switch allegiance as part of an attempt to bring down the centre-left government of Romano Prodi in 2006.

De Gregorio, who has admitted receiving €3m from Berlusconi and attempting to persuade other senators to change sides, was sentenced to 20 months in jail after plea bargaining. His change of sides destabilised Prodi's government and contributed to its eventual collapse, but he has since turned against Berlusconi.

"This is a decision which substantially confirms what I told the Naples magistrates," De Gregorio told SkyTG24 television. "I have cleared my conscience as far as possible and apologised for what I did."

Berlusconi has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyer Michele Cerabona said he was confident of the outcome of a preliminary hearing expected on 11 February.

However, the case adds to a long list of legal headaches facing the billionaire media tycoon, who faces expulsion from parliament and a year of community service or house arrest after he was convicted of being at the centre of a vast tax fraud system at his Mediaset television empire.

His legal battles have caused serious tension in Enrico Letta's coalition government, an unwieldy alliance between the centre-left Democratic party and Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL).

Berlusconi and his supporters have consistently argued that politically biased magistrates have tried to destroy him, and there was a chorus of support from PDL MPs following news of the trial.

"The strategy of a certain section of the magistracy is clear as is its objective. Reform of the justice system is unavoidable," said Mara Carfagna, spokeswoman of the PDL group in the lower house of parliament.

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« Reply #9524 on: Oct 24, 2013, 06:37 AM »

Child taken from second Roma family in Ireland by police returned to parents

DNA samples taken from Athlone boy of two and his parents, while Dublin family await results of tests on girl of seven

Henry McDonald in Dublin, Wednesday 23 October 2013 14.57 BST   

Irish police who took a child away from a second Roma family overnight have since handed him back, it emerged on Wednesday.

The latest child was removed late on Tuesday night from a family living in Athlone, Co Westmeath, in the Irish Midlands.

DNA samples were taken from the child as well as the Roma couple who are the child's ostensible parents.

But Irish police officers then gave the two-year-old boy back to the family this morning. It is not clear if they did so following the results of any DNA tests.

This latest development comes as another Roma family living in west Dublin await the results of DNA tests that will determine whether a seven-year-old girl is their child or not.

The sisters of the child seized by gardai from the family home in the Irish capital on Monday insisted on Wednesday that they were confident she would be handed back to them.

They said that the family were sure DNA tests would prove she is their biological relative, but added they had been "traumatised" by the ordeal. The sisters said the family would fully co-operate with the DNA tests, the results of which could be known by the end of Wednesday.

The parents, who are in their 30s, maintain that their child was born in Dublin in 2006. It is understood that the family have been in Ireland for more than seven years.

They live in a quiet suburban street with neatly kept gardens and a mixture of privately owned and rented terraces and semi-detached houses. The family home is not far from the commercial centre of Tallaght, a local hospital and the Luas tram line, which runs from there into the heart of Dublin.

The girl at the centre of the original controversy is believed to be aged about seven and was seized from the family home on Monday afternoon. However, details of the garda operation were not disclosed until Tuesday.

She is currently in the care of Ireland's Health Service Executive under section 12 of the Republic's Child Care Act.

Her parents told gardai that it was their child but officers who visited the house were not satisfied with the documentation the couple produced to prove this.

The child was removed from the family because her features – blonde hair and blue eyes – were so different from the other children in the home.

It also emerged today that the family home of the girl taken away from a Roma family in Tallaght has been targeted for attacks in the recent past.

CCTV and clear plastic have been fitted to the front of the house, with members of the family confirming that their home has been attacked. The protective glass has been bolted on to the front window and door. However, the attacks are understood to have taken place at the house before the child at the heart of the controversy was put into care.

Meanwhile, the executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre expressed concern this morning about the way the incident in west Dublin was being reported, as well as the portrayal of Roma in general since the incident in Greece when a child, known as Maria, was seized from another family last week.

Dezideriu Gergely told RTÉ's Morning Ireland programme: "The concern related to these cases is that if these cases are not discussed from all angles possible, there's this, if I can say, trap to fall into, basically labelling the whole community for being responsible for something which needs to be looked at from an individual point of view and responsibility point of view."

The centre's concern over the portrayal of the Roma community followed warnings yesterday from the Pavee Point human rights group in Dublin that racist groups might exploit both cases.

Aisling Twomey, a spokeswoman for the Dublin-based Roma and Irish Traveller rights group, said: "This specific case could be used as a means to target the Roma community when the reality is that they are one of the most marginalised communities, not just in Ireland, but worldwide.

"In this particular case, the welfare of the child must be foremost in everyone's mind and correct procedures will doubtless be applied to ensure this child's safety and welfare is paramount. Right now, that should be the concern."

There are about 5,000 Roma immigrants in Ireland, with the majority of them living in Dublin. The European commission has criticised the Republic for failing to integrate the Roma fully into Irish society. However, across Ireland Roma have faced far more overt hostility north of the border. In June 2009 up to 110 Roma immigrants including young children were driven out of their homes in south Belfast following a prolonged campaign of intimidation by racists from the nearby loyalist Village district of the city.

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