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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1083552 times)
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« Reply #9945 on: Nov 12, 2013, 08:29 AM »

November 11, 2013

Mauritania Confronts Long Legacy of Slavery


BOUTILIMIT, Mauritania — The protesters gathered in front of the low-slung police station, yelling “No to Slavery” and “Freedom.” They had come from across the country to demand the arrest of a family accused of holding a slave since childhood, but they elicited little more than dispassionate stares from the police officers sitting silently before them. The subprefect of the district went to take a nap in the afternoon heat.

This year, the government gingerly acknowledged that an age-old scourge still haunted this nation, creating a new agency to wipe out the “vestiges of slavery” here. In a nation where the authorities have long denied the persistence of the problem, the willingness to emblazon the word “slavery” on a government agency — with a gleaming sign announcing it on a prominent street in the capital, no less — was a significant turning point and a step in the right direction, experts say.

But to the Mauritanian activists who have pressed for action for years, sometimes at their own peril, the change is an ambiguous one: Is the government really committed to ending the centuries-old practice? Or is it trying to project a newfound resolve that it does not truly have?

“Vestiges, they are talking about ‘vestiges,’ when people are still in chains,” said Balla Touré, a member of the Initiative for the Resurgence of Abolitionism, an antislavery group here, dismissing the new agency as “nothing but smoke and mirrors.”

Slavery has been abolished in Mauritania for decades, and the director of the new government agency — called “The National Solidarity Agency for the Fight Against the Vestiges of Slavery, for Integration, and for the Fight Against Poverty” — says that no instances of the practice have turned up since he started work in April.

“The government has not been fully engaged with this matter since independence,” said the director, Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, vowing to do better. Still, in the months he has run the antislavery agency, he insists, “We have not found any cases of constraint.”

By some measures, this West African nation has the highest prevalence of slavery in the world, with estimates that as many as 140,000 or more of the nation’s 3.8 million people are enslaved, primarily by “masters who exercise total ownership over them and their descendants,” according to the 2013 Global Slavery Index, which tracks the phenomenon around the globe.

“Objectively speaking, they are slaves,” Zekeria Denn, an expert at the University of Nouakchott, said of Mauritania’s intricate web of servile relationships. He pointed out that master-slave dynamics varied widely in Mauritania, but that often the most pressing element of coercion was extreme poverty or a belief that Islam forbids breaking out of bondage.

In the sandy courtyard of an activist’s compound in Nouakchott, the capital, young women and men quietly spoke of being beaten and forced to work menial tasks from childhood in the households of lighter-skinned elites — often a mixture of Berber and Arab people locally called the Moors — for no pay.

“I was born in slavery,” said Said Ould Ali, a rail-thin teenager of 15. “I grew up in the Moor family in which my mother was born, and my grandmother.”

M’Barka Mint Essetim said she was taken from her mother by a Moorish woman at the age of 5, at first merely to fetch things from the store. As she grew up in the household of “a very high, well-connected family” in the capital, she said, her duties expanded: taking the goats into the bush, fetching wood, sweeping, cooking.

“This was a miserable life,” said Ms. M’Barka, now about 25.

The activist hosting her, Biram Dah Abeid, himself the son of a slave, added that Ms. M’Barka was first raped at 9 and had her first child by her Moorish master at 14. The man’s son also raped her, Ms. M’Barka said as her 11-year-old daughter, unacknowledged by her former master, sat next to her under the tent.

For years, the government dominated by Arabs, white Moors as they are known here, refused to admit that slavery persisted in Mauritania — that thousands of its black citizens, often women, were still forced to work as domestic servants, as camel and goat herders, from early childhood, in the same families that mothers and grandmothers had worked in. In 2007, a law criminalizing slavery was passed. But three years later, nobody had been prosecuted under it, according to a 2010 report by a United Nations investigator.

Then, the antislavery movement in Mauritania took a radical turn, forcing the issue more into the open. Last year, Mr. Dah Abeid publicly burned venerated Islamic legal texts that justified slavery. His actions provoked furious mobs demanding vengeance, fatwas against him and swift retribution — imprisonment and a raid on his house — from the authorities in a Muslim country where Shariah law reigns.

Nonetheless, Mr. Dah Abeid’s actions increased pressure on the government to act, activists and observers say.

“We were making a lot of noise,” Mr. Touré said. “We were mobilizing the haratins,” he said, using the term for freed slaves.

But even with the new agency, antislavery activists say, punishment has been minimal or nonexistent in many of the cases they bring to light. Often, they say, family members accused of holding slaves are quickly released or not troubled at all by Mauritanian authorities.

The protesters gathering in front of the police station in Boutilimit, about 125 miles southeast of Nouakchott, said that a local family had held, and sometimes beaten, an 18-year-old girl, Noura Mint Mourada, since the age of 4. Her mother had worked in the same family, they said.

“The lady said, ‘A slave doesn’t reply, it only obeys,’ ” recalled Noura in a separate interview.

The authorities briefly detained several members of the family accused of enslaving Noura, but the prosecutor then released them, saying there was no evidence of a crime, activists said. As the protests continued for weeks, activists said that demonstrators were arrested and beaten.

The man accused of being Ms. M’Barka’s former master and attacker, known among local residents as Brahim, remains undisturbed by the authorities. A prosperous store owner in Nouakchott — his store occupies a city block — his family reacted uneasily when asked about the young woman’s relationship to him.

“He doesn’t have slaves,” said a teenage girl who came to the door of their sprawling whitewashed compound on a tree-lined street in the capital’s most fashionable neighborhood. She said her father was away in their fields. “She wasn’t the slave of Mr. Brahim,” the girl said. “M’Barka is not a slave.”

She gave a short laugh: “Slavery is something from the past.”

M’Barka and the antislavery activists who have helped her said she escaped the household when she was allowed to visit her sick mother one day, and simply did not go back. Later, she married the family’s chauffeur, and now lives with him in a rudimentary, leaky wooden shack at the capital’s desolate outskirts. The chauffeur said the authorities had swept aside his wife’s accusations, because of the former master’s connections.

“I live in peace now,” Ms. M’Barka said. “Nobody beats me now.”

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« Reply #9946 on: Nov 12, 2013, 08:31 AM »

Sinosphere - Dispatches From China
November 12, 2013, 2:11 am

Israel Increasingly Courting China as an Ally


As an Israeli diplomat, Dore Gold has sat down with his country’s prime ministers, United States presidents and Palestinian negotiators, all in search of that elusive solution to the Middle East conflict.

But the shifting tides of geopolitical power brought Mr. Gold to China this month, where he found himself hosting a Sabbath dinner with guests not traditionally invited to this Jewish gathering: Chinese officials.

That Mr. Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, was in Beijing explaining the Hebrew prayer for wine and the need for defensible borders to Chinese military brass reflects a growing desire by Jerusalem to bring a rising China over to Israel’s side of the negotiating table on Iran and the Palestinians.

While not an official visit, as Mr. Gold now serves as president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank, he has the ear of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was joined in Beijing by retired Gen. Uzi Dayan, a former deputy chief of staff for the Israel Defense Forces and a former national security adviser. Together they spent several days meeting with Chinese military officers, becoming the first Israelis to speak at the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

“We came to Beijing to talk about diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli conflict, that was breaking new ground,” Mr. Gold said in an interview.

Much of the groundwork for the visit has been laid by Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership, an organization based in Israel that organizes academic exchanges between the two countries.

To present their case on issues like the threat of a nuclear Iran, Syria and the Palestinians, the Israelis came prepared with materials translated into Chinese, vital for an audience largely unfamiliar with the details of Israel’s security requirements. That meant framing the situation in ways the Chinese could understand, like a map of 263-mile-long Israel juxtaposed on a map of China. “Because they live in this big country they need to perceive our reality,” Mr. Gold said.

This push comes at a time when Chinese-Israeli relations are ripe for renewal. Even before the two nations established formal diplomatic ties in 1992, Israel was giving China access to its most lucrative industry: weapons. Israel soon became China’s second-largest arms supplier, but relations collapsed in 2000 when the United States forced Israel to cancel a billion dollar sale to China of its Phalcon early warning aircraft systems. A few years later, Israel agreed to American demands to cease selling arms to China.

Despite a frost in diplomatic ties that lasted several years, Israel and China have found new opportunities for cooperation. In October, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology received a $130 million grant from the foundation of the Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing to build a research institute in southern China. The grant is the largest in the Technion’s history and comes four months after Prime Minister Netanyahu met with the Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang, to sign a series of trade and cultural agreements. These included the establishment of joint research and developments teams focused on renewable energy and water technology.

“Our two peoples are two ancient peoples with a glorious past, a difficult in-between period, and then soaring into the future,” Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Li.

In pursuing warmer ties with China, Israel hopes to leverage its skills in high-technology and agricultural innovation to win the political support of the Chinese government, which has signaled it wants to play a greater diplomatic role in the region. For Israel, China’s willingness to do business without attaching conditions related to human rights looks particularly attractive in the face of growing Western frustrations with the Netanyahu government’s policies in the occupied territories.

Nowhere are these frustrations higher than in the European Union, which in July prohibited the distribution of its funds from going to Israeli institutions that operate in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The policy, which has infuriated Jerusalem, threatens to undermine Israeli involvement in Horizon 2020, a European scientific research and development program. Israel was the only non-European country invited to participate.

“All of a sudden we have this fly in the ointment,” Mr. Gold said. “So now we hear people in Israel saying, ‘The hell with Europe. Let’s go to China and India.’ ”

But those hopes are complicated by Iran, the third-largest supplier of crude oil to China. The two nations have a bilateral trade volume of over $40 billion, compared to around $8 billion between China and Israel. In early November, China agreed to finance $20 billion in Iranian development projects. Jerusalem fears the deal will blunt the edge of international sanctions used to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear program.

Faced with limited influence over Beijing’s relationship with Iran, Israel is trying to forge common ground with China where it can, such as building on shared strategic interests. Just as the Jewish state lays claim to modern territory based on ancient dominion, China cites history to assert sovereignty over Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and much of the South China Sea. “The issue of historical rights really caught their attention,” Mr. Gold said.

But common interests only go so far in a world dominated by a Chinese-American rivalry. Mr. Gold said he was reminded of that tension in one meeting when a Chinese official asked “Who is Israel with, the United States or us?”

“I was very clear in my discussions with the Chinese that the United States and Israel are allies,” he said. “But nothing in international affairs says you can only be friendly with one state.”

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« Reply #9947 on: Nov 12, 2013, 08:34 AM »

Venezuela troops patrol shops to keep rising prices under control

President Nicolás Maduro warns profiteering retailers, enforces heavy discounts, and encourages shoppers to empty stores

Jonathan Watts and Virginia López in Caracas, Monday 11 November 2013 18.49 GMT   

Men carry away their newly purchased TV outside a shop in Caracas. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro military occupation of a chain of electrical appliances accused of illegaly raising prices of goods.

The Venezuelan authorities have called in the army in an attempt to shore up the economy, deploying troops in shops to rein in rising prices in a country where shortages are rife and inflation has soared to around 50%.

Soldiers have been sent into stores run by the country's largest electronic retailer, and the president, Nicolás Maduro, warned that his policy to stem rising prices would extend to shops selling shoes, clothes and other goods.

"We can't just close the businesses; the owners have to go to jail," Maduro said in a televised speech.

The military-enforced, pre-Christmas discounts have attracted long lines of shoppers, some of whom have camped overnight to get bargains on computers, plasma TVs and other goods.

But the intervention has raised fresh concerns about an economy that is plagued by inflation running at about 50% per year, a black market that trades dollars at nine times the official rate, and shortages of food, medical supplies and other necessities.

Maduro, who took over from Hugo Chávez in April, says his country is fighting an "economic war" against the opposition, the CIA and other enemies who are trying to destabilise Venezuela.

Underscoring the mood of paranoia, Venezuelan authorities detained US journalist Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald for two nights after he tried to cover a border area notorious for illegal currency transactions and food smuggling. He was released on Saturday.

Facing municipal elections on 8 December, the president appears to be attempting to assert his authority by launching initiatives with the boldness – and occasional eccentricity - of Chávez. He has announced the creation of a ministry of supreme social happiness and stepped up controls on so-called profiteers.

His latest target has been three electronic chain stores: Daka, a retail chain similar to Best Buy or Currys, alonside JVG and Mundo Samira both of which sell household appliances.

All are accused of excessive profiteering. Although the government says it granted Daka a preferential exchange rate of 6.3 bolívars to the dollar to import goods, the company's shops allegedly sold the commodities at a similar rate to retailers who have to rely on higher black market rate.

Maduro said the retailer was guilty of theft and encouraged shoppers to empty its stores. Five shop managers were arrested.

"This is for the good of the nation," he said. "Leave nothing on the shelves, nothing in the warehouses … Let nothing remain in stock!"

Following his call, YouTube clips posted on Saturday showed people looting a Daka store in Valencia.

The military have moved to restore order and ensure that shops keep prices low.

At the JVG store in the Los Caminos neighbourhood of Caracas on Monday, people queued up for three blocks to snap up goods. The items were marked down by up to 60% under the supervision of about a dozen national guards in olive green uniforms with assault rifles.

The troops took the names of those waiting and let them in the store 10 at a time. One man, who gave the name Joel Morón, said he has been in the line since Saturday.

"Importers have been indiscriminately raísing prices. I wanted to buy a refrigerator for my mum. Before it cost 50,000 bolívars. Today I was told it cost 16,000," he said. "We had given up. We thought prices would continue to hike. These measures make me recover my dignity."

As a washer-dryer was wheeled out of the storeroom for a buyer, the crowd of consumers chanted, "Sí se puede!" ("Yes we can!").

Not everyone was happy. An importer, Iván Pérez, was at the shop to collect merchandise he had bought before the prices were marked down.

"Everything here works like the rest of the country – like crap," said Pérez. "This is evidently a political move, but I think it's actually just dividing society more; some will be happy, but others understand it damages us and the economy. This will increase scarcity."

The president of the private enterprise chamber Fedecamaras has admitted some cases of overpricing in the retail industry.

Although Venezuela is one of the world's biggest oil exporters, other industries are suffering as a result of price controls, government mismanagement and land appropriations. Shortages of staples have become apparent through the year, and power cuts are frequent.

At least one trade partner is experiencing delays in payments. Uruguay's president José Pepe Mujica is reportedly scheduled to meet Maduro early this week to try to resolve the late reimbursement for beef chicken and other goods his country provided.

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« Reply #9948 on: Nov 12, 2013, 08:36 AM »

November 11, 2013

Ocean Drones Plumb New Depths


ATLANTIC CITY — Five miles offshore from the Golden Nugget casino, Michael F. Crowley, a marine scientist at Rutgers University, heaves three lifeboat-yellow drones off the back of his research vessel.

The gliders, as he calls them, are winged and propellerless, like miniature Tomahawk missiles. Two are on loan from the Navy, and one, Rutgers’s own, is pockmarked from a past shark attack. As they slink into the Atlantic to begin a monthlong mission, they join a fleet of 12 others across the Eastern Seaboard, from Nova Scotia to Georgia.

These drones are the centerpiece of “Gliderpalooza,” a collaborative ocean-survey experiment coordinated by 16 American and Canadian government agencies and research teams. By pooling their resources, including satellites, radar stations, research buoys and the gliders, the teams hope to capture the most complete picture yet of the Atlantic’s many mysterious underwater movements — from deepwater currents to migrating fish.

Ocean researchers are also planning to deploy gliders in the Western Pacific to help forecast storms like Typhoon Haiyan. While a typhoon’s path is largely influenced by atmospheric changes, gliders can help predict a storm’s intensity, which is affected by ocean temperatures.

“If we can better predict the intensity, we can better predict the human impact,” said Scott M. Glenn, an oceanographer at Rutgers, “and that’s critical, especially in Asia, where so many people die when these typhoons make landfall.”

The mid-Atlantic experiment heralds a new direction in ocean research. Despite a network of ocean-observing satellites and several projects that have seeded the seas with data-logging buoys, the sheer size and complexity of the oceans still mask much of what goes on underwater. At a time when forecasts of storms, currents and the effects of climate change have never been needed more, the researchers hope their flotilla of gliders will provide a new perspective.

“We have satellites that give us wonderful maps of the ocean at the surface,” said Dr. Glenn, the leader of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Association for Coastal Ocean Observing Systems, one of the 16 research groups involved in the project. (It goes by the acronym Maracoos.) “But the ocean is 3D, and we want to explore what’s going on beneath the waves.”

The battery-powered gliders continually dive in long swooping curves, taking snapshots of the ocean’s temperature, currents and other features at a range of depths. They reach a maximum depth of roughly 650 feet, though they can be configured to go deeper; that is relatively shallow for most of the ocean, but more than deep enough for continental shelves, which are on average 460 feet below sea level and can extend from a few thousand feet to hundreds of miles offshore.

Each glider costs $125,000 to $150,000, depending on instrumentation, a bargain compared with traditional methods. “A research vessel can cost anywhere from $35,000 to almost $100,000 per day,” said Oscar M. Schofield, an ocean scientist at Rutgers who is leading the experiment. “If you were to try to do this same experiment with ships, it would cost on the order of millions to tens of millions of dollars.”

While each of the 15 gliders has its own mission, the data they collect is being combined at Rutgers to investigate much larger questions. “We know that our ocean has changed quite a bit over the last 20 years,” Dr. Schofield said, “but we have so little data, it’s hard to even start unraveling what the drivers of that change are.”

Perhaps the most pressing question is the shape and movement of the seasonal “cold pool,” a poorly understood body of water that rests at the bottom of the Northeast Continental Shelf.

Researchers and fishermen have known for almost a century that while the coastal Atlantic warms in spring and summer, an enormous stretch of water stays abnormally frigid, trapped at the bottom. This cold pool stretches almost the length of the continental shelf, in a shifting band from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras.

As fall returns and the surface of the Atlantic starts to chill, the cold pool will either slowly homogenize with the cooling surface waters or mix together rapidly as storms move over the ocean. But much is still largely unknown.

“The cold pool affects lots of migratory fish,” which follow the cooler waters, Dr. Schofield said. “But it’s also important for informing storm forecasting, because the ocean’s temperature is essentially the fuel tank for storms.”

In August 2011, when Hurricane Irene moved over the cold pool, “the hurricane mixed the warm water at the top of the ocean and the cold pool at the bottom, which extinguished the intensity of that storm,” Dr. Glenn said. He added that one reason Hurricane Sandy struck so fiercely in 2012 may have been that the storm traversed the sea after the cold pool had already equalized with the ocean’s surface temperature, “and so that mixing, that fire extinguisher, wasn’t there.”

Ocean drones have been used around the world for a decade, often to survey conditions too dangerous for humans.

“But this represents an important step in the maturation of the technology,” said Timothy J. Cowles, a researcher with the Ocean Observatories Initiative, who is not involved with Gliderpalooza. “It’s one thing to have a single glider making its own measurements, but it’s quite another thing to have an entire fleet of gliders coordinated between various research groups.”

Though the gliders swim at a snail’s pace, a little over one mile an hour, their mobility grants the researchers an unprecedented capacity to adapt their experiments, said Joshua T. Kohut, a Rutgers oceanographer with the Maracoos research team.

“Every two to three hours they come to the surface, which gives us an opportunity to provide new instructions,” he said. “If we see the cold pool has shifted or something has moved, we can respond to that.”

There are several models of submersible research drones on the market, but the Gliderpalooza fleet consists of propellerless Slocum Gliders, designed by the Teledyne Webb Research Corporation. They move by adjusting their buoyancy — taking on and expelling small amounts of water to rise and fall in the ocean. Two wings transform this up-and-down movement into forward momentum, propelling the robot in a continuous chain of swoops.

The Navy, the largest user of underwater drones, has 65 gliders helping forecast ocean weather worldwide through the Naval Oceanographic Office, including the two on loan for Gliderpalooza.

“Participating in this experiment gives us the opportunity to evaluate the quality of our own ocean models and to share the lessons we’ve learned,” said Kenneth P. Grembowicz, the oceanographic director at the office.

Many of the research teams are already planning new, collective experiments for their gliders. Of the two glider missions on track for next year, one will study and forecast storms on the East Coast, while another will take Gliderpalooza’s multi-institution approach and apply it on a global scale. “These are an infinite number of ways we can explore the ocean that we couldn’t before,” Dr. Glenn said. “This is opening up whole new horizons.”

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« Reply #9949 on: Nov 12, 2013, 09:08 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

November 11, 2013

Problems With Federal Health Portal Also Stymie Medicaid Enrollment


WASHINGTON — Problems with the federal health insurance website have prevented tens of thousands of low-income people from signing up for Medicaid even though they are eligible, federal and state officials say, undermining one of the chief goals of the 2010 health care law.

The website,, is primarily seen as a place to buy private insurance with federal subsidies, but it is also a gateway to Medicaid, which generally provides more benefits at less cost to consumers.

That door has been closed for the last six weeks, with the federal government unable to transfer its files to state Medicaid programs as it is supposed to do.

The delays are affecting people in 36 states that rely on the federal exchange, regardless of whether those states are expanding eligibility for Medicaid as authorized by the health care law. About half of all states have chosen to do so.

Obama administration officials once envisioned a seamless application process in which consumers would use a single form to apply for Medicaid, tax credits and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and most eligibility decisions would be made instantaneously. Under rules issued last year by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, an exchange must transfer information to Medicaid “promptly and without undue delay,” using a “secure electronic interface.”

The administration is not meeting its own standards.

Marilyn B. Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who oversaw the creation of the troubled federal website, said she decided in September to delay the Medicaid transfers so technicians could “spend more time concentrating on the application process” and other priorities.

The White House has not released enrollment data, but some states running their own exchanges, like Kentucky, Minnesota and Washington, say more people have signed up for Medicaid than for private insurance.

The Obama administration has adopted what it calls a “no wrong door” policy: If a person files an application with the exchange for private insurance but appears to be eligible for Medicaid, the exchange will automatically transfer the full application to the state Medicaid agency, and vice versa.

“We have not seen much progress on the flow of data from the federal marketplace to the state,” said Monica H. Coury, assistant director of the Medicaid program in Arizona. “After a person is assessed as potentially eligible for Medicaid, the application just sits there in the federal marketplace. If you need insurance because you have a serious medical condition, that delay could be harmful.”

People going to an exchange do not necessarily know if they are eligible for Medicaid or for tax credits to subsidize the purchase of private insurance on the exchange. Ms. Sebelius has said repeatedly that “the marketplace will provide consumers and small businesses one-stop shopping for health insurance.”

In fact, many consumers will need to make more than one stop. If the exchange finds them potentially eligible for Medicaid, it may be faster for them to file separate applications with a state Medicaid office than to wait for the federal government to transfer their files to the state.

Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, a Republican, said the delay was “further evidence that Obamacare is not ready for implementation.”

Matt D. Salo, the executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, which represents state officials, said, “This is not a catastrophe, but it sends a confusing message to consumers.”

“You go to and spend 45 minutes or more to set up an account,” Mr. Salo said. “Then you’re told that you’re eligible for Medicaid but can’t get it. You have to start all over again with the state Medicaid agency.”

Some people seeking insurance on the exchanges are already eligible for Medicaid but are not enrolled. They may be shopping for insurance because they have heard about the exchanges through news reports or because they are aware of the requirement that most Americans carry insurance starting next year.

Coverage through the exchanges begins on Jan. 1, but people eligible for Medicaid under current rules could get coverage now if the federal government transferred their applications to state Medicaid programs.

State officials predict that millions of people will apply and be found eligible for Medicaid under existing rules. Some call this a “coming out of the woodwork” effect; others call it the welcome-mat effect of the health care law.

The number of new Medicaid beneficiaries has financial implications for states, which administer Medicaid and share the costs.

For newly eligible beneficiaries, the federal government will pay the full cost of benefits from 2014 to 2016. States will then begin to pay a share, rising gradually to 10 percent in 2020, and the federal government will pay the remaining 90 percent.

However, for those who are already eligible, states will pay their customary share, ranging from 27 percent to 50 percent of costs.

In Ohio, Greg Moody, director of the governor’s Office of Health Transformation, said that the state had begun using a new online Medicaid eligibility system on Oct. 1 to coincide with the opening of the federal website. But, he said, the federal exchange cannot send application files to or accept them from the state.

“This has caused some measure of frustration,” Mr. Moody said. “Our system is ready and waiting to accomplish those transfers when the federal system is ready.”

Stephanie A. Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said the transfers were supposed to start on Oct. 1. “That date slipped to Nov. 1 because of all the technical glitches” with the federal exchange, she said, and state officials believe it may be postponed again to Jan. 1.

In addition, Ms. Goodman said, the federal exchange has not tested its links to the state, so “we do not know if we will get the information we need” to determine eligibility.

Kelly Gunderson, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Medicaid program, said: “We are not getting files from the federal government. Those handoffs are just not occurring.”

Senator Kay Hagan, Democrat of North Carolina, who is up for re-election next year, drafted a letter on Monday to the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department calling for thorough investigations of the website’s opening.


November 11, 2013

Official at Health Site Says He Didn’t Know of Potential Risk


WASHINGTON — The chief digital architect for the federal health insurance marketplace has told congressional investigators that he was not aware of tests that indicated potential security flaws in the system, which opened to the public on Oct. 1.

The official, Henry Chao, made the statement Nov. 1 to investigators for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Representative Darrell Issa of California.

Mr. Issa, a Republican and a fierce critic of the 2010 health care law, released excerpts from the interview late Monday. Mr. Chao and other administration officials are scheduled to testify Wednesday at a committee hearing on technical problems with the website,, that have frustrated millions of Americans trying to use it.

In the interview, Mr. Chao said he had not seen a Sept. 3 memorandum describing potential security risks in the online insurance marketplace. The memo, from Tony Trenkle, the chief information officer at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, noted six security problems, two of which were described as posing high risks.

Mr. Chao, the deputy chief information officer at the Medicare agency, said he was surprised he had not been informed of the findings, based on tests by the Mitre Corporation, a contractor responsible for assessing the website’s security controls. The controls help prevent unauthorized access and identity theft.

On Sept. 27, Mr. Chao and another official sent a memo to the head of the agency recommending that the website go live on Oct. 1, even though security testing was “only partly completed.” At that time, he said, he was not aware of the test findings that indicated possible risks to security.

In the interview, Mr. Chao said that government documents and his recollection suggested “a failure to communicate” within the agency, and that it was “disturbing” that he had not been told of the potential security risks.

“I’m surprised,” he said when he was shown the Sept. 3 memo.

The White House had no immediate comment. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, has told Congress that consumers need not worry about the security of their personal information because the government runs continual security scans on the site.

Jennifer Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Democrats on the oversight committee, said Mr. Issa’s staff had “basically sandbagged this witness with a document he had never seen before” and then tried to scare the public by exaggerating its significance.


November 11, 2013

Insurers Press for Way Around


Some major health insurers are so worried about the Obama administration’s ability to fix its troubled health care website that they are pushing the government to create a shortcut that would allow them to enroll people entitled to subsidies directly rather than through the federal system.

The idea is only one of several being discussed in a frantic effort to find a way around the technological problems that teams of experts are urgently trying to resolve.

So far, the administration has resisted the idea, partly because of concerns about giving insurance companies access to personal data. People familiar with the matter said no such modifications are planned, and even some insurers are not holding out much hope.

But senior White House officials said the administration was open to ways in which insurers could handle more enrollments and had stepped up efforts to make that possible because of the technical problems with the site.

“It was something we were always doing,” one official said, but it is “of additional value now.”

In a statement, Chris Jennings, a senior health care adviser to President Obama, said the administration was “continuing to pursue additional avenues by which people can enroll, such as direct enrollment through insurance companies, that will help meet pent-up demand.”

In proposing the idea, the insurers said a bypass giving them direct access to the federal platform that determines a consumer’s eligibility for a subsidy would alleviate the traffic on the website,, and provide more breathing room to fix complicated technical problems that threaten to persist beyond a crucial, self-imposed Dec. 1 deadline.

But even if such a shortcut could be designed, federal officials are concerned about protecting personal data, such as confidential financial and tax information and immigration status. The security and privacy issues are likely to overshadow any possible compromise, according to people briefed on the discussions.

A more likely solution is for consumers to be able to work directly with an insurer to estimate their qualifications for a subsidy, leaving federal verification to a later date, some insurers said. Insurance executives declined to speak on the record because of company policies and concerns about alienating political officials.

Time is running out. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, has promised to have the website’s technical problems largely solved by the end of the month. But inside the White House, there is increasing anxiety that the troubled rollout of the health care site could imperil the remainder of Mr. Obama’s presidency.

Aside from the direct enrollment option, insurers and federal officials are examining other ways in the coming weeks to sign up the millions of Americans looking for health insurance. However, none of the options represent a quick fix. One idea being considered would allow people to enroll before the paperwork is completed. At the extreme, despite strong resistance from the insurance industry, there is even talk of extending the deadline for obtaining insurance on the exchanges by months.

Consumers must now enroll by Dec. 15 for insurance coverage that would begin Jan. 1. The open enrollment period is to end on March 31. The main stumbling block for some consumers is the need to determine their eligibility for subsidies, and the amount. Insurance companies can now only estimate the amount for them. It is up the government to verify eligibility, using personal financial information from tax returns and the like.

“The question is, can they create a separate direct pathway so consumers can get that information on their subsidies?” asked one industry official. “If they don’t have Healthcare?.gov up and running by the end of the month, direct enrollment is critical.”

The other option, allowing consumers to obtain their own estimates, seems more palatable. It is unclear whether that proposal is possible. Insurers are worried that they will have offered coverage to individuals whose actual subsidies are less than they have estimated, potentially leaving the insurers or the people themselves financially exposed.

“I think there are potential work-arounds,” said an executive of a major insurer. “I think we have some leeway here so long as people are not in a situation where individuals have to pay significantly more than expected or plans end up in a position with cash-flow issues.”

Insurers are opposed to the idea of extending the enrollment period. They say it encourages people to wait to sign up, particularly the young and the healthy, an age group that insurers need to balance the cost of insuring people with expensive health conditions. They are also worried about the effect of the delay on their ability to price plans for 2015.

By all accounts, the administration is making an enormous effort to rescue the website. The appointment of Quality Software Services late last month as the project’s general contractor has established a sense of order amid chaos. Henry Chao, the technology official from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, who had managed the project since its infancy, has been sidelined, people involved in the effort said.

Specialists say software engineers now have a clear set of priorities and are steadily crossing items off a three-tier list for repairs. On Friday, Jeffrey D. Zients, the administration’s point man on fixing, said “a couple dozen” high-priority fixes would be made over the weekend. He repeatedly declined to say how many critical fixes had been identified, saying the list continually changes.

“We are making progress across those priority items, and the site is getting better each week, and will be at the standard that we set for the end of the month,” Mr. Zients said.

Specialists said that most of the effort so far had been focused on eliminating the delays and timeouts that have so frustrated consumers trying to shop for and enroll in plans. More challenging, one person said, are the repairs to the more complex, invisible part of the system that draws information from various federal and state databases into a central base to determine eligibility and subsidies and confirms enrollment data.

The technological effort cited by the White House, that person said, is actually a swell of software engineers. Red Hat, which makes Linux operating systems, and the database giant Oracle, already had sent specialists to help out.

Quality Software has assigned one senior engineer, from Google, to edit website software fixes, he said.

Some software engineers on the job have been replaced simply because they were too burned out to continue the late-night schedule. “A lot of the stuff people are doing now is going through the checklists they should have gone through before Oct. 1,” one specialist said.

On the two floors at an office building in suburban Virginia, visible evidence of President Obama’s promised new “tech surge” is slight. About 350 employees are hunkered over their computers — roughly 70 more than last month — trying to repair

Several White House technology fellows, young enough to be mistaken by some as students, have taken over one office. Another change, said one person closely involved in the repair effort: “A lot of suits are walking around.”

The scene at the office building, for one of the two main contractors that built the troubled website, illustrates the bind in which the Obama administration now finds itself. Despite the White House’s suggestions that a cavalry from the Silicon Valley has arrived to save the day, specialists say that the online system cannot be fixed by adding manpower. Some experts argue that an influx of software engineers at this stage would slow down, not speed up, the repair effort.

“If you have got nine women that doesn’t mean you can have a baby in a month,” said Frederick P. Brooks, a computer science professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and one of the world’s leading authorities on software development. Rather, he and others said, fixing the system involves a painstaking slog through line after line of software code.

No one at this point can be certain how many fixes need to be made, specialists said, because some fixes expose new problems.


In PracticeTracking the Affordable Care Act

In Kentucky, a Glimpse of Health Insurance Help
Nov 5
Abby Goodnough

    Jennifer Albrecht and her husband, Bob, walked through their Louisville, Ky., neighborhood on Friday. Ms. Albrecht signed up for Kentucky's health exchange with the help of a Luke Sharrett for The New York Times Jennifer Albrecht and her husband, Bob, walked through their Louisville, Ky., neighborhood on Friday. Ms. Albrecht signed up for Kentucky’s health exchange with the help of a “kynector.”

    LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Jennifer Albrecht lost her job after being given a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis last year – a turn of events that her husband, Hugh, described as feeling like “a building fell on us.” She stretches out her medicine because she cannot afford the refills, suffering worse flare-ups as a result. But last month, after seeking the help of a “kynector” – one of Kentucky’s counselors certified to help people sign up for insurance under the federal health care law – Ms. Albrecht found she qualified for Medicaid. Her coverage will take effect at the beginning of 2014.

    “I know that starting Jan. 1 there’s some hope, there’s some relief there,” she said.

    Ms. Albrecht, 42, is among the roughly 1,000 people a day who are signing up for coverage through Kentucky’s online insurance marketplace, or exchange, a volume that state officials say has far exceeded their expectations. The success of the exchange, known as Kynect, contrasts sharply with the technical failures of the federally run exchange serving 36 states. Even some state-run exchanges, including those in Maryland and Oregon, have struggled so far.

    But to watch the sign-up process last month in Louisville, a city of 600,000, was to get a glimpse of how the rollout of the exchanges was supposed to work from coast to coast.

    There are caveats. Most enrollments in Kentucky – about 85 percent – have been in Medicaid, the government program that provides health care to the poor, which is expanding under the law. The rest have been in private health plans offered through the exchange, with many applicants qualifying for federal subsidies to help cover the cost. If only the sickest people end up buying private coverage, the cost of premiums could rise and the exchange could fail. And if Medicaid enrollment under the expansion exceeds projections, the state could be on the hook for higher costs than it expected.

    It is the job of people like Samantha Davis – the kynector who helped Ms. Albrecht sign up for Medicaid – to reach as many uninsured Kentuckians as possible over the coming months. Ms. Davis spends most of her time enrolling patients at Family Health Centers, a network of clinics here that serves thousands of uninsured residents. The organization used a $300,000 federal grant to hire Ms. Davis, eight other kynectors and an enrollment coordinator.

    But Ms. Davis also helps out at community sign-up events, including one where she met Mrs. Albrecht on Oct. 1 and another where she met Patricia Bond, a breast cancer survivor whose daughter had pressed her to attend. Ms. Bond, 62, said she was paying $837 a month for health insurance, a cost that had leapt since her diagnosis.

    “It’s been really hard to come up with that,” Ms. Bond, a seamstress, said. “I mean, that’s higher than my house payment.”

    With Ms. Davis’s help, she found that she would qualify for a premium subsidy of $377 a month if she bought an exchange plan. “That’s the highest I’ve ever seen,” Ms. Davis said of the amount. Of the 24 plans that the exchange offered her, the most expensive would be a silver plan for $263 a month after the subsidy, with an $800 deductible. She went home to study her options, planning to meet with Ms. Davis again once she had narrowed them down.

    Not every shopping experience on Kynect is so painless. Elaine Osborne, 57, who works at a discount store that does not offer her insurance, qualified for $212 in premium assistance when she applied with the help of Kelli Cauley, another kynector. She gasped when she saw that the plan with the lowest premium — $97 a month, including her subsidy – had an annual deductible of $6,300.

    Donald Mucci, an insurance agent who is certified to enroll people in health plans through Kynect, said most people needed a lot of help understanding the different costs and deciding which amounts were right for them. He also said he worried that people signing up on their own would choose a plan without checking whether it covered their preferred doctors and hospitals.

    “They have to make educated decisions about what they’re signing up for,” Mr. Mucci said, “and we need to help them do it.”


NBC Gives Sarah Palin a Disgraceful Platform to Lie About Obamacare

By: Jason Easley
Monday, November, 11th, 2013, 11:51 am

The corporate media helped to spread more lies about the ACA, when NBC gave Sarah Palin an unchallenged platform for her Obamacare lies on Today.

Palin was supposedly on the Today show to promote her book, but the interview really was a forum for her to lie about the ACA. Palin was asked President Obama’s apology for the website, and said, “What apology? He kind of acknowledged a bit that there’s a broken website. The broken website is the least of America’s worries. This broken website I think is symbolic of a broken administration. Take over one-sixth of our economy and the socialized medicine that’s being crammed down our throat, that’s what’s broken.”

She falsely claimed that most Americans will be losing their health insurance, “”Where do you get this five percent? It’s not five percent. It’s most Americans will not be able to keep the healthcare policy and programs that they had desired. The new programs that are being forced down our throat are unaffordable. Some of them are still being told, ‘Well if you like that insurance policy and that coverage, you still will be able to keep it, it’s just going to cost you a little bit more.’ That’s the point. If it’s going to cost you more, then it’s not the same policy.”

Sarah Palin was lying on all counts. The ACA is not socialized medicine. It is a change that allows people to participate in the free market so that they can have access to affordable healthcare. The 5% number is a fact. Sarah Palin came up with a very unique and untrue definition of losing your health insurance. She claimed that if your policy changes in any way, you’ve lost your health insurance.

As anyone who has health insurance knows, policies change every year. New things are no longer covered. Co-pays change. This happened every single year before the ACA. The difference is that the changes that are happening now are adding services and lowering costs, which is the opposite of the past.

During the course of the six minute interview, Lauer and Palin spent a little more than one minute talking about her book. Sarah Palin’s appearance on Today that was supposed to be about promoting her book was really a national morning show platform to lie about the ACA.

NBC should be ashamed to have given Sarah Palin a platform to tell her lies about the ACA to a national morning show audience that isn’t the most politically knowledgable. Matt Lauer didn’t bother to correct Palin, or pushback against her obvious lies. He let her continue to misinform and deceive the American people about a new that will be beneficial to the vast majority to them.

What happened on Today was another example of the “liberal” media helping Republicans promote their lies about the ACA. NBC should be held accountable for helping Palin mislead America. It’s stunts like this that should make every American who cares about facts and truth turn off Today.


The Real Villains Behind the Criticisms of Obamacare

By: Deborah Foster
Sunday, November, 10th, 2013, 3:36 pm   

The President has taken a hit to his approval rating recently, and the media keeps pointing to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as the culprit. The video replay of the President saying, “If you like you’re plan, you can keep it,” is ubiquitous, juxtaposed against the stories of people receiving notifications that their insurance plans are being cancelled. The media eats it up as they dig up both real stories of people who have been dropped from their insurance or a whole host of easily fact-checked stories that turn out to be pure misinformation. Republicans are licking their lips, thinking that Obamacare is sinking; they believe they will finally get a chance to reclaim voters who have turned away from their radical agenda and foolish behavior. However, Rachel Maddow presented an excellent segment dissecting this argument, and it turns out that people are slowly increasing their approval of Obamacare, not increasingly rejecting it. The polls show that since the rollout, the approval numbers of the Affordable Care Act have risen from 44% to 47% according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll and have risen from 37% to 44% according to Gallup. Considering that the Gallup Poll predicted a Romney win, it’s worth considering if their results don’t have a conservative bias as well. Given the admittedly botched rollout of the website, the perceived “broken promise” by the President, and the non-stop negative media coverage, most Americans could be giving up on healthcare reform, but they are still willing to give it a chance. Meanwhile, the true villains in the healthcare reform saga, the ones who made the President’s words about “keeping your insurance” incorrect -insurance companies— are being protected by most media outlets.

As soon as the shutdown ended, the media needed the next big story to fill air time. The problems with were ready-made for ridicule and non-stop derision. It wasn’t just the conservative media, either; the mainstream media piled on as well. Of course, the federal website wouldn’t have had so many people to serve if there weren’t so many states refusing to set up their own exchanges. Had they done so, there may well have been far fewer people encountering the website glitches. It’s true some states with their own state health care exchanges did experience problems with their website (e.g. Oregon). However, many other states have had a successful start-up for their health care exchange website. For that reason, Kentucky has been showcased as a success story, because not only is it a red state with a functioning healthcare website, it bucked the conservative trend of throwing a tantrum and refusing to set up a state health exchange.

After the website was old news, the media began searching for horror stories related to the implementation of Obamacare. Fox News was quick to bring on guests that allegedly had lost their health insurance and were going to have to pay dramatically higher premiums to replace their policies. Of course, when fact-checked, a significant percentage of these stories fell apart. By now, we all know that there are people being dropped from their plans, but often because they had really crappy plans that really didn’t cover anything meaningful. The remaining stories of woe need to be reckoned with, but this must be done honestly, and the truth is, insurance companies, not the Affordable Care Act, are responsible for a lot of the misery people are attributing to healthcare reform.

Joshua Holland explains at,

    “Far too many breathless news stories about insurance plans being “canceled” or people facing “sticker shock” fail to convey even the most basic context: this is almost exclusively a phenomenon of the individual insurance market, which covers between 5 to 6 percent of the population.”

Holland further notes that about half of this population is going to end up buying a policy similar to what they already had for a price similar to what they were already paying. However, about 3% of Americans are going to end up paying for more insurance coverage than they want to and are likely to experience a premium increase. Yet, this means that 97% of Americans will experience virtually no effect or a positive effect on their insurance coverage and premium. Listening to the media, one would think it was 80% of the population that was having a negative impact from the Affordable Care Act.

Conservatives are also trying to be as alarmist as possible about the notion that people will not be able to see the providers they choose. The dramatic case everyone is talking about appeared in the Wall Street Journal where a woman with cancer had a policy cancelled, and the remaining options didn’t allow her to see all of her previous providers. Bob Cesca notes in Huffington Post,

    “UnitedHealthcare, one of the most notorious insurance providers before the ACA was passed, responsible for canceling policies and penalizing customers, decided to voluntarily bail out of the individual insurance game as a matter of corporate strategy. In doing so, it could avoid taking on less healthy customers early in the exchange sign-up process, forcing other insurers to absorb the risk. Clever. And sinister.”

Who really forced this woman to lose access to her array of providers? Obamacare? No. Her insurance company? Yes! Furthermore, Igor Volsky of Think Progress writes,

    “Since 15 million people or just 5 percent of the population purchases health insurance policies on the individual market and more than 80 percent don’t stay on the same plan for more than two years in a row, the individuals who will be affected by “provider shock” were changing providers almost every year before reform.”

Yet, another “catastrophe” that turns out to be a non-issue.

So, what do we make of the 3% who are feeling they’ve been wronged by Obamacare? This is where the underhanded, greedy behavior of insurance companies matters. Perhaps they aren’t trying to sabotage healthcare reform, but it certainly seems that way. Jason Linkins explains that these companies were required to leave the healthcare plans in place that people already had before the Affordable Care Act. In other words, when healthcare reform passed, everyone’s plans were grandfathered in…until any change was made to the policy. At that point, the insurance company was free to do as it pleased, including cancelling policies or increasing premiums. Here’s the catch: the insurance companies could force policies to change, and thus lose their grandfathered status, by simply making small changes in coverage. Then, they tell policyholders to purchase their new, more expensive plan, without telling them about the health care exchanges and the possibility of cheaper options. For example, Anthem Blue Cross of California, who is currently being sued, sent deceptive letters to policyholders suggesting they switch plans specifically with the intent of making the policyholders lose their grandfathered status.

In terms of profits, the health insurance industry is sitting pretty. These companies have already threatened to raise premiums on small businesses and the individual insurance market by 25% to 116% in 2014. Everyone seems to forget, these companies were infamous for dropping people, raising rates astronomically, changing coverage, and generally mistreating policyholders long before Obamacare. If it’s anyone that Americans should target with their anger and outrage, it’s the same culprits it’s always been, health insurance companies.


November 11, 2013

‘Super PAC’ Gets Early Start on Pushing for a 2016 Clinton Campaign


In the 2008 presidential primary campaign, Mitch Stewart devoted himself to defeating Hillary Rodham Clinton, overcoming the advantages of a well-funded Democratic front-runner through grass-roots organizing, and propelling Barack Obama to victory.

On Tuesday, Mr. Stewart and a dozen or so other political operatives and 170 donors will gather in New York to plot how to help Mrs. Clinton win in 2016. The meeting is the first national finance council strategy meeting of Ready for Hillary, a “super PAC” devoted to building a network to support Mrs. Clinton’s potential presidential ambitions.

“We’re coming up with plans on how to engage emerging constituencies that will be incredibly important if there’s a primary and in a general — whether that’s women, African-Americans, Latinos, L.G.B.T.,” said Mr. Stewart, who went on to run Mr. Obama’s battleground-state strategy in 2012.

The all-day meeting at the Parker Meridien hotel will be closed to the news media, but a preview of the day, with panel discussions like “What America Will Look Like in 2016,” about changing demographics, and “Building the Resources to Win,” about developing a campaign infrastructure, provided an early look into what supporters consider Mrs. Clinton’s strengths and potential pitfalls in 2016.

Mrs. Clinton has never had a problem raising money from deep-pocketed donors, but her 2008 campaign lacked the grass-roots enthusiasm and modest Internet donations that buoyed Mr. Obama. Ready for Hillary hopes to build that kind of support.

A grass-roots super PAC may seem an oxymoron: such groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political races as long as they do not coordinate with a candidate. But rather than invest in expensive television ads, Ready for Hillary puts all of its donations into building its email list of supporters.

For every $25,0000 the group raises, it cuts a payment to Rising Tide Interactive, a firm that helps build online lists of supporters. A social media tool on the website will allow supporters to work together to organize to plan rallies and small-dollar fund-raising events. With no candidate and over a year before a potential campaign, Ready for Hillary has roughly a million names on its email list, about half the size of the Hillary for President campaign list at the time Mrs. Clinton suspended her campaign in 2008.

“It’s not our job to be a campaign and it’s not our job to make decisions to tie any potential candidate’s hands,” said Craig T. Smith, an aide in the administration of President Bill Clinton and senior adviser to Ready for Hillary. “The goal is to build a list.”

The strategy is an acknowledgment of mistakes made by Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 campaign, but also a recognition that she cannot simply run as the establishment candidate with inside-the-Beltway support without also inspiring young and minority voters who largely favored Mr. Obama in 2008. Mr. Stewart helped Mr. Obama pick up delegates in small but important caucus states and turn states like Arizona, New Mexico and Virginia into battlegrounds by tapping into changing demographics.

A lineup of longtime Clinton backers and aides will attend Tuesday’s meeting, including Susie Tompkins Buell of San Francisco; Ann Lewis, a former adviser to both Clintons; Jennifer M. Granholm, the former governor of Michigan; and Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist. Along with Ms. Sefl, two young Ready for Hillary volunteers, Taj Magruder, 23, of Philadelphia, and Haley Adams, a student at Yale, will open the event, signaling that the Clinton world intends to bring in fresh voices, even if it means edging some loyal aides out.

The event signals a turning point for Ready for Hillary. The group, registered just before Mrs. Clinton left the State Department in February by young staff members who worked in junior roles on her 2008 campaign, was largely viewed as a makeshift organization that sold Hillary Clinton buttons and iPhone cases online.

Some longtime supporters had worried that the group emerged too soon and that if it were not well run, it could hurt Mrs. Clinton’s prospects, even though she is not involved or in contact with its organizers. But veteran aides like Mr. Smith, Ms. Sefl and Harold Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House, are now signed on as advisers. In recent months, the group has held events in several cities from San Francisco to Houston and has become among the dominant — if not best financed — political action committees on the Democratic side.

The sessions in New York will point to several advantages favoring a Democrat in 2016. “Democrats do have a series of advantages baked into the cake in terms of demographics and the electoral map,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster who succeeded Mark Penn as chief strategist for Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 campaign.

Fresh off working on behalf of Terry McAuliffe in his successful campaign for governor of Virginia, Mr. Garin will talk about reaching the growing numbers of Hispanics and college-educated white women, and the decline in non-college-educated white male voters, one of the most challenging demographics for Mrs. Clinton. But, he added that some very big odds will work against any Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. “Since World War II, the only time the same party won a third term in the White House was 1988,” Mr. Garin said.

Supporters are also well aware of the attacks Mrs. Clinton would face. During a lunch session, David Brock, founder of Media Matters for America, will lead the “Ready for the Right Wing” tutorial on how to combat conservative attacks and misinformation in the media.

The future of Ready for Hillary is unclear. Should Mrs. Clinton run, the group would most likely dissolve, after encouraging those on its email list to transfer their support to the official Clinton campaign. The widespread belief is that several Ready for Hillary staff members would take up positions on the campaign, which has made the group somewhat of a way station for hopeful aides. If Mrs. Clinton does not run, the group would likely throw its support behind whoever becomes the Democratic nominee.

Either way, this type of early unity and strategizing around a single candidate is a good thing and a rarity in Democratic politics, said Ronald Feldman, a Ready for Hillary national finance council co-chairman who supported John Edwards in 2008.

“We’ve never been paying this much attention this early on, but this time it seemed like a necessity,” Mr. Feldman said.


Poll Finds Hillary Clinton Could Turn Texas Blue In 2016

By: Jason Easley
Monday, November, 11th, 2013, 4:16 pm      

A recent PPP poll found that the 2016 presidential race in Texas is surprising close. Hillary Clinton could move Texas closer to turning blue as Rand Paul and Chris Christie each lead her by just 4 points.

According to the PPP poll of Texas, Hillary Clinton would be a very strong Democrat at the top of the ticket in the red state that Republicans most need to keep. Jeb Bush, who will never run, does the best against Clinton, 49%-42%. Things get much closer after Bush. Chris Christie leads 44%-39%. Rand Paul leads 48%-44%. Ted Cruz leads Clinton within the poll’s margin of error 48%-45%, and Hillary leads Rick Perry in his home state 47%-45%.

Hillary Clinton could turn Texas into a battleground in 2016, because this poll reveals that despite all of the Republican claims of having a “deep bench” of 2016 candidates, voters in Texas don’t seem to be wowed by any of them. No Republican candidate in the poll got 50% support against Hillary Clinton. The former Sec. of State is such a well known figure that she can even keep a close race in the biggest red state of them all.

If Hillary Clinton can be competitive in Texas, it sets up a nightmare scenario for Republicans. Clinton’s close polling in the state could force them to have to spend millions of dollars defending something that they thought was solidly locked up in their favor.

The wildcard with all Texas polls is the state’s restrictive voter ID law. The demographics in the state are trending toward the Democratic Party, but those potential voters face some huge barriers to casting their ballot thanks to what might be the nation’s worst voter ID law.

The possibility that Hillary Clinton could turn Texas blue should keep Republicans awake at night.

If the Republican Party ever loses Texas, it will not be able to win presidential elections. The struggles of the current Republican presidential contenders against Hillary Clinton in a place like Texas suggests that none of them have the kind of star power and presence needed to go toe to toe with what looks like a possible merger of the Clinton and Obama campaign muscle.

Texas could go blue in 2016 depending on who the Republicans nominate, but Democrats best chance to flip the state into their column might come in 2020 with a second term seeking President Clinton. Republicans don’t want to face reality, but Texas is moving towards the Democrats, and Hillary Clinton might be the candidate who finally tips it into the blue column.


Outgoing NYC Mayor Bloomberg attempts to vacate ‘stop and frisk’ rulings

By Arturo Garcia
Monday, November 11, 2013 18:42 EST

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration filed a late-night request to vacate the August 2013 ruling calling for an overhaul to local police’s “stop and frisk” policy.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that the corporation counsel of the City of New York has asked a federal appeal court to clear Judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s verdict, in which she determined that the policy, long championed by Bloomberg and NYPD Chief Ray Kelly, violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment.

Scheindlin also ordered that the department be monitored by an independent observer, attorney Peter L. Zimroth, to ensure it complies with the process. But a three-judge federal panel decided on Oct. 31 to remove her from the case altogether while blocking the ruling, arguing that she presented the appearance of lacking impartiality in a series of news interviews concerning the policy.

Corporation counsel Michael A. Cardozo wrote in the city’s request that Scheindlin’s ruling “lend credence to the notion that the N.Y.P.D. unfairly targets minorities for stops and frisks, undermining its ability to carry out its mission effectively.”

The Times also noted that if the city’s request is upheld, that would prevent Bloomberg’s successor, mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, from withdrawing the appeal preventing Scheindlin’s decisions from taking effect. De Blasio reiterated his opposition to the policy in an interview with the Times on Friday.

“I’ve said from the beginning: if the Bloomberg administration had paid attention to the concerns of communities all over New York City and had paid attention to Judge Scheindlin’s concerns, we would have had action a year or two ago, and there never would have been a court order, and there never would have been a monitor,” de Blasio was quoted as saying.

Scheindlin’s own attorney, Burt Neuborne, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the city’s request amounted to an attempt to bring “character assassination into the judicial process” and misconstrue the panel’s ruling.

“At worst, the panel accused the judge of conduct that might cause the appearance of lack of neutrality,” Neuborne told the AP in a statement. “The panel did not even suggest that the district judge was actually biased.”


Republicans Reeling as Support For Raising The Minimum Wage Surges to 76%

By: Jason Easley
Monday, November, 11th, 2013, 5:55 pm   

Congressional Republicans have vowed to block any bill raising the minimum wage, but a new Gallup poll shows that 76% of Americans and 58% of Republicans supporting increasing the minimum wage.

The Gallup poll found that support for raising the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour has jumped from 71% in March to 76% today. Sixty nine percent of those polled support a minimum wage that increases as inflation goes up. 91% of Democrats, 76% of Independents, and 58% of Republicans support increasing the minimum wage. Democrats (92%) and Independents (71%) strongly support linking the minimum wage to inflation. Fifty six percent of Republicans oppose making the minimum wage inflation proof.

While the American people want a higher minimum wage, Republicans in Congress support getting rid of all minimum wage laws. In an interview with CBS, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said, “I support people making more than $9. I want people to make as much as they can. I don’t think a minimum wage law works. We all support — I certainly do — having more taxpayers, meaning more people who are employed. And I want people to make a lot more than $9 — $9 is not enough. The problem is you can’t do that by mandating it in the minimum wage laws. Minimum wage laws have never worked in terms of having the middle class attain more prosperity.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner likes to make the false argument that raising the minimum wage kills jobs, “When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) echoed Boehner’s bogus argument that raising the minimum wage kills jobs, “It’s not a question of whether (the federal government) can or cannot. I think that’s decided. I think the question you have to ask is whether or not when you set the minimum wage it may cause unemployment. The least skilled people in our society have more trouble getting work the higher you make the minimum wage.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) admitted to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that he wants to abolish the minimum wage. Elected Republicans are moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the country. They are even out of step with a majority of their own party on the minimum wage.

Democrats are planning on using the minimum wage issue to help candidates around the country in 2014. The minimum wage is a powerful issue that brings out voters who otherwise might stay home and skip a midterm election. `

Republicans are in big trouble on the minimum wage. The elected radical Republicans want to abolish it, while the rest of the country is trying to raise it. This is one of those issues where a pragmatic political party would support a minimum wage increase because opposing it could do serious damage to them in the next election. However, this Republican Party is ideological. They will never support a minimum wage increase, and voters will make them pay dearly at the polls.

Democrats need to pound and press, because raising the minimum wage isn’t just a political issue. It’s the right thing to do for millions of hard working Americans.


Pope Francis Does Not Want Bishops Who Follow a Particular Ideology

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Tuesday, November, 12th, 2013, 7:57 am      

Archbishop_Carlo_Maria_Vigano_CNA_US_Catholic_News_6_13_12Pope Francis I, unsurprisingly given his recent denunciation of ideology posing as religion, “wants bishops in tune with their people.” He told his representative, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, that he wants ‘pastoral’ bishops, not bishops who profess or follow a particular ideology.”

Vigano passed this no doubt unwelcome message along to America’s ideologically hidebound bishops at the U.S. bishops’ autumn conference in Baltimore.

Vigano prefaced his remarks by saying that he was offering “a few reflections and observations I have since my time here in this country.” No doubt well aware of how hostile U.S. bishops would be to the Pope’s message, he said, “I ask you to take these thoughts into prayerful consideration. You know this comes from my admiration, respect, and loving concern for the Church in America.”

He quotes Pope Paul VI’s words that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if it does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” and went on to remind them,

    Certainly, my brothers, no one can dispute the clear fact that our present Holy Father himself, as the Supreme Teacher, is giving us, by his own witness, an example of how to live a life attuned to the values of the Gospel.

    While each of us must take into consideration our adaptability to the many different circumstances and cultures in which we live and the people whom we serve, there has to be a noticeable lifestyle characterized by simplicity and holiness of life. This is a sure way to bring our people to an awareness of the truth of our message.

Which brought him to the troublesome American bishops and the preoccupation with Republican ideology.

You would think from all the culture war rhetoric America’s Catholic bishops embrace that Jesus concerned himself solely with gays, lesbians, and contraception. For example, it was reported here this past May that “the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has sent out a call to arms urging Catholics to begin concerted opposition against the gay community ahead of Supreme Court rulings.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality (or any other kind of sexuality). He never once mentioned contraception. Jesus was concerned with the coming Kingdom of God, the plight of the poor and the evils of the rich.

In his Sermon on the Mount, his single longest speaking engagement he offered blessings, condemned materialism, and warned his flock “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Most importantly from the perspective of the Religious Right with whom the American bishops seem most enamored, he warned against false prophets.

Vigano concluded by saying,

    I urge you, my brothers, to preserve a spirit of real unity among yourselves and, of course, with the successor of Peter, trusting in the way he sees best to live out his mission to mankind. Unity expressed in a real, prayer-filled communion of mind and heart is the only way we will remain strong and be able to face whatever the future may hold for us.

Pope Francis I is well aware of America’s diversity and so Vigano told the bishops that, “we must take care that, for us as a Church, this diversity does not grow into division through misinterpretation or misunderstanding, and that division does not deteriorate into fragmentation.”

The Catholic News Agency reports that, “Having said this, he noted an article which claimed that America’s political polarization ‘began as Americans lost confidence in their leaders.’”

There was a warning implicit in this. Changing demographics put the conservative-mined bishops at odds with American values. This conflict is seen in their opposition to the Affordable Care Act (one bishop even compared Obama to Hitler), and Muse wrote here in February 2012 that “women have felt the wrath of Republicans who have become the legislative arm of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in their drive to maintain their exaggerated sense of supremacy by enforcing the Catholic ban on contraception on the entire country.”

It is no secret that American Catholics go their own way and are generally more socially liberal than their bishops. Despite church teachings, most Catholics use contraception (up to 98 percent of Catholic women). In Europe, people have simply stopped going to church. Here, they might go to church but they ignore an unwelcome gospel raised in defiance of the First Amendment.

A more blunt speaking Vigano might have said, “Hint, hint,” but told the gathering instead, he said, this was, “well said, since the Catholic Church will preserve her unity and strength as long as its people have trust in their bishops. The sheep will gather together as one; they recognize and listen to the voice of their shepherd who calls out to them, walks with them, and is ready to give his life for them.”

“My brothers, let us go forward, filled with zeal and fervor of divine love. Let us be confident that the Lord will give us the wisdom and strength we need for the tremendous task before us to give genuine witness to the faithful,” he concluded:

    Let us embrace our people with a fatherly embrace, let us make them feel that they belong, that they are not orphans or strangers. And we should also ask ourselves today a question posed by Pope Francis to the Bishops of Brazil: ‘ … are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?’ Let our response be a firm and wholehearted: ‘Yes, we are!’

A rousing speech no doubt, such as one might hope to hear at halftime during a losing effort on a Sunday afternoon, but will the bishops listen? So far, they seem focused on ideology to the extent they think they should be deciding what American law says, unthinkingly embracing the attitude that had Americans distrustful of the Catholic Church for two centuries. Pope Francis I has shown a way forward for a Catholic Church more in tune with Jesus’ radical teachings. It remains to be seen whether or not his message has come in time to save America’s bishops from themselves.

Photo from Catholic News Agency


George W. Bush Keynotes Event Promoting End Times

By: Rmuse
Sunday, November, 10th, 2013, 6:34 pm   

In 2000 during the Republican primary race for president, eventual winner George W. Bush said with great pride that “as governor of Texas I brought people together. I’m a uniter, not a divider,” and although the warmonger president bifurcated America from the rest of the civilized world by invading Iraq, he still considered himself a uniter. Bush is still divisive, and this coming week he will be the featured speaker at a religious fundraising event to divide the Jewish community by training Christians in America, Israel, and around the world to persuade Jews to abandon their beliefs and accept the Christian Jesus as the Messiah. Now, anyone familiar with the Christian religion comprehends that one of Jesus Christ’s commands to his followers was to spread the good news of the kingdom of god by convincing them he was the Messiah, but that is not the intent of the event Bush is promoting.

The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI), responsible for the fundraiser with Bush as keynote speaker, is bent on convincing Jews to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah to restore Israel and the Jewish people to hasten the second coming of Christ and bring about the end of the world. The Jewish community is not impressed, or amused, at the evangelizing efforts of Messianic Jews, and they naturally object to their proselytizing message that salvation by Christian Jesus is consistent with Jewish theology. In fact, last year the president of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said that evangelical fanatic Rick Santorum’s appearance at another Messianic Jewish event was “insensitive and offensive,” and a conservative American journal of politics, Judaism, social and cultural issues noted, “it must be understood that the visceral distaste that the overwhelming majority of Jews have for the Messianics is not to be taken lightly.”

Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said, “It’s disappointing that he (Bush) would give his stamp of approval to a group whose program is an express effort to convert Jews and not to accept the validity of the Jewish covenant.” Christians are incapable of accepting the validity of other religions and converting Jews to Christ is a typically evangelical goal, but it is the stated reason of “bringing about the second coming of Jesus Christ” that informs their deep-seated hatred for non-compliant human beings and the desire for evangelicals to see a large segment of the world’s population decimated during the bible’s mythological “end times.”

First, it is incredibly presumptuous and contrary to scripture for Christian fundamentalists to think they can “bring about the second coming of Christ” by any means, but their intense desire to dwell in Heaven and watch their lord and savior ravage “the unworthy” with bloodthirsty vengeance supersedes what should be “love of man” their Messiah preached. Evangelicals have been increasingly preoccupied with the “end times” since Americans became more tolerant as a nation, and it never fails that any disturbance in the Middle East is a “sign” the apocalyptic end of the world is at hand. The Syrian conflict, for example, ramped up fundamentalists’ end times speculation that found one-third of Americans believing, and hoping, the biblical end of the world was at hand to wipe out a significant portion of the world’s population.

What informs the sheer inhumanity of “end times” advocates is that where most human beings with a conscience would recoil at the thought of an apocalyptic worldwide war foretold to kill off millions upon millions of other humans, Christians such as Michele Bachmann could hardly wait or constrain their glee. Bachmann, the epitome of neo-Christian America said, “Rather than seeing the end of the world as a negative, we need to rejoice, Maranatha Come Lord Jesus, His day is at hand.” There are varying opinions about why fundamentalist Christian fanatics are in lust with idea of human destruction on a biblical scale unseen in human history, but there is little doubt fundamentalists are anxiously awaiting for god to lay waste to humanity while “true believers” watch from a safe distance in Heaven.

If one sets aside, for a moment, the idea that those “raptured to Heaven” will have ringside seats to witness human destruction on a biblical scale and considers the repercussions of a segment of the American population with no regard for the future, the contempt for Americans concerned about man’s deleterious effects on the environment begins to make perfect sense. Their belief that the end times are impending leads fundamentalists’ indifference to protecting the environment, fuels their opposition to social programs to help vulnerable Americans they regard as evil, and drives their support of neo-conservative warmongering policies in the Middle East that, incidentally, signal Armageddon and god’s final assault on mankind in their twisted end times fantasies.

Remember, fundamentalist Christians believe when god unleashes Hell on humanity, they will have been spirited to Heaven in the “rapture” before the “end time” devastation takes place. As one Christian writer revealing the distinct beauty of the “escapist fantasy” said, “It is an amazing hope to have because we can know that as terrible as it is getting out there, believers in Christ don’t have much longer to worry about it.” Christian fundamentalists also believe that the end of the world means they get to have the last word and see those “left behind” realize the righteous were right all along and are justified in celebrating victims of the lord’s vengeance horrifying demise. A professor of religion, Doug Weaver, said “I think history will tell you that end time predictions increase when people are being persecuted or feel persecuted,” and although American Christians are not, under any definition, being persecuted, they truly wish, and anticipate an apocalypse for vengeance and to say we told you so.

It is true that all Christians are not steeped in end times fantasies or joyous at the thought of a biblical apocalypse to wipe out billions of non-believers. But there are significant numbers of American fundamentalists who are convinced that with the world’s demise imminent there is no reason to care for the environment, help other Americans, or seek peace either at home or around the world. It is certainly likely that Republicans make good use of fundamentalists’ disregard for the future to enact policies that have near and long term consequences to the people, especially when their policies enrich the wealthy who harbor no delusions their time on Earth is limited by impending biblical apocalypse.

Throughout world history Christianity has wrought untold horrors on humanity and likely they found biblical justification for their actions, but it is a relative certainty they were acting according to their misguided understanding of gods’ will as they knew it. It is only recently that fundamentalist fanatics have been so deluded that they actually believed their actions could influence biblical god, or Jesus Christ, to action and there is nothing as dangerous as a substantial segment of the population with a shared god complex. The real danger to America, and the world, is that these fundamentalists’ beliefs are founded in Iron Age mythos and they have infiltrated the highest levels of the U.S. government and if Americans

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« Reply #9950 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:24 AM »


MEPs raise concerns over Sochi Winter Olympics surveillance plans

Three MEPs table written questions in attempt to open a debate over Russian snooping after Guardian revelations

Shaun Walker in Moscow, Wednesday 13 November 2013 10.31 GMT   

European parliamentarians have raised concerns about surveillance at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, after a Guardian investigation uncovered the extent of phone and internet snooping planned for the Games.

Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch member of the European parliament, and two other MEPs have tabled written questions raising concerns over the surveillance and security measures.

The questions reference a research project carried out by the Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, the results of which were first published in the Guardian last month.

The investigation found that Russia's FSB security service has been busy upgrading internet and phone networks using Sorm, Russia's lawful interception system. Sorm has been described as "Prism on steroids", a reference to the programme used by the NSA in the US and revealed to the Guardian by Edward Snowden.

"Given that everybody seems to be spying on everyone else these days, it seems legitimate to ask questions not only about the EU and the United States but about Russia as well," said In 't Veld. "Russia is a particular problem because of the Olympics, which it is using as a pretext for stepping up surveillance, with no court oversight."

All Russian internet providers are required by law to feed information back to the FSB by default, using special Sorm boxes that they must install on their networks. The Guardian investigation found that Russian authorities have fined Sochi providers who have not installed the correct equipment in recent months.

Combined with other technologies, there is a fear the surveillance could be misused to root out potential political or gay rights protesters. "It is easy to imagine how this surveillance could be turned into a political tool," said In 't Veld.

The Sochi Olympics are a personal project of President Vladimir Putin, and are the most expensive Games on record at more than £30bn. But as Russia has sent the Olympic torch to the north pole and to outer space in grandiose preparations for the Games, international attention has been focused on issues such as gay rights, with the country's new laws against "homosexual propaganda" in force at the Olympics.

In 't Veld has asked for clarification from Europol, the European police agency, over a data-sharing agreement that is planned with the Russians but has not yet come into force.

British intelligence services have renewed intelligence co-operation with Russia, which had been suspended since the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. The exchange of information over security threats to the Games was agreed during a visit by David Cameron to Sochi in May, and confirmed by John Sawers, the head of MI6, during a parliamentary hearing this month.

The European Council and commission are obliged to reply to the MEPs' questions in the coming weeks, and In 't Veld hopes it will open a debate about what Europe can do in the runup to the Sochi Games.

"I hope this will act as a wake-up call, and that the commission will take some action to ensure that there are at least some safeguards put in place," she said. "We need to start talking about it, at least."


Bolshoi theatre acid attack witness says he was threatened by police

Batyr Annadurdiyev said he was told he would be jailed if he did not give right evidence in Sergei Filin case, court hears

Shaun Walker in Moscow, Tuesday 12 November 2013 16.12 GMT   

A key witness in the Bolshoi theatre acid attack trial has said in court that he had been threatened by investigators before giving an incriminating statement.

Batyr Annadurdiyev, a dancer at the Bolshoi who spent the night of the attack with the main suspect, said he was subjected to intense psychological pressure by police and did not even read the eventual testimony he signed, some of which he retracted during the court session.

Sergei Filin, the 43-year-old artistic director of the Bolshoi, was splashed in the face with acid outside his Moscow home on 17 January. Leading soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko was arrested for ordering the attack and is standing trial along with Yury Zarutsky, who is accused of throwing the acid, and Andrei Lipatov, the alleged getaway driver. All face up to 12 years in jail if convicted.

Dmitrichenko admits he suggested that Zarutsky rough up Filin but claims not to have known about the acid plans. He spent the evening of 17 January with Annadurdiyev. Prosecutors say the pair sat together in Annadurdiyev's car outside the Bolshoi, while Dmitrichenko waited for Filin to leave the theatre, so that he could give a signal that the artistic director would be returning home soon. Annadurdiyev said in court he had not seen Dmitrichenko make any phone calls that evening, despite having signed a witness statement to that effect.

Annadurdiyev said that in between official questioning sessions in March, he was marched out of a rehearsal at the Bolshoi by police for unofficial questioning at 38 Petrovka Street, the headquarters of the Moscow police. The session lasted eight hours, and he was told he would go to jail himself if he did not give the right evidence, he claimed in court.

"They told me boys like me are in high demand among prisoners," he said.

"I had become paranoid. Life was awful. I even started getting notes on my car saying they knew where my family lived, which I assumed were left by police … I wanted to forget this nightmare as soon as possible. … I signed the testimony without reading it."

Filin's assistant, Dilyara Timergazina, also gave evidence on Tuesday. She denied Dmitrichenko's claims that Filin had had affairs with a number of ballerinas and handed out leading roles "through his bedsheets". In particular, Dmitrichenko accused Filin of having an affair with Olga Smirnova, a star ballerina at the Bolshoi who accompanied him to a theatre performance on the night of the attack.

Timergazina said she was certain that Filin was not having an affair with Smirnova, who is also her daughter-in-law. Timergazina said she would like to quote Vladimir Putin in relation to the rumours spread by Dmitrichenko. She said: "I have always reacted negatively to those who with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies pry into the private lives of others," quoting the Russian president's dismissal of rumours about his own affairs.

Filin gave evidence at the trial earlier this month, and broke down in tears after a lengthy cross-examination by Dmitrichenko. He left Russia for Germany, where he is due to have a 24th operation on his eyes in the coming days, said Timergazina outside court.

The trial continues.

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« Reply #9951 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:26 AM »

'Killer robots' ban must be part of Geneva talks, says campaign group

Campaign to Stop Killer Robots says UN-sponsored meeting must stop development of fully autonomous weapons

Richard Norton-Taylor, Wednesday 13 November 2013 00.05 GMT   

An international coalition of disarmament and human rights groups has said that UN-sponsored talks in Geneva this week must seize the opportunity to ban the development of fully autonomous weapons, dubbed "killer robots".

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots said that such weapons, once activated, would select and engage targets without human intervention.

Though they have yet to be fully developed, robotic systems with various degrees of autonomy and lethality are used by the US, Israel, South Korea, and the UK, while other nations, including China and Russia, are believed to be moving toward systems that would give full combat autonomy to machines, the campaign warned.

"In recent months, fully autonomous weapons have gone from an obscure, little-known issue, to one that is commanding international attention", it said.

The Geneva meeting is expected to lead to an agreement to place the issue of "killer robots" firmly on the agenda of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons. "Most fundamentally, an international ban is needed to ensure that humans will retain control over decisions to target and use force against other humans," said Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The US defence department issued a directive on 21 November 2012 that requires a human being to be "in the loop" when decisions are made about using lethal force, unless department officials waive the policy at a high level, HRW said.

However, it added that the directive was not a comprehensive or permanent solution to the potential problems posed by fully autonomous systems. "The policy of self-restraint it embraces may also be hard to sustain if other nations begin to deploy fully autonomous weapons systems", it added.

"Governments must address the fundamental question of whether it is inherently wrong to let autonomous machines make programmed decisions about who and when to kill," said Professor Noel Sharkey, chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC),

Thomas Nash, director of Article 36, set up to prevent the unintended, unnecessary or unacceptable harm caused by certain weapons, said: "The UK is in a strong position to play a leadership role in developing such a treaty. This country has advanced scientific and military capabilities, diplomatic clout around the world and a policy position that says weapons should always be under human control".

Nash added: "The problem is the government seems to be saying we don't need new international rules to govern these unprecedented technological developments around autonomy on the battlefield. That position is at best naive and at worst reckless."

The campaign to stop autonomous weapons is an international coalition of civil society groups. It says a ban "should be achieved through an international treaty, as well as through national laws and other measures, to enshrine the principle that decisions to use violent force against a human being must always be made by a human being".

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« Reply #9952 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:30 AM »

Archaeologists uncover secrets of Portus, once gateway to Rome

University of Southampton team finds evidence explaining why opulent Roman empire port was dismantled in 6th century

Tom Kington in Rome, Tuesday 12 November 2013 16.41 GMT   

British archeologists digging near Rome have built up an accurate picture of Portus, the once-mighty port that could host 350 ships at a time and kept the ravenous capital of the Roman empire supplied with grain, wine, oil, slaves and luxuries from around the world.

The team says it has also unravelled the mystery of how the site's luxurious palace and huge warehouse vanished almost overnight, leaving no trace of the port's scale and wealth.

Rather than being burned down by invading hordes as the empire declined, or left to disintegrate, a team lead by the University of Southampton has revealed that Portus was systematically demolished in the 6th century by the Byzantines – the eastern emperors who fought the invading Ostrogoths to regain control of Rome.

Experts discovered that the magnificent, three-storey palace was flattened and 50ft walls pushed over. "By the 6th century the Byzantines felt the port could be a threat as it was vulnerable to being occupied by the Ostrogoths, so they took the decision to destroy it themselves, said Simon Keay from Southampton University, who heads the dig.

Built by the emperor Trajan in the second century, Portus included a mile-wide main basinthat has now silted up, and an inner, hexagonal basin that still exists as a lake in woodland at the end of the runway of Rome's Fiumicino airport – its perfect hexagonal shape clearly visible from above. The remains of an amphitheatre and an enormous, 260-yard long warehouse have also been discovered.

Keay said Portus's importance to Rome was proven by the team's excavation of the 60-room imperial palace covering nine acres. It was fronted by a long colonnade and boasted a first floor courtyard with a pool fed by a cistern below – a level of grandeur that matched Hadrian's villa near Rome. "The palace shows how central Portus was to the city and to making sure Rome was fed," said Keay.

But more impressive was evidence that the palace and the warehouse were torn down methodically by the Byzantines, who gained and lost control of Portus on various occasions during their struggles with the Ostrogoths.

"These were solid structures, and you really must have wanted to pull them down," said Keay, who discovered walls flattened by the Byzantines as they sought to reduce the danger of the port being occupied and put to use by their foes.

"It will have needed a firm decision and the Byzantines will have really worked on it," he added. "Portus was a great hub, but as Rome wound down, Portus mirrored it."

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« Reply #9953 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:34 AM »

Competition hots up on Italy's newly privatised railways

Privatisation was meant to shake up the state-controlled rail system, but so far new train companies have had a bumpy ride

Anthony Faiola for the Washington Post
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 12 November 2013 14.00 GMT      

In the land where train schedules were once rough estimates and riding a chugging "locale" could feel like travelling by mechanical bull, the hypermodern Italo locomotives aimed to shake up the state-controlled world of Italian rail.

Offering sumptuous leather seats, prosecco and a cinema car showing first-run movies, Italo high-speed trains – operated by a Rome-based company whose investors include the chairman of Ferrari – began running in spring 2012. But even as they whisk passengers from the canals of Venice to the shadow of Mount Vesuvius at speeds around 300km/h, Italo trains have become less a symbol of the future than a cautionary tale of what can happen when competition is injected into crisis-ravaged Europe.

Italy's rail wars have become a litmus test for efforts to inject dynamism into ailing European economies. For Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV), the company that operates Italo trains, the results so far have been tragicomic, a reminder of how hard it can be to wrest power from state-run companies – a process that economists say is essential to putting the continent on firmer ground.

"They were going to treat us like the enemy," Paolo Ripa, NTV's chief operating officer, said of Ferrovie Dello Stato Italiene, Italy's national rail giant, which was founded in 1905.

In Rome's Ostiense station, for example, a two-metre high fence was erected without warning one night in front of Italo's new customer centre and only two weeks before the high-speed service was to launch. A Ferrovie subsidiary admitted responsibility but said safety was its motive; only later did the company install a gate that restored direct access to the train platform.

"What, someone is going to run out of our ticket office and jump on to the track?" Ripa said. "I don't think so." Another company official likened the state-run company's approach to "many small acts of sabotage".

Ferrovie was divided more than a decade ago into subsidiaries that operate under the same parent company and whose shares are still held by the Italian state. One subsidiary, Trenitalia, operates trains, including its own high-speed rail service, that directly compete against Italo. Another subsidiary, Rete Ferroviaria Italiana (RFI), oversees rail infrastructure, including train stations.

In theory, RFI – the company responsible for what Italo officials decried as the "cage" in the Rome station – is supposed to treat competitors equally. But Italo says that in vital ways, RFI and Trenitalia are still unfairly acting as one.

Some of the tactics, Italo says, have been as silly as putting gloating announcements on state-run trains when Italo's locomotives are delayed. Others, however, have allegedly been more serious.

Italo says Trenitalia unfairly slashed its prices in an attempt to "squeeze" Italo's profit margins. Trenitalia, Ripa said, could afford the discounts in part because it enjoys lucrative state contracts that help support its bottom line. Italo also says RFI discriminated against it by strictly limiting its floor space for automated ticket machines in Bologna and Venice.

On a recent afternoon, the part of the Ostiense station where Trenitalia operates had working escalators and toilets, while the moving walkways and bathrooms on the side of the station where Italo maintains its passenger center were out of service.Italo says RFI is dragging its feet on a massive expansion at what is set to be Italo's main hub in Rome, the Tiburtina station. The slow pace of completion – now almost two years delayed – has turned the facility into a ghost town where many Romans fear to tread at night.

Part of the problem, many here contend, is that Italy opened its train market well before establishing a fully independent transit regulator – something that only happened this summer.

"Why did it happen that way? Because this is Italy," Ripa said.

Yet even the introduction of an imperfect competition has already boosted quality and lowered prices. The entry of Italo has by default made Italy one of the most competitive train markets in the world, given that most domestic high-speed routes in Europe and North America are still only served by one carrier.

Although Italo only began operations last year, Trenitalia has spent years preparing for the opening of the market, and underwent a huge restructuring that improved efficiency and operations. One survey from 1991, for instance, showed that almost half the trains running on the key Rome-to-Milan route were delayed by more than 15 minutes. Today, Trenitalia says its network-wide on-time performance has climbed to 90%.

Last year, antitrust authorities fined the state-run train company $272,000 for anti-competitive practices against Arenaways, a far smaller private start-up that was operating a limited route from Turin to Milan. In March, antitrust officials announced they were also investigating the state-run company for charges levelled by Italo's operator, NTV.

"This is a country where we had crony capitalism and where state-run incumbents were very strong," said Giovanni Pitruzzella, head of Italy's antitrust commission. "We now have a new fight for competition happening, but getting where we want to be won't be easy."

Last month, Italian antitrust authorities announced that the state-controlled rail group had offered concessions to Italo. Ferrovie pledged, among other things, to make it easier for NTV to negotiate time slots and to grant the private competitor more exposure at train stations.

Officials from Trenitalia and RFI, however, strongly deny any collusion or unfair competition. The companies share a headquarters and have a joint media relations manager but say that their operations are independent. In a lengthy interview, Trenitalia chief executive Vincenzo Soprano said Italo was crying foul because his state-owned company was beating the privately owned upstart at its own game. He said Trenitalia had only lowered prices by an average of 9%, calling the discount a fair response to a new entrant. Meanwhile, Soprano said, Trenitalia's vastly improved services – including a new frequent-traveller program and luxury cabins in first class – have been winning over the lucrative business travellers that Italo had been targeting.

He blamed Italo's problems – the company is only filling about 54% of its seats – on a poor business model that has relied on farther-flung stations in Rome and Milan rather than the more convenient central stations in those cities.

Michele Mario Elia, chief executive of RFI, concurred, saying Italo's problem "is all about their business decisions". The company, he said, was exaggerating claims of unfairness. The delays in construction at Tiburtina, for instance, were related to a fire there. "We do not treat them any different than we treat Trenitalia," Elia said.

Despite its troubles, Italo says it is in the Italian market for the long haul.

"We are convinced it is possible to make this work," NTV President Antonello Perricone said. "It is important for not only Italy, but for Europe, that we succeed in competing here."

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post

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« Reply #9954 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:37 AM »

11/13/2013 12:24 PM

Job Crisis: Unequal Allies Tackle Youth Unemployment in Europe

By Stefan Simons

A deeply unpopular French President François Hollande and a triumphant Chancellor Angela Merkel met in Paris with other EU members to discuss Europe's unemployment crisis. More money seems forthcoming -- but it's unclear whether it will suffice.

Two hours and 55 minutes: That's how long the 24 European heads of state took at an emergency summit in Paris on Tuesday to tackle the perennial problem of youth unemployment. After dinner and talks, summit host François Hollande, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of the European Union's Council, Commission and Parliament gathered for group press photos, as well as mutual praise. "At stake," urged Hollande, "is the future of an entire generation."

Big words, but little actual progress: The summit participants only managed to reaffirm the previously introduced "youth guarantee," stipulating that no young person should remain without employment, apprenticeship, traineeship or instruction for longer than four months.

The high-profile round of talks, which also included directors of various European trade unions and youth organizations, as well as the head of the European Investment Bank (BEI), is the second act in a European political spectacle. In early July, the German chancellor summoned the EU's political elite to Berlin to confront the pressing problem of joblessness among 15- to 24-year-olds. Then, as now in Paris, Merkel warned that "the fate of Europe" was at stake.

According to the European Commission, there are 7.5 million young people in the EU who lack both employment and training. With a youth unemployment rate of 7.7 percent, Germany is well under the European average of 23.5 percent. France hovers just above, at 25 percent, while Greece and Spain have reached frightening record levels of more than 50 percent.

Europe's leaders have fallen into battle formation: Chancellor Merkel, often referred to in France as the "Iron Lady," now presents herself in Paris as the radiant victor and incumbent head of government.

Rumbling in France

Host François Hollande, on the other hand, is more unpopular than ever. Bankruptcies, severance schemes, layoffs -- widespread frustration is turning into tangible protest in anticipation of impending tax increases. On the heels of riots in Brittany, in which anti-tax protesters wearing "Made in France" red caps dismantled toll bridges and speed traps, Paris decided to shelve its newly adopted environmental levy.

But the retreat did not help. The government has long feared a snowball effect, and there is currently much talk of "civil revolt," "tax protest," and even "revolution." More than 70 percent of French people believe they are, according to the survey, on the eve of a "societal and social Fronde," referring to a series of 17th-century civil wars in which revolutionary armed bands terrorized parts of France. Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvrière trade union, says the situation is "like a volcanic eruption: There is smoke, the earth is not yet shaking, but there's a rumbling from below."

In an occurrance rife with symbolism, the French president was even whistled and booed during a memorial for the Nov. 11 armistice at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in front of the Arc de Triomphe. Protesters yelled "Hollande step down," before the police intervened. Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls said there was currently an "identity and self-confidence crisis" in France. And a Socialist lawmaker demanded an immediate government shake-up and the resignation of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Not a good background for the negotiations about EU funding, from which France would like to divert €600 million into its own coffers next year. Hollande made the lowering of youth unemployment one of the key promises of his election campaign. Although he can point to a paper-thin decrease, that change mostly comes from subsidized "future jobs" or "generation contracts," that have brought 10,000 young French people off the streets. In order to create jobs through economic growth, there needs to be 1.5 percent annual growth -- the Banque de France currently predicts 0.4 percent growth by the end of the year.

High Hopes

The symbolic proceedings between Hollande, Merkel and other prominent members of the EU allowed Berlin to strengthen its plan to release €45 billion in the next three years and thus finance the "youth guarantee." This is all to be implemented within two years, with offers to be exchanged in job markets across Europe.

The measures must be "fast, unified and qualitatively appealing," argued Hollande. He was also glad the EU money would begin flowing in on Jan. 1 2014 to countries that had already organized their job programs. Merkel then took a potshot at her host: "Growth is the most important factor in the eradication of unemployment." She underlined the importance of entrepreneurs and ended by commending "new initiatives," which she admiringly called the "Pact of Paris."

But such positivity relies heavily on hope. It remains unclear whether the planned billions will suffice. In the just released EU budget for next year, €3.9 billion has been set aside for youth aid out of a total of €135.5 billion. The next youth unemployment conference is planned for Rome next year.

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« Reply #9955 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:39 AM »

11/12/2013 05:41 PM

Macedonian Makeover: Europe's Flailing Capital of Kitsch

By Till Mayer

The Macedonian government has spent huge sums turning its capital, Skopje, into a neo-baroque architectural nightmare. The project's gaudy excesses camouflage a disastrous economy and troubling record on human rights.

Jets of water spurt into the air in front of the warriors: red, yellow, blue, violet. The eight bronze men stare fiercely through the spray of the fountain, while far above their heads, Alexander the Great sits enthroned, raising one sword up at the sky. Wagner and Tchaikovsky blare out of the speakers and the water shoots more or less in time with the music.

Skopje has a new landmark: The Warrior on a Horse monument on the Plostad Makedonija, a square at the center of the city, is almost 30 meters (100 ft.) high, cost €10.5 million ($14 million) and is about as authentic as the imitation Grand Canal in Las Vegas. More heroes from Macedonia's colorful history pose nearby, sculpted on a large, if somewhat misshapen scale. The feet of the saber-rattling flag-bearer, for example, are disproportionally large.

On the other side of the Vardar river, near the entry to the old town, a statue of Philip II of Macedon -- Alexander's father -- shakes a colossal fist at the sky, while bronze horses jump out of a nearby fountain. New temple-like ministry buildings, a theater and a museum -- with its own line-up of 19th- and 20th-century poets and revolutionaries -- have been built between the monuments to the two kings.

'Historical Kitsch'

And the construction project isn't finished: Numerous facades are still obstructed by construction cranes. Buildings are being retrofitted with the dictated sugarcoated new style that the local media diplomatically calls "baroque" or "neo-classical," and architects call "historical kitsch."

The redevelopment is called Skopje2014 and is costing VMRO, the conservative and nationalist governing party, hundreds of millions of euros. The official budget is €207 million -- which includes the renovated ministry buildings, the new national theater and triumphal arch.

Critics believe that's an impossible figure, that it won't buy half of what the plans call for. Even Skopje2014's overall theme -- a celebration of ancient and Slavic heroes -- has been condemned by experts because it ignores many of Macedonia's ethnic groups and favors a small section of the national fabric.

According to news reports, the contracts for the project were made illegally. But the Macedonian media have been restrained in their protest. "Too much criticism can quickly cost you your job. The VMRO has long had control over the media," says one journalist, who does not want to be named. There's a reason Skopje2014's monumental style has an authoritarian feel.

The case of Tomislav Kezarovski is yet more evidence of this: The journalist recently received a four-and-a-half-year jail term for having allegedly revealed the identity of a witness in a murder trial in 2008 -- an accusation independent observers claim is an attempt to muzzle a journalist critical of the government.

'Strong Message of Censorship'

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been sharply critical. The group's press freedom appointee Dunja Mijatovic says she fears the court decision could become a "strong message of censorship directed at other journalists in the country." The people in power have long made their threats known, and countless critical media organizations have shut down in the past few years.

The current economic situation offers little reason to build a triumphal arch. The financial crisis has hit Macedonia hard. Every second young person is unemployed, and the overall unemployment level is one of the highest in the world -- almost 30 percent. Those who have jobs are relieved when their salary tides them over until the following month. The universities are underequipped, as are the hospitals. Renovations are necessary in many places, but the government apparently has other priorities.

The government and its construction project have provided people with some strange stories. Two young architects, Boro Gadjovski and Filip Dubrovski, stand in front of the recently erected Fallen Heroes of Macedonia monument. Behind them, a torch-bearing young man glistens in the autumn sun. "In the beginning you could only see his steeled muscles," they say with a laugh, referring to its original nude state. There were waves of indignation: Such a nakedly "classical" statue wasn't allowed, and so the torchbearer was fitted with a pair of pants.

Failed Opportunity

The two men don't take any pleasure in the Skopje2014 prestige project -- they'd rather remind people of another city construction project which had come about after the city was destroyed in a 1963 earthquake. After the catastrophe, "the reconstruction was a unique opportunity for modern city planning. Under the leadership of the United Nations a number of countries were involved. Skopje became a symbol for worldwide solidarity," says Gadjoski. "They were going to build a humane yet utopian city," adds Dubrovski.

The master plan for the post-earthquake reconstruction was designed by Japanese star architect Kenzo Tange, and resulted in angular cement structuralist icons and sleek skyscrapers that diverged from the normal apathetic prefab constructions of the time. Tange designed a train station that was never finished. "He wanted to put up footbridges for pedestrians to cross the streets going into the center. Pedestrians treated as more important than car traffic -- where else did people think so progressively in the 1960s?" asks Dubrovski.

The Gradski Trgovski Centar shopping center is the square's last remnant of that period. It won a national architecture prize in Tito's Yugoslavia, and yet the Skopje2014 plan calls for it, too, to be "baroquized."

There is a group of architects in the city who oppose this transformation. They demonstrate on the edge of the shopping center in the evenings. Gadjovski and Dubrovski take part, along with another 30 allies. A woman sings lovely jazz in the cold autumn evening. Others distribute hand-decorated balloons. Only a small local TV station sends a team to cover the event. "In the summer we were still a thousand people," says one of the demonstrators and shows the photos on his smartphone.

But it's not just the protests giving the Skopje2014 planners a headache. "The new buildings are much too close to the river," says Boro Gadjovski. "When there's flooding there could be damage."

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« Reply #9956 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:41 AM »

11/12/2013 05:28 PM

Tepid Talks: A Coalition Devoid of Vision

By Philipp Wittrock

The coalition taking shape in Berlin between Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats will have a huge majority in parliament. But the halfhearted discussion that's gone on so far suggests that the government won't tackle big projects -- and Merkel is to blame.

Germans aren't seeing much of Angela Merkel these days. Her election triumph was seven weeks ago and, since then, political activities in Berlin have stagnated into a leaden routine of coalition talks interspersed with optimistic updates from party officials. The chancellor, seen rushing in and out of meetings, has confined herself to telling waiting journalists that the two sides are making progress, step by step.

But are they really? Of course it makes sense not to rush things. But the longer the talks drag on, the greater the doubts as to whether these negotiations will yield a strong set of policies for Germany.

To be sure, the planned reform of the Energiewende, or energy revolution, discussed on Monday is necessary. The parties want to reform the system of green-energy subsidies and curb the growth of electricity prices, and the changes may turn out more effective than would have been possible in Merkel's previous alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats, who were voted out of parliament on Sept. 22 and won't be part of the next government. Of course, that's not surprising, seeing that the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Merkel's conservatives have a lot of common ground on energy policy.

But what about other key policy areas? After dozens of meetings at the working-group level and four official negotiating sessions with all the leaders of the planned grand coalition, it still isn't clear what the next government wants to achieve over the next four years.

The parties plan to reach a coalition deal by the end of November, but there's still no sign of any big project on the horizon. So far, the policies agreed on are rather secondary: There will be limits on housing rents, more state support for students, an expansion of Internet broadband capabilities and subsidies for housing refurbishment.

Merkel as Mediator

This lack of genuine vision can largely be blamed on Merkel. She won the election by a wide margin and should be outlining the big projects she wants her next government to tackle. But, so far, her role in the talks has been that of mediator. In fact, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and the SPD have been setting the agenda with calls for a road toll, a minimum wage, more nurseries and quotas for women in business.

Merkel wants to reform the structure of the EU, but that won't be part of the coalition agreement. Instead, her plans for Europe will go into CDU's manifesto ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections. She can still emphasize her policies of preventing any tax hikes and providing higher pensions for mothers -- but even the latter move, which will cost billions of euros, has yet to be agreed upon.

Last week, the pro-business wing of the conservatives warned that the next government mustn't be too Social Democratic. Many in Merkel's party are concerned that the government program will be a loose collection of policies that don't address fundamental issues, such as health care, the aging population, Europe or the integration of immigrants.

"We'll look ridiculous if we don't use such a big majority to tackle the really important questions," warned one senior CDU member who declined to be identified by name.

Gay Marriage, Referendums Could Be Obstacles

One issue that does threaten to cause a rift is same-sex marriage. According to a report published in the daily Die Welt on Tuesday, a coalition working group charged with discussing family policy broke off talks on Monday night following a row over the rights of gay couples to marry and adopt children. The SPD's chief negotiator in the group, Manuela Schwesig, threatened that the coalition talks as a whole could fail over the issue, Die Welt reported.

"Under these circumstances I can't recommend that SPD members agree to a coalition agreement," Die Welt quoted her as saying during the meeting. The coalition deal will be put to a vote by the party's 470,000 members.

The SPD confirmed on Tuesday that the talks on family policy had been broken off but added that Schwesig had been incorrectly quoted. The negotiations resumed on Tuesday morning, and the contentious issue has been left off the agenda for now.

There is also disagreement on the the subject of referendums. Merkel and many in her party are reportedly unhappy about a reported proposal by Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CSU and Thomas Oppermann of the SPD for referendums to be held in the future on major European issues, such as the accession of new member states, the transfer of powers to the EU or German financial commitments to the EU or its EU partners.

The CSU had called for the introduction of referendums on EU policies during the general election campaign. The SPD has likewise been calling for more direct democracy. Leaders will discuss the proposal on Wednesday during the next round of coalition talks.

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« Reply #9957 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:54 AM »

November 12, 2013

Iranian Official Faults Kerry and France for Breakdown in Talks


LONDON — The Iranian foreign minister turned to a Twitter account late Monday to challenge Secretary of State John Kerry over the failure of weekend talks in Geneva to produce agreement on Tehran’s nuclear program.

The minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, reacted after Mr. Kerry said at a news conference in the United Arab Emirates that while the world powers negotiating with Iran had agreed on a unified proposal, Mr. Zarif’s team had balked.

His remarks followed reports that France, one of the nations that was a party to the talks, had broken ranks to seek tougher terms, objecting that the proposed deal would do too little to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment or to stop the development of a nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium.

“The French signed off on it; we signed off on it,” Mr. Kerry said. “There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it.”

On his Twitter feed, however, Mr. Zarif said: “Mr. Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half of U.S. draft Thursday night? And publicly commented against it Friday morning?” He was apparently alluding to the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, who commented publicly on the talks as they were underway.

“No amount of spinning can change what happened within 5+1 in Geneva from 6 p.m. Thursday to 5:45 p.m. Saturday,” Mr. Zarif wrote, referring to the countries with which Tehran is negotiating — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. “But it can further erode confidence.”

In a subsequent tweet, the minister said: “We are committed to constructive engagement. Interaction on equal footing key to achieve shared objectives.”

The comment suggested that Iranian concerns about the way the talks were depicted would not be a deal-breaker ahead of lower-level talks scheduled for next week.

Indeed, on Monday, Iran and the United Nations nuclear watchdog agreed in separate discussions that international inspectors would be permitted “managed access” to one site that had caused French concerns — the Arak heavy-water reactor, which is still under construction.

Western countries suspect that Iran’s nuclear program aims to create the capability to build nuclear weapons, but Tehran says the program is for peaceful purposes.

The proposal under consideration in Geneva was devised as the first stage of a more extensive deal. It called for Iran to freeze its nuclear program for up to six months in return for some easing of the international sanctions strangling its economy.


White House warns lawmakers: More sanctions against Iran would risk starting a war

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 20:07 EST

The White House warned US lawmakers Tuesday that tightening sanctions on Iran could box America into a “march to war” and derail a diplomatic push to limit Tehran’s atomic program.

The warning marked a significant toughening of President Barack Obama’s stance towards Congress as he prepares to resume high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with Iran later this month.

“The American people do not want a march to war,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Obama has vowed he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, but last week intense negotiations in Geneva between Iran and six world powers failed to reach an interim deal to halt its program.

Fresh from the talks, Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to make the case for continued diplomacy.

Key senators from both parties, some responding to Israel’s denunciation of the proposed agreement, are proposing stiffer sanctions or may curtail Obama’s power to ease current measures, which have crippled the Iranian economy.

But the White House warned that new sanctions could scupper the diplomatic process and leave little option but the use of military force against Tehran’s nuclear program.

Carney said Americans “justifiably and understandably prefer a peaceful solution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and this agreement, if it’s achieved, has the potential to do that.”

“The alternative is military action,” Carney said.

“It is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is disallowed or ruled out, what options then do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?”

Republican Senator Mark Kirk, however, argued that sanctions remained the best way to avoid war and ensure Iran did not get nuclear weapons.

“The American people should not be forced to choose between military action and a bad deal that accepts a nuclear Iran,” he said.

White House aides privately say that once war-weary Americans understand the alternative to a deal with Iran means another Middle East conflict, they will warm to Obama’s approach.

Officials have also warned further action at this stage by Congress would strengthen hardliners in Iran opposed to dialogue between new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s envoys and Washington.

Tehran denies Western claims it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Kerry will take the administration’s position directly to the Senate Banking Committee, which is mulling a new sanctions package.

“The secretary will be clear that putting new sanctions in place would be a mistake,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“What we are asking for right now is a pause, a temporary pause in sanctions,” she told reporters. “We are not rolling them back.”

The House of Representatives has already passed a bill hardening up the sanctions, but the Senate agreed to delay further action to allow diplomacy a chance to succeed.

Both Republicans and Democrats have grown increasingly skeptical.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said in a USA Today op-ed that new sanctions are a “necessary insurance policy” to ensure Iran negotiates in good faith.

“We cannot substitute wild-eyed hope for clear-eyed pragmatism given Iran’s record of deception,” he said.

And he branded it “incompatible” for Tehran to pursue talks while installing centrifuges and developing a heavy-water reactor.

“Tougher sanctions will serve as an incentive for Iran to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program. When Iran complies, sanctions can be unwound and economic relief will follow,” he said.

An aide to Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson said the senator “will not make a decision on additional sanctions until he has had a chance to consult with his colleagues following the briefing” by Kerry on Wednesday.

The committee’s top Republican, Senator Mike Crapo, has said he wants to “move ahead expeditiously” with a new sanctions regime.

“I don’t see how we should adjust our sanctions policy before there is any progress on the negotiation,” he told Politico last week.

Colin Kahl, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said Congress was warming to the idea that sanctions pressure got Iran to the negotiating table and “more pressure will get them over the goal line.”

But Kahl told reporters that “Congress should be mindful… of doing things that would arm hardliners with the argument that the West isn’t serious” about engaging Iran diplomatically over its nuclear program.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, agreed, saying new sanctions could seriously limit Rouhani’s ability to maintain his “soft position” on the negotiations.

“The hardliners are waiting to destroy him,” Parsi said.

Negotiators “need to strike a deal before the Congress comes out and essentially closes the window of diplomacy.”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9958 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:55 AM »

Afghanistan’s poppy farmers plant record-breaking opium crop in 2013

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, November 13, 2013 6:19 EST

Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached a record high in 2013 as farmers seek to “insure” themselves ahead of NATO forces’ withdrawal next year, the United Nations said Wednesday.

The area under cultivation rose by 36 percent in 2013, the UN drugs agency UNODC said in its annual report on Afghanistan, while production of opium, the main ingredient in heroin, jumped almost 50 percent compared with last year.

There are fears that the departure of the bulk of the US-led NATO troops, who currently number around 75,000, by the end of 2014 will throw the war-torn nation into chaos and insecurity.

“Farmers may have driven up cultivation… trying to shore up their assets as insurance against an uncertain future, which could ensue from the withdrawal of international troops next year,” UNODC said.

The report said that in 2013 the area under opium poppy cultivation rose to 209,000 hectares from the previous year’s total of 154,000 — higher than the previous peak of 193,000 hectares in 2007.

Opium production reached 5,500 tons, up by almost half from 2012 but lower than the 2007 high of 7,400 tonnes as bad weather in southern Afghanistan affected crops.

Worth around $950 million, or 4 per cent of national GDP in 2013, the farm-gate value of opium production increased by almost a third.

Together with profits made by drug traffickers, the total value of the opium economy within Afghanistan was significantly higher, the report said, suggesting the illicit economy will grow further while a slowdown of the legal economy is predicted in 2014.

“What is needed is an integrated, comprehensive response to the drug problem, embedded in a long-term security, development and institution-building agenda,” UNODC executive director Yury Fedotov said.

Despite the presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops since the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan remains the world’s main producer of opium.

The country produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, and poppy farmers are taxed by the Taliban, who use the cash to help fund their insurgency against the government and NATO forces.

Assisted by its Western allies, Afghanistan has been trying to fight opium cultivation, including eradicating the crop before harvesting, but the efforts have so far met with limited success.

Most of the cultivation takes place in the southern and western provinces where the Taliban insurgency is most active.

In southern Helmand province, Afghanistan’s principal poppy-producing region, the area under cultivation rose by a third in 2013, while neighbouring Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, saw a 16 percent rise.

The poppies, which provide huge profits in one of the world’s poorest countries, also play a large part in the corruption that plagues Afghan life at every level from district to national government.

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« Reply #9959 on: Nov 13, 2013, 06:57 AM »

If you can't prevent rape, you enjoy it,' says India's top police official

Ranjit Sinha, chief of India's Central Bureau of Investigation, apologises for remark that causes outrage across country

Associated Press in New Delhi, Wednesday 13 November 2013 10.06 GMT   

India's top police official has apologised for saying: "If you can't prevent rape, you enjoy it," – a remark that has outraged the country.

Ranjit Sinha, chief of India's Central Bureau of Investigation, made the remark on Tuesday during a conference about illegal sports betting and the need to legalise gambling. The CBI, the country's premier investigative agency, is India's equivalent of the FBI.

Sinha said at the conference that if the state could not stop gambling, it could at least make some revenue by legalising it.

"If you cannot enforce the ban on betting, it is like saying: 'If you can't prevent rape, you enjoy it,'" he said.

The remarks have caused outrage across India, which in the past year has been hit by widespread protests following the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in New Delhi.

On Wednesday, Sinha said his comments had been taken out of context and misinterpreted, and that he was sorry if he had caused hurt. Angry activists, however, called for his resignation.

Brinda Karat, leader of the Communist party of India (Marxist), said Sinha's comments were offensive to women everywhere.

"It is sickening that a man who is in charge of several rape investigations should use such an analogy," Karat told reporters. "He should be prosecuted for degrading and insulting women."

The New Delhi attack on the young woman last December caused nationwide outrage and forced the government to change rape laws and create fast-track courts for rape cases.

Laws introduced after the attack make stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment a crime. They also provide for the death penalty for repeat offenders or for rape attacks that lead to the victim's death.

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