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« Reply #10095 on: Nov 19, 2013, 08:13 AM »

Philippines sets out new plan to deliver typhoon aid

Foreign military forces to be given responsibility for specific areas as government moves to fix Haiyan relief failures

Reuters in Manila, Tuesday 19 November 2013 07.27 GMT   

The Philippines will divide up the typhoon-ravaged central Visayas islands between countries to maximise relief efforts, a senior officer has said, as President Benigno Aquino made efforts to improve aid distribution 11 days after the storm hit.

The country is still struggling to get aid to devastated areas due to the extent of the destruction, which has left four million people displaced. Aquino has been personally overseeing relief operations in the worst-hit city of Tacloban in one of Asia's biggest ever humanitarian efforts.

The military commander of the Visayas, Lieutenant General Roy Deveraturda, said the relief plan was to cut the region into blocks for military forces. "We're planning to ask the British royal navy to concentrate on the western Visayas region to assess and deliver food, water and supplies to smaller islands … We already have the Americans in Samar and Leyte and Israeli doctors and relief teams in northern tip of Cebu," he said.

About 50 US ships and aircraft have been mobilised in the disaster zone, led by the USS George Washington aircraft carrier. The USS Freedom, a combat ship for coastal waters, arrived in Brunei on Monday en route to the Philippines.

Authorities estimate more than 3,900 people were killed when typhoon Haiyan made landfall on 8 November and the sea surged ashore. Estimates of the death toll have varied widely and the governor of worst-hit Leyte province said more than 4,000 people could have been killed on the island of that name alone.

The International Labour Organisation said five million workers had had their lives turned upside down. "But this is not just a matter of numbers," ILO Philippine office director Lawrence Jeff Johnson said. "These are people whose livelihoods have been destroyed."

The United Nations has expressed fear that some islands may still not have been reached by aid workers but the government has denied this. "Basically we've provided everyone with relief. What we are doing right now is sustainment," said Eduardo del Rosario, director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

A British destroyer anchored off Cebu and its helicopters were flying mercy missions to smaller islands, Deveraturda said. Once a larger British carrier arrived with seven helicopters it would be the best platform for relief for the western Visayas. A Canadian team with a C10 plane had been operating in and around the western island of Iloilo.

"We are doing another assessment of the affected areas to determine the needs and match them with our available resources. For instance we have three Japanese ships with ground mobility and heavy equipment arriving in several days and we'll look at where and how they would be effective."

Aquino got off to a bad start when the disaster struck, downplaying the extent of the crisis and appearing aloof. He has started this week appearing more confident in front of the news cameras, rationalising the extent of the damage.

"There's been some improvement in the government's relief efforts," said Peter Wallace, president of the Manila-based Wallace Business Forum consultancy. "Being able to move to Manila a number of displaced people, provide them with sustenance, we see that happening now. Clearing of the roads have been done, which is also extremely important."

Attorney Tecson John Lim, city administrator of Tacloban, said the national government had been trying to do its best. "The president has been through a lot. Perhaps some of the things he mentioned might not have been exactly prudent," he said. "I think he has seen and is learning to put this aside, whatever biases he might have had."

The government said on Tuesday that 24,770 personnel, 1,306 vehicles, 104 ships and boats and 163 aircraft had been deployed. A total of 88 medical teams, 43 foreign and 45 local, have spread out across the region.

Asif Ahmad, the British ambassador to the Philippines, said the relief operation could last months, if not longer. "How long would it take to grow a coconut tree?" he asked.

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« Reply #10096 on: Nov 19, 2013, 08:17 AM »

Lebanese border town receives 12,000 refugees in days as key battle looms

UN expecting thousands more to flee clashes in Qalamoun as rebels prepare to fight Hezbollah for control of strategic area

Martin Chulov in Beirut, Monday 18 November 2013 19.52 GMT   
Thousands of refugees are continuing to stream into the Lebanese border town of Arsal as clashes intensify in the nearby Qalamoun mountains ahead of what many observers believe will be a defining battle in the Syrian civil war.

United Nations officials in Lebanon say more than 12,000 new refugees have arrived in Arsal in the past four days, the highest influx into the Sunni Muslim town at any point in the past 32 months.

New arrivals say thousands more are making the journey from the towns and villages that dot the Qalamoun range between the Lebanese border and the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The area has been a vital supply line for insurgents and the communities supporting them throughout the war. The Syrian regime has long sought control of its rugged hills and plunging valleys so it can clear a path between Damascus and the country's third city, Homs, about 50 miles to the north-west.

Regime control of the area would imperil opposition supply lines to districts on the outskirts of the capital that still remain under rebel control. It would also consolidate the gains made by Hezbollah in May, when the Lebanese Shia militia, supported by regime artillery, overran the Syrian town of Qusair, clearing rebels from a vital corner of Syria's sectarian mosaic.

Rebel groups have called for reinforcements to travel to Qalamoun, just as they have on the outskirts of Aleppo in the north, another part of the country in which Syrian government forces and their allies are inching forward after many months of stalemate.

The largest rebel group in Aleppo, Liwa al-Tawheed, confirmed on Monday that its leader, Abdulkader al-Saleh, also known as Haji Marah, died of wounds after an air strike late last week. He is the most senior opposition figure to be killed in the north and his death came as regime forces, backed by an Iraqi militia, were slowly advancing around the rebel-held east of the capital, which is defended by a mix of mainstream opposition groups and foreign jihadis linked to al-Qaida.

While not yet committing large numbers of its forces to Qalamoun, Hezbollah has made little secret of the fact that it will take a lead role in the looming battle. Its fighters are more accustomed than the Syrian army to warfare in such difficult terrain after years of training in the mountains of southern Lebanon to face a more traditional foe, Israel.

"The regime will try to isolate the rebels in the mountains now that winter is coming," said the leader of Lebanon's Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt. It is a strategic area that links Damascus to Homs, and in this area there are ammunition stores that are vital to the regime. Most of them are west of the Damascus-Homs road.

As well as being a key supply route for arms and humanitarian aid, the roads through Qalamoun are also likely to be used to move the chemical weapons surrendered by Bashar al-Assad to a coastal port.


Lebanon: Iran's embassy in Beirut hit by two explosions

More than 20 people including diplomat die after twin blasts near Iranian mission in Lebanese capital

Martin Chulov in Beirut, Tuesday 19 November 2013 10.33 GMT   

Two explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut have killed at least 23 people, wounded more than 150, including an Iranian diplomat, and caused extensive damage to one of Lebanon's most heavily guarded buildings.

The attack shattered more than two months of relative calm in Lebanon and was cast by some officials as another spillover from the devastating war in neighbouring Syria, in which Iran, along with other regional powers, has taken a prominent stake.

One of the explosions is thought to have targeted a convoy arriving at the embassy, which contained cultural attaché Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ansari. Ghazanfar Rokanabadi, Iran's ambassador to Lebanon, confirmed Ansari's death, Iranian semi-official news agency Fars said. Lebanese officials also said he had been killed.

Among those killed were embassy guards, who eyewitnesses said had tried to stop a suicide bomber riding a motorbike near the building's gates, which were destroyed in the attack. The first bombing is thought to have been a prelude to a more substantial explosion about a minute later. A large crater near the embassy gate revealed the destructive force of the bomb, which is thought to have been hidden in a car.

Gunfire was heard in the minutes after the blasts as security forces tried to hold back bystanders and allow a cavalcade of rescue vehicles to enter the Bir Hassan area on the western edge of Hezbollah's Beirut stronghold.

The Lebanese militia has been on high alert in its heartland since August when the second of two explosions within weeks ravaged a nearby civilian area, killing scores.

The Shia Islamic leadership of Iran and its Hezbollah ally are strongly supportive of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, while those fighting against it are almost all Sunni Muslims – many of them homegrown Syrians, but also including jihadists who have travelled to Syria to fight the regime and its backers.

As state power has crumbled in Syria, sectarian faultlines have been stretched in Lebanon, where, despite their 1,500-year-old schism, the two main sects of Islam have more or less co-existed since both countries were formed from the ruins of the Ottoman empire.

But such an accommodation is increasingly being tested here, and elsewhere in the region, where the two sects live in proximity. Iraq has witnessed almost daily bombings for the past six months, nearly all of them carried out by extremist Sunni groups who openly state they are trying to reignite the sectarian war that raged there from 2006-07.

Both Iran and Hezbollah have played lead roles in recent advances by Syrian forces around Aleppo in the north and in rebel-held land south of Damascus. Hezbollah is also believed to be at the vanguard of a regime offensive in the Qalamoun mountains just to the east of the Syrian border, which looms as a significant battleground in the overall fight for control of the country.

With the war raging and regional tensions continuing to reverberate, Syrian opposition political leaders have yet to commit to a summit that aims to bring the crisis to a negotiated end. Opposition leaders say they remain opposed to Iran taking part and to Assad playing any future role in Syria.

Iran's ambassador blamed Israel for the attack. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, remains vehemently opposed to negotiations between Iran, the US and Europe over the fate of Tehran's nuclear programme, which Iran insists is for civilian purposes but Tel Aviv counters is a cover to make nuclear weapons that will be used to threaten it.

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« Reply #10097 on: Nov 19, 2013, 08:19 AM »

November 18, 2013

Israelis Embrace French President for Iran Position


JERUSALEM — President François Hollande’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, like all state visits, was planned months ago. But coming days before France and other world powers prepared to resume the nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva, the three-day visit that started on Sunday could not have come at a more opportune time for Israel — or for France, according to some Israeli officials.

The warm greetings exchanged by the French and Israeli leaders gave an international boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who has been conducting a campaign against a deal he calls “dangerous” even before the final details have been negotiated.

At the same time, a senior Israeli official said, the country’s praise for Mr. Hollande’s tough stance at the nuclear talks “will provide a boost to France and even more motivation for it to stay the course.”

For years, France has been at the forefront of an effort by Western nations to stop what they say is an Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons, despite Iran’s repeated denials. In some respects, the French have been more suspicious of the Iranians than the Americans have been.

By being seen to have pulled the United States closer to the French position, the Israeli official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for reasons of diplomacy, France has burnished its leadership role, at least in Israel’s view.

Yet Israeli officials and analysts acknowledged that the accolades for Mr. Hollande were based more on his tone and attitude than any illusions that France would become an advocate for Mr. Netanyahu’s maximalist demands in the talks with Iran.

“The best that the Israeli side can expect from France,” Shimon Shiffer, a political commentator, wrote in the popular Yediot Aharonot newspaper on Monday, “has to do with improving the terms of the agreement, no more.”

While Israelis were reassured to hear Mr. Hollande pledge that France would keep up the pressure on Iran and not remove sanctions until it was clear that Iran had given up what he called its quest for nuclear weapons, he has not backed Mr. Netanyahu’s demand for an end to all Iranian uranium enrichment, including to the low level of 3.5 percent.

At a news conference in Jerusalem on Sunday night, Mr. Hollande laid out four conditions for France to support an interim agreement: Placing all of Iran’s nuclear installations under immediate international supervision; suspending uranium enrichment to 20 percent; reducing Iran’s existing stockpile of enriched uranium; and halting the construction of a heavy-water reactor in Arak, a city in west central Iran.

Speaking at a special session of the Israeli Parliament on Monday, Mr. Netanyahu addressed Mr. Hollande as “My friend François.” Later, at a state dinner hosted by President Shimon Peres, Mr. Peres told Mr. Hollande, “Israel thanks you for the brave stance you have taken against Iran’s dangerous nuclear ambitions.”

The embrace of Mr. Hollande contrasts sharply with the tense exchanges over the last week between Israeli ministers and officials from the Obama administration. Mr. Netanyahu is scheduled to fly to Moscow for a meeting later this week with President Vladimir V. Putin.

There is little expectation in Israel that relations with France or others could serve as a real substitute for the Israeli-American alliance.

French-Israel relations have vacillated over the years. Alex Fishman, a military affairs analyst for Yediot Aharonot, described Mr. Hollande as “a pleasant fellow, but one who showed up with a bouquet of flowers several decades too late.” An article by Nadav Eyal in the newspaper Maariv said that it would be a mistake to rely on the French. “French diplomacy has one key tendency – uncompromising flexibility,” he wrote.

On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to be trying to tone down his argument with Washington.

“John Kerry is an old friend and he is also a friend of Israel,” he said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, adding, “I would like to make it clear that there can be disagreements even among the best of friends, certainly on issues related to our future and our fate.”


November 18, 2013

Split on Accord on Iran Strains U.S.-Israel Ties


WASHINGTON — To the Israeli government, the preliminary deal with Iran that the Obama administration is trying to seal this week is a giveaway to a government that has spent two decades building a vast nuclear program. It enshrines the status quo — at a time when the Iranians are within reach of the technical capability to build a bomb — and rewards some unproven leaders with cash and sanctions relief.

President Obama and his top aides see the same draft deal in sharply different terms. To them, it is a first effort to freeze the Iranian program, to buy some time to negotiate a more ambitious deal, and to stop two separate methods of developing a bomb, one involving uranium, the other plutonium. In return, the Iranians get modest relief from sanctions, but not what they desperately desire, the ability to again sell oil around the world. That would come only later as part of a final agreement that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure.

Those two divergent views have deeply politicized the question of whether the accord that the United States and its European allies are considering should be termed a good deal or a bad one. It is a fundamental disagreement that has left in tatters whatever halfhearted efforts Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel have made over the past five years to argue that they are on the same page when it comes to Iran.

Every time Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, ask for a little time and space to test the new Iranian leadership’s claims that it is ready for a new approach, and for compromise, Mr. Netanyahu responds that the proposed agreement is “a very bad deal,” “extremely dangerous,” “a mistake of historic proportions” or, as he said in an interview with CNN on Sunday, “an exceedingly bad deal.” And he has often raised the specter of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities even if a deal is signed, something the Obama administration believes would split apart the global coalition it has built to squeeze Iran.

Yet the disagreement is about far more than negotiating tactics. In interviews, both American and Israeli officials conceded that the terms of the preliminary accord reflect a difference in fundamental goals. Mr. Obama speaks often of his determination to prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon; Mr. Netanyahu sets a far higher bar of preventing Iran from gaining, or keeping, the capability to ever build one.

Mr. Netanyahu “will be satisfied with nothing less than the dismantlement of every scrap of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure,” one administration strategist said the other day. “We’d love that, too — but there’s no way that’s going to happen at this point in the negotiation. And for us, the goal is to make sure that we are putting limits and constraints on the program, and ensuring that if the Iranians decided to race for a bomb, we would know in time to react.”

The White House, alarmed by Mr. Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition and by an effort in Congress to enact a new round of sanctions on Iran that Israel supports, is trying to shore up its own arguments. Mr. Obama is bringing the leaders and ranking members of the Senate foreign relations, intelligence, armed services and banking committees to the White House on Tuesday to make the case that if Iran is going to be coaxed into a deal, the country’s new leaders must go home with some modest appetizer of sanctions relief — as an indication that the United States is ready to deal.

Two of the most eminent members of the foreign policy establishment, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, issued a joint statement on Monday that “should the United States fail to take this historic opportunity, we risk failing to achieve our non-proliferation goal and losing the support of allies and friends while increasing the probability of war.” They repeated Mr. Obama’s central argument: “Additional sanctions now against Iran with the view to extracting even more concessions in the negotiations will risk undermining or even shutting down the negotiations.”

The details of the proposed agreement have been closely held by the administration — and, the Israelis claim, from Jerusalem — but what is known about the deal gives both sides plenty of talking points.

While the Americans say it “freezes” the Iranian program and rolls it back, the fact is that only some elements are frozen, and the rollbacks in the initial agreement are relatively minor. For example, Iran would continue adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, meaning uranium enriched to reactor grade, or less than 5 percent purity. But the United States maintains that under details of the agreement it cannot yet disclose, the overall size of Iran’s stockpile would not increase.

The reason appears to be that Iran would agree to convert some of its medium-enriched uranium — fuel enriched to 20 percent purity, or near bomb grade — into an oxide form that is on the way to becoming reactor fuel. But that process can be easily reversed, notes Olli Heinonen, the former chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mr. Netanyahu’s camp and some Israeli analysts say the Israeli leader’s unstinting opposition is both substantive and political. He truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges is a terrible mistake. But he has also staked his premiership on fighting the Iranian nuclear threat, and the change in approach by his closest allies leaves him a bit rudderless.

“The situation has changed and everybody else except Israel understands that a deal means to be more flexible,” said Giora Eiland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Netanyahu speaks only about a good deal. The Americans are speaking about a reasonable deal, which is better than having no deal at all.”

For his part, Mr. Kerry has questioned publicly whether Mr. Netanyahu is aware of all the details in the agreement. And in some cases, Israeli officials appear to have distorted what Iran would get in return.

At a briefing with international journalists on Wednesday, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, said the deal would directly erase $15 billion to $20 billion of what he estimated was the $100 billion the current sanctions are costing Iran annually, and lead to relief of up to $40 billion because of indirect effects. The State Department immediately debunked those numbers, noting the sanctions relief would be for only six months, not a year. And the Americans put the figure at under $10 billion. But Israeli leaders have continued to cite the higher estimates.

There are also different accounts of what would happen to a heavy-water nuclear reactor now under construction near the town of Arak. The facility is critical to Iran’s plans because, if operating, it could provide it with a steady supply of plutonium, the fuel North Korea and now Pakistan have used for their arsenals.

France stepped into the negotiations 10 days ago complaining that the draft accord would allow Iran to get too close to being able to insert fuel into that reactor — at which point it could not be bombed by Israel without risking a radioactive, environmental disaster. The proposed agreement has since been modified, American officials say, to make sure that Iran is months to a year from being able to put fuel in the reactor.

To the United States, that is plenty of warning time but the Israelis want the plant taken apart, and the parts shipped out of the country.

“We want an outcome more like Libya, less like North Korea,” Mr. Steinitz said during a recent visit to Washington. He was referring to the 2003 deal in which Libya turned over every element of its nuclear program to American and international inspectors, who flew the parts out of the country. North Korea, in contrast, disabled its plutonium-producing reactor five years ago and now appears to have just restarted it, without a public condemnation from the White House.

But at the more basic level, this is an argument about more than just what the Iranians give up, and what they get in return. “In order to get into sync on the strategy, you need trust, and the trust has been eroded,” said Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has just returned from Israel and is lobbying vigorously against the preliminary deal.

If the trust is falling apart, it is not for lack of communication: Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu talked for 90 minutes in one call last week. “It went about as you might expect,” said one official briefed on the call. When it was over, the Israeli prime minister denounced the deal more loudly than ever, though on Sunday he told his cabinet that “I would like to make it clear that there can be disagreements even among the best of friends, certainly on issues related to our future and our fate.”

David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem. Steven Erlanger contributed from New York, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, and Mark Landler from Washington.

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« Reply #10098 on: Nov 19, 2013, 08:21 AM »

November 18, 2013

In the Middle of Mexico, a Middle Class Is Rising


GUANAJUATO, Mexico — A decade ago, Ivan Zamora, 23, might have already left for the United States. Instead, he graduated in May from a gleaming new university here, then moved on to an engineering internship at one of the many multinational companies just beyond the campus gates.

His days now begin at dawn inside the new Volkswagen factory a short walk away, and when he leaves at night, he joins a rush of the upwardly mobile — from the cavernous new Pirelli plant next door, an array of Japanese car-parts suppliers and a new Nivea plant on a grassy hillside.

“There’s just a lot more opportunity to study and to succeed,” Mr. Zamora said at the factory, surrounded by robots, steel, glass and young technicians. “Both my parents are teachers. They lived in an entirely different era.”

Education. More sophisticated work. Higher pay. This is the development formula Mexico has been seeking for decades. But after the free-market wave of the 1990s failed to produce much more than low-skilled factory work, Mexico is finally attracting the higher-end industries that experts say could lead to lasting prosperity. Here, in a mostly poor state long known as one of the country’s main sources of illegal immigrants to the United States, a new Mexico has begun to emerge.

Dozens of foreign companies are investing, filling in new industrial parks along the highways. Middle-class housing is popping up in former watermelon fields, and new universities are waving in classes of students eager to study engineering, aeronautics and biotechnology, signaling a growing confidence in Mexico’s economic future and what many see as the imported meritocracy of international business. In a country where connections and corruption are still common tools of enrichment, many people here are beginning to believe they can get ahead through study and hard work.

Mr. Zamora’s new job, for example (he was hired by VW at summer’s end), started with his parents prioritizing education, not emigration, and scrimping to give him a computer and, more recently, German lessons. The state of Guanajuato added to their investment by building the affordable polytechnic — part of a public university system that offers technical degrees as well as undergraduate and graduate degrees — and a sprawling interior port to lure the international companies that hire its graduates. And now Mr. Zamora has a job that pays enough to help his sister pursue her dream of studying marine biology.

This is a Mexico far different from the popular American conception: it is neither the grinding, low-skilled assembly work at maquiladoras, the multinational factories near the border, nor the ugliness of drug cartels. But the question many experts and officials are asking is whether Mexico as a whole can keep up with the rising demand for educated labor — and overcome concerns about crime and corruption — to propel its 112 million people into the club of developed nations.

“We are at something of a turning point,” said Eric Verhoogen, a professor of economics and international affairs at Columbia University. “The maquila strategy has been revealed not to have been successful, so people are looking around for something new.”

The automotive industry has been Mexico’s brightest spot so far. In many ways, central Mexico has already surpassed Detroit. There are now more auto-industry jobs in Mexico than in the entire American Midwest. At least 100,000 jobs have been added in Mexico since 2010, according to a recent Brookings Institution report, and General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Audi and Volkswagen have all announced expansion plans, with nearly $10 billion to be invested over the next several years, mainly in a 400-mile corridor from Puebla to Aguascalientes.

The work tends to be better paid than what could be found in the area before the companies arrived. It is still a fraction of the salaries of American workers — many employees on the factory floors in the interior port make around $3.65 an hour — but higher-paid professionals make up about 30 percent of the employees at many auto plants here, roughly twice as much as in the maquiladoras near the border.

And although robotics and other changes have kept overall employment in the industry somewhat limited, more of the industry has moved to Mexico as the car business has recovered. Around 40 percent of all auto-industry jobs in North America are in Mexico, up from 27 percent in 2000 (the Midwest has about 30 percent), and experts say the growth is accelerating, especially in Guanajuato, where state officials have been increasing incentives.

The 2,600-acre interior port, for example, has become a draw because, in addition to the polytechnic, the state built customs facilities, a railroad depot and a link to the local airport. Guanajuato also helps find candidates for companies to hire and, in some cases, gives them free classes to help them pass standardized tests required for employment. At Volkswagen, many of the young men and women flowing in and out of test-taking sessions said they benefited from the assistance.

Guanajuato even pays companies a small bonus for sending workers abroad for training. Mauricio Martínez, 29, an engineer at the Italian tiremaker Pirelli, which was one of the first companies to take up residence in the port, said he and his wife, Mariana, still saw their trip to Prague after his training in Romania as a fairy tale.

“I’m a small-town guy,” he said one day after work, in his kitchen with a beer. “But there I was; an Italian company from Milan hired a small-town guy from Mexico.”

He said he now makes $2,250 a month ($27,000 a year), far more than at his old job at a tow-truck company and roughly double the median household income nationwide. That’s more than enough for a middle-class life here. Both husband and wife drive to work, and this year they bought a three-bedroom townhouse in a new development for about $80,000. On a recent visit, “The Big Bang Theory” played on their flat-screen TV as a neighbor watered her patch of lawn no bigger than a beach towel.

While cooking dinner, Mrs. Martínez said that her husband’s job had given them the credit and stability they needed to start her own business — a gourmet salad shop in a colonial village nearby. And as is common in other countries with an expanding middle class, such as Brazil, their economic rise has led to demands for better government.

When someone recently stole Mrs. Martínez’s cellphone, she said she went straight to the police over the objections of her father, who warned her nothing would be done. “He was right,” she said. “But next time it happens, I want my complaint to be there. I’m trying to make a living here, and I want a legal life.”

“My generation, we’re more prepared,” she added. “My parents, they never even finished school; we know if something is going to change, it has to start with us.”

Many young, middle-class Mexicans are coming to similar realizations, propelled by 13 years of democracy and the Internet. But their ranks are small. As the auto industry rebounds and wage inflation in China makes Mexico more attractive for global manufacturers, many foreign employers say that skilled employees are harder to find and keep, while the mass of Mexican workers do not measure up to what many companies need.

Only 36 percent of Mexicans between 25 and 64 have earned the equivalent of a high school degree, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Despite a rapid rise in foreign investment, with 2013 shaping up to be Mexico’s best year on record, the country is still struggling.

The Mexican economy has slowed significantly this year, and even when it was doing better, the nation’s poverty rate fell only 0.6 percent to 53.3 million people — roughly 45 percent of the population — between 2010 and 2012. Crime and a notoriously weak justice system continue to undermine the economy, with Mexico’s minister of health recently estimating that it costs 8 to 15 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product. “It’s all the stuff we hear about again and again: Mexico has an education system that is not on par with its peers; a banking system that’s not lending; it has rule-of-law issues and public-security issues and corruption being a huge issue,” said Christopher Wilson, an economics scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “The list goes on and on.”

Many economists and business consultants are keeping a close watch on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s efforts to improve education, open the energy sector to private investment and overhaul taxes.

Kevin P. Gallagher, an economist at Boston University, said Mexico also needed to prioritize innovation. “South Korea and Taiwan spend over 2 percent of G.D.P. on research and development; China spends almost 2 percent,” he said. “Mexico spends 0.4 percent.”

But on a smaller scale in Guanajuato, individual success is creating a sense of possibility. Some of Mr. Zamora’s friends are studying German, too, hoping to land work at Volkswagen, and a similar sense of momentum pervades the polytechnic, where students in pristine industrial labs, like Javier Eduardo Luna Zapata, 24, have begun to dream of more than work at an auto plant.

He and a few classmates won a prestigious design award this year for a scanner that would check airport runways for debris. “We want to start a company,” he said, displaying a video of the project on his cellphone. “We’re going to look for investors when we graduate.”

His classmates, representing a new generation of Mexicans — mostly geeks in jeans carrying smartphones — all nodded with approval.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 19, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a professor of economics and international affairs at Columbia University. He is Eric Verhoogen, not Verhoogan.

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« Reply #10099 on: Nov 19, 2013, 08:24 AM »

Uruguay's likely cannabis law could set tone for war on drugs in Latin America

State control of marijuana market should be seen as part of long and pragmatic tradition of market intervention and nationalisation

Jonathan Watts in Montevideo
The Guardian, Monday 18 November 2013 18.20 GMT   
Inhaling deeply from a large joint of unadulterated cannabis, Marcelo Vasquez grins at the imminent prospect of his outlawed passion becoming Uruguay's newest state-sanctioned industry.

This week, the country's senate is expected to pass the world's most far-reaching drug legalisation, which should transform Vasquez from a petty criminal into a registered user, grower and ultimately, he hopes, a respected contributor to society.

That would be quite a change. After a police raid earlier this year, Vasquez – whose home doubles as a marijuana nursery – was jailed and 70 of his plants were confiscated. But the court case that followed now looks likely to go down as one of the last cannabis trials in his country's history.

The marijuana regulation bill, which has been passed by the lower house of the Uruguayan parliament, will allow registered users to buy up to 40g a month from a chemist's, registered growers to keep up to six plants, and cannabis clubs to have up to 45 members and cultivate as many as 99 plants.

Vasquez, who smokes four joints a day, is delighted. "It's a great step forward that couldn't happen anywhere but here," he says. "There's a lot more to marijuana than smoking and getting high."

This is not just the spliff talking. With the new law, Uruguay will go further than any other nation in exploring the potential benefits and risks of marijuana. The government is designing a new set of legal, commercial and bureaucratic tools to supplant a violent illegal market in narcotics, improve public health, protect individual rights, raise tax revenues and research the medical potential of the world's most widely used contraband drug.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that there are 162 million cannabis users – 4% of the world's adult population (pdf). Most countries have followed a policy of prohibition for decades, but there are signs of change.

Amsterdam's coffee shops still offer cannabis on their menus despite a recent tightening of the rules in the Netherlands. Dozens of US states have decriminalised or ceased penalising users of the drug. Washington and Colorado recently introduced a cannabis tax and California has steadily blurred the line between medical and recreational use. In the UK, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has ordered a review of existing drug policies and is expected to recommend that Britain relaxes its controls.

But no government has put in place a structure as all-encompassing and supportive as that envisaged in Uruguay.

"We'll be the first country to have a regulatory framework for marijuana production, distribution, sale, consumption and medical research," says Julio Bango, one of the legislators who drafted the bill. "This is an experiment without a doubt and it will have a demonstrable effect. That could be important for the world because it could be the start of a new paradigm."

Uruguay is trying to bring the cannabis market under state control by undercutting and outlawing the traffickers. If the bill is passed, the government will arrange for a high-quality, legal product to be sold in a safe environment at a price that competes with that offered by illegal dealers.

"If one gram costs $1 in the black market, then we'll sell the legal product for $1. If they drop the price to 75 cents, then we'll put it at that level," says Julio Calzada, a presidential adviser and the head of the National Secretariat on Drugs.

Most cannabis sold in Uruguay is of poor quality and smuggled in from Paraguay. In future, the government will license firms to produce local products grown in monitored conditions, which will then be sold to registered users through pharmacies. As in the case of tobacco, cannabis suppliers will not be allowed to advertise their product. Following moves to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion, this measure is likely to reinforce Uruguay's growing reputation as a bastion of tolerance and progressiveness in Latin America. But President José Mujica dismisses talk of liberality. A reluctant advocate of marijuana regulation, he says that this is the only way to stem the tide of the illegal drug trade, which has had dire consequences for individuals and wider society across Latin America.

"This is not about being free and open. It's a logical step. We want to take users away from clandestine business," Mujica tells the Guardian. "We don't defend marijuana or any other addiction. But worse than any drug is trafficking."

Rather than liberalism, Uruguay's actions are better explained by a long and pragmatic tradition of market intervention and nationalisation. The state controls core energy and telecoms industries, it fixes prices for essentials such as milk and water, and it pioneered some of the tightest controls on tobacco in the world.

This small country also boasts an impressive record for drug seizures, with an estimated 10% of the total market intercepted by law enforcement authorities, compared with a world average of less than 5%. Until recently, Uruguay had avoided the epidemic levels of illegal narcotic trafficking that are far more pronounced in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Mexico.

The country is winning individual battles, says Mujica – but systematically losing the war.

The growing popularity of pasta base – a highly addictive, crack-like drug – and an increase in drug-related murders has prompted him to act against the dealers by destroying their competitiveness in the biggest illegal market: marijuana.

This is the heart of the drug problem, says Calzada.

"Ninety per cent of drug users in Uruguay and the world only use marijuana so illegal markets are structured around that even though there are other drugs with a better yield, such as cocaine and LSD. It's like an off-licence that earns its highest profits from selling whiskey, but makes much more money by selling beer because there are 100 beer sales for every one bottle of whiskey."

Marijuana also has the advantage of being less harmful, not accounting for even one of the 80 registered deaths linked to drug trafficking in Uruguay last year.

By opening the door to regulation of cannabis, Calzada says the government has an alternative to the "war on drugs" approach, which has created more problems than it has solved.

"For 50 years, we have tried to tackle the drug problem with only one tool – penalisation – and that has failed. As a result, we now have more consumers, bigger criminal organisations, money laundering, arms trafficking and collateral damage. As a control model, we're convinced that it is more harmful than the drugs themselves."

But critics say that Uruguay is taking a huge risk that could result in a wave of new addictions.

"If legalisation goes ahead, I think the social damage will be enormous," says Nancy Alonso, who runs the Manantiales Foundation, a private addiction treatment centre. "Marijuana may seem innocent, but it is addictive, 15 times more carcinogenic than tobacco and produces psychological disorders including depression, anxiety and occasionally schizophrenia."More importantly, she says cannabis is a gateway drug that leads users to harder narcotics. Juvenile residents at the treatment centre say their experience backs up such claims.

"I started with marijuana when I was 13 or 14 and then moved on to cocaine because I wanted something stronger," said Helen, a 15 year old. "If drugs are legalised, more people will consume them."

The public too have yet to be convinced. A Factum poll in October showed 29% approved of legalisation. Although sharply up from the 3% support levels of 10 years ago, this means the policy is still a potential vote loser.

Supporters of the measure hope hard data will win over the doubters. Once the marijuana business moves out of the shadows, its size will be clearer, monitoring will be easier and taxes can be levied and used to fund treatment of addicts and a more focused crackdown on harder drugs. Although the government is prepared to lose money to out-bid the traffickers in the initial stage, once the state has a monopoly, the potential revenues are considerable. The authorities estimate that 10% of adult Uruguayans – 115,000 people – smoke cannabis. Existing law permits consumption of "reasonable" amounts of marijuana, but forbids sales. The new law should clear up this legal contradiction.

The government will set up a Cannabis Research Institute, which will monitor the programme, handle approvals of seeds, establish policies for research and regulate the industry.

The market in Uruguay is estimated to be worth $30m a year, according to Martin Fernández, a lawyer working for the Association of Cannabis Studies, who says one in five Uruguayans have tried marijuana. But he admits the numbers are sketchy.

"It is hard to measure the illegal market, just as it is with human and illegal arms trafficking," he says. "But with legalisation, we should get a clear idea of the situation."

Many are eying new business opportunities. At street level, the passage of the bill is likely to boost shops selling growing kits. In downtown Montevideo, one such store, UruGrow, is already seeing a sharp rise in demand for soil, grow tents, fertiliser and other products.

"We're expanding fast," said one of the founders, Juan Andrés "Guano" Palese. "Six months ago, we sold 200 litres of soil a week, now it's more than 1,000 litres. Soon we'll need to move into bigger premises."

But the big money is more likely to come from the pharmaceutical industry, which will be freer to develop and test marijuana painkillers and other treatments in Uruguay than in any other country. According to Bango, several big international laboratories have visited Montevideo to discuss possible collaborations or investments.

"We have opportunities in the hemp industry and the spread of biotech and marijuana farming, I've just returned from a US conference on this subject. There are lots of potential products – creams, oils, sweets, capsules and products to treat multiple sclerosis and cancer. They all need scientific research to be validated. In other countries that is limited. We don't have that inconvenience," said Bango. "I think it will be a new industry for the economy."

Dope tourists could also be lured by cheap, legal, high-quality marijuana, but the authorities are adamant that they last thing they want is for Uruguay to end up as the "Amsterdam of Latin America". Only residents will be entitled to buy cannabis. Re-sales are prohibited. Coffee shop that put Indica, Sativa or Hash Browns on their menu will be closed down. "We are trying to learn from the mistakes made by other countries," Fernandez says.

Juan Vaz, a marijuana grower and long-time legalisation campaigner, hopes the regulation strategy can be applied to other narcotics.

"It would make a big health impact if we could do the same for cocaine, crack and other drugs so users could avoid accidental overdoses. That would also make a lot of profit for the government."

So far, however, Uruguayan officials have dismissed suggestions that they might use the same approach for harder drugs. They say the health risks posed by cocaine and heroin are far greater than those associated with marijuana so they require a different strategy.

Nonetheless if the senate passes the cannabis bill as expected, it won't only be the country's smokers who are delighted. Several Latin American leaders have also called for a shift from the current prohibition approach as the war on drugs takes a rising death toll with no sign of victory. Uruguay, once again, looks set to take the first step for the region.

Vaz, who spent 11 months in prison for marijuana growing, says he now feels responsible for making the policy a success. "I will celebrate. It will be a victory. For many years we have been asking for this. Now we can ask nothing more," he says. "Now it is up to us to make it work."

Additional research by Mauricio Rabuffetti

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« Reply #10100 on: Nov 19, 2013, 08:27 AM »

Nasa launches Maven mission to find out what happened to water on Mars

Spacecraft takes off from Cape Canaveral after decade of preparation briefly interrupted by the US govenment shutdown

Dan Roberts and agencies
The Guardian, Monday 18 November 2013 19.16 GMT   
A spacecraft designed to dive deep into the upper atmosphere of Mars and find out what happened to the planet's water took off from Cape Canaveral on Monday, in Nasa's most ambitious attempt yet to understand the causes of dramatic climate change on our planetary neighbour.

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, or Maven, is bristling with instruments able to measure the effect of solar wind and analyse thin traces of gases, in order to help scientists model the process that left the planet so dry and barren. Its launch follows findings from Nasa's recent Mars rover mission which support growing evidence in rock samples that there was once water on the surface of the Mars, protected by a thick atmosphere that could have supported primitive life.

Orbiting between 3,864 miles and 77 miles above the desert surface, Maven is expected to reveal how Mars' atmosphere was gradually peeled away over billions of years, by the sun's radiation.

"Maven is going to focus on trying to understand what the history of the atmosphere has been, how the climate has changed through time and how that has influenced the evolution of the surface and the potential habitability – at least by microbes – of Mars," said lead scientist Bruce Jakosky. "Mars is a complicated system, just as complicated as the Earth in its own way. You can't hope, with a single spacecraft, to study all aspects and to learn everything there is to know about it. With Maven, we're exploring the single biggest unexplored piece of Mars so far."

Among the eight instruments and nine sensors on board the spacecraft is a magnetometer that will help scientists measure changes in the magnetic field around Mars that would once have protected its atmosphere from solar wind.

In September, decade-long preparations for the mission were briefly interrupted by the US government shutdown.

Maven will take nearly a year to reach the red planet and scientists estimate it should be sending back its first results by early 2015.

The evidence for a warmer, wetter, more Earth-like Mars has been building. Ancient rocks bear chemical fingerprints of past interactions with water. The planet's surface is riddled with geologic features carved by water, such as channels, dried up riverbeds, lake deltas and other sedimentary deposits.

"The atmosphere must have been thicker for the planet to be warmer and wetter. The question is where did all that carbon dioxide and the water go?" Jakosky said.

There are two places such an atmosphere could go: down into the ground or up into space.

Scientists know some of the planet's carbon dioxide ended up on the surface and joined with minerals in the crust. But so far, the ground inventory is not large enough to account for the thick atmosphere Mars would have needed to support water on its surface. Scientists suspect that most of the atmosphere was lost into space, a process that began about 4 billion years ago when the planet's protective magnetic field mysteriously turned off.

"If you have a global magnetic field, it causes the solar wind to stand off. It pushes it away so it isn't able to strip away atmosphere," Jakosky said.

Without a magnetic field, Mars became a ripe target for solar and cosmic radiation, a process that continues today.

Maven's prime mission is expected to last for one year, enough time for scientists to collect data during solar storms and other space weather events. Maven will remain in orbit for up to 10 years, serving as a communications relay for Curiosity, a follow-on rover slated to launch in 2020 and a lander that is being designed to study the planet's deep interior.

Following its successful launch on Monday, the spacecraft is due to reach Mars on 22 September 2014 – two days before India's Mars Orbiter Mission, which launched on 5 November. India's probe has been raising its orbit around Earth and should be in position to begin the journey to Mars on 1 December.

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« Reply #10101 on: Nov 19, 2013, 08:51 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

Court order that allowed NSA surveillance is revealed for first time

Fisa court judge who authorised massive tapping of metadata was hesitant but felt she could not stand in the way

Spencer Ackerman in New York, Tuesday 19 November 2013 04.53 GMT   
A secret court order that authorised a massive trawl by the National Security Agency of Americans' email and internet data was published for the first time on Monday night, among a trove of documents that also revealed a judge's concern that the NSA "continuously" and "systematically" violated the limits placed on the program.

The order by the Fisa court, almost certainly its first ruling on the controversial program and published only in heavily redacted form, shows that it granted permisson for the trawl in part beacause of the type of devices used for the surveillance. Even the judge approving the spying called it a “novel use” of government authorities.

Another later court order found that what it called "systemic overcollection" had taken place.

Transparency lawsuits brought by civil liberties groups compelled the US spy agencies on Monday night to shed new light on the highly controversial program, whose discontinuation in 2011 for unclear reasons was first reported by the Guardian based on leaks by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

In a heavily redacted opinion Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the former presiding judge of the Fisa court, placed legal weight on the methods of surveillance employed by the NSA, which had never before collected the internet data of “an enormous volume of communications”.

The methods, known as pen registers and trap-and-trace devices, record the incoming and outgoing routing information of communications – traditionally phone calls made between individual users. Kollar-Kotelly ruled that acquiring the metadata, and not the content, of email and internet usage in bulk was harmonious with the “purpose” of Congress and prior court rulings – even though no surveillance statute ever authorized it and top officials at the justice department and the FBI threatened to resign in 2004 over what they considered its dubious legality.

“The court recognizes that, by concluding that these definitions do not restrict the use of pen registers or trap-and-trace devices to communication facilities associated with individual users, it is finding that these definitions encompass an exceptionally broad form of collection,” wrote Kollar-Kotelly in an opinion whose date is redacted.

The type of data collected under the program included information on the "to", "from" and "bcc" lines of an email rather than the content. According to the government’s declaration to Kollar-Kotelly the NSA would keep the internet metadata “online” and available to analysts to search through for 18 months, after which it would be stored in an “‘offline’ tape system” available to relatively few officials. It would have to be destroyed four and a half years after initial collection.

Metadata, wrote Kollar-Kotelly, enjoyed no protection under the fourth amendment to the US constitution, a precedent established by the supreme court in 1979 in a single case on which the NSA relies currently.

Still, Kollar-Kotelly conceded that she was blessing “a novel use of statutory authorities for pen register/trap and trace surveillance”.

While at times Kollar-Kotelly appeared in her ruling to be hesitant about granting NSA broad authorities to collect Americans’ internet metadata, “deference”, she wrote, “should be given to the fully considered judgment of the executive branch in assessing and responding to national security threats and in determining the potential significance of intelligence-related information.”

The legal status of the internet metadata program was highly controversial. In March 2004 several justice department and FBI individuals threatened to resign – including James Comey, George W Bush’s deputy attorney general and now Barack Obama’s FBI director – if the Bush White House and NSA persisted in authorizing the program over their objections that the internet metadata bulk collection was insufficiently legally grounded.

An internal NSA draft history, first reported by the Guardian, noted that the program paused in March 2004, while the White House quelled the secret rebellion, but resumed in July after then NSA director Michael Hayden sought to reassure Kollar-Kotelly, who “signed the first” so-called Pen Register/Trap and Trace Order on 14 July 2004.

It is unclear if the order from Kollar-Kotelly released on Monday is her order of 14 July 2004 as the date is redacted.

Systemic overcollection

A later opinion on the internet metadata program, by Kollar-Kotelly’s successor, John Bates, states that the “NSA exceeded the scope of authorized acquisition continuously” after Kollar-Kotelly’s initial approval.

Bates wrote that subsequent NSA reporting to the court revealed that "systemic overcollection" had taken place from almost the beginning of the program. "Virtually every" record generated by the program "included some data that had not been authorized for collection". A footnote suggests that Kollar-Kotelly grew worried that the content of communications was collected at times despite her initial confidence that the collection methods of the pen registers and trap and trace devices could not permit that.

"The government has provided no comprehensive explanation of how so substantial an overcollection occurred," Bates wrote in another undated opinion, whose redactions suggest the NSA blamed "noncommunication with the technical personnel directly responsible".

A senior intelligence official, Shawn Turner of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Guardian in July that the Obama administration shut down the bulk internet metadata collection program in 2011 “for operational and resource reasons” and it had not been restarted.

Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, who has campaigned against the scope of NSA domestic surveillance, has suggested in several statements that the program was wasteful, violated Americans’ privacy and did not lead to useful counterterrorism information.
Hundreds of pages

The NSA also released hundreds of pages of documents on Monday related to training on use of its vast data troves; its certifications to Congress and the court about its bulk phone records collections on Americans; and its internal checks to prevent abuse.

The release was prompted by a lawsuit sponsored by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Monday’s disclosure represented the final round of court-compelled document disclosures as part of the civil liberties organization’s attempts to learn more about what they contend is legally dubious mass surveillance on Americans phone records.

“On the logic of these opinions almost every digital footprint we leave behind can be vacuumed up by the government – who we talk to, what we read, where we go online," said Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the ACLU. "Like previous releases these materials show the danger of a government that sidesteps public debate and instead grounds its surveillance powers in the secret opinions of a secret court. The more we learn the clearer it is that our surveillance laws and oversight rules are in dramatic need of reform."

The release comes at the beginning of an important week in Washington for the NSA’s bulk phone records collection. On Thursday the NSA deputy director is scheduled to testify before a Senate panel that is considering a bill to strip the surveillance agency of its power to collect phone data from Americans without individual warrants. Legislators are also discussing attaching surveillance restrictions to an annual defence authorization bill that the Senate is taking up this week.

Monday was also a busy day for the NSA’s bulk surveillance in the courts. The supreme court declined to take a case about the bulk phone records collection, while a judge on a lower federal court considered an injunction against the NSA.

“I don't know, frankly, how I'm going to come out,” said Judge Richard Leon, who heard arguments for and against an injunction on the bulk phone records surveillance on Monday brought by the conservative group Judicial Watch in his US district court for the District of Columbia.

“It's going to the court of appeals and probably to the supreme court – one way or the other,” news organizations quoted Leon saying after the hearing.

At least one document related to bulk surveillance was not released.

The Fisa court announced on Monday afternoon that the intelligence agencies and the justice department decided that it would not declassify a court opinion from 19 February 2013 related to the court’s interpretation of Section 215. It is unclear if the opinion refers to bulk phone records collection or to the other sorts of records that the government contends the Patriot Act provision allows it to collect – such as financial data of the sort the Obama administration disclosed last week to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that the CIA gathers.

The document disclosures came the same day that the US supreme court declined a request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to review the legality of the bulk phone records collection.

A terse statement announcing several court orders did not address the reasons the court denied the review, brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which argued that the Fisa court had no right to order telecoms to turn over customer data in bulk to the government.

Several other legal challenges to the bulk phone records collection are pending before lower federal courts. One of them, brought by the ACLU, will begin oral arguments on Friday in the Southern District of New York.

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of Epic, said in a statement that he was “disappointed” in the supreme court’s decision as he called the bulk surveillance order “clearly illegal”.


November 18, 2013

Congress and Courts Weigh Restraints on N.S.A. Spying


WASHINGTON — Congressional critics of the National Security Agency program that collects the telephone records of millions of Americans stepped up their efforts as the Supreme Court on Monday turned away an unusual challenge to the scope of the surveillance.

The intensifying push against the N.S.A. on both the legal and legislative fronts reflected new pressure being put on the extensive surveillance effort in the wake of revelations by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden, pressure that is running into stiff resistance from congressional leaders of both parties as well as the Obama administration.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed the challenge directly with the Supreme Court, arguing that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had “exceeded its statutory jurisdiction when it ordered production of millions of domestic telephone records that cannot plausibly be relevant to an authorized investigation.”

The justices gave no reason for rejecting the group’s petition, but the unusual procedure of bypassing the lower courts probably played a role. Other, more conventional challenges to government surveillance programs are pending.

In urging the justices not to hear the case, the federal government said “the proper way” to mount a challenge “is to file an action in Federal District Court to enjoin the program, as other parties have done.”

It cautioned, though, that “the government may assert certain threshold defenses to such a suit.” The case is In re Electronic Privacy Information Center, No. 13-58.

After the recent revelations about widespread government surveillance, civil liberties groups have filed fresh challenges in federal trial courts, saying they can now show that they have standing.

Members of both parties are making a push for laws that would rein in N.S.A. data collection programs and bring more transparency to intelligence gathering. Those seeking to impose new requirements on the N.S.A. hope to take advantage of a small window of opportunity and attach their provisions onto an annual Pentagon policy measure now headed for Senate consideration.

“When you have a train that is sure to reach the station, you want to add your car to that train,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “Even if it means a battle.”

By raising new questions about the operations of these surveillance programs — whose disclosure by Mr. Snowden created one of the more disruptive episodes in Barack Obama’s presidency — Congress seems set to provoke yet another uncomfortable public discussion for a White House struggling to overcome severe problems with its health law.

Leaders of both parties in Congress are hardly eager to see the issue come up again. In the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, is wary of any measure that the White House thinks is harmful to national security. He and other Senate leaders are considering erecting procedural barriers to amendments to the Pentagon legislation. The leadership resistance limits chances for quick success in the Senate.

In the House, Speaker John A. Boehner has said he believes dealing with N.S.A. questions in the short time left this year would rush a process that should be longer and more deliberative.

But lawmakers like Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and one of the Senate’s strongest critics of mass surveillance, and Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who has tried to bring greater attention to national security practices he argues are unchecked, see no reason to wait.

“What I’m going to zero in on,” Mr. Wyden said in an interview, “is much of what the intelligence leadership in the past has been misleading about, has shrouded in incomprehensible intelligence-speak or has just been flat-out wrong.”

He added that he thought the timing with the pending defense bill was ideal. “I think there’s an opportunity to work with senators of varying different views to set the record straight about the government’s surveillance authority and jump-start the broader debate about intelligence reform,” he said.

The amendment Mr. Wyden has been circulating in recent days to colleagues would create a battery of new disclosure requirements for the intelligence agencies, including public reports on how often they have conducted mass digital sweeps that enable them to track cellphones, and on how many times they have violated their own privacy rules and safeguards.

Mr. Wyden drafted his amendment to appeal to both ends of the spectrum on surveillance. It purposely contains nothing about banning N.S.A. data collection methods so it does not alienate those who are generally supportive of current intelligence practices. He declined to say how many senators had signed on, but did say a number of influential centrists who hold very different views on N.S.A. policies have expressed interest.

“Certainly the concept of more accountability and transparency has got a lot of senators’ interest,” he added.

The larger and more divisive fight over banning certain N.S.A. programs, which Mr. Wyden and other members of Congress have been leading, would wait until next year.

Questions about the N.S.A. are especially difficult for the Democratic Party, which has a core group of liberals who oppose giving the government the blanket authority to collect vast quantities of data on its citizens. The party also has members, like Mr. Reid and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who are inclined to be deferential to the president and intelligence officials.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and the gatekeeper of the amendments that will eventually find their way onto the Pentagon bill, has said he prefers that N.S.A. issues be kept out of it.

“It’s really a separate issue and should not be on the defense bill,” he said. “It’s probably the only way we can get a defense bill done if we keep nondefense-related amendments off the bill.”

This year, more than half of the House Democrats defied Mr. Obama and their leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, and voted to block the N.S.A. from collecting huge troves of phone records. Not quite half of the House Republicans also voted for the measure, but it ultimately failed in a close vote.

But there are signs this time could be different. Asked last week if she thought it was time for Congress to revisit questions of government surveillance, Ms. Pelosi strongly pushed back on the notion that she was in favor of broad government authority, and said lawmakers should take up the issue.

“I have been a critic of this program for a very long time,” she said, adding that while she still did not support a ban on bulk data collection, she was open to other changes. “I think the discussion should take place.”


Nancy Pelosi Mocks House Republicans Over Their Blank 2014 Agenda

By: Sarah Jones
Monday, November, 18th, 2013, 1:33 pm   

Stumbling around pointing fingers while gleefully mocking Obama for trying to help save millions of Americans’ lives might feel great, but it’s not doing much for Congress’ 9% approval ratings.

So House Republicans have yet another Hail Mary idea to save themselves with the voters they’ve been busy alienating for years. A new fiscal agenda! One that allegedly will address the concerns of people.

Only problem? It’s blank.

Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was not impressed. “‏The House GOP’s 2014 blank agenda proves they are officially out of ideas,” she tweeted, linking to a Politico article.

    The House GOP's 2014 blank agenda proves they are officially out of ideas.

    — Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) November 18, 2013

When Eric Cantor (R-VA) passed out GOP Agenda 2014, it was blank according to Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan at Politico.

    Last Thursday, a group of House Republicans filed into Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s Capitol office suite and received a blank piece of paper labeled “Agenda 2014.”

This blank agenda is another attempt at rebranding. Republicans are now going to focus on the problems they are allegedly solving with their policies, instead of the importance of the policy itself. This polls better, you see, they explained to Politico, sounding a bit too much like a stalker trying to find just the right way to hit on his victim. This is, after all, rebrand number 3 (?) in a year’s time, and they have all failed.

It might be the policies.

Still licking their chops over the people who have to change insurance plans while ignoring the 47 million who do not have any insurance at all and will finally get it under ObamaCare, Republicans see openings in energy costs and job training programs, among other issues. They think they can sell drilling here and now by talking about energy costs to the average American.

And that’s all fine, except that under Obama we’re setting record growth in oil rigs and it hasn’t done much to the price of gas for reasons that liberals have understood and tried to explain to Drill Baby Drill bumper sticker energy “experts” like Sarah Palin to no avail.

No matter — the facts seldom get in the way of the Republican Party’s jingles. But as always with the GOP, Politico reported, “Details, at this point, are scant…”

Yes. Because it is hard to rebrand already rejected policies especially when the GOP base is deadset on the very social issues the Republicans have been pushing as get out the vote tactics for years, so there isn’t a lot of room for thinking outside of the box.

This is the reality facing the GOP post shutdown – and the shutdown was only the cherry on top of years of 47% contempt for average Americans. But that is why this news isn’t making headlines. It’s vast and it impacts our country daily – so of course, the media is loath to discuss it.

The Democrats are flawed and imperfect and annoyingly refusing to embrace the bold liberalism that actually appeals to people even in the south (see Kentucky), but at least their platform is aimed at using government money and resources to help people; the GOP uses government money to socialize corporate losses and subsidize corporate risks while letting the people starve. It’s hard to sell those “ideas” to very people paying for the funding. It requires a lot of fear-mongering and distraction with ginned up social issues.

Can the GOP save themselves from the shutdown, or better yet, can the media single-handedly rescue the GOP from their own reckless incompetence by eagerly passing off GOP talking points as news?

They’re trying. In the meantime, here’s a deep, totally rebranding blank page for you to ponder as you consider which party has your best interests at heart.

Republicans are trying, but a blank agenda is just bad optics for a party that’s been branded as the party of No, the party of No Ideas, and the party of obstruction. They should revert back to their big font tricks and waving pamphlets with the word “jobs” printed in desperate repetition – blank agendas are a bit too close to the truth, though I applaud them for leaving the corporate logos off.


The Kochs and Their Astroturf Tea Are Demanding an Exemption From Campaign Finance Rules

By: Rmuse
Monday, November, 18th, 2013, 5:58 pm   

Americans should hope that their government weighs decisions affecting the outcome of America’s electoral process on laws and reality; not out of sorrow for fabricated suffering and misfortunes of billionaires claiming they are targets of disparaging public commentary and scorn. A little over three years ago, the conservative Supreme Court was overwhelmed with pity and sorrow for the Koch brothers and their surrogate conservative non-profit, Citizens United, and ruled that after being put upon by Federal Elections Commission rules regarding corporate campaign finance laws, the wealthiest corporations were entitled to First Amendment protections prohibiting government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations.

Up until the time the High Court ruling on Citizens United was handed down, the public was oblivious to the Koch brothers’ machinations to hijack the electoral process resulting in little to no public outcry against exempting the richest corporations in the nation from buying elections.  It appears Americans are being kept unawares again as the Koch’s so-called grass-roots organization, the teabaggers, have asked for an FEC exemption on campaign finance disclosure rules.

The teabaggers appealed directly to the Federal Elections Commission in September with the outrageous claim they are being assailed by, and encounter unprecedented harassment from, both government officials and private actors.  Their appeal claimed their wealthy corporate contributors face widespread hostility and “a reasonable probability of threats, harassment, or reprisal” because of their extraordinary desire to “curb increasing government infringement of their individual liberties.” The Koch brothers’ organization also asserted that all they are comprised of are besieged individual groups who share common values including “limited federal government, respect for the original meaning of the Constitution, fiscal responsibility, and returning political power to the states and the people.”

To garner extra pity, the appeal claimed “the TEA Party is not a political party because it does not nominate candidates to federal office.” One wonders if Koch brother acolytes and tea party Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio, as well as a herd of congressional representatives qualified as candidates for federal office. It is claims like “the TEA Party is not a political party” that engenders some of the harassment as filthy liars and imbeciles the group claims qualifies them for exemption from campaign finance laws. To garner even more pity, the teabaggers claimed it is just a simple “nationwide grassroots movement that arose organically in 2009 out of an immense” hatred for the federal government; especially since the American people elected an African American man as President. The billionaire Koch brothers and their dark money certainly played a crucial role in the ascendance of the teabaggers who also benefitted from the Kochs’ influence on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

The FEC seems conflicted about whether to give the Koch brothers (teabagger) organization an exemption from adhering to campaign finance disclosure laws based on if they are either beleaguered victims of public derision and mockery, or just another political party and dark money concealment mechanism. In fact, although there is a public hearing to settle the issue set for November 21st, the FEC has drafted two separate rulings  in advance of the November 21st hearing to either; grant the Kochs an exemption based on the teabagger’s claim of public harassment and ridicule, or a rejection because the Koch’s teabaggers are not, as they claim, a minor party or organization. It has been well-documented, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the teabaggers are not an “organic grass roots organization,” and although their limited government, states’ supremacy, fiscal austerity, and individual liberty to flaunt federal law goals may be sincere, they were cultivated, incited, and heavily funded by the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers.

That the FEC is even considering granting the Koch brothers’ tea party an exemption from FEC reporting and disclosure requirements, including their dark money donors, is beyond outrageous in light of the democracy-killing Citizens United ruling courtesy of Koch surrogates Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia on the conservative Supreme Court. It is little surprise that, like the Citizens United ruling, the Kochs’ organization is appealing directly to the FEC leading up to the 2014 midterm elections. Americans are still reeling from the devastating effects of the Citizens United ruling on the 2010 midterms, and with news that the Kochs and teabagger Ted Cruz are embroiled in a shadowy Tea Party scheme driving a right-wing group “masquerading as a mainstream non-profit to push extremist laws” in every state, the likelihood they would transfer millions to an exempt organization is very real outcome of an FEC ruling favorable to the Kochs.

The report by the Center for Media and Democracy focusing on the State Policy Network revealed that the “network” and its “affiliates” are pouring $83 million in the states to promote an extreme conservative agenda, and they claim “that money is on the rise.” The group is backed by the Koch brothers and teabagger Ted Cruz, as well as numerous ties to ALEC. At its annual meeting in September there were representatives from “Koch Industries, the Charles Koch Institute, the Charles Koch Foundation, and several Koch-backed right-wing groups such as Americans for Prosperity.” With the group being investigated for orchestrating extensive lobbying and political operations while registered as educational nonprofits peddling an extreme conservative agenda to state legislators, it appears they are “in violation of IRS’ regulations on nonprofit political and lobbying activities.” A favorable ruling by the FEC granting the Kochs’ teabaggers an exemption to conceal their dark money makes it reasonable to assume the billionaire libertarians would simply shift tens-of-millions to teabaggers under cover of an FEC exemption.

Although the audacity of the Kochs’ teabaggers to demand an exemption from FEC campaign disclosure laws is an affront to the American people, and democracy, it should not surprise anyone. What is shocking is that the FEC even remotely considered drafting a favorable ruling to the Kochs’ organization; particularly in advance of a hearing a week away and especially based on their claim they are not a political party, are offended they are the butt of Americans’ jokes, and claim they face a “reasonable probability of threats, harassment, or reprisal” if they reveal their financing comes from the Koch brothers. Unlike the Koch brothers’ surrogates on the Supreme Court sneak attack on democracy, alerts from at least one progressive watchdog exposed the Kochs’ stealth attack on democracy leading up to the 2014 midterm elections.

News of this blatant assault on the electoral process should enrage the people and incite them to mobilize and march on FEC headquarters on November 21st to demand they reject the Kochs’ teabagger exemption with extreme prejudice. In lieu of a mass in-person advance on the FEC hearing to demand the Koch’s attempt to hijack another midterm election is stopped in its tracks, there is a petition to demand that the “FEC Don’t Let Billionaires Buy Our Election” here. The Koch brothers own Republicans in Congress, governors’ mansions, and state legislatures, two Supreme Court Justices, and are attempting to own the electoral process outright. After the Citizens United ruling, if the FEC exempts the Kochs’ teabagger organization from adhering to campaign disclosure rules, they will finally achieve their ultimate goal and own America.


November 17, 2013 08:29 PM

Crowley Repeats GOP Talking Points on Obamacare Rollout and Immigration

By Heather

Isn't it amazing that somehow these Sunday show hosts all managed to come to the same conclusion that President Obama can no longer be trusted and that his presidency is now in peril due to the problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act? It's almost like they were all reading off of the same script.

Nicole already discussed the Martha Raddatz segment on This Week, where the audience was treated to a big heaping helping of the latest Republican talking points of the day. CNN's Candy Crowley took it one step further and threw in some of Eric Cantor's rhetoric on why it's supposedly impossible for the House to pass immigration reform. If you missed it over the weekend, go read this post from Think Progress: Cantor: We Can’t Pass Immigration Reform Because Is Having Technical Difficulties.

Then tell me who Crowley is carrying water for during the beginning of her show this Sunday:

    CANDY CROWLEY: Good morning from Washington. I'm Candy Crowley. Mama said there'd be days like this, but who knew there'd be months.


    BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we can just get the darn website working and smooth this thing out --

    CROWLEY (voice-over): A politician on a rugged road is generally headed downhill and losing friends along the way. Amid the mess of a broken website and millions of Americans losing health insurance they thought they could keep, the president's approval numbers are sliding. In a totally related development --

    UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On this vote, the yeas are 261, the nays are 157. The bill is passed.

    CROWLEY: Thirty-nine Democrats voted against the president and with Republicans on an Obamacare fix. The bill goes nowhere from here, but it's the thought that counts and the thought is that the president's broken keep your health care promise is toxic. Hence, the direct message to voters.

    OBAMA: I want them to know that, you know, their senator or congressman, they were making representations based on what I told them and what this White House and our administrative staff told them. And so, it's not on them, it's on us.

    CROWLEY: Of the president's numbers collapsing beneath the roll out, this one weighs heaviest. Is Barack Obama honest and trustworthy? Just 44 percent of Americans think so, down 10 points since late September. It has prompted comparisons to George Bush's failed response to the deadly hurricane Katrina.

    The situations are entirely different but politically trusted Bush and in the government fell and never recovered, undermining the rest of Bush's term. Without argument, this president is at the lowest political moment of his tenure and it is difficult to govern without trust.

    OBAMA: I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general.

    CROWLEY: Time is short. As some allies inch away, Republicans are circling.

    REP. FRED UPTON, (R) MICHIGAN: Presidencies are often associated with one famous utterance. Ask not what your country can do for you. The only thing we have to fear, tear down this wall. And our current president will be no different. If you like your health care plan, you can keep it. Period.

    CROWLEY: Poll numbers are snapshots in time and time moves on. For the president, days like this could become months or they could become different kinds of days entirely.

    (END VIDEOTAPE) CROWLEY (on-camera): Joining me now, members of their party leadership, Democratic congressman, James Clyburn and Republican senator, John Barrasso. Gentlemen, thank you both for coming this morning.

    I want to pick up first on the Katrina references with generally go to the idea that once a president falls below that 50 percent line when it comes to honesty and trustworthiness it makes it very hard to govern, but that really litigating George Bush and Katrina, Senator Barrasso. Do you buy into that argument that the president may be in a hole he can't get out of?

    BARRASSO: He maybe, Candy. I'm a lot less concerned about the president and his legacy than I am about the lives of the people in my state in Wyoming and around the country who are being hurt by the policy of this health care law. They're losing their coverage, millions. They're being hit by sticker shock.

    They can't keep their doctors. And what the president is proposing is basically a false fix. It's a political band aid, but it's not a permanent cure for the people that are being hurt by his policies so it's time to start over with trying to get people the health care that they wanted from the beginning which was affordable care from their doctor that they choose.

    CROWLEY: Congressman Clyburn, it remains true, however, that a president who loses kind of the faith of Americans finds it hard to pass other things, immigration, all the other things that are on. It was a very ambitious second term agenda for this president. How does he win back trust? I'm assuming you think he can.

Note to Candy Crowley. The reason President Obama can't get anything passed through the House, such as immigration reform has nothing to do with whether anyone "trusts him" or not. It's because Republicans have been obstructing everything he's tried to get passed since the day he got elected. Pretending they have an excuse now won't change that fact.


Obamacare Website Woes Amplified By Active Republican Hatred

By: Black Liberal Boomer
Monday, November, 18th, 2013, 4:48 pm      

Not that it should come as a surprise or anything? But in case you hadn’t already heard, it appears that some of the problems with the Obamacare website aren’t exactly due to that incompetence thing that Bob Woodward (the Acknowledged God of All Journalism Blessings Be Upon Him) likes to pin on the Obama administration. As a matter of fact, it seems that a certain faction of Republicans have been clocking in the overtime working to jam up the gears of the site in any way they can. Interestingly enough, this rather significant phenomenon doesn’t appear to be getting nearly as much media traction as it should. This is more than a sideline development; this is a major headline.

Or at least it should be.


    Yesterday, the House Homeland Security Committee published a video on their Youtube page highlighting a portion of the committee questioning Roberta Stempfley, acting assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Cyber-security and Communications, who confirmed at least 16 attacks on the Affordable Care Act‘s portal website in 2013.

    Roberta Stempfley highlighted one successful attack that is designed to deny access to the website called a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. A DDoS attack is designed to make a network unavailable to intended users, generally through a concerted effort to disrupt service such as repeatedly accessing the servers, saturating them with more traffic than the website is designed to handle.

    Right wingers have been distributing the link to the necessary tools to perform the attacks on the website through social networking, as pointed out by Information Week, and other websites.

    The name of the attack tool is called, “Destroy Obama Care!”

And from the Washington Post:

    Although the statute provided plenty of money to help states build their own insurance exchanges, it included no money for the development of a federal exchange — and Republicans would block any funding attempts. According to one former administration official, [Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen] Sebelius simply could not scrounge together enough money to keep a group of people developing the exchanges working directly under her.

“So, the federal exchange that Republicans said wouldn’t work ended up not working because it was starved of the money needed to help make it work [and] because the GOP pressured Republican governors to not form their own state exchanges. This made the federal task more complex and difficult, thus ensuring its failure,” said the Post’s Jonathan Capehart. Capehart spared no punches when helping to pile on the blame, but at least he went to the trouble of pointing out the inherent difficulty of having a successful rollout when the Republican party is actively working feverishly to sabotage the President’s efforts to provide more Americans with affordable health care. Far too often and for far too long all that seems to get reported is that the website is flawed, without bothering to investigate why the Republicans are working so hard to kill Obamacare – and why they don’t mind playing dirty to do it. Heck, even Politico, not exactly known for it’s liberal leanings, acknowledges that the Republican seek-and-destroy mission  is having its effect.

    To the undisputed reasons for Obamacare’s rocky rollout — a balky website, muddied White House messaging and sudden sticker shock for individuals forced to buy more expensive health insurance — add a less acknowledged cause: calculated sabotage by Republicans at every step.

    That may sound like a left-wing conspiracy theory — and the Obama administration itself is so busy defending the indefensible early failings of its signature program that it has barely tried to make this case. But there is a strong factual basis for such a charge.

Stay tuned, and stay ready. More right-wing hatred on the way.


Obama Vows To Fight: The ACA is Law That Will Last for Generations To Come

By: Jason Easley
Monday, November, 18th, 2013, 10:56 pm   

In a call with supporters tonight, President Obama explained the big picture behind all of the white noise about websites. He said that the ACA is a law that will last for generations.

Here is the audio via our friends at The Obama Diary:

After listing the benefits of the ACA, President Obama talked about the half a million Americans who have already will have access to healthcare as of January 1, 2014. The president said, “That still leaves a whole lot of people that we’ve got to get signed up.” President Obama said that 12 million people have visited the site.

The president talked about the difficult battle to make this change a reality, “We knew it was going to be hard because change is hard, and there are a lot of vested interests, and obviously we haven’t gotten a lot of cooperation from the other party, so I’ve run my last political campaign, but I’ve got one more campaign in me, and that’s to make sure that this law works. We’re not backing off one bit.”

The most important thing that that the president said was, “All along at every step there have been folks who said that this wasn’t going to happen. Folks who said this is dead. Folks who said it’s never going to work. You know, that’s been going on for three years, and it’s not any different now. But the difference is that we can actually actually make sure that people get signed up, and start experiencing those benefits right off the bat, and if we do that consistently and effectively over the next six months then this law is going to be one that lasts for generations to come, and people will see why we fought so hard to do it.”

Often many Americans say that they want change for the country. They want to be a part of history. They want to move the country forward. The ACA is this generation’s chance to do exactly that. The ACA is a change the size of Social Security and Medicare.

This isn’t about websites. This is about giving people affordable access to something as vital as healthcare. Republicans are stomping their feet over things like cancelation notices and website issues, because they can’t stop the change that is coming.

The media is obsessing over the website because they can’t see beyond the 24/7 news cycle. The ACA isn’t going to fail, because people want access to affordable healthcare.

Republicans claimed that Social Security would ruin America. They claimed that Medicare would ruin America, and now in their most dire of tones, they are claiming that the ACA will ruin America. Progress doesn’t ruin America. It propels our nation forward, and the Affordable Care Act represents progress.

Don’t lose sight of the big picture. Millions of people want the ACA, and it now time to fight to make sure that they get it. This is why millions of you voted for Barack Obama. Now, it’s time for you to stand up and make the change you dreamed of in November 2008 a reality.

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« Reply #10102 on: Nov 20, 2013, 06:34 AM »

11/19/2013 06:17 PM

Declassified Documents: NSA Wanted To Collect Geolocation Data

By Christian Stöcker

The White House had to declassify NSA documents once again this week. The papers show that the NSA also wanted to collect and save mobile phone location information domestically and may already be doing so.

At the very latest, it's been clear since the scandal surrounding spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone that when American intelligence services comment on their practices, every single word has meaning. If an official says, for example, "We don't do that and we will not do so in the future," it could well mean, "We did that up until now."

In that light, one statement written by the NSA in secret documents declassified in redacted form by the US government on Monday seems of particular interest. In the 2010 document, a staff member for a US senator on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asked the agency to "Please clarify when NSA can collect FISA geolocation data, either through telephony or Internet."

In other words, the senator wanted to know if, in addition to telephone and Internet metadata, the US intelligence agency was also tracking the location of everybody who has a mobile phone or Internet connection. FISA is a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which permits US intelligence agencies to undertake certain types of eavesdropping and data collection within the scope of the law.

'Exploring the Possibility of Acquiring Such Mobility Data'

The NSA's answer is long and convoluted, and at least 13 lines have been blacked out in the published version. Near the very end, though, the official who provided the answer gets to the point:

    "With the exception of test data sampling acquired from one provider, NSA does not currently obtain cellular mobility data (cell site location information) pursuant to this Court-authorized program."

But in this case, the addition of the concrete program -- referring to the FISA program of collecting telephone and Internet metadata -- is at the very least odd. The reason is that it opens up the possibility that the NSA may long have been collecting geolocation data based on other legal bases. The answer also includes another potentially explosive sentence right at the end:

    "NSA is, however, exploring the possibility of acquiring such mobility data under this program in the near future under the authority currently granted by the Court."

In this instance, the court is a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court charged with critical oversight of the government's FISA spying programs.

Did NSA Implement Program in 2010?

The document indicates that the NSA already had concrete plans in 2010 to save the geolocations of all mobile phone and Internet users in the United States in addition to the connection data for phone calls, emails and Internet connections. Apparently officials didn't feel additional laws were needed for monitoring that kind of data. Equipped with this power, almost every movement of every single mobile phone user in the United States could be captured for years at a time. The NSA currently saves metadata for at least five years.

There are indications the NSA already implemented its bold plan since that answer in 2010. In a September hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden repeatedly asked NSA chief Keith Alexander if his agency was collecting location information from mobile devices. Alexander once again answered by providing another qualifier. "Under Section 215," Alexander responded, "NSA is not collecting cell site data."

The Section 215 Alexander was referring to is part of the so-called Patriot Act. Again, Alexander dodged giving a clear and unambiguous answer by attaching a qualification - he said the NSA does not collect such data under one concrete passage of one specific law. He didn't say: "No."

But Wyden refused to let Alexander get away with this evasion. "I'm asking: Has the NSA ever collected or ever made any plans to collect cell site information. That was the question we still respectfully have not gotten an answer to. Could you give me an answer to that?"

This time Alexander dodged the question. "What I don't want to do, Senator, is put out in an unclassified forum anything that's classified here."


Norway denies NSA collaboration – but admits to snooping on phone calls

Military intelligence chief responds to claims that 33 million Norwegian phone calls had been monitored by the NSA

Associated Press in Oslo, Tuesday 19 November 2013 22.55 GMT   

Norway carries out surveillance on millions of phone calls in conflict areas around the world and shares that data with allies, including the United States, the coutnry's military chief has admitted

Lt Gen Kjell Grandhagen made the statement in response to a story in the tabloid Dagbladet, which reported that 33 million Norwegian phone calls had been monitored by the US National Security Agency. Grandhagen vigorously denied the story.

"We had to correct that picture because we know that this in fact is not about surveillance in Norway or against Norway, but it is about the Norwegian intelligence effort abroad," he said.

He stressed that his agency's actions were legal under Norwegian law since the surveillance was based on suspicions of terrorism-related activity and that potential targets could include Norwegian citizens abroad.

Grandhagen said his intelligence agency had absolutely no indication that the NSA was spying on Norwegians.

In a tweet, Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian journalist who originally revealed the NSA surveillance programme based on leaks from Edward Snowden, said that another document related to Norwegian spying would be published on Wednesday. Greenwald had worked with Dagbladet on the story that appeared Tuesday.

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« Reply #10103 on: Nov 20, 2013, 06:41 AM »

11/19/2013 05:28 PM

SPD-Left Rapprochement: A Time Bomb in Merkel's Government


The Social Democrats sowed mistrust among Angela Merkel's conservatives last week by declaring themselves open to a future alliance with the left-wing Left Party. Her new government could be more fragile than thought, with the SPD already positioning itself for the post-Merkel era.

The decision by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) to open itself to a possible future alliance with the Left Partyhas unsettled coalition talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, and is a ticking time bomb that could topple her third government before the next general election, in 2017.

The SPD has until now ruled out forming a national government with the left-wing Left Party because it regards the latter's policy pledges as unrealistic. For example, the ultra-pacifist party, which has its roots in the communist SED party that ruled the former East Germany, wants an end to all foreign military missions, a ban on weapons exports, the withdrawal or destruction of all US nuclear missiles still stationed in Germany, and the dissolution of NATO.

A national alliance of the SPD and Left Party hasn't been taboo for just policy reasons. 'The SPD resented the Left Party for luring away thousands of voters disenchanted with the Agenda 2010 welfare cuts enacted by the last SPD-led government beginning in 2003. The animosity was worsened by the defection of former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine to the Left Party, which he co-led until 2010. However, the two parties have governed together at the regional level.

Nevertheless, the SPD's party congress in the eastern city of Leipzig last week approved a motion to open itself to the option of a future coalition with the Left Party. It was a clever move that shows that SPD chair Sigmar Gabriel can match Merkel's famed political cunning. The leftist option will put the conservatives under pressure in the ongoing coalition talks with the SPD, and will keep that pressure up throughout their shared government.

Technically, the SPD, Greens and Left Party already have enough seats in the newly elected Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, to govern: Tthey have 320, and they need 316 for an absolute majority, whereas the conservatives hold 311 seats. But no one expects the SPD to pull out of the coalition talks and team up with the Left Party in the near future. For that to happen, the Left Party would have to undergo a dramatic overhaul of its policies.

SPD Could Hold Merkel Ransom

Until the middle of last week, the talks were surprisingly -- some would say eerily -- harmonious. The various working groups of conservative and SPD negotiators had agreed on an array of spending increases. But the announcement last Tuesday of the SPD's planned rapprochement with the Left Party has pierced that harmony like a shard of ice.

"It's outrageous," fumed Alexander Dobrindt, general secretary of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The conservatives feel they can no longer trust the SPD. Will it pull out of the government at some point? Will it hold Merkel ransom during her third term? And what options will the conservatives have if the SPD does pull the plug? Some conservatives are now calling for the party to foster deeper ties with the Greens, their only possible partners if the SPD abandons them.

For the SPD, the grand coalition is the last stage before what it hopes will be the biggest shake-up in German politics since the SPD-Green government came to power in 1998, which ended 16 years of calcifying conservative rule under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Even though many leading SPD members are trying to play down the importance of last week's s decision, it will affect the everyday working of the upcoming coalition.

"I would urge Sigmar Gabriel to build contacts with the Left Party in the coming parliamentary term," said Jan Stöss, the head of the regional SPD organization for the city-state of Berlin. "The SPD's decision means the work isn't finished; it's only just begun."

It's also a victory for the left wing of the SPD, and a reward for its acceptance of coalition talks with the conservatives.

Pitfalls in Coalition Agreement

Gabriel's strategic coup took Merkel by surprise and has shaken her CDU. "The conservatives have made a lot of concessions on policies. So Gabriel should refrain from threatening us with the Left Party," said Günther Oettinger of the CDU, the EU's energy commissioner.

Leading CDU members are concerned that the SPD could pick any of the issues that have proven contentious in the current talks -- such as same-sex marriage, a gender quota in business or family policy -- and use them as an excuse to withdraw from the government during the next four years.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer is calling for a narrow coalition deal that defines all the planned policies and makes clear how they're going to be funded. Indeed, the conservatives want to avoid drawing up a list of desired policy measures whose financing is unresolved precisely because it would enable Gabriel to pick an issue as an excuse to let the coalition fail. Wolfgang Schäuble, the miserly CDU finance minister, would serve as a suitable bogeyman to rally the SPD troops against.

But the CDU's fears may be premature. It will take time for the Left Party to drop its radical pacifism and rebuild bridges to the SPD. Likewise, the party has grown accustomed to its leftist populism, an easy stance to take in opposition. Gregor Gysi, the parliamentary group leader of the Left Party, says it can't go on just catering for its own supporters, but needs to "offer comprehensible alternatives" for voters who back the SPD or the conservatives. He knows his party faces the most difficult chapter in its history.

Yet Merkel has more reason to be worried than her triumphant election win on Sept. 22 would have suggested. Her coalition with the SPD will have an overwhelming parliamentary majority, but her fate will be chained to an SPD leader who is already preparing the ground for the end of the Merkel Era.



11/20/2013 12:45 PM

Dubious Middlemen and Greedy Doctors: Inside Germany's Medical Tourism Business

By Udo Ludwig, Matthias Schepp and Antje Windmann

German hospitals are earning a billion euros a year with foreign patients. Sarkis Sargsyan is one, and like so many others, the Russian cancer patient fell into the clutches of a questionable middleman and greedy doctors.

The metastases are scattered around his body like pieces of shrapnel. The German doctors have shown them to him on shaded computer images, which reveal lighter formations in his liver, lungs and brain.

It's a Friday in July 2012. Sarkis Sargsyan, a 46-year-old Russian citizen, is lying on a treatment table in the Klinikum rechts der Isar, a university hospital in Munich. A sign on the door reads "Linear Accelerator III." A mask made of hard blue plastic encloses his hairless skull and face. Two women in white gowns are adjusting Sargsyan's head so that the intersecting red laser beams from the irradiation unit line up precisely with the markings on the mask.

Sargsyan, wearing a black tracksuit, is lying peacefully on the table. His hands are folded across his stomach, his eyes closed. The women turn on the machine, which begins to emit a low humming noise. The radiation is now being targeted at the enemy inside his head.

The story of Sarkis Sargsyan is one of adversity, despair and hope. It's also a tale of allegedly false promises, lavish profits and a brutal lack of scruples. It began in September 2012, when Sargsyan discovered blood in his stool. He went to a hospital in Moscow, where a colonoscopy was performed. "You have a tumor in your intestine, and it doesn't look good," the doctor reportedly said, looking serious. "If you have money," he added, "you should go to Germany. They'll help you there."

The doctor's words reassured Sargsyan because they sounded like an insurance policy. His family owns a small hotel and restaurant in Moscow, and he was convinced he could afford the treatment.

'Treatment in Germany'

He researched German clinics and doctors online with the help of his wife, Nelly, 38, and his brother Derenik, 49.

If you type the words "treatment in Germany" into a search engine on the Russian-language Internet, you get some 3 million hits, including the websites of those who have identified a potential market in people like Sargsyan. An army of "patient facilitators" appears on the screen, offering services to patients that include overcoming language barriers, procuring visas, scheduling flights and, most importantly, setting up appointments at top hospitals and clinics. "You have to be careful with them," the doctor in Moscow had warned Sargsyan.

An acquaintance suggested to Sargsyan that he try IMZ GmbH, a Munich-based agency. IMZ stands for Innovation Medizin Zentrum (Innovation Medicine Center), which sounds impressive enough. When Sargsyan's brother Derenik called IMZ, he described the suspected cancer diagnosis to a doctor named Arsen B., who had attended medical school in Armenia, where the Sargsyans were born. "Come to Munich," the doctor allegedly said. "Then your brother's illness will soon be nothing but a memory."

A few days later, Sarkis, Nelly and Derenik boarded a flight to Munich. But they had no idea how long the trip would last -- and that they were about to begin the worst period of their life.

A Global Market Worth Billions

Even medicine has now succumbed to globalization. Like the Sargsyans, hundreds of thousands of people receive treatment in a foreign country every year. This medical tourism earns German hospitals and doctors roughly €1 billion ($1.35 billion) in annual revenues. In 2011, 82,854 foreign patients were treated in Germany on an inpatient basis and about 123,000 on an outpatient basis. Russians make up the largest group of non-European Union patients in Germany, with about 6,000 receiving inpatient treatment each year. Their share of the total foreign patient population has increased six-fold since 2003. "And the interest keeps growing and growing," says Vladimir Pyatin, Russia's deputy consul general in Bonn, the western city that was once Germany's capital.

Receiving medical treatment in Germany has always been seen as a privilege in Russia. Famed novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky went to the spa in Baden-Baden, writer Nikolai Gogol searched for a cure for his melancholy in the Baltic seaside resort of Travemünde, former President Boris Yeltsin, who had had five bypass surgeries, had regular checkups at the German Heart Institute in Berlin, and former first lady Raisa Gorbachev was treated for leukemia at the Münster University Hospital.

The reasons for the current boom are simple: The state health care system in Russia has been bled dry. The number of hospitals has declined by almost half since 2000. Many underpaid doctors have left the country. There is a shortage of equipment, and hygiene in hospitals is disastrous. Only 35 percent of Russians are satisfied with medical care in their country.

In comparison, Germany looks like a paradise, with well-trained doctors working with state-of-the-art technology in spotless hospital wards. German hospitals also cater to Russian patients, who, as self-payers, present a lucrative source of income.

This seemingly presents a win-win situation. And that's what it would be if weren't for several factors: the brokers who shamelessly exploit their customers, padding their invoices, urging them to have unnecessary tests done and, in the worst case, sending them home after they have received subpar treatment; the hospitals that turn a blind eye to all of this merely to make a profit; and the politicians who are aware of the legal gray area in which medical tourism lies, yet behave as if they were blind, deaf and dumb.

A Knight in Shining Armor

Sargsyan, his wife and brother landed in Munich on Sept. 16, 2012. They had already paid €3,500 to the IMZ agency as an advance for the treatment and visas, the Sargsyans say.

According to their account, soon after their arrival, they went to the IMZ broker's office at the Sheraton München Arabellapark Hotel.

There, they allege they were greeted by a man in a suit, Arsen B., whose business card listed an exotic combination of titles: "Prof. Dr. med. Dr. h. c. med., neurosurgeon - orthopedics, Director - Senior Physician." B. allegedly promised to make the necessary arrangements for Sargsyan with a network of private clinics and doctors' offices. The family felt like they had met their knight in shining armor.

However, IMZ disputes this account, saying that Arsen B. was abroad on this date and that it does not have an office at this location.

Sargsyan is sitting in a furnished, two-room apartment in northern Munich as he describes his first few days in Germany. He has just returned from radiation treatment, and the blue mask is lying in his lap.

He was a karate fighter and strong as lighting, says his wife, Nelly, a petite, friendly woman. The couple has been married for 21 years. Nelly's description of her husband is a far cry from the person sitting on the sofa. He has dark bags under his eyes, and he looks depressed and exhausted. It's hard to imagine that this man has ever laughed.

Sargsyan talks about how the first appointment took him to the Arabella Clinic, where another colonoscopy was performed. The diagnosis described "a coarse tumor that is not passable." A tissue sample revealed that the tumor was malignant. Doctors also found metastases in Sargsyan's liver and lungs. An interpreter with the agency translated for the patient. "The news was bad," says Sargsyan, "but I trusted the doctors." He also trusted Arsen B., who seemed to have a plan for everything.

To prevent intestinal obstruction, Sargsyan was given a colostomy. Local doctors performed the first cycle of chemotherapy, followed by radiation therapy. The brother handled financial matters, paying €10,000 to the IMZ office for the initial treatment. Because he paid with a credit card, he was also charged a 5 percent surcharge. "Thank you for your confidence," the customer receipts read.

According to the initial estimate, the €10,000 was supposed to cover the chemo and radiation therapy. But soon the brother was asked to pay another €20,000 because the doctors had supposedly forgotten to include the medications in their first bill. No payment, no treatment, Arsen B. reportedly told the brother. That is how Derenik Sargsyan tells the story. However, Arsen B. claims that the additional payment became due because the treatment turned out to be much more complex and costly than originally predicted.

"From the very beginning, patients are told that, generally speaking, the actual doctors' costs are higher than the preliminary cost estimate," Arsen B. says.

During a break in treatment at the beginning of the year, the family returned home to Moscow. After two weeks, Sargsyan suddenly collapsed at home. He was making strange sounds and garbling his words. "Gasoline, I need gasoline," he said, pointing to a water glass.

Doctors in Moscow suspected that there were metastases in his head. His brother Derenik called the IMZ agency in Germany and was told to "come back immediately."

The agency has had a Facebook page since December 2011. The name IMZ is a clever choice because, when it's entered into a search engine, one of the first hits is the home page of the Isar Medizin Zentrum, a well-known private clinic in Munich. The logos of the two organizations -- three curved, parallel arches -- are also strikingly similar. But the agency and the clinic are completely unrelated, and a lawsuit is in the works. The clinic feels that its trademark has been "massively infringed upon."

On the Russian website, the agency advertised until recently its services with flowery slogans, such as: "Life goes on, and we make sure that illnesses don't prevent you from enjoying it to its fullest" and "You will still be able to enjoy the world in all of its colors."

An Unregulated Business
The public prosecutor's office in Munich has investigated Arsen B. for suspected fraud several times. In 2011, he was accused of having scammed consulting fees of about €25,000 for the treatment of a 12-year-old Armenian boy with bone cancer. The boy has since died. His father claims that B. had assured him that he would not be charged for his brokering services.

According to prosecutors, Arsen B. argued that it was clear that his fees were to be billed under the Fee Schedule for Non-Medical Practitioners. B. had assessed a fee for over one-third of the days during the treatment period, from June 2010 to January 2011. The proceedings were closed in July of this year, but the family's attorney has filed a complaint against the decision. B. refuses to comment on the case, citing a non-disclosure obligation.

Taking Advantage of People in Need

There are only rough estimates available on the number of agencies in Germany that provide these facilitation services for foreign patients. "I know of a few hundred," says Jens Juszczak, a lecturer in health marketing at the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences who is considered Germany's foremost expert on medical tourism. According to Juszczak, very few of these agencies are genuinely reputable.

Most of the companies are not registered, and many consist of only one person, a mobile phone and a website -- often with soft music in the background or images of butterflies fluttering across the screen. One company, Baden-Tour, advertises its ties to 256 partner hospitals on its Russian website, but most of these hospitals are completely unaware of their good fortune.

Some agencies offer organ transplants, even though people who live in Russia are generally not eligible for them in Germany. Others advertise such procedures as gallstone eradication or gallbladder removal, although they refrain from mentioning that gallstones can recur.

Everything from basic care to all-inclusive services can be booked through agencies. The services are bundled into packages. But the websites neglect to detail the costs of treatment and how much the agencies collect as their fee. It is an unscrupulous business that takes advantage of people in need, and one that no one regulates or monitors.

It is also a business in which German hospitals like to offer their services as partners. "Hospitals newly entering this market are often in gold-digger mode," says expert Juszczak.

The profit-seeking side of the business was on full display in early September, when politicians, doctors and patient brokers convened in lecture halls at the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University for the largest German conference on medical tourism. The presentations and discussions revolved primarily around Russian patients, or rather Russian self-paying customers who happen to also be patients. The 150 attendees talked about marketing and market shares, customer acquisition, sales revenues and process management.

The medical director and chairman of the board of the University Hospital of Bonn told the audience how difficult it is today to run a hospital in a country where half of them are on the verge of financial ruin. He also noted that the roughly €6 million paid by foreign patients this year was critical to the hospital's survival.

Padding Budgets through Medical Tourism

Medical tourism was discovered as a revenue source in the late 1990s. For hospital managers, the profits derived from self-paying foreign patients represent one of the few ways to earn income to supplement the payment deals negotiated with health plans. "It enables them to pay for new medical devices, for example, which normally wouldn't be in the budget," Juszczak explains.

Public authorities also foster the extra business. The government of the southern state of Bavaria, for example, invested €5 million in a project called "Bavaria - a better state of health." It targets sick foreigners interested in receiving treatment in Bavaria -- the home of Europe's "Medical Valley," as the initiators write.

The German government is also involved in attracting foreign patients. The German National Tourist Board (DZT), for example, advertises the country's health care system in a glossy brochure called "Medical Journeys." The brochure, with a circulation of 50,000, is published in German, English, Russian and Arabic.

The City of Hamburg's tourism authority even published a 60-page supplement to the Moskauer Deutsche Zeitung, a German-language newspaper in the Russian capital, in which it advertised the metropolis as an "ideal health care city." Both the federal government and the German parliament gave their seal of approval to the PR document.

Large hospitals have set up their own "international offices," which arrange for interpreters, visas and accommodations for foreign patients and their families. Smaller hospitals and private clinics, on the other hand, try to forge ties with agencies, so that they can begin pitching their services to customers when they arrive at the airport.

Flights from Russia and Ukraine land at Terminal 1 in Munich's airport. A billboard in Hall C advertises, in Cyrillic letters: "Express check 5 hours, cardio check 8 hours, cancer check 2 days." Twelve hospitals and clinics that cooperate with the Doktor Mjunchen agency are listed under an image of two smiling doctors. They include the Atos private clinic and the St. Marien Children's Hospital in Landshut.

Lost in the 'Shark Tank'

Sarkis Sargsyan returned to Munich in February. Arsen B. had sent the family to the Bogenhausen Hospital, says Derenik. They were given a new estimate, which quoted €31,700 for the treatment, a €1,000 administrative fee and a €10,000 risk surcharge, though it is unclear exactly what this entails.

The list of tests included CT scans, MRIs and X-rays. The entire apparatus was started up once again. This time the doctors found a metastasis in the cerebellum and one in the left temporal lobe. The chief physician performed two surgeries on Sargsyan within a week. Shortly after the procedures, he was completely lucid once again. "I kissed the doctor's hands," his brother Derenik says quietly. "Sarkis was immediately much better."

He had 12 stitches above his left ear and 12 stitches on the right side of the back of his head. As he sits in a Munich apartment, which is not his home, he frequently runs his fingers across the scars on his shaved skull. Then he stares blankly into the room.

The next cycle of chemotherapy was administered after the operations. "At that point, someone should have told the patient long ago that he was terminally ill," says an independent doctor who later met Sargsyan in a different hospital. Another doctor notes: "There is a lot of competition in Munich, and everyone is running after foreign patients. I tried to maneuver the family safely through this shark tank, but unfortunately I wasn't always successful."

Arsen B. clearly didn't want to lose his customers. According to the Sargsyan family, the broker continued to hold out hope of improvement, and he also advised the family to have the intestinal tumor removed surgically. Arsen B. denies this and claims that the decision for the removal was taken after intense consultation with a number of specialized physicians.

The calamity continued in a sleek new clinic on the banks of the Isar River. Arsen B. had scheduled surgery for Sargsyan at the Dr. Rinecker Surgical Clinic. The agency estimated the costs at €34,292.

Screaming in Pain

This time, the family's knight in shining armor was a surgeon named Edward Shang, who allegedly assured Sargsyan that he could be released after a week. But the family wasn't told that Shang was working at the private clinic because he had been stripped of his teaching privileges at the University of Heidelberg after allegedly falsifying study data. When questioned about the matter, Shang said that he had voluntarily withdrawn the published articles. He declined to comment on the Sargsyan case, citing doctor-patient confidentiality.

Shang operated on April 26 to remove the intestinal tumor. After three days, Sargsyan was in such severe pain that even high doses of painkillers were ineffective. Nevertheless, the surgeon assured him that everything was as it should be. Arsen B., for his part, is still singing Shang's praises.

When Sargsyan was discharged on May 15, a day after his birthday, he was in so much pain that he could barely walk. His discharge papers read: "Patient circulation is stable, but he still exhibits significant pain symptoms, although they are receding." Back in the apartment, however, Sargsyan was screaming in pain.

His wife, Nelly, recalls the day with tears in her eyes: "He had a high fever, and he kept saying: I'm dying, I'm dying. We didn't know what to do."

They took a taxi back to the Dr. Rinecker Surgical Clinic, where they were assured that everything was OK -- even though the doctors could see that purulent, foul-smelling fluid was leaking from a suture and accumulating in Sargsyan's drainage bag. The brother, Derenik, called Arsen B. in a panic, saying that he was worried about Sarkis. B. reportedly advised the family to go to the Klinikum rechts der Isar.

Once they were there, the doctor on duty noted: "It was not possible to obtain an extensive medical history from the patient because he spoke neither German nor English, and there was no interpreter present." He was facing three members of a completely distraught Russian family in need of help, who had lost all confidence in the attractive, clean world of German hospitals.

A CT scan showed the opening through which the intestinal contents were leaking. With some effort, the doctors came to grips with the complication. But they also discovered new metastases in Sargsyan's head.

For the first time, so the Sargsyans tell the story, doctors approached the terminally ill patient's bedside with the truth, using a taxi driver as an interpreter. They told Sargsyan that there was nothing they could do for him anymore, and they left no room for doubt. They could only hold out the hope of giving him a little more time with chemotherapy and radiation. According to Arsen B., Sargsyan had already been confronted with this dire fact after the first diagnosis. In any case, Sargsyan was completely beside himself and given a sedative.

His brother and his wife held back their tears until they had left the hospital room, determined not to allow Sargsyan to see their despair. An impression of his head was taken the next day for the radiation mask. "What was done with this man is a crime," one doctor says in hindsight.

For eight months, the Sargsyans were buoyed by the belief that everything would turn out well. Now they increasingly felt that they had been cheated.

Derenik began going to all the hospitals to collect the original billing statements so that they could be checked. But he claims that he was already turned away at the Rinecker Clinic, where he was told that the clinic's contract was with the IMZ agency rather than the patient.

Bloated Invoices
Maksims Slosbergs and Evgenij Steinberg, two attorneys based in the western city of Dortmund, are familiar with this disconcerting objection. They are involved in several cases in which Russian patients were obviously conned in Germany. Many reports on such victims of medical tourism have been aired on Russian television, says Slosbergs, and patients have also complained online about the business practices of dodgy agencies. The only problem, he adds, is that no one in Germany cares about the issue, even though the estimated number of unreported cases is "unbelievably high."

Slosbergs pulls out the file on Maria V. from a stack of documents on his desk. The 37-year-old had had a hip operation in the Ruhr region of western Germany. The surgery was unsuccessful, and the woman will need a second procedure. But despite his poor performance, the surgeon had no qualms when it came to issuing his invoice, charging more than €6,000 in surcharges for surgery performed by a chief physician.

Germany's Medical Fee Schedule is supposed to regulate how much a surgeon can charge. According to the regulation, surgeons can apply a factor of no more than 3.5 times a base rate for the procedure they perform. In the case of Maria V., however, the doctor used a factor of 13.

This doesn't surprise Slosbergs. Many doctors and hospitals use the same approach to cash in, he says. But, he adds, "no other case was filled with such bold-faced lies as that of Ruslana Fadeyeva."

The 8-year-old girl from Yoshkar-Ola, a city in central Russia, had Burkitt's lymphoma, a rapidly progressing cancer of the lymphatic system. Like the Sargsyans, her parents had no faith in the Russian health care system. When they searched online, they found an agency called Medical Travel in the western German city of Lüdenscheid. It gained notoriety in connection with an organ transplant scandal, after it had allegedly helped an alcoholic Russian obtain a liver transplant at the Göttingen University Hospital in return for a six-figure payment.

In Fadeyeva's case, the agency recommended treatment in the nearby city of Münster. But the family couldn't come up with the down payment of €183,600. The girl's father, Roman, owns a few clothing stores, but the family had only saved €20,000, and they had borrowed another €80,000 from a bank.

Among the agencies, obtaining treatment appears to be primarily a matter of negotiation. After a few days, Roman Fadeyev received a new estimate from Medical Travel "for examination and treatment at the Center for Pediatric Oncology of the University of Düsseldorf Hospital." This time the price matched the family's budget: €100,000.

A Family Sues

Ruslana arrived in Düsseldorf with her parents in July 2008. By September, she was cured. The Fadeyevs were overjoyed, and yet the treatment costs still seemed unusually high to them. After all, they conjectured, the doctors hadn't even had to operate. Ruslana's father demanded a detailed statement. The university hospital claimed that it no longer had the information, and that it had sent the statement of costs to Medical Travel. The agency, for its part, was unwilling to produce the statement.

Slosbergs filed an action seeking disclosure of records in the Hagen Regional Court, and after two years, the court ruled in his client's favor. The Fadeyevs were shocked when they finally received the statement. Ruslana's treatment had cost only €39,715, including the services of a chief physician. The agency had pocketed the rest.

The agency now claimed that the €100,000 had been a lump-sum fee. But there was no mention of a lump sum in the Fadeyev's contract; instead, it defined the sum as a "deposit." So Slosbergs sued the agency to recover the difference.

The court ruled in the Fadeyevs' favor in October, ordering the agency to repay the money, together with about €10,000 in interest. The court also ruled that the agency could only charge a fee amounting to 15 percent of the cost of treatment. The agency can still appeal the decision.

'Highly Conspicuous'

Sargsyan and his brother are sitting at the dining table of the Munich apartment. "We're no longer interested in trust, but in finding out the truth," says Derenik. There are two piles of documents on the table. The few original invoices he painstakingly managed to obtain are in one pile, while the agency's estimates and invoices are in the other.

A comparison of the two sets of documents reveals that the agency was both meticulous and imaginative in inflating its services. It had charged nebulous administrative fees and risk premiums, or it had simply slapped up to a 100 percent surcharge onto original hospital bills. For instance, the agency had assessed €12,000 for the first course of chemotherapy, even though the oncology department had issued original invoices for only about €5,400. The IMZ agency, however, claims that fees were charged only for services actually rendered.

One of the IMZ documents contains an item called "consultation services," for €2,500. Derenik writes a large question mark below the item. "Consultation? What is that? It's B.'s favorite word," says Derenik.

"Consultation services were provided when it was advisable and requested by the patient," says B. Exactly what this means follows from neither B.'s statement nor the Sargsyans' documents. It is clear, however, that Arsen B. is not a licensed physician in Germany, which means that he is not authorized to provide consultation in the usual sense.

Slosbergs and Steinberg have reviewed all of the Sargsyans' documents. In a four-page statement, they write: "There are problems with practically all the statements. On the whole, we conclude that this was the first time we set eyes on such a large-scale case of billing fraud. This also appears to be a case of substantial tax evasion. Again and again, value-added tax was not charged for services provided." B., however, insists: "Value-added tax was accounted for and paid where it was due."

Billing experts with a private insurance carrier have also reviewed the Sargsyans' documents. "In some cases, the fees stated by the doctors are not passed on to the patient, but rather higher amounts," they concluded after examining the IMZ billing statements.

They, too, describe the physicians' bills as "highly conspicuous when it comes to fee regulations." For instance, billing codes are apparently missing in many places. In addition, doctors apparently applied an inexplicably inflated rate to Sargsyan's treatment.

German Hospitals Are Obligated to Apply Flat Rates

The legal situation seems clear. Under German law, there are no provisions that would make it possible to charge foreign patients higher fees. If fact, in a 2008 memorandum, the Federal Health Ministry stressed that German hospitals are obligated to apply flat rates to "compensation for the treatment of foreign patients," which means that payment for each service must correspond to a specific fixed amount. According to the memorandum, differentiating among statements "based on the nationality of the patient" is not permitted.

Many hospitals ignore this directive. According to a survey by the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University, close to two-thirds of hospitals polled admitted to charging foreign patients higher flat rates. About 14 percent also admitted to issuing separate invoices so as to be compensated for their higher costs.

Professor Juszczak claims that hospitals sometimes pay the agencies "trafficker commissions" to bring them patients, even though the Kiel Regional Court, in northern Germany, described such agreements as unethical in 2011. The judges argued that this commercialization is objectionable given the relationship of trust between doctor and patient. At the same time, Juszczak does not find it objectionable to charge "for services that are actually provided, such as transportation and interpreting services."

Juszczak wants to see the market become much more transparent and, through clear guidelines, more attractive for hospitals. This could include pricing guidelines as well as certification of the patient brokers and the international offices within the hospitals. It could also include a fundamental increase in the base rate for foreign patients, enabling hospitals to openly account for the additional costs they incur to treat such patients. But so far these proposals, says Juszczak, "have fallen on deaf ears in the relevant ministries."

Grand Total: €191,784.45

It is August, and Sargsyan, still in Munich, is thinking about the last 10 months of his life. "If someone had told me that I had a 50-50 chance of survival, I wouldn't have come," he says. "But they promised to make me well again."

His brother adds: "The money is one thing. What kills me is when I think about all the things they did to Sarkis." When Sarkis leaves the room, his brother whispers that doctors are now giving him a year to live.

Soon afterwards, the family receives a 41-page "liquidation statement" from the IMZ agency. The grand total: €191,784.45.

According to Arsen B., the patient still owes €4,177.92. He believes that the Sargsyan's treatment was by and large successfully completed. He is unwilling to discuss details. Once again, he cites his non-disclosure obligation. B. calls the accusations an attempt to put him under pressure. The agency, he adds, views the possibility of a lawsuit "with great composure."

The Sargsyans are now back in Moscow. They have sent Sarkis' records to a hospital in Los Angeles that is testing a new treatment method. The doctors there say that they will have to examine Sargsyan in person before they can provide a conclusive opinion.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


11/19/2013 05:36 PM

The Poet-Photographer: Jewish Museum Showcases Work of Fred Stein

By Kaspar Heinrich

You might not know the man behind them, but you surely know his images. Fred Stein fled Germany and became a talented photographer of both street scenes and the famous. His first major German retrospective opens Friday at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

A photo session? No thanks! In 1946, Albert Einstein turned down a request by photographer Fred Stein to shoot pictures of him at Princeton. But it wasn't long before Einstein relented, agreeing to a meeting that he insisted should last no longer than 10 minutes. It turned into a two-hour encounter during which they swapped jokes, and which produced an image that has been branded into the collective consciousness, that of the physicist in his mid-sixties with his trademark tussled hair and sad, lonely gaze.

This famous photograph, as well as anecdotes from the 1946 shoot, can now be viewed at Germany's first-ever comprehensive retrospective of Fred Stein's work, which opens Friday at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. As part of the "In an Instant" exhibition, the museum showcases not only photographs taken by Stein, but also a number of his personal documents.

Stein was born in the eastern German city of Dresden in 1909 as the son of a rabbi, and he only became a professional photographer after fleeing the Nazis. Before that, he had intended to become a lawyer after studying law in Leipzig. His hobby at the time, though, was photography, and he took his shots during his legal traineeship with a 35 mm Leica camera, which he and his wife had bought themselves as a wedding gift.

As the Nazis became more powerful, Stein became an outcast in two senses: as a Jew and a politically active socialist. In October 1933, he and his wife, Liselotte (Lilo), managed to make it to Paris under the pretext that it was a honeymoon trip. But they had no plans to return to Germany.

Once in France, Stein found himself in an unknown land with a strange language. Since he couldn't find work as a lawyer there, he was compelled to find another career. His choice: photography. Although he was really little more than a dedicated amateur, it wasn't long before he started a business and opened Studio Fred Stein in a small apartment whose bathroom doubled as a darkroom.

An Eye for the Bizarre in the Banal

Stein discovered Paris through the camera lens. The same thing would happen later in New York, where he, his wife and their young daughter fled in 1941, and where he died in 1967. In both places, he captured everyday scenes full of odd and subtly melancholy moments. He was most interested in photographing poor people but also liked to capture the joy of children playing.

Stein's black-and-white photos record life in the big city without robbing his subjects of their dignity or putting their poverty on display for voyeuristic purposes. He often encountered his impromptu subjects with an eye for finding the comic aspects of generally normal situations. There is the sleeping shoeshiner, men laying bricks and a group of women in Little Italy, some looking with amusement, and others with skepticism into the camera, as if the German with the Leica had barged into their conversation. Then there is the simple depiction of three empty chairs in the spray of a lawn sprinkler, or an eye-catching advertisement on a billboard. These poetic moments found in normal, everyday moments provided Stein with his motifs, and his main challenge was to snap the shot on his handheld camera at precisely the right instance.

The show's title, "In an Instant," is meant to bring to mind both the split-second nature of photography and its resulting imperfections. At times, the subjects of Stein's photos are out of focus, or his images appear excessively granular. In fact, says Theresia Ziehe, the exhibition's curator, some of the original prints had not been done properly, so new prints were developed from scanned negatives. A few of the real contact sheets can be inspected with a magnifying glass at the Jewish Museum.

Ziehe describes Stein's pictures from his time in Paris as lighter and the later ones from New York as more multilayered. She also says that the exhibition's organizers made a point of interweaving images from both phases throughout the exhibition. Instead of creating "thematic islands," she says that they wanted to focus to be on Stein's particular style.

A Master Portraitist

Stein's obsession with authenticity extended to his portrait photography, as well. He shunned elaborate arrangements and retouching his negatives. He also rarely used a flash, preferring natural light and simple compositions.

Most of the more than 1,000 portraits Stein shot were taken during his time in New York. In addition to the Leica, he also worked with a medium-format Rolleiflex camera. He photographed politicians and writers, intellectuals and artists, including Salvador Dalí, Marc Chagall and Willem de Kooning. In addition, there were members of the German émigré community in the United States, including novelist Thomas Mann and actress Marlene Dietrich. As far as portraits are concerned, the exhibition goes for a bulk effect, grouping most of them together on a single wall.

In the eyes of German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, Stein was "one of the best portrait photographers" of his era. Stein shot the philosopher on several occasions between 1941 and 1966. His photograph of Arendt in three-quarter profile, lying down on her elbows and smoking with a determined gaze, provided Stein with yet another image that would grow more famous than the man who took it.

Another prominent fan of Stein's photography was Willy Brandt, Germany's Social Democratic chancellor from 1969 to 1974. The two met in Paris while they were both in exile from the Nazis, and they remained friends for the rest of their lives. Brandt thought Stein was a "brilliant" photographer. "He truly was a man of vision," Brandt said of Stein, "and his choice of people and subjects is the obvious proof of it."

The "In an Instant: Photographs by Fred Stein" exhibition opens at Berlin's Jewish Museum on Nov. 22 and runs through March 23, 2014.


November 19, 2013

Enduring Nazi Law Impedes Recovery of Art


HALLE, Germany — Wolfgang Büche was amazed this month when a watercolor seized by the Nazis from the small museum in this eastern city, where he is the curator, reappeared, part of a vast trove uncovered in a Munich apartment.

But his excitement at seeing the work, “Landscape With Horses,” a possible study for a 1911 painting by the German Expressionist Franz Marc, was tempered by one fact he called “irrefutable”: The 1938 law that allowed the Nazis to seize it — and thousands of other Modernist artworks deemed “degenerate” because Hitler viewed them as un-German or Jewish in nature — remains on the books to this day.

The German authorities say they believe that 380 works confiscated from German public museums under the Nazi-era law may be among the more than 1,200 paintings, lithographs and drawings found stashed away in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive 80-year-old son of a Nazi-era art dealer.

The law’s existence renders slim the likelihood that Mr. Büche’s museum or dozens of others in Germany can reclaim their works, German legal experts and museum and government officials say. And that law is likely to remain in place.

The Nazis sold thousands of the confiscated works on the open art market to fill wartime coffers. Repeal or reform of the 1938 law could unravel an intricate web of art deals involving such works that have been negotiated around the world in the decades since, something that even many museum curators like Mr. Büche are loath to consider.

Despite the lengths Germany has gone to to repair the moral and material damage done during World War II, for decades the restitution of confiscated art was not a topic of discussion or action here, and no German government has sought to repeal the Nazi law.

“The legal situation is relatively obvious and clear,” said Mr. Büche, who oversees the collection at the Moritzburg Foundation in Halle. “With art taken from Jewish collectors, there are sometimes legal or at least moral circumstances under which they can seek to have their works restituted. We can only seek to buy them back.”

Indeed, those works confiscated from public German museums stand in a separate category from works seized or sold under extreme duress by private Jewish collectors, whose heirs may still have legal claims to the art. Some have initiated new actions to retrieve works found in Mr. Gurlitt’s apartment.

But for museums like Mr. Büche’s, the legal path is far knottier. What is more, legal and museum experts say, if Mr. Gurlitt can prove he legally inherited the works — and the statute of limitations on any wrongdoing may long ago have run out — they could well remain his, unless a deal with the government can be reached.

While the German authorities have come under criticism abroad for their handling of the Gurlitt case — in particular, keeping the discovery of the art trove secret for almost two years — questions have been raised in the German news media about whether they had the right to seize Mr. Gurlitt’s entire collection. While he is under investigation for tax evasion, he has yet to be charged with any crime.

On Tuesday, the state prosecutor in Augsburg, Bavaria, where the case is being handled, said he would urge the task force appointed to clarify the provenance of the collection to tell him as soon as possible which works are irrefutably Mr. Gurlitt’s, so that they can be returned. Mr. Gurlitt has made clear he considers the works his property and wants them back.

Mr. Büche, the curator, would like his pictures back, too. Yet, in his three decades at the Moritzburg museum, he has been able to celebrate the return of just 16 prewar items, a tenth of a collection that once ranked among the most impressive in the country.

Some of the museum’s prewar works now hang in the Museum of Modern Art in New York or at Harvard University after having been traded on the open market like many so-called degenerate works once confiscated by the Nazis.

Only occasionally do those works travel back to Halle on loan. Such special exhibitions are the biggest draw to the museum, which, despite a renovation in 2008, struggles to attract 60,000 to 70,000 visitors a year.

“We always try to buy back our works, when they turn up, but as a state-funded museum, we can’t compete against big bidders,” Mr. Büche said.

With their swirling, sweeping necks and hindquarters, the Expressionist gray-blue horses in the Marc painting that was once displayed here ran afoul of Nazi tastes. It was confiscated as part of the law, passed in May 1938, that sanctioned the removal of more than 5,000 “entartete,” or “degenerate,” works from public museums.

Historians say the Soviet powers sought to have the law nullified in the early 1950s but claimed that the Western Allied powers, for reasons that are unclear, did not support the idea. So Hitler’s rejection of works that did not reflect the Nazis’ sentimental view of art lives on.

Last weekend, the respected conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung condemned the law’s endurance as part of the “unsurpassed hypocrisy” of German dealings with the art the Nazis plundered.

“It is hard to believe, but this Nazi law has never been overturned by the German government,” said Ulrike Lorenz, director of the Kunsthalle Mannheim, which lost its Modernist collection, some 800 works, to the Nazis.

Ms. Lorenz says she is determined to press the museum’s claims. Together with three other museums that have recognized works from their prewar holdings in the first 25 works from the Gurlitt collection posted at, she is examining what legal recourse might be possible.

Such claims could proliferate once the works, probably hundreds, seized from museums and found in the Gurlitt collection are more widely known.

The Kunsthalle Mannheim began early on to collect works by the German Expressionists, including Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, whose “Melancholy Girl,” a print described by Ms. Lorenz as an important and very personal work, was found in the Gurlitt collection. Ms. Lorenz would like to see it hanging again in Mannheim.

“Of course, we will seek to have the work returned,” Ms. Lorenz said. “Carefully put, I think that the public museums have a certain moral claim to the art that once belonged to them.”

Some art historians point to the precedent set by Bernhard Böhmer, who, like Mr. Gurlitt’s father, Hildebrand, was one of four dealers tapped by the Nazis to sell the so-called degenerate works. After he took his own life in 1945 in the East German town of Güstrow, the Soviets handed over most of his collection to the state, which returned the works to museums or sold them back at a nominal price.

Others warn that nullifying the 1938 law could have far-reaching implications.

“If that law were to be nullified, then all the transactions would have to be annulled,” said Sabine Rudolph, a lawyer who specializes in the restitution of art confiscated from Jews. “If one museum that recognizes a work in the Gurlitt collection insists, ‘I want that back,’ they may suddenly realize they have several works that previously belonged to other museums that they would then have to return.”

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« Last Edit: Nov 20, 2013, 07:08 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #10104 on: Nov 20, 2013, 06:43 AM »

Arctic 30 Briton freed by Russian court

Alex Harris granted bail in Saint Petersburg as Greenpeace waits for decisions on rest of activists and journalists

Press Association, Wednesday 20 November 2013 11.52 GMT

A British activist arrested in Russia during a Greenpeace protest against drilling in the Arctic has been granted bail by a court in Saint Petersburg.

Alex Harris, from Devon, is the first of the six Britons in the so-called Arctic 30 to actually be given bail, following similar decisions affecting 12 others.

The six Britons are among the 28 activists and two freelance journalists arrested by Russian security forces two months ago.

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace in the UK, said: "Although this process is a long way from being resolved, today's decision by the court to grant bail to Alex will come as a huge relief to her family and friends. Our focus now will be to get the remaining activists released.

"The Arctic 30 still face absurd charges for peacefully protesting against oil drilling in the Arctic."


Nine of Greenpeace's Arctic 30 activists released on bail - video

A court in St Petersburg, Russia, has released nine of the Arctic 30 Greenpeace protesters charged with piracy on bail. The activists, arrested on board the Arctic Sunrise ship, will be released once their bail sums are paid by Greenpeace. They will have to return to Russia if requested by investigators

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« Last Edit: Nov 20, 2013, 06:53 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #10105 on: Nov 20, 2013, 06:51 AM »

Ukraine, Russia and the EU: does it have to be about brinkmanship?

An outdated ideology of confrontation is making Ukraine's journey towards EU membership a fraught – and dangerous – process

Mary Dejevsky, Wednesday 20 November 2013 09.07 GMT   

More than 20 years after the end of the cold war, it might have been hoped that east and west would have developed new approaches to their residual quarrels. But no. Obscured by a cascade of more urgent events – chemical attacks in Syria, a tentative rapprochement with Iran and the devastating typhoon in the Philippines – a particularly nasty, and very old-style, dispute has been building inexorably between Brussels and Moscow. It concerns the future of Ukraine, and it comes to a head next week at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The language used on both sides is highly charged. Ukraine, it is said, faces its most fateful choice since it voted for independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It must decide whether its future lies in the east (aligned once more with Moscow) or in the west (with the eventual prospect of EU membership). And it must decide now. The date, 28 to 29 November, in Vilnius is presented as a deadline; after an inconclusive EU foreign ministers' meeting on Monday, any decision is now likely to go to the wire.

The actual question that Ukraine faces is whether to sign up to enhanced trade arrangements that are being offered by the EU, or whether it accepts instead Moscow's project for what it calls a Eurasian customs union. Ukraine is not the only former Soviet-bloc state in this position. Initially, it was one of four. Armenia dropped out, opting for the deal from Moscow, while Moldova and Georgia are clear about wanting to orientate themselves towards the EU.

But of the four, Ukraine is the biggest, the most economically powerful and the most symbolic by far. And, of course, the dispute is not only, or even mainly, about trade. If Moscow "loses" Ukraine, so say advocates on both sides, it loses all pretence to be a great power. Ukraine is seen as crucial to President Pig Putin's ambition to resurrect the Soviet Union as a free trade grouping, and if Ukraine bows to pressure from Moscow, is this not granting Russia a de facto policy veto, and then what price Ukrainian sovereignty?

Nor is the dispute just about Moscow's future clout. It is also about the EU. As current president, Lithuania hoped to make its mark both by effective diplomacy that would put this small, new EU member on the map, and by playing benevolent godfather to Ukraine, its much bigger neighbour. Ukraine's choice is also regarded as a token of whether the EU wants to, or even can, expand.

All these are reasons why the lobbying, from both sides, has been ferocious. Since the summer, scarcely a week has gone by without an envoy from one party or other, or from Ukraine itself, visiting London and other capitals to argue their case. There have been threats – veiled and not – from the west about allowing Ukraine to spin off forever into Moscow's orbit, and warnings from Moscow about the cold and lonely future that would be Kiev's if it were foolish enough to rely on the EU.

Russia, characteristically, followed up with some real intimidation, banning certain exports from Ukraine (and Moldova) on spurious health and safety grounds to illustrate the deprivations that might be to come. The EU has also queered Ukraine's pitch by making "selective justice" an issue – by which it mostly means the continued imprisonment of the opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. "If it weren't her, they'd have found some other pretext to get at us," objected one piqued Ukrainian official.

But is this really how east and west should still be conducting their business, a generation after the Soviet collapse? Was it sensible to allow Lithuania's national dignity to become so entwined with an EU decision, and did Russia have to be so quick to deploy the trade weapon? Is there really no alternative to brinkmanship, all-or-nothing, and angry words?

At its most basic, the origin of this dispute lies in the supposed incompatibility of the EU's liberalised trade deals and Russia's customs union, which both Brussels and Moscow present as mutually exclusive. This confronts Ukraine with an impossible choice. With more time, would it really not be possible to negotiate transitional arrangements that entailed less of an either-or? After all, Russia is now in the World Trade Organisation and has long been quietly adopting many of the EU's regulatory standards. Somewhere there should be the seeds of a solution.

There is one reality, though, that cannot be, and should never have been, lost sight of in pursuit of what looks increasingly like an artificial deadline. Ukraine is united about being an independent state, but divided about its future direction. And while it is becoming less dependent on Russia, specifically for energy, Soviet-era trade patterns take time to unravel and, in agriculture at least, can operate in Ukraine's interests. Attitudes may change, but geography remains.

So fraught have preparations for the Vilnius summit now become that an EU failure to clinch the deal with Ukraine risks being hailed by Moscow – in time-honoured cold war fashion – as a victory. This is a short-term setback the EU may have to bear, before trying again for a less exclusive agreement that will require more time, and a lot less outdated ideology.

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« Reply #10106 on: Nov 20, 2013, 06:58 AM »

Letter from Italy: trash culture

Residents of Mantua risk public humiliation if they fail to adhere to the municipality's complex new waste collection system

Joe Quinn   
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 19 November 2013 14.00 GMT      

The people of Mantua are talking nothing but rubbish these days. A new waste sorting and disposal system has been introduced and it's causing a stir. There have been heated meetings between residents and municipal officials, letters to the press, street protests, everything short of a madcap boycott.

Every household has been supplied with transparent plastic sacks and a set of mini-bins: there's a blue bin, a green bin, a brown bin, a grey bin and a substantial amount of explanatory literature. One issue immediately raised was where people in apartments without balconies would keep these bins.

Previously we were free to sort our own rubbish and deposit it in discreet containers in the street, metres from the door. Now the containers have gone and there are collection times specific to certain types of rubbish and areas. From 7pm rubbish sacks and mini-bins begin to spread out along the streets and are easy pickings for dogs, cats, rats and no-gooders.

My friend Antonio says leaving rubbish in a transparent sack at the front door is like hanging out your dirty laundry: "What if I'm a Viagra user, or I have a chronic beer habit, or the wife and I shell peanuts in the kitchen on the QT for a big multinational? That'll come out in my now very public rubbish!"

Households have received an instruction manual written in four languages with a chart sorting over 500 items of rubbish into eight categories. You can't go wrong, if you have the patience to study it. So far, few have.

Recently, I noticed from our window that passersby were slowing down and having a tentative look at something on the pavement outside the block. Somebody taken ill, a hurt animal? It was a rubbish sack that the collectors had refused; a sticker was slapped on it warning that the contents had been incorrectly sorted. As nobody wanted to own up to this brutta figura, it lay there for 10 days, eventually taking on the curiosity of a Banksy piece.

Despite the civic unease, it will all sort itself out, as in 2005 when Italy became the third country in Europe to ban smoking in public places, and 2003 when a daytime headlight law for vehicles was introduced. Still, there is something therapeutic about having a good moan over a load of rubbish.

Every week Guardian Weekly publishes a Letter from one of its readers from around the world. We welcome submissions – they should focus on giving a clear sense of a place and its people. Please send them to

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« Reply #10107 on: Nov 20, 2013, 07:02 AM »

European Union powers to work together on new drones

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, November 19, 2013 16:15 EST

Several EU nations including France and Germany agreed Tuesday to join forces to develop new-generation drones, in a bid to close a gaping deficiency in the bloc’s defence industry.

EU defence ministers meeting in Brussels approved a series of projects to develop Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) pilotless aircraft from 2020.

Heads of state and government will formally greenlight the projects at an EU summit next month focusing on defence cooperation.

“If Europe hopes to maintain a strategic capability, countries must pool their capacities and actions in a pragmatic way,” said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian after the talks.

He welcomed the creation of a “club of drone-using countries” that will cooperate on training, certification, logistics, maintenance and future projects.

The grouping so far includes seven nations: France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain.

The European Defence Agency meanwhile will work on a combined investment programme to develop the use of drones for both military and civil purposes, such as border surveillance, fire fighting or disaster and environmental monitoring.

EU nations currently use Israeli or US military drones but do not have certification to fly them in European airspace.

Three big industrial groups, EADS, France’s Dassault Aviation and Italy’s Finmeccanica offered in June to work together to develop a MALE if given the go-ahead by governments.

Ministers also called for cooperation in developing air-refuelling capabilities after EU nations were obliged to rely on the United States during the NATO-led air campaign in Libya in 2011.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #10108 on: Nov 20, 2013, 07:11 AM »

November 19, 2013

A Brutal Feud Emerges in Uzbekistan’s Fractured First Family


MOSCOW — Truth be told, Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of the strongman leader of Uzbekistan, never did seem particularly well qualified to succeed her father at the head of their impoverished and troubled Central Asian nation.

A gregarious socialite, she had a clothing line and recorded pop songs under a stage name, Googoosha, while Uzbekistan’s cotton-based economy languished and the government forced students into the fields once a year to bring in the harvest for almost no pay.

But Ms. Karimova’s standing has taken a big hit lately amid an escalating family power struggle after her father, President Islam Karimov, apparently allowed reports to circulate on the normally firewalled Internet that he had beaten her in a fit of rage.

“Karimov first slapped her on the face and then really started to beat Gulnara,” claimed the account, attributed to a security service insider and published late last month on the website of the opposition People’s Movement of Uzbekistan.

Over the two decades of his rule, Mr. Karimov has expelled nearly all foreign journalists and aid workers, so reporting on the country tends to be fragmentary and based on uncertain sources of information. But drawing on a mix of Twitter messages, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, scattered Western news reports, and Uznews and other opposition websites, it seems clear that a vicious and potentially destabilizing feud has broken out inside the ruling family.

Even as the family conflict has played out like a Hollywood scandal, its implications are serious for millions of people and for the United States military’s exit plans from Afghanistan, which shares a border with Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous country, but institutions are weak and the possibilities for violence are many. As with most authoritarian states nearing a transition in leadership, the succession bears with it the risks of bloodshed, betrayal within the elite and even civil unrest.

Over his more than two decades as president, Mr. Karimov, 75, has presided over one of the world’s most repressive governments, and abuse is rife. Even by the standards of former Soviet countries, Uzbekistan is progressing poorly.

On Oct. 28, for example, Human Rights Watch submitted a report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture outlining a litany of egregious abuses, including one case in which a secret police agent used a rolled-up newspaper lighted on fire to burn a man’s genitals during an interrogation.

According to the Uzbek Constitution, if the president dies, the speaker of the Senate becomes president. But former Soviet states are not always bound by legal norms, and if the intensity of the Karimovs’ internecine battles are any indication, they are not planning on answering to the speaker any time soon.

Since the summer, Mr. Karimov’s government has closed a half-dozen television channels and radio stations that constituted the crown jewels of Ms. Karimova’s media empire, ostensibly for license violations. The authorities in Uzbekistan opened official inquiries into her charitable foundations and apparently froze some of her bank accounts.

For her part, on Instagram and Twitter, Ms. Karimova, 41, has accused her younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, and her mother, Tatiana Karimova, of practicing witchcraft.

The mother and father are separated, Uzbek dissident websites report. A cousin has been arrested for involvement in organized crime. And Ms. Karimova says her father’s police officers arrested her bodyguards.

“Only a small number of people inside the country really understand the state of play,” Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia Law School and a specialist on Central Asia, said in a telephone interview. Of Ms. Karimova, he said, “What is obvious is there has been a change in her position.”

Ms. Karimova-Tillyaeva, the younger sister, who is 35, told the BBC that her older sister should forget about becoming president of Uzbekistan because her odds of succeeding their father were minuscule. She then went on to dismiss Ms. Karimova as “different.”

In a conservative Muslim country, she has a point. Platinum blonde and divorced, Ms. Karimova has made a music video, “Dare How,” in which she runs her hands over her body and sings, “She looks fine but she has 100 things on her mind.”

By contrast, Ms. Karimova-Tillyaeva is dark-haired, demure, married and, by all appearances, now the apple of her father’s eye.

Ms. Karimova’s troubles at home follow setbacks abroad, contributing to an overall picture of the unraveling of the career of a coddled descendant of an authoritarian ruler.

She was banned from showing her label, Guli, at New York Fashion Week in 2011 because rights groups said her father’s government used child slave labor to harvest the cotton used in her clothes.

This year, it was widely reported in Sweden that prosecutors there had accused Ms. Karimova of accepting a bribe of about $340 million from TeliaSonera, the largest telecommunications company in Sweden, in exchange for access to the Uzbek cellphone market. TeliaSonera has denied wrongdoing.

Some analysts suggest that the family fight is partly a ruse to underscore distinctions between assets in Ms. Karimova’s name and other family holdings in Europe, lest investigators broaden their inquiry to the rest of the family.

After her younger sister’s interview on the BBC, Ms. Karimova called her a witch. “The other part of the family destroys and is friends with sorcerers,” she wrote in a post on Instagram.

Ms. Karimova then wrote on Twitter that her father’s secret police had arrested and were torturing her bodyguards.

“An officer was seriously beaten up,” she wrote on the Twitter account widely believed to be hers because she has posted on it unpublished photographs of herself doing yoga. “Last time, ribs were broken.”

With Ms. Karimova now apparently out of contention, the succession in Uzbekistan has narrowed to two insiders, a prime minister and a deputy prime minister, while the National Security Service chief, Rustam Inoyatov, is trying to assert a role as kingmaker.

Far from showing that the president is weak, some analysts of Central Asia say, the family fight left Mr. Karimov appearing as strong as ever.

“Gulnara is probably the person Karimov loves most because she looks like him and is very smart,” said one Western official who has met both father and daughter. “But he is capable of turning on his daughter. He is not the only one on earth that fits in that category. But he is certainly in that category.”

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« Reply #10109 on: Nov 20, 2013, 07:13 AM »

Iran's supreme leader reveals 'red lines' for nuclear talks in Geneva

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says he will not intervene in diplomatic discussions but that Tehran will 'slap any aggressors in the face'

Reuters, Wednesday 20 November 2013 09.36 GMT

The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said Tehran will not take one step back "one iota" from its nuclear rights, despite diplomats in Geneva proceeding to a third round of talks on the issue.

The spiritual leader said he would not intervene directly in the talks but he had set "red lines" for his negotiators. He said French officials were "not only succumbing to the United States, but they are kneeling before the Israeli regime" and said Iran would "slap aggressors in the face in such a way they will never forget it" without mentioning any specific country.

Khamenei told an audience of Basij militiamen on Wednesday that Tehran wanted friendly ties with all countries, including the US. "We are not hostile to the American nation. They are like other nations in the world," he said.

"Death to America," the militiamen chanted in response.

The US delegation leads western diplomats in Geneva in politically charged talks to end a long standoff and head off the risk of a wider Middle East war.

The US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany came tantalisingly close to winning concessions from Iran on the scope of its nuclear work in return for some sanctions relief at negotiations in the Swiss city 10 days ago.

Top policymakers from the sextet have since said that an interim accord on confidence-building steps to start defusing a decade of suspicion and hostility between the west and Iran could finally be within reach. But diplomats caution that differences remain and could still prevent an agreement during the talks, which are taking place from Tuesday to Thursday.

"There is a good chance. There is a hope the Iranians realise it's a good deal and accept it," one diplomat said.

The last meeting, which ended on 9 November, stumbled over Iran's insistence that its right to enrich uranium be recognised, and disagreement over its work on a heavy-water reactor near Arak, which could yield plutonium for atomic bombs once it becomes operational.

The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has since indicated a way around the first sticking point, saying Tehran has the right to refine uranium but is not insisting others recognise that right.

A UN nuclear watchdog report last week showed Iran had stopped expanding its enrichment of uranium and had not added major new components at Arak since August, when moderate Hassan Rouhani replaced hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.

Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu warned Washington to avoid making a "historical mistake" when negotiators appeared close to a deal this month. Israel wants Iran to scrap its entire nuclear energy infrastructure.

"Instead of yielding to their smile offensive, it is important that they yield to the pressure that can be wielded against them until they abandon their military nuclear programme," Netanyahu said in Tel Aviv this week.

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