Malian jihadist commander killed by French forces
Islamist militant chief Hacene Ould Khalill was deputy of man behind attack on Algerian oil refinery which left 38 dead
theguardian.com, Friday 22 November 2013 18.12 GMT
French special forces have killed an Islamist commander in a raid on a jihadist camp in the remote mountains of northern Mali, security sources said on Friday.
Hacene Ould Khalill was second-in-command to Mokhtar Belmoktar, a feared jihadist nicknamed "The Prince," who masterminded the attack on an Algerian gas plant which left 38 hostages dead this year. Khalil was also an important linchpin between Belmoktar's "Signed in Blood" brigade and other jihadist groups burgeoning across the region, analysts say.
"There was an operation launched by French special forces, and the group's number two commander was hit at some point during two days of gun battles," a Malian government official told The Guardian, adding that Malian officials were not informed prior to the attack.
Another security source said elite French forces were continuing to rake the northern Ifhogas mountain-top caves which have served as a sanctuary for Islamists fleeing French and United Nations troops.
Islamists who seized control of northern Mali were largely flushed out of the main towns after a brief French-led military campaign this year, but have continued to plague pockets of the north.
"It is more or less anarchy here. Even though there are planes and helicopters flying overhead every hour, the area is lawless," said Haidara, a resident in Kidal, the garrison capital where gunmen kidnapped and murdered two journalists earlier this month.
Khalill's death will be a blow to Belmoktar, nicknamed "the Uncatchable" by French intelligence officials after he orchestrated the kidnap of dozens of foreigners over the last decade. Belmoktar also bankrolled his organisation through trafficking cigarettes across Mali's vast, ungoverned deserts, earning him the moniker "Mr Malboro."
The Algerian-born 41-year-old broke away from al-Qaida's north African branch this year, ending decades of turbulence with the organisation's leadership. His "Signed in Blood" brigade have proved to have a deadly reach in the region, striking from Algeria in the north to as far afield as Niger in the eastern Sahara.
French forces have increased patrols in key northern Malian towns ahead of local polls on Sunday, but insiders say the recently-elected government is also grappling with a fraught relationship with the former colonial power.
"It's true the French flushed out the terrorists, but they are not treating Mali like a sovereign territory. It is an additional headache," a presidential advisor said.
Analysts said the renewed military pressure on Islamists was rippling across the Sahel. "The death of Belmokhtar's deputy and other members from his Brigades … has led to the severing of Belmokhtar's forces and his sub-Saharan African affiliates, like Ansaru in Nigeria, whose activities have decreased since the French-led intervention," said Jacob Zenn, a west Africa security analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, which keeps track of radical groups.
November 22, 2013
Powerful Rebel Groups in Syria Announce Creation of Umbrella Alliance
By BEN HUBBARD and KARAM SHOUMALI
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Seven of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups said that they had forged a new Islamic force seeking to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad and replace it with an Islamic state.
The new alliance, the Islamic Front, was announced in a video shown on Al Jazeera television on Friday and featured some of Syria’s most widely recognized rebel commanders.
While some rebels and opposition activists hailed the new group’s formation as a major step forward for the anti-Assad insurgency, it remained unclear to what extent the announcement reflected a true reorganization of rebel forces or what difference it would make in practice.
Most of the participating groups, while maintaining their own command structures, have long cooperated in battle. And through two and a half years of civil war, new rebel formations have been announced frequently, many of them faring no better against government forces than those they preceded.
Some rebels said the unification was also meant as a show of force by mainline rebel factions against one of Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliates, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has recruited thousands of foreign jihadists, seized patches of territory and clashed with other groups for resources.
The statement announcing the Islamic Front described it as “an independent political, military and social formation that seeks to completely topple the Assad regime in Syria and build an orthodox Islamic state.”
A spokesman for Al Tawhid Brigade, which joined the group, said by telephone from northern Syria that it was formed after months of discussion among rebel leaders who sought an alternative to the opposition’s nominal leadership, the Syrian National Coalition, which many fighters consider out of touch.
“The opposition coalition gets its legitimacy from the civilians and fighters inside Syria, so if the coalition can’t fulfill their wishes, it should admit that,” said the spokesman, who gave his name as Abu Harith.
He said the Islamic Front would work to integrate all the forces that joined it and create a single office to receive and distribute military aid. Competition for financing and arms has long created rifts among rebel groups.
Abu Harith denied that the Islamic Front was formed to challenge ISIS, but said it would oppose the group if it oppressed civilians.
“The Islamic Front was born to defend the Syrian people and to achieve their goals of freedom and a decent life,” he said. “So if people complain about ISIS’s behavior, we will have their complaints solved.”
The formation of the Islamic Front is another blow to efforts by the United States and other powers to organize talks aimed at ending the war. It also highlights the increasing irrelevance of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, formed last year under pressure from the West to bolster more moderate fighting groups at the expense of extremists.
A number of the Islamic Front’s founding brigades were members of the Supreme Military Council. Although it was unclear if they had officially broken with it, none have spoken of the military council as a major source of support.
A spokesman for the council, Louay Mekdad, said that the groups had not quit the council and that he supported all efforts to unify the rebels.
“We see this as a new stage with the formation of this large, respectable group, and we hope that all the forces on the ground will unify,” he said. “The umbrella doesn’t matter to us; the principles of the revolution do.”
Yet a high-ranking member of the military council who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the new group’s formation could harm the rebellion by further splitting support for the fighters.
“If the support we used to get is split between the S.M.C. and the Islamic Front, this means less effectiveness for both sides,” he said.
Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, and Karam Shoumali from Istanbul.
South Africa bans pictures of president's house
Friday 22 November 2013 09.03 GMT theguardian.com
The South African government has warned that media outlets publishing photographs of President Jacob Zuma's house face prosecution.
State security minister Siyabonga Cwele said: "No one, including those in the media, are allowed to take images and publicise images."
The ban on pictures follows a long-running controversy over Zuma's residence in Nkandla, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It is a huge compound, with a mini-football pitch, gym, helicopter pads, a tuck-shop for one of Zuma's four wives and a pen for livestock.
A scandal erupted when it was discovered that more than £12m of state funds was used to refurbish the property, prompting many media outlets to publish aerial shots of the property.
Ministers have defended the expense as necessary for "security upgrades" and have justified the ban on pictures by invoking the 1980 National Key Points Act, which prohibits publicity for "installations of strategic importance."
The South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) says the act is being misused. It issued a statement saying "ministers are using security laws to avoid accounting to the public on the Nkandla upgrades."
Sanef's chairman, Mpumelelo Mkhabela, said ministers were threatening to prosecute journalists for publishing public interest information.
"There's an assumption that the media has somehow put the president's security at risk, which is not true," he said.
Honduras elections: leftist party challenges right's grip on power
Libre emerged from post-coup resistance movement and could give Honduras its first female, left-leaning president
Nina Lakhani in Tegucigalpa
theguardian.com, Friday 22 November 2013 15.20 GMT
Days before Hondurans go to the polls in the country's most eagerly anticipated elections in decades, a group of young people wearing red and white T-shirts are busy handing out stickers and voting information to passers-by in the rowdy main square of the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Red and white are the colours of the Freedom and Refoundation party, known by its Spanish acronym Libre, and the young people are part of an army of activists who have changed the political landscape in Honduras since 2009.
"Libre is the only party interested in opportunities for young people like me who don't have connections or can't pay their way into a new job," said Melissa Mendoza Valladores, 21, a business studies graduate. "This could finally be our chance – an opportunity for ordinary people like me."
Four years after a coup deposed the democratically elected Liberal president, Manuel Zelaya, his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the Libre candidate, has a real chance of being elected as the country's first left-leaning president.
Sunday's vote to elect the president, congress and local governments will be the first time Hondurans have been offered a genuine alternative to the rightwing National party and centre-right Liberals, which – apart from a few periods of military rule – have rotated power for the past century.
Libre emerged from a post-coup political resistance movement, bringing together an eclectic mix of trade union and LGBT activists, human rights defenders, campesino and indigenous organisations, youth and feminist groups, teachers and intellectuals, former Liberals who opposed the coup and many others mobilised in an unprecedented grassroots base.
Neither Zelaya, who spent months holed up in the Brazilian embassy and was later exiled in the Dominican Republic, nor his many enemies could have foreseen this most unlikely transformation.
Carlos Diaz, a professor of pedagogy and a Libre activist, told the Guardian: "In 33 years of working for social change in Honduras, this is the first time we have a party which truly represents every part of society, something I never imagined possible. No matter what happens on Sunday we have succeeded in mobilising communities long abandoned or disaffected by Honduran mainstream politics."
Without the financial support enjoyed by the two traditional parties, Libre has organised simply and methodically from neighbourhood to neighbourhood over the past three years.
It has promised a new constitution to make powerful, politically aligned institutions such as the national congress and judiciary (which both orchestrated the military coup) more democratic and accountable to the public rather than just to foreign investors and the country's 10 richest families, which have dominated Honduran politics for the past century.
Libre has also promised to renegotiate the terms of foreign contracts and international debt repayments, and work to rehabilitate street gangs.
There is undoubtedly a radical socialist element within its ranks, but despite rightwing scaremongering that Castro de Zelaya is a new Hugo Chávez, Libre is also explicitly pro-business and US friendly.
For many months Castro de Zelaya was ahead in the polls, followed closely by Salvador Nasralla, an ultra-conservative sports broadcaster and political novice running for his new Anti-Corruption party.
But the man to watch is the National party's neo-liberal candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández, who has proved himself to be politically adept in the role of president of the national congress since 2010, when his party won controversial and violent elections that were boycotted by many.
After the coup, Honduras – already struggling with extreme levels of violence – descended into a vortex of criminality: by 2011, it had become the most violent country in the world outside of a warzone, with 91.6 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, a 59% increase in three years, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
International drug cartels – which hugely expanded during the post-coup chaos – street gangs, corrupt private and state security forces working with organised criminals and private businesses have all played a role in the violence, making insecurity the top issue for many voters.
Orlando Hernández's campaign promise of a "soldier on every corner" is supported by many ordinary people: the military is undoubtedly more trusted by most Hondurans than the civil police, whose leader, Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla, has been accused of leading death squads.
But according to Amnesty International and local human rights groups, the military carried out abuses with impunity in the aftermath of the coup. Karen Spring, of the NGO Rights Action, said: "Honduras has been a dream for multinational corporations since the coup as the illegitimate government hammered through laws to favour international investors in tourism, mining, dams and model cities, while communities trying to protect their land have been criminalised and militarised."
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in the Americas with 60% of its eight million people living in poverty. In the two years after the coup Honduras saw the most rapid rise in inequality in Latin America, research by the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research revealed this month.
Rights Action has documented the murders of at least 18 Libre candidates and activists since May last year, more than those of all other parties combined. At least 67 lawyers and 30 journalists have been killed since 2009.
In Tegucigalpa, National party billboards and fancy flags dominate the streets. The newspapers, many of which promoted the coup, overwhelmingly support Orlando Hernández while often criticising Libre as a party backed by foreign agitators.
Reynerio Adalid Fuentes, a taxi driver, is among the million or so independent voters who are likely to decide the outcome. "Honduras needs security and continuity in order to attract foreign companies and develop, that's why I am voting for the National party," he said. "I want our police and army on the streets to deal with the delinquency."
None of the candidates looks likely to win a large majority. On Sunday evening, Hondurans could have their first female, left-leaning president, but without a majority in congress she may face a powerful National-Liberal alliance intent on preserving the status quo.
Massive gamma-ray burst has scientists’ theories ‘going down the drain’
By The Christian Science Monitor
Friday, November 22, 2013 17:15 EST
Scientists have studied gamma-ray bursts, which are triggered by the collapse of massive stars, for three decades. Now, one is forcing them to reconsider what they thought they knew.
By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / November 21, 2013
This image shows an artist's rendering on how a gamma-ray burst occurs with a massive star collapsing and creating a black hole, beaming out focused light and radiation bursts. Astronomers in April 2013 saw the biggest and brightest cosmic explosion ever witnessed, a large gamma-ray burst.
An exploded star some 3.8 billion light-years away is forcing scientists to overhaul much of what they thought they knew about gamma-ray bursts – intense blasts of radiation triggered, in this case, by a star tens of times more massive than the sun that exhausted its nuclear fuel, exploded, then collapsed to form a black hole.
Last April, gamma rays from the blast struck detectors in gamma-ray observatories orbiting Earth, triggering a frenzy of space- and ground-based observations. Many of them fly in the face of explanations researchers have developed during the past 30 years for the processes driving the evolution of a burst from flash to fade out, according to four research papers appearing Friday in the journal Science.
“Some of our theories are just going down the drain,” said Charles Dermer, an astrophysicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a member of one of the teams reporting on their observations of the burst, known as GRB 130427A.
The event, dubbed a long-duration gamma-ray burst (GRB), is typically seen in the distant, early universe, Dr. Dermer said during a briefing Thursday. This one was much closer. And while typical long-duration bursts last from a few seconds to a few minutes, GRB 130427A put on its display for 20 hours.
The event's duration, relatively close proximity, and the range of observatories in space and on the ground that could monitor it at a range of wavelengths has provided scientists with an unprecedented opportunity to explore the workings of one of the more extreme ends a star can inflict on itself.
The encouraging news: Traits seen in the gamma-ray emissions from initial burst through the afterglow compare favorably to the traits seen in the behavior of gamma rays in more-distant, long-duration bursts.
“This suggests that GRBs in the contemporary universe and in the early, distant universe share a common central engine,” Dermer said.
In October, a team led by Dong Xu, an astrophysicist at the University of Copehagen, found evidence for a stellar explosion, or supernova, at GRB 130427A's location. The evidence pointed to a type of supernova that involves a star with at least 20 to 30 times the sun's mass.
Such stars are so large than when they finally collapse, they form black holes. In the process of collapsing, the black hole sends jets of electrons and ionized gas spiraling out along along magnetic fields forming near the black hole's poles.
These jets punch their way through the turbulent, expanding layers of material the star shed in the explosion and its prelude. And they collide with the interstellar medium – the dust and gas between stars. Collisions inside and outside the expanding layer can generate gamma rays, which tend to be focused in the direction the jets point. This makes the object an extremely bright gamma-ray beacon, if briefly, when the viewing angle is just right.
Indeed, GRB 130427A “topped the charts” in the amount of gamma-ray photons it released, the energy levels some of those photons achieved, total explosion energy, and its gamma-ray brilliance, added Paul Hertz, who heads NASA's astrophysics division in Washington. At visible wavelengths, the burst was the second brightest GRB researchers have seen.
That made possible the detailed measurements that have left researchers scratching their chins.
For instance, ordinarily, one might expect the gamma-ray photons with the highest energy to appear immediately following the star's explosion, researchers say. But with GRB 130427A, some of the highest energy photons, including the new record-holder, appeared hours after the blast.
“This is hard to explain with our current models,” Dermer said.
In addition, gamma rays and emissions at visible wavelengths brightened and dimmed in tandem, quite unexpected because theory suggested they come from different regions of the expanding shells of material and thus should have peaked and dimmed at different times.
Finally, theorists had posited different mechanisms for generating gamma rays and X-rays that are part of the light show a long-duration gamma-ray burst puts on. The result should have been a fadeout for the two forms of light punctuated by periods where emissions were interrupted. Instead, the two dimmed smoothly.
The theoretical edifice GRB 130427A is eroding has been 46 years in the making.
Scientists stumbled across the first gamma-ray burst in 1967, when a US satellite designed to detect nuclear-weapons tests in space picked up a burst's emissions. As follow-on versions of the satellite with better sensors were lofted, scientists detected more. By 1973, the data were declassified and published, opening a window on the mysterious phenomenon.
It took another 18 years to determine that the bursts they were seeing occurred far outside the Milky Way, where researchers originally thought the bursts were taking place.
The Christian Science Monitor
'Black Beauty' reveals warm, wet dawn on Mars
By Liz Fuller-Wright, Staff Writer / November 21, 2013 at 5:04 pm EST
All rocks tell stories. Some are brief – "I erupted, then you picked me up." "I sat at the bottom of a lake for 500 million years."– while others have chapters upon chapters to share, with plot twists and daring escapes.
The rock dubbed "Black Beauty" has a "truly unique" story to tell, says planetary scientist Carl Agee. Born in the fires of Mars, it has tales to tell about volcanoes, meteorites, water on Mars – and then, in a shocking twist, it got blasted off the surface of Mars, it tumbled through space, and it got caught by Earth's gravity. When the meteor fell to Earth, part of it vaporized on impact and the rest was scattered across the desert of Western Sahara, where, a century or two later, passing nomads collected the scattered fragments and sold them to mineral collectors.
Dr. Agee ended up with one chunk, officially known as NWA 7034, while another piece, NWA 7553, fell into the hands of an international research team headed by Munir Humayun at Florida State University.
"This is a one-of-a-kind martian meteorite," says Agee, a professor at the University of New Mexico. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime find."
About a hundred other martian meteorites have been identified, but none like this one, he says. "This is a truly unique martian in that it is, first of all, the only martian true breccia."
Breccias are rocks composed of broken fragments or pebbles, welded together. In this case, the whole rock is the size of a fist, but the individual pieces are only a few millimeters across. They include at least six different types of igneous rocks as well what appear to be sedimentary rocks, says Agee. "This is almost as good as going to Mars and touring a geologic field area, sampling and picking up rocks off of this outcrop and that one, gathering them into your sample bag. Here, we have everything in one sample."
On Earth, breccias are typically cemented together by mud and water. That's probably not the case with Black Beauty, says Agee, but neither team of scientists has pinned down how the different fragments were welded together.
Two likely theories involve meteor impacts and volcanoes. "A lot of volcanoes, when they erupt, they do so explosively, and they can form breccias" as the flying fragments, thousands of degrees hot, slam into each other and are shock-welded as they cool. "Impact brecciation does a similar sort of thing: break up a rock and fuse it back together." So which mechanism is responsible for Black Beauty? "That's one of the things we're trying to figure out right now," says Agee.
As the teams began investigating the tiny rocks within the bigger meteorite, they pursued various avenues of study, sometimes leading to dead ends. "It's really like detective work. You pursue certain leads, and jump to conclusions, follow them, and then realize, oops, we've gotta go this way," says Agee.
Efforts at pinning down the age of the meteorite took several wrong turns, as the different fragments revealed different ages. This piece gave an age of 1.7 billion years, but this mineral measures 2.1 billion years, and then Dr. Humayun's team found zircons. "Whenever a geologist finds a zircon, it's like, 'Eureka!' Now we can get a definitive date," says Agee. Most martian meteorites do not have zircons, so the researchers hadn't been looking for them.
Unlike other minerals, which can be re-heated to near-melting temperatures and thus have their apparent age "reset," zircons hold their creation age. It's like trying to figure out the age of an ancient manuscript by getting a carbon-date off of some olive oil spilled on a page – and then discovering that the manuscript was already a thousand years old before the oil was spilled.
"Mars, just like Earth, is a geologically active planet, so there are all these other processes taking place that continually change the rock," says Agee. "That's the neat thing about these Martian rocks: They're so similar, in many ways, to Earth rocks."
Once they found the zircons, the meteorite revealed yet another shocking plot twist: it's 4.4 billion years old. Several other labs then independently confirmed the date. Our solar system formed about 4.5 billion years ago, so this rock is barely younger than the fires of planetary creation, and by very far the oldest martian meteorite ever found.
“This date is about 100 million years after the first dust condensed in the solar system,” said Humayun in a press release. “We now know that Mars had a crust within the first 100 million years of the start of planet building, and that Mars’ crust formed concurrently with the oldest crusts on Earth and the Moon.”
Other fragments revealed other tantalizing details: this meteorite has 10 times as much water within its crystal structure as any other martian meteorite ever discovered. "Now that it's clear it's got this ancient age, and then combined with the fact that it has lots and lots of water, and this is getting extremely interesting for astrobiology," says Agee.
Both teams have started looking for evidence of life, but the sediments are "extremely complicated," says Agee. The meteorite does contain organic carbon, but considering that it sat in the Sahara for over a century, Agee warns, "You need to be careful not to say, 'This is evidence for life on Mars!' when, no, it's evidence for life in the Sahara Desert."
"This meteorite is the kind of thing people live for," says Agee. "You could study this sample for years."
Siats meekerorum: Meet the dinosaur that terrorized Tyrannosaurus rex
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 22, 2013 10:45 EST
Palaeontologists on Friday announced they had uncovered the remains of one of the greatest land predators ever — a nine-metre (30-foot) four-tonne dinosaur that stalked the planet 100 million years ago.
The newly-discovered species has been called Siats meekerorum, whose first name honours a cannibalistic monster in the mythology of the Native American Ute people.
A giant meat-eater, the dino lorded it even over the tyrannosaurs of the time, the scientists said.
It would take another 30 million years or so before the eight-tonne Tyrannosaurus rex emerged to take the title of apex killer in present-day North America.
“This dinosaur was a colossal predator, second only to the great T. rex and perhaps Acrocanthosaurus in the North American fossil record,” said Lindsay Zanno, of North Carolina’s State University and Museum of Natural Sciences.
The fossilised remains were spotted sticking out from a rocky slope in the Cedar Mountain Formation in Utah in 2008.
It took two years for the scattered bones to be fully teased from the rocks and cleaned, and another couple of years to analyse them.
“It’s been 63 years since a predator of this size has been named from North America,” said Zanno in a press release.
“You can’t imagine how thrilled we were to see the bones of this behemoth poking out of the hillside.”
Siats — pronounced “see-atch” — belongs to the so-called carchardontosaurian group of theropods, or mighty two-footed carnivores.
The sediment in which the bones were deposited has been dated to around 98 million years old.
The monster fills a 30-million-year blank spot in the fossil record of North American predatory dinosaurs.
During this time, the role of apex predator switched from the carcharodontosaurians to the tyrannosaurs, in a “species turnover” that remains mysterious.
Vegetation was lush and prey was plentiful, giving great opportunities for carnivores to evolve into bigger sizes.
The tyrannosaurs, though, remained relatively small — and Siats’s dominating presence may explain why.
“Contemporary tyrannosaurs would have been no more than a nuisance to Siats, like jackals at a lion kill,” said Zanno.
“It wasn’t until carcharodontosaurs bowed out that the stage could be set for the evolution of T. rex.”
The study was published on Friday in the journal Nature Communications. The dinosaur’s name, in addition to honouring the monster in Ute culture, also references a family, the Meekers, who support young palaeontologists.
Obsessing over cultural gender norms: What’s the problem if girls act masculine?
By Jill Filipovic, The Guardian
Friday, November 22, 2013 14:19 EST
A few weeks back, I went to my first baby shower. My friends have only recently started getting married and having babies – although not necessarily in that order – and I was psyched to pick out a set of adorable baby clothes for the twins to whom my friend had only weeks earlier given birth. I popped into a cutesy Brooklyn baby shop and said I was looking for a baby shower gift for new twins. Her first question: “Girls or boys?” One of each, I said. She pointed me to the section of girls’ clothes, all pink, and boys’ clothes, all blue.
It’s a little weird how all the clothes are pink for girls and blue for boys, isn’t it?
She agreed, and said they had one yellow outfit, but then said that nearly everyone who comes in demands the gender color-coding. I ended up buying burp cloths and bibs printed with zigzags – one yellow and one grey.
Gendering kids starts immediately after birth, when we wrap a baby in a pink blanket or a blue one. Babies have no idea what they’re even wearing and just need to be kept warm. It’s parents who buy into the binary, and the rest of us who are thoroughly uncomfortable when they don’t. There’s the yellow aisle of gender-neutral toys and apparel, but show up to a baby shower with a pink onesie for a male baby and see what kind of looks you get (believe me, I was tempted, but given that there was a baby of each gender it wouldn’t have been quite as effective).
The boy/girl divide gets even more pronounced as kids get older, but there’s more of a stigma for boys who cross it than for girls. Most progressive parents these days will buy their daughters building blocks or sign her up for a sports team, but they’re a lot less likely to get their son a baby doll or sign him up for ballet. Kids, though, are natural gender-transgressors. Of course they soak up our cultural gender norms and respond accordingly, and even the most feminist parent can attest that it’s impossible to keep a daughter totally protected from Disney Princess mania or a son entirely away from war and gun play.
But as influenced as kids may be by the culture outside their front doors, they’re still newbies to the whole gender role thing, which means they break the rules more often than adults. And that freaks out some parents, especially when the rule-breaker is their son. Katie may be a tomboy because she likes to climb trees, but if Kevin likes to wear dresses? He’s a sissy, he’s not acting like a boy, and he might be gay.
That parental anxiety was highlighted this week in a Dear Prudence column in Slate, where a mom wrote in concerned about her husband’s over-reaction to their son’s penchant for playing dress-up in mom’s shoes. Dad makes the kid remove the shoes, then punishes the kid when he gets hysterical – all over donning a pair of ballet flats. The dad in question isn’t an unusual tyrant; parents across the US punish their sons for playing dress-up, painting their nails, wanting to grow their hair long, or engaging in other activities that the parent deems “feminine”.
Christian parenting manuals instruct parents to quash any sort of play that involves identifying as a gender other than the one the child was assigned at birth. When I was a kid, I had a male friend who loved to dress up in women’s clothes – in particular, his sister’s gold lame skirt. After he refused to take the skirt off one day, his dad cut it off of him and burned it in the back yard.
The result of harsh gender policing isn’t upstanding masculine sons and submissive feminine daughters. It’s kids who are hurt, confused and alienated from their parents.
It should go without saying that the majority of kids who play dress-up in gender non-conforming ways don’t grow up to be gay or transgender. But some do, and many of the kids who grow up to be gay or trans will point to cross-gender play as an early indicator, for them, of their sexuality and identity. Others still are confused about their sexuality.
The best ally any kid can have as their identity takes shape is an involved, accepting and loving parent. No amount of parental intervention will make a gay kid straight or change the identity of a trans kid. But positive parental actions that affirm your child’s individuality and identity can mean that your kid comes to you with questions. She’ll know you’ll be her biggest advocate in a world that is notoriously cruel to anyone who’s different – whether that means gay, transgender, gender non-conforming or simply a boy who wants to wear nail polish or a girl who wants to play football.
Parental intervention in normal explorative play that shames a kid for gender non-conformity sends a very clear message that certain behaviors and identities aren’t OK. At best you end up with a kid who’s also a homophobe and a bully; at worst your child believes he’s unlovable because of who he is, and lives with the attendant psychological and emotional scars. Gay kids have suicide, depression and victimization rates that are significantly higher than their straight counterparts. Of course, that’s often not the parent’s fault, but parents contribute more often than many would like to admit – to both the victims and the bullies.
What is it, exactly, that’s going to break down if a little boy puts on a dress or if a girl wants to cut her hair short? A few years back a Toronto couple refused to publicly disclose the sex of their child – not a big deal, one would think, given that what’s between the child’s legs isn’t really a matter of pressing public interest. Nonetheless, the public went ballistic, accusing the couple of child abuse because the child wasn’t clearly identified to outsiders as male or female (the family knew the child’s sex, they just didn’t want anyone else knowing). Talking heads said the couple was raising a “freak” and denying the child their identity.
It’s worth pausing here to note that “male” and “female” are not as clearly-defined categories as we would like them to be. Physically, we’re much more the same than we are different, and there’s great variation even within each group. And there’s a vast middle of intersex people, and people who may have ambiguous genitalia, non-standard genitalia, chromosomes that don’t match their external sex organs or hormones that deviate from the normal. Nature, unlike many parents, isn’t quite so intent on keeping males and females clearly differentiated.
So why are we so deeply concerned with making sure boys are identified as boys and girls as girls – especially with things that have nothing to do with genitalia, hormones, chromosomes or, most importantly, how the child sees themselves? There’s nothing about having a penis that correlates with the color blue; there’s nothing about having a vagina that correlates with the ability to cook (just ask Time Magazine).
While gender identity is a real thing, the trappings we put onto gender – the colors, the clothes, the assumed preferences – are all cultural, not natural. There are certainly behavioral patterns that are influenced by hormones and body chemistry, but we don’t know exactly what, or to what extent. We can take educated guesses, but we’ve never lived in a world without cultural constructs around gender, so pinpointing “X personality characteristic is male” becomes impossible. Cultural beliefs about gender also influence biology – how a child is treated physically, emotionally and intellectually impacts their neural pathways, brain development and even musculature.
So, why apply gender roles so strictly to the youngest among us, and punish transgressors so harshly?
We’d be much better off if we let kids be kids, and didn’t project our own gender anxieties onto their preferences or playtimes. And we should start recognizing that terrorizing a kid for cross-gender play isn’t “tough love”; it’s abuse.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
In the USA...United Surveillance America
NSA bulk data collection violates constitutional rights, ACLU argues
Civil liberties group tells New York court that program breaches first and fourth amendments and NSA is overreaching its powers
Dominic Rushe in New York
theguardian.com, Friday 22 November 2013 17.02 GMT
Civil liberties campaigners told a New York court on Friday that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of all US phone records violates the constitutional rights to freedom of association and privacy.
The American Civil Liberties Union called for the NSA's program, first revealed by the Guardian in June, to be ended, arguing that it breached the first and fourth amendments as well as exceeding the authority Congress gave to the government through the Patriot Act.
“This kind of dragnet surveillance is precisely what the fourth amendment was meant to prohibit,” ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer, said before the hearing. “The constitution does not permit the NSA to place hundreds of millions of innocent people under permanent surveillance because of the possibility that information about some tiny subset of them will become useful to an investigation in the future.”
The case, ACLU v James Clapper, director of national intelligence, Keith Alexander, director of the NSA and others, was filed in June, shortly after the Guardian published a top-secret court order requiring Verizon to pass personal call data from millions of its customers to the NSA “on an ongoing daily basis”. The revelation was the first in a series of articles exposing the scale of the NSA’s operations based on documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The ACLU is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, which was the subject of the order issued under by foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court.
According to the Snowden documents, the NSA receives massive amounts of “metadata” from the company including the numbers of both parties on a call, call duration, unique identifiers, and time of call. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.
ACLU’s lawsuit argues that the government’s blanket seizure of its phone records compromises its ability to work with clients, journalists, advocacy partners, whistleblowers, and others.
In February, the supreme court dismissed the ACLU’s case challenging the constitutionality of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa), a case it filed in 2008 before the Snowden revelations. That suit was rejected on the grounds that the plaintiffs could not prove that they had been monitored. ACLU now argues that it has standing to sue because the Fisa court order showed that its phone records were collected by the government.
Earlier this week the supreme court rejected a request to review whether the Fisa court had exceeded its authority when it compelled Verizon to disclose the records. The request, made by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic), a public-interest group dedicated to privacy concerns, argued “the production of millions of domestic telephone records that cannot plausibly be relevant to an authorized investigation.”
The court did not explain its reasoning but the government argued only it or the recipient of an order can seek review of an order. Other appeals are expected.
The legal challenges come as Verizon, AT&T and others are coming under increasing pressure to make more disclosures about their dealings with the NSA. Tech giants including Google, Facebook and Yahoo have increasingly spoken out against the NSA’s tactics and called for more disclosure. The telecoms companies have been largely silent.
Shareholder pressure groups are now calling for the telecom companies to release more details of the type and volume of information they give to the NSA. Activists including Trillium Asset Management of Boston and the $161bn New York State Common Retirement Fund have filed motions calling for AT&T and Verizon to release reports on the "metrics and discussion regarding requests for customer information by US and foreign governments."
November 22, 2013
N.S.A. Report Outlined Goals for More Power
By JAMES RISEN and LAURA POITRAS
WASHINGTON — Officials at the National Security Agency, intent on maintaining its dominance in intelligence collection, pledged last year to push to expand its surveillance powers, according to a top-secret strategy document.
In a February 2012 paper laying out the four-year strategy for the N.S.A.’s signals intelligence operations, which include the agency’s eavesdropping and communications data collection around the world, agency officials set an objective to “aggressively pursue legal authorities and a policy framework mapped more fully to the information age.”
Written as an agency mission statement with broad goals, the five-page document said that existing American laws were not adequate to meet the needs of the N.S.A. to conduct broad surveillance in what it cited as “the golden age of Sigint,” or signals intelligence. “The interpretation and guidelines for applying our authorities, and in some cases the authorities themselves, have not kept pace with the complexity of the technology and target environments, or the operational expectations levied on N.S.A.’s mission,” the document concluded.
Using sweeping language, the paper also outlined some of the agency’s other ambitions. They included defeating the cybersecurity practices of adversaries in order to acquire the data the agency needs from “anyone, anytime, anywhere.” The agency also said it would try to decrypt or bypass codes that keep communications secret by influencing “the global commercial encryption market through commercial relationships,” human spies and intelligence partners in other countries. It also talked of the need to “revolutionize” analysis of its vast collections of data to “radically increase operational impact.”
The strategy document, provided by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden, was written at a time when the agency was at the peak of its powers and the scope of its surveillance operations was still secret. Since then, Mr. Snowden’s revelations have changed the political landscape.
Prompted by a public outcry over the N.S.A.’s domestic operations, the agency’s critics in Congress have been pushing to limit, rather than expand, its ability to routinely collect the phone and email records of millions of Americans, while foreign leaders have protested reports of virtually unlimited N.S.A. surveillance overseas, even in allied nations. Several inquiries are underway in Washington; Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the N.S.A.’s longest-serving director, has announced plans to retire; and the White House has offered proposals to disclose more information about the agency’s domestic surveillance activities.
The N.S.A. document, titled “Sigint Strategy 2012-2016,” does not make clear what legal or policy changes the agency might seek. The N.S.A.’s powers are determined variously by Congress, executive orders and the nation’s secret intelligence court, and its operations are governed by layers of regulations. While asserting that the agency’s “culture of compliance” would not be compromised, N.S.A. officials argued that they needed more flexibility, according to the paper.
Senior intelligence officials, responding to questions about the document, said that the N.S.A. believed that legal impediments limited its ability to conduct surveillance of terrorism suspects inside the United States. Despite an overhaul of national security law in 2008, the officials said, if a terrorism suspect who is under surveillance overseas enters the United States, the agency has to stop monitoring him until it obtains a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“N.S.A.’s Sigint strategy is designed to guide investments in future capabilities and close gaps in current capabilities,” the agency said in a statement. “In an ever-changing technology and telecommunications environment, N.S.A. tries to get in front of issues to better fulfill the foreign-intelligence requirements of the U.S. government.”
Critics, including some congressional leaders, say that the role of N.S.A. surveillance in thwarting terrorist attacks — often cited by the agency to justify expanded powers — has been exaggerated. In response to the controversy about its activities after Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, agency officials claimed that the N.S.A.’s sweeping domestic surveillance programs had helped in 54 “terrorist-related activities.” But under growing scrutiny, congressional staff members and other critics say that the use of such figures by defenders of the agency has drastically overstated the value of the domestic surveillance programs in counterterrorism.
Agency leaders believe that the N.S.A. has never enjoyed such a target-rich environment as it does now because of the global explosion of digital information — and they want to make certain that they can dominate “the Sigint battle space” in the future, the document said. To be “optimally effective,” the paper said, “legal, policy and process authorities must be as adaptive and dynamic as the technological and operational advances we seek to exploit.”
Intent on unlocking the secrets of adversaries, the paper underscores the agency’s long-term goal of being able to collect virtually everything available in the digital world. To achieve that objective, the paper suggests that the N.S.A. plans to gain greater access, in a variety of ways, to the infrastructure of the world’s telecommunications networks.
Reports based on other documents previously leaked by Mr. Snowden showed that the N.S.A. has infiltrated the cable links to Google and Yahoo data centers around the world, leading to protests from company executives and a growing backlash against the N.S.A. in Silicon Valley.
Yet the paper also shows how the agency believes it can influence and shape trends in high-tech industries in other ways to suit its needs. One of the agency’s goals is to “continue to invest in the industrial base and drive the state of the art for high performance computing to maintain pre-eminent cryptanalytic capability for the nation.” The paper added that the N.S.A. must seek to “identify new access, collection and exploitation methods by leveraging global business trends in data and communications services.”
And it wants to find ways to combine all of its technical tools to enhance its surveillance powers. The N.S.A. will seek to integrate its “capabilities to reach previously inaccessible targets in support of exploitation, cyberdefense and cyberoperations,” the paper stated.
The agency also intends to improve its access to encrypted communications used by individuals, businesses and foreign governments, the strategy document said. The N.S.A. has already had some success in defeating encryption, The New York Times has reported, but the document makes it clear that countering “ubiquitous, strong, commercial network encryption” is a top priority. The agency plans to fight back against the rise of encryption through relationships with companies that develop encryption tools and through espionage operations. In other countries, the document said, the N.S.A. must also “counter indigenous cryptographic programs by targeting their industrial bases with all available Sigint and Humint” — human intelligence, meaning spies.
The document also mentioned a goal of integrating the agency’s eavesdropping and data collection systems into a national network of sensors that interactively “sense, respond and alert one another at machine speed.” Senior intelligence officials said that the system of sensors is designed to protect the computer networks of the Defense Department, and that the N.S.A. does not use data collected from Americans for the system.
One of the agency’s other four-year goals was to “share bulk data” more broadly to allow for better analysis. While the paper does not explain in detail how widely it would disseminate bulk data within the intelligence community, the proposal raises questions about what safeguards the N.S.A. plans to place on its domestic phone and email data collection programs to protect Americans’ privacy.
N.S.A. officials have insisted that they have placed tight controls on those programs. In an interview, the senior intelligence officials said that the strategy paper was referring to the agency’s desire to share foreign data more broadly, not phone logs of Americans collected under the Patriot Act.
Above all, the strategy paper suggests the N.S.A.’s vast view of its mission: nothing less than to “dramatically increase mastery of the global network.”
Other N.S.A. documents offer hints of how the agency is trying to do just that. One program, code-named Treasure Map, provides what a secret N.S.A. PowerPoint presentation describes as “a near real-time, interactive map of the global Internet.” According to the undated PowerPoint presentation, disclosed by Mr. Snowden, Treasure Map gives the N.S.A. “a 300,000 foot view of the Internet.”
Relying on Internet routing data, commercial and Sigint information, Treasure Map is a sophisticated tool, one that the PowerPoint presentation describes as a “massive Internet mapping, analysis and exploration engine.” It collects Wi-Fi network and geolocation data, and between 30 million and 50 million unique Internet provider addresses — code that can reveal the location and owner of a computer, mobile device or router — are represented each day on Treasure Map, according to the document. It boasts that the program can map “any device, anywhere, all the time.”
The documents include addresses labeled as based in the “U.S.,” and because so much Internet traffic flows through the United States, it would be difficult to map much of the world without capturing such addresses.
But the intelligence officials said that Treasure Map maps only foreign and Defense Department networks, and is limited by the amount of data available to the agency. There are several billion I.P. addresses on the Internet, the officials said, and Treasure Map cannot map them all. The program is not used for surveillance, they said, but to understand computer networks.
The program takes advantage of the capabilities of other secret N.S.A. programs. To support Treasure Map, for example, the document states that another program, called Packaged Goods, tracks the “traceroutes” through which data flows around the Internet. Through Packaged Goods, the N.S.A. has gained access to “13 covered servers in unwitting data centers around the globe,” according to the PowerPoint. The document identifies a list of countries where the data centers are located, including Germany, Poland, Denmark, South Africa and Taiwan as well as Russia, China and Singapore.
Despite the document’s reference to “unwitting data centers,” government officials said that the agency does not hack into those centers. Instead, the officials said, the intelligence community secretly uses front companies to lease space on the servers.
Despite the N.S.A.’s broad surveillance powers, the strategy paper shows that N.S.A. officials still worry about the agency’s ability to fend off bureaucratic inertia while keeping pace with change.
“To sustain current mission relevance,” the document said, Signals Intelligence Directorate, the N.S.A.’s signals intelligence arm, “must undertake a profound and revolutionary shift from the mission approach which has served us so well in the decades preceding the onset of the information age.”
James Risen reported from Washington, and Laura Poitras from Berlin.
November 22, 2013
Tension and Flaws Before Health Website Crash
By ERIC LIPTON, IAN AUSTEN and SHARON LaFRANIERE
WASHINGTON — On a sultry day in late August, a dozen staff members of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gathered at the agency’s Baltimore headquarters with managers from the major contractors building HealthCare.gov to review numerous problems with President’s Obama’s online health insurance initiative. The mood was grim.
The prime contractor, CGI Federal, had long before concluded that the administration was blindly enamored of an unrealistic goal: creating a cutting-edge website that would use the latest technologies to dazzle consumers with its many features. Knowing how long it would take to complete and test the software, the company’s officials and other vendors believed that it was impossible to open a fully functioning exchange on Oct. 1.
Government officials, on the other hand, insisted that Oct. 1 was not negotiable. And they were fed up with what they saw as CGI’s pattern of excuses for missed deadlines. Michelle Snyder, the agency’s chief operating officer, was telling colleagues outright, “If we could fire them, we would.”
Interviews with current and former Obama administration officials and specialists involved in the project, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of government and contractor documents, offer new details into how tensions between the government and its contractors, questionable decisions and weak leadership within the Medicare agency turned the rollout of the president’s signature program into a major humiliation.
The online exchange was crippled, people involved with building it said in recent interviews, because of a huge gap between the administration’s grand hopes and the practicalities of building a website that could function on opening day.
Vital components were never secured, including sufficient access to a data center to prevent the website from crashing. A backup system that could go live if it did crash was not created, a weakness the administration has never disclosed. And the architecture of the system that interacts with the data center where information is stored is so poorly configured that it must be redesigned, a process that experts said typically takes months. An initial assessment identified more than 600 hardware and software defects — “the longest list anybody had ever seen,” one person involved with the project said.
When the realization of impending disaster finally hit government officials at the Aug. 27 meeting — just 34 days before the site went live — they threw out nearly 30 requirements, including the Spanish-language version of the site and a payment system for insurers to receive government subsidies for the policies they sold.
Even then, the system failed a test of only 500 simulated users in late September. Panicked, agency officials sent out an urgent order to almost double the system’s data capacity, technicians involved in the project have now confirmed. But the site was still down more than half the time in mid-October.
The acrimony between the Medicare agency and CGI had built steadily over the preceding months, the new interviews show. By late summer, teams of agency officials had parked themselves in CGI Federal’s headquarters in Herndon, Va., demanding on-the-spot reviews and demonstrations of new code that was never tested. Agency officials complained that CGI missed crucial deadlines and that it could not control other contractors, although the company said it had no power to do so.
CGI and other contractors complained of endlessly shifting requirements and a government decision-making process so cumbersome that it took weeks to resolve elementary questions, such as determining whether users should be required to provide Social Security numbers. Some CGI software engineers ultimately walked out, saying it was impossible to produce good work under such conditions.
“Cut corners, make date,” said one specialist, who like most of the people interviewed for this article would not allow his name to be used because the Obama administration has requested that all government officials and contractors involved keep their work confidential.
Another sore point was the Medicare agency’s decision to use database software, from a company called MarkLogic, that managed the data differently from systems by companies like IBM, Microsoft and Oracle. CGI officials argued that it would slow work because it was too unfamiliar. Government officials disagreed, and its configuration remains a serious problem.
Thanks to a huge effort to fix the most obvious weaknesses and the appointment at last of a single contractor, QSSI, to oversee the work, the website now crashes much less frequently, officials said. That is a major improvement from a month ago, when it was up only 42 percent of the time and 10-hour failures were common. Yet an enormous amount of work remains to be done, all sides agree.
In a statement on Friday, the Medicare agency said officials held hundreds of meetings in the month before the start-up and tried their best to manage a highly complex project in a short time. “There were issues in meeting deliverables in a timely fashion,” the statement said. “We expected there would be issues. However, we did not anticipate the degree of the problems in the system.”
One computer expert with intimate knowledge of the project said, “Literally everyone involved was at fault.”
The Medicare agency was not everyone’s first choice to run the $630 million project. White House officials at first debated whether to name an outsider, such as Jon Kingsdale, who set up the landmark Massachusetts health insurance program, or even to create a new agency.
Both those ideas fell through, and over the past three years five different lower-level managers held posts overseeing the development of HealthCare.gov, none of whom had the kind of authority to reach across the administration to ensure the project stayed on schedule.
As a result, the president’s signature initiative was effectively left under the day-to-day management of Henry Chao, a 19-year veteran of the Medicare agency with little clout and no formal background in software engineering.
Mr. Chao had to consult with senior department officials and the White House, and was unable to make many decisions on his own. “Nothing was decided without a conversation there,” said one agency official involved in the project, referring to the constant White House demands for oversight. On behalf of Mr. Chao, the Medicare agency declined to comment.
Sixteen companies were prequalified to bid on the project, according to administration officials. CGI was picked as the prime contractor over three other bidders: IBM, QSSI and Computer Sciences Corporation. But the Medicare agency reserved the role of general contractor, or system integrator, for itself, even though it lacked the necessary in-house software engineering resources to handle such a task.
A pattern of ever-shifting requirements persisted throughout the project, including the administration’s decision late last year to try to redesign the site’s appearance and content to make it more informative to consumers, according to many specialists involved. The administration also decided to reconfigure it as a national site, instead of one where each state had its own front page, after many states decided not to open their own exchanges.
IDEO, a consulting firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., that had done some early design prototypes, was enlisted to help revamp the site’s front end. The team at IDEO ended up as frustrated with the Medicare agency as other vendors.
“It was monstrous, a monstrous impact,” said one specialist about the amount of code that had to be rewritten because of the redesign and other similar changes. Administration officials strongly dispute that, saying the impact was minimal.
Within the Medicare agency itself, conflicts raged over priorities and revenues for the project. In July, for instance, officials argued over how many CGI employees should be devoted to the particular system that would handle payments to insurers.
“We are one week out from production deployment, and we are being told already that it doesn’t work,” Jeffrey Grant, a Medicare agency official, wrote in an email to colleagues. “We believe our entire build is in jeopardy.”
Eventually, Medicare agency officials began to suspect that staff members at CGI were intentionally trying to hide flaws in the system, to cover up for their inability to meet production deadlines. They ordered CGI technicians to drive from their offices near Dulles International Airport in Virginia to the agency headquarters near Baltimore to review their code with government supervisors.
The Medicare agency was also growing frustrated with tension among contractors, noting that initial tests of parts of the system were being delayed because of “coordination issues” between CGI and QSSI, which won another part of the job after losing the lead contractor role.
Mr. Chao seemed to colleagues to be at his wit’s end. One evening last summer, he called Wallace Fung, who retired in 2008 as the Medicare agency’s chief technology officer. Mr. Fung said in an interview that he told Mr. Chao to greatly simplify the site’s functions. “Henry, this is not going to work. You cannot build this kind of system overnight,” Mr. Fung said he told him.
“I know,” Mr. Chao answered, according to Mr. Fung. “But I cannot talk them out of it.”
In the last week of September, the disastrous results of the project’s inept management and execution were becoming fully apparent. The agency pressed CGI to explain why a performance test showed that the site could not handle more than 500 simultaneous users. The response once again exhibited the blame-shifting that had plagued the project for months.
“We have not identified any inefficient and defective code,” a CGI executive responded in an email to federal project managers, pointing again to database technology that the Medicare agency had ordered it to use as the culprit, at least in part.
Despite the behind-the-scenes crisis, the president expressed confidence about the exchange just days before its debut.
“This is real simple,” Mr. Obama said, during a speech in Maryland on Sept. 26. “It’s a website where you can compare and purchase affordable health insurance plans side by side the same way you shop for a plane ticket on Kayak, same way you shop for a TV on Amazon. You just go on, and you start looking, and here are all the options.”
Eric Lipton and Sharon LaFraniere reported from Washington, and Ian Austen from Ottawa.
November 22, 2013
Holiday Finds Congress Well Short of Goals
By ASHLEY PARKER and JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — The landmark Senate vote this week to end the minority party’s ability to filibuster most presidential nominees is just one symptom of the deep level of dysfunction coursing through the 113th Congress as the year before midterm elections draws to a close.
Negotiators this week failed to meet their self-imposed Thanksgiving deadline to reach a framework on the farm bill. A Pentagon policy that passes with bipartisan enthusiasm every year has been blocked in a procedural battle. Budget talks to reach a compromise before a mid-December deadline remain touch-and-go, putting lawmakers in danger of facing another government shutdown early next year. And an immigration overhaul that passed the Senate in June with broad bipartisan support remains stalled in the Republican-controlled House.
The list of unfinished tasks facing Congress is daunting — and time is just about out. The House will be back the week after Thanksgiving, but the Senate is taking a two-week break. They will have one overlapping week to try to get much accomplished.
Representative Dave Camp, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, had promised to formally draft a comprehensive overhaul of the entire tax code by the end of the year. That now looks impossible. The first anniversary of the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., is approaching with no movement on the gun control legislation it set in motion.
“Washington continues to be the land of flickering lights and is failing our families and businesses,” said Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado. “Now, everyone in the city has a choice. There is no better day than today to begin to work together. Rather than continuing to kick the can down the road, we can decide to create a 21st-century energy strategy, fix our immigration system, pass a farm bill and support schools that will prepare our kids for success.”
Democrats worry that Republicans have gotten such strong traction on the travails of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act that they have taken their focus off legislative accomplishments. But Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, said that even now, Republicans understood the political hole Congress is in.
“Let’s be clear,” Mr. Cole said. “We’re not very popular right now. That gives a powerful incentive to get some deals,” or, as he also put it, to “show minimal competence.”
But even that low bar may be too high. Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said that efforts to hammer out a blueprint for tax and spending policy into the future were not going well. Negotiators have lowered their sights to setting spending figures for two years and finding a way to shift savings from the automatic across-the-board cuts known as sequestration to changes in entitlement programs and revenue raisers.
“There’s not a lot to report,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “Staff is still talking, but there’s a difference between good discussions and real negotiations.”
Farm bill negotiations are also struggling, caught between the House’s austere view of food-stamp funding and the Senate’s more generous approach. If no deal is reached by the end of the year, the nation’s dairy-price program will lapse, with consequences for both farmers and consumers.
“Eight-dollar-a-gallon milk has a way of concentrating attention,” Mr. Cole said.
Lawmakers also had high hopes of addressing the problem of sexual assaults in the military, but that may not happen if a Pentagon policy bill cannot be completed.
Competing sexual assault measures that were supposed to receive votes in the Senate this week stalled instead when Republicans objected to efforts by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, to limit proposed amendments to the measure.
Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, showed his frustration on Thursday when Republicans blocked a motion to end debate on a military bill.
“Given the importance of this bill to our troops, their families and our national security, I’m nowhere close to giving up on completing the defense authorization bill, even though we will only have days, not weeks, to complete it,” said Mr. Levin, one of only three Democrats who joined Senate Republicans on Thursday in trying to prevent the filibuster rules change.
Mr. Levin, in a phone interview on Friday, also blamed “ideologically rigid Republicans” for the deadlock, but said he did not think the rules change would ease many of the problems in Congress.
“The minority has great capacity for gumming up the works,” he said.
With time running out on 2013, a broad immigration overhaul — one of the bipartisan imperatives after the 2012 presidential election, when Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported President Obama — has been delayed in the House.
Many Republicans there dismiss a Senate-passed bill, which includes a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally, as amnesty for lawbreakers. Some are even reluctant to support a step-by-step approach to immigration legislation by considering more narrow bills, fearing they might be forced into a broader compromise during negotiations between the Senate and the House.
On Thursday, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said an immigration overhaul was “absolutely not” dead — but the possibility of any vote before the end of the year still seems unlikely.
In perhaps one of the clearest signs of the mutual mistrust and challenges facing Congress, Senator Susan Collins, a centrist Republican from Maine, said that she had been working with a bipartisan group of senators this week to try to avert Thursday’s filibuster rule change. But she said she was “not given the time to try to come up with something that might have produced a different ending to this impasse.”
Instead, Ms. Collins was left to issue a sharply worded warning to her Democratic colleagues, saying they would regret their decision as soon as Republicans regained control of the Senate.
“I believe it was very shortsighted of the Democrats to force us,” Ms. Collins said. “The minority will rue the day that they broke the rules to change the rules.”
November 22, 2013
U.S. Retailers Decline to Aid Factory Victims in Bangladesh
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
One year after the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh, many retailers that sold garments produced there or inside the Rana Plaza building that collapsed last spring are refusing to join an effort to compensate the families of the more than 1,200 workers who died in those disasters.
The International Labor Organization is working with Bangladeshi officials, labor groups and several retailers to create ambitious compensation funds to assist not just the families of the dead, but also more than 1,800 workers who were injured, some of them still hospitalized.
A handful of retailers — led by Primark, an Anglo-Irish company, and C&A, a Dutch-German company — are deeply involved in getting long-term compensation funds off the ground, one for Rana Plaza’s victims and one for the victims of the Tazreen fire, which killed 112 workers last Nov. 24.
But to the dismay of those pushing to create the compensation funds, neither Walmart, Sears, Children’s Place nor any of the other American companies that were selling goods produced at Tazreen or Rana Plaza have agreed to contribute to the efforts.
Supporters of compensation plans say they are needed to pay for medical care for those who are paralyzed or otherwise badly injured, to provide income after a vital breadwinner died and to give families enough income so that children are not forced to quit school and go to work.
“Compensation is so important because so many families are suffering — many families don’t have anyone left to support them,” said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. “There’s been a good response from some European brands, but so far none of the U.S. retailers have agreed to pay a single penny for compensation.”
Paul Lister, Primark’s general counsel, said that from the day Rana Plaza collapsed, his company recognized its responsibility. Primark, which says it has already spent more than $3.2 million for aid to the victims, first provided several weeks’ emergency food assistance to 1,300 families, then short-term financial aid and now it is working to develop a compensation fund to help victims for years, even decades.
“We knew we were having clothes made in Rana Plaza — we announced that on the first day,” Mr. Lister said about the April 24 building collapse, which killed 1,129 workers. “When you know where your clothes are made, then you take responsibility for the results of where your clothes are being made. We have said very clearly that we would work to support the workers — and the families of the workers — in our supply chain.”
Primark, whose brands include Atmosphere and Denim Company, was a major customer of New Wave Bottoms, one of the five garment factories inside Rana Plaza. For the last six months, Primark has paid the salaries for not just that factory’s 550 workers but for all 3,600 Bangladeshis who worked inside the building. After setting up a series of help desks for Rana Plaza workers and families to register, Primark paid the salaries to surviving workers or families of the dead.
Primark has also pledged to pay another three months’ salary if no other company steps up, but Loblaw, a Canadian retailer that makes the Joe Fresh brand, has agreed to join that effort. Primark says it has paid somewhat more than the $38-a-month minimum wage for each worker, totaling at least $136,000 a month.
Bob Chant, Loblaw’s senior vice president for corporate affairs, said, “We believe we have a moral obligation to support the workers who are producing our products. Our chairman has voiced disappointment that more brands haven’t stepped up.”
Primark, Benetton, Loblaw and El Corte Ingles are working closely with the International Labor Organization to set up what would be one of the largest industrial compensation funds in history — one with perhaps $70 million to help the long-term needs of the Rana Plaza survivors and families. Advocates are urging more than 20 European and American retailers to commit money for compensation.
There are precedents for such a fund — after 29 workers died in the Hameem garment factory in Bangladesh in December 2010, Gap, J. C. Penney and Target joined other retailers in paying into a modest compensation fund.
Even as labor advocates single out Primark for praise, they single out Walmart for criticism — partly because production documents recovered after the Tazreen fire indicate that two months before that fire erupted, 55 percent of the factory’s production was being made for Walmart contractors. Walmart has repeatedly been asked to contribute to the anticipated $6 million compensation program for Tazreen survivors and families.
“Walmart is the one company that is showing an astonishing lack of responsibility, considering that so much of their product was being made at the Tazreen factory,” said Samantha Maher, a campaign coordinator for the British arm of the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European anti-sweatshop group.
Walmart has also been asked to contribute to the planned Rana Plaza fund because production documents were found in the building rubble indicating that a Canadian contractor was producing jeans for Walmart in 2012 at the Ether Tex factory inside the building. Walmart said that unauthorized contractors were producing garments without the company’s knowledge.
After the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy group based in Washington, wrote to Walmart to urge its participation in the compensation efforts, Rajan Kamalanathan, Walmart’s vice president for ethical sourcing, responded in an email that Walmart did not intend to participate. He wrote that “there was no production for Walmart in Rana Plaza at the time of the tragedy” and that the Walmart-related production at Tazreen was unauthorized.
In that email, made available by the labor fights forum, Mr. Kamalanathan made clear that Walmart was looking to the future: “Our focus is to positively impact global supply chain practices both by raising our own standards and by partnering with other stakeholders to improve the standards for workers across the industry. We will continue to invest our resources in proactive programs that will address fire and building safety in the garment and textile industry in Bangladesh to help prevent tragedies before they happen.”
Asked whether Walmart would contribute to a compensation fund, Kevin Gardner, a company spokesman, repeated part of Mr. Kamalanathan’s statement verbatim.
The Children’s Place, which had used one of the factories inside Rana Plaza, but said that factory was not supplying it when the building collapsed, declined to comment about contributing.
Asked whether Sears would provide monetary aid for Tazreen victims, Howard Riefs, a company spokesman, did not indicate an intention to do so, but said his company “remains committed to improving conditions in the factories we utilize for production of our merchandise.”
Sears said an unauthorized contractor had been producing on its behalf at Tazreen. With Walmart and 24 other American and Canadian companies, Sears has joined an alliance to upgrade factory safety in Bangladesh.
Some industry analysts say Walmart, Sears and other American retailers are reluctant to join the compensation efforts because they fear it could be seen as an admission of wrongdoing, perhaps leading to legal liability. Some also say the Americans fear they will look hypocritical if they contribute to a compensation fund after they asserted that any production done for them in those factories was unauthorized.
Advocates hope that the compensation plans will soon take effect, replacing the short-term financial aid from Primark and Loblaw. The Bangladeshi government and Bangladeshi manufacturers are also being asked to contribute, and the size of the funds would be based on a formula that takes into account the level of workers’ wages, the extent of survivors’ injuries and the number of years employees would have worked had they not been killed or injured.
Texas Board of Education holds up biology book over evolution debate
By Arturo Garcia
Friday, November 22, 2013 22:06 EST
The Texas Board of Education voted on Thursday to nominate a three-person expert panel to determine whether a prospective biology text contains “errors” as relates to the theory of evolution, the Associated Press reported.
Some of the board’s more conservative members opposed recommending the book for use in the state’s classrooms after the publisher, Pearson Education, objected to complaints from similarly conservative “volunteer reviewers,” some of whom argued against the existence of climate change. Another reviewer reportedly called for lessons based on biblical texts. Pearson has challenged the reviewers’ claim that the book contains 20 errors.
The ensuing debate among board members led to conservative Republicans facing off with more moderate party colleagues, who joined with Democrats in questioning the reviewers’ motivations.
“I believe this process is being hijacked,” vice chair Thomas Ratliff was quoted as saying. “This book is being held hostage to make political changes.”
The board voted on Friday to confirm its decision to hold the book over for review. The panelists have yet to be determined. If the panel determines that the discrepancies in the book can not be resolved, it will debate the book’s merits at its January board meeting.
Earlier this year, former chair Don McLeroy told the board it should endorse books teaching creationism alongside evolution, arguing that “by so doing, you will strike the final blow to the teaching of evolution.”
Harry Reid Has Dealt a Major Blow to The Senate Republican Agenda
Friday, November, 22nd, 2013, 10:11 am
A dictator does not rule using democratic means, and the term is generally used to describe someone who holds and abuses an extraordinary amount of power characterized by traits such as repression of political opponents, a single-party state, and suspension of election results if they even allow elections. For over two-hundred years America remained free of dictators thanks to its Constitution and representative democracy, and yet in 2009 when the people elected an African American man as President, Republicans in Congress, primarily the Senate, took on dictatorial powers and abused political opponents, suspended election results, and attempted to impose a single-party state. Yesterday, after allowing Republican dictators-by-committee to hold sway over a crucial portion of government for nearly five years due to a misplaced sense of comity, Majority Leader Harry Reid did what he should have done three years ago and dealt a major blow to Republican dictators in the Senate.
First, the vote in the Senate to end Republicans’ obstruction of President Obama’s nominees to fill cabinet level posts and the federal judiciary was not “nuclear” as so many have implied. It was a minor procedural tweak agreed to use the democratic process to alter a filibuster rule Republicans have abused mercilessly to prevent the government and judiciary from functioning as the Founding Fathers intended. Senate Republicans still get to use their precious filibuster to prevent legislation from being discussed or reaching the floor for a yea or nay vote, and likely they will continue obstructing legislation to create jobs, protect consumers, and grow the economy. To hear Republicans protest and whine yesterday, Harry Reid may as well have suspended the Senate and ceded its power to President Obama who weighed in on the rule change from the White House.
The President said “today’s pattern of obstruction, it just isn’t normal. It’s not what our founders envisioned. A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the results of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations we can’t let it become normal.” Indeed, Republicans have used the filibuster to obstruct legislation on job programs, gun safety measures, immigration reform, and women’s rights. The filibuster tweak Republican John McCain said means “there are no rules in the United States Senate” any longer only allows a majority vote to confirm judicial and executive nominees short of the Supreme Court; Republicans can still filibuster and block legislation that benefits the people.
The President, like many pundits, is slightly off-base in claiming Republican obstruction was refighting the results of an election; they were nullifying the results of the last two presidential elections to establish one party (Republican) rule that typifies dictators. In fact, by deliberately preventing the President from appointing his own cabinet and federal judges, they nullified the Constitution that gives him the authority to nominate qualified candidates the Senate can confirm or reject using the democratic process. In effect, by preventing the President from filling Cabinet level positions and federal judges they nullified the federal government’s ability to function and they are livid their power is gone.
Of all the Republicans crying and gnashing their teeth over the filibuster rule change, it was libertarian Senator Rand Paul who projected on to Harry Reid what Republicans, including Paul, were guilty of by abusing the filibuster. Paul accused Reid of being a bully for bringing the rule change up for a vote, and yet it was Republicans who were bullies by obstructing legislation and high-level nominees throughout the President’s tenure in the White House. Paul said, “He’s gotta have everything his way, he’s gotta control everything. This is more about them trying to control the agenda than it is about anything else. Basically, he’s become the dictator of the Senate. He’s going to bend and break the rules to get his way.” Paul was so flummoxed his party can no longer control everything, including the Senate’s agenda by abusing the filibuster, that he likely failed to hear himself describe Republicans who have dictated the upper chambers’ agenda from a minority position since an African American man is President.
Republicans will be crying foul for days because their little dictatorship suffered a setback, and although the Senate vote to allow a majority to confirm or reject Presidential nominees was a necessary step to get the government working again, it will not stop Republican obstructionism on legislation. However, it does end the dictatorship that unilaterally rewrote the law by demanding a 60-vote supermajority threshold for President Obama’s high-level appointments, At one time requiring a supermajority was very rare, but it became routine since the people elected President Obama going back to his first term.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed the filibuster tweak will give the President authority to “pack the federal judiciary,” but he knows that entails expanding the size of the courts and not nominating candidates to fully staff the appeals court. There are supposed to be eleven full-time judges on the bench, but the court limped along with just eight full-time judges and it is well within the President’s constitutional authority to nominate qualified candidates the Senate could either confirm or reject if Republicans allowed an up or down vote.
Republicans forced Harry Reid to call for a vote to change filibuster rules and they have no-one but themselves to blame. For the past five years they have dictated the Senate agenda and prevented debate and votes on legislation to put Veterans to work, enact sane gun safety measures, and pass immigration reform only because the President supported them. Speaker John Boehner has prevented the House from voting on several pieces of legislations such as the farm bill, several job creation measures, and last month prevented an up or down vote to re-open the government and raise the nation’s debt limit until the last minute despite there were sufficient votes for passage.
Now that Harry Reid neutered some of the Republican dictatorial power in the Senate, it is up to the American voters to put an end to the Republican dictators in the House by voting them out of power. They do not have power to obstruct Presidential appointments to cabinet and federal judiciary positions, but they have let bipartisan Senate bills languish without a simple up or down vote because the President supports them and they passed with bipartisan support in the Senate.
Since they took control of the House after the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans have effectively nullified several bipartisan Senate bills as well as the voice of the people who re-elected President Obama to enact his economic agenda and put Americans to work to grow the economy. Republicans have dictated the nation’s agenda for three years now, and at least the President can exercise his Constitutional authority and do the job the people elected him to do. Unfortunately, for the next year Republicans in the House can obstruct economic recovery in spite of yesterday’s rule change. There is little doubt that since their Senate compadres can no longer obstruct the President’s nominees, the people should brace for more strident obstructionism to thwart economic recovery and continue their five year crusade to nullify two presidential election results.
Boehner Whines About Receiving Excellent Health Insurance the Same Day He Applies
By: Justin Baragona
Friday, November, 22nd, 2013, 12:20 pm
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) decided to blog about his Healthcare.gov experience on Thursday. According to the Speaker’s tweet, he thought the experience was a #trainwreck.
Tried signing up for #ObamaCare today. How’d it go? Hint: #trainwreckhttp://t.co/n6PdvhfUEC
— Speaker John Boehner (@SpeakerBoehner) November 21, 2013
The fact is, before the end of the day, Boehner found himself enrolled in a health care plan. It didn’t take days or weeks, like it used to when you had to submit your application to an insurance company and wait for them to decide if you were approved. He didn’t have to take a physical. He didn’t have to submit his health history. He didn’t have to sweat out the application process and hope that he got the plan he signed up for or wonder if he’d get denied altogether due to pre-existing conditions.
Nope. He had to wait a few hours and by the end of the day, he was enrolled in a brand new health care plan. One that he was able to choose from a multitude of options. Interestingly, he didn’t tweet or blog or release a press statement about the price of his new health care plan or what it covers. Instead, he just whined about how ‘frustrated’ he was with his website experience and provided us with these pictures showing the grueling process.
Poor Boehner. He had to wait a little bit to get some health insurance. It took him not even half-a-day to get himself covered under a top-flight insurance policy. How will he ever recover from such a horrendous experience? Seriously, as far as political stunts go, this one was pretty pathetic. Yet, that is the direction that the GOP wants to keep going. Let’s not talk about solutions or alternatives or actually even legislating. Instead, let’s just follow a playbook and get the media to play fetch while we spoon-feed them the narrative we want to sell.
Iran seals nuclear deal with west in return for sanctions relief
Barack Obama hails historic accord as first step towards resolution of decade-old impasse over Iran's nuclear programme
Julian Borger in Geneva and Saeed Kamali Dehghan
theguardian.com, Sunday 24 November 2013 09.36 GMT
Iran has struck a historic agreement with the US and five other world powers, accepting strict constraints on its nuclear programme for the first time in a decade in exchange for partial relief from sanctions.
The deal, signed at 4.30am on Sunday morning, marks arguably the most significant foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama's presidency, amounting to the most significant agreement between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
The move is intended as the first step in a six-month process aimed at a permanent resolution to the decade-old global impasse over Iran's nuclear programme, and heading off the threat of a new war in the Middle East.
"While today's announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal," President Obama said in an address to the nation from the White House. "For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear programme, and key parts of the programme will be rolled back."
The Geneva deal releases just over $4bn in Iranian oil sales revenue from frozen accounts, and suspends restrictions on the country's trade in gold, petrochemicals, car and plane parts.
In return, Iran undertakes to restrict its nuclear activities. Over the next six months it has agreed to:
• stop enriching uranium above 5%, reactor-grade, purity-dilute its stock of 20%-enriched uranium or convert it to oxide, which makes it harder to enrich further. The medium-enriched uranium, in its hexafluoride gas form is relatively easy to turn into weapons-grade material used in a weapon, so it is a major proliferation concern.
• not to increase its stockpile of low-enrichment uranium.
• freeze its enrichment capacity by not installing any more centrifuges, leaving over half of its existing 16,000 centrifuges inoperable.
• not to fuel or to commission the heavy water reactor it is building in Arak or build a reprocessing plant that could produce plutonium from the spent fuel.
• accept more intrusive nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, including daily visits to some facilities
The six-month life of the Geneva deal is intended to be used to negotiate a comprehensive and permanent settlement that would allow Iran to pursue a peaceful programme, almost certainly including enrichment, but under long-term limits and intrusive monitoring, that would reassure the world that any parallel covert programme would be spotted and stopped well before Iran could make a bomb.
That agreement would lead to the lifting of the main sanctions on oil and banking that have all but crippled the Iranian economy, and the eventual normalisation of relations between Iran and the US for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Iran's Gulf Arab adversaries, nervous of the rehabilitation of their long-standing regional rival, were tight-lipped about the agreement. Not so Israel, which warned that the agreement had made the world a more dangerous place.
"Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step towards obtaining the world's most dangerous weapon," the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told a weekly cabinet meeting.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, spent much of the three rounds of negotiations since September, closeted together in intense discussions, a dramatic break from the previous 34 years when there was barely any official contact between the two countries.
"This is only a first step," the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told a news conference. "We need to start moving in the direction of restoring confidence, a direction in which we have managed to move against in the past."
Sunday morning's deal was agreed after a diplomatic marathon of three intensive rounds, culminating in a late-night session in the conference rooms of a five-star hotel in Geneva, chaired by the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, a former Labour peer and CND official, for whom the deal represents a personal triumph.
Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, and their German, Russian and Chinese counterparts, Guido Westerwelle, Sergey Lavrov and Wang Yi, also took part in a six-nation group mandated by the UN security council to handle the nuclear negotiations since 2006. Some of the complications involved in coming to a deal stemmed from the need to keep the six powers together.
However, the key overnight sessions that clinched the deal involved Kerry, Zarif and Ashton alone..
"This deal actually rolls back the programme from where it is today," Kerry said. However, he added: "I will not stand here in some triumphal moment and claim that this is an end in itself."
The bigger task, he said, was to go forward and negotiate a comprehensive deal.
The difficulties facing the negotiators in the coming months were highlighted by the very different interpretations Kerry and Zarif took on the fiercely disputed issue of whether the deal represented a recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium in principle. Zarif was insistent that it did because it was based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which guarantees the right to a peaceful nuclear programme. Kerry said that neither the NPT nor today's deal specifies a right to enrichment. That, he said, was a matter for negoiation in the coming six months.
News of the deal united Iranians from across the political spectrum in celebration, reflecting widespread hope that it would reduce the threat of war and ease punishing sanctions. Hundreds of thousands of people stayed up through the night to follow the minute-by-minute coverage of negotiations on satellite televsion, Facebook and Twitter.
The first announcement that a deal had been reached, by Ashton's spokesman Michael Mann, and the confirmation by Zarif, were both made on Twitter – a first for a major global accord.
"Day five, 3am, it's white smoke," tweeted the deputy Iranian foreign minister, Seyyed Abbas Araghchi, referring to the terminology used in Vatican for the announcement of a new pope.
Israel condemns Iran nuclear deal as 'historic mistake'
Binyamin Netanyahu risks further isolation from key western allies, saying Israel will not bound by Geneva accord
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Sunday 24 November 2013 11.34 GMT
Israel swiftly condemned the deal struck in Geneva, with the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, calling it a "historic mistake" and warning that his country would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
Speaking to ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said: "Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world has taken a significant step toward attaining the most dangerous weapon in the world … Israel is not bound by this agreement.
"The Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. As prime minister of Israel, I would like to make it clear: Israel will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability."
Netanyahu, who has staked his premiership on the need to defend Israel against the Iranian threat by military action if necessary, faces further isolation from key allies in the west who brokered and endorsed the diplomatic accord with Tehran. The issue has severely strained relations between Israel and the US over recent weeks.
But the prospect of diplomatic alienation did not stop a string of minsters taking to the airwaves to denounce the deal. "If in another five or six years a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the agreement that was signed this morning," the economy minister, Naftali Bennett, said. "We woke up this morning to a reality in which a bad, a very bad agreement was signed in Geneva."
The foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Israel needed to reassess its position in the light of the deal. He said: "A situation assessment is needed. Apparently, we are going to have to make decisions, when all the options are on the table."
He added: "Obviously when you look at the smiles of the Iranians over there in Geneva, you realise that this is the Iranians' greatest victory, maybe since the Khomeini revolution, and it doesn't really change the situation within Iran."
But some analysts suggested that Israel's options were limited by the west's consensus on the need for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat.
"International legitimacy for a unilateral Israeli attack is reduced significantly. The international community endorses this deal, and so Israel will find it really hard to use military power," said Yoel Guzansky, former head of the Iran desk in the prime minister's office and now a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. The deal, he said, was "not perfect, not the deal we prayed for, but it's not as bad as some as saying this morning".
The justice minister, Tzipi Livni, suggested Israel needed to repair its relations with the US and seek tactical alliances elsewhere on Iran.
"After the signing of this agreement, Israel has to look ahead: to act in close co-operation with the United States, to strengthen that strategic alliance, and to create a political front with other countries as well, such as Arab countries that see a nuclear Iran as a threat," she said
But the prospects of an alliance between Israel and the Gulf states should not be exaggerated, said Guzansky. "The Gulf states don't like this agreement, but not necessarily for the same reasons [as Israel]. The fact is, Iran will be less isolated – this threatens the Gulf states. So there is a place for co-operation. But any suggestion that Israel could look for other allies is not serious. Israel now needs to repair the damage [with the US]," he said.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst, stressed the agreement was interim, but "as an interim deal, it's a good deal. It halts the more sensitive parts of Iran's nuclear programme. But we have to see what kind of final deal is reached."
He added: "The sanctions relief element of the deal is so small it's almost symbolic. Iran needs far more than that, so it will take the deal seriously and come back to the negotiating table in six months. This is a promising initial step, but there are many challenges ahead."
Iran nuclear agreement: the key points
Iran has struck an agreement with the US, Russia, China, Germany, France and the UK to limit aspects of its nuclear development programme. Here are the main elements
theguardian.com, Sunday 24 November 2013 07.29 GMT
This would keep Iran's enrichment level well below the threshold needed for weapons-grade material, which is more than 90% enrichment. Uranium enriched to 5% is adequate to make fuel for Iran's lone energy-producing reactor in Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast. For Iran, the ability to keep its enrichment programme is critical. Iran's leaders insist they maintain self-sufficiency over the entire nuclear cycle from mining uranium to making nuclear fuel.
'Neutralise' Iran's stockpile of 20% enriched uranium
This level of enrichment is within several steps of reaching weapons grade. Eliminating the stockpile eases Western concerns that Iran could move quickly towards a nuclear weapon. Iran can either convert the 20% uranium into reactor-ready fuel, which effectively blocks it from further enrichment, or it can dilute the material to levels below 5% enrichment. Iranian officials have said the country has a sufficient stockpile of 20% enriched uranium for long-term operation of its research reactor, which runs at the higher-level uranium and produces isotopes for medical treatments and other uses. Allowing Iran to use the stockpile for domestic purposes is an important political takeaway for Tehran. Iranian leaders had balked at demands to ship the stockpile out of the country.
No new centrifuges
This effectively freezes Iran's enrichment capacity for the next six months. Centrifuges are used to turn concentrated uranium into nuclear fuel. But Iran is allowed to keep its two main enrichment facilities in operation. Iran's government would have faced a huge backlash from hardliners at home if either of the labs had been forced to shut down.
Suspend work at the Arak reactor
The planned Arak reactor in central Iran is a "heavy water" plant, which means it uses a molecular variant of water as a coolant and can run on non-enriched uranium. It also produces a higher degree of plutonium byproduct, which could be extracted and potentially used in weapons production. Iran's agreement not to build a plutonium reprocessing facility deals directly with the weapons programme concerns. It could also clear the way for future agreements to resume work on the reactor.
Pledge to address UN concerns, including the Parchin military site
The specific mention of the Parchin military base near Tehran touches on a longstanding impasse between Iran and the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. UN inspectors want to revisit the site to investigate suspicions of past explosive tests that could have applications in nuclear bomb designs. Iran denies the claim. Iran has said further inspections are possible, but also wanted to impose restrictions on public disclosures by the agency. The deal could open the way for greater Parchin inspections.
Iran nuclear deal: Saudi Arabia and Gulf react with caution
Saudi Arabia fears rapprochement between Washington and Tehran after 30 years of estrangement will be at its expense
Ian Black in Riyadh
theguardian.com, Sunday 24 November 2013 09.56 GMT
Saudi Arabia maintained a discreet silence on Sunday about the Iranian nuclear deal in Geneva but is thought likely to issue a guarded welcome despite its strong and clearly signalled reservations about what it fears is the rehabilitation of its longstanding regional rival.
Analysts in Riyadh said it would be diplomatically impossible for the Saudi government to publicly condemn an agreement designed to contain Iranian nuclear ambitions however deep its concerns about the direction of evolving US policy.
The Saudis have been unusually vocal in recent weeks in warning about a rapprochement between the US and Iran after more than 30 years of estrangement. King Abdullah is also openly unhappy with Barack Obama's policy on Syria – in some ways a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran – and is stepping up efforts to aid rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
In Damascus, the Syrian government, significantly, was quick on Sunday to welcome what it called "an historic accord". Iran is Assad's most important regional ally.
Mohammad bin Nawwaf, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, warned at the weekend that the kingdom would not "sit idly by" if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon. But as the Geneva deal aims to prevent that, Riyadh has little choice but to insist on full implementation and careful monitoring.
Diplomats predict that the Saudis and their Gulf neighbours, especially the United Arab Emirates, may seek to obtain security guarantees from the US in the event of a final agreement with Iran. King Abdullah is assumed to have discussed the issue in a previously unannounced summit meeting with the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait in Riyadh on Saturday as the Geneva talks were reaching their climax.
"Anything that lessens tensions in the region is welcome," said the Saudi commentator Khaled Almaeena. "We were all on tenterhooks. Advocates of attacking Iran should know that we were facing terrible problems in the Gulf. Property values in the UAE would have gone down because people expected Iranian retaliation in case of war. We are concerned about the environment and our security.
"Both Iran and the P5+1 [the powers that concluded the accord with Tehran] will have to work hard. But we hope Israel will not throw a monkey wrench into this deal."
Saudi Arabia has long-signalled that it would also seek to acquire nuclear weapons – most likely from Pakistan – if Iran had them. Its own security interests lie in seeing this agreement succeed. But it fears that a new relationship between Washington and Tehran will be at its expense. Iran's backing for Assad, its intimate relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon and support and inspiration for Shias in Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's eastern province are all issues of profound concern.
The Saudis and the other Gulf states spent billions of dollars backing Saddam Hussein in his 1980-88 year war against Iran – itself a response to the fears created by the 1979 Islamic revolution. Adjusting to a genuine thaw in relations between the west and Tehran is not going to be easy.
Iran nuclear talks: Lady Ashton's Geneva triumph takes centre stage
Former CND activist brokers diplomatic breakthrough of the decade as years of dogged on-off negotiations finally pay off
Ian Traynor, Europe editor
theguardian.com, Sunday 24 November 2013 11.15 GMT
When Catherine Ashton started on the daunting task of building the European Union's first diplomatic machine in late 2009, the Labour peer was met by guffaws of derision.
"Lady Qui?" they sniffed in Paris. In Berlin, they complained that Germany was getting short shrift. Besides, none of her people spoke German. In London, the attitude was "Britain does not want a European foreign policy and she'll never deliver one. So fine."
Amid this general climate of contempt, disappointment, and surprise, a senior EU official who went on to play a central role in her diplomacy offered a dissenting voice: "In four years' time Ashton will be a major figure."
As dawn broke over Geneva on Sunday, that remark from November 2009, almost four years to the day, looked rather prescient. The former Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activist had brokered what looks like the biggest nuclear de-escalation of the era, the diplomatic breakthrough of the decade, a problem and a dispute so intractable it could have led to a devastating war engulfing the entire Middle East and beyond.
The partial but significant defusing of the Iranian nuclear question is no doubt fundamentally due to the change of regime in Tehran this summer and the Obama administration's decision to get serious about talking to Iran for the first time in a generation.
But Ashton's dogged nurturing of years of on-off negotiations, what is described in Brussels as her 'emotional intelligence' in steering and mediating the highly complex talks, paid off handsomely. On Sunday, she found herself in the unaccustomed position of being deluged with compliments.
"I would like to congratulate in particular Catherine Ashton, the high representative/vice-president of the European commission, for this accomplishment, which is a result of her tireless engagement and dedication to the issue over the last four years," said her boss, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission.
Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs European summits of national leaders, said: "I commend Ashton for her crucial role – as negotiator and co-chair of the talks. Her dedication and perseverance have been key in brokering this first agreement."
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, hugged Ashton tightly and paid tribute to her mediation skills as "a persistent and dogged negotiator". He added: "I'm grateful for her stewardship of the talks"
Van Rompuy and Ashton got their jobs at the same time as a result of the Lisbon treaty, which created the posts of president of the European council and high representative for foreign and security policy.
Both were obscure figures, seemingly quite unsuited to leadership, strategic vision and policy formation. Which was precisely what Europe's main national leaders wanted. They did not want a Tony Blair or a David Miliband or forceful German or French politicians strutting the international stage, setting the policy agenda and outshining them.
What they opted for and what they got were two quiet, methodical, effective fixers and mediators wrestling with some of the biggest issues of the age. It fell to Van Rompuy to deal with quarrelling national leaders over the EU's worst ever crisis – the euro, the sovereign debt and financial turmoil.
Ashton had to build an EU diplomatic service from scratch, creating the EU's first new institution in a decade, amid some of the most vicious infighting within Brussels and between Brussels and the 28 member states.
Much of the criticism levelled at her was veiled sexism and it hurt. She retreated into low-profile workaholism, crisscrossing the globe, avoiding the media, assiduously and slowly building personal rapports with players such as the Iranians, Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart. In the Balkans, she inaugurated highly personalised diplomacy with the Serbian and Kosovo prime ministers that has also produced a little-noticed, but major breakthrough.
A couple of weeks ago, Serbs, who refuse to recognise a breakaway, independent Kosovo, took part in local Kosovo elections for the first time, tacitly if grudgingly coming to terms with the legitimacy of Kosovo government.
It is quite certain that this would not have happened without Ashton's endless engagement and mediation between the two sides through dozens of meetings and late-night dinners.
By contrast though, EU foreign policy suffered a big blow last week when President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine abruptly ditched a strategic pact with Europe to have been sealed with Ashton at an EU summit in Lithuania this week.
In Geneva at the weekend and a fortnight ago, the format was a dizzying array of 'bilaterals', separate meetings between the Iranians and each of the six other countries as well as countless sessions between any two of the six countries. Then there was the odd plenary session with everyone present.
In this complex multi-dimensional diplomacy, the only person almost always present with an overview of everything was Ashton. It fell to her to summarise, cajole, narrow differences, take messages back and forth.
Much of the spadework in earlier negotiations was done by Robert Cooper, the retired British and EU foreign policy strategist and diplomat. These days that role is filled by Helga Schmidt, the German EU diplomat who once headed the office of Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister and Greens leader.
The weekend breakthrough is but the first stage, lasting six months, towards a "comprehensive' settlement of the dispute with Iran. Whether that can be achieved in the 11 months that remain to Ashton in her post is arguable. But she can take a large part of the credit already for operating within the limits of the possible and facilitating a deal that defied all sides for more than a decade, since revelations of Iran's clandestine 20-year-old nuclear programme exploded in 2002.
In Europe they are queuing up, mainly males, to replace her next year – Radek Sikorski in Warsaw, Carl Bildt in Stockholm, while at the weekend there was talk of Frans Timmermans, the Dutch foreign minister.
Ashton, then with zero foreign policy experience and a politician who has never held elected office, did not know she was getting the job, becoming the highest paid diplomat in the west, until two days before she was named in 2009.
She was surprised. In Geneva at the weekend, it was her turn to surprise.
John Kerry to meet Libya PM in London after Iran talks in Geneva
Secretary of state will hold talks with British foreign minister and meet Ali Zeidan to discuss worsening security situation
Reuters in Geneva
theguardian.com, Saturday 23 November 2013 17.57 GMT
Secretary of state John Kerry will fly to London from Geneva on Sunday to meet British and Libyan officials, the State Department said.
Kerry arrived in Geneva on Saturday to join talks between six major powers and Iran about reining in the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions on Tehran. Foreign ministers from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States attended the discussions.
The US and some of its allies suspect Iran of using its civil nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons. Tehran denies this, saying its program is for purely peaceful purposes such as generating electricity.
Kerry's planned departure for London, where he will meet British foreign minister William Hague and Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan on Sunday, suggests that the Iran nuclear talks may wrap up by Sunday, though lower-level officials could stay at them.
State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry and Hague would talk about topics including Syria, Iran, and Middle East peace. With Zeidan, Kerry planned to discuss the security situation and political reforms in Libya. More than 40 people died earlier this month in the worst street fighting in the Libyan capital Tripoli since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi two years ago.
Zeidan's armed forces have struggled to control militias, Islamist militants and other former fighters who refuse to surrender their arms after helping to oust Gaddafi in a Nato-backed revolt. Libya has sought to bring the militias under control by putting them on the government payroll and assigning them to protect government offices. But gunmen often remain loyal to their own commanders and battle for control of local areas.
The US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed on 11 September 2012, when militants attacked a US diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi.
November 24, 2013
Afghans Approve Security Pact, but Karzai Adds a Hitch
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — A grand council of elders approved a security agreement with the United States on Sunday, but President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan said he wanted to keep negotiating, throwing relations between the two countries into uncertainty.
While the council, known as a loya jirga, overwhelmingly approved the pact and asked Mr. Karzai to sign it promptly — as the Americans have requested — the loya jirga’s decisions were not binding. “On your behalf we will try to bargain more with the Americans and then we will sign this agreement,” Mr. Karzai told the group.
“Give me a chance to do politics and don’t give this agreement for free to the Americans,” Mr. Karzai said, adding, “once we are sure we are on the path of peace and Afghanistan has a new president.”
The United States has insisted that unless a security agreement is signed this year, there will not be enough time to plan for a long-term military presence after 2014.
It was the end to a contentious, four-day jirga, during which Mr. Karzai twice picked quarrels with his American allies.
American officials reacted with anger and exasperation Saturday after Mr. Karzai accused American Special Forces troops of killing civilians in a raid; the officials said it was an Afghan-led raid that killed only insurgents.
Moreover, Mr. Karzai’s aides continued to insist that even if the council ratified the bilateral security agreement, Mr. Karzai would not sign it until next year, after a presidential election to choose his successor, but before he leaves office.
The remarks from the president’s camp left many people wondering why Mr. Karzai had convened a loya jirga, bringing to Kabul 2,500 Afghan notables from around the country, dismissing most employees from work for six days and locking down a city of five million so thoroughly that all roads to it were blocked for several days.
Even Mr. Karzai’s allies were at a loss to explain what he hoped to gain from the perplexing series of events around what was expected to be a straightforward deal. Mr. Karzai had earlier asked the Americans to delay signing the agreement until a new president was elected, possibly allowing him to pass responsibility for the deal to his successor.
Mr. Karzai might also view a delay as a way to wring more concessions from the United States or retain political leverage and avoid being seen as a lame-duck president.
Secretary of State John Kerry warned the Afghan leader in a telephone call on Friday that there would be no agreement if it was not signed within a month.
Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said Saturday that Mr. Karzai felt that Mr. Kerry had threatened him during the conversation, which Mr. Faizi described as “tense.” “When the U.S. secretary of state says if there is no agreement there will be no security,” Mr. Faizi said, “We can say there is pressure, there is threats.”
American officials have insisted that without a deal this year, they would not have time to prepare a force for its mission after 2014, which the security agreement calls for.
The Afghans dismiss that. “We don’t believe there’s any zero option,” Mr. Faizi said. “We believe if they have waited until now, they can wait five more months.”
“There is no deadline for us,” he added. “We have said that in the past.”
He said Mr. Karzai believed that the Americans could not be trusted to keep their agreement, and even though both sides agreed on the wording, he wanted to wait until after the election next April to test further conditions: whether American forces would stop raids on Afghan homes, help promote peace talks and not interfere in the election.
Western diplomats saw that as effectively reopening talks on the security agreement, despite Mr. Karzai’s public agreement to its terms on Wednesday.
“He’s negotiating in public,” one diplomat said.
“It’s a totally different situation when the president of a country has no trust in the U.S.,” Mr. Faizi said. “That means everything, that’s a totally different way of doing things.”
When Mr. Karzai first brought up the idea of delaying the signing of the accord, in his opening remarks to the jirga on Thursday, American officials hastened to find a reliable translation of his comments. Many who were there could not believe their ears, including the American ambassador and American commander.
The part where he said he did not trust them and they did not trust him was clear enough, but not signing what he had agreed to sign once the jirga approved it: that was puzzling. As the Americans saw it, the delay risked bringing to a crashing and unsatisfactory end an investment of half a trillion dollars and 2,292 American lives, along with 1,105 other coalition deaths.
Only a week earlier, diplomats were calling Mr. Kerry “the Karzai Whisperer,” after he came to Kabul and resolved most of the deadlock over the security agreement in early October.
That term is used only ironically now. In more recent contacts, both the Americans and the Afghans have come away with sharply divergent accounts of what the two men had agreed to. According to one such account, Mr. Kerry said that President Obama would apologize for American conduct during the war, which Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama’s aides denied had ever been discussed.
And Friday night, just after Mr. Karzai and Mr. Kerry ended their conversation, a statement on the Afghan presidency’s website quoted Mr. Karzai as accusing American Special Forces troops of killing two twin brothers, a mason and a plumber, in a raid on an Afghan home in Nangarhar Province last Tuesday, two days before the jirga started.
The American-led coalition insisted that the raid had been led by Afghans, not Americans; that it killed gun-wielding insurgents, not civilian construction workers; and that complaints about the incident, delayed until the jirga had started, were obviously politically inspired.
“There is no doubt that these are spurious civilian casualty allegations,” a senior Western official said. “People are fairly mad at Karzai now; there’s a lot of anger and a lot of disdain.”
Throughout the negotiations over the loya jirga, coalition officials had been deliberately silent, but this time they pushed back, at least on the military side.
“Unfortunately, some people are using allegations of civilian casualties for political purposes,” an International Security Assistance Force official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of official policy.
“The statement goes directly to asserting this was a unilateral operation,” the official said, referring to Mr. Karzai’s statement. “It was not. It was Afghan-led with 100 Afghan National Security Force personnel and 17 coalition advisers.” However, an I.S.A.F. spokesman, John D. Manley, confirmed that “Afghan National Security Forces and a coalition adviser engaged and killed” two Afghans.
A United States official here, also speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, said: “Misleading statements like this do not help to finalize the bilateral security agreement as soon as possible this year, which is essential to the future of Afghanistan and the confidence of the Afghan people.”
But Afghan officials did not back down. “On this incident, the local people’s and local officials’ accounts differ from the one the U.S. military gives,” Mr. Faizi, the spokesman for Mr. Karzai, said Saturday. He added that American officials had always been quick to deny that victims of such raids were civilians, and had been confirmed by an investigation by the Nangarhar governor, Mualavi Ataullah Ludin.
Mr. Ludin, interviewed by telephone, said that the Nangarhar raid was led by American Special Forces troops, and that the only Afghans present were mercenaries.
Mr. Faizi added that this raid was another example of why the Afghans no longer trusted the Americans, because it violated an agreement limiting raids on Afghan homes to Afghan-led missions, initiated at Afghan request.
He said Mr. Karzai would use his speech on the final day of the loya jirga, which was scheduled for Sunday, to explain his position on delaying the signing.
Alissa J. Rubin contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.
November 23, 2013
A Growing Chill Between South Korea and Japan Creates Problems for the U.S.
By MARTIN FACKLER and CHOE SANG-HUN
TOKYO — In the courtly world of diplomacy, the meeting between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea was something of a shock.
Mr. Hagel was in the region to try to revitalize America’s faltering “pivot” to Asia and had one especially pressing request for Ms. Park: to try to get along better with Japan. The steely Ms. Park instead delivered a lecture about Japan’s “total absence of sincerity” over the suffering that imperial Japan caused Korea in the last century and finished with a request of her own: that Washington force Tokyo to behave.
“If Germany had continued to say things that inflicted pain, while acting as if all was well, would European integration have been possible?” she asked Mr. Hagel. “I think the answer is no.”
Ms. Park’s refusal to budge during that September meeting was one of many recent reminders that the leaders of Japan and South Korea, the United States’ closest military partners in Asia, seem to be barely on speaking terms. Analysts say the current tensions are among the worst in recent years, an increasingly vexing problem for the Obama administration as it struggles to present a united front in dealing with a rising China and a nuclear North Korea.
This month, a rare meeting of Japan’s and South Korea’s top defense officials ended in an impasse, with harsh words and no progress on an intelligence-sharing deal the United States had been pushing for years.
Ms. Park went so far as bringing China into the fracas, even as the Japanese and Chinese feuded over disputed islands. She asked China’s leader during a summit meeting to erect a monument to a Korean national hero who assassinated the first prime minister of Japan for his role in the Japanese colonization of Korea. The Chinese complied. It has also not been lost on the Japanese that Ms. Park held the summit meeting with China’s leader while she continued to refuse to do the same with Japan’s prime minister, breaking a longstanding tradition of Korean and Japanese leaders meeting soon after taking office.
“History issues are having impacts on us and our alliances in Asia in ways that we never anticipated,” said Thomas Berger, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University.
While history has long haunted relations between Japan and South Korea, the recent chill is being driven partly by the very pivot to Asia that increasingly makes the administration anxious that its allies get along. To bolster its attempts to contain China’s territorial ambitions, the United States has supported Japan’s moves to strengthen its armed forces despite South Korea’s fear that Japan is reverting to militarism.
But beyond the policy irritants, the frustrations in the two countries seem very much rooted in the personal history of their new, and conservative, leaders.
The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a rightist who has long sought to have his country’s World War II-era history portrayed in a more positive light. He is driven, analysts say, by a deep desire to exonerate his grandfather, an architect of Japanese empire-building in the 1930s who was eventually arrested as a war criminal by Japan’s American occupiers, before becoming prime minister.
Ms. Park carries her own historical baggage. As the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a military ruler who served as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army while Korea was still a colony, she is under constant pressure to distance herself from her father’s ties to Japan.
“Neither Park nor Abe can come together for personal reasons that run across generations,” said Mikio Haruna, a politics professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “And this fact is driving Washington up a wall.”
The lack of communication, analysts and American officials say, has practical ramifications, including a setback of American efforts to nudge the two countries’ militaries to work together. Such cooperation, which is very limited, would be crucial during any regional conflict.
“The headwind created by these tensions over history raise the political cost of Japan-Korea cooperation that should be a given,” said Daniel R. Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
For its part, South Korea wants to avoid any regional conflict and is reluctant to take sides in the rising tensions between China, its largest trading partner, and Japan, its third largest.
Initially, American analysts say, much of the blame in Washington for the troubled Japan-South Korea relationship fell on Mr. Abe, viewed by some as a dangerous nationalist. But the analysts say that has been changing, especially since the Hagel meeting.
Analysts say that there is no personal bad blood between Ms. Park and Mr. Abe, that any Korean leader would feel pressure to take a hard line with Mr. Abe, who has long denied that the Japanese military had a direct role in coercing so-called Korean comfort women to provide sex to soldiers during World War II — a particularly fraught issue for South Koreans. And relations began on difficult footing. According to South Korean officials, Ms. Park — who had called for stabilizing South Korea-Japan relations during her presidential campaign — became deeply upset when Taro Aso, the No. 2 man in the Abe cabinet, visited Seoul for her inauguration and, they said, told her that there was no big difference between the Yasukuni Shrine, where some convicted war criminals are honored, and Arlington National Cemetery.
Mr. Abe has not visited the shrine since taking office but has sent offerings on special days, feeding South Korean suspicions that although he has toned down his rhetoric, his hawkish stances have not changed.
But the legacy of the collaboration by Ms. Park’s father makes it even tougher for her to compromise, experts say. “For President Park, the negative legacy carries a huge domestic political risk,” said Park Cheol-hee, director of the Institute for Japanese Studies at Seoul National University.
Korean leaders have made it clear that ties can be improved only if the Japanese prime minister admits to greater government responsibility for past offenses and agrees to pay compensation to the surviving “comfort women.”
That may be the one thing Mr. Abe cannot do. This is also a highly emotional issue for the Japanese ultraconservatives who form his political base; the nationalists see it as a fabrication used to help paint their nation as the villain in World War II. (Their take is that Japan was fighting to liberate Asia from European and American imperialism.)
Referring to the historical entanglements, Mr. Berger said, “These are chronic problems that only seem to be getting worse.”
Martin Fackler reported from Tokyo, and Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul, South Korea. Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Washington.
Philippines typhoon aftermath: ’1.5 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition and close to 800,000 pregnant and nursing mothers need nutritional help’
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, November 23, 2013 10:44 EST
The number of people dead or missing after one of the world’s strongest typhoons struck the Philippines climbed towards 7,000 on Saturday, as the United Nations warned much more needed to be done to help desperate survivors.
The government’s confirmed death toll rose to 5,235, with another 1,613 people still missing more than two weeks after Super Typhoon Haiyan destroyed entire towns across a long stretch of islands in the central Philippines.
Haiyan now rivals a 1976 tsunami on the southern island of Mindanao as the deadliest recorded natural disaster to strike the Philippines, which endures a never-ending battle against typhoons, earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions.
The typhoon has triggered a giant, international aid effort, with dozens of countries and relief organisations rushing to deliver food, water and health services to more than four million people who lost their homes.
However UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, after visiting the disaster zones, warned the world was still not responding fast enough.
“Much more needs to be done. Food, clean water and shelter remain the top priorities,” Amos said as a UN appeal for funds was raised from $301 million to $348 million.
Amos said huge numbers of people were still exposed to bad weather in the nine provinces ravaged by the storm, as she warned particularly of the dangers for babies, children and mothers.
“I am very concerned that some 1.5 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition and close to 800,000 pregnant and nursing mothers need nutritional help,” Amos told a news conference at UN headquarters.
Survivors plead for more help
In the coastal city of Tacloban, one of the worst-hit areas where five-metre (16-feet) waves surged deep inland and destroyed most buildings, survivors continued to complain about a lack of help.
“There is no steady supply of relief goods. It comes in trickles,” said Maribel Senase, 41, as she held a baby and her husband sawed wood near their shattered home.
Senase, who has four children, said her family had received rice, dried fish and sardines, but they remained hungry.
The World Bank on Friday added $480 million in emergency aid to the Philippines, taking its support to nearly $1 billion, in an effort to spur efforts to rebuild homes and infrastructure.
The Asian Development Bank also last week offered $500 million concessionary loans.
The US military has performed the highest-profile role in the relief effort, sending an aircraft carrier that arrived six days after the disaster which finally allowed relief supplies to start reaching isolated communities.
Japan also sent more than 1,000 troops aboard three vessels that arrived on Thursday night, in what is the biggest overseas deployment of the country’s military since its defeat in World War II nearly 70 years ago.
China, which is embroiled in a long-running territorial dispute with the Philippines, dispatched a 300-bed hospital ship, while Australia, Britain and Indonesia are among many other nations to have also sent military support.
Death toll keeps climbing
The number of people confirmed killed jumped by nearly 1,200 on Friday to 5,209, as confirmed body counts were made in some flattened communities, the spokesman for the government’s disaster management council, Reynaldo Balido, told AFP.
“If you notice, there was not much movement in the death toll for the past few days. This was because the reporting rules required a casualty report signed by the city mayor and his health officer,” he told AFP on Friday night.
“Now, the reports are coming in from the entire typhoon area.”
The death toll rose marginally again on Saturday morning, and was expected to continue rising over the coming days and weeks.
In Tacloban, the capital of Leyte province in the eastern Philippines, 1,727 people have been confirmed dead. Another 451 remain missing.
The typhoon on November 8 brought some of the strongest winds ever recorded and generated tsunami-like storm surges that flattened dozens of towns.
The magnitude of the disaster has continued to stun and overwhelm President Benigno Aquino’s administration. A few days after Haiyan struck, Aquino said he expected the death toll would be between 2,000 and 2,500.
The Philippines is so prone to natural disasters because it is located along a typhoon belt and the so-called Ring of Fire, a vast Pacific Ocean region where many of Earth’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.
But the only other natural disaster to compare with Haiyan for ferocity was the tsunami triggered by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 1976 that killed between 5,000 and 8,000 people on Mindanao.
Kremlin says Greenpeace crew may be allowed to leave Russia
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, November 23, 2013 15:26 EST
The Kremlin said Saturday that 30 Greenpeace crew members held after a protest in Arctic waters could be allowed to leave Russia, but the international activist group greeted the statement warily.
“As soon as the issue of how they can leave Russia is resolved they will leave,” Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said, according to a RIA-Novosti agency report.
“Nobody will hold them,” he said.
Ivanov did not elaborate, but Interfax news agency reported that the issue hindering the crew members’ departure is their lack of Russian visas.
The crew were seized by Russian security forces off a Greenpeace ship in the Barents Sea after a September protest on a Gazprom oil rig, brought to Russia and charged in Russian courts with piracy, later reduced to hooliganism. All but one of the activists have been granted bail.
It was the first time since the beginning of the affair in mid-September that a high-ranking Russian official has suggested the foreigners of 16 nationalities making up the Greenpeace crew could leave Russia.
Ivanov’s comments came after an international maritime court on Friday ordered Russia to immediately release the crew and their Dutch-flagged ship in exchange for a 3.6-million-euro ($4.9-million) bond.
Russia says it does not recognise the court as having a right to rule on the matter.
Ivanov said Russia will not react to the ruling.
“The issue will be solved… according to Russian laws, not somebody’s political wishes,” he said.
A Saint Petersburg court this week gave bail to all but one Australian member of the crew with the proviso they remain in Russia to answer charges of hooliganism.
A Greenpeace lawyer, Anton Beneslavski, said Ivanov’s comments should be treated with caution given the legal process underway.
Another Greenpeace lawyer, Mikhail Kreindlin, told AFP: “Nobody really understands their (visa) status.”
He added that local migration officers told him they would grant transit visas to the foreigners only after all charges are lifted.
“They don’t have visas, they were registered by migration officials in a hotel, but they are free to move around,” the lawyer said.
Russia’s Winter Olympics approaching
The comments by the Kremlin chief of staff were seen as a possible sign that Russia is ready to ease up on the issue as it prepares to put on its best face for the Sochi Winter Olympics, to begin in two and a half months’ time.
The Greenpeace affair has sparked criticism in the West and prompted celebrities such as Madonna and Paul McCartney to appeal for the crew’s freedom.
The crew members, which include two freelance journalists hired by Greenpeace, were initially charged with the heavier crime of piracy, but investigators later dropped that for the hooliganism charge.
The ship Arctic Sunrise is detained at port in the Russian northern city of Murmansk.
Australian Colin Russel, the ship’s radio operator whose case was the first to be heard in a series of court proceedings this week, was denied bail and ordered to remain in the Saint Petersburg jail for another three months.
One of the people to go before the judge Friday, British national Philip Ball, was granted bail but has not walked out of the jail yet due to a technicality, Kreindlin said.
A British videojournalist among the crew, Kieron Bryan, told the BBC in an interview that the original piracy charge had been met with laughter.
The 29-year-old also said that the 24 hours following his own bailed release from prison were “incredible” and “the best moments” of his life.
Latvian president calls supermarket collapse that killed 54 'murder'
Rescue workers stop searching rubble of collapsed store as prime minister announces three days of mourning for the victims
theguardian.com, Saturday 23 November 2013 21.29 GMT
The Latvian president has described the collapse of a supermarket which has claimed the lives of at least 54 people as "mass murder" of innocent civilians.
The remark by Andris Berzins came as the third and final part of the roof of the building in the capital, Riga, caved in on Saturday, prompting a fresh search for up to 10 people. Only the four walls now remain. The further collapse caused panic in a neighbouring shopping centre which shook violently and shoppers ran into the street fearful that it too would come crashing down.
Officials have said that soil and other material being used to build a garden on the roof might have caused the collapse last Thursday. At the time the disaster was made worse by the automatic doors to the supermarket jamming shut. Some 40 people were wounded, including 13 firefighters, and 23 people remain in hospital.
Latvia has begun three days of national mourning for the deadliest disaster since the former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991.
Berzins told public LTV broadcaster: "These three days of mourning are very necessary to go from the mindset of helplessness to rethinking what each of us has done so that we can act in a practical manner, because this is an event where we must clearly say that this is a large-scale murder of many defenceless people and act accordingly."
He said an investigation should be held at "maximum speed". "While not undermining the professionalism of our builders, I believe that we should call upon international expertise which is in no way connected with our construction business. We cannot call it a natural accident, because nature wasn't involved. This is our own made disaster."
Laila Rieksta-Riekstina, head of the state's child welfare department, said that 16 children had lost parents in the accident. Three of them had lost both parents.
Hopes of finding anyone else alive were fading as rescue teams were forced to stop work after the latest collapse. They are not expected to resume until on Sunday morning when efforts will be made by engineers to make the walls secure. Until that point, teams had been working round the clock, digging in the wreckage of the single-storey concrete and glass building to see if anyone was still trapped inside.