Tiny Neanderthal toebone highlights early human inter-breeding
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 14:24 EST
A tiny toebone from a Neanderthal woman who lived around 50,000 years ago has shown that several branches of early humans interbred before a single group, Homo sapiens, rose to dominate.
The bone has provided the final piece to a project, launched in 2006 by European evolutionary anthropologist Svante Paabo, to use ancient DNA to trace the human odyssey.
In a study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, a team reports that the bone adds hugely to genetic knowledge of our cousins, the Neanderthals, who died out around 30,000 years ago.
The scientists compared the genome against those of two other human groups who shared the planet at the same time.
They were the Denisovans, another mysterious sub-group whose remains have been found in Siberia; and Homo sapiens, as anatomically modern man is called.
The comparison points to interbreeding — “gene flow” in scientific parlance — among the three groups, although the extent is rather limited.
Between 1.5 and 2.1 percent of the genomes of humans today can be attributed to Neanderthals, it found. The exceptions are Africans, who do not have a Neanderthal contribution.
“We don’t know if interbreeding took place once, where a group of Neanderthals got mixed in with modern humans and it didn’t happen again, or whether groups lived side by side, and there was interbreeding over a prolonged period,” said Montgomery Slatkin, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Denisovans, too, left their mark on modern man. Previous studies found that around six percent of the genomes of Australian aborigines, New Guineans and some Pacific Islanders came from this group.
The new analysis found that the genomes of ethnic Han Chinese and other mainland Asian populations, as well as of native Americans, contain about 0.2 percent Denisovan genes.
The Neanderthals, in turn, contributed at least 0.5 percent of their DNA to the Denisovans.
Both of these groups have an intriguing genetic past, the new study says.
Around five percent of the Denisovans’ genome come from some ancient forerunner.
One bet is that it is Homo erectus, said Kay Pruefer, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who led the comparison.
Keeping it in the family
Incest — to employ today’s term for such behaviour — appears to have been rampant among the Neanderthals, who like the Denisovans lived in small groups, and had a gene pool to match.
The scientists performed simulations of several inbreeding scenarios on the Neanderthal toebone.
They discovered that the parents of the female were either half siblings who had a mother in common; double first cousins; an uncle and a niece; an aunt and a nephew; a grandfather and a granddaughter; or a grandmother and a grandson.
Genetically, what makes Homo sapiens so different from these extinct branches of our family tree? Why did we survive, and why did they die out?
The answer may lie in at least 87 genes in our genome that appear to be “significantly different” from those found in Neanderthals and Denisovans, says the study, although further work is needed to define in what way.
“There is no gene we can point to and say, ‘This accounts for language or some other unique feature of modern humans’,” said Slatkin.
“But from this list of genes, we will learn something about the changes that occurred on the human lineage, though these changes will probably be very subtle.”
The main source material for the comparison came from bones found in a cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.
In 2008, it yielded a bone from a little finger of a Denisovan woman in a layer of soil dated to 40,000 years ago.
The Neanderthal toebone was found in the same cave in 2010, but in a deeper layer of sediment dated to around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.
The cave also has artifacts made by modern humans, which mean that at least three groups of early humans occupied the cave at different times.
How many arms does The Milky Way have?
The Milky Way is more like a Hindu god than a human, according to a new galactic map that has revised how scientists look at the Milky Way's appendages.
By Elizabeth Barber, Staff Writer
December 18, 2013 at 10:59 am EST
First, the Milky Way galaxy had four arms. Then, it had two, plus a number of fainter and slighter “minor arms.” Now, it has four appendages again, according to a new paper published this week in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“It has been an interesting few decades,” says Melvin Hoare, a professor at the University of Leeds and a co-author of the paper, of the piling up revisions to the galactic map.
The Milky Way’s arms are congested galactic zip codes, dusty and gaseous stellar nurseries where new stars are made. So, astronomers plot galactic arms based on where stellar census data shows a regional jump in the number of stars.
In the 1950s, radio data had produced maps of a galaxy with four arms: Norma, Scutum-Centaurus, Sagittarius and Perseus. But, in 2008, images from NASA’s Spitzer telescope showed a galaxy organized into just two arms. In Spitzer’s tally of some 110 million low-mass, cool stars, the Norma and Sagittarius arms, supposed to be flush with stars, appeared to be not so star-packed after all. These arms looked more like rural regions of a galactic empire, not at all like the teeming cities they had been thought to be.
So, the two arms were jettisoned. Both were demoted to “minor arms” (astronomers are fond of consolation-prize names; Pluto, for example, is now called a “minor planet").
In the new paper, though, the team reports data from several telescopes around the world that probe the Milky Way for hot, high-mass stars, not the low-mass stars for which Spitzer was looking. These high-mass stars are much less common than are low-mass stars, since these stars live less long. And, since high-mass stars also do not live long, they are found just in the regions in which they are born, having had no time to emigrate from their birthplace.
The team’s census of about 1,650 high-mass stars showed that Norma and Sagittarius are hopping, urban places after all: these arms are lacking in low mass stars, but are in fact brimming with high-mass stars. It also appears that the gravitational pull that tugs stars together is much less in the re-instated arms than it is in the Scutum-Centaurus and Perseus arms, but is nonetheless strong enough that stars can still form in these less- crowded regions.
“In the arms that Spitzer sees, the stars are slowed a bit when they enter the arms and so pile up – like in a traffic jam,” says Dr. Hoare via email. “This does not appear to happen in the other two arms, although clearly the gas is still compressed enough to enhance star formation.”
Europe prepares to launch Milky Way ‘discovery machine’
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 22:22 EST
Europe on Thursday will place a billion-dollar bet on a space telescope designed to provide the biggest and most detailed 3-D map of the Milky Way.
If all goes well, a Soyuz-STB-Fregat rocket will lift off from Kourou, French Guiana, hoisting the observatory Gaia on a five-year exploration that may sweep away notions of our place in the galaxy.
The most sophisticated space telescope ever built by Europe, the 740-million-euro ($1.02-billion) gadget goes by the unofficial epithet of “discovery machine”.
“The list of Gaia’s potential discoveries makes the mission unique in scope and scientific return,” says the European Space Agency (ESA).
Gaia’s primary goal is to carry out an “astronomical census”, locating the position of a billion stars, or around one percent of all the stars in the Milky Way.
By repeating the observations as many as 70 times throughout its mission, the telescope can help astronomers calculate the distance, speed, direction and motion of these stars.
“Within two years from now we will have the first compendium of the sky,” said Francois Mignard of France’s Cote d’Azur Observatory.
Europe’s last star-hunter, Hipparcos, was an almost legendary piece of equipment.
Launched in 1989 and in operations for nearly four years, it provided a high-accuracy fix on 118,000 stars, as well as less-precise fixes on two million stars — a databank that is hugely used by professional astronomers today.
Gaia, using a six-sided “optical bench” three metres (10 feet) across to snare glimmers of light, is 200 times more sensitive than Hipparcos in measuring the angles that, through triangulation, determine a star’s position.
“If Hipparcos could measure the angle that corresponds to the height of an astronaut on the Moon, Gaia will be able to measure his thumbnail,” ESA says on its website.
Gaia’s secondary objectives are equally stunning. By monitoring the “wobble” in stellar light as a planet passes in front of a star, it can add to knowledge about worlds beyond the Solar System.
By some estimates, it could detect as many as 50,000 planets within a distance of 150 light years from the Sun, or 10 times more than have been observed since the first was spotted in 1995.
Gaia will also be turning its eyes to our own Solar System, scouring its chill, dark fringes and the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to help the search for any rocks that may one day threaten Earth.
Other potential bounty includes real-time observations of exploding stars, called supernovae, in distant galaxies and insights into strange “failed” stars, known as brown dwarves, that drift listlessly through interstellar space after failing to gain enough mass to ignite.
Gaia may provide a useful test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which says that a star’s position will appear to move slightly as a result of light from it that is deflected by a passing, massive object.
After launch, Gaia will take up position at the so-called Lagrange point L2, located 1.5 million kilometres (937,000 miles) from the Earth.
L2 is a position that gives it year-round observation of the cosmos without the view being disturbed by the Sun, Earth or Moon.
It is the go-to place for space observatories. L2 has been used by Europe’s Herschel and Planck telescopes and is designated as the slot for NASA’s eagerly-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
To stay at L2, the spacecraft will have to perform tiny manoeuvres every month, scrutinised by a network of telescopes on Earth to ensure a hoped-for accuracy of 100 metres (yards).
One of the biggest challenges will be processing what Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of France’s National Centre of Space Studies (CNES), calls “an absolute flood” of data.
Gaia will provide the equivalent of more than 30,000 CD-ROMs.
Sorting this stuff and turning it into useable data — galaxy maps and star catalogues — will take years.
Six centres have been set up around Europe to handle the deluge, including a supercomputer in Toulouse, southwestern France, capable of carrying out six thousand billion operations a second.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Obama review panel: strip NSA of power to collect phone data records
• Review proposes greater authority for spying on foreign leaders
• Government 'should be banned from undermining encryption'
• Forty-six recommendations in 300-page report released early
Dan Roberts in Washington and Spencer Ackerman in New York
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 December 2013 23.36 GMT
The National Security Agency should be banned from attempting to undermine the security of the internet and stripped of its power to collect telephone records in bulk, a White House review panel recommended on Wednesday.
In a 300-page report prepared for President Obama, the panel made 46 recommendations, including that the authority for spying on foreign leaders should be granted at a higher level than at present.
Though far less sweeping than campaigners have urged, and yet to be ratified by Obama, the report by his Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology comes as the White House faces growing pressure over its so-called “bulk collection” programs from US courts and business interests.
Earlier this week, a federal judge ruled that the bulk collection program, first revealed by the Guardian in June through a court order against Verizon, was likely to be in violation of the US constitution, describing it as “almost Orwellian” in scope.
The White House was stung into releasing the report weeks earlier than expected after meeting America’s largest internet companies on Tuesday. The firms warned that failure to rebuild public trust in communications privacy could damage the US economy.
In its report, the review panel, led by former security officials and academics including the husband of one of Obama's top advisers, said the NSA should be removed of its power to collect the metadata of Americans' phone calls. Instead, it suggested that private companies such as phone carriers retain their customer records in a format that the NSA can access on demand.
This is likely to anger the intelligence community, which argues for direct access, but also fall foul of telephone companies, who have privately warned those drafting more ambitious reforms in Congress that such a scheme would be impractical and dangerous.
“In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty,” says the report. “The government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about US persons for the purpose of enabling future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes.”
Despite revelations that the NSA tapped the phones of world leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, the report proposes only minimal overseas reforms, merely requiring higher clearance to “identify both the uses and the limits of surveillance on foreign leaders and in foreign nations.”
On the security of the internet, the report says the US government should not "undermine efforts to create encryption standards" and not "subvert, undermine, weaken or make vulnerable" commercial security software.
NSA documents published by the Guardian in September revealed how the agency had used its central role in setting encryption standards to install backdoor flaws to intercept private traffic, causing a storm of protest among internet companies.
But the report does little to address a string other privacy breaches revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and several of its recommendations deal with tighter vetting requirements for staff and contractors with access to sensitive information, designed to prevent future leaks.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the privacy advocates suing the Obama administration over the bulk surveillance, expressed disappointment with the review group report. “The review board floats a number of interesting reform proposals, and we're especially happy to see them condemn the NSA's attacks on encryption and other security systems people rely upon,” attorney Kurt Opsahl said.
“But we’re disappointed that the recommendations suggest a path to continue untargeted spying. Mass surveillance is still heinous, even if private company servers are holding the data instead of government data centers.”
After meeting the report’s authors on Wednesday, the White House said Obama would be taking a copy with him to read over Christmas and would decide which recommendations to accept before delivering his state of the union address on January 28.
“It's an extremely dense and substantive exercise, which is why, in response to a 300-plus page report with 46 recommendations, we are not going to come out with an assessment five minutes later,” said spokesman Jay Carney.
Carney acknowledged there was “no question” that the Snowden disclosures had helped lead to the review process and “heightened focus here at the White House and more broadly in the administration, around the United States and the globe.”
For months, the NSA, the phone companies and reform-minded legislators have doubted the viability of having the phone companies store call data on the NSA's behalf.
The NSA has pointed to cumbersome and varied file formats that prevent analysts from quickly searching through the companies' data troves, particularly those proprietary to the telecos. They have also fretted that the companies only keep customer data for 18 months, while they argue they need a historical database of every domestic call going back as few as three years and as many as five.
The companies themselves fear expensive legal and technical morasses that mass data storage on behalf of the NSA may portend.
Meanwhile, civil libertarians and reform-minded legislators believe the databases themselves are problematic. Having the phone companies store them, to provide access to the NSA, is insufficient, they believe.
“Bulk collection of personal data should simply end,” said Alan Butler, an attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
It remains to be seen whether the legislators behind the USA Freedom Act, the major legislative vehicle before the House and Senate to end NSA domestic bulk call data collection, will be satisfied with the proposal. But at least one member of the House intelligence committee who has sided with the reformers, California Democrat Adam Schiff, called it a “very positive step” and urged Obama to get out in front of the coming swell of legislation.
“With the strong likelihood of congressional action, as well as a recent adverse decision by a federal district court judge, I believe the president would be well served to take the advice of the board and restructure the program as soon as possible. It would be better to have this undertaken in an orderly and expeditious fashion, than to wait for it to be compelled by the Congress or the courts,” Schiff said on Wednesday.
The White House has said Obama will not decide on which of the panel’s reforms to implement until the new year. But last week, the administration decided against one of its recommendations, that would split the NSA from the US military’s Cyber Command.
The decision was reached, White House officials said, because Cyber Command’s task of protecting US military networks from hostile attack and launching wartime online counter-attacks is too ambitious for Cyber Command, which only became operational in 2010.
Accordingly, the NSA director will remain a military general or admiral, contradicting the review group’s recommendation that a civilian should take the helm of the world’s largest spy agency.
Civil libertarian groups have been skeptical of the report for months, fearing that the White House established the insider panel to give Obama and the NSA cover to implement merely cosmetic changes. Advisers to the panel have told the Guardian since September that the panel was stopping well short of meaningful privacy reforms.
As late as Sunday, White House officials told reporters that the report would not be released until January. But in the days since, the NSA and the Obama administration have been buffeted by criticism, from a widely ridiculed 60 Minutes documentary on the NSA, to Judge Richard Leon’s scathing ruling, to the tech giants’ impatience with the surveillance agency.
The report’s authors were Richard Clarke, a former US cybersecurity adviser; Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director; Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Peter Swire, who served earlier on Obama's national economic council; and Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law school professor who is married to UN ambassador Samantha Power.
Just before the White House released the review's report, a different group advising Obama, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which has held public hearings into the NSA for months, announced it will release two studies of its own, one into bulk collection of domestic phone data and the other into bulk foreign communications collection.
The reviews, due around late January and early February 2014, will also assess the operations of the secret Fisa court overseeing surveillance and provide "recommendations for legislative and program changes," the board announced on Wednesday afternoon.
NSA review panel stops short of concrete surveillance reforms
Report leaves room for Obama administration to decide any number of next steps in addressing concerns over spy agency
Spencer Ackerman in New York
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 December 2013 23.23 GMT
The review group advising President Obama on curbing the National Security Agency doesn’t go as far as privacy advocates worldwide want. The big question it raises is whether it gives Obama cover to substantially restrict bulk surveillance at home and abroad, a step he has never committed to taking.
That really would be a sea change for the NSA. But the review group is more comfortable toeing closer to the water’s edge on two of the biggest issues surrounding the NSA: mass surveillance of foreign publics and bulk collection of US citizens’ phone records.
On the former, the White House review group has vague recommendations for a subject that has sparked a diplomatic headache for Obama.
Foreigners, after all, are whom the NSA exists to spy on. And spying on foreign leaders, even allied ones, is the oldest trick in the signals-intelligence book.
Yet Obama has been confronted with outrage over a broader amount of foreigner-based spying than most anticipated existed. And since foreigners overseas don't have either US privacy rights under law nor powerful legislators to advocate for them, it's never been clear whether or how those NSA powers will remain intact.
The answer the review group offers is vague and preliminary, more a set of guidelines than a set of restrictions.
Foreign spying should be "exclusively" aimed at protecting US and allied national security, the review group says. Proper laws and executive orders should guide it. Oversight is necessary. Disseminating information about foreigners can't happen without a national-security reason. And it can't occur for "illegitimate" reasons like stealing trade secrets.
However, the NSA has argued for the last six months that all those conditions apply today. It's not clear what additional mechanisms would compel the NSA to follow those guidelines.
The exception is that the "highest-level approval" ought to exist for spying on foreign allied leaders – most likely the US president. That's a response to the anger brought by, among others, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who compared the NSA to the East German Stasi after learning NSA spied on her cellphone.
Also, the US should "explore understandings or arrangements regarding intelligence collection guidelines and practices with respect to each others’ citizens" with its closest intelligence partners. The report doesn't say it, but that's a reference to the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance of the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. As the Guardian’s James Ball recently reported, the NSA has had a backdoor authority to spy on UK citizens without so much as telling Britain, although it's not clear how much that has occurred.
How will all this work in practice? It's hard to tell right now. But the report will probably serve to provoke a conversation rather than answer it, a fate that befalls many a presidential commission.
Still, the review group comes rather close to acknowledging privacy rights of foreigners and even endorses, in a caveated way, applying a privacy law, the Privacy Act of 1974, to foreign publics. Expect lots of legal disputes over that, should it be adopted.
Similarly, the review group stops shorter than civil libertarian groups want on the most domestically controversial aspect of the NSA’s bulk surveillance: the bulk collection of all US phone data for five years.
The review group endorses reforming Section 215 of the Patriot Act so that the government can only collect phone or other data pursuant to a Fisa court order “about particular individuals”. And it can only get that data if it has “reasonable grounds” to believe the information sought is “relevant to an authorized investigation intended” to stop terrorism or spying on the US. Plus, the order has to be “reasonable in focus, scope, and breadth.”
That sounds similar to the “reasonable, articulable suspicion” grounds the NSA currently uses to search through its databases of US call information. Only here, the big shift proposed would be to have a “private party” like a telecom firm hold the data, not the NSA.
Put differently, bulk collection by the NSA would be replaced with bulk storage by … someone else, probably the phone company, with the NSA able to search through the data. It’s not a total equivalence, since the Fisa court order for the data would effectively mean a court would approve the searches of the data at the point when the NSA wants it from the phone companies. That’s a possible new safeguard, even if it’s a quasi-safeguard.
But here’s where the devil is in the details. The NSA wants that data stored for three to five years. Right now the phone companies store it for up to 18 months. And civil libertarians object to having the phone companies act as middlemen for mass surveillance.
“Mass surveillance is still heinous, even if private company servers are holding the data instead of government data centers,” said Kurt Opsahl, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“It’s not a solution to simply repackage the bulk collection under private control,” said Alex Abdo of the ACLU.
Not only that, the telecoms are already hinting at their opposition.
“It would be costly for us and more than that it would potentially open access to consumer data to other government agencies. Once they know that we are holding the information, what's to stop the IRS asking for it. It wouldn't just be the NSA anymore," a telecoms executive briefed on the report said on condition of anonymity.
Addressing the revelation that the NSA has undermined global encryption standards – ironically, making online data more vulnerable to criminals and US adversaries as well as the NSA – the review group’s guiding rule is almost medical: do no harm.
The US should “make clear” it will not take any action to design in backdoors, vulnerabilities or other mechanisms to weaken encryption, the review group recommends, nor should it secretly demand changes in cryptographic tools from software companies.
But the review offers no evident enforcement mechanisms to guarantee that the NSA, Department of Homeland Security, US Cyber Command or other agency concerned with cybersecurity will comply, aside from saying it should have the “force of law.”
The review also accepts at face value that the NSA’s assurance that it is not undermining encryption – despite NSA and GCHQ documents published by the Guardian in September thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden that explicitly refer to “an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used encryption technologies.”
Still, the review states that the NSA “not store generic commercial encrypted data,” such as Virtual Private Networks that conceal where a user connects to the internet or the Secure Socket Layer protocol to protect data in transit online.
The apparent spirit of the recommendation is to allow the NSA to break specific codes, traditionally necessary for discovering foreign secrets, rather than to undermine codemaking writ large, which has significant consequences for a global economy that depends on secured data transfers.
Sascha Meinrath, the director of the Open Technology Institute and an adviser to the review group, was encouraged by the recommendation, despite long skepticism about the review group’s work.
“The review group's recommendations that the US government act to make internet communications more secure, rather than building secret surveillance 'backdoors', undermining security standards, and secretly stockpiling exploits to hack into people's computers, are important steps forward,” Meinrath said.
But the point at which the rubber hits the road, politically, is whether the telecom-storage proposal works as a compromise for the authors of the USA Freedom Act, the major legislative proposal in the House and Senate to end bulk suspicionless surveillance. If so, that could clear the way for Obama to endorse it, thereby allowing it to move in the Senate and probably ensure passage in the House through a coalition of Democrats and privacy-minded Republicans – even at the cost of civil libertarian opposition.
One of the bill’s authors is cautious so far.
Patrick Leahy, a stalwart Obama ally and just as stalwart a bulk-collection critic, is the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee. In a statement, Leahy said the recommendation “aligns” with the USA Freedom Act.
But just as the review group stopped short of ending bulk surveillance on domestic call data, Leahy stopped short of calling for the report’s full implementation.
Instead, Leahy said he had invited the review group to testify before the committee, and he’ll “look forward to discussing their important recommendations”.
The ACLU’s Abdo sounded wary on Wednesday, even while hailing the report as “a rejection of the NSA’s most overwhelming surveillance programs”.
“The problem is Americans’ call records are extremely sensitive. No one, the government or the phone companies, should be stockpiling it,” he said.
Additional reporting by Dominic Rushe
NSA review: key recommendations and the stories that prompted them
How key points from Obama's surveillance review correspond to Guardian articles based on disclosures from Edward Snowden
The Guardian, Wednesday 18 December 2013 23.51 GMT
Bulk phone collection
We recommend that, as a general rule, and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store all mass, undigested, non-public personal information about individuals to enable future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes.
We recommend that legislation should be enacted that terminates the storage of bulk telephony meta-data by the government under section 215, and transitions as soon as reasonably possible to a system in which such meta-data is held instead either by private providers or by a private third party. Access to such data should be permitted only with a section 215 order from the Foreign Intellience Surveillance Court...
NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America's largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis" to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
– The Guardian, 6 June 2013
Surveillance of foreign leaders
We recommend that the President should create a new process requiring high-level approval of all sensitive intelligence requirements and the methods the Intelligence Community will use to meet them. This process should, among other things identify both the uses and limits of surveillance on foreign leaders and in foreign nations.
NSA monitored calls of 35 world leaders after US official handed over contacts
The National Security Agency monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders after being given the numbers by an official in another US government department, according to a classified document provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
– The Guardian, 24 October 2013
Merkel's phone may have been monitored 'for over 10 years'
New claims emerged over the extent to which US intelligence agencies have been monitoring the mobile phone of Angela Merkel. The allegations were made after German secret service officials were already preparing to travel to Washington to seek explanations into the alleged surveillance of its chancellor.
– The Guardian, 26 October 2013
We recommend that, regarding encryption, the US government should fully support and not undermine efforts to create encryption standards[and] not in any way subvert, undermine, weaken, or make vulnerable generally available commercial software.
Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet surveillance
US and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by Snowden.
– The Guardian, 5 September 2013
Searches of Americans' data
The government may not search the contents of communications acquired under section 702, or under any other authority covered by this recommendation, in an effort to identify communications of particular United States persons, except (a) when the information is necessary to prevent a threat of death or serious bodily harm, or (b) when the government obtains a warrant based on probable cause to believe that the United States person is planning or is engaged in acts of international terrorism.
NSA loophole allows warrantless search for US citizens' emails and phone calls
The National Security Agency has a secret backdoor into its vast databases under a legal authority enabling it to search for US citizens’ email and phone calls without a warrant, according to a top-secret document passed to the Guardian.
– The Guardian, 9 August 2013
Tim Berners-Lee leads call for more transparency over mass surveillance
Open letter claims UK and US governments are contradicting accountability pledge of Open Government Partnership
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 00.01 GMT
The inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has collaborated with more than 100 free speech groups and leading activists in an open letter to protest against the routine interception of data by governments around the world.
In the letter to the Open Government Partnership, the group condemns the hypocrisy of member nations in signing up to an organisation which aims to preserve freedom while at the same time running one of the largest surveillance networks the world has ever seen.
The organisations that have signed up include Oxfam, Privacy International and the Open Rights Group, and the individuals include Satbir Singh of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Indian social activist Aruna Roy.
The letter calls on member governments to overhaul their privacy laws, protect whistleblowers and increase the transparency around their surveillance mechanisms.
"We join other civil society organisations, human rights groups, academics and ordinary citizens in expressing our grave concern over allegations that governments around the world, including many OGP members, have been routinely intercepting and retaining the private communications of entire populations, in secret, without particularised warrants and with little or no meaningful oversight," the letter states.
"These practices erode the checks and balances on which accountability depends, and have a deeply chilling effect on freedom of expression, information and association, without which the ideals of open government have no meaning."
The letter underscores the difficulty the UK and USA have had in maintaining that countries like China and Iran should ease restrictions on the internet in the face of revelations from the NSA files that they themselves are intercepting private communications.
"Laws to limit the state’s power to spy on its citizens are fundamental to democracy’s checks and balances. But these laws are outdated," said Anne Jellema, the chief executive of the World Wide Web Foundation, which was founded by Berners-Lee to promote a free internet.
"With digital technologies making it trivially easy to collect and store billions of pieces of data on entire populations, and with public interest whistleblowers receiving little protection, the whole system of checks and balances on state power is being pushed dangerously close to breaking point," Jellema continued. "We are calling for an urgent public debate to review and strengthen the safeguards that will keep our societies open".
The Open Government Partnership was formed in 2011 to aid reformers committed to making their governments more accountable, open and responsive to citizens. The UK and USA were two of the first countries to join, and the partnership has since grown to include 62 nations from Australia to Mongolia.
Ron Wyden: NSA review panel offers 'substantial, meaningful reforms'
Oregon senator and leading critic of NSA surveillance hails panel's recommendations as major victory for privacy movement
• Review panel: strip NSA of power to collect phone data records
Spencer Ackerman in New York
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 00.34 GMT
The biggest congressional critic of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of US data hailed a White House review panel’s recommendations as a major victory for the privacy movement on Wednesday.
“Clearly, this report speaks to what I’ve heard not just from people here but around the world: that they know that liberty and security are not mutually exclusive,” said senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee who has fought an uphill battle for years to reveal and stop what he considers overbroad and unnecessary surveillance.
“There are substantial, meaningful reforms in this,” Wyden said in an interview Wednesday evening with the Guardian.
In particular, Wyden hailed a finding of the review group, deep into its lengthy report, that undermined the NSA’s claim that the collection of all US phone records was indispensable for preventing terrorist attacks.
“Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony metadata was not essential to preventing attacks, and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders,” wrote the group, which is chaired by former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell.
Section 215 is a reference to the portion of the Patriot Act that the Obama administration and intelligence agencies cite to collect in bulk the phone records of millions of Americans and store them for five years. They argue it is a crucial tool to detect domestic connections to terrorism.
“Millions of Americans, having all these phone call records [collected] – who they call, when, a national human-relations database … these knowledgeable experts are saying it was not necessary,” said Wyden, who has accused the NSA and associated intelligence officials of misleading the public about the utility and necessity of the bulk phone records collection.
The review group proposed over 40 recommendations, including that the NSA’s phone records collection transition to control by a “private party,” such as a telecommunications firm. Several civil libertarian groups expressed wariness about the recommendation.
Wyden said he was still studying that and other aspects of the review. “Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of technical issues associated with telecoms having the information,” said Wyden. “That’s going to take some time to work through.”
But the review group’s public refutation of a central aspect of the case for bulk domestic phone data collection – disclosed first by the Guardian thanks to leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden – comes just two days after a federal judge, Richard Leon, doubted from the federal bench that a program of what he considered dubious constitutionality has helped stop terrorism.
“The government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack,” Leon wrote in a Monday opinion that caused shockwaves in Washington.
For months, NSA officials and public advocates have insisted that the bulk collection is not surveillance at all – and that the real surveillance occurs only when the NSA sifts through the data. Yet the review group appeared to reject that perspective. “All intelligence reformers have felt strongly this data collection is not an inoffensive activity,” Wyden said. “It is digital surveillance.”
Wyden said he needed time to parse the full recommendations of the report. But he said that the report “certainly appears” to resolve another of his major concerns with the NSA: the authority for NSA to search its troves of foreign communications for Americans’ identifying information without warrants – which he calls the “backdoor search loophole” and also first disclosed by the Guardian. He also hailed the review group’s recommendation that a public advocate be placed on the secret surveillance panel known as the Fisa court so judges who sit in secret do not only hear from the government.
“This has been a big week for the cause of intelligence reforms,” Wyden said.
Wyden has been at the forefront of reform efforts. Years before Snowden leaked any data, Wyden –constrained by classification rules – warned that the government had secretly reinterpreted the Patriot Act to collect vastly more data on Americans than the law authorized. He succeeded in 2012 at making public the fact that the Fisa court had ruled on at least one occasion that NSA surveillance had violated the constitution.
And after months of private entreaties to clarify a public comment made by NSA director Keith Alexander in 2012, Wyden asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, if the NSA was collecting data on millions of Americans. Clapper untruthfully replied “not wittingly,” a comment for which the director has publicly apologized.
Not all privacy groups are as optimistic about the review group’s proposed reforms.
“Many of the recommendations do not go far enough, or raise other privacy concerns that must be fully assessed,” said Cynthia Wong of Human Rights Watch.
“For example, while the review group acknowledges the need to provide greater privacy protections to non-US persons, at the same time, the report ultimately leaves the door open to continued broad, indiscriminate surveillance of foreigners. This report should be viewed as a good start for what changes need in the end to be made.”
But the report’s assessment that the bulk collection had an inessential relationship with domestic counterterrorism provides a tailwind to a legislative effort supported by Wyden, the USA Freedom Act, to end it. That battle will resume in January, when Congress returns – and will find an early test when Obama announces which of the Review Group’s recommendations he will implement.
“I think this has been a big week for the cause of intelligence reforms,” Wyden said.
Russia: Pig Putin's forked tongue
The Russian president's special style is to say unreasonable and sometimes unbelievable things in a reasonable way
The Guardian, Thursday 19 December 2013 21.04 GMT
If there is a more irritating sight on the international stage than Pig Putin's vulpine visage when he is feeling pleased with himself, it is hard to think of what it would be. His usually immobile features relax sufficiently to betray an immense self-satisfaction as he swings with aplomb into his usual harsh but fair routine.
So it was yesterday at his annual big press conference. Questions, many of them pre-planned or at least crafted with especial care to play to his strengths, were fielded with casual ease. The Russian president's special style is to say unreasonable and sometimes unbelievable things in a reasonable way. For example, he denied there had been any Russian pressure on Ukraine to end its negotiations with the European Union. He put his hand on his heart to swear the bailout and cheap gas which he has promised to the Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, also had nothing to do with that decision.
It was all about brotherly love, Pig Putin said, seemingly unaware that by using that phrase he pre-empts any fair discussion of Ukraine's choices. Families, after all, must stick together. Yet Ukraine is also a member of the European family, as is Russia itself. None of these complexities interested the Russian leader. Mr Yanukovych, giving his own press conference in Kiev, warned Western nations to keep their noses out of his country's affairs.
The Russian government's readiness to throw people into prison when they get in its way, bending the legal system to do so, has a long history, but has been a particular characteristic of Mr Putin's rule since the detention of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the confiscation of his Yukos empire in 2003 – the foundation act of the Putin era. The beauty of this strategy is that you are able to dispose of opponents and critics under cover of the law, but you can then get credit later for a measured clemency, as with Mr Putin's indication yesterday that a pardon for Mr Khodorkovsky is on the way. Murmuring that Mr Khodorkovsky has served 10 years and that his mother is ill, makes Putin seem humane. But it was not humane to put him there in the first place. In lesser key, the Pig sought praise for the release of the Greenpeace and Pussy Riot detainees, but not without a final swipe at Greenpeace as an agent of foreign powers and at Pussy Riot as desecrators of Russian womanhood
Finally, since the chances of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the west are now zero, Pig Putin's announcement that Russia has not yet decided to deploy new Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad is simultaneously ridiculous and obtuse. Yet he manages to make it sound as if he is trying to reassure a nervous Nato when he says: "Let them calm down." It will be time to calm down when Mr Putin stops speaking with a forked tongue.
For Russia's leader, Cromwell and Stalin are both Pig Putinites
They revered power above all else and used nationalism to maintain their grip on it. Both were imperialists
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 18.11 GMT
Pig Putin reckons there is no difference between Joseph Stalin and Oliver Cromwell, and that the former is no less deserving of a statue than the latter, who, despite cutting off the head of a king, gets pride of place outside the Houses of Parliament. "What is the essential difference between Cromwell and Stalin? Can you tell me? No difference," he said at his annual press conference on Thursday.
Before considering this urgent question, let's pause to congratulate Pig Putin on being able to make these comparisons. Could David Cameron talk confidently of the political legacy of a 17th-century Russian leader?
That said, the Pig's comparison is meaningless. If anything, it is Trotsky rather than Stalin who stands comparison with Cromwell. Trotsky, like Cromwell, was both revolutionary theoretician and army organiser, and both were key figures in their respective revolutions. Trotsky is memorialised in Mexico, where he had sought exile and in 1940 was murdered by a Soviet agent, but not in Moscow. As well as having Trotsky murdered, Stalin set about obliterating his rival from Russian revolutionary history.
Cromwell is accorded a statue because ultimately he was unsuccessful. He led the parliamentary side in the English civil war and succeeded in overthrowing the king, but his revolutionary ideals quickly congealed, he became a quasi-king himself in his role as lord protector and left no legacy. His son Richard succeeded him, but ruled only briefly before the restoration of the monarchy. England had not been able to stomach the idea of a republic, let alone put into practice the ferment of socialistic ideals that had been unleashed by the civil war. Cromwell gets his statue in part because he upheld the rights of parliament – hence the location – but also because he had maintained the status quo. A statue to a true revolutionary would have been torn down long ago.
Pig Putin gives an honourable mention to Cromwell and Stalin because, in his eyes, they are both Putinites. They revered power above all else and used nationalism to maintain their grip on it. Both were imperialists: Cromwell was the bloody hammer of the Irish; Stalin ruthlessly welded the disparate republics that made up the Soviet Union into what passed for a unitary state. It was a brilliant personal achievement that ultimately achieved nothing. The Soviet Union lasted little more than 70 years – the lifetime of a not very long-lived individual. Like Cromwell's revolution, it was a historical blip.
Cromwell and Stalin were great exponents of realpolitik who kept the show on the road, but no more than that. They were master conjurors, which may be what appeals to the Pig as his country teeters between liberalism and authoritarianism, oligarchical capitalism and state provision. Pig Putin is engaged in a majestic piece of mythmaking, constructing an image of "Mother Russia" that connects both the Tsarist and the Soviet periods. It is engagingly mad pick-and-mix history, and perhaps, in hymning two men who achieved so little, he is thinking about the way he will be remembered.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky freed after pardon from the Pig
Russia's former richest man, regarded by Kremlin critics as a political prisoner, leaves prison camp in northern Russia
Shaun Walker and agencies in Moscow
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 09.43 GMT
Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been freed, bringing an end to more than a decade behind bars after the Russian president, Pig Putin, signed a decree pardoning him.
the Pig made the surprise announcement on Thursday that he planned to pardon the country's former richest man, who is regarded by Kremlin critics as a political prisoner. On Friday morning the Kremlin said the decree had been signed. By lunchtime, Khodorkovsky had left the prison camp in northern Russia where he was serving his sentence, his lawyer said. "He has left the [prison] colony. That's all I can say," Vadim Klyuvgant told Reuters.
The decree, signed by the Pig, pardoned Khodorkovsky on the basis of "the principles of humanism".
Pig Putin's announcement that he intended to release Khodorkovsky – who has been in jail since 2003 and was due for release next August – came at the end of a four-hour press conference in Moscow.
The former oligarch, who became a staunch Kremlin critic after being convicted of economic crimes in trials that many believe were politically motivated, was seen as a potential political threat to Pig Putin if released. Khodorkovsky has previously said he would not ask for a pardon, as it would imply an admittance of guilt.
However, the Pig said on Thursday he had recently received a request signed by Khodorkovsky. He said: "Not long ago he appealed to me for a pardon. He has already spent 10 years behind bars – it's a serious punishment. He mentions humanitarian considerations, as his mother is ill. Given all this, the correct decision should be taken and a decree on his pardoning will be signed very soon."
Lawyers for the former oil tycoon initially said they had not heard of any such request, but it later transpired that Khodorkovsky had been visited by officials in prison and warned both about the deteriorating health of his mother and of the possibility of a new case being prepared against him, and advised to sign.
Khodorkovsky's mother, Maria Khodorkovskaya, told Russia Today television: "It hasn't sunk in yet. Too much has happened since yesterday. I just can't believe it."
Khodorkovsky did not fall under the terms of a wide-ranging amnesty passed by Russia's parliament on Wednesday, in which two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot will be released early and the Greenpeace Arctic 30 allowed to leave Russia in the coming days. The sudden bout of clemency has been linked with an attempt to boost Russia's image in the runup to the Winter Olympics, due to be held in Sochi in February. The move towards freeing Khodorkovsky nevertheless comes as a surprise.
When Pig Putin came to power in 2000, he offered an informal deal to Russia's oligarchs – they could keep their wealth but they were not to dabble in politics. Khodorkovsky broke the deal. Keen to turn his company, Yukos, into a modern, international business, he made allegations of corruption in the Kremlin and funded opposition political parties.
Many Russians still regard the oligarchs with distaste, as they made enormous wealth during the 1990s while most of the populace was mired in poverty, but Khodorkovsky's decade in prison has had a redeeming effect. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience, and there is sympathy – especially among the new urban middle class – towards his critiques of the Russia's political system. His carefully observed prison sketches are published regularly in the Russian magazine the New Times.
Khodorkovsky has said that if and when he is released, he simply wants to spend time with his family, but many see in him someone who could eventually unite the fractured opposition to the Pig.
Angela Merkel faces resistance to eurozone reforms at Brussels summit
Germany wants to entrench system of legally binding contracts obliging eurozone members to implement structural reforms
Ian Traynor in Brussels
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 17.03 GMT
European leaders opened a two-day Brussels summit on Thursday with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, facing stiff resistance to her plan to force structural reforms on the ailing economies of the eurozone.
The summit was preceded early on Thursday by EU finance ministers agreeing on a compromise on how to rescue weak eurozone banks, or close down rotten ones.
While ministers and senior EU officials hailed the accord as "revolutionary" and "historic", the complicated deal, resisted by Germany, meant there would be no quick leap to a common eurozone system of bailing out bad banks.
Germany had resisted key elements of the bank resolution plans for 18 months, but yielded slightly by agreeing to phase in pooled responsibility for the eurozone over a decade from 2015.
It foiled French-led attempts to have the eurozone's €500bn bailout fund serve as a "fiscal backstop" for winding up or recapitalising bad banks.
"We wanted a backstop," said Pierre Moscovici, the French finance minister. "We are working on its definition, which will evolve over time."
The German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said: "The final pillar for the banking union has been achieved."
But the deal is likely to run into trouble in the European parliament as well as in some national parliaments.
While Berlin has not been keen to Europeanise authority over eurozone banks, it is keen to entrench a new system of "legally binding contracts'' obliging single-currency member states to implement structural reforms.
The banking shift and the reform contracts, taken together, amount to the biggest moves attempted by the 17 governments of the single currency since the euro and sovereign debt crisis exploded four years ago. But the policies are highly contentious and divisive. "They are trying to solve a German problem," said a senior EU official.
The contracts scheme is Merkel's idea, aimed at making weaker eurozone economies more competitive. It is fiercely resisted even by her northern allies in the euro crisis, such as the Dutch, the Austrians, and the Finns. It is feared by the French and the southern Europeans.
But Berlin is making plain that there will not be progress on banking union unless she makes headway on the contracts.
"Ideologically, there is some kind of connection for the Germans," said a senior EU diplomat involved in the fraught negotiations. Another senior diplomat said Berlin was making the linkage "very explicit".
In a briefing before the summit, a senior German official barely mentioned the new banking regime, while dwelling at length on the need for the binding reform contracts.
Merkel is keen to push the scheme because she believes not enough has yet been done to immunise the eurozone against a new crisis and also to force greater competitiveness on the rest of Europe, not least France, Berlin's biggest worry.
She has already backed down considerably from last year, when the initial idea was to have legally binding contracts forcing changes to pension systems, education systems and labour markets, policed by the EU and with lagging governments at risk of being sued in the European court of justice.
"The initial idea was a German straitjacket. That's dead," said the senior official.
Now the talk is of "partnership" and "national ownership" of the reform contracts which would be greased by "solidarity" payments. But it is not clear how much money is involved, whether it takes the form of loans or grants, or where it comes from (not the EU budget).
The senior German official said the money available would be limited.
"We're interested in making the contracts binding. We think that's right if we want to move beyond the current system based only on recommendations."
The creditors in the eurozone bailouts, the northerners, are against this because they see it as the thin end of the wedge in the creation of a eurozone budget and "transfer union".
And the southerners want the money without being coerced into reforms, particularly in Paris where the president, François Hollande, would struggle with the implicit loss of national sovereignty over economic and fiscal policy.
"It's a Germanic view of how to do structural reform. Everyone else is against it," said one of the senior diplomats. "There's quite a lot tension. It will be a long, bitter and twisted debate."
European leaders gather for summit after complicated banking compromise
Analysis: The main issue is what German chancellor Angela Merkel wants, what she doesn't want and what she might get
Ian Traynor in Brussels
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 09.27 GMT
European leaders gather in Brussels on Thursday for a two-day summit aimed at shoring up the euro, pooling economic reform efforts and entrenching a radical new regime for controlling most of the eurozone banking sector. The summit begins after late-night negotiations in Brussels saw finance ministers thrash out a complicated compromise deal that left national governments ultimately responsible for bailing out their banks.
Taken together, the policies amount to the biggest moves attempted by the 17 governments of the single currency since the euro and sovereign debt crisis exploded four years ago. The action being plotted is highly contentious, the policies are divisive. The main issue is what chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany wants, what she does not want, and what she might get in the end.
"They are trying to solve a German problem," said a senior EU official.
The two main innovations are agreements on a key pillar of a new "banking union" that makes the European Central Bank the supervisory authority for the big systemic eurozone banks from next year and a new system of "binding" contracts agreed at the eurozone level to encourage structural reforms in individual countries.
The Germans have resisted and sought to dilute the banking union since Merkel was hijacked at a summit in June last year by France, Italy and Spain and the new regime was agreed. By contrast, the contracts scheme is Merkel's idea, aimed at making weaker eurozone economies more competitive. It is fiercely resisted even by her northern allies in the euro crisis, such as the Dutch, the Austrians, and the Finns. It is feared by the French and the southern Europeans.
But Berlin is making plain that there won't be progress on banking union unless she makes headway on the contracts.
"Ideologically, there is some kind of connection for the Germans," said a senior EU diplomat involved in the fraught negotiations. Another senior diplomat said Berlin was making the linkage "very explicit".
The big contested points on the new banking regime boil down to who foots the bill for a rotten bank or to recapitalise and restructure a failing bank and who has the final word on winding up a bank.
"We've been talking about banking union for months," Merkel told German television. "We Germans have laid down very clear conditions. I do see a chance that we can make it. I just don't know for sure yet."
The Germans have been relatively isolated in their demands, but appear to be carrying the day. Since Lehman Brothers in 2008, European taxpayers have shelled out €1.6tn (£1.3tn) via government bank rescues. Arguing on grounds of moral hazard, Berlin insists that era is over. The banks will themselves, via a levy, supply their own insurance, a €55bn pot that, however, will not be available until 2025 at the earliest. Also, bank investors, creditors and shareholders will themselves have to step up to the plate and pay for failure before governments.
The Germans have been resisting any common "fiscal backstop" for bank resolution, such as the €500bn bailout fund, and have been determined to avoid liability for others' banks until 2025. The French lead the opposition here.
Merkel and President François Hollande wrestled over the issue on Wednesday in Paris hours after she was sworn in for her third term as chancellor, while EU and eurozone finance ministers capped a fortnight of frantic late-night negotiations with more scrapping in Brussels.
Points victory for Berlin
The result was a points victory for Berlin, a complicated compromise that phases in a common fund by 2025 but until then leaves bank rescues mainly a national matter. The deal also produced a complex decision-taking system that leaves the final word on bank rescues with national governments.
The two fundamental aims of the banking union are to break the toxic loop between bad banks and sovereign debt that contributed hugely to the euro crisis and to shift liability for failure away from taxpayers to the financial sector itself.
Both aims look likely to be unfulfilled for a long time. Responsibility for banking fecklessness will remain mainly national for years to come, at German insistence, meaning partial government bailouts and taxpayer involvement.
And because of quarrels over who decides to wind up a bank, the EU or its governments, the compromise is messy involving the European commission, a new banking resolution board and national finance ministers.
Mario Draghi, the head of the ECB, voiced his exasperation to the European Parliament this week.
"I am concerned that decision-making may become overly complex and financing arrangements may not be adequate … We should not create a Single Resolution Mechanism that is single in name only," he said. He demanded "a single system, a single authority, and a single fund".
"One can't have hundreds of people consulting each other about whether a certain bank is viable."
"Under the likely agreement, the process of bank resolution will be political and complex, while the costs will primarily be borne by the private sector and national budgets in the short and medium term," said Mujtaba Rahman, analyst at Eurasia Group. "The deal will be a bad one, as lead European negotiators do not wish to upset the Germans."
Things get even more unwieldy because, again to accommodate German constitutional concerns, the new system will be based on both new EU legislation as well as an international treaty between participating governments. There will be a battle with the European Parliament and there may be national problems getting the treaty ratified, all of which indicates delays which suit Berlin.
Merkel is much keener to push her structural reforms contracts scheme because she believes not enough has yet been done to immunize the eurozone against a new crisis and also to force greater competitiveness on the rest of Europe, not least France, Berlin's biggest worry.
She has already backed down considerably from last year when the initial idea was to have legally binding contracts forcing changes to pension systems, education systems, or labour markets, policed by the EU and where lagging governments could be sued in the European Court of Justice.
"The initial idea was a German straitjacket. That's dead," said the senior official.
Now the talk is of "partnership" and "national ownership" of the reform contracts which would be greased by "solidarity" payments. But it is not clear how much money is involved, whether it takes the form of loans or grants, where it comes from (not the EU budget).
A senior German official said the money available will be "limited."
"We're interested in making the contracts binding. We think that's right if we want to move beyond the current system based only on recommendations."
The creditors in the eurozone bailouts, the northerners, are against this because they see it as the thin end of the wedge in the creation of a eurozone budget and "transfer union".
And the southerners want the money without being coerced into reforms, particularly in Paris where Hollande would struggle with the implicit loss of national sovereignty over economic and fiscal policy.
"It's a Germanic view of how to do structural reform. Everyone else is against it," said one of the senior diplomats. "There's quite a lot tension. It will be a long, bitter and twisted debate."
12/19/2013 02:21 PM
Crime Infested: Quarter of NPD Officials Have Been Prosecuted
Around one-quarter of the leadership of Germany's extremist National Democratic Party has been convicted of a crime, according to a newspaper report. The news could add fuel to the national debate over whether to ban the party.
Almost one-third of officials within Germany's far-right National Democratic Party has either been convicted of criminal offenses or the subject of investigation for suspicion of committing them, the Berliner Zeitung newspaper reported in its Monday edition.
The newspaper cited an as yet unpublished petition by Germany's states seeking to ban the far-right NPD. Earlier this month, the sixteen states filed a motion with the Federal Constitutional Court in the city of Karlsruhe to outlaw the party, arguing it espouses a racist, violent ideology similar to Hitler's Nazi party.
Thirty-one percent of 176 NPD leaders is currently under criminal investigation or has already been convicted by a court, according to the states' legal submission, the newspaper reported. The report also states that a quarter of the party's officials have been convicted.
The verdicts and investigations against the NPD leadership reference politically motivated crimes that date back to the 1990s, including assault and battery, coercion, material damage, violation of the public peace, violation of the assault weapons law and the creation of criminal and terrorist groups.
The legal move against the NPD by Germany's states comes a decade after a similar bid by the federal government failed in 2003. This time around, Chancellor Angela Merkel's federal government in Berlin declined to back the petition to the Constitutional Court, despite pressure from Germany's Turkish, Jewish and Roma communities. The new initiative was spurred by increasingly vocal public opposition to right-wing extremism following the discovery of the National Socialist Underground in 2011, a neo-Nazi terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for the murder of 10 mostly Turkish immigrants between 2000 and 2007. NPD officials deny any association with those murders.
The states contend that the NPD -- an official political party with 5,400 members and access to government funding -- poses a significant threat to German democracy. However, many experts argue that the NPD's limited national support, at 1.3 percent in the most recent federal election, make such an argument a challenge to prove in court.
Spain privacy watchdog fines Google for breaking data law
Google was fined for combining personal information from various online services and failing to inform users on data use
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 10.35 GMT
Spain's privacy watchdog on Thursday fined Google for breaking the country's data protection law when combining personal information from its many different online services and failing to inform users clearly on how it uses their data.
Although the €900,000 fine is modest for Google, which has a market capitalisation of over $350bn, the move reflects growing concerns across Europe about the volume of personal data that is held in foreign jurisdictions in so-called cloud storage services.
Under such services, data is stored remotely via the internet instead of onsite, giving individuals little control over their personal information.
Last month, the Dutch Data Protection Authority also said Google was in breach of the national data privacy law for the same practices while France moved closer to fining the US internet company in September.
Investigations are taking place in at least three other European countries.
The probes were triggered after Google in March 2012 unilaterally imposed new terms of service on users of all its cloud services, which include the YouTube video streaming site, the Gmail service, and the ubiquitous Google search engine.
That decision triggered privacy investigations in six European countries, including Spain.
"Inspections have shown that Google compiles personal information through close to one hundred services and products it offers in Spain, without providing in many cases the adequate information about the data that is being gathered, why it is gathered and without obtaining the consent of the owners," said the Spanish Agency for Data Protection in a statement.
The agency said users were not sufficiently informed that Google filtered the content of their emails and files to display advertising and, when it did it, used a terminology that was imprecise, unclear and with generic expressions.
It also said the company was breaking the law by using data it gathered for purposes that are unspecified and keeping this information for an indefinite time, while sometimes hindering users in their right to erase, access or modify this data.
In November Google agreed to pay a $17m fine to settle allegations that it secretly tracked web users by placing special digital files on the web browsers of their smartphones.
Spanish cinema reels after 15% box-office dive
Piracy, increased taxation and Spain's continuing economic problems are threatening the future of the industry – but it is hoped a discounts campaign will arrest the decline
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 10.49 GMT
Spanish cinemas are facing an unprecedented crisis after the country's box-office total for 2013 plunged by 15% year-on-year.
Multiplexes have been damaged by a combination of piracy, the economic crisis and a sales tax on tickets that has risen from eight to 21%, according to a report by Variety. Total admissions have also fallen by around 15%, increasing the pressure on finances.
This year the Spanish box office currently stands at €476m (£396m), with 72.3m tickets sold. The latter figure marks a staggering 46% drop on the 143.9m figure the country totted up in 2004, prior to the financial crisis.
With unemployment having recently hit 27% in Spain, many filmgoers are unable to afford going to the cinema. A potential solution emerged when exhibitor Yelmo Cines and Cinesa mounted a discounts campaign titled Fiesta del Cine in October. The move saw tickets at the company's 900 cinemas slashed to just €3 and saw grosses leap by around 300%. More people saw box-office smash Gravity that weekend than paid to see Alfonso Cuarón's film in its first week of release in Spanish cinemas.
"After years of decline in attendance, the Fiesta del Cine indicated that Spaniards want to go to the cinema and are willing to pay to see films," Arturo Guillen of box-office tracking firm Rentrak told Variety. "The question is how much they should pay, and when. We have to reach a consensus on that."
Tory MPs attack ministers over fears of east European immigration
Ministers warned over influx of Romanians and Bulgarians when EU work restrictions are lifted on 1 January
Patrick Wintour, political editor
The Guardian, Thursday 19 December 2013 20.21 GMT
Tory MPs worried about a fresh influx of east Europeans into the UK in the new year have rounded on the Home Office, accusing ministers of failing to provide a realistic estimate of how many Romanians and Bulgarians will come to the country when work restrictions are lifted on 1 January.
The immigration minister Mark Harper insisted that his advisory body had told him it did not wish to provide an estimate. The chairman of the home affairs committee, Keith Vaz, contradicted this, saying the chairman of the migration advisory committee, Sir David Metcalf, was willing to give a number but had not been asked by ministers to do so.
Vaz himself said he would be at Luton airport at 7.40am on New Year's Day, along with a Conservative member of his committee, Mark Reckless, to see the first flight from Romania land. "We will be there for the first flight to see what arrangements have been put in place and how many people turn up."
More than 75 Tory MPs have been fighting a rearguard battle to prevent the work restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians being lifted on 1 January, but were thwarted when ministers delayed the return of the immigration bill to the Commons.
In a special three-hour debate, Tory MPs warned ministers that they would return to the issue and called on David Cameron to make an end to free movement of EU workers his top priority when he seeks to renegotiate UK relations with the EU after the next general election.
Wildly conflicting forecasts have been offered by different groups on the numbers likely to arrive in the UK when the work restrictions are lifted. Phillip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering, said voters were "disgusted that HM government have failed in their basic duty to provide the British public with a realistic estimate of how many immigrants we might expect from 1 January".
He warned that crime among Romanians in England was "really quite startling", claiming: "Romanians are seven times more likely to be arrested in London than a British national.
"Romanians account for more than 11% of all foreign offenders, despite making up, at the moment, just a tiny proportion of residents. Last year, Romanians accounted for almost half of all arrests for begging, and one third of all arrests for pickpocketing in the capital."
Most Tory MPs welcomed measures to deter EU migrants from being able to claim benefits, but were sceptical they would have much impact since the vast majority were likely to be seeking work at wages far higher than they could secure in their home country.
David Ruffley, the Tory MP for Bury St Edmunds, said east European immigration in low-skill labour markets was driving down wages, echoing claims by Ed Miliband that a return to growth no longer guarantees higher wages due to the new pool of cheap labour from eastern Europe. He said the average wage of Polish workers had been 42% of that of UK workers in 2004, and that the differential was even bigger in the case of Bulgarians and Romanians. As a result wages in low skilled jobs had fallen since 2004 by 8%.
Tory MP Brooks Newmark blamed the unwillingness of British workers to take low-paid jobs. "The reality is that many local people simply will not take those jobs; that is why they are being filled by eastern Europeans. That is the skills gap at the low end. It is not that there are no jobs; many people locally will simply not take the jobs, because they do not want to work for such pay or in those particular roles. That is the issue."
By contrast, fellow Tory MP Douglas Carswell argued that Britain's system of non-contributory benefits – relatively rare in the EU – acted as a magnet for migrants: "We must make a choice between the welfare system that the Labour party put in place after the second world war and the grand project of the European grandees. We cannot have both."
Nigel Mills, MP for Eastbourne and leading figure in the campaign to extend controls on Romanians and Bulgarians, said he was extremely doubtful that Cameron would be able to convince his EU partners to end the free movement of workers.
But Tobias Ellwood, the Tory MP for Bournemouth, said he was concerned the debate was being driven by fear. "It has become very binary, it's the little Englanders, if you like, versus the multicultural, open-door approach."
He said the single market was vital for Britain's economy, and warned that tariff barriers would inevitably be put up by European powers if Britain were to pull out.
December 19, 2013
Buoyed by a Deal With Russia, Ukraine’s Leader Tries to Reassert His Authority
By ALISON SMALE
KIEV, Ukraine — President Viktor F. Yanukovich moved on several fronts on Thursday to reassert his domination in Ukraine, two days after receiving what appeared to be an economic lifeline in the form of at least $15 billion in aid from Russia and a substantial reduction in the price of Russian natural gas.
Painting himself as the benign father figure of his nation of 46 million people, Mr. Yanukovich held forth at a news conference with what appeared to be handpicked Ukrainian journalists, some of whom, however, boldly challenged him. The session lasted 100 minutes and was broadcast live on national television.
He repeated previous assurances, broken on at least one occasion, that there would be no violent move to clear out the thousands of protesters who have occupied Independence Square and a central boulevard in Kiev, the capital, for more than three weeks. Yet he also strongly warned foreign visitors or outside powers against interference.
“It is very important that this is our interior matter, that any other countries do not interfere in our interior matters and do not believe that they can hold sway here as they want on Maidan, or not on Maidan,” Mr. Yanukovich said, using the common name of Independence Square. The square has come to symbolize resistance to his rule and to his move away from a wide-ranging trade deal with Europe that his government suspended in November.
“I am strongly against that someone come to our country and teach us how we should live here,” Mr. Yanukovich said.
He also reminded unidentified politicians, who he suggested were simply trying to seize power, to forget “such revolutionary processes.”
“We have a Constitution. We have laws,” Mr. Yanukovich said. “There are dates when elections are coming. Wait for elections and the Ukrainian people will speak their word.”
The next presidential election is set for Feb. 26, 2015, but opposition leaders and Western diplomats pointed to irregularities in the legislation that could allow a vote next year.
In a separate move that appeared aimed at defusing antigovernment sentiment, the Ukrainian Parliament approved a law offering amnesty to anyone detained or charged in the Independence Square protests. The law, introduced by five members from the governing Party of Regions, passed by a vote of 339 to 2.
Attempts by the journalists to clarify the deal that Mr. Yanukovich and President Pig Putin of Russia announced in Moscow on Tuesday did not yield much more information.
The timing and size of the installments in which Russia would buy Ukrainian bonds were unclear. In contrast, the reduction in the price of Russian natural gas will be reviewed every three months.
In Washington, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who on a recent visit to Kiev addressed the protesters and met with Mr. Yanukovich, was sharply critical of Mr. Putin on Thursday.
“President Pig Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate and threaten Ukraine away from Europe,” Mr. McCain said in an appearance at the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy group.
Mr. McCain signaled that American lawmakers were prepared to impose sanctions on Ukraine if officials cracked down on the demonstrators.
Although the thousands braving the cold on Independence Square still voice their determination to stay until they are sure of real change, their mood in general has been deflated since word of the agreement with Russia.
“Nobody is getting ready to leave,” said Dmitri Shchetynin, 28, a youth organizer from western Ukraine. “We will stand here to the end.”
But others headed home. Halina Zhuk, who owns a jewelry store in Ternopil, in western Ukraine, walked to the train station on Thursday. After three days in Independence Square, she said, she was leaving, uncertain of what else to do.
“In order to see a painting, you need to walk away from it,” she said. “I need time to think. Then I’ll understand. But it was right to stand on the square. If you do nothing, you might wake up tomorrow in Russia.”
Oksana Lyachynska and Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kiev, and Michael R. Gordon from Washington.
December 19, 2013
I.M.F. Criticizes Ukraine Plan for Economy
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
MOSCOW — The International Monetary Fund issued on Thursday a scathing report on Ukraine’s financial situation, saying that the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovich had largely abandoned much-needed economic reforms that it had agreed to undertake as part of a deal in 2010 that provided more than $15 billion in loans.
The report suggests that Russia’s offer this week to rescue Ukraine with another $15 billion in loans and a sharp discount on natural gas prices could be far riskier than President Vladimir V. Putin has suggested.
Mr. Putin announced on Tuesday that Russia would use $15 billion from its national welfare fund to buy Ukrainian euro bonds, and that Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled energy company, would reduce the price of gas to $268.50 per 1,000 cubic meters, from the current $395 to $410, saving Ukraine about $2 billion a year.
Ukraine is facing an increasingly severe economic crisis and had been in talks with the I.M.F. for additional aid. Those talks broke off in large part because Mr. Yanukovich and other officials said they found the required terms too onerous. Those terms included increases in household utility rates and limits on government spending.
The bailout from Russia, which Mr. Putin described at a news conference on Thursday as a gesture toward a “brotherly” country, comes without the requirements demanded by the I.M.F. That, however, could come back to haunt the Kremlin. The I.M.F. has said that without comprehensive reforms, including some tough austerity measures, any money provided to the Ukrainian government would essentially be thrown into a black hole.
Mr. Yanukovich’s refusal last month to sign far-reaching political and free trade agreements with the European Union also set off a political crisis, in which thousands of protesters occupied Independence Square and several government buildings in Kiev, the capital.
At the news conference, Mr. Putin insisted that Russia had made a safe investment. The $15 billion “will be paid back,” he said. “I want to remind you once again that we will earn 5 percent, and the bonds will be placed on the Irish Stock Exchange. I think the transaction will be done in line with British law, so it is protected. I do not see it as wasting money on our part. And, of course, it will be tangible support for our Ukrainian friends.”
In its report, the I.M.F. said it would most likely recommend less money to Ukraine in the future as a result of its poor track record. Based on its experience with Ukraine on the 2010 loan deal, the fund also suggested creating a new mechanism for canceling programs that go badly, particularly in cases like Ukraine’s where the government is to blame.
“The program quickly went off track as the authorities stopped implementing the agreed policies,” the fund wrote in a statement summarizing the results of a discussion about Ukraine at a board meeting earlier this week.
So far, Ukraine is current in its payments on the 2010 loans, but the I.M.F. severely chastised the Ukrainian government for excessive spending while it faced a recession. “Large pension and wage increases, generous energy subsidies and soccer cup spending led to a widening of the combined deficit of the general government and the state-owned company Naftogaz,” the organization wrote.
The I.M.F. had demanded serious changes. “Directors recommended the authorities implement a package of comprehensive policy adjustments in several areas, including curtailing the fiscal and external account deficits, phasing out energy subsidies, strengthening the banking sector and improving the external competitiveness of the company,” the report said.
Some of Ukraine’s most serious problems appear to be in the energy sector. The discounts on natural gas from Russia, while aiding the Ukrainian government’s bottom line, may only worsen the overall challenges of excessive energy use and a distortion of energy subsidies, especially for households.
The I.M.F. strongly urged increases in utility rates, combined with aid to protect impoverished families. “Upfront, meaningful and broad-based tariff increases are essential,” its report said.
The I.M.F. said it expected Ukraine to emerge from a recession in 2014, but it also issued a stark warning: “This outlook is subject to significant risks, emanating from the inconsistent policy mix, and heightened political and economic uncertainty in recent weeks.”
December 20, 2013
Growing Corruption Inquiry Hits Close to Turkish Leader
By TIM ARANGO, SEBNEM ARSU and CEYLAN YEGINSU
ISTANBUL — In building his political career, Turkey’s powerful and charismatic prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, relied heavily on the support of a Sufi mystic preacher whose base of operations is now in Pennsylvania.
The two combined forces in a battle with the country’s secular military elite, sending them back to the barracks in recent years and establishing Turkey as a successful example of a moderate, democratic Islamic government.
Now a corruption scandal not only threatens Mr. Erdogan’s rule but has exposed a deepening rift between the prime minister and the followers of his erstwhile ally that is tearing the government apart.
On Thursday, after several days of sensational disclosures of corruption in Mr. Erdogan’s inner circle, Istanbul’s police chief was dismissed as the government carried out what officials indicated was a purge of police officers and officials conducting the corruption investigation — nearly three dozen so far, according to the semiofficial Anadolu news agency. On Friday, another dozen police officials were dismissed, according to local press reports.
Following much the same strategy he employed as he battled thousands of mostly liberal and secular-minded antigovernment protesters this summer over a development project in a beloved Istanbul park, Mr. Erdogan is portraying himself as fighting a “criminal gang” with links abroad.
That is an apparent reference to Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania imam who adheres to a mystical brand of Sufi Islam and whose followers are said to occupy important positions in Turkey’s national government, including the police and judiciary but also in education, the news media and business.
Mr. Erdogan weathered the summer of protest, emerging with the support of his base even as his image abroad was tarnished. But the corruption investigation, started by the Istanbul chief prosecutor, poses a challenge that analysts and some Western diplomats believe could be even greater. The inquiry has ensnared several businessmen close to him, including one major construction tycoon, the sons of ministers and other government workers involved in zoning and public construction projects.
Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen have disagreed on a number of important issues in recent years, although the tensions were kept largely silent.
Mr. Gulen was said to have opposed the government’s activist foreign policy in the Middle East, especially its support of the rebels in Syria. He is also said to be more sympathetic to Israel, and tensions flared after the Mavi Marmara episode in 2010. That was when Israeli troops boarded a Turkish ship carrying aid for Gaza and killed eight Turks and one American of Turkish descent, leading eventually to a rupture in relations — since patched up — between Turkey and its onetime ally.
Mr. Gulen’s followers “never approved the role the government tried to attain in the Middle East, or approved of its policy in Syria, which made everything worse, or its attitude in the Mavi Marmara crisis with Israel,” said Ali Bulac, a conservative intellectual and writer who supports Mr. Gulen.
The escalating political crisis, experts say, underscores the power Mr. Gulen has accumulated within the Turkish state. That power threatens to divide Mr. Erdogan’s core constituency of religious conservatives ahead of a series of elections over the next 18 months.
Mr. Gulen left Turkey in 1999 after being accused by the then-secular government of plotting to establish an Islamic state. He has since been exonerated of that charge and is free to return to Turkey, but never has. He lives quietly in Pennsylvania, though his followers are involved in an array of businesses and organizations in the United States and abroad, and some of them helped start a collection of charter schools in Texas and other states. He rarely gives interviews, and a spokesman recently said he was too ill to meet with a reporter.
But a lawyer for Mr. Gulen, Orhan Erdemli, said in a statement released to the Turkish news media and shared by Mr. Gulen on Twitter that “the honorable Gulen has nothing to do with and has no information about the investigations or the public officials running them.”
Huseyin Gulerce, who is personally close to Mr. Gulen and is a writer for a Gulen-affiliated newspaper, said Mr. Gulen’s followers have many of the same complaints about Mr. Erdogan that the protesters had this summer. They believe that Mr. Erdogan has become too powerful, too authoritarian in his ways, and has abandoned his earlier platform of democratic overhauls and pursuit of membership in the European Union. “This is not a group that Mr. Erdogan is not familiar with,” Mr. Gulerce said. “He knows all of us personally, from the time he was mayor of Istanbul. He has known Mr. Gulen personally for 20 years.”
“It was the Mavi Marmara crisis that created the first cracks,” in their relationship, Mr. Gulerce said. “Mr. Gulen’s attitude was very clear, as he always suggested that Turkey should not be adventurous in its foreign policy and stay oriented to the West, and that it should resolve its foreign policy issues through dialogue.”
Now, he suggested, their estrangement may be beyond repair.
As Mr. Erdogan has tried to contain the fallout, he is blaming domestic conspirators and foreign meddlers, just as he did during last summer’s protests, which began over plans to raze Gezi Park in central Istanbul and convert it into a shopping mall.
“Such accusations are only absurd speculations,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul. “In Gezi, he accused the Alevis, interest rate lobbies, opposition powers and international power groups for organizing the protests. And now, he’s trying to build the same links with this corruption investigation. What kind of twisted logic is that?”
Hours after a series of dawn raids unfolded at the offices of several businessmen on Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan appeared before a crowd in Konya, a conservative town in the country’s heartland where he draws many supporters. “Some people have guns and weapons, tricks and traps,” he said, “but we have our God and that is enough for us.”
The Gezi protests showed a prime minister deeply involved in local urban planning issues — not surprising to a Turkish public accustomed to hearing Mr. Erdogan tell them how many children to have or what to eat. Similarly, the corruption investigation has laid bare the concentrated nature of power in Turkey.
The inquiry, like the Gezi protests, touches on an issue with deep emotional resonance to the Turkish public, and one at the core of the financial constituency that has built Mr. Erdogan’s power: the dizzying construction in Istanbul and the well-known but rarely acknowledged ties between Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party and a new, pious economic elite, anchored in the construction industry, that rose to power alongside him over the last decade.
For residents of this city there are daily reminders, and nuisances, of the power of Mr. Erdogan and his allies in the construction industry: the traffic snarls, the rising cranes and the early-morning jackhammering.
In one section of the city’s historic peninsula, just near the old city walls that once protected the seat of an empire, townhouses sprouted in recent years, providing luxury residences for members of the governing elite and pushing out the Roma community. Nearby, old wooden houses that once housed Ottoman military officers are being refurbished, squatter homes are being demolished and migrants from the southeast are left wondering where they will go.
The mayor of the historic district, called Fatih, and several municipal workers were among those brought in for questioning this week in the corruption investigation, which reportedly involves allegations of taking bribes in exchange for ignoring zoning rules.
“It took Erdogan 10 years, but piece by piece he has taken this city into his hands,” said Mehmet Ali Guler, a garment seller in the district, “pushing us poor fellows out and opening up big luxury spaces to house his own class of rich men.”
White House threatens to veto Congress’ threat legislation against Iran
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 19, 2013 17:00 EST
The White House warned Congress Thursday that President Barack Obama would veto a bill threatening new sanctions on Iran, saying it could derail diplomacy aimed at sealing a comprehensive nuclear deal.
The bill, backed by both Democratic and Republican senators, would impose new sanctions on Tehran if it violated an interim nuclear agreement reached last month or if no final deal is reached.
But the White House appears alarmed that the move could undermine the Iranian negotiating team or offer the Islamic Republic an excuse to walk away from the negotiations.
“If it were to pass, the president will veto it,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Carney argued that the legislation was “unnecessary” because if a deal was not reached there would be no impediment to Congress, in conjunction with the White House, swiftly passing tougher sanctions.
Twenty-six US senators introduced new Iran sanctions legislation earlier Thursday, despite an intense White House lobbying campaign.
The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, fellow Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Mark Kirk, would kick in should Iran violate the temporary deal or should negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive final agreement.
“Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith,” said Menendez in a statement introducing the legislation.
It was not immediately clear if or when the bill could see a vote on the Senate floor. A vote this year is highly unlikely, with the Senate set to recess this week until early 2014.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he is opposed to bringing such a bill to the floor in January, saying he agreed with the Obama administration’s call to give the delicate negotiations a chance to work.
Should the landmark interim deal collapse, the proposed sanctions would require Iran to reduce its oil production and would apply new penalties to the Islamic republic’s engineering, mining and construction industries.
The new legislation was introduced as negotiations were set to resume Thursday in Geneva between Iran and world powers in the so-called P5+1: the United States, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Angry India tells America ‘times have changed’ after diplomat arrest controversy
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 20, 2013 7:25 EST
India angrily brushed aside fresh efforts by the United States Friday to defuse a row over the arrest and strip-search of one of its diplomats, warning Washington that “times have changed”.
Diplomatic sources said Nancy Powell, the US ambassador to New Delhi, was holding talks with senior foreign ministry officials as part of efforts to resolve the crisis sparked by the December 12 arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general at its mission in New York.
Powell’s olive branch comes after top State Department officials called their Indian counterparts for the third time in two days to try to draw a line under the controversy over accusations that Khobragade underpaid her maid in New York.
Subsequent revelations that Khobragade was stripped by US Marshals and subjected to an invasive body search have caused outrage in India, whose government wants Washington to drop the case and offer an apology.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed “regret” and stressed the issue should not be allowed to derail a “vital relationship” — a message amplified in a phone call Thursday by State Department number three Wendy Sherman to Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh.
“What we’re focused on now … is working to move the relationship forward,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
But there was no sign Friday that the calls had placated the government in India which sees itself as an emerging power that should be treated with respect by an ally such as the US.
“They should tender a clear apology. We will not accept this conduct against India under any circumstances,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath told reporters.
“The US has to understand that the world has changed, times have changed and India has changed.
“The conduct and attitude that the US has shown regarding the Devyani issue is a matter of concern not only for India but also for all countries and everyone should raise their voice.”
Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said he expected to talk with Kerry later in the day in what is likely to be a tense phone call.
“The only question is what do you do when something happens that is irksome, that is hurtful and that is unacceptable,” Khurshid told reporters after talks with Venezuela’s visiting foreign minister.
“You’ve got to find a solution, and we hope we will find a solution.”
Keen to project a muscular image ahead of a general election due in May, the ruling Congress party has taken a strikingly hard line in the dispute.
The vice president of the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which is expected to win the election, also warned that India expected a full apology rather than expressions of regret.
“The US will have to apologise,” Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India news agency.
“This is an extraordinary event and not about the US and India alone.”
The 39-year-old, who is now free on bail, was detained over allegations that she paid the domestic worker a small fraction of New York’s minimum wage and lied about the employee’s salary in a visa application.
US federal prosecutor Preet Bharara has insisted Khobragade was arrested in the “most discreet” way possible and that his sole motivation was to uphold the rule of law, protect victims and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law “no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are”.
India is trying secure full diplomatic immunity for Khobragade by shifting her to its UN mission in New York, although such a move needs State Department approval.
A spokeswoman for the State Department made clear in a briefing Thursday that the United States could not simply drop the case, as “the judicial process is independent” of the government.
The dispute is the second diplomatic flare-up between India and a major Western nation this year.
India reacted furiously in March when Italy reneged on a promise to fly two marines back to New Delhi to face trial over a fatal shooting.
The marines did eventually return after India ordered immigration authorities to prevent Italy’s ambassador from leaving the country.
U.S. tries to defuse row over strip-searched Indian diplomat
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 19, 2013 20:30 EST
The United States sought to end a row with close ally India over the arrest of a diplomat, with the State Department’s top officials calling their Indian counterparts for the third time in two days.
“What we’re focused on now … is working to move the relationship forward,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
She spoke after State Department number three Wendy Sherman called Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and “both parties affirmed our intent to keep working through this complex issue,” Harf said.
The two women had already spoken on Wednesday, when top US diplomat John Kerry tried to end the row in a telephone call to India’s national security adviser Shivshankar Menon.
Kerry expressed “regret” and stressed concern that the issue not be allowed to hurt a “vital relationship.”
The row was sparked by the December 12 arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general at its mission in New York, as she dropped her children off at school.
The 39-year-old, who is now free on bail, was detained over allegations that she paid an Indian domestic worker a fraction of the minimum wage and lied about the employee’s salary in a visa application.
Subsequent revelations that she was strip-searched have caused outrage in India and prompted a series of reprisals, including the removal of protective barricades outside the American Embassy.
But on Thursday, New Delhi sought to defuse the tensions with Washington, with Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid stressing that his “duty is not to allow anyone to damage relations.”
“We hope it will return (to normalcy) very soon,” he said.
And Harf stressed that the “isolated episode” was “certainly not indicative of our broad and deep and vital bilateral relationship.”
“We work together on a host of issues, whether it’s economic issues, trade, Afghanistan (or) other issues, and that is only going to continue to increase,” the State Department deputy spokeswoman added.
Khurshid nonetheless urged the United States to drop the case against Khobragade and apologize for her “terrible” treatment.
The foreign minister confirmed India was transferring Khobragade to its UN mission in New York to secure her full diplomatic immunity, instead of the partial immunity she currently has.
But the State Department must first be informed and give the green light.
And Harf noted that usually, a change in diplomatic immunity status “is not retroactive” and Khobragade would thus not enjoy immunity from the charges in the domestic worker case.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
December 19, 2013
Inequality, Indian Style
By ROGER COHEN
NEW DELHI — As we weave through early-morning Delhi traffic on his motorbike, Ravi Gulati gets into a riff about status symbols in India, how from Armani jeans to Audis they are almost all Western, and how his car, a cheap and practical Maruti van that seats eight but won’t win any beauty contests, is a source of derision every time he pulls up at a five-star hotel for some lavish weeklong wedding (although he tries to avoid these occasions) that has cost more than is imaginable to a poor Indian.
Gulati, a mild-mannered man in his early 40s, was on the fast track to fortune, an M.B.A. student at a top school, the Indian Institute of Management, when a course he took on Indian agriculture taught by a professor who had walked, like Gandhi, from village to village got him thinking that his country had lost the plot and that an elite gobbling up new condos for $3 million or more had grown blind to the fact that trickle-down was a downright myth. A booming India of rising middle-class fortunes had parted company with a bigger one still mired in distress, and without any real debate India, like much of the world, had embraced Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” as a prevailing idea.
Nowhere is inequality — what President Obama this month called “the defining challenge of our time” — more in your face than in India. Brand-filled shopping malls spread. So do shanties. A rich man builds a 27-story house for his family in a nation of 1.2 billion people where more than a quarter of them — or roughly the U.S. population — lives on less than two bucks a day. Outdoor defecation is still widespread. Yet when Gulati, a social activist engaged in teaching poor Delhi kids through a nongovernmental organization called Manzil, tries to interest his peers in the subject of inequality, he tends to find the conversation goes nowhere, drowned by talk of some juicy real-estate deal for farmland south of Delhi, the latest Bollywood hot item numbers, or the Silicon-Valley success story of yet another Indian immigrant.
“We are giving aid to America. It’s crazy!” Gulati tells me. “We are sending our finest minds all over the world to help enrich the countries they adopt, but not India, which desperately needs them.” He points to a shanty where “children lie in the mud while their parents look for work.”
He gets exercised over the impunity of politicians cutting sweet deals for themselves and walking off with suitcases of cash, the greed-is-good top 1 percent, the lousy infrastructure and inadequate schools, the first-world privatized services for the rich and substandard public service for the rest, the blindness of privilege — and it strikes me that globalization has thrown up the same issues of inequality everywhere as mobile capital outsmarts immobile workers, and mass culture enshrines money as the supreme value, and well-paid lobbyists burrow away in the interests of the cosseted few against any social compact.
The debate around these themes in India follows lines you hear around the world, with a rising nationalist right insisting the poor must work harder, that they receive too many entitlements as it is, that deregulation and the animal instincts of the self-made man are the answer, that the left with its handouts (and in India’s case the heavy post-war state planning of Nehru) has failed. While, from the other side, voices like Gulati’s rise protesting a me-me-me world gone mad; insisting that society does exist; that the social compact is essential and hinges on acknowledgment of the commonweal; that a livable minimum wage is important; that solidarity alone can provide shelter, education, equal opportunity and social protection to the neediest, as well as hope for a future in which income distribution stops heading in a U.S. direction where, as Obama pointed out this month, the average C.E.O. now makes 273 times the average worker compared to 20 to 30 times in the past.
The world needs more Ravi Gulatis. It does not need more Indian businessmen building 27-story homes. When a phrase like “the bottom 90 percent” rolls off the tongue as if this were a normal state of affairs, something is amiss. The common man and woman have been had. Gulati’s motorbike is 15 years old. It goes. Internal beauty trumps external show — surely an Indian idea even if not the prevailing ethos.
Gulati rows against the tide. In the words of Harsh Mander, a social worker and writer he admires, a hyper-connected India has “exiled the poor from our conscience and consciousness.” It learned some of that trick from America. The winds are shifting but, as Bill de Blasio will discover, the invisible forces driving increasing inequality are implacable, from New Delhi to New York. Policy change can help, but the real change, as with Gulati’s epiphany, must come from within each of us.
China's sex workers face paying for their incarceration
Beijing may have abolished 're-education through labour' camps, but rights groups say parallel 'custody and education' system remains
Tania Branigan in Beijing
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 14.46 GMT
She was held for months without charge or trial, forced to labour seven days a week without wages, and made to pay for her incarceration. Pan Li is one of hundreds of thousands who have been held at their own expense in China's little known detention system for female sex workers and their clients. "It's supposed to be about the good management of people. Actually, it just makes money from prostitutes," she said.
Beijing has heralded this year's decision to abolish re-education through labour (RTL) camps, long condemned for lack of judicial oversight. But human rights groups say it is partial progress at best, given the persistence of similar measures allowing imprisonment without trial.
Thousands of people are still thought to be held in a parallel system known as "custody and education", overseen by public security officials rather than judges. Unlike prisoners, or RTL inmates, the detainees must pay living costs and take compulsory tests for sexually transmitted diseases.
"The original intention … was to penalise unlawful behaviour that did not reach the level of a criminal offence but it has become a penalty even harsher than criminal penalties," warns a new report from Asia Catalyst, a health and human rights group that wants the system abolished. Few have even heard of it, not least because stigma and fear of retaliation make former detainees reluctant to discuss it.
"I work with drug users and people with HIV, but to me sex workers are the most voiceless in society," said Shen Tingting, advocacy director of the New York-based organisation. Pan, in her late 30s, never explained to her family why she had vanished. Her name has been changed to protect her identity. But she spoke to the Guardian to expose the "dirty, ugly, corrupt hell" she endured.
Estimates suggest China has between two and six million sex workers. Though often tolerated, prostitution is illegal and there are periodic crackdowns. Not all detentions lead to custody and education; police in some areas prefer fines or other measures. There is little official information on the system and the ministry of public security did not respond to calls or faxed queries.
But Asia Catalyst said 28,000 were held in 2002. Although fewer are detained now, the number could rise again because sex workers were also sent to RTL camps. Corinna-Barbara Francis of Amnesty International warned that other RTL detainees were already being transferred to other forms of custody.
Pan had never heard of custody and education, so she rejected a policeman's offer to free her for 30,000 yuan (£3,000) – six times the maximum legal fine. Sex workers believe raids are often a source of income for agencies and individuals. She knew she would have to serve 15 days in police detention. "When I realised there was another six months, I was shocked," she said.
Her camp in northern China housed about 200 women, with men held separately. They rose at 6am and went to bed at 9pm, but lights stayed on around the clock, with one inmate on duty to watch the others sleeping three or four to a bed. "If you farted or snored they would punish you by making you stand," she said. Guards cultivated favourites, who were encouraged to police the others and abuse them for minor infractions: "It wasn't physical, but people would scream at you. If they don't like you, they will find every way to punish you."
Asia Catalyst's report said centres made some efforts to educate detainees, including improving their literacy and awareness of sexually transmitted diseases. But it added: "The 'educational' objective … has been distorted into a profit-making mechanism." Pan worked five or six hours a day packing goods, though those interviewed by Asia Catalyst described far longer days which often ended late at night. Inmates at her camp were allowed to read women's magazines on Saturday mornings. "Other than that, there was no education at all," she said.
In the first few weeks, training meant drills on the centre's rules. "What time you sit, what time you stand up, what time you eat, what time you work, what time you go to the toilet – it's all fixed," said Pan. "You have to sit on the bed like this," she explained, with her back ramrod straight, her legs together and her hands on her knees. "If you don't follow orders they insult you. Because we were all prostitutes, they would say, 'You don't have men to fuck you so you don't feel good, but you cannot open your legs.'"
The biggest cause of bitterness for many was having to pay for their own incarceration: an initial fee of around 1,900 yuan (£190)covered bedding, uniforms and basic meals, but better food, and essentials such as soap or sanitary towels had to be bought. Prices were ,many times higher than outside and there were were transaction fees. She spent over 5,000 yuan (£500) in three months on such goods.
Asia Catalyst noted that centres rely on such income because their funding is inadequate. One woman told researchers she was detained for two extra months because she could not pay. Other payments are illicit; Pan said a friend found someone to arrange her early release for 50,000 yuan. "I felt like death was better than living when I was in there," she added, wiping away a tear. It would take at least six months' work to cover the costs of her detention and release. She only knew one way to make the money. Most of the women come from poor backgrounds; they lack education and many, like her, have families to support.
"Nobody changes their career," she said, despite the name of the system. "All we learned is that if you have power and money it's good and if you are poor it's bad. It was an education in how to bully people."
Additional research by Cecily Huang
China's work camps raise human rights concerns over drug offenders
Many of China's labour camps are now calling themselves drug rehab centres – but what has changed beyond the name?
Reuters in Kunming
theguardian.com, Sunday 1 December 2013 14.25 GMT
Li Zhongying was freed from a Chinese labour camp ahead of schedule in September because, guards told her, the government was scrapping "re-education through labour", a heavily criticised penal system created in the 1950s.
Several hundred other inmates were not so lucky, she said. Like Li, they were held without trial and forced to do factory work under what she said were cruel conditions. They remained because they were drug offenders, she said.
Many of China's camps for re-education through labour, instead of being abolished in line with a ruling Communist party announcement this month, are being turned into compulsory drug rehabilitation centres where inmates can be incarcerated for two years or more without trial.
Human rights activists and freed inmates said drug offenders were still being forced to do factory work, as has been the practice under the re-education through labour system, colloquially known as laojiao.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimates more than 60% of the 160,000 people in labour camps at the start of the year were there for drug offences. Those people were unlikely to see any change in their treatment, it said.
"The drug detox people are doing exactly the same work," said Li, who spent 19 months in a labour camp in Kunming, the capital of southern Yunnan province.
Police caught Li in Beijing early last year trying to petition the government over a grievance that dated back to the mid-1990s. They sent her home to Yunnan, where she was sentenced without trial to 21 months.
Li, speaking from Beijing, said she worked at a biscuit factory inside the camp for up to 15 hours a day.
A production line manager, speaking outside the facility on a dusty road near Kunming airport late last week, said the inmates left inside were undergoing drug rehab. Among the items they made were handicrafts, including embroidered items, said the manager.
China's re-education through labour law, in place since 1957, empowered police to detain petty criminals for up to four years without trial.
Many of the camps have housed drug rehab centres since mid-2008, when a new anti-drug law came into force. The law means police can sentence drug offenders without trial to two years or more of compulsory rehab, which can include forced labour.
Labour camps across China began calling themselves drug centres earlier this year, after a surprise announcement in January from the public security minister, Meng Jianzhu, that the network of 350 camps would be scrapped.
They also took it as a cue to start releasing some people who were there for non-drug offences. The camps also hold petty criminals, prostitutes, petitioners and members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, rights activists say.
Government websites and state media have reported steps to change the names of camps to drug rehab centres or to re-train staff this year in provinces including Guangdong, Hainan, Henan, Jiangsu, Jilin, Liaoning, Sichuan, Yunnan and Zhejiang, as well as in Shanghai and Beijing.
The Communist party's policymaking central committee announced the formal abolition of the re-education through labour camp system this month as part of a series of sweeping societal and economic reforms.
Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at HRW, said he believed the great majority of forced labour camps would keep functioning as drug rehab centres.
The shift did not represent a change in the direction or principles of the party, added Jiang Tianyong, a human rights lawyer in Beijing.
"It's wrong to say it has no meaning, but it's too optimistic to think it will change a lot," he said.
"This is how power in this country operates ... They can't use re-education through labour camps to control people, so they just change the name and control people."
Rights groups have said conditions in labour camps are terrible and that detainees frequently had to do hard labour with minimal health and safety precautions.
Despite long-standing international criticism of the camps, many Chinese people are largely oblivious to them because many of those who are locked up are poor and on the fringes of society.
The party this month said it saw the scrapping of the re-education through labour regime as an improvement to the justice system that would help it regain credibility with the populace and better protect human rights.
Neither the public security ministry nor the justice ministry responded to questions from Reuters about the transformation of the camps into drug rehab centres.
In Shanghai, shiny metal characters saying "Shanghai No.4 Re-education Through Labour Facility" still adorn the gate, but the last inmates were released months ago and the compound is now a drug rehab centre, said a guard at the facility.
"The official documents, everything, has already been changed," said the guard, who did not give his name.
On 14 September, Su Yuhong left the Masanjia forced labour camp in northern Liaoning province.
Masanjia made international headlines last year when a woman in Oregon found a note in a Halloween decoration kit from Kmart that was supposedly written by a camp inmate who claimed to have played a part in making the product.
"Only the drug addicts were left," Su said by telephone from the city of Shenyang, where she now lives.
By mid-June, the China's 21st Century Business Herald newspaper quoted justice ministry researcher Wang Gongyi as saying there were only 50,000 labour camp inmates left in the country, compared with hundreds of thousands in compulsory drug rehab centres.
Beyond drug centres, Chinese authorities have many ways to detain people without trial, rights activists said.
Police can detain sex workers, for example, under a mechanism known as "custody and education".
The terminology appears to be interchangeable.
An article in July on the public security ministry website said prostitutes in Zhejiang province had been sentenced to "re-education through labour at a custody and education facility".
Jiang, the lawyer, said police had used other means to curtail the freedom of some, including Falun Gong adherents and repeat petitioners.
The number of court convictions of such people was on the rise, as was the use of "rule of law study classes", which amounted to unlawful detention, he said.
"So long as [the authorities] feel a need to maintain stability, simply abolishing laojiao will not solve the problem," he said.
Doctors reveal 'harmful' standards of medical care for asylum seekers
Exclusive: Fifteen doctors write letter detailing 'gross departures' from medical norms towards detainees on Christmas Island
theguardian.com, Thursday 19 December 2013 23.13 GMT
A group of doctors has revealed the shocking standard of medical care they are made to provide asylum seekers at the Christmas Island detention centre in a 92-page “letter of concern” given to their employer in November.
The forensic report, written by 15 doctors and obtained by Guardian Australia, is the most comprehensive document yet on the failings of medical procedure inside detention centres and is a damning indictment of the Australian government’s care for refugees.
The report documents “numerous unsafe practices and gross departures from generally accepted medical standards which have posed significant risk to patients and caused considerable harm”.
It paints a vivid picture of the indignity of detention through distressing and detailed case studies.
The doctors claim:
• asylum seekers are examined while exhausted, dehydrated and filthy, their clothing “soiled with urine and faeces” because there are no toilets on the boats
• patients are “begging for treatment”
• asylum seekers must queue for up to three hours for medication. Some have to queue four times a day
• antenatal care is unsafe, inadequate and does not comply with Australian standards; there is an ultrasound machine on the island but rarely anyone who knows how to use it
• there is a high risk of depression among children and no effective system for identifying children at risk
• basic medical stocks are low; drugs requested by doctors are not provided
• long delays in transferring patients to mainland hospitals are leading to “risks of life-threatening deterioration”.
The doctors claim their professional integrity has been put at risk and that they are being paid to compromise their medical ethics.
They describe a fundamental conflict of interest between their employer, IHMS (International Health and Medical Services) and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
They write: “We have concerns that decisions made by IHMS regarding the provision of care to patients have been compromised by their relationship with the DIBP. As a result, these decisions are not always in the best interest of the patient.”
They fear exposing themselves to possible repercussions for working in such a system. "It is of concern that practitioners working within IHMS may be putting any registration they have with Ahpra [Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency] at risk by participating in unethical conduct and in gross departures from clinical standards," they say.
The report was written in November at the invitation of IHMS, which provides medical care to more than 2,000 asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island and the many thousands of men, women and children processed there on their way to camps on Manus and Nauru.
Glimpses of the medical troubles on Christmas Island have been given in the past by whistleblowers and peak bodies such as the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. But the doctors’ report to IHMS is the most comprehensive account yet of failings in medical care and practice on the island.
They write: “Even when mitigating factors, such as the remote location and the practical limitations imposed by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection are considered, many aspects of the IHMS health service fall well below accepted standards for clinical practice and are unnecessarily dangerous.”
The doctors claim the problems begin the moment asylum seekers reach Christmas Island. They say flaws in initial health assessments are made even worse by the Abbott government’s demand that all asylum seekers who can must depart within 48 hours for Manus or Nauru.
The doctors document with case studies unsafe and inadequate antenatal care; inadequate medical care for children; the risk of life-threatening deterioration in patients waiting to be flown to hospitals on the Australian mainland; shortages of facilities, equipment and medications; unsafe prescribing practices; poor treatment of diabetes; and inadequate programs to prevent the spread of infectious diseases among detainees.
IHMS told Guardian Australia they were taking the letter “seriously” and that senior medical staff had held discussions with “the majority of co-signatories regarding the issues raised”.
The statement continued: “As per the terms of our contract, and recognising the range of issues, we have shared the letter with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection”.
Guardian Australia understands the letter was passed to the department shortly after it was delivered to IHMS in November.
IHMS said they do not accept that is any under a conflict of interest with their obligation to their patients and the department of immigration and border protection.
“IHMS values the contribution of all of our professional medical staff to ensure our care to people in detention remains of the highest standards.”
IHMS identified Dr John-Paul Sanggaran as the principal author of the letter.
IHMS said thatDr Sanggaran was employed on Christmas Island in September and October 2013. "This was during a period of high intensity, with an unprecedented number of arrivals and an increased number of people presenting with a range of significant complex medical conditions."
They added: "We look forward to working constructively with Dr Sanggaran to review these matters and to resolve his concerns."
Dr Sanggaran told Guardian Australia: "I'm hopeful that there will be improvements in the care of those detained on Christmas Island and that improvements already made can be maintained."
Despite repeated requests, the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, would not provide a comment.
Health induction assessments (HIAs) on arrival:
Asylum seekers are examined while exhausted, dehydrated and filthy, their clothing “soiled with urine and faeces” because there are no toilets on the boats.
“The arrivals frequently express their embarrassment at their state. They apologise for the smell and filth they are covered in.”
Christmas Island screen grab An extract from the letter of concern documents the conditions that most asylum seekers experience on arrival by boat
At busy times the assessment may take as little as five minutes. The doctors report a case of TB that went undiagnosed for 44 days. “Potentially the entire camp has been exposed.”
The asylum seekers’ own medical records have been thrown away. “This is a serious patient safety issue.”
Their medications have also been discarded without being recorded. Glasses, hearing aids and prosthetics are confiscated and often destroyed.
“A single replacement hearing aid has not been seen by any undersigned doctor working for IHMS.”
A number of hitherto standard health checks were abandoned in July and September this year as Canberra demanded faster transfer to Manus and Nauru.
The doctors conclude: “HIAs, as carried out by IHMS, are not fit for purpose and unreliable. They cannot and should not be relied upon for any reasonable assessment of a person’s health.”
The most urgent cases are supposed to be flown to the mainland within two weeks. “Despite this, few category one patients leave before four weeks and some wait at least as long as two months. There have been periods of time where no patients have left the island despite needing immediate tertiary attention.”
Among the case studies in the report are a baby needing heart surgery who waited two months to be flown to the mainland; a child placed on the transfer list for more than two months who was flown instead to Nauru; a man eventually sent to the mainland who returned to the island not having been treated; and others with disabilities and significant injuries still waiting for transfer at the time of the writing of the report.
“Antenatal care provided by IHMS is unsafe and inadequate and does not comply with Australian standards.” The doctors are particularly concerned by the difficulty of conducting ultrasounds. There is a machine at the island hospital. “However, there are usually no ultrasonographers available, as they only visit every few months and cater primarily for local residents.”
A woman with a “very high-risk pregnancy” – thought to be twins by medical authorities in Indonesia and on Christmas Island – was transferred to Nauru. The doctors write: “IHMS management stated to staff the Department of Immigration and Border Protection were ‘setting an example’.”
Backed by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and UNHCR, the doctors view detention as “unsuitable for children and a contravention of human rights”. They believe their duty of care to children requires “advocating for their immediate removal from the detention environment”.
The doctors say there is inadequate screening for nutritional deficiencies, inadequate testing of sight and hearing and no monitoring of growth and development for the hundreds of children detained on the island.
“None of the scheduled physical and developmental assessments that would normally occur in the community (typically by a maternal child health nurse) occur at Christmas Island immigration detention centre.”
They say there is “no effective system in place” to detect children and adolescents at risk because of “the deleterious effect of indefinite detention” and “no child specific mental health services on the island (i.e. no paediatric psychologist or psychiatrist)”.
“Christmas Island immigration detention centre is unsuitable for any person living with significant intellectual or physical disability. The detention environment exacerbates their burden of care and the facilities and medical services provided are inadequate to accommodate their needs.”
A young woman with cerebral palsy resulting in severe physical disability is wheelchair bound in one of the island compounds. "She was flagged by several medical officers from her arrival as not suitable for the detention environment." At the time of writing the report, though exhibiting signs of mental distress, she had not been transferred.
Conduct and ethics
The doctors claim they have been complaining about these issues to IHMS for some time, hence the invitation of the health contractor for them to put their complaints in writing.
The doctors see at the heart of the problems on Christmas Island a conflict of interest between the demands placed on IHMS by the Department of Immigration and their own duty of care to their patients.
Christmas Island screen grab An extract from the letter of concern records a September 2013 meeting in which doctors are told they are 'being paid to accept the risk'
The doctors reject the view they say was expressed by IHMS management in September that they are “being paid to accept the risk”. The doctors argue that “payment for risk is clearly in conflict with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency code of conduct for doctors”.
They write: “IHMS must therefore not put its doctors or itself in a situation where financial inducement means that its care for patients is compromised.”
According to the doctors the same IHMS manager told them in September: “There will one day be a royal commission into what is taking place on Christmas Island. He suggested we document well.”
IHMS said they could not confirm the meeting.
With Oliver Laughland
Rush to send asylum seekers offshore may risk lives, doctors warn
Letter of concern written by 15 doctors on Christmas Island reveals that crucial medical tests have been abandoned
Oliver Laughland and David Marr
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 01.16 GMT
The rush to move asylum seekers from Christmas Island to Nauru and Manus Island may place lives at risk and has compromised the ethical and medical responsibilities of healthcare professionals, according to serious allegations in a letter documenting a first-hand account of the process.
The letter of concern, obtained exclusively by Guardian Australia, outlines how key medical tests were abandoned, first by Labor and then by the Coalition, to meet tighter and tighter deadlines to move asylum seekers offshore.
Tony Abbott first mentioned the 48-hour turnaround when the newly restored prime minister Kevin Rudd announced he would be processing all single males and sending them to Manus and Nauru within a fortnight.
"The test of whether Mr Rudd is fair dinkum is clear,” Abbott declared at the time.
“Will they be sent within 24 or 48 hours of arriving in this country?"
Labor declared that target impossible to meet, citing, among other things, health concerns. But when Scott Morrison became minister for immigration and border security two months later he mandated a 48-hour target turnaround for everyone.
“We're just not allowing people to settle in as the previous government did,” he said. “They won't be settling in Australia, they'll be going to Nauru or Manus Island and that's what they can expect.”
He said the only test would be whether the asylum seekers were “fit to fly”.
The letter of concern reveals that a number of key basic medical tests, designed to assess an asylum seeker’s appropriateness for being sent offshore, were abandoned in July. Asylum seekers no longer had their blood sugar levels tested nor their urine, resulting in scores of people who would normally be unsuitable for transfer slipping through the net, the letter documents.
After the election of the Coalition even more stress was placed on the medical screening process. Patients with blood disorders previously deemed to make them unsuitable for transfer were approved. All asylum seekers were liable to be moved offshore without their test results for diseases including Hepatitis B and HIV being returned.
“The brief and compromised health assessments have poor sensitivity for detecting significant medical problems,” the letter says. As a result transfers are occurring under time-intensive pressure with “so little information” that groups of individuals have been moved inappropriately, risking their own safety was well as broader public health.
The letter contains compelling case studies, including that of a boy with cerebral palsy who was sent to Nauru despite doctors placing him on the transfer list to receive specialist medical help on the Australian mainland.
The doctors have significant concerns that asylum seekers could be transferred offshore with tuberculosis.
The letter documents the case of a man declared as “fit for transfer” who was later diagnosed as having TB. Before that he spent more than a month in a Christmas Island detention centre. “Potentially the entire camp has been exposed,” the letter says.
Morrison has previously told Guardian Australia there are no detainees transferred offshore carrying TB, which kills 3,500 people a year in Papua New Guinea.
Multiple requests for comment have been lodged with the minister. He is yet to respond.
Before July, the letter says, screening was “somewhat more acceptable as patients would undergo a period of surveillance within the detention centre in which abnormal results were followed up and any medical problems could be detected and/or further assessed by medical officers in clinics”.
The decision to transfer an asylum seeker offshore is now based on a stripped-down version of a health induction assessment. The HIA is the medical test asylum seekers undergo when they arrive. On some occasions – particularly when boats carrying a large number of people arrive – it can last less than five minutes, despite medical officers agreeing it must last a minimum of 20.
“Some doctors are required to perform up to 90 assessments in a single eight-hour shift (less than five minutes each),” the letter says. “Time pressures are compounded by the need for translators and for relevant data to be entered into the health information system.
“Time pressures and unsafe working hours can also impact on the quality and safety of assessments made by fatigued medical practitioners.”
Letter of concern, Christmas Island
After the HIA, a discharge health assessment is completed to allow for offshore transfer. These are completed by a reporting nurse with input from the medical director. But, according to the letter, “certifying medical clearance is not usually within the scope of practice for a registered nurse”.
It says neither the nurse nor medical director have seen the patient and are “basing the decision on a flawed and often incomplete HIA process with poor sensitivity in detecting medical problems”.
The letter says immunisations are rushed. This has resulted in “multiple vaccination errors, such as the administration of live vaccines to pregnant women and patients with inter-current illnesses. Furthermore, these patients are flown offshore to places of risk before these immunisations have had time to take effect.”
Guardian Australia has previously reported concerns from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians that inoculations would not have time to take effect as a result of rapid transfer. This was dismissed by Morrison, who has repeatedly said that doctors’ fears on the 48-hour turnaround were unfounded.
On 30 September, at a weekly Operation Sovereign Borders briefing, Morrison told Guardian Australia: “All the necessary checks are undertaken of anyone who’s transferred to Manus or Nauru.”
He added: “Inoculations, as I understand, it have always been done on Manus Island anyway.”
The letter of concern directly contests this point: “Immunisations are performed on Christmas Island prior to departure. Their hasty implementation resulted in administration of live vaccines to pregnant women.”
The letter also says blanket prescription of Malarone malaria pills occurs, “without the prescribing doctors ever seeing their patients”. The pills are prescribed after the HIA, which contains no questions about a patient’s sensitivity to the drug.
The letter raises significant concerns, which have been voiced by a number of agencies in the past, that medical facilities on PNG and Nauru are not equipped to deal with complex medical problems.
Guardian Australia has published a number of articles examining the serious concerns that medical experts have about the 48-hour turnaround time, but the evidence contained in the letter of concern is the most forensic portrayal of the severe risks involved in the process Morrison introduced.
The seven-page section detailing concerns about the 48-hour target ends by raising serious concerns that this “dramatic change in practice” represents a conflict of interest for the doctors’ employer, IHMS (International Health and Medical Services). It adds that the process also puts medical staff at “great medico-legal risk”.
“Management states that the Department of Immigration are accepting all responsibility,” it says. “However no third party has the power to absolve health practitioners of their duty of care to patients and we must adhere to AHPRAs [Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency] code of conduct.”
It recommends that the 48-hour target be abolished.
IHMS said it does not believe the 48-hour turnaround time puts the lives of asylum seekers at risk.
The private medical provider is examining the letter of concern. “IHMS values the contribution of all of our professional medical staff to ensure our care to people in detention remains of the highest standards,” it said