Astronomers: NASA’s Kepler craft shows Earth is an anomaly among worlds
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 6, 2014 18:49 EST
Astronomers call them super-Earths, and they are abundant outside our solar system. But the more experts learn about them, the weirder our own planet seems in comparison.
Planets the size of Earth and up to four times larger are believed to make up about three-quarters of the planet candidates discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft.
Astronomers have eagerly catalogued some 3,000 of these planets in the hopes that they may point to the existence of life elsewhere in the galaxy.
But experts told a meeting of the American Astronomical Society outside the US capital on Monday that while super-Earths and mini-Neptunes are common, they bear little resemblance to the planet we call home.
“Our solar system seems to be different. All these planets that Kepler has found, they are strange,” said Yoram Lithwick of Northwestern University.
“Twenty to 30 percent of all stars have these crazy planets.”
Super-Earths and mini-Neptunes that are more than two and a half times the radius of Earth “must be covered with lots and lots of gas, which is the most surprising result,” said Lithwick.
He studied about 60 such planets and found that they likely formed “very quickly after the birth of their star, while there was still a gaseous disk around the star.”
“By contrast, Earth is thought to have formed much later, after the gas disk disappeared,” he said.
Not only are many of these planets hotter than Earth, having a huge amount of gas covering their rocky core would result in extreme atmospheric pressure.
“It would be like being below 10 oceans here on Earth,” said Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley.
Asked if life could exist under such conditions, Marcy told reporters he had asked some of his friends who are biology experts the same question. In short, they were not sure.
“It is not impossible,” he said. “We know very little about how life got started and in what environments it might flourish.”
Since Kepler cannot return any data about mass, astronomers have learned to study it through alternate methods, like making Doppler measurements of the planets’ host stars, seeing how they wobble as a result of the gravitational tug from the orbiting planet.
Planets with higher mass make for more intense wobbling because they exert a greater gravitational tug on their stars.
David Kipping, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, described his team’s latest discovery of a planet called KOI-314C in a presentation called “An Earth-mass world nothing like home.”
Located some 200 light years away, “a stone’s throw by Kepler’s standard,” the planet orbits its star every 23 days.
The planet’s temperature is about 220 degrees Fahrenheit (104 Celsius), and it is coated in an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium hundreds of miles thick.
The planet is one of three in a mini solar system, in which the cohabitants “kick each other, they perturb each other frequently,” he told reporters.
Since it is relatively close, Kipping said he hopes further study with the Hubble space telescope or its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope to be launched in 2018, could shed more light on its characteristics.
Another prospect for further research is the super-Earth exoplanet GJ 1214b, some 40 light years away, which is believed to be covered with clouds, according to researcher Laura Kreidberg at the University of Chicago.
Its atmosphere lacks water, methane or carbon dioxide, and its clouds could be made of zinc sulfide and potassium chloride, she said.
At the conference, astronomers announced 70 new planet confirmations, 16 mass determinations from Doppler follow-up observations and five new rocky planets.
NASA’s Kepler space telescope launched in 2009 on a mission to find Earth-like planets by observing transits, or dimmings in light, as they passed in front of their stars.
It is no longer fully operational, having lost traction in the second of its four orienting wheels last year, but astronomers hope it will be able to continue offering limited observations of distant worlds.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Is Earth Weighed Down By Dark Matter?
by Kevin Fogarty | January 4, 2014
Earth may have a dark-matter corset weighing it down... or that might just be a shadow.
GPS satellite measurements hint Earth may be more massive than expected.
There may be a giant ring of dark matter invisibly encircling the Earth, increasing its mass and pulling much harder on orbiting satellites than anything invisible should pull, according to preliminary research from a scientist specializing the physics of GPS signaling and satellite engineering.
The dark-matter belt around the Earth could represent the beginning of a radically new understanding of how dark matter works and how it affects the human universe, or it could be something perfectly valid but less exciting despite having been written up by New Scientist and spreading to the rest of the geek universe on the basis of a single oral presentation of preliminary research at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December.
The presentation came from telecom- and GPS satellite expert Ben Harris, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Texas- Arlington, who based his conclusion on nine months’ worth of data that could indicate Earth’s gravity was pulling harder on its ring of geostationary GPS satellites than the accepted mass of the Earth would normally allow.
Since planets can’t gain weight over the holidays, Harris’ conclusion was that something else was adding to the mass and gravitational power of Earth – something that would have to be pretty massive but almost completely undetectable, which would sound crazy if predominant theories about the composition of the universe didn’t assume 80 percent of it was made up of invisible dark matter.
Harris calculated that the increase in gravity could have come from dark matter, but would have had to be an unexpectedly thick collection of it – one ringing the earth in a band 120 miles thick and 45,000 miles wide.
Harris, an expert in Global Positioning Systems, GPS networks, spacecraft systems engineering and founder of the open-source GPS software project GPS ToolKit, wasn’t looking for dark matter specifically, but was trying to explain observations that suggested the Juno space probe NASA launched in August seemed to be going faster than it should have while taking a loop around the Earth to pick up a little speed for its trip to Jupiter.
The probe’s unexpected extra bit of speed, other researchers suggested, could have been caused by something different about Earth’s gravity, though what that could have been wasn’t clear.
One possibility was that the 1964 calculation by the venerable International Astronomical Union underestimated the Earth’s mass –and therefore its gravitational pull – causing NASA scientists to underestimate the speed the Juno probe would build up running “downhill” into Earth’s gravity well during its final fly-by.
In an analysis published in 2009, Institute for Advanced Study researcher Stephen Adler suggested the reason for the anomaly could have been that the density of dark matter within the Solar System – and around the Earth in particular – could be much higher than astrophysicists had assumed.
Dark matter – invisible and so-far almost undetectable – was invented to try to explain why the universe does seem to be expanding from a single point as Big Bang theory predicts, but not nearly as fast as it should.
Galaxies, stars and other matter should only crawl away from each other at current speeds if there were a lot more gravity holding them back than there would be if the matter we could see were all the matter in the universe. Making the math work – getting it to agree with what the universe had already decided to do – meant bumping up the guesstimated weight of the universe by 80 percent, with nothing to explain what all that mass actually was. Dark matter is widely accepted as real among physicists, but is still more a “mystery filler” substance than an actual, explainable phenomenon.
Unlike most research about dark matter, Adler’s 2008 analysis tried to pin blame for a specific micro-event on a massive, invisible force whose invisibility shows our inability to see the answer to a question we can’t quite understand, or could be a fantasy created to make the math work until someone can put a finger on a more obvious and simple mistake.
One anomalous speed reading during a single flyby isn’t much to hang a major proof on, however.
A dense ring of closely watched, constantly managed spacecraft in a sphere covering almost every inch of the Earth make a decent set of measurement tools. Unlike wide-orbiting, long-distance probes, GPS satellites fly in tight, precisely ordered and measured orbits that are constantly measured and adjusted by ground crews to keep each in exactly the right place to let GPS systems on the ground get consistent calculations of their own locations.
Harris took nine months of data from the U.S. network of GPS satellites, the Russian GLONASS GPS network and European Galileo satellites and started looking for differences between what the Earth’s pull actually was compared to what it was supposed to be.
“The nice thing about GPS satellites is that we know their orbits really, really well,” he told New Scientist. which posted a story Jan. 2 about his talk in mid-December.
Harris, who made an oral presentation of his findings but had no paper showing the data and calculations for other scientists to vet, and admitted his calculations were preliminary and presentation incomplete.
He hadn’t calculated the effect of relativity on the orbits of the satellites for example, he warned New Scientist. He also hadn’t yet accounted for the gravitational pull of the sun and moon or other possible influences.
Other data presented at the same meeting suggested the Juno probe was not, in fact, speeding when it passed by the Earth which, if true, would have made Harris’ conclusion more tentative.
Harris concluded that the mass of Earth is between .005 percent and .008 percent higher than the figure that had been accepted almost universally since the IAU calculated it 50 years ago.
It’s not like discovering an invisible new moon, but is still a pretty significant mistake, if that’s what it was.
Not everyone agrees the mistake is in the IAU’s figures, or even that Harris has presented enough information to know anything new about either dark matter or the Earth.
Making elaborate claims in oral presentations, without nailing down all the variables that could keep a set of results from being twisted into something more interesting than the truth is a red flag for any scientific presentation, let alone one making audacious claims about the way dark matter behaves or weight of the Earth, according to an exasperated counterargument from Matthew R. Francis, who earned a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from Rutgers in 2005, held visiting and assistant professorships at several Northeastern universities and whose science writing has appeared in Ars Technica, The New Yorker, Nautilus, BBC Future and others including his own science blog at Galileo’s Pendulum.
Dark matter might clump up around Earth as Harris suggested, but only if its particles pull more strongly on each other than most physicists expect. If they do, and if it has gathered in unlikely density around the Earth, it could have a measurable gravitational effect, but even the mass of the sun hasn’t attracted dense, powerful clumps of dark matter, at least not that anyone has discovered, Francis wrote.
Prevailing theories about dark matter paint is as being much more evenly distributed throughout the galaxy, at densities equivalent to about 600 electrons within the area of a cube a centimeter on each side. In human terms that’s something lower than undetectable, not something likely to create more pull on a satellite than anyone had previously found or failed to explain more simply.
Dark matter is not space dirt; it hardly interacts with “normal” matter at all.
Particles of dark matter, like Higgs Bosons, neutrinos and other particles that are difficult for humans even to detect, pass straight through each of us all the time, though “whether you find that creepy or not depends on your mindset” and how many are doing it at an one time depends on what dark matter will actually turn out to be.
“To dark matter, you’re basically transparent,” Francis wrote.
Francis’ Jan. 2 blog entry carries the tag “debunkery,” but he doesn’t say Harris’ conclusions are wrong, criticize his research methods or even accuse Harris of anything unsavory.
He does complain that Harris presented his conclusions and got publicity from New Scientist for them without having passed through the gauntlet of skepticism and peer review designed to filter most of the mistakes out of new research before it’s published, with its data and methodology exposed so the rest of its faults can be pummeled away.
Conferences like the one at which Harris spoke are “good opportunities to present ideas that might or might not be publishable in journals,” Francis wrote.
“Not publishable” can mean good science that has not yet been sufficiently vetted but ultimately will be, and complete quackery, though Francis doesn’t even address which Harris’ work might be.
The problem isn’t the quality of the work, or its conclusions. The problem is that it was presented in too informal a way for other scientists to judge its quality, given more exposure by the New Scientist writeup and went proto-viral through the geekosphere as it was picked up writers and editors [ahem] who recognized the potential impact of Harris’ results without looking hard enough at the data supporting his conclusions.
“I’ve seen (and even given) talks based on preliminary research that aren’t ready yet, and I suspect this talk fell into that category,” Francis wrote. “When Harris has taken general relativity and the effects of the Sun and Moon into account and if he still sees this phenomenon, then we might have something to talk about.”
Francis added a sentence concluding that dark matter does not play a role in the motion of GPS satellites, but I left that out in deference to his concern about accuracy. Even if every word Harris said was wrong, it would only mean we have no idea whether dark matter can affect satellites, any more than we would know whether it likes to clump, gather in halos around tiny gravity wells or whether it resents being called dark and mysterious just because one planet’s biological infection can’t see well enough to detect 80 percent of the universe.
Better to just skip that discussion altogether.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
California lawmakers introduce anti-NSA bill developed by states’ rights group
By Arturo Garcia
Monday, January 6, 2014 19:32 EST
A bipartisan pair of California state lawmakers introduced a bill on Monday that would prohibit state agencies from assisting the National Security Agency (NSA) without a warrant, U-T San Diego reported.
The Fourth Amendment Protection Act, introduced by Senators Joel Anderson (R) and Ted Lieu (D), would make information collected by the agency without a warrant inadmissible in state court, and would ban members of the University of California and California State University systems from establishing “NSA research facilities or recruiting grounds.”
The bill “does a lot to make a clear, blue line of what is reasonable and what is not reasonable” with regards to NSA activity, Anderson told U-T San Diego, and is a follow-up to a state Senate resolution passed last year encouraging Congress to pass legislation curtailing the NSA’s collection of phone records.
“I agree with the NSA that the world is a dangerous place,” Lieu was quoted as saying in a statement. “That is why our founders enacted the Bill of Rights. They understood the grave dangers of an out-of-control federal government.”
The bill was developed in part by a similarly bipartisan group, the OffNow Coalition, which was organized by the Tenth Amendment Center — a group that lists itself as belonging to the “Tenther Movement,” which argues that many of the federal government’s powers are unconstitutional — and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which counts former government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg as a member of its advisory board.
America declared an ‘unconditional war on poverty’ 50 years ago, but you’d never know it
By Nicolaus Mills, The Guardian
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 5:54 EST
Lyndon Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty for reasons both economic and moral. They are still relevant today
This 8 January marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of “unconditional war on poverty”. The statement came in a state of the union address that, because of its often drab prose, has rarely drawn much praise. But a half century later, it’s time to re-examine the case Johnson made in 1964 for remedying poverty in America.
In an era such as our own, when – despite a poverty rate the Census Bureau puts at 16% – Congress is preparing to cut the food stamp program and has refused to extend unemployment insurance, Johnson’s compassion stands out, along with his nuanced sense of who the poor are and what can be done to make their lives better.
Johnson’s 1964 ideas on how to wage a war on poverty (today a family of four living on $23,492 a year and an individual living on $11,720 a year are classified as poor) not only conflict with the current thinking of those on the right who would reduce government aid to the needy. They also conflict with the current thinking of those on the left who would make the social safety net, rather than fundamental economic change, the answer to poverty.
Johnson’s approach to poverty reflects the influence of John F Kennedy and the New Deal thinking of Franklin Roosevelt, but the passion behind Johnson’s call for a war on poverty has its deepest historical parallel in a figure very unlike him – the turn-of-the-century American pragmatist William James. James, in his 1906 essay, the Moral Equivalent of War, made the case for bringing the fervor we associate with war to improving civic life.
In words that might easily have been spoken by James, Johnson declared:
In the past we have often been called upon to wage war against foreign enemies which threatened our freedom. Today we are asked to declare war on a domestic enemy which threatens the strength of our nation and the welfare of our people.
On 4 December 1963, shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, Johnson wrote a letter to the American Public Welfare Association in which he spoke of launching an “attack on poverty”. But over the course of 1964, it was through a series of public addresses and in championing such legislation as the Economic Opportunity Act, for which Congress, at Johnson’s urging, appropriated $947m, that LBJ showed how committed he was to eradicating poverty.
At the core of Johnson’s war on poverty, which he continually linked to civil rights, lay his belief that, while coming to the rescue of the poor was important, temporary relief could not be the basis of victory. “The war on poverty is not a struggle simply to support people, to make them dependent on the generosity of others,” LBJ insisted. “We want to offer the forgotten fifth of our people opportunity and not doles.”
For Johnson, the war on poverty was a struggle to transfer power to those in need by enabling them to stand on their own feet. Better schools, better healthcare, better job training were fundamental to Johnson’s war on poverty because these measures allowed those who were once poor to compete equally. They no longer had to ask others to take pity on them.
The initial agent for achieving such change, Johnson had no doubt, was the government, and he made no apologies for government activism; as far as LBJ was concerned, government had historically played an activist role in American life. He believed he was proposing nothing the country had not done in different ways before.
In March 1964, when he formally proposed his nationwide war on poverty, Johnson told Congress:
From the establishment of public education and land-grant colleges, through agricultural extension and encouragement to industry, we have pursued the goal of a nation with full and increasing opportunities for all its citizens.
In helping people out of poverty, Johnson realized that he was making American society more egalitarian by lessening the gap between rich and poor, but he did not see the action he was taking as detrimental to the wealthy. His war on poverty was not a zero sum game in which one group’s gains promised another group’s losses. “Our history has proved that each time we broaden the base of abundance.” Johnson argued, “we create new industry, higher production, increased earnings, and better income for all”.
At a period when the economy was expanding, and polls indicated that more than 75% of Americans believed they “could trust government to do the right thing most of the time”, Johnson’s argument resonated with voters more readily than it would today. In the end, though, LBJ was unwilling to let his efforts depend on economics alone. He made a point of defending the moral basis of a war on poverty:
Because it is right, because it is wise.
In Johnson’s eyes, the measure of a victorious war on poverty rested on achieving an America “in which every citizen shares all the opportunities of his society”. By contrast, “soulless wealth”, as Johnson observed during a speech at the University of Michigan, was abundance that remained inaccessible to all but a relative few. Soulless wealth typified a society divided between haves and have-nots.
We will never know how much more successful Johnson’s war on poverty might have been without the impact of the Vietnam War on the American economy and American political life. Yet by 1973, just nine years after Johnson’s declaration of war, poverty in America was down to 11.1%, compared to 19% when Johnson took office.
This is an achievement we have not equaled in recent years, but it is one we should learn from, especially as we continue to struggle with built-in headwinds such as a federal minimum wage of just $7.25 per hour ($15,080 annually) and the lingering effects of the Great Recession.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
Thanks to Republican Unemployment Benefit Cuts the Economy is Losing $1 Billion a Week
By: Sarah Jones
Monday, January, 6th, 2014, 4:50 pm
Republicans will stop at nothing in an effort to hoard every dollar for the top 1%. This is why they refused to extend long term unemployment benefits in an act that President Obama called “just cruel”.
After letting long term unemployment benefits lapse on expire on Dec. 28, Republicans thus far haven’t been swayed by arguments in favor of humanity for an additional 1.9 million Americans who will lose benefits in the first six months of 2014. But even if they can’t be bothered with humanity, Republicans are also making a mess of our struggling-to-recover-still-from-the-Bush-debacle economy.
Republicans drained $400 Million from state economies in unemployment benefits last week alone, according to an analysis by Ways and Means Committee Democrats. But Republicans are not done with their destruction.
Never satisfied until they’ve left Rome burning in complete chaos during which no one will notice a barely working House of Representatives or a cocaine buying Republican, Republicans upped the ante to costing the economy an estimated $1 billion dollars per week, according to Harvard economist Lawrence Katz.
Katz estimates that the expiration of benefits for the long-term unemployed is costing the economy $1 billion per week.
“In state after state, Americans who have lost their federal unemployment insurance in one fell swoop last week are struggling to get by,” said Ways and Means Ranking Member Sandy Levin (D-MI). “Every week that Republicans fail to act tens of thousands of additional long-term unemployed Americans lose this vital lifeline as they look to get back on their feet after the worst recession in generations, and the economy in each state is taking a hit.”
Speaker John Boehner loves to display his “jobs” plan at his pressers, but has yet to actually do anything remotely related to actual jobs. The Republican refusal to renew long-term jobless benefits will cost the economy 200,000 jobs this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The CBO also estimates that extending long term jobless benefits would raise gross domestic product (GDP) and recipients would increase their spending on consumer goods and services.
However, the CBO also noted Republican concerns that extending the unemployment benefits could cause some people to “reduce the intensity of their job search and remain unemployed longer.” Yes, it could do that.
Just like extending oil subsidies could cause oil companies to fail to take responsibility for their operations, and subsidizing WalMart’s employees with federal benefits could cause WalMart to be a lazy, cheap employer.
But that is not a good reason to fail to support the many earnest job seekers or to punish the US economy for a few bad apples. No, just like “guns don’t kill”, jobless benefits do not make someone lazy. In truth, our unemployment benefits are just enough to keep total terror from setting in upon the unemployed. They are certainly no where near a cushy lifestyle.
What we are witnessing is the Republican American dream — starving children from SNAP cuts, “lazy welfare mothers” tossed off of help, desperate Americans searching for work to no avail being tossed off of unemployment benefits that cost the entire economy up to $1 billion dollars a week… And that loss will be blamed upon more of our vulnerable- our seniors, our disabled veterans, our children — and used to justify tossing them onto the cold streets of GOP dysfunction.
The Senate votes tonight on extending long term unemployment benefits, and Speaker John Boehner has said that he is “open” to extending them so long as they are offset. His spokesman Michael Steele put it thusly, “… as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy moving once again.” Apparently this is a no since per appearances, Republican are actively seeking to keep the economy from recovery.
In other words, Boehner is saying Americans should pick who is going to die – and leave WalMart and the oil companies out of the rotation of victims. It’s the Hunger Games.
Note: The Democrats say that their estimate of the losses incurred is thought to be conservative, because it only takes into account the total dollar amount provided per week by the now expired EU program. They note, “Economists generally multiply these estimates by 1.5 to 2 to show the true economic impact.”
Darrell Issa Has Sleazy Plan to Restore Veterans’ Pensions By Privatizing the Post Office
Monday, January, 6th, 2014, 10:18 am
The concept behind the idiom “every cloud has a silver lining” is that there is always something good in unpleasant situations, and Republicans are notorious for finding something good for their corporate supporters in unpleasant situations they created. Darrell Issa created a so-called scandal with the Internal Revenue Service when he directed them to target teabagger groups seeking 501(C) tax-exemptions, and then turned it into something good for him and dark money groups by investigating the IRS for targeting teabaggers that filled his campaign coffers. Late last week, Issa found a silver lining in another unpleasant situation for military retirees whose pensions are being raided by Republicans in their two-year austerity budget and is turning it into an opportunity to kill Veterans’ jobs, harm the United States Postal Service, and give two corporations control of a government program.
When Republicans demanded payment for relieving 4/10ths of one percent of sequestration cuts for the next two years, they raided government employee’s pensions instead of closing tax loopholes that benefit the richest 1% of income earners. Forcing the middle class, working poor, and elderly Americans to pay for the debt the 1% blew up when Republicans gave them unfunded tax cuts has been a recurring practice over the past five years so it was little surprise Republicans took aim at government employees’ pensions to cover sequestration cuts. However, when they robbed government employees they were also stealing from military retirees and after pressure from veterans, they are seeking another program to slash to restore military retirees’ pensions. All other government employees will continue paying the wealthys’ share of sequester relief and Issa targeted a government program he hates to pay for restoring military pensions; the United States Postal Service.
Issa has made no secret that, like all Republicans, dismantling the Postal Service to give UPS and Federal Express control over delivering the mail is a major step towards privatizing the entire U.S. government. It is not that privatizing the Postal Service will improve mail and parcel delivery; the recent holiday debacle disabused conservatives of the notion that private companies outperform government agencies. UPS botched last-minute holiday deliveries, and Federal Express (FedEx) was forced to apologize for late-arriving packages; the U.S. Postal Service had a stellar performance record over the holidays. Still, Republicans are Hell-bent on destroying the USPS and Issa came up with a solution that hastens privatizing the Postal Service and restoring military pensions Republicans raided to protect the rich from tax loophole reform.
On Friday, Issa introduced legislation to repeal military pension cuts and pay for them by eliminating the Postal Service’s Saturday deliveries. Issa boasts that not only will dealing another blow to the Postal Service pay for restoring military pensions, it will cut the deficit, but that is not the intent of his legislation. No-one argues eliminating the pension cuts is a bad idea, but Republicans will only eliminate the cuts if they can burden government workers and Veterans with more austerity rather than inconvenience multimillionaires like Darrell Issa. In Issa’s mind ending Saturday deliveries is a way to repeal the pension cuts and still burden government workers and Veterans by killing their jobs in the short term and privatize the USPS faster than Republicans ever dreamed possible.
Issa knows that ending weekend mail delivery will destroy the postal service’s ability to meet shipping and communication demands of the 21st Century and deliver the result he and his Republican cohort will embrace wholeheartedly. It would mean an immediate shift of mail and parcel traffic to UPS and FedEx that both contribute heavily to Republicans, but fail miserably at providing universal, low-cost service that has been the hallmark of the USPS throughout its existence. However, Issa’s legislation has more good news for Republicans besides hastening Postal Service privatization and it is a defining trait of Republicans since gaining control of the House in 2010; killing jobs. And it is not just killing jobs, it is killing government jobs and as a value added treat for Republicans, it is killing Veterans’ jobs.
Historically, the Postal Service is the nation’s second largest employer of Veterans behind the Defense Department. In fact, more than 20% of USPS employees, over 120,000, have military service records and about a third of those are rated as 30% or more disabled revealing that of all the nation’s businesses, the Postal Service goes to extraordinary lengths to provide good living wage jobs and accommodations for the nation’s Veterans. Issa knows that cuts to the USPS, like ending Saturday deliveries, is a giant step toward eliminating an agency renowned for helping Veterans due to its policies and support from unions representing postal employees, a third who are Veterans, but there are just too many positives for despicable Republicans to pass up by privatizing the Postal Service.
Democrats in Congress have offered a solution to strengthen the USPS, and restore military retirees’ benefits by passing the Military Retirement Restoration Act introduced by Senator Jeanne Shaheen. The Massachusetts Democrat proposes repealing the part of the austerity budget that cuts military retiree and disabled Veterans’ benefits and offsets the $6 billion cost by ending off-shore tax havens for American corporations that incorporate offshore to claim “foreign” status and avoid paying taxes. Shaheen’s legislation is co-sponsored by Senator Tammy Baldwin who said the provision will raise more than $6.6 billion over ten years and is “a common sense measure built on the idea that everyone needs to pay their fair share. By closing this one corporate tax loophole, we can ensure our military veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned and deserve.” It also saves the USPS from Issa’s privatization scheme, preserves Veterans’ and half-a-million postal workers’ jobs, and ensures every American that their mail will be delivered reliably.
Issa’s proposal informs that there is no bad Republican legislation that he, or any Republican, cannot make worse to satisfy their dirty machinations to privatize the government, kill Americans’ jobs, repay UPS and FedEx for campaign donations, deprive Americans of reliable mail delivery, and punish Veterans; all the while portraying the privatization scheme as restoring Veteran’s benefits Republicans stole in the first place. Darrell Issa has a criminal history and it has been painfully obvious he brought that mindset to Congress; particularly since he has been Chairman of the House Oversight Committee. He benefitted from instructing the IRS to investigate teabagger groups and he is attempting to benefit from Republicans’ attempt to steal government employees, including Veterans’, pensions, and it leads one to suspect that maybe cutting military pensions was part of the Republican plan to dismantle the Postal Service all along.
Do Nothing Congress Looks To Do Even Less In 2014 By Scheduling Only 97 Work Days
By: Justin Baragona
Monday, January, 6th, 2014, 1:07 pm
While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the Democratic-controlled Senate look to accomplish a laundry list of items with Congress back in session, House Republicans revealed their plan for the New Year. The plan is simple–do as little as humanly possible. House Republican leadership unveiled the new House work calendar and it shows that the House will only be in session for 97 days prior to Election Day and 112 days through the end of the year.
Basically, what House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) are telling the American people is that if you thought 2013 was the worst year ever for Congress, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Last year, the House was in session for 118 days prior to Election Day and 135 days total. In total, Congress passed 65 laws, the fewest in history. With this almost non-existent work schedule, it appears that the record is not only in doubt but could be obliterated.
Perhaps it is a bit presumptuous to think that House Republicans won’t at least try to get things done when Congress is in session. That would be fair, except that there was basically no communication between the GOP leadership and its caucus once the last session adjourned on December 13th until Cantor sent them a memo a few days ago saying that they will concentrate much of 2014 on providing oversight to Obamacare. Basically, even if the rank-and-file members wanted to concentrate on a broader scope this year, leadership is going to steer the ship towards a whirlpool of Obamacare whining, attaching the Keystone XL pipeline to any bill they may pass and not much else.
Look, being that it is a mid-term election year, it is expected that there will be long breaks in the calndar to allow Representatives to go to their home districts and campaign. I understand that. However, knowing that there are major items on the table that need either immediate attention (unemployment insurance, farm bill) or have been getting pushed off for some time now (minimum wage raise, immigration reform), it is despicable that Cantor and Boehner are going to double down on doing nothing as a way of legislating.
Hopefully, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will be extremely outspoken publicly against these tactics being pushed by the GOP. We know that Reid will get many bills through the Senate that will be waiting on House action. Consistently putting heat on Boehner to bring up bills for a vote may not work for the most part, but perhaps the political damage of not addressing pressing issues may be too much for even him and at least a few bills may actually get through. Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), Chairman of the DCCC, pretty much stated that is there strategy:
“We’re not going to let them get away with that. One of the reasons the economy isn’t as strong as it should be is the Republicans’ avowed economic theory is to do nothing, and we intend to make that a central theme for 2014.”
If the Republicans think they can get away with being paid to do nothing and use that as a winning strategy to keep control of the House, they are sadly mistaken if they are hoping that it won’t be used as a negative by Democrats against them. Sure, there are voters out there that want Congress to do absolutely nothing as a matter of principle. There are others that just don’t want to see the President get anything accomplished. However, it would appear that most people in this nation don’t want to see elected lawmakers purposely sit on their hands and continue to get paid taxpayer money.
Looking Like a Sure Loser Liz Cheney Cuts and Runs On Her Hopeless Senate Campaign
By: Justin Baragona
Monday, January, 6th, 2014, 11:49 am
Liz Cheney, recently a Fox News contributor and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, decided to dropout of the US Senate race in Wyoming on Monday. Cheney, who moved to Wyoming about a year ago after having spent years residing in Virginia, was attempting to dethrone incumbent Senator Mike Enzi in the Republican primary. Cheney made a short statement explaining her reasoning:
“Serious health issues have recently arisen in our family, and under the circumstances, I have decided to discontinue my campaign. My children and their futures were the motivation for our campaign and their health and well-being will always be my overriding priority.”
This is a tried and true strategy that losing candidates always go to in order to back away somewhat gracefully. Maybe Cheney is dealing with some actual health issues, but the real reason she is dropping out is because there was no way in hell she was going to win. She had already taken a lot of heat from Republicans for her attempt to take out a reliably conservative voice in the party in Enzi. While there has not been much polling in Wyoming regarding the upcoming primary, common opinion in the state was that she had almost no chance of beating Enzi.
Basically, voters in Wyoming saw through the pandering act that Cheney was trying to give them. What they saw was a carpetbagger who couldn’t even get a fishing license in the state because she hadn’t resided there at least a year. Cheney showed herself to be so desperate to appeal to the conservative nature of the state that she threw her lesbian sister under the bus in order to prove how far-right she was on the issue of gay marriage. The citizens of Wyoming, as conservative as they may be, saw through Cheney’s transparent attempt to get to Capitol Hill by finding a Senate race that was reliably Republican and had as few voters as possible.
Now that she has terminated her Senate campaign, expect to see Cheney back to hocking her neo-con views on a regular basis in Fox News. The ‘news’ channel had released her from being a regular contributor after she formally announced her Senate bid this past summer. Now, we’ll get to see her special brand of warmongering (just like daddy!) on day in and day out again.
01/08/2014 11:35 AM
Economic Health: Has Greece Turned a Corner?
By Christoph Pauly, Gregor Peter Schmitz and Christoph Schult
Greece, which took over the European Council presidency on Jan. 1, claims it is returning to economic health and is even expecting modest growth this year. But a closer look raises doubts.
Perhaps it is just a meaningless detail resulting from the inauguration of a new government in Berlin. Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, the Berlin official in charge of aid to Greece, has been moved to a new office in the Development Ministry -- just down the hall from offices dedicated to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
A mere coincidence? Is Greece -- a full member of the European Union and of the euro zone -- a developing country?
Certainly not, but as of Jan. 1, the location of Fuchtel's new quarters seems even more unfortunate. At the beginning of the year, Greece took over the rotating European Council presidency, meaning that it has taken the helm of the 28-member EU for the next six months. Europe is now being led by a country that in the spring of 2010 plunged the European currency union into the deepest crisis in its history, a country that has been saved from collapse by two gigantic aid packages and a debt haircut for private creditors. Many in Brussels believe that Athens will need an additional €1.5 to 2 billion ($2 to 2.7 billion) this year and perhaps as much as €10 billion in 2015.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has pledged that Greece's leadership will mark a presidency of "hope" -- a word he applies to his own country, which, he says, brings a "positive balance" into the six-month position of prestige. But it has often been the case that good news from Greece is coupled with the next set of demands -- such as the current request for a renewed debt reduction. Such a move would hit European taxpayers hard, particularly those in Germany.
Greece has undeniably made progress when it comes to reducing its budget deficit, improving its economy and ramping up exports, much of which came as a result of severe cuts to public spending, pensions and salaries. This year, the economy is even expected to grow for the first time since the crisis took hold, by 0.6 percent. The budget deficit is set to shrink to 2 percent this year and 1 percent in 2015. The improved macro-economic indicators are important conditions for the payout of the next tranche of aid from Europe and the International Monetary Fund.
Indeed, Athens has been praised even by one of Europe's senior-most crisis managers. "Greece is surely more than halfway there," says Klaus Regling, 63, head of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the EU's crisis backstop. "I am confident that further successes will materialize if they continue down this path."
But beyond such numbers, Greece remains what it has long been: a country without an efficient state apparatus. A closer look at the country's administration, judiciary and political structures raises doubts as to whether Greece will ever regain health. Improvements have been insufficient.
Horst Reichenbach, 68, is well aware of the shortcomings. The economist has been head of the EU taskforce for Greece for the last two years, and he is a realist. When he speaks of Greece in his office in Brussels, he focuses less on the numbers that make Regling so confident. Rather, he looks at the challenges facing investors who seek to create jobs and income in the country -- but who fail to clear the numerous existing hurdles. "Greek policymakers and administrators continue to have serious difficulties instituting reforms," Reichenbach demures. That is an understatement.
One widely traveled Greek businessman recently complained that similar conditions to those in Greece can only be found in Afghanistan. That, no doubt, is an exaggeration. But it is fair to say that within the country's administration, there are too many bureaucrats defending Greece's bureaucracy.
Pasteurized milk is one example. The authors of one extensive OECD study wondered recently why milk is so much more expensive in Greek supermarkets than in other European countries. They came upon Presidential Decree 13 from 1999, which determined that fresh milk can only sit on the shelves for five days in Greece. Elsewhere in Europe, 10 or 11 days are allowed. The short shelf life drives up the price.
The OECD also wondered why many sailors in the Mediterranean avoid Greece despite its hundreds of beautiful islands. The reason: Harbor fees are exorbitant due to the lack of competition. It is forbidden for a second port to open within five miles of an existing harbor, which means that many of the country's smaller islands only have one -- which can then charge huge fees.
Another hindrance to tourism lies in the fact that cruise ships registered in Greece are required by law to repeatedly return to their home harbor. According to the OECD, this means that very few ships sail under the Greek flag.
The economy experts also recommend abolishing a tax as high as 20 percent on advertising spending, saying that such liberalization measures could bring some €1.8 billion into the economy. In conclusion, the report notes that if Greece were to simply change 66 problematic regulations in 329 proposals, it could gain the country some €5.2 billion per year.
"The benefits of reform are significant," says OECD General Secretary Ángel Gurría. Still, the work is progressing slowly.
Many people working to improve the country's economic situation are frustrated. "Often the different ministries get in each other's way," says one foreign expert. "They don't even talk with one another."
Sometimes simple organograms have to be painstakingly researched to figure out organizational structures, and even small changes are often delayed when a minister's signature is required. Thus, the very problems that the EU has been complaining about since the crisis broke out nearly four years ago have remained.
One example is the lack of a nationwide land registry. "There is still the problem of a lack of a basic registry and conflicting land-use plans," says task-force leader Reichenbach. Potential investors are frequently uncertain about just what they're allowed to do with a plot of land. When a Greek entrepreneur recently wanted to set up solar panels on an old industrial wasteland, he was forced to wait a year for various administrative authorities to prove that the land wasn't covered in trees, because forests enjoy constitutional protection in the country.
Dutch consultants at least enabled a contract for a nationwide survey of all land parcels to be put to tender. By 2020, two-thirds of all land with uncertain ownership due to the lack of a registry are to have been surveyed. But there still isn't a land use plan that would give investors legal certainty for their projects.
Kostis Chatzidakis, the minister of development, competitiveness, infrastructure, transport and networks, says he plans to take action as well. "Our goal is to become an internationally competitive society," he says.
But in the European Commission's view, the main problem remains the mentality shared by Greece's entire political class. To be sure, debate in the country has been focusing more intently on reforms and cooperation with foreign aid organizations, says Christos Katsioulis of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Athens. After leaving the country in 2005 -- because "we believed Greece had finally arrived in Europe," Katsioulis says -- the center-left German political foundation has once again opened a location in the Greek capital.
Another Debt Haircut?
EU experts, though, say that a willingness to compromise, create consensus and engage in domestic political dialogue are still lacking. Instead, Samaras's government is being radically attacked by left- and right-wing extremists. This fundamental opposition has vowed to turn the European election in May into a pure protest vote. From the far left (Syriza) to the fascists (Golden Dawn), the purported goal is to send a crop of monsters to Brussels.
According to opinion polls, the coalition government made up of Samaras' New Democracy and his deputy Evangelos Venizelos's Panhellenic Socialist Movement does not have majority support. Samaras is using Europe's fears of destabilization to negotiate better terms. He plans to insist on discussing debt relief before spring is over, he told daily Kathimerini, adding confidently: "I think our partners accept that."
He might be mistaken. "There will not be a debt haircut," says ESM chief Regling, adding that international donors were already very accommodating with the last bailout package Athens received.
Greece's largest creditor is the European bailout fund, with loan terms of 30 years and an interest rate of 1.5 percent, though they have been deferred for the next 10 years. "Economically all this already amounts to a haircut," says Regling. "Maybe there is a little wiggle room with the bilateral loans from the first bailout, but individual euro-zone countries have to decide on that, because they are the creditors here."
And that is something that won't change during the six months of Greece's council presidency.
Greek Police Hunt for Convicted Terrorist Who Disappeared on Furlough
By NIKI KITSANTONISJAN. 7, 2014
ATHENS — The Greek authorities on Tuesday began a nationwide search for a convicted member of the dismantled November 17 group, once the country’s deadliest guerrilla organization, after he failed to report to the police during a prison furlough, fueling fears of a resurgence of political violence.
The inmate, Christodoulos Xiros, 55, was serving multiple life terms at the high-security Korydallos Prison near Athens for a series of deadly attacks carried out by the group, chiefly against Greek, British and American business and political targets. Fifteen members of the group, which blended Marxist ideals with nationalism, were convicted in 2003 for 23 killings and dozens of bombings over nearly three decades. Mr. Xiros, a maker of musical instruments, and two of his brothers were among those jailed.
According to a police spokesman, Mr. Xiros was granted a nine-day furlough on Jan. 1 to visit his family in Halkidiki, in northern Greece. He failed to report to a police station on Monday, after checking in regularly on the previous days.
“He’s at large and we’re looking for him, that’s all we can say right now,” said the official, who insisted on customary anonymity, adding that the manhunt was “large, because of the significance of the individual.”
Mr. Xiros’s lawyer, Fragiskos Ragousis, said he was not in contact with his client but interpreted his disappearance as “a political escape.” “It is a political decision in line with his beliefs and his opinions about freedom,” he told Greek television.
The Greek news media, which had been focusing on preparations for Greece’s official assumption of the European Union’s rotating six-month presidency on Wednesday, swirled with rumors about the whereabouts and intentions of Mr. Xiros. The police said security would be tightened as dozens of foreign dignitaries arrive in Athens to attend the festivities.
In a televised exchange with President Karolos Papoulias, Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias described terrorism as “a significant danger” for the country and its fragile economic recovery, saying, “The terrorists’ bullets are essentially targeting the unemployed.”
Amid growing security concerns, the authorities said they would review the furlough rights of Greeks serving prison time for terrorism and other severe crimes.
“We will re-examine the legislative framework for the issuing of furloughs and in particular of this particular category of inmates,” Justice Minister Haralambos Athanassiou said in a statement Tuesday.
Mr. Xiros is not the only convicted terrorist who is at large after absconding during a furlough. The police are also seeking Nikos Maziotis, the leader of another disbanded guerrilla organization, Revolutionary Struggle. Mr. Maziotis, whose leftist group is best known for firing a rocket-propelled grenade at the United States Embassy in Athens in 2007, has been unaccounted for since the summer of 2012, when he failed to return from a furlough.
Speculation has been rife about the possible involvement of Mr. Maziotis in a new wave of political violence against Greek and foreign political targets.
Last week, gunmen with assault rifles fired on the home of the German ambassador in Athens, but caused no injuries. The attack, for which no one has claimed responsibility, was widely regarded as a protest against the dominant role of Germany in Greece’s bailout by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which has imposed severe austerity measures on Greeks.
The Greek police are also seeking clues about a new guerrilla group called Militant Popular Revolutionary Forces, which claimed responsibility for killing two members of the neofascist party Golden Dawn in November. The group described the attack as retaliation for the killing of an antifascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas, by a self-professed supporter of Golden Dawn in September. But it also lashed out at “the international usurers who are drinking the blood of the Greek people with a straw,” a clear reference to Greece’s international creditors.
Envoys representing the creditors are due to return to Athens next week to resume stalled negotiations on economic measures to be imposed on Greece in return for continued rescue funding.
Poland cracks down on drunk drivers after freak New Year’s Day accident kills six
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 16:31 EST
Poland’s government on Tuesday unveiled a plan to fight driving under the influence, after a drunk driver killed six pedestrians on New Year’s Day.
Poland has one of the worst road safety ratings in the 28-member European Union, and reckless and drunk driving are part of the problem.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters his government would like to toughen the penalties for drunk driving. He said he expected the changes to clear parliament and enter into force by early next year.
The police stop hundreds of drunk drivers every weekend in Poland, where the limit for drivers is 0.2 grammes of alcohol per litre of blood.
At the moment most drunk drivers receive suspended sentences if caught, and the government would like to see more of them — especially the repeat offenders — sent to jail.
It also proposes to up the minimum fine for driving under influence, as well as the minimum amount of time for which a driver’s licence is confiscated, Tusk said.
He added that all cars should be equipped with breathalyzer tests starting next year.
The government’s proposals come after a man lost control of his vehicle and careened into pedestrians on January 1 in northern Poland. Six people died, including one child.
Tests on the driver revealed he had two grammes of alcohol per litre of blood. He faces 12 years behind bars.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Jan 6th 2014, 17:42 by G.C.
KIEV and KHARKIV
UKRAINE’S anti-government protests are lumbering into their seventh week, with no breakthrough in sight. The crowds on central Kiev’s Independence Square, dubbed Maidan, have shrunk. Participants insist that that is just because of the Christmas holidays (Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7th). But fatigue and a sense of futility are surely also part of the reason. Viktor Yanukovych, the president, is sitting on a comfortable parliamentary majority and a financial assistance package from Russia that will last him through to the 2015 elections with no need for painful reforms.
Put like that, the situation seems rather bleak. But wander around the protest area and you are swiftly reminded how astonishing, enchanting and also perplexing it all is. Whatever the eventual outcome, this is an event that has marked the lives of thousands of people and transformed Ukrainian civil society.
Hundreds of anti-government activists are still sleeping in tents on Maidan and Kreshchatyk Street. There is a constant supply of wood for heating. Many of the tents were provided by opposition-run local authorities in western towns, who have also helped organise transport to and from Kiev. Protesters take it in turns maintain their respective town’s representation in the capital. Most speak with jolly animation about their resolve to stick it out till the bitter end.
All are protected by a combination of 19th-century-style barricades (many of them manned by Cossacks in full garb) and 21st-century knowledge that if police try to storm the square, as they did on the night of December 10th, online networks will summon thousands of people to defend it in a matter of minutes.
Maidan (pictured) is festooned with Christmas trees and dotted with tin stoves and stands serving hot soup and tea for free. At its centre is a stage where, in between political speeches and news broadcasts, Ukraine’s best bands give free concerts. A smaller stage has been set up as the “Open University of Maidan”. When someone is giving a lecture an audience immediately gathers.
Hundreds more protesters are living in occupied public buildings, mainly city hall and the trades union building. City hall was a pungent mess a week after it was first occupied on December 1st. Not anymore: a strict sanitary regime has been imposed. Medicine is available for free, as is psychological assistance. There are desks inviting people to sign up for guard duty and other voluntary tasks. The walls are plastered with messages, slogans and satirical art. Not for free, on the other hand, are the Christmas baubles and toys for sale at the top of the stairs. A sign on the stand reads “Don’t steal the toys, you’re not Yanukovych”. Among the notices on the walls are advertisements for talks on a whole range of topics related to Ukraine’s political and economic situation.
There are debates on http://hromadske.tv
, an online TV channel planned by journalists who had quit mainstream media over censorship, and which started broadcasting ahead of schedule when the protests began. Within days, hundreds of thousands were tuning in to its live streams of the protests.
Even so, this grassroots explosion of creativity, energy, engagement and sheer organisational know-how does not seem to be matched at the top. The political opposition has no single leader and no clear strategy. After failing, as predicted, to oust the government in a no-confidence vote on December 3rd, it has given no credible indication of how its goal of securing early elections might be achieved. At times it is not even clear whether that really is the goal.
The largest opposition party, Batkivshchyna, led by Arseniy Yatseniuk while Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, is in prison, gives the impression of struggling to control a movement it did not see coming and did not want. Vitaliy Klitschko, a former boxing champion leads a party, UDAR, that is smaller than Mr Yatseniuk’s. His personal popularity ratings however are higher though he is still a lamentably poor public speaker. Finally Oleg Tyagnibok’s nationalist Svoboda party, which is overrepresented among the protesters compared to its 5% or 6% ratings nationwide, is coming across as the most effective force. This is alarming for a movement that purports to defend European values. Svoboda’s support is heavily concentrated in the west of Ukraine. It is allied with Eurosceptic far-right parties within the European Union, such as the French National Front or Hungary’s Jobbik. Svoboda is frequently accused of anti-Semitism, which it denies. It is vocally opposed to liberal immigration laws, gay marriage and legal abortion.
The biggest immediate problem with the prominent role played by Svoboda, as Andreas Umland, a specialist in Ukrainian history, has argued, is that it alienates southern and eastern Ukrainians. In Russian-speaking cities, such as Donetsk or Odessa, Stepan Bandera, the wartime nationalist leader who is Svoboda’s great hero, is widely viewed as a murderous Nazi collaborator.
Yet there is evident potential for anti-government sentiment to bridge Ukraine’s long-standing east-west divide. Four years of recession combined with conspicuous consumption by the president and his closest associates have sapped Mr Yanukovych’s popularity in his former heartlands in the east and south.
Even so, people here are receptive to the government’s arguments that a blind rush towards European integration would cost too many industrial jobs. And with good reason: Ukrainian factories do not meet European norms, and Russia has demonstrated it that will stop buying Ukrainian products if Ukraine pursues westward policies. Workers in Kharkiv complain that opposition leaders treat the loss of their livelihoods as collateral damage on the path to a bright European future.
Recently those leaders have been stressing the need to reach out to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions – but what they are actually doing about this is unclear. Adopting a less Euro-idealist message would surely be a start. Visiting the region might also help. But the leaders of Kharkiv’s small but very active “Maidan”, who pride themselves on their independence from mainstream politics, say the party leaders prefer to stay put in Kiev and preach to the converted.
Many in Kiev share the Kharkiv activists’ lack of confidence in the established political opposition. But no one is outwardly rebelling. The party structures are obviously crucial to the financing and organisation of the protests.
Dmytro Potekhin, an independent political analyst who opposes the government, says that by allying itself with the mainstream political parties, civil society has missed the one trick that might have justified calling the protests a revolution: declaring the government illegitimate.
Justification for this, he claims, could be found in the constitutional change that increased Mr Yanukovych’s powers in 2010. The level of fraud witnessed in the 2012 parliamentary elections could also be used to challenge the government’s authority. Observers of by-elections held in December, with the protests already in full-swing, reported widespread vote-rigging, but the opposition accepted defeat with little complaint.
At present Mr Yanukovych’s position does not appear to be in danger. But it is very hard to imagine that the whole astonishing scene could end with a whimper. The fate of this movement, which took Ukraine by surprise when it started, is scarcely any more predictable now than it was in November.
Goodyear executives released after being held hostage by French workers
Officials from factory's CGT union said they would occupy site after release of bosses – who had been detained for 30 hours
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 17.37 GMT
Workers at a doomed Goodyear tyre factory in northern France released the two executives they were holding hostage on Tuesday afternoon.
The men had been detained by up to 200 employees who blocked their escape with a tractor tyre as they arrived at a meeting with union leaders on Monday.
As they walked free from the plant in northern France after being "imprisoned" for 30 hours, angry staff shouted: "We're not the hooligans."
Immediately after the men left, officials from the factory's CGT union announced they would occupy the site.
Goodyear announced it was closing the plant, throwing 1,173 employees out of work, after several years of turbulent relations between management and unions.
The CGT is demanding a voluntary redundancy scheme with large payoffs for departing workers.
"When you lose your job you defend what you can defend, that's to say, the money. We will go to the very end, even if we are breaking the law," Franck Jurek, a CGT representative at the plant said.
Meanwhile, US tycoon Maurice "The Grizz" Taylor Jnr, who had offered to buy the site but with "zero employee", on Tuesday described the workers as "pirates".
Having already dismissed them as lazy, Taylor, head of Titan International who had been invited to take over Goodyear, described the desperate staff as crazy.
On learning of the hostage-taking, Taylor said:"That's really stupid … in the US that's kidnapping and they'd go to prison. Why don't they get masks and hold up a series of French banks? Then they'd could buy Goodyear," he told RTL radio.
"They're crazy. I mean, come on! Get real. There's no reason to do that. They're not the big bosses. They can't do anything. My God, they're nuts."
Taylor added: "The police should go in and arrest these pirates but they won't … that's how it is in France."
Taylor, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, sparked an international spat in February last year after he was invited by French minister for industrial renewal, Arnaud Montebourg, to take over the plant.
The American responded: "Do you think we're stupid?", saying workers only laboured for three hours a day. In November he offered to buy the factory but said he wanted it empty of workers.
Union leaders responded in kind. "It's out of the question for us to agree that the government helps a kind of mental idiot from the United State come and close our factory when the group [Goodyear] made 51% profit in the last quarter. It's simply scandalous … I guarantee that Taylor will have his factory, but in ashes," one told French journalists.
Gang guilty of trafficking 50 women for sexual exploitation in UK
Four Hungarian men and one British woman found guilty of conspiring to traffic women into UK to work as prostitutes
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday 7 January 2014 18.20 GMT
Five members of a prostitution racket, which flew more than 50 young women into the UK from Hungary and set them up in airport hotels, student accommodation and suburban homes, have been convicted of conspiring to traffic people into the UK for sexual exploitation.
Four Hungarian nationals, Mate Puskas, Zoltan Mohacsi, Istvan Toth and Peter Toth, along with Puskas's British former girlfriend, Victoria Brown, were found guilty on Tuesday following a trial at Hove crown court. Istvan and Peter Toth were convicted in their absence.
The charges relate to more than 60 incidents over a period of almost two years. The women were brought from Hungary into the UK after their "profiles" had been uploaded on to a website advertising sexual services for sale.
Customers would call mobile phones used by the gang who then arranged for them to meet young women at a hotel or in houses run by the Hungarians as brothels.
The Crown Prosecution Service, which brought the case, is preparing what it describes as an "action plan" to improve the way the criminal justice system investigates and deals with human trafficking offences. The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, has recently held meetings with other law enforcement agencies.
The Hungarian prostitution gang operated out of an internet cafe in Croydon. "None of us can imagine how desperate the victims were in this case," said Portia Ragnauth, acting chief crown prosecutor in the south-east. "In many instances, they came to the UK to try to escape financial difficulties at home. Payments for their flights were often made by one of the five individuals convicted. Once in the UK these "debts" were used as a hold over the women who were forced to work for up to 12 hours a day.
"When the women told the group they did not want to work as prostitutes, threats would be made against them and their families back in Hungary. Threats were also made to expose the work they had been doing in the UK in their home country."
Ragneuth paid tribute to the bravery of the victims who gave evidence in the case. One woman recounted her ordeals from behind a screen in the crown court; two others who spoke via a live video-feed from Hungary.
The prosecutor added: "We know how incredibly difficult it was for them, especially as we know that the reach of this criminal group extends back to Hungary. It has not been easy for them, but we hope that today's verdict brings them justice and allows them to now move on with their lives."
The investigation was co-ordinated with police and judicial authorities in Hungary. Some of the women were said to have stayed in Sussex University student accommodation. Others were put up in houses in Eastbourne, Margate and Folkestone. Several hotels near Gatwick were also used; staff grew suspicious after they heard "muffled bangings" and found bins overflowing with toilet paper and used condoms.
All five defendants, who denied the charges, were convicted of conspiracy to traffic women into the UK for sexual exploitation contrary to section 1(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1977.
Netherlands opens political dialogue with Cuba
Dutch foreign minister signs agreement with his Cuban counterpart and urges EU to adjust its relationship with Havana
Reuters in Havana
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 18.53 GMT
The Dutch foreign minister signed an agreement on Tuesday with his Cuban counterpart to engage in political consultations, breaking ranks with the EU, which limits high-level visits and talks with the island nation.
On the second day of a two-day visit, the Dutch foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, urged the EU to adjust its relationship with Cuba, saying: "Havana through the centuries has been a meeting point between Europe and the Americas and I believe it still has an important role to play in this regard."
Timmermans, as he sat down for talks with the Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, praised Cuba's efforts to "bring an end to the last violent conflict in the region", referring to its hosting of peace talks between the Colombian government and local rebels.
Rodriguez said he welcomed the opportunity to hold discussions on issues of common interest and that changes underway on the island represented an opportunity for Dutch businesses.
As part of market-oriented reforms under Raúl Castro, who took over as president from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, Cuba recently opened a Chinese-style special economic zone and is preparing a new foreign investment law.
A delegation of businessmen accompanied Timmermans on his visit, the first by a Dutch foreign minister since the 1959 Cuban revolution.
The Netherlands is a staunch advocate of human rights and democracy and actively supports dissident organisations in Cuba. It also has strong commercial ties with the island, with the Port of Rotterdam serving as an entry point for Cuban nickel and other goods headed for various countries.
Trade between the two countries was $791m (£480m) in 2012, almost exclusively Cuban exports.
Infanta Cristina scandal reveals gulf between royals and ordinary Spaniards
As Judge José Castro puts king's daughter under investigation, a poll finds only 41% of Spanish back the monarchy in general
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 21.34 GMT
The news that the Infanta Cristina has been formally made a suspect in the investigation into her husband's business dealings represents another swingeing blow to an already beleaguered royal family – one that, more perhaps than any other in Europe, needs to be above reproach if it is to survive.
However much Spaniards may warm to King Juan Carlos personally (and fewer have done so since he was pictured, rifle in hand, standing in front of a slaughtered elephant) they are seldom monarchists at heart. The bonds that once tied them to the Bourbons – never particularly strong – were fatally weakened in the 1920s when Juan Carlos's grandfather, Alfonso XIII, connived at the installation of a military dictatorship.
Even those instinctively well-disposed towards monarchy have to acknowledge that the present king's right to be head of state is open to dispute; Juan Carlos having taken over the job at the behest of another military dictator, Francisco Franco, even though his father was still alive.
A poll on Sunday by El Mundo found that only 41% of respondents supported the monarchy in general.
The head of the king's household, Rafael Spottorno, has said the three-year inquiry into the affairs of princess Cristina and her husband Iñaki Urdangarin had become a "martyrdom".
But what has made the scandal so damaging is that, like the king's hideously ill-judged elephant hunt, it has highlighted the royal family's privileged lifestyle when ordinary Spaniards are enduring a protracted economic crisis.
Even following a sharp drop in unemployment in December, 4.7 million people are without a job. And an estimated 350,000 families have been evicted from their homes since the crash in property values, the root of Spain's economic difficulties.
How must the victims of this cruel slump feel when they learn, for example, that the royal couple spent some €9m (£7.5m) on the purchase and refurbishment of their Barcelona home.
The latest judicial decree in which Judge José Castro ordered the Infanta Cristina to testify in his court contains fresh, eyebrow-lifting details. He claims that the princess – motivated by "greed" – hired undocumented immigrants as domestic servants and paid them under the counter to save on social security contributions.
The 48-year-old Cristina has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. The prosecutor has accepted her argument that she had no detailed knowledge of her husband's affairs. The prosecutor has said that, to bring her into the case would be to victimise her because of her position.
Judge Castro's decree stands that argument on its head. It alleges that she used her name on all sorts of documents connected with the alleged tax evasion and money-laundering precisely to deter scrutiny of the dealings in which she and her husband were 50/50 partners. The decision to put her under formal investigation was the outcome of nine months of detective work, exhaustively documented in a 227-page report.
It is not the first time Judge Castro has tried to haul the Infanta Cristina into his court. Last year, he was blocked by a higher court. This time, it will be more difficult to stop him.
01/06/2014 03:27 PM
Crisis Management: Europe Eyes Anglo-Saxon Model with Envy
By Henrik Müller
Should the European Central Bank follow the Anglo-Saxon model and buy up vast quantities of sovereign bonds in attempt to finally overcome the euro crisis? ECB head Mario Draghi is under pressure to act now. But what are his options?
Britain has it better. At least that's how it seems. The country's financial situation is improving, even though it was worse off than many euro-zone member states at the beginning of the financial crisis. It was more bloated, its financial sector was in bad shape and the country had one of the largest real estate bubbles and highest rates of private debt in the world.
But while large areas of the euro zone continue to be plagued by mass unemployment and stagnation, the United Kingdom now appears to be on the road to health. The year 2014 could even see economic growth of 3 percent. Furthermore, investment is growing and the real estate sector is making progress.
In 2008, the situation in the UK wasn't all that much different than that in Spain. Yet while the British are slowly leaving the crisis behind, the Spanish would be ecstatic if they could avoid further economic contraction this year.
What is the fundamental difference between the two countries? Spain has the euro. Britain has the Bank of England.
The European Central Bank and the Bank of England will both publicize their next steps on Thursday. Whereas the entire world will listen closely to hear how ECB head Mario Draghi intends to counter deflation risks and credit crunches in countries like Spain and Italy, his Bank of England counterpart Mark Carney will more likely be confronted with questions about when he intends to begin tightening monetary policy.
The US Federal Reserve's newly appointed chairwoman Janet Yellen is likely to be affirmed by the Senate on Monday, and has also indicated that she will begin scaling back the bank's crisis intervention programs immediately. It is the next step in the Anglo-Saxon strategy: That of pumping vast quantities of fresh liquidity into the market with concurrent currency devaluation as a way of softening the recession. And there are not a few, including the head economist for Deutsche Bank, who demand that the ECB must also finally begin buying unlimited quantities of sovereign bonds from struggling euro-zone member states.
The impatience is understandable. The longer the crisis continues, the more threatening it becomes. The differences in the credit markets of the common currency zone remain stark: Companies in Spain and Italy must pay interest rates that are almost double those paid by firms in Germany, if they are able to borrow money at all. Furthermore, the economic pain continues, along with all of the social and political consequences that result. When, in the sixth year of the crisis, all reform efforts, spending cuts and savings measures have still not generated reliable growth, isn't it time for the ECB to finally do all it can to kick-start the process?
A glance across the Channel shows how the Bank of England acted to prop up the economy. In the course of the crisis, the bank tripled its balance sheet total, particularly because it purchased vast quantities of sovereign bonds, a process known in financial jargon as "quantitative easing." The strategy resulted in low long-term interest rates and a shot in the arm for financial markets. By comparison, the ECB doubled its balance sheet total, but its direct intervention in the sovereign bond market had less impressive results.
Draghi now has two options: Either he can once again pump huge quantities of money into European banks as the ECB did in the winter of 2011/2012, but this time with the condition that the money must be loaned to companies in need of financing. That, however, would be a significant intrusion into the business operation of the banks, which would be forced to take on additional risks. Or the ECB could buy sovereign bonds, thus sinking long-term interest rates, a move which would only work were the bank to focus on purchasing debt from those euro-zone states that are struggling the most.
But the ECB is apparently not allowed to take such a step. Legally, any systematic euro easing program would have to include all 18 euro-zone member states. Absurdly, that would mean that the ECB would be forced to buy primarily German bonds (in accordance with Germany's one-third share of the euro zone's gross domestic product) even though it is primarily Europe's southern states that need the help. The result would be that Germany's already extremely low interest rates would sink even further, the real estate bubble would grow even faster and it could even trigger inflation.
Draghi's ECB is facing a dilemma. It must prevent a disintegration of the currency union, but it has been left alone with this essentially political task by the governments in the euro zone.
The difference with Britain is glaring: The Bank of England serves Britain while the ECB serves the euro zone, an entity in name only, which is why there is no shared debt and no euro bonds that the ECB could buy up in the Anglo-Saxon manner.
The central banks clearly cannot solve the crisis on their own. At best, they can merely mitigate the symptoms. Furthermore, a more critical look at the economic data reveals that even the British economy is not particularly solid. The economy is hardly competitive, productivity is low and the trade balance is negative. And a new bubble is threatening its real estate market.
In Spain, on the other hand, harsh austerity is having an effect. To be sure, the country is still afflicted with a horrific unemployment rate of more than 25 percent. But reforms and belt-tightening measures have significantly improved Spain's competitiveness. Exports are on the rise and the country has a positive trade balance.
Spain should be able to reap the benefits of their exertions -- if the country's financial situation ultimately improves.
01/07/2014 01:52 PM
Green Revolution?: German Brown Coal Power Output Hits New High
Germany plans to wean itself off CO2-belching coal-fired power stations. But new figures show that coal power output in 2013 reached its highest level in more than 20 years. Researchers blame cheap CO2 emissions permits, and demand urgent reforms.
In 1990, Germany's bown coal-fired power stations produced almost 171 billion kilowatt hours of power. At the time, many old eastern German plants were still in operation.
It was a situation that the German government wanted to change, with the aim being that of radically reducing the output of the CO2-polluting lignite plants, but that's not happening. In 2013, it rose to 162 billion kilowatt hours, the highest level since reunification in 1990, according to preliminary figures from AGEB, a collection of industry associations and research institutes.
Electricity output from brown coal plants rose 0.8 percent in 2013, said Jochen Diekmann of the German Institute for Economic Research. As a result, Germany's CO2 output is expected to have risen in 2013, even as power from renewable sources has reached 25 percent of the energy mix.
Part of the reason, said Diekmann, is the low price of CO2 emissions permits in EU trading scheme. Another reason is that new brown coal plants, with a capacity of 2,743 megawatts, came on line in 2012, far exceeding the 1,321 megawatts from old plants shut down that year.
The opposition Green Party called on the government to stop the trend. "Those serious about protecting the climate must ensure that less and less power is generated from brown coal," said Green Party politician Bärbel Höhn. CO2 emissions needed to be priced at a level that makes the more climate-friendly gas-fired power stations economical, she said. "Brown coal power stations, after nuclear plants, are the main source of profit for RWE and Co.," said Höhn, referring to Germany's major utilities. "So they don't even switch off the really old power stations."
Power output from anthracite coal also rose, by eight billion kilowatt hours to over 124 billion, while output from gas-fired plants fell by 10 billion to 66 billion. That means that coal plants are making up for the bulk of the energy production lost due to the 2011 shutdown of eight nuclear plants, while gas plants, which emit less CO2 but are more expensive to run, are barely profitable at present.
The increase in coal-generated power also led to a new record in German electricity exports to around 33 billion kilowatt hours. "In 2013 Germany exported more power than it imported on eight out of 10 days. Most of it was generated by from brown coal and anthracite power stations," said Patrick Graichen, a power market analyst at Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende. "They are crowding out gas plants not just in Germany but also abroad -- especially in the Netherlands."
Graichen said it was a paradox of Germany's "Energiewende," the energy revolution aimed at weaning the country off fossil fuel by 2050, that CO2 emissions were now rising despite the rapid expansion of solar and wind power. In 2014, the surcharge on electricity bills will provide some €23.5 billion of subsidies for renewable energies. A four-person household will pay a surcharge of almost €220 this year.
That, said Graichen, is due to the low price of CO2 permits. "The European market for emissions certificates must urgently be repaired to change that," he said. The volume of emissions certificates must be reduced in order to boost the price of CO2.
Gerald Neubauer of Greenpeace said Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, of the center-left Social Democrats, must stop "the shocking coal boom." No other country produces more brown coal than Germany, he added. "The coal boom now endangers Germany's credibility on climate protection and the energy revolution," said Neubauer. The Social Democrats need to adopt a more critical stance on this issue, he added.
01/07/2014 04:46 PM
Super Subs: The German Defense Industry Discovers Asia
By Otfried Nassauer and Gordon Repinski
The German defense industry is increasingly looking to Asia as a growing market for its products. Conflicts in the Far East have led to a demand for the kind of giant -- and expensive -- submarines that come from shipyards in northern Germany.
The special fascination of ThyssenKrupp's new Type 218SG submarine is not immidiately apparent. It only becomes clear at the sight of the delicate, detailed engineering at its stern. That's where the "air independent propulsion system" is installed, connected directly with a gearless Permasyn motor. Built to glide through the sea almost noiselessly, the submarine is quieter and more durable than any other conventional model.
With fuel-cell drive and lithium-ion batteries, such a submarine can stay deployed at sea for more than 80 days and spend four weeks at a time under the surface.
These are ideal capabilities for a war machine built to function in the depths of seemingly endless waters, over routes that can be navigated without interruption for longer than ever before. It is a design suitable for the largest of all oceans: the Pacific.
At the end of November, Singapore, an authoritarian city-state on the edge of the crisis regions of the West Pacific, ordered the first two Type 218SG submarines to be released by German firm ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). The custom-designed machines are to be delivered to the Singapore Navy by 2020. The deal cost the country €1.6 billion ($2.18 billion), which will go directly into the German economy.
German specialists will offer training for the crew and logistical support as part of the deal, in accord with industry standards. Thanks to German engineering, the Singapore Navy will become the most modern in the region.
An Arms Race in the Pacific
The deal is also a contribution to the arms race for military dominance in the Pacific. To underscore its interests, China has already sent its first aircraft carrier cruising over the South China Sea and presented a stealth jet. Japan and the United States are strengthening their engagement in the West Pacific. Vietnam is arming itself with submarines, frigates and fighter jets. Singapore's neighbor Malaysia is involved in scuffles over islands with the Chinese People's Republic. Even Russia is involved: Last summer they engaged in joint naval exercises with China -- in the Sea of Japan.
The entire region is expected to become one of the world's most important focal points for security policy. The conflicts that play out there relate to fishing areas, island groups and large mineral deposits believed to lie at the bottom of the ocean.
It is a state of affairs that promises big business for the German defense industry. Next to the Gulf region, the Pacific is increasingly becoming one of the few global growth markets for defense firms. According to a 2013 report published by the Swedish research institute SIPRI, three of the worlds five biggest arms importers are West Pacific states: China, South Korea and Singapore. For the German economy, the sale of large submarines is especially lucrative. Each vessel costs €400-800 million, depending on size.
The German government supports the business with benevolence. Each contract is given its own federal export guarantee. In the case of Singapore, the German state guaranteed the value of the submarines. It's a risk that pays off: In the end, the state also profits off global exports through tax revenue. In addition, long-running jobs for the North German HDW shipyard, a subsidiary of ThyssenKrupp, means secure jobs for the otherwise structurally weak region at the Kiel Fjord.
Merkel's Business-Friendly Approach
Thus far, when it comes to arms export policy, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has been as business-friendly as possible. German security interests have tended to trump the human rights situation in recipient countries. The coalition agreement between Merkel's conservatives and their governing partners, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), also failed to resolve the issue, long a point of contention between the two parties. "An arms race is taking place in the Pacific," said Rolf Mützenich, the SPD's foreign policy point man in parliament. "We must look into this carefully." Human rights, said Mützenich, should have priority over security concerns.
In the case of the submarines, however, everything is still chugging along in the business-friendly direction: The deal was carefully prepared in the summer. On June 3 of last year, Steffen Kampeter, a state secretary in Germany's Finance Ministry, wrote a letter to Petra Merkel, chair of the parliament's Budget Committee for the SPD, approving the government export guarantee.
Kampeter asked that Merkel treat the documents as if they were confidential, because ultimately "the exporter is in direct competition with suppliers from France and Sweden." It was valuable "not to compromise" the "competitive environment." In that, they were successful.
Poland’s fledgling far-right party RN to run in EU parliament election
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:02 EST
Poland’s nascent nationalist movement RN said Tuesday it would put forward candidates for the first time ever at the 2014 European Parliament elections.
The bloc is made up of dozens of small nationalist, ultra-Catholic and euroskeptic groups that joined forces last year with an eye on the vote in May.
“Once we enter the European Parliament, we will fight alongside other euroskeptic groups against the federalism and European centralism of Brussels,” RN leader Robert Winnicki told reporters in Warsaw.
The RN hopes to form a coalition with the euroskeptic UK Independence Party led by Nigel Farage, the anti-immigration French National Front (FN) party led by Marine Le Pen or the far-right Hungarian Jobbik party led by Gabor Vona.
“It’s with these parties that we’d like to form an alliance at the European Parliament to change Europe, to put an end to the Lisbon Treaty (which calls for a greater role for parliaments at the EU level) and to fight for an alliance of nations,” said Winnicki, who himself will run in the elections.
The RN, which counts between 5,000 and 10,000 members, has never before run for public office.
To date it had only held demonstrations in Warsaw and other cities at last year’s Polish independence day on November 11.
In most cases the marches devolved into clashes with anti-fascist demonstrators and the police.
The RN includes former supporters of the nationalist and ultra-Catholic party LPR, which vanished from the Polish political scene after the 2007 elections pushed it out of parliament and ushered in today’s ruling center-right.
The bloc defends a “national identity” founded on Christian values and rules out gay marriage, insisting on traditional unions between man and wife.
Turkish Police Purge Broadens in Corruption Inquiry
By SEBNEM ARSU and DAN BILEFSKYJAN. 8, 2014
ISTANBUL — The Turkish government removed police chiefs in 15 cities and the deputy head of the country’s police force, the police said in a statement Wednesday.
The removals came after around 350 Turkish police officers in Ankara were reassigned to different positions on Tuesday in the largest single purge of the police force since a corruption investigation plunged the government into crisis last month.
Police chiefs in Turkey’s leading cities, including Ankara, the capital; Adana, a southern town by the Syrian border; and Diyarbakir, the hub of the Kurdish heartland, were summoned to the headquarters of the police to be reassigned.
In Turkey’s largest Aegean city, Izmir, police officers were reshuffled on Tuesday, almost immediately after they had detained 25 suspects, including pro-government businessmen, on corruption allegations over the construction and management of the city harbor, the private Dogan news agency reported.
In Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government prepared a draft legislation to enhance its limited control over the High Council of the Judges and Prosecutors, a move which many analysts claim is aimed at intimidating prosecutors investigating graft complaints.
The reshuffling of law enforcement officers was indicative of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's growing authoritarianism, analysts said.
Analysts in Turkey saw the police dismissals as part of a continuing effort by Mr. Erdogan’s government to marginalize those it believes are driving the investigation. The government has already dismissed more than a dozen high-ranking police officials, prompting accusations of interference in the judicial process.
The intervention in the ranks of law enforcement for what appear to be political motives, analysts said, underlines Mr. Erdogan’s encroaching authoritarianism after nearly a decade in power, as well as his sense of panic ahead of pivotal local elections in March.
Once a darling of the West committed to linking Turkey’s future to the European Union, Mr. Erdogan has since sought to fashion Turkey as a regional power in the Middle East, while the European Union’s influence in Turkey has waned.
Fethullah Gulen, a powerful Muslim preacher who lives in Pennsylvania, appears to have had a falling-out with Mr. Erdogan. Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily Newspaper, via European Pressphoto Agency
“This is a panic attack by a government acting in haste to prevent further corruption probes,” Kadri Gursel, a columnist for Milliyet, a Turkish daily, said in an interview. “By law, the government has no jurisdiction to remove judges or prosecutors, so it is cracking down on the police force, which falls under its authority.”
The reshuffle on Tuesday affected at least 80 directors and other senior officers in the intelligence, organized crime, fiscal crime and cybercrime units of Ankara’s police force. Among those reassigned was Mahmut Azmaz, who led the antiriot police division that critics accused of using excessive force during antigovernment protests in June.
The officers were reassigned to traffic police departments and district police stations, and about 250 replacement officers, mostly from outside Ankara, were appointed to take their place, the broadcaster NTV reported.
The corruption inquiry, focused on cabinet ministers’ sons, municipal workers and a major construction tycoon with links to Mr. Erdogan, has already prompted the resignation of three cabinet ministers and spurred a cabinet reshuffle. At the center of the inquiry are allegations that officials accepted bribes to bend zoning rules.
Falluja standoff between Iraqi army and insurgents poses dilemma for Obama
US to speed up arms sales to Baghdad to combat resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq despite distaste for Maliki's sectarian policies
Ewen MacAskill, defence Correspondent
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 19.37 GMT
Fierce fighting between Iraqi forces and rebel groups including al-Qaida was reported near Falluja on Tuesday, 24 hours after the US agreed to speed up arms sales to the government in Baghdad.
The standoff between the Iraqi army and the insurgents poses a dilemma for the Obama administration, torn between distaste for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian approach to politics and a resurgence of al-Qaida in the country.
The Associated Press news agency quoted Dhari al-Rishawi, the governor of Anbar province, which includes Falluja and Ramadi, as saying clashes on Tuesday took place 12 miles west of Falluja. The ministry of defence claimed to have killed 25 al-Qaida militants in an air strike in the province.
The Iraqi government urged tribal leaders to turn on the insurgents and drive them out of the city. The insurgents vowed to stay and fight. "They'll only enter Falluja over our dead bodies," one of them, Khamis al-Issawi, said in a phone interview with Reuters.
Security officials and tribal leaders said Maliki had agreed to hold off an offensive to give people in Falluja time to push the militants out. But it is not clear how long they have before troops storm the town.
"We've done our part of the deal. Now they [tribal leaders] should do theirs. If not, a quick offensive is coming," an Iraqi special forces officer told Reuters.
Iraq's US-equipped armed forces have killed dozens of militants in recent days in shelling and air strikes, officials say. The scale of casualties among civilians, security forces and tribal fighters is not clear.
The takeover of the centre of Falluja and the outskirts of Ramadi by Sunni protesters, including the al-Qaida grouping Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), is of especial symbolic importance for Americans, both cities being the scene of bloody fighting during the US-led occupation.
"It is profoundly embarrassing for the US. These are iconic cities that were taken at enormous cost to the US. It is incredibly embarrassing to see them taken over by Islamists," said Shashank Joshi, a Middle East security specialist at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
The US announced on Monday it is to accelerate military sales to Iraq, including 10 ScanEagle drones and 48 Raven drones. It said the drones were purely for surveillance. A consignment of 75 Hellfire missiles arrived in Iraq last week.
The CIA, which retained a presence in Iraq after the 2011 US troop withdrawal, is reported to be involved in helping with co-ordination of intelligence as well as targeting Hellfire missiles. In addition, there are 200 US military advisers left after the withdrawal.
While the worry for the US is that it may face an expansion of al-Qaida in both Iraq and Syria, Toby Dodge, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and a regular visitor to Iraq, predicted that both Iraqi and Syrian governments would gain the upper hand in the battle with al-Qaida.
There was close co-operation between al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria, he said, but "both the Syrian and Iraqi governments are strong enough to beat al-Qaida militarily".
The Iraqi military is 933,000-strong, accounting for 8% of the country's workforce and 12% of the adult male population.
Although the US had a tough fight in Falluja in 2004, razing huge parts of the city to the ground, Dodge said that al-Qaida is much weaker today, with nothing like the level of support it had during the US occupation. Intelligence estimates put membership of al-Qaida in Iraq at 3,000, up from 1,000 in 2011.
Joshi warned that al-Qaida was only one element in a coalition of groups opposed to the Maliki government. "What we are seeing in Anbar is bigger than just al-Qaida. What were are seeing includes a protest movement and armed tribes."
Maliki, a Shia, is accused of creating the crisis by pursuing a sectarian policy that has seen Sunnis ousted from prominent government positions.
The US Congress is blocking the sale of Apache helicopter gunships to the Iraqi government amid concerns they might be used for sectarian repression, but the White House, worried about al-Qaida, backs the sale.
The problem facing the White House in the coming weeks is how to support the Iraqi government in Falluja and Ramadi without encouraging Maliki to think he does not have to find a political solution.
"The more you encourage him to feel there is a purely military solution, the harder it is to persuade him to compromise with Sunni opponents," Joshi said.
In a newly published report, Iraq in Crisis, Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai, for the Washington-based Centre for Strategic International Studies, are pessimistic in their conclusion.
"No outside power can change the situation. Given Iraq's current political divisions and leadership, the most the US and other outside states can do is choose between bad alternatives and pursue the least bad options," they say.