Category Archives: Asia

Just some random headlines. . .or are they?


First, from the London Telegraph:

Infants ‘unable to use toy building blocks’ due to iPad addiction

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers warn that rising numbers of children are unable to perform simple tasks such as using building blocks because of overexposure to iPads

Next, from the London Daily Mail:

Pregnant women who take SSRI antidepressants are three times more likely to have a child with autism

  • The effect of  the drugs is particularity pronounced during third trimester
  • Researchers suggest rising rates of autism and SSRI use may be linked

Next up, from the Los Angeles Times:

Household rat poison linked to death and disease in wildlife

Evidence of rat poison is found in a sickly puma whose territory includes Griffith Park. Researchers suspect a link between poisons and mange.

During nearly two decades of research in and around the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, park service scientists have documented widespread exposure in carnivores to common household poisons. Of 140 bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions evaluated, 88% tested positive for one or more anticoagulant compounds. Scores of animals are known to have died from internal bleeding, researchers said.

The poisons also affect protected or endangered species including golden eagles, northern spotted owls and San Joaquin kit foxes.

And the Los Angeles Times again:

EPA drastically underestimates methane released at drilling sites

Drilling operations at several natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania released methane into the atmosphere at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than federal regulators had estimated, new research shows.

Using a plane that was specially equipped to measure greenhouse gas emissions in the air, scientists found that drilling activities at seven well pads in the booming Marcellus shale formation emitted 34 grams of methane per second, on average. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that such drilling releases between 0.04 grams and 0.30 grams of methane per second.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds to a growing body of research that suggests the EPA is gravely underestimating methane emissions from oil and gas operations. The agency is expected to issue its own analysis of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector as early as Tuesday, which will give outside experts a chance to assess how well regulators understand the problem.

Next, from the East Bay Express:

Environmental Activist Forcibly Removed from Chevron-Sponsored Event in Oakland for Mocking the Company’s ‘News’ Website

Security guards forcibly removed Paul Paz y Miño, an employee of the environmental group Amazon Watch, from a Chevron-sponsored event today in Oakland because he was carrying flyers that he said he had planned to distribute outside the building after the program. When Miño, who had paid $75 for a ticket to the public event, refused to leave, guards forcibly removed him.

Called the “Illuminating Ideas: ENERGY & Sustainability Summit,” the economic development event was held at the Oakland Marriott. It was organized by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and primarily sponsored by Chevron. PG&E, Bank of America, and Merrill Lynch were also sponsors. The event offered several panel discussions on green infrastructure, energy smart cities, and private and public partnerships. The keynote speaker was Jon Wellinghoff, the immediate past president of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was also a speaker at the event.

And them this, from VentureBeat:

The future of Silicon Valley may lie in the mountains of Afghanistan

The future of Silicon Valley’s technological prowess may well lie in the war-scarred mountains and salt flats of Western Afghanistan.

United States Geological Survey teams discovered one of the world’s largest untapped reserves of lithium there six years ago. The USGS was scouting the volatile country at the behest of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Lithium is a soft metal used to make the lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries essential for powering desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. And increasingly, electric cars like Tesla’s.

The vast discovery could very well propel Afghanistan — a war-ravaged land with a population of 31 million largely uneducated Pashtuns and Tajiks, and whose primary exports today are opium, hashish, and marijuana — into becoming the world’s next “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” according to an internal Pentagon memo cited by the New York Times.

Finally, from the New York Times:

The Environmentalist Who Decided It Was Too Late

After decades of fervent environmental activism, Paul Kingsnorth concluded that collapse is inevitable. So now what?

Okay, so maybe they’re not such random headlines after all.

Rather, they are examples that should stir a form of thinking that the late UC Santa Barbara ecologist Garrett Hardin called ecolacy, the much-needed complement to the more commonly cultivated skills of literacy and numeracy.

Hardin, who was tragically wrong about what he called “the tragedy of the commons” [mistaking what economists term a free-for-all for the community-engendered commons], was spot on in his formulation of his First Law of Human Ecology, which states with deceptive simplicity: “You cannot do only one thing.”

Many of the headlines we have cited are examples of Hardin’s law, proof that actions hailed as desirable in one context can be devastating in the second. . .as in children skilled at screens and inept at manipulating real world objects. . . and as mothers relieved of depression and rewarded with the depressing burden of autistic offspring. . .and as when posons designed to kills household vermnin spread to destroy the wildlife around us.

Another grouping reminds us of the distortion of information to suit the interests of the few at the peril of the many. . .as when producing a fuel touted as a way to cut greenhouse gases actually produces vastly more atmosphere-imperiling emissions that the corporateers would have us believe. . .and when a corporation that touts itself as a bastion of community responsibility censors those who proclaim otherwise. . .and when a glimpse is revealed of deeper causes behind devastating flag-draped bloodshed.

The last headline speaks for itself.

Headlines of the day I: EspioPoliCorporoZonal


We’ve been a bit under the weather, so today’s tales form the world of bugs, hacks [digital and political], corporate buccaneering, and military, geographic, and historical crises begins with a panopticon obstruction from the Oakland Tribune:

Oakland council sours on surveillance system

In a sharp reversal, council members made clear early Wednesday they would no longer support moving forward with an intelligence center that has the capacity to conduct surveillance on Oakland streets.

Twice last year, the City Council voted to support the Domain Awareness Center — a joint project with the Port of Oakland that was billed as helping police solve crimes, first responders react to emergencies, and the port protect itself from terrorist attacks.

But after further revelations of federal surveillance programs, threats of lawsuits from First Amendment advocates, and unsatisfactory attempts by city officials to address privacy concerns, a majority of council members said the center should not include any tools that could be used to spy on residents.

The full extent of the council’s reversal won’t be known until it revisits the issue on March 4. Council members did indicate that they would support the center to be used for its original purpose — to safeguard the port from attack.

From USA TODAY, American opinion takes a turn:

Poll: China, not Iran, now USA’s top enemy

  • North Korea rises to second place, with Iran, in Gallup survey. Russia is third.

China, not Iran, is now America’s No. 1 enemy, according to a new Gallup Poll.

The Chinese hold that distinction primarily because Americans have spread their negative views across several perceived threats — Iran (16%), North Korea (16%), Russia (9%), Iraq (7%), Afghanistan (5%) and Syria (3%) — while holding relatively constant in their mistrust of China (20%) over the past few years.

The poll, reported Thursday, also found that a slight majority (52%) sees China’s growing economic power as a “critical threat” to “the vital interests” of the United States in the next decade, while 46% cite such a threat from the country’s military.

From The Guardian, the disappointing but unsurprising decision about the partner of a principal Edward Snowden leak reporter:

David Miranda detention at Heathrow airport was lawful, high court rules

  • Detention of former Guardian journalist’s partner was justified by ‘very pressing’ interests of national security, judges say

Three high court judges have dismissed a challenge that David Miranda, the partner of the former Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, was unlawfully detained under counter-terrorism powers for nine hours at Heathrow airport last August.

The judges accepted that Miranda’s detention and the seizure of computer material was “an indirect interference with press freedom” but said this was justified by legitimate and “very pressing” interests of national security.

The three judges, Lord Justice Laws, Mr Justice Ouseley and Mr Justice Openshaw, concluded that Miranda’s detention at Heathrow under schedule 7 of the Terrorism 2000 Act was lawful, proportionate and did not breach European human rights protections of freedom of expression.

Some consequences, also from The Guardian:

The David Miranda judgment has chilling implications for press freedom, race relations and basic justice

  • The interference of Britains’ security services is shocking, but it’s also vital that we shed light on the murky reality of schedule 7

One person’s freedom fighter may be another’s terrorist, but David Miranda is very clearly neither. Yet he was detained at Heathrow airport for nine hours under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. That the high court has now found his detention to be lawful is disappointing to say the least.

If someone travelling as part of journalistic work can be lawfully detained like this – questioned for hours without a lawyer present, his electronic equipment confiscated and cloned and all without the merest suspicion of wrongdoing required – then clearly something has gone wrong with the law.

We’ve been here before. Schedule 7 suffers the same glaring flaws as the old section 44 counter-terrorism power that also allowed stop and search without suspicion. Such laws leave themselves wide open to discriminatory misuse: section 44 never once led to a terrorism conviction but was used to stop people like journalist Pennie Quinton. In a significant victory, Liberty took her case to the European court of human rights and the power was declared unlawful.

Meanwhile, parliamentary questions remain, via the London Telegraph:

Inquiry into phone and email snoopers

  • Sir Anthony May, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, says number of requests last year for access to people’s private data – around 500,000 – was “too large”

Britain’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies are facing an inquiry from Whitehall’s snooping watchdog into whether they are collecting too many private telephone and internet records, The Telegraph can disclose.

The investigation by Sir Anthony May, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, will start this year and comes after he told MPs he was worried that the security services were making too many requests for access to people’s private data.

In evidence to the Home Affairs select committee, Sir Anthony suggested that the number of requests last year – around 500,000 – was “too large”.

Bloomberg reminds:

NSA Official Warned About Threat 17 Years Before Snowden

Seventeen years before Edward Snowden began releasing secret documents on U.S. electronic spying, an analyst with the National Security Agency foresaw just such a threat.

“In their quest to benefit from the great advantages of networked computer systems, the U.S. military and intelligence communities have put almost all of their classified information ‘eggs’ into one very precarious basket: computer system administrators,” the unidentified analyst wrote in a 1996 special edition of Cryptologic Quarterly, an NSA magazine.

Despite the warning, the NSA remained vulnerable. When Snowden’s first disclosures became public last year, some of the agencies’ computers were still equipped with USB ports where thumb drives could be used to copy files, according to a National Public Radio report in September.

Snowden was a systems analyst working as a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH) at an NSA regional signals intelligence facility in Hawaii when he exploited his administrative access to copy thousands of top-secret documents before fleeing to Hong Kong and then Moscow.

The McClatchy Washington Bureau has a deal:

Online company hawking Snowden action figure

He’s been called a low-down traitor and a noble whistleblower, and now there’s a new label for fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden: action figure.

An Oregon-based company, Thatsmyface.com, is offering Snowden’s “lifelike head mounted on a 12-inch fully-articulated action figure body with detailed pre-fitted clothes.” Clothing options include casual, business suit or “Indiana Jones.” Perhaps a spinoff line will include a Moscow airport-terminal play set?

Each doll is $99, with proceeds reportedly going to Freedom of the Press Foundation. (The foundation told news agencies that it hadn’t been contacted about the project.)

The website is here, including this video of the Snowden doll alongside their Julian Assange action figure:

And another pair of small victories from the ACLU Blog of Rights:

State High Courts Realize It’s Not 1986 Anymore, Broaden Privacy Protections

Technology in the digital age has changed the way the government conducts surveillance against targets, and the law must change accordingly. So ruled two separate state supreme courts in decisions that take on the so-called ‘third-party doctrine,’ an outdated legal precedent that serves as the foundation for the federal government’s defense of NSA and FBI bulk records surveillance programs.

In two state supreme court rulings published Tuesday, jurists in Massachusetts and Hawaii created new space for the expansion of privacy rights under their state constitutions. The Hawaiian justices found that, as technology changes, the law must change with it—and state courts have a role to play in pushing legislatures and federal courts to adapt more quickly. Massachusetts’ high court did just that, by limiting the government’s authority to obtain without warrants information held about us by third parties. Specifically, Massachusetts justices ruled 5-2 that police must obtain a probable cause warrant in order to obtain two weeks or more of cell site location information from our telecommunications companies.

The Intercept [new venue of Greenwald & Co.] lays the blame:

Judge Tosses Muslim Spying Suit Against NYPD, Says Any Damage Was Caused by Reporters Who Exposed It

A federal judge in Newark has thrown out a lawsuit against the New York Police Department for spying on New Jersey Muslims, saying if anyone was at fault, it was the Associated Press for telling people about it.

In his ruling Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge William J. Martini simultaneously demonstrated the willingness of the judiciary to give law enforcement alarming latitude in the name of fighting terror, greenlighted the targeting of Muslims based solely on their religious beliefs, and blamed the media for upsetting people by telling them what their government was doing.

The NYPD’s clandestine spying on daily life in Muslim communities in the region — with no probable cause, and nothing to show for it — was exposed in a Pulitzer-Prize winning series of stories by the AP. The stories described infiltration and surveillance of at least 20 mosques, 14 restaurants, 11 retail stores, two grade schools, and two Muslim student associations in New Jersey alone.

Well, gollleeee! From the Washington Post:

U.S. intelligence agencies can’t justify why they use so many contractors

In the wake of last year’s NSA revelations, many agencies have been reviewing their contracting policies. But few people have a good grasp on just how many contractors the government employs. What’s worse, the country’s eight civilian intelligence agencies often can’t sufficiently explain what they use those contractors for, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Every year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is supposed to count how many contractors serve the intelligence community (IC). Due to differences in the way intelligence agencies define and assess their workers, however, the data are inconsistent and in some places incomplete. Out of hundreds of agency records, for example, GAO found that almost a fifth lacked enough paperwork to prove how much a contractor was paid. Another fifth of the records were found to have either over-reported or under-reported the actual cost of the contract work.

But the GAO reserves its harshest judgment for the agencies that couldn’t fully explain why they resorted to contractors in the first place.

From Deutsche Welle, attempting the ol’ pot/kettle maneuver:

‘Not shocked if Germany spied on us’

Americans would not be shocked if they found out that German intelligence services monitored them, former CIA Director John McLaughlin tells DW. He also explains why he feels mass surveillance is justified.

RT goes for the help:

No spying on friends: NSA bugs Merkel aides instead of chancellor

In the wake of President Obama’s promise to stop spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the US intelligence has switched its attention to her top government officials, a German newspaper reported.

Washington’s relations with Germany were strained last year after revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was conducting mass surveillance in Germany and even tapped the mobile phone of Chancellor Merkel.

Facing the German outrage, President Barack Obama pledged that the US would stop spying on the leader of the European country, which is among the closest and most powerful allies of America.

After the promise was made, the NSA has stepped up surveillance of senior German officials, German newspaper Bild am Sonntag (BamS) reported on Sunday.

Seeking a change with The Hill:

Dems press Holder on secret FBI letters

Two House Democrats are calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to make changes to secret letters that the FBI uses to get information.

In a letter on Wednesday, the lawmakers demanded answers about the FBI’s National Security Letters, which do not require a court order and require communications companies and financial institutions to turn over details about their customers.

“This is deeply troubling and, therefore, addressing the proper use of NSLs must be part of any meaningful reform of government surveillance authorities,” Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said in a joint statement accompanying the letter.

“We look forward to working with the Administration as we find a path forward on this issue.

Aviation Week fesses up:

USAF Space Chief Outs Classified Spy Sat Program

The U.S. Air Force is planning to launch two new and previously classified space situational awareness satellites into geosynchronous orbit this year, according to Gen. William Shelton, who leads Air Force Space Command.

The spacecraft were developed covertly by the Air Force and Orbital Sciences under the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSAP), according to service officials.

The first two spacecraft will be boosted this year with two more to follow in 2016 to prevent a gap in surveillance on activities in the geosynchronous belt, Shelton said at the annual Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando. This is where commercial satellite communications are based, as well as critical national security assets such as the Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs) early missile warning system and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) constellation designed to provide jam-proof communications for the president even during a nuclear event.

“One cheap shot” against Sbirs or AEHF would be “devastating” to the Pentagon’s capabilities, Shelton said of a potential anti-satellite attack.

From the London Daily Mail, guess who’s listening:

Head of NSA’s Korea division charged with beating adopted son, three, to death. But he INSISTS the boy’s injuries were suffered in fall and his wife believes him

  • Brian O’Callaghan and his wife adopted the boy from Korea in October
  • O’Callaghan told police the boy fell in the shower two days before he died
  • Authorities describe the boy’s injuries as being ‘from head to toe’
  • Investigators believe O’Callaghan beat the boy while his wife was out of town
  • The autopsy and other medical tests offer conflicting causes of the boy’s death
  • O’Callaghan is an Iraq War veteran who now works as the NSA’s Korea division chief
  • O’Callaghan’s wife and other families say he is incapable of hurting a child

The National Security Agency’s Korea division chief has been charged with murder in the alleged beating death of his 3-year-old son who he and his wife adopted from Korea just months before his tragic death.

Brian O’Callaghan, a decorated Iraq War veteran who was awarded the Marine Corps Achievement Medal for his part in a gun battle that helped lead to the rescue of captured soldier Jessica Lynch, is accused of beating his adopted son, Hyunsu, so badly that he ultimately died two days after the alleged beating.

From BBC News, a busted Murdoch operative with a friend in a very high place:

Phone-hacking trial: Blair ‘advised Brooks before arrest’

Tony Blair gave advice to newspaper executive Rebekah Brooks on handling the phone-hacking scandal six days before her arrest, a court has heard.

The court heard Mrs Brooks spoke to the former prime minister and passed on what he had said to James Murdoch, then News International executive chairman.

In an email, she said Mr Blair had said he was “available” to her, James and Rupert Murdoch as an “unofficial adviser”, the Old Bailey heard.

Mrs Brooks denies any wrongdoing.

From Ars Technica, hack attack:

Iranians hacked Navy network for four months? Not a surprise.

  • NMCI, now being phased out, is the world’s biggest intranet, and its biggest target.

In 2012, Iranian hackers managed to penetrate the US Navy’s unclassified administrative network, the Navy Marine Corps Intranet. While the attack was disclosed last September, the scale of it was not—the attack gave hackers access to the NMCI for nearly four months, according to an updated report by The Wall Street Journal.

Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, who is now President Barack Obama’s choice to replace Gen. Keith Alexander as both NSA director and commander of the US Cyber Command, led the US Fleet Cyber Command when the attack came to light. Rogers’ response to the attack may be a factor in his confirmation hearings.

Iranian hackers attacked NMCI in August of 2012, using a vulnerability in a public-facing website to gain initial access to the network. Because of a flaw in the security of the network the server was hosted on, attackers were able to use the server to gain access to NMCI’s private network and spread to other systems. While the vulnerability that allowed the attackers to gain access in the first place was discovered and closed by October, spyware installed by the attackers remained in place until November.

RT raises the bar:

German telecom firm to roll out text, voice encryption app

Deutsche Telekom plans to launch an app for smartphones that encrypts voice and text messages. The move is the latest step taken by the firm to address users’ privacy concerns following NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden’s, mass surveillance revelations.

The cloud-based app will encrypt each voice or text exchange between two devices using a unique code, Reuters cites Deutsche Telekom as saying in a statement.

The firm will roll the app out at Cebit – the world’s largest and most international computer expo – in Hanover, Germany, next month. It remains unclear when it will be available for download, though versions for Android smartphones will be released first, followed by a version for iOS smartphones. The product will be made available to business customers.

And Xinhua calls for a deal:

EU, Brazil to enhance cyber security cooperation

The European Union and Brazil have agreed to launch a new EU-Brazil dialogue on international cyber policy at the annual EU-Brazil summit held here on Monday.

Addressing a press conference, President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy said both the EU and Brazil share the common interest of protecting a “free and open” Internet, which has spurred tremendous economic and social progress.

“At the same time, we will continue to enhance data protection and global privacy standards,” he said.

EU and Brazil have agreed to have the first meeting on cyber security take place during the conference on Internet governance, which Brazil will host in Sao Paulo on April 23-24.

From Sky News, recycling:

US Airlines Warned Over Possible Shoe Bombs

Concerns are raised for the second time in less than three weeks over possible attempts to smuggle explosives onto planes.

Airlines flying to the United States have been warned to be on alert for explosives hidden in shoes.

It is the second time in less than three weeks the US government has raised concerns over possible attempts to smuggle explosives onto commercial jetliners.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declined to discuss specific details about the warning but said it regularly shares relevant information with domestic and international partners.

ANSA keeps the secret keepers safe:

Italian spy agency officials acquitted in CIA snatch

  • State secrecy invoked in extraordinary rendition case

Italy’s supreme court on Monday acquitted the former head and the No.2 of the Italian secret service agency, Nicolo’ Pollari and Marco Mancini, as well as three agents, for involvement in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition of Muslim cleric Hassan Mustafa Omar Nasr from Milan in 2003.

The Cassation Court said sentences could not be upheld due to State secrecy.

Pollari and Mancini were respectively appealing a 10-year and a nine-year sentence at a lower court for allowing the CIA to commit “a grave violation of national sovereignty” when they snatched Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, an Islamist suspected of recruiting jihadi fighters.

And from Al Jazeera America, the expected:

Turkey increases control of Internet

  • President Abdullah Gul signs law allowing telecom authority to block websites without a court order

Turkish President Abdullah Gul approved a new law Tuesday which critics said aims to increase government controls over the Internet.

The legislation, approved by Parliament earlier this month, allows the telecommunications authority to block websites without a court decision. It also requires Internet providers to keep records of users’ activities for two years and make them available to authorities.

The move is seen by critics of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s critics as an authoritarian response to a corruption inquiry shaking his government and a bid to stop leaks from circulating online.

SecurityWeek spots another player:

US Man Sues Ethiopian Government for Spyware Infection

  • US Man Sues Ethiopia for Cyber Snooping

A lawsuit filed on Tuesday accuses Ethiopia of infecting a US man’s computer with spyware as part of a campaign to gather intelligence about those critical of the government.

“We have clear evidence of a foreign government secretly infiltrating an American’s computer in America, listening to his calls and obtaining access to a wide swath of his private life,” said attorney Nate Cardozo of Internet rights group Electronic Freedom Foundation.

“The current Ethiopian government has a well-documented history of human rights violations against anyone it sees as political opponents.”

And from thinkSPAIN, the game of zones, European style:

UK to lodge formal complaint against Spain following ‘illegal incursion’ into Gibraltarian waters

BRITISH Foreign Office officials have announced they will make a complaint ‘to the highest-possible authority’ after a fresh incursion into Gibraltar’s waters by a Spanish Naval ship.

The UK’s Royal Navy was carrying out military sky-diving exercises in the sea off the Rock on Tuesday when the Spanish ship SPS Vigia approached the area, heightening the tension between London and Madrid over the concrete blocks placed in the sea in Gibraltarian territory to create an artificial reef, which the Spanish government insists are within the seas belonging to the Bay of Algeciras (Cádiz).

The Royal Navy continued with its parachuting practice despite the incursion, says the Foreign Office, which says it intends to present a ‘formal protest’ at the ‘highest level’ against the Spanish government.

After the jump, the latest on the rapidly escalating Asian military escalation, border-claiming, historical, revanchist, and other security crises — plus social media lie detection, punishing proof of insecurity, felonious pseudospooking sexpionage, an Internet ban defeated, and a very serious worm in the Apple. . . Continue reading

Americans give up on the Afghanistan war


From Gallup, revealing that a dozen years later, more Americans finally believe the war a mistake than who still believe in the bloody engagement in the Graveyard of Empires;

BLOG Afghan war

Bernie Sanders: The TPP is bad for U.S. workers


Once again, it’s up to the only socialist in America’s national legislature to lay out the impacts to the American workers and our dwindling middle class of the devastating impacts of the neoliberal regime embraced by the Obama administration,

In this case, it’s the Trans Pacific Partnership the draws the Vermont senator’s ire, the latest of those negotiated-in-secret “free trade” pacts that surrender national sovereignty to corporate interests and sacrifice the rights and health of citizens to star chamber tribunals whose discussions never see the light of day.

In this clip from MSNBC’s The Ed Show, Sanders lays out his case:

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFukunews


We begin today’s collection of news political, economic, environmental, and nuclear — including the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now! — with a take on the merger de jour from Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer:

BLOG Siers

From the Washington Post, consequences of enserfing students:

Student debt may hurt housing recovery by hampering first-time buyers

The growing student loan burden carried by millions of Americans threatens to undermine the housing recovery’s momentum by discouraging, or even blocking, a generation of potential buyers from purchasing their first homes.

Recent improvements in the housing market have been fueled largely by investors who snapped up homes in the past few years. But that demand is waning as prices climb and mortgage rates rise. An analysis by the Mortgage Bankers Association found that loan applications for home purchases have slipped nearly 20 percent in the past four months compared with the same period a year earlier.

First-time buyers, the bedrock of the housing market, are not stepping up to fill the void. They have accounted for nearly a third of home purchases over the past year, well below the historical norm, industry figures show. The trend has alarmed some housing experts, who suspect that student loan debt is partly to blame. That debt has tripled from a decade earlier, to more than $1 trillion, while wages for young college graduates have dropped.

A decline from the Los Angeles Times:

Builder confidence down sharply in February

Builder confidence in the new home market plunged in February, a combination of debilitating weather and few lots available for construction, a trade group said.

The National Assn. of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index tumbled 10 points from January to a seasonally adjusted level of 46, the largest drop since the index launched in 1985. A level higher than 50 means more builders see the market for new, single-family homes as good rather than poor.

From the Los Angeles Times again, another decline:

Coca-Cola announces $1 billion in cuts as demand, profit slide

Coca-Cola Co., faced with tepid demand and a drop in fourth-quarter earnings, said Tuesday it was initiating a $1-billion cost-cutting campaign to improve profitability.

The world’s largest beverage company said Tuesday that profit fell 8.4% in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Investors were selling on the news. Shares of the Atlanta company were down $1.46, or nearly 4%, to $37.47 at 9 a.m. PST.

Another sort of decline from the Associated Press:

After UAW defeat, can GOP fulfill promise of jobs?

Republicans fighting a yearslong unionization effort at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee painted a grim picture in the days leading up to last week’s vote. They said if Chattanooga employees joined the United Auto Workers, jobs would go elsewhere and incentives for the company would disappear.

Now that workers have rejected the UAW in a close vote, attention turns to whether the GOP can fulfill its promises that keeping the union out means more jobs will come rolling in, the next great chapter in the flourishing of foreign auto makers in the South.

Regardless of what political consequences, if any, Republicans would face if that fails to happen, the Volkswagen vote established a playbook for denying the UAW its goal of expanding into foreign-owned plants in the region, which the union itself has called the key to its long-term future.

CNBC posits the negative:

$10.10 minimum wage could hit total employment: CBO

Raising the U.S. federal minimum wage to $10.10, as President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress are proposing, could result in about 500,000 jobs being lost by late 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated on Tuesday.

The non-partisan CBO also said that increasing the hourly wage could reduce U.S. budget deficits by a small amount for several years, but then increase them slightly in later years.

The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Democrats who control the U.S. Senate could try to advance minimum wage legislation as early as next month.

Xinhua invests:

Foreign holdings of U.S. Treasury debt hits record in December

Foreign buyers continued to increase their holdings of U.S. Treasury securities for a fifth straight month in December, even though the two largest holders of U.S. public debt trimmed their shares, U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday.

The total foreign holdings rose to 5.79 trillion U.S. dollars in December, up 1.4 percent from that in November, showed the Treasury International Capital report. The figure surpassed the all-time high hit in March of 5.73 trillion dollars.

China, the largest foreign buyer of the Treasury debt, trimmed its holdings by 47.8 billion dollars to 1.27 trillion dollars in December, its first reduction in the past four months, the report showed.

Japan, the second largest holder, sold 3.9 billion dollars to 1. 18 trillion dollars in December, according to the figures.

Salon disgraces:

Virginia county sheriff hosting anti-Muslim training by disgraced conspiracy theorist

  • John Guandolo says Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.” Now he’s instructing law officers

The Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia is planning to host a three-day training by John Guandolo, a notorious Muslim-basher and conspiracy theorist who resigned from the FBI before he could be investigated for misconduct, according to promotional materials.

It’s hard to believe that the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office would knowingly associate itself with such a disreputable character, who regularly attacks the U.S. government, claims that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency is a secret Muslim agent for the Saudi government and says that American Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.”

Guandolo joined the bureau’s Counterterrorism Division in the wake of 9/11, but by 2005 he was posing as a driver for a “star witness” in the corruption case of former Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA). He made “inappropriate sexual advances” to that witness and soon was having an “intimate relationship…that he thought could damage an investigation.” He also unsuccessfully solicited the witness for a $75,000 donation to an organization he supported and carried on extramarital affairs with female FBI agents.

And the Los Angeles Times talks a deal:

U.S.-Mexico-Canada talks will focus on strengthening economic ties

Mexico is expected to avoid discussions about its drug-related violence and focus on its oil and gas industry, along with border and immigration issues.

Twenty years after their countries signed a landmark regional trade agreement, the presidents of the United States, Mexico and Canada will meet this week to attempt to strengthen the economic ties envisioned in that pact, correct the omissions and find ways to expand.

Trade and commerce are expected to dominate the agenda when President Obama meets with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts — President Enrique Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Stephen Harper — in the Mexican city of Toluca, just west of Mexico City, on Wednesday.

Large squads of soldiers and police were patrolling Toluca, the capital of Mexico state, and blocking off major roadways Monday. Schools in the central city were suspending classes. Leftist political parties were planning demonstrations, with several hundred people marching from Mexico City to Toluca.

EUbusiness covers another deal in the making:

EU, US reps meet ahead of free-trade talks

US Trade Ambassador Michael Froman received his European counterpart Karel De Gucht in Washington Monday, preparing for next month’s fourth round of talks on creating the world’s largest free-trade area.

The two sides have been in discussion since last year over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which aims to expand trade, investment and regulatory cooperation between the two huge economies.

Froman and De Gucht spoke briefly to reporters in Washington before two days of closed-door meetings with the EU trade commissioner, meant to take stock of progress made during three past rounds of negotiations, which wrapped up in December.

On to Europe and a call from The Guardian:

Eurozone countries should form United States of Europe, says EC vice-president

  • Viviane Reding calls for full fiscal and political union for 18 eurozone countries but says UK should remain apart

A celebrated call by Winston Churchill for the creation of a “United States of Europe” was revived on Monday by a leading member of the European commission who said the 18 eurozone countries should form a full fiscal and political union.

Viviane Reding, a vice-president of the commission, told Cambridge University’s law faculty that “bold reforms” were needed to avoid tensions across Europe as new governance arrangements were introduced to stabilise the single currency.

A lop-sided take from New Europe:

EU industry: Towards an unbalanced recovery

  • The output of the EU industry remains below the pre-crisis levels

The EU industry lacks of a cohesive growth as according to a report by the European Commission most sectors have still not regained their pre-crisis level of output and significant differences exist between sectors and Member States.

The data for the EU industry shows a mixed picture. The economic output of the manufacturing sector has declined significantly, but important differences between sectors remain. According to the “EU Industrial structure report 2013: Competing in Global Value Chains,” the pharmaceuticals sector has experienced sustained growth since the start of the financial crisis, while high-technology manufacturing industries have, in general, not been impacted to the same extent as other industries.

Moreover, EU manufacturing output indicates significant differences between Member States. Strong recoveries can only be seen in Romania, Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic States, which all regained and exceeded their pre-recession peaks. On the other hand, the EU manufacturing recovery remains below the pre-recession levels in 20 Member States.

Spiegel diagnoses:

The Swiss Virus: Europe Gripped by Immigration Worries

  • The Swiss aren’t the only ones in Europe deeply concerned about immigration. Many across the Continent would also like to see limits placed on newcomers from elsewhere in the EU. Europe must remain firm, but right-wing populists stand to benefit.

Greeks, Italians and French blame economic policy from Brussels for their difficulties. At the same time, Germans and other Northern Europeans are afraid they will ultimately be forced to cough up for EU countries to the south. What some call “reform” and others call “austerity” is driving a wedge between Europeans. And now, the issue of free movement across the EU is being thrown into the discussion because many are concerned they could lose out on the employment market. But questioning the EU principle allowing people to choose where they wish to live and work is akin to questioning the entire European project.

On to Britain and the austerian price of a flooding disaster, via The Guardian:

Thames flood defences among schemes hit by coalition funding cuts

  • Avoidable damage estimated to cost £3bn as projects at Heathrow, Dawlish and Somerset Levels delayed or downsized

Planned defences along the length of the flood-hit Thames Valley were delayed and downsized after government funding cuts following the last election, the Guardian can reveal.

The schemes, totalling millions of pounds, include projects near Heathrow, near David Cameron’s country home in Oxfordshire and in the constituency of the minister who oversaw annual flood budget cuts of almost £100m.

West Drayton, near Heathrow, the scene of significant flooding in west London, was in line for £2.8m of funding to build up concrete and earth bank defences by 2014-15. But following budget cuts, the Arklyn Kennels scheme was downgraded to a £1m scheme and delayed until at least 2018-19.

At Penton Hook, on the Thames near flood-affected Staines in Surrey, a £5.6m dredging scheme was due to be completed by the end of March 2014, but has received just £2m to date. The scheme was also intended to clean up a site where contaminated silt dredged from the river was dumped.

From New Europe, a warning:

Reding: UK would lose influence outside EU

European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding warned that the EU would lose influence outside the EU and that all the talk of opt-out by the British government distracts from the real issue which is to find solutions for the EU economy.

“The truth is, outside the EU, the UK would lose influence. If the UK were to leave the EU, it would no longer be able to influence EU regulation. It would have to live with the rules decided on by the other EU countries,” Reding told an audience in Cambridge on February 17.

“To get access to the Single Market, you have to apply its rules. Just ask the Norwegians. It’s difficult to see why the other Member States would grant the UK unfettered access to their markets without requiring it to apply the EU’s rules,” she added.

The federalist Commissioner also added that the rhetoric of David Cameron’s Conservatives – who want to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership and have promised a referendum on the issue in 2017 should they win the next election – distracts from the real issues facing the bloc.

And from CNNMoney, the latest instance of Banksters Behaving Badly:

Ex-Barclays bankers charged with Libor rigging

Prosecutors have charged three former Barclays bankers in connection with the rigging of global interest rates.

The U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office, which prosecutes complex cases of fraud, said Monday that it’s started criminal proceedings against Peter Charles Johnson, Jonathan James Mathew and Stylianos Contogoulas in connection with manipulating the London interbank offered rate, or Libor.

All three have been charged with conspiring to defraud between June 2005 and August 2007.

Pondering a change of course with the London Telegraph:

Interest rate rise ‘a last resort’ to cool housing market

  • David Miles, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), describes rate rises as a “blunt tool” that will only be used if other policies fail

The Bank of England will only use interest rate rises to cool the housing market if its financial stability toolkit is “not up to the job”, one of its policymakers has said.

David Miles, an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), said rate rises were a “big stick” that would only be used as a last resort.

“We do have, as the last line of defence, the blunt instrument, the big stick of interest rates,” he told Bloomberg TV. “If you did get into a situation where the tools that the Financial Policy Committee (FPC) have seem not up to the job of stopping overheating in the housing market, we would then turn to the blunter instrument of using bank rate.

“We’re a long way from that.”

The Guardian delivers a jeremiad:

New Catholic cardinal renews attack on ‘disgraceful’ UK austerity cuts

  • Roman Catholic archbishop Vincent Nichols, who is to be made a cardinal by Pope Francis, inundated with messages of support

The leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales says he has been inundated with messages of support after branding the government’s austerity programme a disgrace for leaving so many people in destitution.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4′s Today programme to mark his imminent appointment as a cardinal by Pope Francis, Archbishop Vincent Nichols expanded upon his comments to the Telegraph when he criticised the government’s welfare reforms as “punitive”.

“The voices that I hear express anger and despair … Something is going seriously wrong when, in a country as affluent as ours, people are left in that destitute situation and depend solely on the handouts of the charity of food banks,” Nichols said.

In his Telegraph interview, published on Saturday, Nichols accused ministers of tearing apart the safety net that protects people from hunger and destitution. He said since he made those comments he had been “inundated with accounts from people … saying there are indeed many cases where people are left without benefits, without any support, for sometimes weeks on end”.

On to Sweden and a case of that Swiss fever from TheLocal.se:

Roma migrants evicted from Stockholm site

Officials evicted all remaining Romanian migrants from a campsite in southern Stockholm on Monday morning, just days after over 100 campers were given a free bus ride home.

The Swedish Enforcement Agency (Kronofogden) carried out the eviction in Högdalen, a suburb in the southern reaches of Stockholm, at 9am on Monday, just days after a bus load of the campers went home.

“All I know is that it’s more or less empty,” Henrik Brånstad, spokesman at the agency, told the TT news agency. “Many have apparently moved to other places while others have jumped at the chance of a bus ride home to Romania.”

Over 100 EU-migrants accepted the bus tickets home, many of whom had earned money begging in the Swedish capital. One of the buses crashed in southern Sweden on Sunday morning on the way to Bucharest. Only the driver was injured.

Rumbles from the right head to court with TheLocal.se:

First charges filed for Stockholm Nazi attack

Seven people were charged on Monday in the wake of a neo-Nazi attack on anti-racist demonstrators in Stockholm last year. But prosecutors say more indictments are on the way.

Charges were filed on Monday against people who took part in a violent riot in Stockholm’s Kärrtorp suburb in December last year. Four of the suspects were charged with violent rioting (våldsamt upplopp) and hate speech (hets mot folkgrupp) and another three were charged with instigating violent rioting. According to the indictment, several of those charged threw bottles, rocks, and firecrackers.

“There will be more charges filed than just these, altogether there were around 30 people detained after the demonstration,” Ulf Sundström of the Söderort police told the TT news agency.

And TheLocal.se, and a word for the teacher:

Teacher salaries too low in Sweden: OECD

Teacher salaries in Sweden are lower than in countries with higher–performing schools, according to an extra OECD evaluation requested by the government on the heels of Sweden’s dismal performance in the latest Pisa rankings.

“The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers,” Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Deputy Director of Education and Skills, told reporters at a press briefing in Stockholm on Tuesday.

“In higher-performing countries, teachers have higher salaries but also clear career possibilities.”

The analysis, which marks the first time ever that Sweden has asked the OECD for extra help in evaluating its school system, also found that Sweden has relatively high costs per student, with only nine other OECD countries spending more money per pupil.

The Associated Press covers a Norwegian whiner:

Breivik hunger strike threat: wants bigger gym

Convicted Norwegian mass-killer Anders Behring Breivik has threatened to go on hunger strike unless he gets access to better video games, a sofa and a larger gym.

In a letter received by The Associated Press Tuesday, Breivik writes the hunger strike will continue until his demands are met or he dies. Breivik’s lawyer Tord Jordet confirmed the letter was authentic and said his client is waiting for a response from prison authorities before starting the hunger strike.

Breivik is serving a 21-year prison sentence, which can be extended when it expires, for killing 77 people in bomb and gun massacres in 2011.

Among his demands, Breivik wants the lifting of restrictions on communications and improved air conditions. He wants the available PlayStation 2 console replaced by a modern version.

Germany next and a call for a New Deal from Deutsche Welle:

IW think tank urges change in German investment policy

A leading German economic think tank has announced that massive investments in infrastructure are needed so as not to lose out to competitors. The institute found many companies were worried about possible disadvantages.

In its study released Monday, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) said despite a relatively good infrastructure many companies polled were increasingly worried about a deterioration of the country’s road network.

They also voiced concerns about the future state of the energy grid, with the shift to renewables currently posing enormous problems and a necessary expansion of the network facing community-level resistance.

Companies also worried about broadband Internet connections not being created fast enough in all regions. About two-thirds of the 2,800 firms polled reported that they were already experiencing disadvantages as a result of infrastructure problems.

The research institute calculated that all in all some 120 billion euros ($164.6 billion) would have to be invested into infrastructure over the next 10 years, to be spent evenly on road maintenance and extension, the broadband communications network and the national energy grid, with a major new north-south line.

From TheLocal.de, a cartel cabal busted:

Sugar giants fined €280m for price fixing

German consumers have been paying over the odds for sugar for years, it emerged on Tuesday, when authorities fined Germany’s three biggest sugar firms €280 million for illegally fixing prices.

Pfeiler & Langen, Südzucker and Nordzucker, along with seven unnamed individuals were found to have been fixing prices, sales territories and quotas between them for many years, the Federal Cartel Office in Bonn said.

The three German sugar producers agreed on various strategies between them aimed at pushing up sugar prices across the board, whether they sold to households or the food industry.

The manufacturers agreed “to keep to their traditional sales territories and not get in the way of the other cartel members,” said Cartel Office president Andreas Mundt in a statement.

And Europe Online notes a decline:

German investor confidence posts surprise fall in February

German investor confidence posted a surprise decline in February over concerns of a slowdown in the United States and uncertainties in emerging economies, a key survey showed Tuesday.

The closely watched indicator gauging the mood among analysts and institutional investors slipped to 55.7 from 61.7 in January, the Mannheim-based ZEW institute said.

While Spiegel covers blowback:

Child Porn Investigation: Merkel Cabinet Rife with Suspicion and Mistrust

It is a disastrous start for Angela Merkel’s new government: After details of a child pornography investigation were leaked, a cabinet member was forced to resign. Now, the chancellor’s new cabinet is consumed by backbiting and mistrust.

Deutsche Welle notes another downside to the German miracle:

Study: Eastern Europeans underpaid in Germany

  • Massive poverty-driven migration from Eastern Europe? Recent studies suggest a different situation: More than half of all immigrants from these countries have good credentials, but work for low wages in Germany.

The Employment Agency’s statistics show that a far larger percentage of Eastern Europeans receive low wages than their German counterparts do. In December 2012, around 52 percent were paid low-wage salaries, meaning they earned less than two-thirds of the country’s average income. The share of such workers among Germans makes up just under 20 percent.

At the same time, the educational level of immigrants keeps rising, says Nina Neubecker from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW): “We found that those who moved to Germany after 2004 are considerably more qualified than immigrants from years in the past.”

Neubecker says her research revealed that two thirds of Eastern European immigrants hold a university degree or have completed a vocational training course. She also found that a significant part of Romanians and Bulgarians who moved to Germany after 2007 carry out jobs not requiring their level of education. Depending on the method used, estimates of the proportion of these overqualified immigrant workers range from 40 to 58 percent.

And a call to chill from Deutsche Welle:

Merkel calls on EU to remain calm after controversial Swiss referendum curbing immigration

German Chancellor Merkel has called on EU states to remain calm after a controversial Swiss referendum which limits the number of immigrants within its borders. The comments followed a meeting with the Swiss president.

Chancellor Merkel warned fellow EU members against “rashly breaking” relations with Bern. “It can’t be that because one side did something in one specific area that the other side says nothing works in other areas,” she said, referring to Brussels’ retaliatory moves.

“The challenge will now be that we deal with the results in a way that relations between the European Union and Switzerland remain as intense as possible with respect for the referendum,” Merkel added.

Merkel and Burkhalter also reaffirmed their commitment toward maintaining German-Swiss ties. The current bilateral trade volume is worth roughly 75 billion euros ($103 billion) and some 350,000 Germans are employed in Switzerland.

On to France and a fear from TheLocal.fr:

French TV execs want protection from Netflix

French TV executives have asked to meet with top leaders to plead for “urgent measures” that would guard them against the pending arrival of video service Netflix and tech giants like Google.

The heads of France’s three largest private television networks have asked the government to protect them from US competitors like Google, Apple and Netflix who are set to enter the market.

The bosses of TF1, Canal+ and M6, alarmed by the impending arrival of the American tech giants, have sought a meeting with Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti to discuss “urgent measures” to reform the sector.

“It is not an economic crisis that is being faced by TF1, Canal+ and M6 but a rapid sectoral change,” Nonce Paolini, Bertrand Meheut and Nicolas de Tavernost said in the letter written last week and seen by AFP on Monday.

And another Roma tragedy from TheLocal.fr:

Blaze ravages another Roma camp in France

Fire raged through a Roma camp in Marseille on Sunday, just days after a blaze in a Paris area Roma camp killed an eight-year-old girl. Following that deadly fire the local mayor said it was time France dismantled its slums.

No one was hurt in the latest fire on Sunday morning, but all 15 makeshift homes near the Marseille port were completely destroyed, said the local fire brigade in a statement.

“Preliminary investigations suggest the fire was started accidentally,” a judicial source told AFP.

Around 45 people who were in the camp will now be housed by authorities in a hotel for the next week, but their future is in doubt since the local government was on the verge of evicting them.

Switzerland next and blowback from TheLocal.ch:

EU freezes research and student exchange funds

In a tit-for-tat retaliation, the European Union has frozen research grants for Swiss universities worth hundreds of millions of euros and suspended the involvement of Switzerland in the Erasmus student exchange programme.

A spokesman for the EU announced the freeze on Sunday, a day after after Bern announced it had refused to sign a deal opening labour market access to Croatia, the ATS news agency reported.

The Swiss government said it was unable to ink the deal because of the February 9th referendum decision to scrap the freedom of movement of labour agreement with the EU and impose immigration quotas.

But Brussels considers that Horizon 2020, an €80-billion research and innovation programme spread over seven years (2014-2020), and Erasmus, are tied to the free movement of people accord, ATS said.

More blowback from TheLocal.ch:

Moody’s: Swiss migrant vote ‘credit negative’

Curbs on immigration from the European Union will hurt Switzerland’s economy and its banking sector, ratings agency Moody’s said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

Swiss voters on February 9th supported an initiative to reintroduce quotas on immigrants from the EU in a move that has already led to retaliation from the 28-country bloc.

“Limiting immigration is likely to affect the country’s growth potential, wealth and overall economic strength,” Moody’s said, noting that the effect of the vote was “credit negative”.

The agency noted that Switzerland has benefited over the past decade from the “strong inflow of highly qualified workers”.

And from RT, tucked in for the night:

Swiss jets not scrambled over hijacked plane because ‘airbases closed at night’

An incident with a highjacked Ethiopian passenger jet has exposed the Swiss Air Force’s inability to deal with threats in ‘off-duty’ hours. An emergency escort to the aircraft in distress was carried out by vigilant colleagues from Italy and France.

Early on Monday morning, an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot told ground control he had highjacked flight ET-702 from Addis Ababa to Rome and was going to land in Geneva. The Swiss Air Force was caught off guard and missed a rare opportunity to go on a real mission. It turned out that they were unable to scramble any jets because they only work during office hours!

“Switzerland cannot intervene because its airbases are closed at night and on the weekend,” Swiss Air Force spokesman, Laurent Savary, commented to AFP later on, adding that it is “a question of budget and staffing.”

According to Laurent Savary, the Swiss Air Force operates during office hours only, specifically from 8am until a lunch break at noon. A return to cockpits happens at 1:30 pm and they watch over Switzerland’s skies until 5pm.

Spain next, and blowback from anti-immigrant violence of another kind from El País:

Immigration law change in works: interior minister

  • Rajoy defends civil guards’ reaction to tragic Ceuta stampede
  • Brussels denies receiving Spain’s request for border help

Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz on Tuesday announced that the Popular Party (PP) government is preparing a change in the immigration law to help civil guards facing mass attempts by migrants to cross the border into the Spanish North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

“The law is not designed for events such as the stampedes in Ceuta and Melilla,” Fernández Díaz said in the halls of the Senate after a tense session. “It is not the same as controlling the border at Barajas or Melilla [airports]. We are working on a reform to control the borders, so that the Civil Guard has adequate regulations to confront these situations.”

Earlier in the upper house he and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vigorously defended the actions of civil guards at the Ceuta security fence on February 6, when 15 sub-Saharan migrants died as a result of a mass attempt to cross the border during which rubber bullets were fired.

TheLocal.es has a deal for you:

Spain rolls out plans to flog off failed bank

Spain will sell its stake in bailed-out bank Bankia in stages over two or three years, its president said in an interview published on Sunday.

Bankia became the symbol of Spain’s financial crisis when it lost more than €19 billion ($26 billion) in 2012 and pushed the government to ask its eurozone partners for €41 billion in rescue loans to shore up the entire banking system.

Under the terms of the European Union’s 2012 bailout, the Spanish government has until 2017 to sell its 68 percent stake in Bankia.

“It would be reasonable for the privatization process to be similar to what is being carried out with Lloyds. That is, that it be carried out in phases and take two or three years,” Bankia president Jose Ignacio Goirigolzarri said in an interview published in daily newspaper ABC.

Europe Online covers another record:

Spain’s public debt at record high

Spain’s public debt has risen to its highest level since records began, data released on Monday showed, with the country posting an unprecedented deficit of 961.6 billion euros (1.3 trillion dollars) at the end of 2013.

The debt level marks an 8.7-per-cent increase on the previous year’s figure, the Bank of Spain revealed on Monday.

It represents around 94 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), which is slightly higher than the Spanish government’s 2013 target of 94.2 per cent.

El País covers departures:

Chinese burned

  • Some Spanish firms are abandoning China because of the problems of doing business there

“The wave of news stories about the rise in the Chinese market is creating a very distorted image of what it means to do business in this country and the risks involved.” This is the opinion of the director of a big Spanish industrial company with a presence in China. The director spoke on the condition that he was not named. “Currently, although the opposite image is given, very few Spanish companies are making a profit in China, and many are having great problems finding room for themselves in a particularly difficult market,” the director says.

Cases such as those of Revlon and Garnier, which this year decided to pull out of China, have shown that such problems are common to all foreign companies, although the idea persists that Spanish firms are finding it particularly difficult because they “lack the right background and financial resources.”

“Many companies are reaching desperation point. Traditional markets are not working and they’re convinced that anyone can make money in China. But they limit themselves to putting an intern in a business center and hoping for results that obviously will never come,” says the director, who is a leading member of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. “The problem of human resources is a major one: they don’t invest enough in personnel, there is a lack of talent and the turnaround in staff is one of the highest in the world.”

On to Lisbon and a caution from the Portugal News:

‘Crisis not over’ – finance minister

Portugal’s finance minister, Maria Luís Albuquerque, said on Monday in Brussels, that one of the country’s biggest challenges was not to be tempted to give up on budget discipline because it felt the worst part of the crisis was over.

Maria Luís Albuquerque, who was speaking at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) meeting before a Eurogroup meeting, said that “ among the reforms being implemented across Europe, the banking union was clearly the priority for Portugal”, since the current “credit conditions are a very negative factor for the competitiveness of Portuguese companies and the economy as a whole”.

Noting that the structural reforms, one of the topics of the seminar, are also high on the agenda, and there were reasons to be satisfied with the results, but added that there was “still a lot more work ahead”.

Italy next and a change at the top from ANSA:

Renzi handed govt mandate, sets ambitious reform goals

  • Premier-designate eying one major reform every month till May

Democratic Party (PD) leader Matteo Renzi set ambitious reform targets on Monday after being given a mandate to try to form a government from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Renzi, 39, is set to become Italy’s youngest-ever premier after torpedoing the coalition administration of his PD colleague Enrico Letta last week over his lack of progress with much-needed institutional reforms and measures to revive the troubled economy.

Italy is slowly emerging from its longest postwar recession, but it is still ravaged by unemployment of over 12% with over four in 10 under-25s out of work. Constitutional changes are also needed to streamline government and reduce the cost of the country’s expensive, slow-moving political system.

Les than enthused with TheLocal.it:

Italians think Renzi takeover is ‘pointless’

Matteo Renzi was nominated as Italy’s new prime minister on Monday after a “palace coup” which saw Enrico Letta resign from the leadership. But a new poll has found that few Italians believe it is a positive political move.

Just 31 percent of Italians think replacing Letta with Renzi, who aged just 39 is set to be Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister, is positive, an Ipsos poll on Sunday found.

While 23 percent found the move outright wrong, 26 percent said it was “pointless” while 15 percent found the current situation “absurd”.

Still more enthusiasm absent from ANSA:

Fitch keeps outlook negative, ‘Renzi faces same problems’

  • Letta’s resignation highlights ‘volatility of Italian politics’

Ratings agency Fitch said Monday it was keeping a negative outlook for Italy with a BBB+ rating, saying premier-designate Matteo Renzi “will probably have the same problems as his predecessor” in pushing through reforms if he manages to form a new government.

Fitch said the resignation of outgoing Premier Enrico Letta on Friday highlighted the “volatility of Italian politics” pointing out that Renzi was set to be the country’s fourth premier since November 2011.

A plutocratic spat from the London Telegraph:

Tycoons quarrel over Italy’s young jobless

  • Two of Italy’s business heavyweights have gone to war over the country’s soaring levels of youth unemployment
  • Italy’s youth unemployment reached a record 41.6pc in January

Diego Della Valle, head of the Tod’s luxury leather goods empire, launched a blistering attack on John Elkann, the president of the Fiat auto giant, after Mr Elkann said Italy’s young unemployed had no desire to look for work.

Mr Della Valle, the colourful entrepreneur known for his exuberant ties and gold-tinted spectacles, labelled Mr Elkann an “imbecile” after a week of bitter exchanges between the two.

Unhappy other from TheLocal.it:

Desperate business owners march on Rome

An estimated 60,000 Italians protested in central Rome on Tuesday, calling for greater action to save the millions of small- and medium-sized businesses which employ almost half the country’s workforce.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on Tuesday; a collective army of business owners demanding the government do more to stem the worrying rise in bankruptcies.

“Without business there is no Italy,” was the slogan of the day, organized by the Italian Enterprise Network (Rete Imprese Italia) along with a number of business associations.

Among a series of demands was an overhaul of the tax system, often described as a barrier to growth with such high rates many Italians simply evade their tax duties.

After the jump, the latest on the endless Greek crises, violence in the Ukraine, Turkish joblessness rising, Turkish economic alarms, Venezuelan turmoil, troubles in Brazil, Argentinian woes, Latin legalization moves, Australian economic woes and a Murdochian bonanza, Indian populism and woes, Thai turmoil, a mixed report from China, Abenonics in extremsis in Japan, nuclear woes, and Fukushimapocalypse Now! . . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day I: Spies, leaks, lies, zones


Today’s tales form thw world of spooks, hackers, militarists, and politics begins with an honor for The Guardian:

Journalists who broke NSA story in Guardian receive George Polk Awards

  • Ewen MacAskill, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras honoured
  • Polk curator: repercussions of NSA ‘will be with us for years’

The three journalists who broke the National Security Agency revelations from Edward Snowden in the Guardian are among the recipients of the prestigious 2013 George Polk Awards in Journalism.

Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras will receive the award for national security reporting, along with Barton Gellman of the Washington Post.

Janine Gibson, Guardian US editor-in-chief, said: “We’re honoured by the recognition from the Polk awards and delighted for Ewen, Glenn, Laura, Barton and their colleagues that their work has been recognised.

And a related story from The Guardian:

Press freedom groups urge David Cameron to lay off The Guardian

A group of the world’s leading press freedom bodies is calling on prime minister David Cameron to distance himself from the investigation into The Guardian over the leaks by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The seven organisations also want Cameron to urge parliament to repeal the statute that underlies the royal charter on press regulation.

Signatories to a letter sent to Cameron today include the World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI).

The decision to write to Cameron was taken at the annual meeting of the global coordinating committee of press freedom organisations, which took place in London last month. It followed what the signatories call an “unprecedented” fact-finding mission to Britain by WAN-IFRA.

From the International Business Times, intimidation by proxy:

Edward Snowden’s Lawyer Claims Harassment from Heathrow Airport Border Police

Jesselyn Radack, a human rights lawyer representing Edward Snowden, has claimed that she was detained and questioned in a “very hostile” manner on Saturday by London Heathrow Airport’s Customs staff.

Radack told civil liberties blog Firedoglake that she was taken to a room to be questioned by a Heathrow Border Force officer who showed very little interest in her passport documents but subjected her to questioning about whistle-blowers Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.

The 43-year-old lawyer was formerly an ethics advisor to the United States Department of Justice, who became a whistle-blower herself after disclosing an ethics violation made by the FBI in their interrogation of “American Taliban” suspect John Walker Lindh in 2001.

And The Guardian confers an honor:

Edward Snowden elected as Glasgow University rector

  • Students choose NSA whistleblower over cyclist, author and clergyman in record turnout for rectoral election

Students have elected the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to serve as rector of the University of Glasgow for the next three years.

The result of the online election was announced to candidates and their supporters shortly after polls closed at 5pm on Tuesday.

Snowden was nominated by a group of students at the university who said they had received his approval through his lawyer. Snowden is staying in Russia where he was given temporary asylum.

From TheLocal.fr, European blowback:

‘European internet’ plan to prevent US spying

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will discuss the concept of creating a European Internet when she meets French President François Hollande this week. Her proposal is aimed at preventing US intelligence agencies from being able to intercept data.

Hollande and Merkel will discuss the proposal of creating a European internet when the pair hold talks in Paris on Wednesday.

Germany has been rocked by the revelations of former security contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed a mass spying programme by the US National Security Agency (NSA).

More from Spiegel:

Striking Back: Germany Considers Counterespionage Against US

  • Unsatisfied with the lack of answers provided by Washington in the NSA spying scandal, officials in Berlin are considering a new approach. Germany might begin counterespionage measures aimed at allies.

The question seemed out of place, especially when asked three times. A female journalist from a satire magazine wanted to know if Thomas de Maizière liked cheese snacks. “Questions like that are more appropriate for breakfast television than here,” the minister snipped back. It was de Maizière’s first visit as interior minister to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. And he was in no mood for jokes.

Instead, the minister preferred to focus on the basics during the appearance two weeks ago, with counterespionage at the top of his list. The issue, he warned, shouldn’t be underestimated, adding that the question as to who was doing the spying was but of secondary importance.

In other words: Germany intends to defend itself against all spying efforts in the future, even if they are perpetrated by supposed friends.

A graphic take from China Daily’s Li Feng:

BLOG NSA China

And another target of Angela’s ire via TheLocal.de:

Merkel targets Facebook in Euro-web privacy push

Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed plans for a “European internet” independent of America and targeted US internet giants Facebook and Google in her push for more privacy.

Merkel mentioned the two US companies in her weekly podcast on Saturday as an example of companies which circumnavigate German data protection laws.

Germany has been rocked by the revelations of former security contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed a mass spying programme by the US National Security Agency (NSA).

By creating a “European internet” all servers and cables would be based in Europe meaning they would be subject to European data protection laws.

“Google or Facebook can naturally go where privacy is at its lowest and we in Europe cannot approve this in the long run,” Merkel said.

From Ars Technica, a sad tale of underutilized hysteria:

Clapper: We should have disclosed NSA bulk data collection in 2001

  • Intelligence chief says program would have seen support in the wake of 9/11 attacks.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has admitted that the National Security Agency should have disclosed more about the bulk data collection that it has engaged in for more than a decade. He made the surprising statements in an interview with The Daily Beast.

The bulk data program is designed to collect certain information on all US phone calls, although there have been recent disagreements about how much cell phone data is swept up. In the interview, Clapper said the controversy could have been avoided if more information about the program was disclosed at its outset, back in 2001. He suggests the public, still shaken from the 9/11 attacks, would have been on board with such a program.

The Guardian offers a rationale:

Merkel phone tapping fair game under international law, says ex-MI6 deputy

  • Nigel Inkster says interception of German chancellor’s calls by NSA might be judged ‘politically unwise’

Intercepting the telephone calls of Angela Merkel would have been “politically unwise” and “certainly illegal under German law”, according to a former senior British secret intelligence officer.

However, he says that under international law, tapping into the German chancellor’s telephone conversations “would appear to be fair game”.

Nigel Inkster, former deputy chief of MI6, was responding to the disclosure by Edward Snowden that the US National Security Agency targeted Merkel’s mobile telephone. Though the White House has not officially admitted it, it has said the US will not monitor the chancellor’s conversations in future.

And the latest Snowden lead, via The Intercept:

Snowden Documents Reveal Covert Surveillance and Pressure Tactics Aimed at WikiLeaks and Its Supporters

Top-secret documents from the National Security Agency and its British counterpart reveal for the first time how the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert surveillance to prosecution.

The efforts – detailed in documents provided previously by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – included a broad campaign of international pressure aimed not only at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but at what the U.S. government calls “the human network that supports WikiLeaks.” The documents also contain internal discussions about targeting the file-sharing site Pirate Bay and hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous.

One classified document from Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s top spy agency, shows that GCHQ used its surveillance system to secretly monitor visitors to a WikiLeaks site. By exploiting its ability to tap into the fiber-optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet, the agency confided to allies in 2012, it was able to collect the IP addresses of visitors in real time, as well as the search terms that visitors used to reach the site from search engines like Google.

Another classified document from the U.S. intelligence community, dated August 2010, recounts how the Obama administration urged foreign allies to file criminal charges against Assange over the group’s publication of the Afghanistan war logs.

And the target speaks, via RT:

‘Reckless & unlawful’: Assange calls for probe into NSA ‘manhunt’ on WikiLeaks

Julian Assange has called on the White House to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate NSA spying on WikiLeaks. Secret documents have revealed how the NSA spied on WikiLeaks and its followers, seeking to classify it as “a malicious foreign actor.”

In its latest release of US government documents, WikiLeaks has accused the National Security Agency of tracking its members and followers. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has called the NSA’s espionage program “reckless and illegal” and has demanded Washington open an investigation into the claims.

“News that the NSA planned these operations at the level of its Office of the General Counsel is especially troubling,” Assange said in a statement on WikiLeaks’ website. “Today, we call on the White House to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the extent of the NSA’s criminal activity against the media, including WikiLeaks, its staff, its associates and its supporters.”

The Hill desists:

NSA, DHS drop parody complaint

It isn’t illegal to print the National Security Agency’s (NSA) official seal above the words “Spying On You Since 1952″ on a novelty mug, the agency acknowledged on Tuesday.

The NSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are abandoning their protests against a line of mugs, hats and shirts that mock official government insignia, settling a lawsuit filed by the consumer interest group Public Citizen on behalf of Dan McCall, a Minnesota activist who sold products poking fun at the government.

“This is an important win,” said Paul Levy, a Public Citizen lawyer involved in the case, in a statement on Tuesday. “Citizens shouldn’t have to worry whether criticizing government agencies will get them in trouble or not. This settlement proves the First Amendment is there to protect citizens’ rights to free speech.”

McCall’s site, LibertyManiacs.com, sold bumper stickers, shirts, hats and other goods featuring a series of parody images. One graphic featured the DHS seal with the words “Department of Homeland Stupidity.”

The McClatchy Washington Bureau sources:

Report: Cyberattack on German government traced to China

Hackers attempted to take control of senior German government officials’ computers last year and the source has been traced to China, the news magazine Der Spiegel said Sunday.

Emails infected with a virus were sent to officials in several ministries and to banks in September, just before G-20 nations including China met for a summit in St Petersburg, Russia.

One of the emails pretended to contain an exchange of information among economic advisers known as “sherpas,” the officials below the rank of minister who conduct most of the negotiations in advance of summits.

A well-considered rationale from Slate:

Why the NSA Should Keep Holding On to Surveillance Data

  • Let the NSA Keep Hold of the Data
  • Giving it to private companies will only make privacy intrusion worse.

I think the proposal makes things worse in several respects.

First, the NSA is going to do a better job at database security than corporations are. I say this not because the NSA has any magic computer security powers, but because it has more experience at it and is better funded. (And, yes, that’s true even though Edward Snowden was able to copy so many of their documents.) The difference is of degree, not of kind. Both options leave the data vulnerable to insider attacks—more so in the case of a third-party data repository because there will be more insiders. And although neither will be perfect, I would trust the NSA to protect my data against unauthorized access more than I would trust a private corporation to do the same.

Second, there’s the greater risk of authorized access. This is the risk that the Review Group is most concerned about. The thought is that if the data were in private hands, and the only legal way at the data was a court order, then it would be less likely for the NSA to exceed its authority by making bulk queries on the data or accessing more of it than it is allowed to. I don’t believe that this is true. Any system that has the data outside of the NSA’s control is going to include provisions for emergency access, because … well, because the word terrorism will scare any lawmaker enough to give the NSA that capability. Already the NSA goes through whatever legal processes it and the secret FISA court have agreed to. Adding another party into this process doesn’t slow things down, provide more oversight, or in any way make it better. I don’t trust a corporate employee not to turn data over for NSA analysis any more than I trust an NSA employee.

On the corporate side, the corresponding risk is that the data will be used for all sorts of things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. If corporations are forced by governments to hold on to customer data, they’re going to start thinking things like: “We’re already storing this personal data on all of our customers for the government. Why don’t we mine it for interesting tidbits, use it for marketing purposes, sell it to data brokers, and on and on and on?” At least the NSA isn’t going to use our personal data for large-scale individual psychological manipulation designed to separate us from as much money as possible—which is the business model of companies like Google and Facebook.

The Independent beams:

Star Wars to become reality as US Navy on course to arm ship with laser

Some of the US Navy’s futuristic weapons sound like something out of Star Wars, with lasers designed to shoot down aerial drones and electric guns that fire projectiles at hypersonic speeds.

The Navy plans to deploy its first laser on a ship later this year, and it intends to test an electromagnetic rail gun prototype aboard a vessel within two years.

For the Navy, it’s not so much about the whizz-bang technology as it is about the economics. Both are cheap compared with missiles and smart bombs, and they can be fired continuously.

“It fundamentally changes the way we fight,” said Captain Mike Ziv, programme manager for directed energy and electric weapon systems for the Naval Sea Systems Command. The Navy’s laser technology has evolved to the point where a prototype to be deployed aboard the USS Ponce this summer can be operated by a single sailor, he said.

After the jump, the latest in the Asian zonal, militarism, and historical crises, a stealthy spyware infestation, automotive espionage, the total tab $200 million] for the Target hack, a digital assault targeting an online tollbooth, A Dutch spookshop takedown, and another kind of war on the press. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEcoPoliFukuFailure


Today’s collection of headlines form the realms of economics, politics, and the environment begins with a tale of sobering implications from RT:

Self-organizing robot armies produced – and all thanks to ingenious termite logic

Harvard ‘brainiacs’ are at it again. Inspired by termites, they have realized their dream of cheap, expendable, self-organizing robots – a construction crew building complex structures at a quick pace, and completely independent of leadership.

The possibilities are vast. The machines can be made to build any three-dimensional structure on their own and with minimal instruction. But what is truly staggering is their ability to adapt to their work environment and to each other; to calculate losses, reorganize efforts and make adjustments. It is already clear that the development will do wonders for humanity in space, hard-to-reach places and other difficult situations.

Looking at huge mounds of soil and the resilience of hordes of termites building them, working for a common cause, while their comrades die, the techies and engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have created an army of little bots that do just that. And they cooperate and learn with no oversight.

And the world into which these shiny new arnies are born? From The Independent:

One in four Americans ‘don’t know the Earth orbits the Sun’ and only half believe in evolution

With the possible exception of ‘is the earth flat?’ it is (according to Discover magazine at least) the most basic question in science: ‘does the earth orbit the sun?’

The good news is that 74 per cent of Americans know the answer.

The very bad news is that means 26 per cent really don’t.

These results, which appear in the National Science Foundation (NSF) survey of 2,200 Americans, will form part of a report set to be presented to Barack Obama and lawmakers in congress, and are likely to once again raise the issue of educational standards in the United States.

Other startling results from the survey included that only 39 per cent of Americans believe “the universe began with a huge explosion”. And fewer than half of the people surveyed (48 per cent) agreed that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals”.

As for those creationism believers, they’ve gotten so bad that even Pat Robertson thinks they’re bonkers [via Right Wing Watch]:

RWW News: Even Pat Robertson Attacks Creationism As A “Joke”

From JapanToday, an American initiative with legs:

U.S. drug policy fuels push for legal pot worldwide

From the Americas to Europe to North Africa and beyond, the marijuana legalization movement is gaining unprecedented traction — a nod to successful efforts in Colorado, Washington state and the small South American nation of Uruguay, which in December became the first country to approve nationwide pot legalization.

Leaders long weary of the drug war’s violence and futility have been emboldened by changes in U.S. policy, even in the face of opposition from their own conservative populations. Some are eager to try an approach that focuses on public health instead of prohibition, and some see a potentially lucrative industry in cannabis regulation.

“A number of countries are saying, ‘We’ve been curious about this, but we didn’t think we could go this route,’” said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who helped write Colorado’s marijuana regulations. “It’s harder for the U.S. to look at other countries and say, ‘You can’t legalize, you can’t decriminalize,’ because it’s going on here.”

That’s due largely to a White House that’s more open to drug war alternatives.

There’s also an argument to be made from the employment angle, as Britain’s ITN discovered:

Pot employees in demand in the US

Program note:

Hemp temps are being sought after due to the rise in the demand for pot. . Report by Jennifer Cordingley.

And from the Toronto Globe and Mail, yet another shift:

Relaxed marijuana rules make Sochi Olympics faster, stronger and way, way higher

Olympic officials take great pride in cracking down on doping and so far no athlete has tested positive at the Sochi Olympics. But officials acknowledge they have had a difficult time dealing with one drug in particular: marijuana.

Technically marijuana is on the World Anti-Doping list of banned drugs, which governs events like the Olympics, because officials consider it to be performance enhancing and a violation of the “spirit of sport”. But in a nod to the growing relaxed attitude toward the drug around the world, the cut off level for a positive test has been increased for the Sochi Games, allowing for some recreational use prior to the Olympics.

The new threshold for the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, has been increased from 15 nanograms per millilitre of urine to 150ng/mls. Officials say that means an athlete who smoked some weed before the Olympics, or inhaled second-hand smoke, wouldn’t likely test positive in Sochi. Someone who failed the new test would have to be “a pretty dedicated cannabis consumer,” WADA officials have said.

Meanwhile, CNBC spots a growth industry:

Helping the rich to become $100 trillion industry

With the global economy creating millionaires and billionaires at breakneck speed, the industry handling their money is about to explode.

Six years from now, the asset management industry, which currently controls about $60 trillion in wealth, will be responsible for more than $100 trillion by 2020, according to a recent study from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

PwC attributes the surge both to a general growth in emerging economies, particularly in Asia.

And the first of two headlines focusing on changes in the Golden State, first from Salon:

San Francisco’s rightward turn: Why it may no longer be America’s iconic liberal city

  • With an influx of rich people and exodus of poor and middle class, a less liberal San Francisco could soon emerge

And the second headline, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/williesworld/article/Are-public-employee-unions-toxic-to-their-5238874.php

Are public-employee unions toxic to their candidates?

The real news in the San Diego mayoral race isn’t that a Republican won, but that the candidate backed by public-employee unions lost.

That is a real shift in California politics. And it’s the second time it’s happened in a big-city mayoral race in less than a year.

And from News Corp Australia, an old ghost in a new sheet:

Experts concerned scientific advances are giving rise to ‘neoracism’

ADVANCES in genetic sequencing are giving rise to a new era of scientific racism, experts have said.

New forms of discrimination, known as “neoracism”, are taking hold in scientific research, spreading the belief that races exist and are different in terms of biology, behaviour and culture, according to anthropologists who spoke at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago.

This comes despite decades-long efforts to reverse attitudes that were used to justify the slave trade and the Nazi ideology.

From Al Jazeera America, a loss for labor:

Tennessee Volkswagen workers reject union

  • Factory workers voted 712 to 626 to prevent the United Auto Workers from representing them

Workers at Volkswagen’s three-year-old factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted Friday to reject union representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW), frustrating an effort to revive the waning influence of the labor movement in the South.

The vote tally concluded with 712 voting no, and 626 voting yes.

The UAW’s bid to represent VW’s 1,550 hourly workers faced fierce resistance from local politicians and national conservative groups.

The defeat could scuttle the 400,000-member union’s latest attempt to stem a decades-long decline in membership, revenue and influence. It could reinforce the widely held notion that the UAW is unable to overcome the South’s deep opposition toward organized labor.

And from Bloomberg yet another corporate takeaway:

Companies Squeeze 401K Plans From Facebook to JPMorgan

Employers are squeezing their workers’ retirement savings, holding back on both the amount and the timing of 401(k) matching funds and dragging out vesting schedules. Taken together, these measures are making it more difficult to save for old age.

Major companies that have engaged in such practices in recent years include Whole Foods Market Inc. (WFM), Facebook Inc., Oracle Corp. (ORCL), Caesars Entertainment Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The most frugal have been scaling back company matches and setting lower limits for the maximum annual payment they’ll make to a 401(k) account, according to hundreds of government filings analyzed by Bloomberg. A difference of three percentage points on a match can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars lost for employees over the course of their careers.

But the takers aren’t giving, via Bloomberg Businessweek:

Billionaires’ Wealth Is Skyrocketing. Their Philanthropy Is Not

The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its annual “Philanthropy 50″ list this week, detailing the gifts of the most generous donors in America. These individuals are “ditching the caution that marked so much of their giving as the economy stalled and are roaring back” with $7.7 billion in contributions, 4 percent more than in 2012, the publication says.

Giving is up since the financial crisis. But while the stock market has made a complete recovery, top-50 philanthropy has clearly not. And this kind of giving has not nearly kept pace with the rise in American billionaires’ wealth over the past decade. The Forbes 400 list, which tracks the richest people in the U.S., had a total net worth of $955 billion in 2003. By 2013, it had more than doubled, to $2 trillion.

The Bloomberg Billionaires index, which launched in 2012 and tracks the 300 richest people worldwide, saw a $524 billion increase in wealth during 2013 alone. Tech billionaires gained 28 percent on the year, led by Tesla (TSLA) founder Elon Musk, whose wealth climbed 233 percent.

This puts the 4 percent increase the Chronicle of Philanthropy hails in context. At a time when the richest Americans’ wealth is skyrocketing, it’s appropriate to ask whether their giving is skyrocketing as well.

United Press International covers the boom:

Oil boom in Williams County, N.D., leads to high crime, housing costs

The boom in oil production in Williams County, N.D., has resulted in a population increase and an overbooking of the county jail, officials said.

In the 2010 U.S. census, about 14,700 residents lived in Williston, N.D., the seat of Williams County. Today, officials estimate more than 30,000 live in the city and another 50,000 are being served by its infrastructure, the Williston Herald reported Saturday.

The population boom and high-paying oil jobs have led to the highest housing costs in the country.

Apartment Guide said a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Williston costs on average $2,394, the highest in the entire country. That’s even higher than New York City, which is No. 7 on the list, and Los Angeles, which is No. 8.

And from the New York Times, the other drug problem:

Medicines Made in India Set Off Safety Worries

India, the second-largest exporter of over-the-counter and prescription drugs to the United States, is coming under increased scrutiny by American regulators for safety lapses, falsified drug test results and selling fake medicines.

Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, arrived in India this week to express her growing unease with the safety of Indian medicines because of “recent lapses in quality at a handful of pharmaceutical firms.”

India’s pharmaceutical industry supplies 40 percent of over-the-counter and generic prescription drugs consumed in the United States, so the increased scrutiny could have profound implications for American consumers.

F.D.A. investigators are blitzing Indian drug plants, financing the inspections with some of the roughly $300 million in annual fees from generic drug makers collected as part of a 2012 law requiring increased scrutiny of overseas plants. The agency inspected 160 Indian drug plants last year, three times as many as in 2009. The increased scrutiny has led to a flood of new penalties, including half of the warning letters the agency issued last year to drug makers.

Reuters covers a coming cash flow:

Foreign banks bracing for tough U.S. Fed capital rules

Overseas banks look set to win only minor concessions when the Federal Reserve signs off on new capital rules next week, as they become increasingly resigned to the fact that the cost of doing business in the United States will go up.

The Fed, whose board of governors meets on Tuesday, will require overseas banks to hold as much capital in the United States as their local rivals.

The reform is designed to address concerns that U.S. taxpayers will need to foot the bill if European and Asian regulators treat U.S. subsidiaries with low priority if they need to rescue one of their banks.

Foreign banks with sizeable operations on Wall Street such as Deutsche Bank and Barclays have pushed back hard against the plan because it means they will need to transfer costly capital from Europe.

On to Canada and a familiar neocon ploy from the National Post:

Fair Elections Act sure to deprive Canadians of voting rights, U.S. experts warn

A participant in the bruising American battle over voting rights warns that Canada is treading on dangerous ground with its proposed electoral reforms.

One of the lawyers who helped strike down the voter ID law in Pennsylvania last month says legislation tabled by the Harper government will inevitably wind up depriving some people of their voting rights.

That’s why any change to voting requirements should be made with the strictest care, in the spirit of achieving more accurate election results, said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union for Pennsylvania.

That warning comes from a country where voting rights are an especially emotional subject, for obvious historical reasons. Americans know the issue well. And the impact of ID rules has been studied extensively, re-emerging in recent years as a hotly debated partisan issue.

From Jiji Press, anxiety on the agenda:

G-20 to Focus on Uncertainty over Emerging Economies

Finance ministers and central bank chiefs from the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies are expected to mainly discuss uncertainty over the course of emerging economies at their two-day meeting in Sydney from Feb. 22.

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso, also deputy prime minister and financial services minister, regards concerns over emerging economies and the U.S. Federal Reserve’s tapering of its quantitative easing as important issues that the world economy faces.

Since views differ between anxious emerging economies and calm advanced countries, whether the G-20 can hammer out a cooperation framework in a joint statement is a focal point.

Jiji Press again, with another set of talks:

Japan, U.S. to Explore Compromise for TPP Conclusion

At their forthcoming meeting, Akira Amari, Japanese minister in charge of Trans-Pacific Partnership affairs, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman are expected to sound each other out about the possibility of compromise for an agreement in TPP regional free trade talks.

Amari and Froman are set to hold talks in Washington later on Saturday, ahead of a ministerial meeting of 12 TPP countries in Singapore from Feb. 22.

Japan and the United States remain far apart over tariffs on farm products. In their talks in parallel with multilateral TPP negotiations, Japan is insisting on keeping its tariffs on five key product categories including rice.

And the post-meet update, also from Jiji Press:

Japan, U.S. Fail to Strike Tariff Deal

Japanese and U.S. trade ministers remained apart over tariff issues particularly in the agricultural sector in their talks Saturday linked with multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Emerging from the talks with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in Washington, which lasted two and a half hours, Akira Amari, Japanese minister in charge of TPP negotiations for regional trade liberalization, told reporters that the two “agreed on the importance of reducing differences in their stances” over the issues.

The Japanese and U.S. sides discussed ways to abolish import duties on individual trading items including agricultural products but “did not reach any numerical agreement,” Amari said.

Toward the upcoming TPP ministerial meeting in Singapore from Feb. 22, the Japanese and U.S. governments will hold working-level talks to narrow the gap, he added.

On to Britain and a disaster update from The Guardian:

UK floods: 5,000 more troops on standby as water continues to rise

  • Storms ease but severe flood warnings remain in place along Thames and in Somerset, where pumping work continues

An extra 5,000 troops are on standby to support communities hit by flooding, it was announced on Sunday, as the government faced calls for a halt to home building on flood plains.

Large swaths of the UK remain on high alert with severe flood warnings still in place along the Thames and in Somerset where water levels continue to rise despite a respite from the storms.

Defence secretary Philip Hammond said 3,000 troops were currently deployed, and another 5,000 were available. He admitted the armed forces could have been despatched earlier to help.

The London Telegraph tracks a decline:

Downward mobility: Lucy Mangan on the fall of the middle class

The middle classes are being squeezed and stripped – of jobs, income and security – like never before. Lucy Mangan reports on ‘a profound psychological shift in the nation’s heartland’

How to complain about house prices, mortgages and pensions without being accused of being a middle-class whinger? Well, I may be just that, but my worries – and those of millions like me – are very real and need to be heard: they represent a profound psychological shift in the nation’s heartland.

Today the middle classes are being squeezed and stripped – of jobs, income and security – like never before. The landscape ahead has been laid bare by the winds of social, political and technological change. I hardly needed Alan Milburn’s recent report on social mobility, which revealed that for the first time in history middle-class children are likely to end up poorer than their parents, to start worrying about how my son is going to survive out there.

A dis from The Observer:

It’ll take a miracle to restore Barclays’s wrecked reputation now

  • Antony Jenkins may have tried to do the right thing at Barclays by waiving his own payout, but even the bonus-hungry City is shocked by the bankers’ shameful behaviour

What a difference a year makes. Antony Jenkins was applauded by the City 12 months ago when he set out his strategy for turning Barclays into the “go to” bank by restricting costs and rooting out the bad apples in the investment banking arm.

Remember, it was barely six months after the Libor crisis had shaken Barclays to its core and forced out its top management, including Jenkins’s predecessor, Bob Diamond. Jenkins had said enough to push the bank’s share price up 9% by the end of the day.

Such was his status as the antithesis to Diamond – who was dubbed the “unacceptable face of banking” by Lord Mandelson – that Jenkins ended 2013 with the honour of guest editing the BBC’s flagship Today programme. His halo was given a rub when Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who also featured in the New Year’s Eve radio show, supported Jenkins’s attempt to clean up Barclays’s act.

Last week the applause stopped. Even though Jenkins had personally tried to do the right thing by waiving his own bonus for 2013 – potentially as much as £2.7m – he stunned even the City with his failure to explain why the bank was paying out 10% more in bonuses in a year when profits collapsed by 32%. The boost was even harder to stomach in the investment bank, once better known as BarCap, where the bonus pot was up 13%, despite the unit reporting losses in the final quarter of the year.

The Financial Express wields the job ax:

Indian-origin ‘chicken king’ may cut thousands of UK jobs

British Indian businessman Ranji Boparan, known as the “chicken king”, is set to axe around 1,800 jobs in the UK as part of a major restructuring of his food business empire.

The Birmingham-based tycoon, known as the “chicken king” for his mega poultry-focused business ‘2 Sisters’, is planning to shut two sites and cut jobs to rein in costs.

The company is one of the largest suppliers of poultry and meat to supermarkets and fast-food chains in the UK. The 47-year-old Boparan’s empire now includes ready meals, pizzas, frozen vegetables and biscuits, and he has 24,000 employees at 50 factories.

The Guardian hints of deflation in the making:

Inflation expected to fall below Bank of England’s 2% target

  • Anticipated drop to 1.9% will mark the first time inflation has fallen below the target since November 2009

Inflation is expected to have fallen below the Bank of England’s 2% target for the first time in more than four years in January thanks to retailers slashing prices and lower fuel costs.

Many economists believe official figures on Tuesday will reveal a fall in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) to 1.9% last month from 2% in December, which will mark the first time inflation has dropped below the target since November 2009.

It follows last month’s aggressive discounting by food and general merchandise retailers, with high streets seeing widespread deflation. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said shop prices fell at their fastest rate last month, falling by 1% against a 0.8% drop in December.

BBC News bubbles away:

Mark Carney says UK housing market in widespread recovery

Bank of England governor Mark Carney says the UK housing market is generally recovering.

Mr Carney told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that, looking at the UK as a whole, “we are now seeing house prices begin to recover, so it is a more generalised phenomenon”.

He said the only area where prices had not picked up was Northern Ireland. He also said there was little the bank could do to cool the London market, where prices were rising far faster.

Prices in London are rising by about 10% a year, but Mr Carney said a change in interest rate policy – not on the cards in any case until the recovery is well established – would not cool the market as a significant number of properties were bought without a mortgage.

Sky News casts doubt:

Independent Scotland EU Bid ‘Almost Impossible’

The European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s comments have been labelled “preposterous” and “ridiculous” by the SNP.

An independent Scotland joining the European Union would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”, according to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Barroso said if the country voted for independence in a referendum on September 18 it would have to apply for membership and get its bid approved by all current member states.

The Scottish government has said the country would try to gain membership within 18 months of a yes vote. But Mr Barroso suggested this could run into difficulties. “We have seen Spain has been opposing even the recognition of Kosovo, for instance,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

On to Sweden with TheLocal.se and one xenophobia casualties:

Evicted migrants in serious bus crash

A bus carrying 43 Romanian migrants back to Bucharest crashed in the early hours of Sunday morning in southern Sweden, after they had been evicted from a shanty town in Stockholm.

The accident took place in Alvesta when the bus veered off the national highway 27 shortly after midnight. One person, understood to be the bus driver, was seriously injured and spent the night in a local hospital although his injuries are not considered life threatening.

“It is very, very slippery on the roads in this area. It is completely icy which may have been a cause of the accident,” local policeman Percy Nilsson told the Expressen newspaper.

The other passengers spent the night in a hotel where a spokesperson said they were in shock following the crash.

Finland next and a blotted escutcheon from New Europe:

Finland’s record of transparency blemished by increasing corruption cases

Finland, a Nordic country that has been a model in the world in combating corruption, has witnessed an increase of suspected business related crimes in the past few years.

According to a fresh police report quoted by the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle, alleged economic crimes have more than doubled over the past six years, from 91 cases in 2009 to 204 in 2013.

The increase was almost entirely due to a rise in cases involving the abuse of authority, which number has doubled since 2012.

Erkki Laukkanen, chief of Transparency International Finland, said the public-private partnerships are “far from transparency, and much more open to corruption.”

On to Amsterdam and expectations unfulfilled from DutchNews.nl:

Cuts and tax rises have an adverse effect on the treasury

Cuts to healthcare benefits in 2012 did not give the government the savings it expected, the national auditor says in a report published on Friday.

The benefits bill shrank by just €98m, while the government expected to save €600m. The €502m shortfall added 0.08% to GDP, says the national auditor, quoted by news agency ANP.

Although the number of households claiming healthcare benefits of up to around €70 a month per person did fall, the average cost per household was up €8. The government was expecting a drop of €50.

The national auditor says the cabinet gave ‘limited’ information to parliament about the shortfall and must keep parliament fully informed about the effects of all the cuts.

On to Switzerland with The Guardian:

Swiss vote on immigration boosts far-right parties through rest of Europe

  • In Austria, the Freedom party, once led by Jörg Haider, has seen a rise in working-class votes

When Christian Ragger heard that the Swiss had voted to cap immigration into their country in a referendum last weekend, he was “deeply impressed”, he says. “All over the world, immigration is protected [from being limited]. It required a special courage to vote in that way. This was a typically democratic Swiss action.”

Ragger heads the local branch of the Austrian Freedom party (FPÖ) in its mountainous stronghold of Carinthia, in the south of the country. Once led by the flamboyant Jörg Haider, the FPÖ has been called everything from populist to neo-Nazi, yet it would be hard to imagine anyone less like the stereotype of a bull-necked, red-faced Alpine far right-winger than the FPÖ’s trim and cosmopolitan young leader.

TheLocal.ch rejects:

Bern rejects Croat free labour access deal

Switzerland has declined to sign a deal opening labour market access to Croatians, a week after a vote to curb immigration from the EU, the justice department said Saturday.

Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga called Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic to inform her that Bern would not be able to sign a bilateral accord extending the right of free access to Switzerland for EU citizens to the bloc’s newest member state “in its current form,” a ministry spokesman said.

Sommaruga had also informed Brussels that the deal would need to be re-examined, spokesman Philippe Schwander told AFP, adding that the minister had stressed she was seeking a “solution” to ensure Croatians were not discriminated against.

Spain next and a worried take from RT:

EU ‘very concerned’ by Spanish police use of rubber bullets to deter migrants

The European Commission wants Spain to account for the drowning of 13 migrants who recently failed to swim to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. Spain earlier admitted that rubber bullets were fired at them, but claimed no one was injured.

“The commission will be requesting explanations from the Spanish authorities on these events,” EU Home Affairs spokesperson Michele Cercone said, adding that the commission has a right to act if there’s evidence that a member state has violated EU laws.

On Thursday, Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz admitted that local border police, in an effort to turn back around 200 migrants who tried to cross the frontier between Morocco and Spain’s Ceuta on February 6, had indeed fired rubber bullets at them.

While some tried to cross on land, at least thirteen migrants drowned in the Mediterranean trying to swim around a man-made breakwater that separates Moroccan and Spanish waters. Spanish police say they are still searching for more victims.

More from TheLocal.es:

Calls for Spain to end migrant ‘violent’ abuse

A group of Moroccan NGOs has called on Spain and Morocco to end “widespread violence” against illegal immigrants, in a letter to Spain’s ambassador, after 12 people drowned trying to cross their common border.

“We are deeply concerned to see the close cooperation between Spain and Morocco on border control today resulting in… widespread violence against migrants and security practices outside of any legal framework,” the eight NGOs said in the open letter seen by AFP on Friday.

“We ask you to intervene urgently with your government to put an end to these practices,” said the group, with included the Moroccan branch of Caritas and migrant support group GADEM.

A deflation alert from El País:

Inflation at lowest level in over 50 years

  • Consumer price index up annual 0.2 percent in January

Inflation in Spain in the first month of the year was at its lowest level on record reflecting the ongoing weakness of domestic demand due to high unemployment and falling wages. The National Statistics Institute (INE) on Friday confirmed earlier flash estimates that the consumer price index fell 1.3 percent in January from December as the annual rate slowed from 0.3 percent to 0.2 percent, the lowest level since the INE began compiling the current series in 1961.

Spain pulled out of recession in the third quarter of last year but the contribution of domestic demand to GDP remaining negative.

Annual inflation has now remained under 0.5 percent for the past five months and is well below the euro-zone average in January of 0.7 percent. Analysts have expressed fears of deflation taking a hold on the euro-zone economy as it did in Japan for over a decade. The ECB’s medium-term target for inflation is close to but below 2 percent.

TheLocal.es protests:

Coke staff stage protest over plant closures

Thousands took to the streets in Madrid on Saturday in protest at the closure of four bottling plants of US soft-drink giant Coca-Cola that would affect 1,250 workers.

Demonstrators, some coming from other Spanish cities, carried banners condemning the layoffs and calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola Iberian Partners, the multinational’s only bottling company in Spain, said at the end of January the closures were needed to improve efficiency. But workers argue the layoffs are unjustified since the company is making a profit.

Coca-Cola Iberian Partners, which currently has 4,000 employees on its books, was founded last year by merging the seven bottling companies in Spain
owned by the US brand. Under the restructuring plan, four of the 11 plants in Spain — Fuenlabrada near Madrid, Palma, Oviedo and Alicante — will close.

Of the affected 1,250 jobs, 750 will be axed and 500 relocated to other plants.

El País dings a biggie:

Cabinet approves “Google tax” on use of copyrighted material

  • Measure included in reform of Intellectual Property Law

The Spanish Cabinet on Friday approved a draft reform of the Intellectual Property Law, which includes a so-called “Google tax” on the use of fragments of “information, opinion and entertainment” grouped together, for example, on search engines.

Presented by Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría and Education and Culture Minister José Ignacio Wert, the reform allows the reproduction of such “non-significant fragments” without prior authorization but requires the payment of “equitable compensation” for doing so, Wert explained. Prior authorization will still be required for the use of photographs. Such a tax already exists in Germany and France.

Wert did not say how “non-significant fragments” would be defined nor how much compensation would be involved.

thinkSPAIN cuts corners:

Judge accuses ADIF rail board of ‘putting profits before lives’ in light of Galicia crash

A JUDGE investigating the devastating train crash just outside Santiago de Compostela last July in which 79 passengers died has slammed the rail board for ‘putting profits before lives’.

According to a court report, the Administrator of Rail Infrastructures (ADIF) decided not to put in place the European-standard ERTMS braking system which automatically slows a train down when it is exceeding the speed limit, instead using the older ASFA system which does not warn the driver when the high-speed AVE line with a limit of 200 kilometres per hour switches to the regional line, where the speed limit is 80 kilometres per hour.

The report says this decision was purely financial and went against the duty of care the rail board has towards its passengers, and questions whether it could be considered ‘suspected criminal behaviour’.

Medical tourism fears from El País:

Government warned Euro-healthcare scheme will lead to longer waiting lists

  • Officials consider possibility that Spain could become a cheap option for other countries

Spanish patients, like all Europeans, will now be able now choose which EU country to seek treatment in. The Cabinet last week approved a decree that implements an EU directive on cross-border healthcare. Under the system, patients will advance the money for their treatment abroad, but can request a reimbursement from their own country.

The directive aims to go one step beyond the emergency treatment already covered by the European Health Card and let patients choose another member state for specific, non-emergency treatment.

But the initiative has raised questions, such as how many Spaniards will want to get surgery abroad. And how many foreigners will come to Spain for healthcare? Uppermost among people’s concerns is how reimbursement will take place. While some issues are already clear to the Health Ministry, others will have to be decided by the regions.

On to Italy and a Bunga Bunga reincarnation from The Independent:

Silvio Berlusconi’s back… to broker voting reform: Italy’s new PM Matteo Renzi to do a deal with his predecessor

Italy’s head of state President Giorgio Napolitano yesterday set in train his third prime ministerial appointment in less than three years. His most conspicuous meeting was not, however, with soon-to-be premier Matteo Renzi, but with the disgraced tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who appears to be enjoying yet another unlikely political revival.

Pundits are predicting that the centrist Mr Renzi, dubbed “Italy’s Tony Blair”, could be sworn in as soon as Tuesday. In addition to reviving Italy’s moribund economy the 39-year-old has promised to make a radical overhaul of its flawed electoral and political system his priority, to prevent hung parliaments of the type Italy currently labours under.

But to get a deal on electoral reform through parliament, Mr Renzi is, to the horror of many in his centre-left Democratic Party, doing a deal with convicted tax fraud Berlusconi. Berlusconi, as a convicted criminal, has been expelled from parliament, but still leads the biggest centre-right grouping, Forza Italia.

Reuters issues the call:

President summons center-left’s Renzi as Italy seeks new government

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano summoned Matteo Renzi to a meeting on Monday at which he is expected to ask the center-left leader to form a government that must overhaul one of the most troubled economies in the euro zone.

Napolitano is likely to ask the slick-talking mayor of Florence to form the country’s 65th government since World War Two in the meeting, which a statement from the president’s office said was scheduled for 10.30 a.m. (0930 GMT) in Rome.

Enrico Letta resigned as prime minister on Friday after his Democratic Party (PD) forced him to make way for Renzi, 39, who is promising radical reforms to the euro zone’s third-biggest economy and a government that can survive until 2018.

Renzi would become the youngest prime minister in Italian history.

Renzi would be Italy’s youngest ever prime minister if his bid succeeds and has promised a radical programme of reforms to combat rampant unemployment, boost growth and slash the costs of Italy’s weighty bureaucratic machine. Opinion polls show Renzi enjoys high popularity ratings, mainly because as someone with no experience in national government or parliament he is seen as a welcome breath of fresh air in Italy’s discredited political system.

An uptick from the Associated Press:

Moody’s upgrades outlook for Italy’s govt bonds

Moody’s Investors Service on Friday raised the outlook on Italy’s government bond rating to stable from negative, citing improved financial strength in the European country.

It reaffirmed Italy’s bond rating at Baa2, its second-lowest investment grade, and its Prime-2 debt ratings, which is considered a moderate credit risk.

The rating agency said that it expects the government’s debt-to-gross domestic product ratio to level off in 2014 as economic growth modestly resumes. It pointed to Italy’s strong government bond market, which is one of the largest in Europe, as an indicator of strength.

Moody’s also said that that the government’s balance sheet is looking less risky, citing lower risks tied to its banking sector as the capitalization in that sector has stabilized.

And next, Bosnia. Via New Europe:

Angry protesters want new government of experts

On 10 February, thousands protested in a dozen Bosnian cities to demand that politicians be replaced by non-partisan experts who can better address the nearly 40% unemployment and rampant corruption, AP reported.

It was the sixth day of the worst unrest the Balkan country has seen since the end of the 1991-95 Bosnian war, which killed 100,000.

The peace deal that ended the war created a complex political system in which more than 150 ministries govern Bosnia’s four million people. Corruption is widespread and high taxes eat away at paychecks. One in five Bosnian lives below the poverty line. Svjetlana Nedimovic, an unemployed political scientist, accused the European Union — whose 28 foreign ministers were discussing Bosnia on Monday — of turning its back on her country even as it supports protesters in Ukraine.

After the jump, the latest chaos in Greece, Ukrainian stalemate, Turkish judicial independence constrained, neoserfdom in the Gulf, a Cuban cutoff, drought and violence in Brazil, Venzuelan protests, Mexican vigilantes, Chinese lending [and bad loans] hit a peak, hot money flight in Manilla, Japanese tax cuts and investments, a radioactive leak in New Mexico, childhood toxins, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

Chart of the day: Afghan civilian casualties rise


From the Associated Press:

BLOG War deaths

Headlines of the day I: Spies, pols, zones, bluster


We begin today’s collection of headlines from the worlds of spooks and “security” with European Edward Snowden blowback by way of SecurityWeek:

Germany to Beef Up Spy Defenses Against Allies: Report

Germany plans to beef up its counterintelligence tactics against allied countries in response to revelations of widespread US spying, Der Spiegel magazine reported Sunday.

The weekly said the German government was considering deploying its own agents to keep tabs on Western secret services and embassies on German soil including those of the United States and also Britain.

It said the domestic intelligence service aimed to glean precise information about foreign spies using diplomatic cover and technical equipment at diplomatic missions used to snoop on German officials and the country’s citizens.

“This step would be an about-face from the decades-long practice of systematically monitoring the activities of countries such as China, Russia and North Korea but rarely the activities of Western partners,” Spiegel said.

Here’s more in the form of a video report from Deutsche Welle in which Germany’s top counterspy — Hans-Georg Maaßen, president of the German Domestic Intelligence Service — has curious things to say:

German Response on NSA Spying Scandal

On the side of the pond, obfuscation, via The Hill:

NSA reform stalls in committee

  • Legislation to rein in the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs has stalled in the House and Senate.

More than 130 House lawmakers in both parties have signed on as co-sponsors to legislation that would prevent the NSA from collecting bulk records about people’s phone calls. In the Senate, companion legislation has won 20 co-sponsors.

Both bills, however, have been stuck in their chambers’ respective Judiciary Committees since October, and committee aides say there are no plans to move them soon.

In the House, Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) seems to be waiting for the Obama administration to take a formal position on the USA Freedom Act, authored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), before scheduling a markup.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wants to see what recommendations Attorney General Eric Holder and top intelligence leaders make by a March 28 deadline set by President Obama.

And from The Guardian, the latest Snowden revelation:

Australia spied on Indonesia talks with US law firm in 2013

  • New Edward Snowden documents show ASD listened to Indonesian government talks and shared what they learned with US
  • Australia and the US share access to bulk Indonesian telecommunications data, including those of Indonesian officials
  • Australian spies have obtained 1.8 million encrypted master keys from an Indonesian telecommunications company and decrypted almost all
  • US mentored Australia to break encryption codes of the PNG army

Australia spied on Indonesia and shared the information with the United States when the two countries were involved in a trade dispute in February 2013, a new document from whistleblower Edward Snowden shows.

Australia listened in on the communications of an unnamed American law firm which was representing Indonesia in the discussions and passed the information to the National Security Agency, according to a document obtained by the New York Times.

It is unclear what the discussions were about – but two trade disputes around that time were about the importation of clove cigarettes and shrimp, says the paper.

And the response from Down Under via Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

Australia says spying “for the benefit of our friends”

  • Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sunday his government used intelligence material “for the benefit of our friends” and “to uphold our values” following fresh reports it spied on Indonesia.

Abbott refused to confirm the report, also based on Snowden-leaked material, that the Australian Signals Directorate listened in on trade talks between the Indonesians and their US lawyers and offered information gleaned to the US National Security Agency.

“We never comment on operational intelligence matters, that has been the long-standing practice of all Australian governments of both political persuasions,” Abbott told reporters.

However, Abbott observed that Australia did not “use anything that we gather as part of our ordinary security and intelligence operations to the detriment of other countries.”

“We use it for the benefit of our friends. We use it to uphold our values,” he said.

More reaction from one of the targets, also via The Guardian:

Indonesia: Australia and US need to clean up their mess

  • Presidential adviser responds to ‘perplexing revelation’ that ASD spied on a law firm representing Indonesia in a trade dispute

New documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal that the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) spied on an American law firm representing Indonesia in a trade dispute and offered the information to America, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

Indonesian presidential adviser and spokesman on foreign affairs, Teuku Faizasyah, said the president had been advised of the revelations by foreign minister Marty Natalegawa.

“Indeed, it is another perplexing revelation of spying toward Indonesia’s national interest,” he told Guardian Australia via text message.

“I wonder what more Snowden has in store? Therefore, it is the responsibility of countries (US & Australia) engaged in this complicity to clean up the mess, to salvage their bilateral relations with Indonesia.”

And the result, again from The Guardian:

Australia and Indonesia are now in ‘open conflict’, says Tanya Plibersek

  • Dressing down of ambassador over ‘unacceptable’ border protection policies a matter of enormous concern

Australia and Indonesia were now in “open conflict” and repairing the “worsening” relationship was imperative, deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek said on Saturday.

After Australia’s ambassador to Jakarta Greg Moriarty was reportedly called into the country’s foreign affairs ministry for a “dressing down” over the Abbott government’s border protection policies, Plibersek said it was crucial the government acted now to settle the rocky relationship.

“It’s absolutely vital that Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop get on with repairing the relationship with Indonesia,” she said.

And to those other Asian border, militarism, and shifting alliance stories, first from South China Morning Post:

Top US envoy John Kerry fails to make headway over sea disputes in Beijing

  • Only result of Beijing visit was a commitment to seek greater co-operation on climate change

US Secretary of State John Kerry ended a visit to China without any breakthroughs on two matters at the top of his agenda – sovereignty tensions in the East Sea and the South China Sea.

The only solid outcome of the trip came in a joint statement issued by the two governments yesterday that vowed closer co-operation on climate change.

Shi Yinhong , a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said: “Kerry’s China visit only provided an opportunity for both sides to make clear their differences on these issues.”

Jin Canrong, with the same university, said it was expected no consensus on regional issues would be reached during the trip. Instead, the visit was important for Beijing and Washington to prepare for an upcoming meeting between President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama at a nuclear security summit at The Hague late next month.

And another endorsement from the Pentagon for Japan’s newly aggressive militarism this time from Want China Times:

US-Japan amphibious joint exercises slated for 2014 Rim of Pacific

The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, the de facto army of Japan, will participate in amphibious joint exercises with the United States Marine Corps at the 2014 Rim of the Pacific off Hawaii between June and August, reports Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun.

This year’s joint naval exercise, the 24th since the US Marines began holding them bi-annually since 1971, will involve 20,000 soldiers, 30 vessels and 100 jets from more than 10 countries including China, Australia and South Korea.

While Japan has participated numerous times in the past, Tokyo has usually sent the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force to join in anti-pirate or disaster rescue exercises. Analysts believe the decision to send ground forces to participate in amphibious joint exercises with the US is aimed at developing combat techniques and gaining experience as Japan’s ground forces plan to develop a new amphibious force before 2018.

The amphibious force plans to be eventually eqipped with US-made Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, amphibious armored vehicles and large amphibious assault ships, but for now it will try and learn from US forces and gain valuable operational experience, Sankei Shimbuns said.

Yet another American endorsement from Kyodo News:

Japan eyes boosting ground troop communications with U.S. military

Japan plans to boost communications between its Ground Self-Defense Force and the U.S. military using smartphone-type terminals, a Japanese Defense Ministry source said Sunday.

The Japanese government will create prototype software from April with the aim of fully rolling it out in fiscal 2018, the source said.

The move is in line with efforts to more closely coordinate operations between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and U.S. troops, at a time Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is keen to move forward discussions on allowing Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense, or coming to the defense of an ally such as the United States if it is attacked.

Want China Times covers Chinese anxiety:

Beijing slams US Navy official for ‘aiding Philippines’ remarks

China’s government on Friday slammed a US Navy official’s remarks concerning the South China Sea and asked the United States to keep its position neutral on territorial disputes between China and the Philippines.

Admiral Jonathan Greenert, commander of the US Navy, said on Thursday that his country will come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of any conflict with China over disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to the remarks at a regular press briefing. She said China has repeatedly expressed its firm position on the disputes and will address the issue through discussions and negotiations directly with concerned parties.

As a bilateral arrangement, the US-Philippines alliance should not undermine the interests of third parties, Hua said.

And a demand from the China Post:

Kerry presses China to ease Internet controls

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday he urged Chinese leaders to support Internet freedom and promised to look into whether American companies help Beijing curb access to online material.

“Obviously, we think that Chinese economy will be stronger with greater freedom of the internet,” Kerry said at a meeting with bloggers following talks with Chinese leaders.

Kerry met earlier with President Xi Jinping and other senior officials to underscore the Obama administration’s commitment to refocusing U.S. foreign policy on the Asia-Pacific. He urged Beijing to convince neighboring North Korea to return to stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

During the 40-minute meeting Saturday, the bloggers appealed to Kerry to support Chinese human rights activists and freer use of the Internet.

After the jump, more on the ever-shifting Asian security crises [including rebukes, recriminations, and a meeting of old enemies], plus an Israeli deal to sell arms to Iran [really] an Icelandic leak probe, George Washington, spookfather, and cyber-stalking in the cereal aisle. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconPoliEcoGrecoFuku


We begin our collection of things economic, political, and environmental with a reminder from Mother Nature via Nikkei Asian Review:

Crazy weather disrupting economic activity worldwide

A merciless cold snap gripping the U.S., blizzards burying Japan, record rainfall inundating the U.K., and droughts searing South America. Abnormal weather patterns are wreaking havoc across the world, and while the impact on production is still limited, nature’s fury is beginning to take a toll on global economic activity. Some regions are experiencing a drop in consumer spending and sluggish car sales, and global prices are rising for commodities such as coffee beans.

The U.K. is being drenched. Not since 1766 has the southern part of the nation seen so much rain in January, and the wet weather continues. The upper part of the Thames River is flooding and the damage is widening. And with rail lines submerged, the distribution of goods has stalled in some parts.

Normally hot Thailand is locked in a cold front that claimed more than 60 lives through the end of January. With temperatures dipping to 10 C in the northern and northeastern parts of the country, the government has begun distributing free blankets to a population ill equipped to fend off the cold.

Another icy front swept across much of the U.S. this week, forcing some government agencies to shut down in Washington. Many retailers were also forced to close.

Another weather report from United Press International:

Obama offers short-term relief to California; warns of global warming

President Obama announced a four-prong approach Friday to help Californians get through one of the state’s worst-ever droughts.

Speaking at the farm of Joe Del Bosque in Los Banos, Calif., Obama said his administration’s assistance for the parched state would include accelerating $100 million from the farm bill to help ranchers, allocating $15 million more on top of the $20 million given hard-hit communities last week, directing the Interior Department “to use its existing authorities, where appropriate, to give water contractors flexibility to meet their obligations,” and ordering all federal facilities in California “to take immediate steps to curb their water use, including a moratorium on water usage for new, non-essential landscaping projects.”

“As anybody in this state could tell you, California’s living through some of its driest years in a century,” the president said. “Right now, almost 99 percent of California is drier than normal — and the winter snowpack that provides much of your water far into the summer is much smaller than normal.

“While drought in regions outside the West is expected to be less severe than in other years, California is our biggest economy, California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table.”

Bloomberg sounds another warning:

Factory Production in U.S. Falls by Most Since 2009

Factory production in the U.S. unexpectedly declined in January by the most since May 2009, adding to evidence severe winter weather weighed on the economy.

The 0.8 percent decrease at manufacturers followed a revised 0.3 percent gain the prior month that was weaker than initially reported, figures from the Federal Reserve showed today in Washington. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 0.1 percent advance. Total industrial production dropped 0.3 percent even as utility output climbed the most in almost a year.

Assembly lines slowed last month as colder weather tempered production, the Fed said, showing a pause in the momentum of an industry that’s helped bolster the economy. A pickup in capital spending and faster hiring that drives consumer purchases will be needed to spur production gains.

From RT, the latest appalling reminder of who rules:

‘Corporate rights’: Judge blocks popular move to end tax breaks for big energy

Citing corporate rights under the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, a St. Louis, Missouri circuit court judge has temporarily blocked a citizen-led municipal ballot initiative that could end city tax breaks to “unsustainable” fossil fuel companies.

Judge Robert Dierker granted this week a temporary restraining order that, for now, puts a citywide ballot initiative on hold. The measure “would end public financial incentives, such as tax abatements, to fossil fuel mining companies and those doing $1 million of business with them per year,” according to Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE).

MORE has led the effort to put the proposed charter amendment on St. Louis’ April 8 ballot. Volunteers with the Take Back St. Louis coalition gathered over 22,000 signatures last year in an effort to put the proposal in front of St. Louis voters. In addition to curbing tax breaks, the measure would require the city to work on a sustainable energy plan that makes way for renewable energy efforts on vacant city-owned property.

Dierker said the ballot initiative was “facially unconstitutional” given it may collide with state law and because targeting unsustainable-energy companies is a “patent denial of equal protection to those entities.”

From PandoDaily, a rare win:

BREAKING: PBS to return John Arnold’s $3.5 million, following Pando exposé

Following Pando’s exclusive report on a secret financing deal between public broadcasting officials and the nation’s leading anti-pension activist, officials from PBS have announced they are returning the $3.5 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

In a breaking-news story published Friday afternoon, the New York Times credited PandoDaily for breaking the original story and ultimately for public broadcasting officials’ decision to return the money:

WNET, the New York City public television broadcaster, said Friday that it will return a $3.5 million grant it received to sponsor an ambitious project on public pensions amid charges that it solicited inappropriate underwriting for the series.

In the absence of the funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the project, called “Pension Peril,” will go on hiatus

From the Los Angeles Times, a rational change:

Obama issues guidelines for banks on funds from legal marijuana sales

The Obama administration issued guidance to prosecutors and banks Friday meant to make it easier for legal marijuana sellers to open bank accounts.

But the guidance fell short of giving banks carte blanche to get involved in a business that is legal in some states for medical or recreational purposes but is still illegal under federal law.

A memo issued Friday by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to all federal prosecutors said that prosecution may not be appropriate for banks dealing with marijuana sellers if they are operating legally in their states and stay away from red zones, such as the sale of the drug to minors or across state lines. The banks must also follow new Treasury Department procedures.

Although President Obama and Holder have indicated they have no desire to be tough on pot, the cautious move Friday reflects a reluctance to go too far because of solid opposition to marijuana legalization within the ranks of law enforcement.

And a video report on implications from Bloomberg News:

A Pot Banking Guide to Financial Institutions

Program note:

Peter Cook reports on marijuana banking guidelines for financial institutions on Bloomberg Television’s “Bottom Line.”

North of the border with the Financial Post and anther indicator:

The Canadian dollar hasn’t had this bad a start to a year in more than 4 decades. Has it seen the worst?

Traders are betting the Canadian dollar fell too far, too fast in its worst start to a year in more than four decades, as rising commodities prices and a forecast budget surplus damp speculation for interest-rate cuts.

The cost to insure against the loonie weakening further dropped to the lowest in three years, and analysts are downgrading the currency at the slowest pace since October, when the Bank of Canada began a policy shift that sent it tumbling to a 4 1/2-year low of C$1.1224 per U.S. dollar on Jan. 31. Canada’s dollar has gained more than 2% since then to C$1.0981, and is forecast to end the first quarter at C$1.10, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of 64 respondents.

From the Financial Post, a prospering sector:

Canadian arm of weapons maker General Dynamics wins ‘biggie’ Saudi contract worth up to $13-billion

U.S. weapons maker General Dynamics Corp has won a contract worth up to $13 billion for its Canadian division to build light-armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia, in what Ottawa said was the largest advanced manufacturing export win in Canadian history.

General Dynamics said on Friday the 14-year contract for military and commercial vehicles and training and support services has a value of $10 billion, but could be worth about $13 billion if all options were exercised.

The company did not identify the customer, but Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast issued a statement saying the vehicles would be sold to Saudi Arabia and would create and sustain 3,000 jobs each year in Canada.

On to Europe, first with a regional story from the New York Times:

France and Germany Lead Euro Zone to Higher Growth

The euro zone economy grew slightly faster than expected in the last three months of 2013, an official report showed on Friday, bringing welcome news for the global economy amid signs of slowing in the United States and China.

Although growth in the 18-nation currency union is still weak, at a 1.1 percent annualized rate, it was the euro zone’s third straight quarter in positive territory, indicating that the bloc is well beyond the year-and-a-half recession that ended in mid-2013.

The broader 28-member European Union also grew, though weakly, for the third consecutive quarter. The Union, with a market of 500 million consumers and an economy worth about 11.7 trillion euros, or $16 trillion, is one of the pillars of the global economy, and the extended weakness there has been a major source of concern for officials in the United States.

A qualification from EUbusiness:

Expect more sluggish growth in eurozone: analysts

New growth figures on Friday should show the eurozone economy continuing only a modest recovery as key problems remain, among them near-record unemployment and the threat of deflation.

Recent data has been very mixed, especially after a much weaker-than-expected third quarter, sparking concerns the bloc risked falling back into recession.

That worst fear is unlikely to be realised in Friday’s fourth-quarter data, analysts said, but the outlook remains fragile and the growth report will be very closely scrutinised for any sign of weakness.

Blame-placing from EUobserver:

MEPs accuse troika of causing ‘social tsunami’

The troika caused social devastation by forcing eurozone crisis countries to ignore social and welfare standards, MEPs have said.

Deputies on the European Parliament’s employment committee backed a report by Spanish centre-left MEP Alejandro Cercas by 27 votes to seven on Thursday (13 February), which accuses governments of ignoring the European Social Charter and employment conventions set out by the International Labour organisation (ILO).

Speaking with reporters following the vote, Cercas accused the troika – officials who manage bailout payments on behalf of EU and international lenders – as well as eurozone finance ministers, of riding roughshod over the EU treaties and creating a “social tsunami.”

“The arrogance of economic fixation has made policy makers forget that there are conventions which you must stick to … even in a crisis you can’t reduce pensions below the breadline,” he said.

“It’s time for employment and these social benefits which have been destroyed by structural reforms need to be brought back,” he noted, adding: “budgets are now balancing and we need to bring back those who have been left behind.”

On to Britain and more weather from The Guardian:

Expect no let-up in severe weather, UK forecasters warn

Around 5,000 military personnel committed to flood relief work as violent storms set to batter southern coast over weekend

Violent storms will batter cliffs and promenades along the south coast this weekend, with tidal surges and gale-force winds set to cause more flooding for days to come. Forecasters warned that there would be no let-up in the severe weather as defence chiefs committed 5,000 military personnel to the flood relief mission.

Two people were killed late on Friday in the stormy weather and the high winds left more than 16,000 homes in north Wales without power.

And rough sailing for labor, via The Guardian:

Public sector jobs are set to be cut by 40% throughout Britain

  • Report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that the planned reductions would hit the poorest parts of the country the hardest

The biggest cull of public sector jobs for at least 50 years will see vulnerable parts of the state endure reductions in headcount of up to 40%, Britain’s leading tax and spending thinktank said today.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the reductions planned as part of the coalition’s deficit reduction programme would hit the poorest parts of Britain hardest, and warned they would prove “challenging” for those parts of government bearing the brunt of austerity.

The IFS said that the government’s own spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, was expecting 1.1m jobs to go in the eight years from 2010-11, of which only a quarter had so far been lost.

The London Telegraph scolds:

New Cardinal Vincent Nichols: welfare cuts ‘frankly a disgrace’

  • Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, condemns Government’s austerity programme as a ‘disgrace’ for leaving poor facing ‘destitution’

Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric has accused the Coalition of leaving increasing numbers of people facing “hunger and destitution”.

Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, said that while the need to reduce spending on benefits is widely accepted, the Government’s reforms have now destroyed even the “basic safety net”.

Archbishop Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said the welfare system had also become increasingly “punitive”, often leaving people with nothing for days on end if they fail even to fill a form in correctly.

He said it was “a disgrace” that this was possible in a country as rich as Britain.

And speaking of the rich. . . From Sky News:

Investors Warn Of Fresh Barclays Pay Revolt

  • Leading investors tell that a protest vote over the bank’s £2.4bn bonus pot is “inevitable” given the fall in profits.

Barclays is facing a battle to avert a mass revolt of its leading investors at this year’s annual meeting amid fury over the £2.4bn bonus pool announced this week.

Sky News has spoken to a number of Barclays’ biggest shareholders who have warned in recent days that they are unlikely to be dissuaded from voting against the bank’s remuneration report or individual directors involved in setting pay.

They are furious that Antony Jenkins, the chief executive, announced this week that bonus payments for 2013 were 10% higher than the previous year despite a slump in profits from £7bn to £5.2bn.

Investors will not cast their votes until much closer to Barclays’ annual meeting on April 25, but three big City institutions said a major revolt looked “inevitable”.

The Guardian investigates:

Foreign exchange benchmarks face investigation by FSB regulator

  • Financial Stability Board to open investigation into allegations of price manipulation into world’s largest financial market

Foreign exchange benchmarks will be reviewed by the world’s top financial regulator, the latest front to be opened in a global investigation into allegations of price manipulation in the world’s largest financial market.

The Financial Stability Board (FSB), which co-ordinates regulation for the Group of 20 (G20) leading economies and is chaired by Bank of England governor Mark Carney, said on Friday it would open its own investigation.

It is the latest step in an investigation into allegations that a handful of senior traders exchanged market-sensitive information and colluded to manipulate benchmark currency rates.

The US Department of Justice and Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) are among those leading the investigations into potential wrongdoing in the $5.3tn-a-day (£3.2tn) market.

Bad news for the Tories from EUbusiness:

Eurosceptics beat British PM’s party into third place in by-election

The eurosceptic UK Independence Party received a boost ahead of European polls in May by beating British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives into third place in a by-election, results showed Friday.

The opposition Labour party comfortably won the election in Wythenshawe and Sale East in northwest England, receiving 55 percent of ballots in a vote triggered by the death of Labour MP Paul Goggins, who had represented the area since 1997.

But the anti-EU, anti-immigration UKIP — whose leader Nigel Farage said the election campaign was “as dirty as they come” — polled second with 18 percent, ahead of the Conservatives who won 15 percent of the vote.

The Liberal Democrats of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the junior partner in the coalition government with the Conservatives, got just five percent and lost their deposit for the ninth time since the last general election in 2010.

The Independent spots a curious connection:

NHS adviser Sir Stuart Rose has private health link

The former Marks & Spencer’s boss appointed by Jeremy Hunt to advise on improving the NHS could “make a fortune” from hospital takeovers by private companies, the country’s biggest union has claimed.

Sir Stuart Rose, who will lead a review of management in the NHS, is also paid to sit on the advisory board of Bridgepoint, an international private equity group, which is the major shareholder of private health firm Care UK.

Care UK is in the running to take over the George Eliot NHS Hospital Trust – one of 14 hospital trusts in Sir Stuart’s review. Rachael Maskell, national officer for health at the Unite union, said Sir Stuart’s appointment represented a “gobsmacking conflict of interest” and called on him to confirm he would not profit personally from Care UK’s bid for the Warwickshire hospital.

Oln to Iceland and another country ready to jump on the band wagon via the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Health Minister “Very Supportive” Of Decriminalising Drugs

Minister of Health Kristján Þór Júlíusson surprised many attendees at a meeting of young conservatives by expressing his support for re-examining Iceland’s drug laws.

Vísir reports that the minister was one of the guest speakers at an event hosted by Heimdallur, a society of young conservatives, which bore the title, “Is the punitive policy against drugs working?”

Kristján apparently believes it is not, as he told attendees, “I am very supportive of the opinion that we ought to try to decriminalise [drug] use in this matter.”

Taking questions from the audience, the minister was asked if he believed that even the most basic drug laws need review, to which he replied, “That’s what I’m offering. I am convinced that we need to try other remedies.”

Germany next, and a departure from an almost-new cabinet via euronews:

German minister quits over alleged leak of confidential information on porn probe

German Agriculture Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has stepped down over allegations he breached confidentiality passing on information about an inquiry into child pornography.

The leak is now under scrutiny by the authorities.

In Friday’s hastily arranged press conference Friedrich told reporters he was convinced he acted correctly in both the political and legal senses and added such was the pressure now he did not think he could do his job as Minister of Agriculture with the required political support. He vowed he would be back in the political arena.

It’s claimed Friedrich, a member of the CSU – Merkel’s sister party passed on information when he was interior minister to Sigmar Gabriel the chairman of the Social Democrat Party, telling him fellow SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy was the target of a child pornography probe. Gabriel then told other senior members of his party.

Swiss dissent from TheLocal.ch:

Student groups fight threatened mobility curbs

In yet more fallout from the decision of Swiss voters to curb immigration to Switzerland from the European Union, student organizations are alarmed about the impact this will have on educational exchange programmes.

“Switzerland is on a slippery slope of isolating its students and academics from the outside world,” Elizabeth Gehrke, vice-chairwoman of the European Students’ Union (ESU), said in a statement issued on Thursday.

“This could have devastating effects that would be difficult to reverse.”

One of the chief concerns is that educational and research exchanges between the EU and the Swiss may be scrapped if bilateral agreements between the two sides are nullified.

New Europe stays mum:

Portugal: No decision on “clean” bailout exit

The Portuguese government denied that it had already taken the decision for a “clean” bailout exit saying it is too early to make the option.

A “clean” bailout exit, means for Portugal to exit the bailout programme with international lenders without seeking a precautionary loan as a safety measure. On 13 February, Portuguese Cabinet Office Minister Luis Marque Guedes said the decision whether to seek a precautionary program after Portugal’s bailout exit would only be taken “at the right moment” stressing that “the right moment is not three months beforehand.” Minister Guedes also said that the government has time to “assess the development of the situation.”

In a statement issued on Thursday, Prime Minister of Portugal Pedro Passos Coelho also reaffirmed that “no decision has been taken on this subject by the Portuguese government and … no preference has even been communicated to any institution.” Mr. Coelho said that his government will make its decision on the issue before the country exit the bailout program in May.

Italy next, and an assessment from New Europe:

Italian economy in recovery, government in intensive care

Italy’s economy grew by 0.1 percent in the last three months of 2013 compared to the third quarter, the national statistics institute, Istat, said on Friday in preliminary estimates while a government crisis was unfolding in Rome following the ousting of Prime Minister Enrico Letta by his Democratic Party rival Matteo Renzi.

Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP) slightly increased after nine months of negative or zero growth – the country’s longest postwar recession that ended in the third quarter with flat GDP.

Last year the Italian economy contracted 1.9 percent, Istat added in the preliminary estimates.

Also on Friday, the Italian central bank said the country’s public debt fell by €36.5 billion to €2.0675 trillion euros from November to December. The Italian debt is the second largest compared to GDP in the eurozone after Greece’s.

More from BBC News:

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi tipped to be Italy’s youngest PM

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi is expected to be offered the chance to become Italian prime minister, as talks begin on forming a new government.

President Georgio Napolitano is starting consultations following the resignation of Enrico Letta.

He was ousted in a vote called by Mr Renzi at a meeting of their centre-left Democratic Party. The 39-year-old would be Italy’s youngest prime minister.

Mr Letta was under increasing pressure over Italy’s poor economic performance.

And a Bunga Bunga reminder from the Associated Press:

Berlusconi remains a force in Italy turmoil

He has been convicted of tax fraud, booted out of the Senate and banned from political office.

In other countries, that would be three strikes. But in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has not lost his political legitimacy, and it will be on full display when the former premier leads his Forza Italia party to meet with Italy’s president to discuss prospects for a new government after Premier Enrico Letta’s resignation Friday.

Berlusconi’s reemergence on Italy’s political scene comes just days after a court in Naples put him on trial yet again, this time for allegedly paying a senator 3 million euros ($4 million) to switch parties to bring down a rival government.

“Silvio Berlusconi is a survivor. He has survived many crises, political and legal. He is not going to give up,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an Italian political analyst based in London. “Italians are used to seeing Berlusconi as a political leader, regardless of whether he is a felon or regardless of whether he lost his seat in the Parliament.”

And another country eases up via RT:

Italy overturns ‘absurd’ drug law equating marijuana and hard drugs

Italy’s constitutional court has overturned a controversial law equating cannabis with cocaine and heroin. The decision could see around 10,000 people released from the country’s overburdened jails.

The court ruled the law was “illegitimate,” without elaborating further.

The law, passed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2006, has been blamed for Italy’s swelling prison population, as sentences for selling, growing or possessing marijuana effectively tripled.

Official data shows that Italian prisons are operating beyond capacity, with 62,000 inmates residing in facilities meant to house a maximum of 48,000.

After the jump, the latest Greek woes, Venezuelan disorders, Argentine anxieties, another leglaization call from Uruguay, an Indian resignation, Thai police action, mixed Chinese news, Japanese structural woes, economic alarm bells, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day I: Spies, zones, drones, hawks


Welcome to the world of the dark side, where the walls have ears, the cloaks have daggers, and lots of things go bump in the night.

We open with some numbers from PCWorld:

NSA protest results in tens of thousands of phone calls, emails

Organizers of The Day We Fight Back, a protest Tuesday against U.S. National Security Agency surveillance programs, called the effort a “tremendous success,” with nearly 100,000 phone calls made to U.S. lawmakers and 185,000 people signing up to send email blasts to their congressional representatives.

Participants in the protest made 96,000 calls to Congress, although 7,000 of those calls weren’t delivered because lawmakers turned voice mail services off, organizers said. Organizers will deliver 555,000 email messages protesting the NSA surveillance to lawmakers, with emails going to the two U.S. senators and one representative who represent each of the 185,000 people who signed up for the email blasts.

Another 245,000 people signed a petition calling for the end to mass surveillance, and participating websites showed a protest banner ad 37 million times during the day, with about two-thirds of those ads delivered in the U.S., organizers said.

David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, called the protest a big success. Organizers will continue to push for changes in NSA surveillance, he said.

Threat Level covers the loathesome:

How Obama Officials Cried ‘Terrorism’ to Cover Up a Paperwork Error

After seven years of litigation, two trips to a federal appeals court and $3.8 million worth of lawyer time, the public has finally learned why a wheelchair-bound Stanford University scholar was cuffed, detained and denied a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii: FBI human error.

FBI agent Kevin Kelley was investigating Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004 when he checked the wrong box on a terrorism form, erroneously placing Rahinah Ibrahim on the no-fly list.

What happened next was the real shame. Instead of admitting to the error, high-ranking President Barack Obama administration officials spent years covering it up. Attorney General Eric Holder, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and a litany of other government officials claimed repeatedly that disclosing the reason Ibrahim was detained, or even acknowledging that she’d been placed on a watch list, would cause serious damage to the U.S. national security. Again and again they asserted the so-called “state secrets privilege” to block the 48-year-old woman’s lawsuit, which sought only to clear her name.

Holder went so far as to tell the judge presiding over the case that this assertion of the state secrets privilege was fully in keeping with Obama’s much-ballyhooed 2009 executive branch reforms of the privilege, which stated the administration would invoke state secrets sparingly.

And from The Guardian, yet another challenge raised:

Rights groups begin UK court challenge over mass surveillance

  • Full hearing at investigatory powers tribunal scheduled for July into legality of programmes including Tempora and Prism

The extent of the intelligence services’ bulk interception of online communications came under scrutiny for the first time in a British courtroom on Friday.

Lawyers for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ faced challenges brought by nearly a dozen British and international civil liberties groups over the legality of US and UK digital surveillance programmes, including Tempora, Prism and Upstream.

Claims that the mass collection, storage and analysis of emails and electronic messages are illegal were made at the investigatory powers tribunal (IPT), which adjudicates on complaints against the intelligence services and surveillance by government bodies.

The government, adopting a “neither confirm nor deny” approach, is responding to allegations about the programmes on a hypothetical premise. The case follows a series of reports published in the Guardian last year based on revelations by the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

And one more step contemplated from the European Parliament:

NSA snooping: MEPs table proposals to protect EU citizens’ privacy

The European Parliament should withhold its consent to an EU-US trade deal unless it fully respects EU citizens’ data privacy, says an inquiry report on US National Security Agency (NSA) and EU member states surveillance of EU citizens, approved by the Civil Liberties Committee on Wednesday. It adds that data protection rules should be excluded from the trade talks and negotiated separately with the US.

The text, passed by 33 votes to 7 with 17 abstentions, condemns the “vast, systemic, blanket collection of personal data of innocent people, often comprising intimate personal information”, adding that “the fight against terrorism can never be a justification for untargeted, secret or even illegal mass surveillance programmes”.

“We now have a comprehensive text that for the first time brings together in-depth recommendations on Edward Snowden’s allegations of NSA spying and an action plan for the future. The Civil Liberties Committee inquiry came at a crucial time, along with Snowden´s allegations and the EU data protection regulation. I hope that this document will be supported by the full Parliament and that it will last beyond the next European Parliament’s mandate”, said rapporteur Claude Moraes (S&D, UK), after the vote.

A bemused response from RT:

Former German chancellor surprised that NSA continued to spy on Merkel

The former chancellor of Germany now says he was surprised to hear that the United States National Security Agency, or NSA, spied on his country’s current head of government after he left office almost a decade ago.

Earlier this month, NSA documents showed that the spy agency conducted surveillance operations starting in 2002 that targeted Gerhard Schröder during his term as chancellor.

Schröder told reporters at the time that he wasn’t surprised about the operation, which was made public due to documents disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

During an event in Berlin on Thursday this week, however, the former chancellor said he didn’t expect the NSA to continue monitoring his office after he ended his tenure in 2005.

Also from Germany via Homeland Security News Wire, security lucre:

German IT industry hopes to benefit from NSA leaks-inspired distrust of U.S. tech companies

The German IT sector is hoping to benefit from trust lost in American technology firms in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s leaks. The German government is looking to develop Internet security initiatives, with government departments vying with each other for a lead role. Both inside and outside the German government a proposal, known as “Schengen Routing,” is advanced which calls for data originated in Europe to be processed and stored within Europe. Critics warn that plans to create a European routing system could affect the openness of the Internet.

News that some American technology and communications firms gave the National Security Agency (NSA) access to consumer records has alarmed Americans, but also non-Americans who rely on these companies for data storage. According to market analysts James Staten of Forrester Research, American firms could lose up to $180 billion in turnover by 2016 due to distrust from customers.

And another German tale from TheLocal.de:

Child porn scandal: Minister quits over leak

The first minister of Germany’s new cabinet resigned on Friday. Hans-Peter Friedrich came under fire when it emerged he passed on information to a party chief about an MP suspected of possessing naked photos of children.

Agriculture Minister Friedrich (CSU) said earlier on Friday that he would only step down if the state prosecutor opened an investigation into him over his former role as interior minister.

He gave information to Social Democrat (SPD) leader, Sigmar Gabriel, that one of the SPD’s leading politicians, Sebastian Edathy, possessed inappropriate images of boys.

But on Friday afternoon news agency DPA quoted government sources who stated that Friedrich would step down anyway. He has been under pressure from the opposition, who claim he breached official secrecy by providing the SPD with information about the Edathy case.

The Daily Dot outsources:

NSA seeking private company to store its massive collection of metadata

Do you have a some data storage space lying around that you’re not using? Like a lot of space? Enough to, let’s say, handle all of the information gathered from the National Security Agency’s (NSA) telephone metadata collection program? If so, do we have a deal for you.

Earlier this month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the body managing all of the United States’ spying activities, put out a request for information (RFI) looking to determine if there are any commercially available systems offered by private companies capable of holding all of its phone metadata.

Metadata collected from cell phone calls includes things like the phone number of each caller, the unique serial numbers of the physical devices involved, the time and duration of the call, the precise geographic location of the callers, and if any calling cards used to make the connection.

The government is looking for systems that can provide intelligence agencies instantaneous access to the data, ensure that the data is completely secure to outside penetration, and make it so no data is provided to the agencies in question ?unless in response to an authorized query.”

And from Defense One, how Tweet it is:

Secret Military Contractors Will Soon Mine Your Tweets

The Army wants a contractor to conduct detailed social media data mining to “identify violent extremist influences” around the world that could affect the European Command, responsible for operations in Europe as well as Iceland, Israel, Greenland and Russia.

Though the project is classified Secret, an Army contract shop in Europe posted a wealth of information on the FedBizOps contract website Tuesday.

The data mining contract, which has the very long title of “Social Media Data-mining, Localized Research, Market Audience Analysis, and Narrowcast Engagement Requirements,” will support both the European Command and Special Operations Command Europe.

In its request for information, the Army said it wants a contractor to “provide detailed social media research and analysis, on-the-ground native research and analysis, and customized social media website development and execution.”  This will include open source information, “detailed social media data-mining, social media monitoring and analysis, target audience analysis, media kit development and social media platform operations.”

And a case of security enhanced from MercoPress:

Colombian peace process makes headway before presidential elections

The Colombian government and FARC guerrilla negotiators said that they had made progress toward an agreement on combating illegal drug trafficking, a sign that peace talks were making headway before elections.

The joint statement by President Juan Manuel Santos’ government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said there had been “advances” in the negotiations, the latest round of which concluded on Thursday. The talks are due to resume on Feb. 24.

“We have been working nonstop throughout this round of conversations and we have started building agreements on the point ‘solving the illicit drugs problem,’” the statement said.

After the jump, shifting patterns and alliances in Asian geopolitical and historical crises, a nuclear blast from the past, Bing’s peculiar censorship, Indian book banning, rampant censorship in Greece, hacking alert ignored, and sympathy for the devil. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: MegaloEconoPoliFuku


A verrryyyy long collection, with the latest global economic, political, and environmental news for your perusal.

First up, playing monopoly with Sky News:

Comcast To Buy Time Warner Cable For $45bn

The deal would create an entertainment superpower with 32 million TV subscribers, but there are calls for regulators to step in.

The two biggest US cable companies are joining forces in a $45bn (£27bn) deal, creating an entertainment giant with some 32 million TV subscribers.

Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable was confirmed at the start of trading on Thursday.

Its offer, which is subject to regulatory approval, is about 17% higher than the company’s closing share price on Wednesday.

The takeover bid trumps an earlier $38bn (£23bn) offer from Charter Communications, which appeared to concede defeat by announcing: “We’ve always maintained our greatest opportunity to create value for shareholders is by executing our current business plan.”

More from Business Insider:

What’s in it for Comcast Cable shareholders?

“This combination creates a company that delivers maximum value for our shareholders,” said Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.

How are they going to do that?

The company explains in one sentence that probably has every Comcast and Time Warner Cable employee nervous.

“The transaction will generate approximately $1.5 billion in operating efficiencies and will be accretive to Comcast’s free cash flow per share while preserving balance sheet strength.”

“Operating efficiencies” usually means the closing and combining offices, which also often comes with job cuts.

Still more from The Guardian:

Comcast takeover of Time Warner Cable ‘will throttle choice on the web’

  • Angry consumer groups say proposed $45.2bn mega-deal will drive up costs for millions – and call on FCC to block takeover

Consumer groups reacted angrily to the merger of cable giant Comcast and Time Warner Cable on Thursday, claiming the combination could “throttle” choice on the internet.

Comcast’s proposed $45.2bn takeover of TWC will create a media behemoth that will dominate broadband internet access across the US. Comcast, which owns NBC Universal, will also cement its position as the pre-eminent force in cable TV.

Jodie Griffin, senior staff attorney at consumer rights group Public Knowledge said: “This is a deal that needs to be blocked.” She said Comcast was likely to use the extra leverage to “drive up costs and reduce choices for consumers.”, and claimed the new company would be too powerful, becoming a “gatekeeper” capable of “throttling competition.”

And from In These Times, a symbolic action taken years too late:

It’s Official: Obama Signs Minimum Wage Hike for Some Federal Contract Workers

Today, President Barack Obama honored his promise from last month’s State of the Union address to raise the minimum wage for some workers indirectly employed by the federal government. In a new executive order, he raised the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, effective Jan. 1, 2015. The White House estimates the order will affect hundreds of thousands of workers employed by private companies with government contracts.

“Nobody who works full time should have to live in poverty,” Obama said during a signing ceremony at the White House. He used the ceremony to repeat his calls for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for all workers and for state and local governments and private businesses to also act to boost the income of low-wage workers.

Labor groups and union supporters reported they were pleased with the final shape of the executive order.

From The Hill, reversing idiocy:

Senate reverses pension cut

The Senate on Wednesday sent legislation to President Obama’s desk that would repeal the controversial $6 billion cut to military pensions.

The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure in a 95-3 vote, undoing the spending cut that Congress had approved two months prior in the December budget deal.

The only senators to vote against the bill were Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

The legislation passed in the House just a day earlier in a 326-90 vote.

From MintPress News, necessary action:

Justice Department Sued Over Secretive JPMorgan Settlement

The agreement settled both “actual and potential” civil claims against the company brought by five federal agencies and several state attorneys general, thus offering broad immunity for years.

A public interest group is suing the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder over the agency’s recent record-busting settlement with JPMorgan Chase for the bank’s fraudulent conduct leading up to the 2007-08 bursting of the housing bubble and subsequent meltdown of the financial industry.

Better Markets, a watchdog group based here, alleges that the Justice Department broke both federal law and constitutional mandate when it agreed to and finalized the $13 billion settlement in November. The agreement process, reportedly decided upon personally by Holder and JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, included no judicial oversight, despite what critics say are multiple statutory obligations to do so.

“There are certain statutes regarding certain violations of law that expressly state that the Department of Justice must seek court approval, and then there are others where it’s silent,” Dennis Kelleher, the head of Better Markets, told MintPress while announcing the lawsuit on Monday.

CNBC frets:

Wealthy more worried about being seen as wealthy

  • Is success being vilified in America? The successful seem to think so.

A new poll from American Express Publishing and Harrison Group finds that 1 percenters no longer like to be seen as such.

One-third of members of the group said they “like it when others recognize me as wealthy.” Though that number (taken in the fourth quarter of 2013) may sound high, it’s down from 40 percent a year earlier. And it’s far below the 53 percent who agreed with the statement in 2010.

Fully 28 percent say they worry about “being scorned for being in the top part of the economy,” versus 24 percent who were concerned about that in the first quarter of 2013.

From USA TODAY, that old hard times intolerance [the first of several in today’s compendium]:

Immigration debate is reignited in Fremont, Neb.

Voters in Fremont, Neb., are still trying to curb illegal immigration.

Residents voted 60%-40% on Tuesday to re-approve an ordinance that requires property owners not to rent houses or apartments to illegal immigrants and requires renters to declare their legal residency. Landlords who violate the ordinance face fines.

Fremont has a complicated history with the ordinance, which thrust this city of 26,000 people near Omaha into the national spotlight in 2010, when residents first approved the law after the City Council defeated the proposal. The law also requires employers to verify the legal status of employees; that part of the law is in effect.

After voters approved the measure, the City Council put the law on hold when the Nebraska ACLU and other groups sued. Lower courts upheld the law, and the council sent the housing portion back for another vote of the people.

Al Jazeera America protests:

Portland, Ore., residents tell mayor: ‘Stop arresting homeless people’

Residents of Portland, Ore., gathered in front of City Hall on Tuesday to protest the government’s treatment of its homeless population. The group, a self-described “angry mob,” carried pitchforks and torches while demanding that Mayor Charlie Hales end policies that criminalize homelessness.

The city government has come under fire in recent months for enforcing an ordinance that prohibits camping on public property, which critics say unfairly targets the homeless.

A 2013 city count found nearly 1,900 individuals in the Portland metropolitan area to be homeless and unsheltered, a 10 percent increase from 2011.

From PandoDaily, paying the piper:

The Wolf of Sesame Street: Revealing the secret corruption inside PBS’s news division

On December 18th, the Public Broadcasting Service’s flagship station WNET issued a press release announcing the launch of a new two-year news series entitled “Pension Peril.” The series, promoting cuts to public employee pensions, is airing on hundreds of PBS outlets all over the nation. It has been presented as objective news on  major PBS programs including the PBS News Hour.

However, neither the WNET press release nor the broadcasted segments explicitly disclosed who is financing the series. Pando has exclusively confirmed that “Pension Peril” is secretly funded by former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.

In recent years, Arnold has been using massive contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, think tanks and local front groups to finance a nationwide political campaign aimed at slashing public employees’ retirement benefits. His foundation which backs his efforts employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey (TX). According to its own promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is pushing lawmakers in states across the country “to stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to public employees.

Despite Arnold’s pension-slashing activism and his foundation’s ties to partisan politics, Leila Walsh, a spokesperson for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), told Pando that PBS officials were not hesitant to work with them, even though PBS’s own very clear rules prohibit such blatant conflicts. (note: the term “PBS officials” refers interchangeably to both PBS officials and officials from PBS flagship affiliate WNET who were acting on behalf of the entire PBS system).

United Press International sues:

Magazines sue Colorado over marijuana advertising restrictions

Two publications are challenging Colorado’s recreational marijuana rules about advertising, with a lawsuit filed in federal court, records said.

The national magazine High Times and the local weekly magazine Westword sued the state of Colorado Monday because of rules stating recreational marijuana stores can advertise only in publications aimed at a readership over the age of 21, the Denver Post reported Wednesday.

The lawsuit argues the rules, which also apply to outdoor and broadcast advertising, are restrictions of free speech, and notes there are no similar restrictions on medical marijuana businesses.

It marks the first time the state’s advertising rules have been challenged in court.

From MintPress News, a stunning development:

HIV/AIDS Cure May Be Found In Marijuana: Study

For years, many Americans with HIV/AIDS have used medical marijuana to relieve some common symptoms associated with the illness such as nausea, vomiting and appetite loss.

Now, a new study published last week in the journal AIDS Researcher and Human Retroviruses found that a daily dosage of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, may actually fight the HIV/AIDS virus itself.

In this most recent study, the team of researchers from Louisiana State University found that when HIV-infected monkeys were given THC daily during a 17-month time period, the monkeys had less damage in the immune tissue of their gut — an important site of HIV infection — than those given a placebo.

Researchers also reported that they found consuming THC had improved the monkeys immune tissue at a gene level as well, and was in a way, preventing the disease from killing healthy immune cells — a discovery other studies have found as well.

From the McClatchy Washington Bureau, blowing smoke:

Marijuana gets a show of support on Capitol Hill

  • Eighteen House members ask Obama to reclassify the banned drug

In the biggest show of support yet for legalizing marijuana on Capitol Hill, 18 House members today asked President Barack Obama to reclassify the drug, removing it from a list of banned substances deemed to have no medical value.

The letter, distributed by Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, argued that including marijuana in the Schedule 1 list of banned drugs, along with heroin and LSD, disregards the laws of 20 states that allow pot to be used for medical purposes.

It comes after Obama last month said that he doesn’t believe that marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol.

MintPress News cashes out:

Banking Regulations For Marijuana Industry “Imminent”

“Without access to basic banking services, many legitimate cannabis businesses are forced to manage sales, payroll, and even tax bills entirely in cash.”

On Tuesday U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, Wash., said the federal government’s new guidance for banks and bank regulators will be released “imminently.”

What Heck is referring to is Attorney General Eric Holder’s pledge that the Justice Department and the Treasury Department would issue guidance “very soon” to banks on how they can work with marijuana businesses.

Though the guidance had not been issued by the time of this article’s publication, Heck, a member of House Committee on Financial Services, who along with Congressman Ed Perlmutter of Colorado has pressed for marijuana banking reform, said legal marijuana businesses will be provided with a “full range of banking service, including accepting credit cards, direct depositing payroll checks and more,” under the guidance.

In other words, marijuana-related businesses will no longer be forced to operate on a cash-only basis.

On to latest in the global neoliberal trade agreement games from Jiji Press:

Japan, U.S. to Hold Working-Level TPP Talks Next Week

Working-level officials of Japan and the United States will meet in Japan next week to discuss sticky issues in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks ahead of key four-day TPP ministerial talks in Singapore from Feb. 22, Japanese government sources said Wednesday.

Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler will arrive in Japan on Monday and hold talks with Hiroshi Oe, Japan’s deputy chief representative in the TPP negotiations, and other officials, according to the sources.

The two sides are expected to discuss the handling of tariffs on farm products and issues related to automobile trade, the sources said.

Another deal, with problems, via Deutsche Welle:

Tripping over TTIP: Obstacles overshadow EU-US trade pact

  • With talks on the EU-US transatlantic free trade deal set to continue next month, this week’s outrage over a European Parliament vote on genetically modified corn will hardly be the last obstacle negotiators face.

This coming Monday (17.02.2014), EU trade chief Karel de Gucht and his US counterpart Michael Froman are scheduled to meet in Washington to discuss the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a transatlantic free trade area. They are expected to make a political assessment of the past three rounds of US-EU trade talks and to discuss the upcoming fourth round of negotiations in March.

The pact would unify standards and licensing procedures across a EU-US trade zone and would waive tariffs on goods traded between the EU and the US. According to the Munich-based IFO institute, the treaty will create up to 400,000 new jobs in Europe – 110,000 of them in Germany alone. A done deal, it would seem.

But the deal is far from done: the EU and the US differ over a wide variety of issues, one of which is genetically modified food. On Tuesday (11.02.2014), a new type of genetically modified corn from the US was approved by the European Parliament amid great controversy. The decision paves the way for compromise over one of the differences in EU-US consumer attitudes that has been a stumbling stone in TTIP negotiations.

But opponents of the trade pact are becoming more vocal, and more debates over standards, consumer protection, cultural protectionism threaten to erupt when EU-US negotiators get down to the deal’s fine print and put the agreement up for domestic scrutiny.

From Canada, riches spurned from South China Morning Post:

Canada scraps millionaire visa scheme, ‘dumps 46,000 Chinese applications’

Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires in the queue will have their applications scrapped and their application fees returned

Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires face an uncertain future after Canada’s government moved to scrap its controversial investor visa scheme, which has allowed waves of rich Hongkongers and mainland Chinese to immigrate since 1986.

The surprise announcement was made in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget, delivered to parliament in Ottawa on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires in the queue for visas will have their applications “eliminated” and their fees returned.

The announcement came less than a week after the South China Morning Post revealed how the scheme was overwhelmed by an influx of applications from mainland millionaires at Canada’s Hong Kong consulate. Applications to the scheme were frozen in 2012 as a result, as immigration staff struggled to clear the backlog.

ANSAmed covers a ploy:

EU and southern Europe in re-industrialization pact

  • Italy, Spain, Portugal heads of State meet at COTEC in Lisbon

An EU Industrial Compact adopted in January has led to a ‘pact’ between the European Commission and southern European countries to speed up the re-industrialization of Europe by exploiting the first signs of economic recovery, European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani made known in a joint statement with ministers from Italy, Spain and Portugal on Wednesday in Lisbon.

The statement was issued on the sidelines of the annual COTEC conference, which was attended by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, Spanish King Juan Carlos, and Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva.

The aim of the Industrial Compact is for the manufacturing sector to make up 20% of EU GDP, and this can be achieved by speeding up innovation and marketing, COTEC experts from Italy, Spain and Portugal said.

And from MintPress News, more of that old hard times intolerance:

The Rebirth Of European Racism

The mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders.

Bulgaria has recently seen a surge in xenophobic attacks since a wave of Syrian refugees escaping the horrors of the war started arriving. But it appears what these refugees have found in Bulgaria isn’t much better than what they left behind.

Last year, roughly 11,600 migrants and asylum seekers crossed into Bulgaria from Turkey, most of them Syrian. Human rights organizations expect tens of thousands to make the journey across the Turkish border in the coming months.

But the mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders. Last November, several neo-Nazi factions, including the local branch of the international Blood and Honor Skinhead network, formed the Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, which says it wants to “cleanse Bulgaria from the foreign and alien immigrant scum that have been flooding the towns of Bulgaria.”

The party has organized so-called “civil patrols,” which stop and check foreigners—and a portion of the general population thinks that this is a good idea.

And an admission from The Guardian:

Migration in the EU ‘has caused strains,’ admits José Manuel Barroso

  • President of the European Commission says free movement is open to abuse but that he will not compromise on citizens’ rights

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, will on Friday acknowledge that the free movement of people across the EU has put “unintended strains” on public services and is open to abuse.

In a move to show that Brussels understands the concerns raised in Britain, Barroso will say in London that the commission has recently clarified anti-abuse rules to crack down on sham marriages which allow non-EU citizens to claim benefits as a family member.

But the commission president will make clear in a speech to the London School of Economics that he will not compromise on the right of all EU citizens to move across all 28 member states – one of the four founding pillars which guarantees the free movement of labour, capital, goods and services.

Reuters ponders:

ECB still assessing if lower inflation temporary: Coene

The European Central Bank is awaiting further information, particularly signs on whether the current easing of euro zone inflation is temporary, before it acts, Governing Council member Luc Coene said.

Annual inflation in the 18-member euro zone slowed to 0.7 percent in January from 0.8 percent in December, confounding expectations of a rise and matching a four-year low hit last October.

The ECB left interest rates at record low last week, but put markets on alert for a possible move in March, when the Governing Council should have new forecasts from the bank’s staff extending into 2016.

On to Britain and an ongoing disaster from the London Telegraph:

Flood-hit areas are a ‘battlefield’ as thousands of soldiers are deployed

  • Army chief says that commanding officers are applying ‘battle-group’ skills an ‘unparalleled natural crisis’

Britain is in the grip of an “unparalleled natural crisis”, the Army officer in charge of the flood recovery effort declared on Wednesday.

As hurricane-force winds gusting at more than 100mph lashed the country, forecasters warned that the weather will get worse this weekend as a month’s worth of rain falls in just 48 hours.

The chaos now threatens to derail Britain’s economic recovery, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England warned. His comments came as storms that have battered the South West and Wales for weeks spread to the north of England for the first time this winter, bringing parts of the country to a standstill.

A bankster alert from the London Telegraph:

RBS warned of credit rating ‘downgrade’

  • Royal Bank of Scotland has been told its credit could be downgraded by ratings agency Moody’s

Royal Bank of Scotland has been warned by one of the world’s main ratings agencies that its credit is at risk of being downgraded following the surprise revelation last month of weaker than expected capital levels.

Moody’s said it had put RBS’s debt “on review for downgrade” pointing to the taxpayer-backed lender’s “weaker than previously anticipated regulatory capital position”.

The move comes after RBS’s unscheduled announcement on January 27 of £3.1bn of extra provisions for issues ranging from its sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities to the mis-selling of payment protection insurance and interest rate hedging products.

More immigration tension, this time from Iceland and the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Newspaper Editor Defends Leaked Memo

Davíð Oddsson – the current co-editor of Morgunblaðið – defended the leak of a memo on an asylum seeker that launched a police investigation as “allowing the public to get the whole picture”.

In an editorial for Morgunblaðið, Davíð – who is also, amongst other things, the former chairperson of the Independence Party, from which Ministry of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir hails – argued in favour of government offices publishing personal information about refugees as a means to take part in the public discussion about asylum seekers.

“Is it not right that the public get the whole picture?,” Davíð wrote. “That nothing is hidden about what’s at stake?”

As reported, the police are currently investigating the Ministry of the Interior over a leaked memo which impugned the reputations of Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos and the mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph. It later came to light that the accusations in the memo were false. Whilst the ministry denies the memo came from their offices, all evidence indicates the ministry as the only source.

On to Norway with EUbusiness and a hard times intolerance rebuke:

Norway rules out referendum on immigration

Norwegian Justice Minister Anders Anundsen on Wednesday ruled out holding a referendum on immigration, rejecting a request by a fellow member of his populist party to follow in the footsteps of Switzerland.

“For many years, the (populist) Progress Party has claimed that more influence should be granted to the citizens. This proposition shouldn’t shock anybody,” Anundsen, a Progress Party minister was quoted by Norwegian news agency NTB during parliamentary question time.

“But within the government coalition, the Progress Party is sticking to our cooperation agreement (with the other right and centre-right parties) and does not plan a referendum on this matter.”

A Finnish proclamation from New Europe:

Finland: OECD wants more structural reforms

Most people would not associate Finland with past high-tech successes like Nokia and Ericksson with structural reforms that have come to be associated with the EU’s troubled south. But the latest report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) urged Helsinki to make more efforts in the structural reform to stimulate the economy, Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE reported on Wednesday.

OECD called for more measures in restructuring municipalities, raising retirement age and stricter mortgage rules, in order to promote the economic growth and deal with the aging population in Finland.

The report pointed out that the rising cost of pensions and healthcare for an aging population is one economic to Finland, suggesting higher retirement age and an end to part-time retirement.

On to the Netherlands and significant decision from DutchNews.nl:

The Netherlands to vote against approving the EU’s 2012 accounts

The Netherlands will join Britain and Sweden in voting against giving approval to the EU’s accounts for 2012 because of an increase in mis-spending, finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on Thursday.

Dijsselbloem told MPs there are still too many uncertainties about the accounts and the error rate in the EU’s books has risen from 3.9% in 2011 to 4.8% in 2012. This is equivalent to €6.7bn being wrongly spent.

The problems centre on funds allocated to reducing the prosperity gap between different members states and money earmarked for rural development. In some cases, projects were not put out to tender properly or they were ineligible for grants under Brussels’ rules.

‘We cannot simply let this happen,’ Dijsselbloem, who also chairs the influential Euro Group, is quoted as saying by news agency ANP.

Germany next and higher hopes from Deutsche Welle:

German government revises growth forecast slightly upwards

The German government has confirmed the Economic Ministry’s 2014 growth outlook, saying that GDP will expand slightly more this year than previously predicted. It said the labor market would benefit as well.

German cabinet ministers on Wednesday adopted the 2014 Annual Economic Report, which included slightly higher expectations for growth in the course of this year.

The government said it expected the national economy to expand by 1.8 percent in 2014, marginally up from an earlier prediction of 1.7 percent. The report said the growth rate would increase to 2 percent next year.

Commenting on the report, conservative lawmakers in Berlin said everything should be done to avoid jeopardizing the growing economic momentum amid problems caused by the country’s energy transition and the aftermath of the protracted eurozone debt crisis.

And from Deutsche Welle, another chorus of that old. . .:

DW exclusive: Germans would vote just like the Swiss on curbing immigration

  • A survey commissioned by Deutsche Welle has found the majority of German citizens would vote for limiting immigration. The survey follows a decision in Switzerland to limit its annual immigration from the EU.

If Germans were to vote in a referendum on limiting immigration to Germany nearly half would support the measure (48 percent ) while almost as many (46 percent) would oppose it, according to a DW commissioned survey.

On behalf of DW, opinion research institute infratest dimap surveyed 1,001 Germans over the age of 18 on February 11-12, 2014. Three percent of those surveyed were undecided.

The survey showed that a particularly high number of Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party members (84 percent) would support an immigration limit. Members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and its sister party the Christian Social Union voted 51 percent for a limit.

Paris next, and plutocratic woes from France 24:

French billionaire senator Dassault loses immunity over graft claims

The French Senate stripped billionaire industrialist senator Serge Dassault of parliamentary immunity on Wednesday, clearing the way for him to face possible criminal charges for allegedly buying votes.

The decision by a Senate committee means that UMP senator Dassault, 88, can be taken into custody for interrogation by judges investigating allegations dating from his 14 years as mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes, a Paris suburb.

The judges suspect Dassault of operating an extensive system of vote-buying that influenced the outcome of three mayoral elections in Corbeil in 2008, 2009 and 2010, which were won either by Dassault or by his successor and close associate Jean-Pierre Bechter, the current mayor of Corbeil.

Dassault is ranked by Forbes magazine as France’s 4th richest man and the 69th richest in the world, with an estimated fortune of 13 billion euros. He heads Dassault Group, which owns France’s prestigious conservative newspaper “Le Figaro” and holds a majority stake in Dassault Aviation, which makes business and military aircraft including the Rafale fighter jet.

Europe Online rakes it in:

Societe Generale nearly triples profits in 2013

France’s second-biggest bank Societe Generale nearly tripled its profits in 2013, helped by higher earnings in both its retail and corporate and investment banking units, the group said Wednesday.

Net income shot up to 2.2 billion euros (3 billion dollars), from 774 million euros in 2012. Group revenues were up 4.3 per cent to 22.8 billion euros.

Societe Generale ended the year on a high note, with fourth-quarter profits of 322 million euros far exceeding analysts’ expectations.

TheLocal.fr parks it:

French taxi drivers call for ‘indefinite strike’

The announcement will not go down well with Parisians or tourists but angry taxi drivers in France are clearly not willing to lie down without a fight. On Tuesday they called for an “indefinite strike”, saying they will take action “anytime, anywhere”.

Paris taxi drivers continued to vent their anger on Tuesday when they brought traffic to a standstill in the centre of the French capital leading to the arrest of dozens of drivers. The trouble comes as unions called for ongoing industrial action.

On Tuesday evening as cabbies fronted up to police at Place de La Concorde union leaders called for an indefinite strike, which could see wildcat blockades and go slows continue for the foreseeable future.

In a joint statement drivers’ unions said they “reserved the right to take action at any place at any time.”

Switzerland, and that old familiar tune from TheLocal.ch:

Populists urge more immigration controls

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which spearheaded the initiative narrowly accepted by Swiss voters to limit immigration from the European Union, is set on Friday to push for for more measures to tighten immigration as tensions mount in Switzerland over the issue.

The initiative against massive immigration, backed by 50.3 percent of the electorate, calls for an end to the freedom of movement agreement between Switzerland and the EU and the imposition of quotas.

But the deal is fuzzy on details. It does not, for example, stipulate how many foreigners would be accepted into the country and through what criteria the level of needed workers would be selected for different sectors of the economy.

The SVP is being prodded to clarify how it expects the quota system to work.

Spain next, and an affirmative declaration from thinkSPAIN:

Economy starts to grow as GDP predictions more optimistic

SPAIN’S Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will increase by 0.9 per cent this year and 1.9 per cent next year – signs that the economy is growing once again, according to figures released by the BBVA bank.

This will be enough for creation of ‘sustainable’ employment to begin, says the entity, but it warns that jobless figures are unlikely to drop below 25.6 per cent this year and 24.8 per cent in 2015.

Consumer spending in Spain is expected to rise in 2014 by 0.9 per cent and by 1.3 per cent next year, with lack of national demand gradually ceasing to pose barriers to micro-economic growth over the next two years and ongoing efforts in increasing exports will set the scene for the economy to begin its recovery, the BBVA reveals.

ANSAmed has a harsher take:

Spain: fewer jobs, lower wages two years after reform

  • Trade unions and ILO slam reform, OECD praises it

Two years to the day from Spain’s last labor reform, there are fewer jobs, more long-term unemployed, and fewer people paying into social security.

A negative balance according to trade unions and a ‘’not very encouraging’‘ picture according to the Savings Banks Foundation (Funcas), but the government says the reform is beginning to have positive effects within the context of a recovering economy.

Jobless benefit claims totaled 4,599,829 people as of January 2012, one month before the labor reform was enacted. Two years later, that number is at 4,814,435, up by 241,606 people or +4.6% as of January 2014. In the same period, the number of workers paying into the social security fund dropped by 769,627 people, or -4.5%, to a total of 16,176,610 people. A quarterly report by national statistics bureau INE showed 5,273,600 were unemployed when the reform was enacted in the fourth quarter of 2011, a number that rose to 5,896,300 in the same period of 2013, equal to 622,700 more unemployed people (+11.8%) in two years.

ANSAmed again, and a comedown for high-flyers:

Spain: Iberia; agreement with pilots, salaries down 14%

  • The deal provides for a salary freeze till 2015

Spanish carrier Iberia and pilots’ union Sepla have reached an agreement in principle ending years of conflict which provides for salary cuts by at least 14%.

The agreement also introduces ‘’permanent structural changes’‘ at the company to cut costs and allow the development of the airline and its low-cost company Iberia Express, Iberia’s Iag group said in a statement to the market authority committee on Thursday.

The deal provides for a salary freeze till 2015, previously rejected by pilots, and from that date onwards salary increases depending on the company’s results.

From El País, the bankster blues:

Failed lender CAM wants prison for two of its former executives

  • Bank’s lawyer seeks six to 10 years for ex-director general and oversight committee chief
  • Attorney accuses them of inflating expense accounts and favoring own interests

The lawyer of failed lender Caja de Ahorros del Mediterráneo (CAM), appointed by the government’s bank bailout fund, the FROB, wants prison terms for two of the bank’s former top executives.

Former director general Roberto López Abad and former chairman of the Valencian savings bank’s oversight committee, Juan Ramón Avilés, face the prospect of between six and 10 years in prison for misappropriation of funds and deliberate mismanagement.

The state prosecutor is seeking shorter jail terms for the two men.

And the social counterrevolution prevails, via TheLocal.es:

‘New abortion law to stay’: Spanish lawmakers

A controversial plan to ban women in Spain from freely opting for abortions overcame a key hurdle on Tuesday when lawmakers voted in secret against a motion to scrap the reform.

The plan has outraged pro-choice groups and brought thousands of people out onto the streets to protest, but has sparked division even within the conservative ruling party.

Lawmakers rejected a proposal submitted by the opposition Socialists to “immediately withdraw” the bill by 183 votes to 151. Six lawmakers abstained.

The ruling Popular Party (PP) holds a strong majority in parliament, but the abortion reform, supported by the Roman Catholic Church, has been delayed amid dissent by senior party figures.

And another sign of the times from El País:

House sales fall for third year in a row

  • Property purchases hit record low in December

The Spanish housing market remained locked in a trough in 2013, six years after a massive property bubble burst.

According to figures released by the National Statistics Institute (INE), the number of homes sold last year, excluding public housing schemes, fell 1.2 percent from a year earlier to 276,600 after falling 11.3 percent in 2012 and 18.2 percent in 2011. During the height of the boom over 800,000 houses were exchanged in a year. In December alone sales fell 11.0 from a year earlier to a new monthly record low of 18,619.

The only respite the market has had since boom turned to bust was in 2010 when sales increased 4.8 percent, driven by the purchase of new homes before the introduction of a hike in value-added tax.

And from TheLocal.es, an unconscionable demand:

Cancer drug maker wants 4000% Spanish price hike

Drug manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare has reportedly threatened to stop selling its leukaemia and ovarian cancer treatments in Spain if Health Minister Ana Mato refuses to raise fixed purchase prices by up to 4,000 percent.

According to online daily El Confidencial Digital, the habitual bargaining between Aspen and the Ministry of Health has taken a turn for the worse.

The South African manufacturer of generic medicines is currently undergoing a rapid expansion in international markets.

The company is allegedly insisting on massive price increases for a number of drugs but the Ministry has flatly refused.

On to Lisbon with EUbusiness:

Portugal passes new IMF rescue program review

The International Monetary Fund approved Wednesday the disbursement of 910 million euros ($1.24 billion) to Portugal after the country passed the 10th review of its bailout program.

The disbursement took the country a step closer to the May 2014 end of the European Union-IMF rescue program, with the country’s finances stabilizing.

But the IMF urged the Portuguese government not to give in to pressure to increase public spending and to keep pushing ahead on structural reforms to its finances.

“The Portuguese authorities’ implementation of their Fund-supported program has been commendable,” said IMF Deputy Managing Director Nemat Shafik in a statement.

And on to Italy with the New York Times:

Italy’s Prime Minister Announces Resignation Amid Party Revolt

Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy, whose weak coalition government has come under increasing criticism, announced his resignation on Thursday night after his own Democratic Party staged a dramatic insurrection and voted to replace him with the party’s new leader, Matteo Renzi.

The Democratic Party is the largest member of Italy’s coalition government, and the party’s decision to dump Mr. Letta will likely have to be put to a confidence vote in Parliament. Mr. Letta will meet with his cabinet on Friday morning and then present his resignation letter to Italy’s president, making way for Mr. Renzi, 38, to become Italy’s youngest prime minister.

Mr. Renzi, the mayor of Florence who recently won a nationwide primary to become leader of the Democratic Party, has a reputation for boldness and has long been considered Italy’s most promising young politician. He has spoken repeatedly about the need for sweeping political and economic changes. But few analysts foresaw that he would lead a revolt against his party’s sitting prime minister.

AGI has a skeptical take from the populist right:

M5S co-founder doubtful government will last until 2018

M5S co-founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio says he is doubtful the government can last until 2018: “I see a high instability situation. A 2018 forecast is very risky”.

The statement was made at the Termini train station, while Casaleggio was waiting for a train to Milan. Asked by journalists about the likelihood of a government lead by Matteo Renzi to survive until 2018, Casaleggio added: “One can never tell, but the beginning of this year seems to be marked by a great political instability”.

From TheLocal.it, austerian rigor:

Italians drop holiday plans as crisis bites

The number of trips taken by Italians since the economic crisis began in 2008 has plummeted by 48.6 percent, new statistics show.

Last year Italy’s resident population took just over 63 million trips with overnight stays, whether for work or holiday, the country’s statistics agency Istat said this week.

With a population of nearly 60 million one trip per person may seem like a fair ratio, but a broader look shows that Italians have nearly halved travel in recent years.

They took 48.6 percent fewer holidays or work trips last year than five years’ previously, continuing a year-on-year decline.

EUbusiness divides:

Catalonia, Scotland, Venice? Italian party eyes autonomy

The head of Italy’s Northern League on Wednesday said he supported the autonomy bids of Catalonia from Spain and Scotland from Britain, and hoped that the Venice region “will be next on the list”.

Matteo Salvini said two other regions of northern Italy — Lombardy and Piedmont — could also follow suit, adding that it was time to reduce the powers of the European Union and return to “national and regional sovereignty”.

Salvini also said that plans for a coalition of far-right parties including his own at the European Parliament after elections in May were “well advanced”.

The coalition “will not be Eurosceptic but will be in favour of a different Europe,” he said, adding however that he continues to support an abandonment of the euro. “The euro has massacred our economy,” he said.

TheLocal.it inhales:

Italy relaxes cannabis penalties

Italy’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday struck down an anti-drug law from 2006 that imposed tough sentencing for the sale and possession of cannabis, putting it on the same level as heroin and cocaine.

The court declared “illegitimate” the law, which imposed sentences of six to 20 years for trafficking in cannabis, whereas the previous law which is now back in force included sentences of between two and six years.

Leftist lawmakers and civil society representatives immediately hailed the court ruling, saying it would help ease overcrowding in Italian prisons.

The scrapping of the law could affect 10,000 detainees who are in pre-trial detention or serving time and could see a revision of their sentences and their release.

After the jump, deeper misery in Greece, Blackwater creator’s African dreams, Venezuelan violence, Argentine inflation, Indian populist payoffs, parliamentary riots, and bankster woes, Thai turmoil prolonged, Aussie bubble alarms, Chinese marketeering and GMOs, Japanese desperate measures, environmental woes, and a jam-packed Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

Headlines of the day I : EspioLegoPoliManiacs


We’ve been a bit under the weather, and consequently a very lonnngggg collection today of headlines for the world of spies, security, operators, militarists, hackers, and deep politics.

Our first headline comes from Al Jazeera America:

Report: Democratic countries curbing press freedoms in name of security

  • Countries like US, UK that pride themselves on media freedoms tumble in annual World Press Freedom Index

Pervasive national security and surveillance programs have scaled back press freedom in established democracies like the United States, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its World Press Freedom Index released Tuesday.

In an index that usually shifts incrementally from year to year, “for the first time, the trend is so clear,” Delphine Halgand, the group’s U.S. director, told Al Jazeera. She said the “chilling effect” on investigative journalists fearful of government prosecution is most palpable in the U.S.

“After 2013, we cannot deny any more that in the U.S., the whistle-blower is the enemy,” Halgand said. “The U.S. is going after confidential sources, compromising the only possibility to do a real journalist’s work.”

From the report:

BLOG Press freedom

More from The Guardian:

NSA actions pose ‘direct threat to journalism’ leading watchdog warns

  • Agency’s dragnet of communications data threatens to destroy the confidence between reporter and source on which most investigations depend, Committee to Protect Journalists said

The National Security Agency’s dragnet of communications data poses a direct threat to journalism in the digital age by threatening to destroy the confidence between reporter and source on which most investigations depend, one of the world’s leading journalism watchdogs has warned.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based body that promotes press freedom around the world, has devoted the first two chapters of its annual report on global threats to an assessment of the impact of the NSA’s data sweep. Its internet advocacy co-ordinator, Geoffrey King, warns that the NSA’s dragnet threatens to put journalists under a cloud of suspicion and to expose them to routine spying by government agencies.

By storing mass data for long periods, the NSA could develop the capability to recreate a reporter’s research, retrace a source’s movements and listen in on past communications, King warns. “It could soon be possible to uncover sources with such ease as to render meaningless any promise of confidentiality a journalist may attempt to provide – and if an interaction escapes scrutiny in the first instance, it could be reconstructed later.”

And then there’s the blunter approach. From Al Jazeera English:

The risk of reporting US drone strikes

  • Yemen researcher says he received a death threat after investigating deadly wedding-convoy attack.

The disturbing phone call came after Baraa Shiban investigated a drone strike on a wedding party that killed 12 people in central Yeen in December. A clear message was delivered to the human rights researcher over the phone after a major news network reported the story based on his research.

“The caller refused to identify himself and threatened my life if I continued my investigation of the strike,” Shiban told Al Jazeera, noting he conducted similar studies of US drone operations in the past, but had never before received death threats.

Shiban works for the UK-based human rights group Reprieve and interviewed survivors two days after the attack. His investigation ascertained that 12 people were killed after four missiles were fired at the convoy. There were also 14 victims with severe wounds; some lost limbs, others their eyes.

From EnetEnglish.gr, another journalist jailed:

Police detain journalist for divulging ‘military secrets’

  • Article based on information from law published in government gazette, journalist says

Police detained journalist Popi Christodoulidou on the orders of a prosecutor, Panagiota Fakou, over a report claiming coastguard divers are involved in guarding sensitive sites along with the police, despite the fact that the law does not provide for that

A screengrab from Popi Christodoulidou’s blogpost, which she has now been ordered to remove A screengrab from Popi Christodoulidou’s blogpost, which she has now been ordered to remove An Athens-based journalist was detained by police for a number of hours on Wednesday at Attica police headquarters on suspicion on disclosing military secrets in a blogpost, which she claims is based on information contained in a law published in the government gazette.

On the same day that Greece was ranked 99th in the World Press Freedom Index, Popi Christodoulidou was detained by police detectives shortly after 1pm, on the orders of a prosecutor, Panagiota Fakou, who at the request of the Hellenic Coastguard’s state security directorate opened a preliminary investigation on the leaking of “military secrets” by a civilian “perpetrator”.

The journalist was released at around 6pm and has been ordered to remove the offending post on her Peiratiko Reportaz blog or face arrest.

More journalistic woes from Mashable:

Report: Ethiopian Government Hacks Journalists in U.S. and Europe

The Ethiopian government reportedly used surveillance technology created by an Italian company to hack into the computers of Ethiopian journalists in the United States and Europe.

Journalists at the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), a news organization comprised mostly of Ethiopian expatriates, were targeted with spying software made by the Italian company company Hacking Team, according to a new report by Citizen Lab, a nonprofit research lab that investigates surveillance technology across the world.

The investigation, released on Wednesday, is another example of how governments around the world are increasingly using hacking tools. These are often purchased from vendors that design and market them specifically for law enforcement agencies — but often governments end up using them against dissidents or journalists.

From EurActiv, a friend of The Guardian:

Media freedom watchdog defends the Guardian against government pressure

Europe’s main media freedom watchdog told Britain today (12 February) it believed that political pressure applied to the Guardian newspaper over its handling of leaked intelligence data could have a “chilling effect” on independent journalism.

Former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden’s disclosures about activities of Britain’s GCHQ eavesdropping agency and its cooperation with America’s National Security Agency (NSA) have embarrassed Prime Minister David Cameron’s government which has said they damaged national security.

Many of the leaks were published in the Guardian.

“The continual accusations and attacks on the Guardian, their editor-in-chief and journalists by leading politicians is nothing but harassment and intimidation,” Dunja Mijatovic, representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told Reuters.

And from euronews, when “liberals” meet:

Hollande and Obama stress common Syria-Iran stance as French state visit nears end

The French and American presidents have continued to stress their common ground as François Hollande’s state visit draws to a close.

Barack Obama said both had resolved to put more pressure on Russia and Iran over stopping the bloodshed in Syria.

The French leader tackled the thorny issue of data protection after the revelations of US spying exposed in the NSA scandal.

“We have worked towards cooperation which can enable the fight against terrorism and at the same time to respect principles. And we are making headway over this cooperation. And there is a mutual trust which has been restored and which should be based both on respect for each other’s country and also based on the protection of privacy,” François Hollande told a joint news conference in Washington.

And on to the world of that espio-Superstar, first from The Guardian:

Congressional trio criticise James Cole’s NSA testimony as misleading

  • Lawmakers write to deputy attorney general after Cole described limits on NSA’s power to surveil members of Congress

Deputy attorney general James Cole testifies on Capitol Hill. Deputy attorney general James Cole. Sensenbrenner, Issa and Nadler said Cole’s testimony was ‘not entirely accurate’. Photograph: Cliff Owen/AP

Three powerful members of the House judiciary committee said James Cole, the US deputy attorney general, was “not entirely accurate” in testimony describing limits on the National Security Agency’s powers to surveil the US Congress.

The letter from former committee chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, oversight committee chair Darrell Issa – both Republicans – and New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, came as the Obama administration saw a new front open up in the battle over its surveillance powers: a class-action lawsuit filed by Senator Rand Paul, a 2016 presidential contender, who said he plans to contest the bulk collection of US phone records “all the way to the supreme court.”

Cole told the House judiciary committee on 4 February that while the NSA “probably” collects the phone records of members of Congress – a subset of the dragnet the NSA casts on practically all US phone data – the NSA only studied those records when it has “reasonable, articulable suspicion” of a number’s onnection to terrorism, a restriction imposed by the secret surveillance court overseeing the NSA.

From the New York Times, making excuses:

Spy Chief Says Snowden Took Advantage of ‘Perfect Storm’ of Security Lapses

The director of national intelligence acknowledged Tuesday that nearly a year after the contractor Edward J. Snowden “scraped” highly classified documents from the National Security Agency’s networks, the technology was not yet fully in place to prevent another insider from stealing top-secret data on a similarly large scale.

The director, James R. Clapper Jr., testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Snowden had taken advantage of a “perfect storm” of security lapses. He also suggested that as a highly trained systems administrator working for Booz Allen Hamilton, which provides computer services to the agency, Mr. Snowden knew how to evade the protections in place.

“He knew exactly what he was doing,” Mr. Clapper said. “And he was pretty skilled at staying below the radar, so what he was doing wasn’t visible.”

But Mr. Clapper confirmed the outlines of a New York Times report that the former N.S.A. contractor had used a web crawler, a commonly available piece of software, to sweep up a huge trove of documents.

The Daily Dot makes an exit:

NSA employee resigns after admitting he gave Snowden access

A civilian employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) has resigned his position after admitting he shared access to classified information with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. A memo detailing the incident and signed by Ethan Bauman, NSA’s director of legislative affairs, was obtained by NBC News and published online.

According to the memo, which was labelled as sensitive but not classified, the unidentified NSA employee entered his password into Snowden’s computer terminal upon request. Allegedly, Snowden was then able to capture the password and use it to gain greater access to classified materials. The letter identifies the civilian as male, but does not refer to him by name.

“On 18 June 2013, the NSA civilian admitted to FBI Special Agents that he allowed Mr. Snowden to his (the NSA civilian’s) Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificate to access classified information on NSANet; access that he knew had been denied to Mr. Snowden,” the memo reads.

From The Hill, the Aqua Buddha acolyte acts:

Paul sues Obama over NSA spying

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) filed a class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the Obama administration for violating the privacy rights of millions of Americans.

Paul, a Tea Party star, called it the largest class-action lawsuit ever filed on behalf of the Bill of Rights.

He and FreedomWorks, the co-plaintiff in the case, have named President Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander among the defendants.

“We will ask the question in court whether a single warrant can apply to the records of every American phone user all the time, without limits, without individualization,” Paul said at a press conference in front of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Paul, who has circulated a petition to build support for his case, said 386,026 people have expressed support.

From The Guardian, no taps for the NSA?:

Utah lawmaker floats bill to cut off NSA data centre’s water supply

  • Impending bill from Republican Marc Roberts highlights growing movement at state level against government surveillance powers

The National Security Agency, already under siege in Washington, faces a fresh attempt to curtail its activities from a Utah legislator who wants to cut off the surveillance agency’s water supply.

Marc Roberts, a first-term Republican lawmaker in the Beehive State, plans this week to begin a quixotic quest to check government surveillance starting at a local level. He will introduce a bill that would prevent anyone from supplying water to the $1bn-plus data center the NSA is constructing in his state at Bluffdale.

The bill is about telling the federal government “if you want to spy on the whole world and American citizens, great, but we’re not going to help you,” Roberts told the Guardian.

Here’s a video report about a similar measure on the other side of the country from RT America:

NSA headquarters could go dark if bill passes in Maryland

Program notes:

State legislators in Maryland have introduced a bill that would cut off water, electricity and other utilities to National Security Agency headquarters, which are located in the Old Line state. The bill is called the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, and supporters say the bill would block the NSA from spying on citizens in Maryland. Similar bills are being introduced in Washington, Utah and Missouri. RT’s Liz Wahl asks Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and who helped draft Maryland’s legislation, how the bill would impact NSA operations.

The Hill raises another legal issue:

NSA operating outside the law, panelist says

The collection of phone records by the National Security Agency has no basis in the law, a member of an independent federal advisory board said Wednesday.

“With all respect to both executive branch officials and judicial officials, nobody looked at the statute as carefully was we did,” James Dempsey, the vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I came to this conclusion slowly. I came to it a little bit to my own surprise. But if you read the statute, the words just don’t add up to this program.”

Members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) testified Tuesday for the first time since their 3-2 decision last month to condemn the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records as an illegal program that should be terminated.

Backtracking, via The Guardian:

Edward Snowden asylum demand dropped by European parliament

  • MEPs fail to reach consensus on amendment to inquiry calling on governments to assure NSA whistleblower of his safety

Edward Snowden Meets With German Green Party MP Hans-Christian Stroebele
The report will call for international protection for whistleblowers without mentioning Edward Snowden by name. Photograph: Sunshinepress/Getty Images

The European parliament is to ditch demands on Wednesday that EU governments give guarantees of asylum and security to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower.

The parliament’s civil liberties committee is to vote on more than 500 amendments to the first ever parliamentary inquiry into the NSA and GCHQ scandal, a 60-page report that is damning about the scale and the impact of mass surveillance.

And the result, via EUobserver:

MEPs say No to Snowden asylum in Europe

A European Parliament committee on Wednesday (12 February) voted against calling for asylum protection for former US intelligence agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Snowden leaked top secret documents last summer to the media exposing the scale of US and British global surveillance. He is in Russia to avoid prosecution from American authorities.

The vote was part of a larger, non-binding, resolution backed by the MEPs in the civil liberties committee. The resolution condemns the blanket collection of personal data on the scale he disclosed.

A short paragraph, buried among the hundreds of amendments in the committee’s National Security Agency (NSA) inquiry report, had requested that EU member states drop criminal charges against him, if any, and “offer him protection from prosecution, extradition or rendition.” But it did not make the final cut.

The Guardian views Snowden from Down Under:

Scott Ludlam’s support of Snowden ‘celebrates treachery’, says Brandis

  • George Brandis says former NSA contractor’s disclosures about western intelligence gathering ‘put Australian lives at risk’

Australia’s attorney general, George Brandis, has criticised a senator for celebrating “the American traitor Edward Snowden”, arguing the disclosures about western intelligence gathering has “put Australian lives at risk”.

Brandis asked in parliament how the Greens senator Scott Ludlam could hold his head up high while honouring the former US National Security Agency contractor’s “criminal conduct and treachery”.

The trigger for the criticism was a question from Ludlam about “indiscriminate government surveillance” and whether the government recognised the legitimate concerns of Australians and the need to follow the US in reforming intelligence practices.

And the target of that Aussie ire raises a question, via United Press International:

Snowden: Danes should question government about NSA surveillance

U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden says Danes should not trust their government’s statement that there has been no illegal surveillance in Denmark.

Snowden, in an interview with the blog denfri.dk, said Danish citizens should not depend on the government or on journalists to reveal the truth, the Copenhagen Post reported Thursday.

“The Danes should start asking some serious questions when their government starts acting in the same way as the German one,” he said.

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said publicly that the U.S. National Security Agency had assured him that on surveillance had been conducted in Germany in violation of its laws or against its interests. Documents leaked by Snowden revealed the NSA had done both.

And from TheLocal.se, a call to end another legal whistleblower nightmare:

‘Interrogate Assange in London’: lawyers

Lawyers representing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Sweden have demanded that he be questioned in London over rape and sexual molestation allegations made by two Swedish women.

“All Assange asks is that he be treated according to Swedish law,” lawyers Thomas Olsson and Per Samuelsson wrote in an op-ed article published on Wednesday in the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD).

Assange broke bail and sought refuge at the Ecuador’s embassy in London in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning under a European arrest warrant. He claimed that he would risk further extradition to the United States on espionage charges over his whistleblowing website if he went to Sweden.

From TheLocal.de, when a Hawk becomes a turkey:

Drone scandal costs another €200 million

Germany’s Euro Hawk drone scandal showed no sign of ending on Wednesday, with alternatives for the failed programme running €200 million over budget. It means the military may turn back to the discarded, original plan.

The Chief of Staff of the Bundeswehr, Volker Wieker, told a defence committee on Wednesday that the tests on four alternatives to Euro Hawk were not only taking longer than expected but were €200 million over budget. The budget had been set at €613 million.

It means that reactivating the discarded Euro Hawk programme could no longer be ruled out, he said.

The Euro Hawk scandal erupted in May last year when it emerged the drones were unlikely to get permission to fly in German airspace because of a lack of an anti-collision system to protect other aircraft. By that point more than €500 million had already been spent on the programme.

And from RT, class war declared:

Greece on high alert after extremists declare war on ‘German capitalist machine’

Greek authorities have stepped up security after a leftist extremist group declared war on the “German capitalist machine.” The group has claimed responsibility for attacks on a Mercedes-Benz branch and on the German ambassador’s residence in Athens.

An anarchist group calling itself the Popular Fighters has come forward, claiming to be behind a botched rocket attack on the offices of German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz in the Greek capital.

The attack itself was carried out on January 12. Investigators found evidence this week that showed the rocket was fired from the near vicinity of the factory, but veered off course and landed in a field.

On Tuesday the group sent a 20-page manifesto to Greek satirical magazine To Pontiki, explaining the attack was carried out in solidarity with the Greek people against the “German capitalist machine.”

After the jump, a lethora of Asia news, including Afghan anxieties, Sci Fi scenarios, cyberwar and hack attacks, a Spanish check, the Greek panopticon emerges, another Swedish info-expat, Twitter censorship, drones in your pocket, and Nazis on acid. . .and more: Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroEcoFukunomia


From the worlds of politics, economics, and environmental news, today’s collection begins with a propitiatory sacrifice from Jiji Press:

Obama Urged Not to Sign TPP Unless Japan Bans Dolphin Hunting

A group of celebrities and activists in the United States are urging President Barack Obama to refuse to sign a proposed international trade deal unless Japan bans dolphin hunting.

In a letter dated Wednesday, hip-hop producer Russell Simmons asked U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy to urge Obama not to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact unless Japan bans the hunt.

Simmons’ effort draws support from about 40 celebrities and activists including film director Oliver Stone and actress Cameron Diaz.

Bloomberg limits the bubble:

Home Prices Rose in Fewer U.S. Markets in Fourth Quarter

Prices for single-family homes rose in 73 percent of U.S. cities in the fourth quarter, fewer than in the previous three months, as surging values in the past two years started to reduce affordability.

The median transaction price for an existing home climbed from a year earlier in 119 of 164 metropolitan areas measured, the National Association of Realtors said in a report today. In the third quarter, 88 percent of markets had increases.

While tight inventories and improving employment are bolstering the housing recovery, home-price gains are poised to decelerate as an increase in mortgage rates from record lows cuts into affordability. Values have been rising faster than incomes, particularly in the West, the Realtors group said.

Businessweek takes a flier:

Yes, There’s a Pilot Shortage: Salaries Start at $21,000

The regional side of the U.S. airline industry has long been a fiercely competitive arena in which the big airlines auction large sections of their flight schedules to the lowest bidder. That’s put pressure on wages: The starting salary for a first officer at a regional airline is a little more than $21,000 per year—about $40,000 lower than the same job at Delta (DAL) and United (UAL), according to the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilot union.

And the stingy pay, in turn, exacerbates the pilot shortage. Not only does it make pilot jobs less appealing, but the small salaries also combine with the more onerous federal training rules to put many new pilots deep in debt. Paying for the necessary hours of training flights before getting a first job can cost more than $100,000.

“There may be a shortage of qualified pilots who are willing to fly for U.S. airlines because of the industry’s recent history of instability, poor pay, and benefits,” ALPA President Lee Moak said last week in a statement that aimed to refute the “myth” of such a shortage. The union says that Emirates Airlines pays new first officers $82,000, “plus a housing allowance and other extraordinary benefits,” and that thousands of U.S. pilots on furlough and working abroad are “eager to return to U.S. airline cockpits—under the right conditions.”

From In These Times, Tea Party pols:

When the Boss Wants a Union, But the GOP Says ‘No’

Volkswagen is willing to let employees at its Tennessee plant unionize, but Republicans are stiff in their opposition.

Republicans are blasting VW (actually criticizing a corporation!) because VW is cooperating with an attempt by the United Auto Workers to organize the German automaker’s Chattanooga, Tenn., assembly plant. The workers at VW’s German assembly plants are organized and paid twice the wage of the Chattanooga workers.

VW wants to establish works councils at its Chattanooga plant, just like those it has in Germany. In Europe, these groups of white- and blue-collar workers collaborate on issues such as plant rules, work hours and vacations. In VW’s experience, cooperating with employees through these councils increases productivity and profitability.

Because the councils discuss labor issues such as work hours, VW and the UAW have determined that to legally establish them in Chattanooga, the plant must be unionized.

This is intolerable to the GOP. Two of Tennessee’s most powerful Republicans, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, insist they know how to run an auto company better than VW. Despite this successful international auto company’s actual business experience with work councils, these GOP politicians say that they know what’s best, that they just know unionization won’t be good for VW.

Al Jazeera America prolongs:

California gets two more years to ease prison overcrowding

  • Judges’ ruling sets compliance officer who will release inmates early if state fails to ease problem

Federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care.

In doing so, the judges said they would appoint a compliance officer who will release inmates early if the state fails to meet interim benchmarks or the final goal.

The judges said the delays have cost taxpayers money while causing inmates to needlessly suffer. Judges had previously extended the deadline in December.

The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.

The Hill anchors the baby:

Chinese ‘birth tourism’ booming in US territory

A growing number of pregnant Chinese women are having their babies in the U.S. territory of Saipan, automatically giving the children American citizenship, according to the region’s congressman.

Del. Gregorio Sablan (D) represents Saipan and the rest of the Northern Mariana Islands in Congress. The U.S. territory is in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 3,700 miles west of Honolulu and a four-hour flight from China.

Sablan said in an ABC News report that he has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security to look into the “birth tourism” situation. “We want to fix this and we want to make sure that this small problem remains very small,” Sablan said.

Heading north of the border for another “free trade” travesty from EurActiv:

EU-Canada free trade deal ‘opens door to environmental lawsuits’

Multinationals will have wide-ranging powers to sue EU states that enact health or environmental laws breaching their “legitimate expectations” of profit, according to a leaked ‘investment chapter’ from the Canada-EU free trade agreement (CETA), which was signed last November.

A separate ‘nature and scope’ document for EU-US free trade talks, which EurActiv has seen, makes clear that similar parameters are foreseen for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement.

The CETA investment chapter proposes a definition of ‘fair and equitable treatment’ (FET) for investors which has sparked multi-million dollar lawsuits, such as one by Lone Pine challenging a shale drilling ban by the Canadian state of Quebec.

EU officials have reportedly not challenged the authenticity of the leaked document, which was published online by the Trade Justice Network, although they were unavailable for comment on the issue.

Pronouncement from a high place via Xinhua:

OECD index shows growth recovery in major economies

The latest composite leading indicators (CLIs) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are pointing to an improving economic outlook in major advanced economies, said the Paris-based think tank on Monday.

The CLIs, designed to anticipate turning points in economic activity relative to trend, stood at 100.9 for the OECD area, up by 0.1 percentage compared to last month, while the oulook of seven major economies pointed to a firming growth.

In the euro area, the indicators projected the single-currency bloc to witness positive change in momentum and reached a ratio of 101.1 at the end of 2013 compared to November’s 100.9.

As for France and Germany, Europe’s main powerhouses, the OECD report expected economic activities to gain ground. Their ratios were above the long term average rate of 100, with respectively a ratio of 100.5 and 100.8 for December after 100.3 and 100.7 reported a month earlier.

But The Guardian adds a qualification:

OECD admits overstating growth forecasts amid eurozone crisis and global crash

Biggest forecasting errors were made when looking at the prospects for the next year, rather than the current year, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said

A failure to spot the severity of the eurozone crisis and the impact of the meltdown of the global banking system led to consistent forecasting errors in recent years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development admitted on Tuesday.

The Paris-based organisation said it repeatedly overestimated growth prospects for countries around the world between 2007 and 2012. The OECD revised down forecasts at the onset of the financial crisis, but by an insufficient degree, it said.

“Forecasts were revised down consistently and very rapidly when the financial crisis erupted, but growth out-turns nonetheless still proved substantially weaker than had been projected,” it said in a paper exploring its forecasting record in recent years.

The biggest forecasting errors were made when looking at the prospects for the next year, rather than the current year.

On to Europe with an alarm from the London Telegraph:

ECB paralysed by German court decision as deflation threatens

  • The ‘thunderbolt’ ruling on eurozone rescue policies by Germany’s top court marks a serious escalation of Europe’s governance crisis

Last week’s ‘thunderbolt’ ruling on eurozone rescue policies by Germany’s top court marks a serious escalation of Europe’s governance crisis and may ultimately force Germany to withdraw from the euro, the country’s most influential magazine has warned.

A sweeping report by Der Spiegel said the court ruling amounts to a full-blown showdown between Germany and the European Central Bank over the methods to shore up southern Europe’s debt markets.

“It is nothing less than a final reckoning with the crisis-management strategy pursued by the ECB. The German justices insist that the German constitution sets limits on the ECB’s crisis strategy. In a worst-case scenario, the Court could forbid Berlin from contributing to efforts to save the euro or even force Germany to leave the currency zone entirely,” it said.

The warning came as market analysts began to see the darker implications of the ruling, which was initially seen as a green light for the ECB’s bond operations.

From the London Telegraph again, a contrarian take:

Schaeuble: German court decision no threat to eurozone

  • The German finance minister plays down damage of ruling that powerful ECB tool could be unconstitutional

Curbing the European Central Bank’s (ECB) powers to do “whatever it takes” to save the eurozone will not harm the single currency, the German finance minister has claimed.

Wolfgang Schaeuble said that although the ECB’s most effective tool for calming the eurozone debt markets, unlimited bond buying, could be ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice, that financial markets are now confident that the eurozone will remain intact.

“I think the return of financial market confidence in the stability of the euro has been due not only, not even primarily, to the ECB’s (unlimited bond buying) announcement,” said Mr Schaeuble in an interview with Reuters.

New Europe debunks:

Mobile EU citizens are mainly young people looking for job opportunities

  • Mobile EU citizens are often overqualified for the jobs they take up and may be paid less

A new study on the integration of mobile EU citizens was published today by the European Commission.

The study, which was carried out by Ernst and Young, focused on six European cities, chosen for the multinational composition of their population. The cities were Barcelona, Dublin, Hamburg, Lille, Prague and Turin. According to the study, most of the mobile EU citizens are young people looking for job opportunities.

The study showed that the the inflow of younger, working age EU citizens has had a positive economic impact in the cities under examination. For example in Turin, a local evaluation indicated that tax revenues from foreigners on the whole brought a net benefit of €1.5 billion to national public finances. Moreover, the newcomers have helped fill gaps in local labour markets, contributed to growth in new sectors and have helped balance out ageing populations. However, the study found that mobile EU citizens are often overqualified for the jobs they take up and may be paid less and at the same time do not always benefit from the same access to housing and education.

On to Britain and ongoing misery from Sky News:

UK Floods Could Last Months, Scientist Warns

Some 1.6 million properties across Britain are now at risk of groundwater flooding and there is no end in sight, an expert says.

Scientists have told Sky News that groundwater levels are now so high that parts of Britain face a serious risk of flooding for weeks or even months to come.

Andy McKenzie, a groundwater scientist at the British Geological Survey, told Sky News that even if the rain stopped today, so much water is soaking through the soil that levels are likely to keep rising for another two months.

The risk of flooding could remain high until May, he said.

Figures exclusively revealed to Sky News show that boreholes used to measure the height of the water table are overflowing in many areas, with the highest levels ever recorded.

The Guardian covers austerian pluvial accounting:

Government raised bar for funding of flood defence schemes

  • Defra wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 it would spend on schemes

Coalition ministers made it more difficult for flood defence schemes to get funding by introducing tougher targets demanding 60% more “benefits” for every pound spent on protection, it has emerged.

Under the new rules brought in three years ago, the Department for Environment Food And Rural Affairs (Defra) wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 they would spend on schemes.

Previously, projects were simply expected to deliver more than £1 of damage avoided for every £1 spent, with an average across all schemes of £5 of damage avoided for every £1 spent.

On hand giveth whilst the other taketh away, via Reuters:

Barclays to cut 12,000 jobs, pays bigger bonuses

Barclays said it would axe up to 12,000 jobs this year even as it raised bonuses for investment bankers, prompting fury among politicians and unions who said it had not learned the lessons of the financial crisis.

Britain’s third-biggest bank said up to 9 percent of employees could go, including 7,000 in Britain, as it tries to lower costs. The cuts are not concentrated in any one business area.

It said it paid 2.4 billion pounds ($3.9 billion) in incentive awards last year, raising bonuses at the investment bank by 13 percent despite a slump in its profits. The average bonus for the investment bank’s 26,200 staff was 60,100 pounds.

Critics of the bonus hike said it showed Britain’s biggest banks were still failing to heed the lessons of a financial crisis caused by dangerous risk taking and excessive pay.

The Independent calls the shots:

Revealed: Big Pharma’s hidden links to NHS policy, with senior MPs saying medical industry uses ‘wealth to influence government’

NHS bosses allowed a lobbying company working for some of the world’s biggest drugs and medical equipment firms to write a draft report which could help shape future health policy. NHS England commissioned a group called the Specialised Healthcare Alliance (SHCA) to consult with patients’ groups, charities and health organisations and produce a report feeding into its future five-year strategy for commissioning £12bn of services.

But the SHCA has confirmed to The Independent that it is entirely funded by commercial “members”. Its director, John Murray, is also a lobbyist whose company lists some of the world’s biggest drug and medical device firms as clients.

Mr Murray put his name on a foreword to the NHS England document along with James Palmer, the clinical director of specialised services at NHS England, with whom he admits he has had “many meetings [on] a wide range of organisations and interests”.

The findings raise significant questions about links between the lobbying industry and NHS England – a quango set up to run the NHS under the Government’s health reforms.

Hints of Banksters Behaving Badly from The Guardian:

Bank of England launches inquiry into forex manipulation claims

  • Senior currency trader says Bank officials condoned information sharing between traders under investigation

The Bank of England has launched an internal inquiry into allegations that its officials endorsed sharing of information between traders in the foreign exchange market, the central bank’s deputy governor told MPs.

The inquiry will examine claims that at a meeting between Bank officials and senior currency traders last April the officials said it was permissible for traders in different banks to share information about clients’ positions ahead of the setting of a benchmark rate in the foreign exchange market.

On to Iceland and a crisis resurrection from DutchNews.nl:

Icesave dispute reopened, Dutch and British demand €3.5bn

The Dutch and British authorities have reopened their dispute with Iceland over the bankruptcy of online bank Icesave by filing claims for up to €3.5bn from the Icelandic bank guarantee fund.

The Netherlands and Britain chose to compensate savers who lost billions when Iceland bank Landsbanki collapsed in 2008 from their own domestic guarantee schemes. At the time, this was seen as a sort of loan to Iceland.

However, last year a European court ruled Iceland itself was not responsible for repaying the cash.

Iceland again, and misbehavior in high places from the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Protest At Interior Ministry

Three organisations will be holding simultaneous protests at the Ministry of the Interior tomorrow at noon, demanding the minister’s resignation.

The Alda – Association for Sustainability and Democracy, activist organisation Attac and refugee and immigration rights group No Borders have all planned protests in front of the ministry at noon tomorrow. These protests call for the resignation of Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, whose ministry is being investigated by the police for allegedly leaking a memo which falsely impugned on Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos and the mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph. Lawyers for both Tony and Evelyn filed charges against the ministry, including breach of confidentiality, slander, and abuse of public office.

Alda has called the ministry’s handling of the case as being “characterised by silence, arrogance, and contradictory statements”. No Borders has taken matters further, saying that Tony Omos’ asylum case should be re-introduced for consideration in light of the unfair treatment he has received.

Norway next, with a familiar theme from EUbusiness:

Norway’s populists demand immigration referendum

Days after the Swiss narrowly voted to curb immigration from the EU, Norway’s populist right-wing party on Tuesday demanded a similar referendum in the prosperous Nordic country.

“I won’t take a stance on a quota system like the one the Swiss people have voted for,” said Mazyar Keshvari, immigration spokesman for the Progress Party, a member of the ruling coalition which wants a more restrictive immigration policy.

“But the idea of a referendum is interesting and Norway should also organise a referendum on immigration. I’m completely certain that a majority wants to tighten up” the policy.

Norway is not a member of the EU but is included in the European Economic Area and the Schengen Area which allows relatively unrestricted movement of citizens.

Spain next, and departures from El País:

Is the crisis fueling an exodus?

Studies are trying to pinpoint just how many people are leaving Spain due to rampant unemployment

What if the Spanish exodus caused by the crisis was not quite as massive as we have been led to believe? This is the question that drives a recent study by Carmen González Enríquez, of the Elcano Royal Institute think-tank. Based on information gathered from Spanish consulates, the researcher notes that only two percent of nationals living abroad are Spaniards who left because of the crisis. That is just 39,912 people.

But what if it was the other way around, and we were in fact underestimating the extent of the trend? This is what Amparo González Ferrer, a sociologist and demographics specialist at the CSIC National Research Council, claims. She says that the number of émigrés who left the country between 2008 and 2012 — rather than the number of Spaniards living abroad — is closer to 700,000 than the official figure of 225,000. That Spain is losing population to emigration is unquestionable in view of the data. The latest census report by the National Statistics Institute (INE), containing data up to January 2013, shows a drop of 135,538 people during 2012, taking the population down to 47,129,783.

But how many Spaniards are actually leaving due to the economic situation? There is a debate among the scientific community because of the absence of a statistical mechanism that can quickly and efficiently register the departure of nationals.

And a blow to Iberian Brits from TheLocal.es:

Spain’s UK expats to lose free NHS health care

Thousands of British expats who have taken early retirement in Spain will now have to get private health insurance following the UK government’s decision to scrap free access to their local Spanish health care system.

The change in legislation, set to be implemented on April 1st, will affect only those who haven’t already completed a Social Security residual form S1 before leaving the UK.

However, once their current form comes to an end, jobless UK expats in Spain are likely to also be obliged to buy private medical insurance.

Up to now, unemployed Brits in Spain and other EEA countries who were under the age of 65 were able to pass on their health care costs to the UK Treasury.

And a case of Royals Behaving Badly from El País:

Prosecutor seeks 19 years in prison for princess’s husband Urdangarin

  • More than half of Nóos case suspects may not face charges
  • Infanta Cristina could be required to pay 600,000 in civil liability
  • Princess Cristina will have to return 600,000 euros if husband found guilty

After Princess Cristina’s unprecedented testimony before an investigating judge in Palma de Mallorca on Saturday, the anticorruption prosecutor in the Nóos investigation, Pedro Horrach, maintains that the infanta should not be implicated in the business dealings of her husband, former Olympic handball medalist Iñaki Urdangarin, and has also stated that over half of the 40 official suspects in the case should not face charges.

However, the prosecutor has now asked that Urdangarin, the Duke of Palma, should face a 19-year prison sentence and his former business partner Diego Torres 15 years, both on charges of embezzlement, falsifying documents, tax fraud and other financial crimes. Torres’ brother-in-law and financial advisor, Miguel Tejeiro, who designed the shell companies and tax fiddles though which Torres and Urdangarin allegedly funneled millions of euros of public money, also faces 19 years if found guilty.

On to Italy and a low rating from ANSAmed:

Italy bottom in EU for labour-cost competitiveness

  • 100 euros of labout costs generated 126% of added value in 2010

Italy is the bottom of the European Union when it comes to the competitiveness of labour costs, national statistics agency Istat said in a report Tuesday. Istat said every 100 euros an Italian business spent on labour costs in 2010, the most recent year in which there is comparative data for the rest of the EU, generated added value of 126%.

This was lowest in the EU and way behind the figure of 211.7% for Romania. Istat said that labour-cost competitiveness improved in 2011, with every 100 euros of labour costs generating 128.5% of added value.(ANSAmed).

Bunga Bunga politics from Deutsche Welle:

Berlusconi back on trial for political corruption

Italy’s scandal-ridden former premier Silvio Berlusconi is back in court yet again. This time he is facing charges of having bribed an opposition politician to swap sides.

Silvio Berlusconi’s latest trial opened in the southern Italian city of Naples on Tuesday, with the former premier facing charges of having used bribery to persuade a senator to join his party in 2006.

Berlusconi was not at Tuesday’s hearing and was not obliged to attend under Italian law.

He is accused of giving a 3-million-euro ($4.1-million) bribe to senator Sergio De Gregorio to entice him into leaving the anti-corruption Italy of Values party to join Berlusconi’s own People of Freedom party. The prosecution sees the bribe as part of a plan to bring down the-then center-left coalition of Romano Prodi.

Prodi still won in 2006, but his coalition finally collapsed in 2008, paving the way for early elections and Berlusconi’s return to power. De Gregorio, who had formed part of Prodi’s coalition, defected to Berlusconi’s conservatives and was re-elected in that capacity in 2008.

And from Deutsche Welle, resurrection?:

Berlusconi comeback in European elections?

Silvio Berlusconi is planning his comeback in Europe. Thus far, Brussels isn’t taking the idea too seriously. But his appeal at the ECJ and a political rehabilitation in Italy might make it possible.

Those who know Silvio Berlusconi won’t be surprised that he is planning a comeback on an international platform. At a meeting with his re-established political party, Forza Italia, in January, the former Italian prime minister announced his plans to run for office during European elections in May 2014 – despite the fact that a law forbids him from doing exactly that.

The so-called “Legge Severino” is a law prohibiting convicts to run for a post for six years. And then there’s the Mediaset verdict imposing a two-year-ban from public office; both obstacles in the way of the former premier, who was convicted on tax fraud charges and is currently facing more recent charges of bribery.

For a while now, Berlusconi’s lawyers have been working on a plan to circumvent the “Severino” law, according to reports in the Italian media. That plan leads directly to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxemburg, where Berlusconi has already filed for appeal proceedings.

ANSAmed grimly enumerates:

Almost one in four Italians in dire straits

  • 24.9% of households in situation of ‘deprivation’

Almost one in four Italian households, 24.9%, are in a situation of “deprivation”, Istat said Tuesday, as they are positive for at least three of the statistics agency’s nine factors of economic hardship. These include the inability to meet unexpected expenses, being behind in loan payments or being unable to afford a meal with a high protein content at least once every two days.

Istat said the percentage of people in a situation of deprivation was 22.3% in 2011, when Italy entered its longest postwar recession.

More from TheLocal.it:

Italians pay almost as much tax as the Swedes

Average tax levels in Italy grew from 41.3 percent in 2000 to 42.5 percent in 2011, the agency said.

Meanwhile, the average rate in Sweden, where taxpayers receive favourable social benefits in return for their high contributions, actually fell from 51.7 percent in 2000 to 44.7 percent in 2012.

Taxes in Italy might be almost as high as in Sweden, but the main gripe among Italians is that they don’t get the same high standard of services in return, whether that be in healthcare, education or public transport.

Istat’s report, called Noi Italia, also revealed that just 61 percent of Italians between the ages of 20 and 64 have jobs, well below the 75 percent employment level stipulated by the European Union, had jobs in 2012.

Women fared the worst, with just 50.5 percent – one of the worst rates in Europe – being in work in 2012, while 71.6 percent of working-age men were employed.

From Reuters, revelatory blowback:

Italian President Napolitano under fire over Monti appointment

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano faced fierce criticism on Monday over reports that he asked Mario Monti about replacing Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister months before his government fell at the height of the euro zone crisis in 2011.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party expressed “bitterness and shock” at the reports, based on interviews with Monti and others in a forthcoming book by journalist Alan Friedman, extract of which were published by the Financial Times and the Corriere della Sera newspapers.

Although the events recounted in the book occurred more than two years ago, they risk reopening wounds between the parties that could complicate the already difficult situation facing Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s fragile ruling coalition, which is struggling to adopt economic and political reforms.

“We are dismayed to learn that, as early as June 2011, the head of state was actively taking steps to bring down the Berlusconi government and replace him with Mario Monti,” the parliamentary floor leaders of Forza Italia, Renato Brunetta and Paolo Romani, said in a statement.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, a Cypriot uptick, Mexican vigilante motives, Myanmar miseries, troubles for Australian industry and ministerial corporateering, Chinese strategy, bad numbers for Japan, environmental woes, a Big Agra GMO win, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day I: Spies, protests, lies, zones


A whole lot going on in the realm of spooks, lack ops, rampant militarism and other dark corners of the realms of deep politics and distrus.

We open on an upbeat note with this from The Guardian:

Protesters rally for ‘the day we fight back’ against mass surveillance

  • Alongside demonstrations in 15 countries, thousands contact congresspeople and take online action supporting privacy rights

Tens of thousands of people and organisations were participating in a protest against the NSA’s mass surveillance on Tuesday, bombarding members of Congress with phone calls and emails and holding demonstrations across the globe.

Dubbed “The day we fight back”, the action saw scores of websites, including Reddit, BoingBoing and Mozilla host a widget inviting users to pressure elected officials.

The online demonstration saw more than 18,000 calls placed and 50,000 emails sent to US congressmen and women by midday Tuesday. Physical protests were planned in 15 countries.

“The goal of the day we fight back is to stop mass surveillance by intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency,” said Rainey Reitman, activism director at the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which helped organise the events.

And a report from RT America:

‘Day We Fight Back’ takes on NSA

Program notes:

It was declared ‘The Day We Fight Back’. Internet companies and activists around the world had an international day of protest on February 11th. Over 5,700 websites changed their homepages to demand the National Security Agency stop its massive surveillance efforts. On Capitol Hill, representatives from privacy groups, religious institutions NS Congressman Rush Holt came together to talk about the issue of NSA spying. RT correspondent Meghan Lopez was there and brings us more.

Meanwhile, from TheLocal.fr, Barry O has a new BFF:

France and US reconcile over NSA spying scandal

On the occasion of President François Hollande’s visit to the US, he and American President Barack Obama said on Tuesday they have settled differences over digital spying efforts revealed by leaker Edward Snowden.

French President Francois Hollande, speaking alongside his US counterpart Barack Obama, said Tuesday that the two allies had resolved their differences over American digital eavesdropping.

Leaders from many US allies, including Germany’s Chancellor Angel Merkel, were angered by intelligence leaker Edward Snowden’s revelation that the United States monitors their telephone calls. But it is not known if Hollande’s own telephone was tapped, and France has been more cautious in its critique, emphasizing the importance of its intelligence cooperation with Washington.

“We wanted to fight against terrorism, but we also wanted to meet a number of principles. And we are making headway in this cooperation. Mutual trust has been restored,” Hollande said.

More from the Associated Press:

Obama: No country where we have no-spy agreement

President Barack Obama says there is no country with which the United States has “a no-spy agreement.” But he says the United States endeavors to protect privacy rights as it collects foreign intelligence.

Obama says the United States and its allies remain concerned about specific potential terrorist networks that could attack and kill innocent people. He says the U.S. will have to maintain a robust intelligence gathering effort, but says it will respect privacy.

Obama made his remarks during a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande.

The Guardian carries a call for debate:

Ed Miliband calls for US-style debate over Britain’s intelligence agencies

  • Labour leader calls for examination of oversight of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 in wake of Edward Snowden leaks

A major overhaul of the oversight of Britain’s intelligence agencies, which could lead to an opposition politician chairing parliament’s intelligence and security committee and reform of the intelligence commissioners, needs to be introduced, Ed Miliband has said.

The Labour leader praised Barack Obama for starting an “important debate” in the US – after the White House appointed a panel in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks – and called for a similar debate in Britain.

In some of his most extensive comments on the NSA leaks, Miliband told a Guardian audience that reforming the oversight of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 was “definitely” part of his campaign to challenge “unaccountable power”.

From the Greens/European Free Alliance office of the European Parliament, the latest on the instigator of Spookgate 2013-2014:

Snowden confirms wish to address MEPs; EP must take into account

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has confirmed in writing that he is prepared to answer questions from the European Parliament’s inquiry into the revelations of mass surveillance by intelligence services. He will at least respond in writing, possibly also via a recorded video message. The Greens welcomed the confirmation and insisted that the EP must immediately move to facilitate this, with Green justice and home affairs spokesperson Jan Philipp Albrecht stating:

“The confirmation that Edward Snowden is willing to answer questions in the context of the EP’s inquiry is a significant and positive development. To conclude the inquiry without testimony from its key witness would render the process clearly incomplete. We would urge those centre-right MEPs that have hitherto resisted giving Snowden a hearing to drop their resistance. We will request an additional, extraordinary meeting of the EP inquiry before a vote is taken on its final report, with a view to ensuring the testimony can be taken into account.

“It is clear that Edward Snowden will only be able to give us comprehensive information if he can be guaranteed a safe stay in Europe for a later in-depth testimony. Next week, the EP’s civil liberties committee will decide if the European Parliament will call on EU governments to grant such protection. The Greens have pushed for this and continue to urge all political groups to support the move.”

The McClatchy Washington Bureau hits a roadblock:

Americans find swift stonewall on whether NSA vacuumed their data

Since last year’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive communications data dragnets, the spy agency has been inundated with requests from Americans and others wanting to know if it has files on them. All of them are being turned down .

The denials illustrate the bind in which the disclosures have trapped the Obama administration. While it has pledged to provide greater transparency about the NSA’s communications collections, the NSA says it cannot respond to individuals’ requests without tipping off terrorists and other targets.

As a result, Americans whose email and telephone data may have been improperly vacuumed up have no way of finding that out by filing open records requests with the agency. Six McClatchy reporters who filed requests seeking any information kept by the NSA on them all received the same response.

Reuters probes:

Democrats seek probe of U.S. contractor for security checks

Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday sought an investigation of the largest U.S. government contractor for security checks, saying it received huge bonuses during the time it is accused of bilking the government of millions of dollars.

Representative Elijah Cummings said a congressional report found United States Investigations Services “adopted aggressive new financial incentives to accelerate its work” in 2007 and took shortcuts in its review of background checks while charging the federal government for the full service.

The company, the largest private provider of security checks for the government, was accused in a Justice Department lawsuit last month of bilking the government of millions of dollars through improper background checks.

The contractor also received millions of dollars in bonuses from the Office of Personnel Management, including $2.4 million in 2008, $3.5 million in 2009 and $5.8 million in 2010, said Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform committee.

And a video report from RT:

Firm that conducted Snowden background check accused of fraud, Microsoft’s Sino-censoring search engine, literary censorship in India, and a security threat averted by some toy-grabbing zealots. . . Continue reading

Chart of the day II: Uncle Sam, global bully


From The Military Balance 2014, a new report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a sobering reminder of the truly unipolar nature of world military power in the 21st Century:

BLOG Military

Headline of the day II: EconoAggroGrecoCrises


Our collection of headlines from the economic, political, and environmental realms opens on a progressive profession from BBC News:

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio targets income gap ‘threat’

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to raise the minimum wage and issue ID papers to undocumented immigrants.

Setting out the policies of his new administration in a State of the City address, Mr de Blasio took aim at the city’s yawning inequality gap.

The 52-year-old also wants to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten programmes.

Elected in November, he is New York’s first Democratic mayor in two decades.

From The Guardian, eyes on Oakland from across the pond:

The city that told Google to get lost

Highly paid employees are pushing up rents near the tech giant’s California headquarters, forcing locals out and destroying communities, say activists. Now Oakland’s residents are fighting back – hard. But are they too late?

If pushing your enemy into the sea signifies success, then Google’s decision to start ferrying workers to its campus by boat suggests the revolt against big technology companies is going well. Standing on the docks of Oakland, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, last week, you could watch the Googlers board the ferry, one by one, and swoosh through the chill, grey waters of the bay towards the company’s Mountain View headquarters, 30 or so miles to the south.

Not exactly Dunkirk, but from afar you might have detected a whiff of evacuation, if not retreat. The ferry from Oakland – a week-long pilot programme – joined a similar catamaran service for Google workers in San Francisco launched last month. The search engine giant is not doing it for the bracing sea air. It is a response to blockades and assaults against buses that shuttle employees to work.

From The Independent, that old time religion:

Utah’s Mormons celebrate as polygamy restrictions are struck down

  • Part of law was ruled in violation of First Amendment

A US federal judge has struck down a key part of Utah’s law banning polygamy – providing welcome relief to one practising Mormon family. Joe Darger, who described himself as an “independent Mormon fundamentalist”, has 25 children with three wives.

US District Judge Clark Waddoups threw out part of a bill which allows the state to use cohabitation as a basis for prosecution, although Utah does still prohibit bigamy.

Reuters records a visit:

Obama, France’s Hollande make pilgrimage to Jefferson’s Monticello

President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande toured Thomas Jefferson’s plantation estate on Monday in a show of solidarity for Franco-American ties that have endured for more than two centuries despite the occasional tempest.

The visit to Monticello, home to America’s third president, served to showcase a relationship that stretches back to the founding of the United States in the late 18th century, an alliance still strong despite spats over U.S. eavesdropping and trade talks with the European Union.

Hollande, 59, who split from his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, last month after an affair with an actress, arrived solo for the first state visit hosted by Obama since he won a second term in 2012.

Heading north of the border with an offer Rob Ford can’t refuse from The Independent:

Canada installs first ever crack-pipe vending machines

  • Controversial vending machines dispense them for $0.25 in attempt to curb spread of HIV and hepatitis

A Canadian NGO has installed crack pipe vending machines in the city of Vancouver in a bid to curb the spread of HIV and hepatitis among users.

The polka-dot vending machines are operated by the Portland Hotel Society, a drug treatment centre, and dispense newly packaged crack pipes like snacks for $0.25 (13p).

The group says the pipes are less likely to chip and cut users’ mouths as a resulting of overheating and overuse, preventing the spread of disease among crack addicts.

“They don’t run the risk of then sharing pipes, or pipes that are chipped or broken,” Kailin See told CTV Vancouver.

On to Europe with bankster news from Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

Eurozone banks will be allowed to fail, says regulator

The incoming head of Europe’s new single banking supervisory authority has warned that weak eurozone banks will be allowed to fail following upcoming stress tests, in an interview in Monday’s Financial Times.

Frenchwoman Daniele Nouy was giving her first interview since being appointed chief of the Single Supervisory Mechanism, set up as part of attempts to stabilise the EU’s banking system and shift the financial costs of failed banks away from sovereign governments

“We have to accept that some banks have no future,” she told the FT. “We have to let some disappear in an orderly fashion, and not necessarily try to merge them with other institutions”.

EurActiv regulates with dubious efficacy:

EU rules to light up derivatives markets set for shaky start

New rules coming into force in Europe this week to shine more light on the $700 trillion (€513 trillion) derivatives markets will take years to produce a clearer picture of these complex products which were at the heart of the financial crisis.

When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 markets were in the dark over a tangle of derivatives on the US investment bank’s books. Financial markets froze because of uncertainty about who was exposed to Lehman’s derivatives, such as credit default swaps or interest rate swaps. US insurer AIG also ran up big losses linked to derivatives.

In response, politicians and regulators around the world called for action to make risks easier to spot in this opaque part of global financial markets.

The new EU rules, coming in on Wednesday, aim to increase transparency by requiring reporting of transactions.

On to Britain and a warning from the London Telegraph:

Lord Turner: UK economy is like 90s Japan

  • City regulator during the 2007/8 crisis says that the UK has not rebalanced its economy, and risks further shocks as a result

Lord Turner has warned that the UK has failed to rebalance its economy and is simply repeating the errors made in the run-up to the 2007/8 financial crisis.

The self-styled technocrat, who was chairman of the City regulator until last April, likened the domestic economy over the last five years to Japan in the 1990s.

The former Financial Services Authority chief – who made it on to the shortlist to replace Lord King as Governor of the Bank of England – said that although the economy was now showing obvious signs of growth, there was the potential that it will not be sustained due to the continued build up of credit in the system.

“The concerning thing about the UK economy is that from 2009 until early last year, a lot of the debate was around the need to rebalance, from being over focused on financial services and the housing market,” Lord Turner told The Telegraph.

The Independent doesn’t feel the love:

Where is the love? Majority of international students in the UK do not feel welcome

The majority of international students studying in the UK feel unwelcome in the country with a significant number saying they would not recommend to their friends that they come here to attend university, says a survey published on Monday.

A study of the attitudes of 3,100 international students by the National Union of Students revealed that more than 50 per cent believed the UK Government was either “not welcoming” or “not welcoming at all towards overseas students”.

Figures show PhD students are most likely to feel unwelcome (65.8 per cent) with those from Japan (64.5 per cent), Nigeria (62.8 per cent) and India (62 per cent) the next most likely to say they have received hostile treatment. Students from India, Pakistan and Nigeria are most likely to advise their friends not to study here.

The Guardian, with banksters doing what bankster do:

City bonus row reignites with Barclays to admit £2bn in payments

  • Bonus payout contrasts with bank boss Antony Jenkins’ pledge for restraint and helps push total since 2008 crisis towards £80bn

Controversy over City bonuses will be reignited this week when Barclays admits it paid its staff more than last year, fuelling predictions that the amount of bonuses paid out across the Square Mile since the 2008 crisis could soon hit £80bn.

Barclays is expected to reveal on Tuesday that its bonus pot topped £2bn last year – more than it paid out in the previous 12 months – despite a pledge by its boss Antony Jenkins to show restraint on pay.

Starting the reporting season for the high-street banks, Barclays will be followed in the coming fortnight by bailed-out banks Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland, as well as HSBC, in disclosing how much each has paid in bonuses for 2013.

The Irish Times gives us the latest instance of Banksters Behaving Badly, this time involving the €12.3 million collapse of Anglo Irish Bank, the biggest bustout in Irish history:

Seán Quinn suspected Anglo was doing ‘a sweetheart deal’

  • Businessman tells court the bank knew it was in serious trouble from November 2007

Former businessman Sean Quinn has told the Anglo Irish Bank trial that he suspected Anglo was “doing a sweetheart deal” when it forced him to sell his stake in the bank.

Mr Quinn, who admitted he used to be Ireland’s richest man, said he could not understand why the share price of Anglo fell so much in July 2008 as the deal was going through. He said that he approached a solicitor in London about the matter.

Mr Quinn told Dublin Circuit Criminal Court that the bank knew from November 2007 that it was in serious trouble but that Sean FitzPatrick and David Drumm maintained it was “in rude health” as late as September 2008, shortly after the bank guarantee.

On to France and presidential woes from The Guardian:

Sluggish French growth figures pile more pressure on François Hollande

  • Bank of France forecasts economy will grow 0.2% in January-March compared with the final quarter of 2013

France will eke out meagre economic growth in the first three months of 2014, a spokesman for the central bank said on Monday, as the eurozone’s second-biggest economy struggles to avoid falling further behind the pack.

Data on Monday indicated that French industrial production dropped 0.3% in December by comparison with November, falling short of expectations, although the figure for the fourth quarter as a whole was positive.

The weakness of France’s recovery is adding to pressure on President François Hollande to deliver faster growth. The deeply unpopular Socialist leader has embarked on a shift to more business-friendly policies to bring down near-record unemployment.

France 24 hits the picket lines:

Mass taxi strike strands Paris commuters, tourists

Hundreds of taxis gathered at Paris airports before dawn on Monday as part of a nationwide protest against what cab drivers say is unfair competition posed by a recent surge in popularity of chauffeured cars offered by private companies, or VTCs.

The striking taxis gathered at 6am local time at Charles de Gaulle airport amid a cacophony of blaring horns and under a banner reading “55,000 angry taxis”, with one airport source saying no taxis were servicing the airport, a major international hub.

At regional hub Orly, a hundred vehicles blocked taxi queues to prevent cars from picking up passengers.

Would-be taxi drivers face exorbitant fees ahead of receiving an operating license, often running into the hundreds of thousands.

Switzerland next, and post-electoral anxiety from TheLocal.ch:

Government in damage control mode after vote

Reeling from a vote to cap EU immigration, Switzerland’s government and business community moved on Monday to limit the damage to trade ties with the big European bloc.

Swiss President and Foreign Affairs Minister Didier Burkhalter played down talk of a “Black Sunday” in ties with Brussels, after 50.3 percent of voters backed a referendum proposal to end a seven-year-old pact that gave equal footing to most EU citizens in the Swiss labour market.

“We need to avoid that kind of language,” he told reporters.

“Switzerland is not going to rip up its deal with the EU on freedom of movement,” he insisted.

EUbusiness covers another set of winners:

Swiss vote is boon for far-right ahead of EU parliament vote

Anti-EU parties already expected to do well in European Parliament elections in May claim the Swiss vote to curb immigration vindicates their stand.

“What the Swiss can do, we can do too,” said Geert Wilders, leader of Holland’s extreme-right PVV.

France’s extreme right National Front party too hailed “the Swiss people’s lucidity,” calling for Paris to stop “mass immigration” while Austria’s far-right FPO party said the country would vote the same way given the chance.

“With the (Swiss) referendum, it becomes more likely that the anti-Europeans will represent the biggest group in the European parliament, with a quarter of the MEPs,” German daily Tagesspiegel said.

Another potential blowback from New Europe:

After the Swiss referendum: the possible return of bank secrecy

The result of the Sunday referendum in Switzerland has stunned the EU. Many politicians reacted with dismay, sometimes even bordering on anger. Thus, Luxembourg’s prime minister Jean Asselborn said: “I respect the decision of the Swiss people… but the Swiss people must also respect the values of the EU.”

The same tone was heard from the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said on Monday that Europe would review its relations with Switzerland after the “worrying” Swiss vote to reintroduce immigration quotas with the European Union. “In my opinion it’s bad news both for Europe and for the Swiss because Switzerland will be penalised if it withdraws,” Fabius said. “We’re going to review our relations with Switzerland,” he said.

The withdrawal in question would be Switzerland’s retreat from the Schengen agreement, of which Switzerland is one of the signatories, but which cannot be applied selectively.

The Commission was less vociferous, with the spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen stating on Monday only that “ The Commission regrets the initiative, since it infringes the principle of the free movement”. “Will examine politically and juridically our relations with Switzerland, but restrictions are unacceptable”, she said.”

Counting costs with EUobserver:

Swiss vote jeopardises involvement in multi-billion EU programmes

The EU’s multi-billion research programme Horizon 2020 and its Erasmus student exchange with Switzerland hang in the balance following a Swiss vote over the weekend in favour imposing quotas on EU migrants.

The two would automatically be suspended should Switzerland move to include limits on EU’s newest member state, Croatia. Both agreements are conditioned on free movement.

Croatia is scheduled to sign off on a reciprocal free movement agreement with Switzerland on 1 July. All other member states have a similar agreement.

Still more blowback from Deutsche Welle:

Swiss vote to stem immigration could cause ‘a lot of problems’

Switzerland’s neighbors and the EU say they regret the country’s narrow vote to limit annual migration inflows. Veteran German politician Wolfgang Schäuble warns of “a lot of problems” for the Swiss government in Bern.

On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said that Germany respected the result of Switzerland’s vote. However, he added, it “raises considerable problems,” and said that Merkel had repeatedly stated free movement was a “prized asset” for Germany.

The European Commission said in a statement released after the referendum that it regretted the decision, and would “analyze the consequences of this initiative to our relations in general.”

Despite voicing regret about the result, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble warned against ignoring the sentiment expressed.

“Of course this does show a little that people are increasingly uneasy about unlimited freedom of movement in this world of globalization. I believe we must take this seriously,” Schäuble said on ARD public television. “We regret this decision. It will cause a lot of problems for Switzerland.”

And a parallel story from TheLocal.ch:

Foreigner jobless rate rises again in January

The unemployment rate in Switzerland remained at 3.5 percent in January, unchanged from the previous month, but the percentage of expats out of work rose again, figures released by the government showed on Monday.

The number of people registered for jobless benefits edged higher to 153,260 people, up 3,823 from December 2013, the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) said.

But the level of unemployed foreigners in the country jumped significantly to 7.1 percent in January from 6.9 percent the previous month, while the rate for Swiss nationals stayed unchanged at 2.4 percent.

The rate of expat jobless in Switzerland, accounting for almost half the unemployed in the country, has grown every month for the past several months.

On to Spain, and a change underway from TheLocal.es:

3.5 million ‘Spanish’ Jews to apply for citizenship

Jewish associations expect 3.5 million Sephardic Jews to apply for Spanish citizenship after Spain’s Justice Ministry approved a draft law which will allow them to return to the country their ancestors were kicked out of more than 500 years ago.

The descendants of Sephardic Jews banished from Spain in 1492 will now be able to regain Spanish nationality under a new law approved by Madrid’s Cabinet of Ministers on Friday.

Those who can prove their Spanish origins will be able to apply for dual nationality at the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, El Mundo newspaper reported on Sunday.

According to Israel’s Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese Association (OLEI), the newly-approved legislation has already resulted in a flurry of applications from Sephardic Jews around the world.

TheLocal.es trods the boards:

Abortion takes centre stage at Spain’s Oscars

A controversial plan in Spain to scrap easy access to abortions took centre stage at the Goya Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Oscars, with several actresses slamming the reform as they accepted their prizes.

The ceremony was broadcast live on public television network TVE to an estimated audience of 3.6 million people.

The issue has prompted deep debate and big protests in Spain, with many opposed to the conservative government’s draft law unveiled in December that would allow abortion only in cases of rape or health risk to the mother.

Critics say the measure scrapping more liberal access to abortion would throw the Catholic country back decades, when Spanish women had to go abroad to seek pregnancy terminations.

If the law is adopted, Spain would be the first country in the 28-member European Union to reverse legalizing abortion.

On to Portugal and a pronouncement from El País:

“Portugal is not going to need a second bailout”

  • Economy Minister António Pires de Lima says the program will be exited with a growing economy

May 17 is a key date for Portugal. It’s the day on which the 78-billion-euro bailout program it sought in April 2011 is due to end and Portugal will supposedly fully return to the sovereign debt market to fund itself. However, it remains to be seen how Spain’s Iberian neighbor will emerge from this financial assistance program; whether it will be a clean break without any further support, or the current bailout will be replaced by a softer rescue package that still involves some form of external help.

In an interview with EL PAÍS, Portuguese Economy Minister António Pires de Lima explains that the center-right coalition government of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho will unveil its plans when it believes the moment is right to do so. He is encouraged by the fact the Portuguese economy is already on the road to recovery, although this has yet to become a reality for the population at large.

Among other draconian measures, a brutal increase in taxes, the elimination of extra payments for civil servants and pensioners, wage cuts, and the increase in the standard value-added tax rate to 23 percent have all hit the middle classes hard. The 2014 state budget maintains the fiscal adjustment drive of the previous two years. On top of the withdrawal of extra payments and cuts in salaries introduced in 2012 and the rise in taxes in 2013, this year’s budget also includes a further cut in wages for civil servants earning more than 675 euros a month.

The Portugal News excludes:

Dictator can’t buy Portuguese bank- MEP

Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes told Lusa on Friday that the Bank of Portugal and the Portuguese Stock Market Regulator (CMVM) had to fulfill “their role” and stop Equatorial Guinea buying into troubled bank Banif and that she was going to ask the European Commission (EC) to step in.

“This is yet another case where I have to intervene and ask the EC to ensure that a bank that is being rescued with funds that are part of Portugal’s bailout loan, and which are going to have to be paid back by Portuguese taxpayers, is not bought up in part by a corrupt and criminal regime as part of a money laundering scheme”, the Socialist MEP told Lusa News Agency.

“I think it is unbelievable that something like this can happen and hope that the Bank of Portugal and the CMVM do their job properly and do not allow this to happen because it is extremely dangerous for BANIF and I would like to alert all account holders about how incredibly dangerous it is going to be to have financing from somewhere like Equatorial Guinea, a sinister regime that is flagged on all indexes of dictatorial, miserable regimes where the population gets poorer and poorer while the presidential family lines their pockets on a daily basis”, she said.

On to Italy and more bad news from TheLocal.it:

Recovery hopes dwindle as Italian industry lags

A 0.9-percent slump in Italy’s industrial production in December, following three months of consecutive increases, disappointed investors on Monday and cast a shadow over hopes for a recovery this year.

The official data from the Istat agency showed industrial production was also down 0.7 percent from December 2012 and down 3.0 percent over all of 2013.

Analysts had expected the monthly figure to remain unchanged, after the economy in the third quarter formally ended two painful years of recession with zero growth in Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP).

“The result does not question the forecast of a return to growth in the fourth quarter of 2013 but it does confirm that the recovery will be very gradual,” said Paolo Mameli, an economist from Intesa Sanpaolo bank. The fourth quarter figure will be announced on Friday.

After the jump, the latest crises news from Greece, Bosnian outrage, Ukrainian regime change dreaming, Mexican vigilantes, Indian worries and wages, Thai troubles, neoliberalism moves in Myanmar, development bank devastation in Cambodia, Aussie auto woes, the latest Chinese angst, more down numbers in Japan, energy environmental woes, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day I: Spies, laws, drones, hits


And a whole lot more. . .

We open today’s compendium of headlines from the worlds of spookery [state and corporate], militarism, geopolitical zone crises and such with some semantic antics from United Press International:

National Security Staff name returns to National Security Council

The name of the National Security Staff was changed back to the National Security Council staff Monday, President Obama said in an executive order.

“All references to the National Security Staff or Homeland Security Council Staff in any executive order or presidential directive shall be understood to refer to the staff of the National Security Council,” Obama said in the one-page order.

In a blog posted on WhiteHouse.gov, NSC spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said, “[We] are once again the National Security Council staff.”

The name was changed to National Security Staff in 2009, when the Obama administration combined the National Security Council staff and the Homeland Security Council staff, Hayden said.

And from the Washington Post, a not-so-covert op:

Video shows U.S. abduction of accused al-Qaeda terrorist on trial for embassy bombings

After dawn prayers Oct. 5, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, a wanted al-Qaeda terrorism suspect, returned to his family’s home in Tripoli, Libya.

He stopped his car in front of the house, which was nestled in an affluent neighborhood in the coastal city. It was 6:38 a.m. and still dark.

A white van trailing Ruqai pulled alongside his car. Then at least three men, with guns drawn, jumped out of the van as another car blocked Ruqai’s escape while a third idled down the street.

The men yanked Ruqai, also known as Anas al-Libi, out of his car and threw him in the van, according to a video of the abduction obtained by The Washington Post. The video, from a closed-circuit camera in the neighborhood, provides a rare glimpse of a U.S. covert operation and also captures some of the bewildered reaction in Ruqai’s home once he had disappeared.

And the Snowden bombshell de jour from The Intercept:

The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program

The National Security Agency is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes – an unreliable tactic that results in the deaths of innocent or unidentified people.

According to a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA, the agency often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking technologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.

The drone operator, who agreed to discuss the top-secret programs on the condition of anonymity, was a member of JSOC’s High Value Targeting task force, which is charged with identifying, capturing or killing terrorist suspects in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

His account is bolstered by top-secret NSA documents previously provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It is also supported by a former drone sensor operator with the U.S. Air Force, Brandon Bryant, who has become an outspoken critic of the lethal operations in which he was directly involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

From CNN, another American in Obama’s dronesights:

Source: U.S. debating targeted killing of American terror suspect overseas

The Obama administration is in high-level discussions about staging an operation to kill an American citizen involved with al Qaeda and suspected of plotting attacks against the United States, a senior U.S. official tells CNN.

The official, who declined to disclose any specific information about the target or the country the suspect presides in, was confirming information first reported by The Associated Press.

The debate about whether to undertake a mission is being held with various commanders in the U.S. military, as well as the U.S. national security agencies. The discussion centers on the risk involved and the importance of the target.

Another country, another state murder op from The Hindu:

Inside the culture of covert killing

Early in the summer of 1988, as scorching winds of death blew across Punjab, a short, wiry man entered the Golden Temple, invisible among the great throngs of pilgrims gathering at the shrine from across India. Inside, he was greeted as an honoured guest by Surjit Singh Penta, the Khalistan terror commander who had made the temple his fortress. For the next several days, Mr. Penta worked with his visitor, an officer assigned by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, wiring up the temple with explosives. The threat, he was certain, would deter India from considering storming the temple, as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had done in 1984.

New Delhi ignored Mr. Penta’s threats: the bombs were duds, and the man Mr. Penta thought was an ISI officer would serve, decades later, as Director of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB). Nine days into an almost bloodless siege, the terrorists surrendered

Like many intelligence officials, Ajit Kumar Doval has never discussed what happened in the Golden Temple. Those who served during the period, though, speak of skilful deception operations that allowed the penetration of the networks linking Mr. Penta to the ISI; of the interception and disappearance of the Pakistani intelligence official as he made his way across the Punjab border to Amritsar.

The President of India later handed Mr. Doval a small silver disc, embossed with the great wheel of dharma and a lotus wreath, and the words Kirti Chakra.

Now, as former Intelligence Bureau (IB) special director Rajinder Kumar faces trial for the extra-judicial execution of Mumbai college student Ishrat Jehan Raza and three others, Mr. Doval’s story tells us something important. The Ishrat case is just part of a culture of killing. That culture is, in turn, a symptom of a much larger dysfunction. For decades now, India’s government has dodged a serious debate what a viable legal framework for counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism might look like, how it is to be administered and who will make sure it isn’t abused. It has simply ignored hard questions of capacity-building and accountability.

RT has drone buddies:

UK ‘borrowed’ US drones to carry out unreported strikes in Afghanistan

The UK has used American drones over 250 times to carry out previously unreported attacks in Afghanistan, the MoD has admitted. The reports prompted a sharp reaction from British rights groups who slammed the lack of transparency in the UK military.

In response to a freedom of information request by British rights group Drone Wars UK, the Ministry of Defense said it had launched 39 missile strikes from unmanned US craft in Afghanistan. This the first time the Ministry of Defense has admitted to the use of American craft in conflict zones to carry out strikes.

“Of the 2,150 missions flown by UK personnel, there were 271 missions in Afghanistan when UK personnel utilized a US Reaper, as a UK Reaper was unavailable. During these missions, UK personnel released 39 weapons. I am withholding information about weapons released by UK personnel embedded with the United States Air Force on operations in Afghanistan and Libya under Section 27 [of the Freedom of Information Act],” said a statement from the MoD.

And from the Express Tribune, the price of activism opposing death from above:

Anti-drone campaigner goes missing from Rawalpindi

An anti-drone campaigner has gone missing missing after he was picked up from his residence in the outskirts of Islamabad, his family and lawyer said on Monday.

Karim Khan, originally a resident of North Waziristan, had been an active member of the anti-drone campaign and had organised several protests in Islamabad and Peshawar.

His family said that nearly 20 armed people, eight of them in police uniform, raided his residence at Dhok Mustaqeem on Peshawar Road, Rawalpindi late at night between February 4 and 5 and forcibly took him away.

“We do not have any information about his whereabouts since then,” a family member told The Express Tribune.

Nextgov seeks corporate help:

Officials Seek Industry Input on How to Comply With Obama’s NSA Reforms

The Obama administration is spitballing ideas for surveillance reform.

In a speech last month outlining changes to the controversial surveillance programs, Obama said he wants the National Security Agency to continue mining through phone records for possible terrorists, but he doesn’t want the government to hold the call data anymore.

No one is really sure how the government can achieve both goals, but Obama gave Attorney General Eric Holder and top intelligence officials until March 28 to figure it out.

Last week, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a request for industry input on the problem. The agency said it wants to investigate whether “existing commercially available capabilities can provide a new approach” to the bulk collection of phone records.

Techdirt notes the hypocrisy:

Gov’t Officials Leak Classified Info To Journalists To Discredit Snowden For Leaking Classified Info To Journalists

  • from the we’re-from-the-government,-we-don’t-do-irony dept

We already mentioned the bizarre NY Times article from over the weekend that described how Snowden apparently used some basic web crawler software to collect the documents he later leaked. As we noted, the basic story itself is unremarkable, other than for how the NY Times tried to turn “man uses basic tool” into a story. However, there is a really good quote from Snowden himself (via his lawyers) in response to the article. Since most of it involves senior government officials telling NYT reporters about security problems at some NSA facilities, Snowden was quick to point out the irony:

“It’s ironic that officials are giving classified information to journalists in an effort to discredit me for giving classified information to journalists. The difference is that I did so to inform the public about the government’s actions, and they’re doing so to misinform the public about mine.”

Pardon me? Fat chance! From The Guardian:

Snowden plea bargain speculation played down by ex-CIA and NSA chief

  • Michael Hayden says he sees little appetite for deal with whistleblower, and portrays US surveillance reforms as limited

The former head of the CIA and the NSA, General Michael Hayden, dampened speculation on Monday that the US might offer a plea bargain to Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower.

Hayden, speaking at an Oxford University lecture, said that while deals had been done with other leakers in the past, he detected little enthusiasm for such a deal for Snowden.

His comments come after the US attorney-general Eric Holder and others within the Obama administration hinted at a possible plea bargain.

From the Emerald Isle via the Irish Times, ears in the heart of the police:

Callinan has ‘grave concern’ over Garda ombudsman bugging statement

  • Garda Commissioner seeks clarification over basis for suspicion of gardaí; GSOC ‘regrets’ not reporting

Martin Callinan has expressed “grave concern” that a statement by the Garda ombudsman implied that An Garda Síochana was “in some way suspected of complicity”.

The Garda Commissioner made the comment tonight, after a statement was released by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) this evening regarding suspected bugging of its offices.

In the statement GSOC said three technical and electronic “anomalies” were found during an investigation. GSOC said the anomalies could not be explained but the organisation is “satisfied that its databases were not compromised”.

The ombudsman said it “regrets” taking the decision not to report the matter. “There was no evidence of Garda misconduct,” it added.

United Press International covers old school spookery:

Former U.S. sailor sentenced to 30 years for trying to spy for Russia

Former U.S. Navy sailor Robert Hoffman of Virginia was sentenced Monday to 30 years in prison for attempted espionage against the United States.

Hoffman, 40, of Virginia Beach, Va., was convicted last August of trying to spy for Russia. He served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years before retiring at the rank of Petty Officer First Class in 2011.

The former Navy cryptologic technician was arrested on Dec. 6, 2012, after an FBI sting operation to see if he was willing to spy against the United States, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia said Monday in a release.

As part of this investigation, undercover FBI agents posing as Russian operatives contacted Hoffman seeking defense information. In a series of emails and other communications, Hoffman advised that he looked forward to “renewing [a] friendship” with his purported Russian contact, was “willing to develop a mutual trust,” and wanted to be compensated for his activities.

Homeland Security News Wire wants rules, man, rules!:

Israeli legal expert urges development of ethics code for cyberwarfare

Col. Sharon Afek, former deputy military advocate general, says that countries would benefit from developing an ethics code to govern cyber warfare operations. He notes that existing law already prohibits cyber operations which would directly lead to loss of life, injury, or property damage, such as causing a train to derail or undermining a dam. “Israel faces a complex and challenging period in which we can expect both a cyber arms race with the participation of state and non-state entities, and a massive battle between East and West over the character of the future legal regime,” he writes. He acknowledges, though, that only a catastrophic event like “Pearl Harbor or Twin Towers attack in cyberspace” would accelerate developments in this area.

Israel is already engaged in a cyber arms race with its adversaries, but some of the cyberattacks Israel has launched, and which have launched against it, may not be permissible in the legal regime which is slowly developing, according to a former IDF’s deputy military advocate general.

“Israel faces a complex and challenging period in which we can expect both a cyber arms race with the participation of state and non-state entities, and a massive battle between East and West over the character of the future legal regime,” writes Col. Sharon Afek in a study crafted as part of his research at the National Defense College.

From TheLocal.it, Big Brother online:

Italy plans crackdown on internet hate

Politicians from the Democratic Party (PD) will this week propose a new law to tackle internet hate speech, following high-profile attacks against leading politician Laura Boldrini.

The new proposal is due to be put forward this week by MPs Alessandra Moretti and Francesco Sanna, with backing from other PD members, La Stampa reported on Monday.

The aim of the bill is to strip the online sphere of content that is “detrimental to our own dignity”, Moretti was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

If successfully passed by Italy’s lower house and Senate, the law would impact newspaper websites, blogs and individuals’ social media accounts.

After the jump, the latest on the Asian zone, history, and militarism crises, Icelandic censorship threats, spooky automotive anxieties, drones in the Gulf, Greek leaks, and more. . . Continue reading

Humans and landscapes, a complex interaction


On his UC Berkeley faculty website, archaeologist Patrick V. Kirch lists his specialties as “Prehistory and ethnography of Oceania, ethnoarchaeology and settlement archaeology, prehistoric agricultural systems, cultural ecology and paleoenvironmentalism, ethnobotany and ethnoscience, development of complex societies in Oceania.”

In this presentation Dr. Kirch applies the ideas of the cultural landscape developed by an earlier Berkeley geographer, Carl O. Sauer, to human interaction with the landscapes of three Polynesian cultures, those of Mangareva, Mo’orea, and Hawaii.

What kept the Polynesian Islands so green? In part, the phosphorus blown in the winds in dust from China and Mongolia.

But some islands, like those of the Mangareva archipelago and Easter Island, lay in regions missed by the winds from Asia, leaving one other source of phosphorus and other key soil nutrients, populations of fish-eating, guano-pooping sea birds.

Todat the once-forested islets of Mangareva, the smallest, most barren, and most ancient of the three, today resemble a nearly barren desert islands, landscapes created in large part by the relatively late arrival of Polynesians who eliminated or decimated the once varied native bird populations.

Mo’orea is a much younger island, with the human population living in intimate relationship with an evolving and eroding landscape, shifting settlement as new soils are exposed and older soils become depleted.

And then there’s Hawaii, a still-growing landscape but nonetheless precarious landscapes populated by an emerging state society that had neared the carrying capacity of the delicate landscape when Europeans arrived, along with the diseases that laid waste to the Polynesians.

From University of California Television, an important reminder of just how delicate our world really is:

Island Landscapes or Sauer Among the Polynesians

Program notes:

Geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer demonstrated through his work and writings that landscapes are the long-term contingent product of interactions between natural processes and cultural forces. In this lecture, Patrick Kirch, Professor of Anthropology and Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, applies the concept of landscape to the islands of Polynesia. Drawing upon recent multi-disciplinary research, Kirch shows how certain natural properties of islands shaped the course of cultural and social evolution of island peoples, at the same time that cumulative effect of human actions irreversibly altered island environments. Series: “UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures” [2/2014]

Hot water: A look inside Reactor #1 at Fukushima


From NHK via Fukushima Emergency what can we do?:

NHK Documentary; “Radioactive Water-Fukushima Daiichi’s Hidden Crisis”

Program notes:

*Please read the note below the video description*

Nearly 3 years have passed since the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, but leaking radioactive water is an ongoing problem. The plant’s operator believes the leaks are caused by damage to the containment vessel in Reactor 1. A special remote-controlled boat equipped with a camera captured images of tainted water flowing down a wall inside the vessel. On this program, we explore the causes and potential risks of this hidden crisis.

In order to avoid content ID copyright issues, I removed all background music which was inserted throughout the original broadcast. I have included captions in the portions where audio is eliminated. Nearly 50 percent of the video had background music and I didn’t want another copyright strike. Nonetheless, there is important information in this video.

Please excuse any typos. I spent many hours editing this today.