Category Archives: Cuba

EbolaWatch: Grim predictions, official fears


We begin today’s coverage with a harsh question from the Washington Post:

Ebola is ‘devouring everything in its path.’ Could it lead to Liberia’s collapse?

At a news conference Thursday, finance minister Amara Konneh said Liberia is at “war with an enemy we don’t see.” Two days earlier, the Ebola-ravaged country’s defense minister, Brownie Samukai, delivered a harrowing warning of his own.

“Liberia is facing a serious threat to its national existence,” Samukai told the U.N. Security Council. “The deadly Ebola virus has caused a disruption of the normal functioning of our state.”

The U.N. special envoy to Liberia, Karin Landgren, seems to agree with Samukai, at least to an extent. Landgren told the U.N. Security Council this week that “Liberians are facing their gravest threat since war,” referring to two civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that left more than 250,000 dead. Those bloody conflicts completely destabilized the country, and Liberia was still recovering when the current Ebola outbreak began.

Landgren warned the Security Council “that the Ebola crisis has become complex, with political, security, economic and social implications that will continue to affect the country well beyond the current medical emergency,” according to Global Post.

On Thursday, the International Monetary Fund said Ebola has crippled the mining, agriculture and services sectors Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, Reuters reported.

More from Deutsche Welle:

Ebola drags Liberia’s economy into recession

Liberia’s finance ministry has acknowledged that the ongoing Ebola outbreak has led to a decline of the country’s economic growth. This has forced the government to slash public expenditure.

The Ebola epidemic is not just devastating the Liberian population but is also severely crippling all sectors of the country’s economy: notably health, trade and education. Liberia is currently experiencing its worst ever crisis since the end of the country’s brutal civil war in 2003.

Announcing the fall in projected economic growth rate, Liberia’s Finance and Development Planning Minister Amara Konneh said Liberia is now in a difficult moment amid the Ebola epidemic. “In all of this, our economy is taking a hit – serious hit,” the minister told reporters.

“This year we were projected to grow at 5.9 percent. Last year we grew 8.7 percent. The year before last year (2012), we grew 8.9 percent. Now, working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the government has revised its growth projection to 2.5 percent.”

And still more from the World Health Organization:

The Ebola outbreak that is ravaging parts of west Africa is the largest, most severe, and most complex in the nearly four-decade history of this disease.

This is Ebola Zaire, the most deadly in the Ebola family of viruses. This is a dreaded virus that is highly contagious, but under only two very specific settings.

First, during care of patients at home by family members or in hospital settings without proper protection against infection. Second, during certain traditional burial practices that involve close contact with a highly infectious corpse.

In the 3 hardest-hit countries, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the number of new cases is moving far faster than the capacity to manage them in Ebola-specific treatment centres.

In Liberia, for example, an Ebola treatment facility, set up jointly by WHO and the Ministry of Health, was recently established to manage 30 patients. It had more than 70 patients the day it opened.

Today, Liberia has not one single bed available for the treatment of an Ebola patient anywhere in the entire country.

Our response is running short on nearly everything, from personal protective equipment, to body bags, to mobile laboratories, to isolation wards.

BuzzFeed examines failure [and the medium is finally devoting some good coverage to the story and deserves kudos]:

How Global Health Failed Liberia As The Ebola Outbreak Took Hold

  • Liberians have been sounding the alarm for weeks. Why has real action on Ebola been so slow?

This is a catastrophe Liberia saw coming. Earlier this summer, when hundreds of foreign medical personnel were working to battle Ebola in Sierra Leone, Monrovia watched its caseload swell. Tolbert Nyenswah, Liberia’s assistant health minister, warned in late July that the capital didn’t have enough beds in its only Ebola treatment ward to admit all the patients who had come in with symptoms.

That wasn’t just inconvenient; it was a public health disaster. Patients aren’t contagious until they show symptoms, but once they do, they easily infect anyone who comes into contact with their bodily fluids. With no beds at the hospital, the sick returned home, and families without knowledge of the disease or its transmission cleaned up from the havoc it wreaked on their dying loved ones — and caught the disease themselves.

There weren’t more beds because there weren’t more resources — financial, logistical or human. “After the Philippine typhoon, there were 150 foreign medical teams” offering care, Dr. Ian Norton, who coordinates foreign medical teams for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Liberia, told BuzzFeed News by telephone from Monrovia on Tuesday. “We’ve seen four here.”

From the Guardian, a sad truth:

Ebola outbreak an avoidable tragedy, say UK MPs

  • Commons committee report says hesitancy and lack of coordination over crisis suggests that emergency plans failed

In a blunt report published on Friday, the Commons International Development Committee urged Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) to place greater emphasis on building up weak health systems and to draw on the medical and managerial expertise of the NHS in doing so.

“The devastating ongoing Ebola epidemic in west Africa has served to emphasise the importance of establishing strong health systems,” it said. “The apparent hesitancy and lack of coordination in the international response suggest that the global health system and emergency plans have failed.”

While the committee described DfID as a “world-leader” in strengthening health systems, it said it feared the department’s “target-driven mentality”. It added that work with large international partnerships whose focus is on getting rapid results by concentrating on specific, high-profile diseases had come at the expense of shoreing up health infrastructures in poorer countries.

While the New York Times offers an epidemiologist’s chilling prognosis:

What We’re Afraid to Say About Ebola

There are two possible future chapters to this story that should keep us up at night.

The first possibility is that the Ebola virus spreads from West Africa to megacities in other regions of the developing world. This outbreak is very different from the 19 that have occurred in Africa over the past 40 years. It is much easier to control Ebola infections in isolated villages. But there has been a 300 percent increase in Africa’s population over the last four decades, much of it in large city slums. What happens when an infected person yet to become ill travels by plane to Lagos, Nairobi, Kinshasa or Mogadishu — or even Karachi, Jakarta, Mexico City or Dhaka?

The second possibility is one that virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely considering in private: that an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air. You can now get Ebola only through direct contact with bodily fluids. But viruses like Ebola are notoriously sloppy in replicating, meaning the virus entering one person may be genetically different from the virus entering the next. The current Ebola virus’s hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1,000 years. Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice.

From TheLocal.ch, another case of delayed assistance:

Switzerland steps up aid to Ebola-hit countries

Switzerland has pledged an additional two million francs in aid to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa which has killed over 2,400 people since the outbreak began in March.

The extra funding provided by Swiss Humanitarian Aid will be used to support Médecins sans Frontières Switzerland (MSF) and the World Food Programme (WFP), according to a government statement released on Friday.

One million francs will go to a MSF emergency programme for north Liberia, while the other million will be used by WFP for a regional emergency operation to fend off the hunger crisis triggered by the epidemic in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

From People’s Daily, ditto:

China offers new aid for combating Ebola

China on Friday announced a further 200 million yuan (32.54 million U.S. dollars) package of humanitarian aid to African countries and international organizations to help control Ebola.

The aid will include food, supplies for disease control, emergency treatment facilities, and capital support, the Ministry of Commerce said in a statement.

China will also promote long-term medical cooperation with African countries, to help them raise their disease control and response abilities and improve public health systems.

The Associated Press prepares for a pep talk:

Obama to visit Atlanta health center to talk Ebola

President Barack Obama will travel next week to Atlanta to address the Ebola crisis during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House said Friday.

During his visit on Tuesday, Obama will be briefed about the outbreak and discuss the U.S. response with officials, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. Obama will also thank the doctors, scientists and health care workers responding to the crisis.

Four Americans have been or are being treated for Ebola in the U.S. after evacuation from Africa. The Ebola outbreak is the worst in history and has been blamed for more than 2,200 deaths in West Africa. So far, the death rate is about 50 percent, with doctors and nurses at a high risk of contracting the virus.

Punch Nigeria covers a significant decision:

Uniport Alumni backs Sept 22 schools resumption

The University of Port Harcourt Alumni has thrown it’s weight behind the decision of the Federal government to shift backwards the resumption date for primary and secondary schools in the country to September 22.

In a statement issued on Friday and signed by it’s National President, Mr. Sampson Ngerebara and the National Secretary, Mr.  Chris Adokeme, the association explained that it was satisfied with the presentation of the Minister of Health, Dr. Onyebuchi Chukwu on the basis for the rethink.

The Minister had told Nigerians that the shift in the resumption date was necessitated by the fact that the spread of the Ebola virus has been contained in the country.

From StarAfrica, a bullet dodged:

Nigeria: Quarantined S/African tests negative for Ebola

A South African woman, who was under quarantine in Nigeria as a suspected Ebola case, has tested negative for the disease.The woman will be allowed to return home, a U.S. disease expert, Dr. Aileen Marty, who is assisting Nigerian health authorities said in Lagos on Friday.

The traveller, who had flown into Lagos via Morocco on Thursday, was held overnight in an Ebola treatment centre for tests after she acknowledged suffering Ebola-like symptoms after working in Guinea and Sierra Leone since April.

The two countries and Liberia have been the epicenters of the epidemic since February.

The Liberian Inquirer intercepts:

BIN Officer Suspected Of Ebola Intercepted

An officer of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN) whose wife died of Ebola in Monrovia was intercepted en route to Boniken while returning to the Southeast.

He entered onboard a truck marked ‘TT 2085?. Winston Isaac arrived in Maryland at 9:00 a.m. on Monday and was discovered in the ‘Cassava Farm Community’ in Pleebo.

According to our correspondent, the truck was en route to Grand Kru County with goods on board while another report coming from the county on a community radio in Pleebo disclosed that the goods were rejected by residents in Grand Kru County on ground that a man whose wife died of Ebola was onboard even though he stopped in Pleebo but intercepted in Boniken.

The Liberian Inquirer again, with outrage:

18 Dead, 47 Suspected Ebola Cases On The By-Pass…Residents Stone Rep. Gray’s House For “Abandoned” Body

In the wake of the wide spread of the deadly Ebola virus in the city, residents of the By-pass community have reported the death of 18 persons in the community with at least 47 suspected cases of Ebola.   Yesterday, hundreds of angry residents and community dwellers set up roadblock in protest to a suspected Ebola body which they said have been locked indoor for the past three days in the Rock Spring Community.

The residents through their Chairman, Joseph S. Kannah and Madam Ernestine King said since the death of a boy identified as Alvin Nyanti commonly known as Chineseboy in the community they have made several calls to the   Ebola Response Center but to no avail.

Mr. Kannah said about 16 persons were suspected of having the virus in the Rock Spring Community who have been continuously denied by the various treatment centers due to limited capacity to host them.

And from the Liberian Inquirer once more, admonition:

Gov’t Renews Warning To Would-Be “Ebola Rogues”…Releases Report On The Expenditure Of U. S. $5m

The acting Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Amara Konneh, says any individual or entity found to have abused the public trust in the management and operations of fund allotted for the fight against the deadly Ebola virus will be prosecuted in accordance with the law.   Acting Minister Konneh said the total estimated financial requirement to address the national response was initially quoted at US$2O million dollars, but rose to US$34.8 million when all implementing agencies submitted their three-month budget.

Minister Konneh said support to all health related interventions in this plan amounts to US$20 million, constituting 84 percent of the entire budget.

He said the Government of Liberia began the process with an initial injection of US$5 Million, made possible through a short term loan from the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL).

The Associated Press covers treatment:

American gets blood from fellow Ebola survivor

An American aid worker infected with Ebola has been given blood from a fellow doctor who battled the disease, and Nebraska doctors say the man has responded well to aggressive treatment in the past week.

Dr. Rick Sacra received two blood transfusions from Dr. Kent Brantly last weekend after arriving at the Nebraska Medical Center, Dr. Phil Smith said Thursday. Sacra also has been given an experimental drug that doctors refuse to identify, and he has received supportive care including IV fluids.

Sacra is close friends with Brantly, one of the first two Americans treated for Ebola in Atlanta last month, from their missionary work.

Bloomberg covers another sad consequence of the crisis:

Black Market in Blood Serum Emerging Amid Ebola Outbreak

A black market for an Ebola treatment derived from the blood of survivors is emerging in the West African countries experiencing the worst outbreak of the virus on record, the World Health Organization said.

The United Nations health agency will work with governments to stamp out the illicit trade in convalescent serum, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told reporters today in Geneva, where the organization is based. There is a danger that such serums could contain other infections and wouldn’t be administered properly, Chan said.

The WHO is encouraging the use of properly obtained serum to treat current patients and said last week it should be a priority. A third U.S. missionary worker who was infected with Ebola in Liberia and flown to the U.S. for medical care was treated with blood transfusions from another American who recovered from the virus last month. Doctors hope the virus-fighting antibodies in the blood help the 51-year-old physician, Rick Sacra.

BBC News covers substantial help:

Cuba to send doctors to Ebola areas

Cuba is sending 165 health workers to help tackle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, officials say. Doctors, nurses and infection control specialists will travel to Sierra Leone in October and stay for six months.

The announcement comes as the World Health Organization says new cases in West Africa are increasing faster than the capacity to manage them.

Dr Margaret Chan, director of the WHO, said: “If we are going to go to war with Ebola we need the resources to fight. “I am extremely grateful for the generosity of the Cuban government and these health professionals for doing their part to help us contain the worst Ebola outbreak ever known.”

BBC News again, with a symbolic gesture:

Recovered Ebola patient William Pooley to return to Africa ‘in a few weeks’

The first British person to contract Ebola in the current outbreak in Africa is to return to the country where he was infected in order to help others fight the disease.

William Pooley was treated in London after being flown out of Sierra Leone.

He has made a full recovery and, having been discharged from hospital, said he is to travel back within “a few weeks”.

Reuters covers withdrawal:

Netherlands to evacuate two doctors who had contact with Ebola victims

Authorities in the Netherlands are preparing to evacuate two Dutch doctors who had unprotected contact in Sierra Leone with patients who later died of Ebola, a Dutch public health official said on Friday.

The two doctors have shown no symptoms of the virus but authorities believe there is cause for concern because they were not wearing full protective clothing when they came into contact with the patients, who had not yet been diagnosed with Ebola.

“The two doctors’ personal protection should be considered inadequate. They could potentially have been exposed,” said Jaap van Dissel, director of the Dutch Center for Infectious Disease Control.

From BuzzFeed, the demographics of death:

Ebola Is Killing Women In Far Greater Numbers Than Men

  • A Liberian health official estimates 75% of Ebola deaths are women. That’s because they are the nation’s caregivers.

The Ministry of Health says fully 75% of the Ebola deaths it has counted are women, but it doesn’t release disaggregated mortality statistics. But Tolbert Nyenswah, the assistant minister of health who provided the estimate, agrees that whatever the number, women bear the biggest mortality burden of this disease. Culturally, they are expected to do the caretaking. “In this country,” he said, “men are bullshit.”

Slowly, health care workers are getting the equipment they need to touch patients, a head-to-toe uniform called PPE, or personal protective equipment. But there are no plans to issue PPE to mothers and wives and daughters.

It’s hard to imagine a mother tolerating PPE. The goggles and masks obscure the face; the head-to-toe white suit engulfs familiar body language or movement. People in PPE are white plastic strangers.

From TheLocal.es, more European fear:

Two new possible Ebola cases hit Spain

A 13-year-old boy and a 24-year-old man, both from Nigeria, have been admitted to hospital on the island of Majorca and the southern Spanish region of Murcia over fears they’re infected with the highly contagious Ebola virus.

Both suspected Ebola carriers flew to Spain in the past three weeks from the Nigerian capital of Lagos, Spanish national daily ABC reported.

Displaying Ebola symptoms such as muscle pain and high temperatures on admission to hospital, they are being kept in isolation in secure units equipped with the necessary means to deal with infectious diseases.

And for our final item, via the Guardian, the despicable Down Under:

Queensland Ebola scare: tourism chief says media damaged Gold Coast brand

  • Tourists reportedly cancelled holidays after a man had been admitted to a Gold Coast hospital with ‘Ebola-like’ symptoms

The head of Gold Coast Tourism says sensational media reporting of the recent Ebola scare damaged the region’s brand as a holiday destination.

Tourists reportedly cancelled holidays and changed flights amid reports that a 27-year-old man had been admitted to the Gold Coast University hospital with “Ebola-like” symptoms.

Michael Walsh, 27, a fly-in, fly-out miner from Western Australia, was cleared on Thursday of having the deadly virus after two blood tests returned negative results.

InSecurityWatch: Race, spooks, hacks, Asian heat


Today’s coverage of the things that make governments and citizens insecure [often not the same things in the same ways] begins with a real cause for national insecurity in the U.S. Via MintPress News:

US Has “Much Left to Do” On Racism: Segregation Worse Now Than In 70s

One UN committee member is shocked that “in spite of several decades of affirmative action in the United States to improve the mixing up of colors and races in schools … segregation [is] nowadays much worse than it was in the 1970s.”

An official summary of last week’s discussions between the U.N. experts and civil society groups recorded one committee member’s shock “to realize than in spite of several decades of affirmative action in the United States to improve the mixing up of colors and races in schools … segregation was nowadays much worse than it was in the 1970s.”

Another expert noted that “some 39 million African Americans [are] particularly affected by structural racial discrimination in the United States … part of the broader heritage of slavery,” according to the summary.

Indeed, rights advocates here say that one of the most significant impacts of the race convention has been around the broader understanding of the structural issues of racism that persist in the U.S. — those ways in which institutionalized discrimination becomes considered normal.

Techdirt covers the sadly predictable:

Obama Review Of Military Gear Handed To Law Enforcement; Thinks Real Problem Is ‘Training And Guidance’

  • from the emptiest-of-gestures dept

President Obama, most likely prompted by the invasion of Ferguson by armed forces, has called for a review of military equipment provided to local police departments by the same government he presides over. Presumably, this isn’t the sort of “review” he has in mind.

Not that local law enforcement agencies couldn’t throw an impressive Victory Day parade. The 1033 program, which sends military vehicles, weapons and equipment downstream to law enforcement agencies for pennies on the dollar, has shifted $4.3 billion from the Dept. of Defense to hundreds of police departments across the United States since 1997. Here’s what the President is actually interested in seeing.

“Among other things, the president has asked for a review of whether these programs are appropriate,” said a senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the internal assessment. The review also will assess “whether state and local law enforcement are provided with the necessary training and guidance; and whether the federal government is sufficiently auditing the use of equipment obtained through federal programs and funding.”

In other words, don’t expect much to change, and not any time soon (if at all).

From the Latin American Herald Tribune, a response to cross-border flatulism:

No Evidence of Jihadists in Mexico, Foreign Minister Says

There is no evidence to support the comments by Texas Gov. Rick Perry that jihadists could enter the United States via the southern border, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Jose Antonio Meade said.

“It is very unfortunate that some people make foreign policy on the basis of beliefs, suppositions and completely unfounded and absurd analyses,” Meade said in a press conference on Saturday.

Perry said in an address last week that there was a “very real possibility” that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, terrorists may have entered the United States by crossing the southern border.

The Intercept covers a spooky search engine:

The Surveillance Engine: How the NSA Built Its Own Secret Google

The National Security Agency is secretly providing data to nearly two dozen U.S. government agencies with a “Google-like” search engine built to share more than 850 billion records about phone calls, emails, cellphone locations, and internet chats, according to classified documents obtained by The Intercept.

The documents provide the first definitive evidence that the NSA has for years made massive amounts of surveillance data directly accessible to domestic law enforcement agencies. Planning documents for ICREACH, as the search engine is called, cite the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration as key participants.

ICREACH contains information on the private communications of foreigners and, it appears, millions of records on American citizens who have not been accused of any wrongdoing. Details about its existence are contained in the archive of materials provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

RT talks Turkey:

Not-so NATO-ally? Germany spying on Turkey for ‘38 years’

German foreign intelligence agency has been tapping Turkey for almost four decades, reports Focus amid the ongoing spy scandal between Berlin and Ankara. Some German officials defend the practice, saying that not all NATO allies can be treated as friends.

The German Federal Intelligence Service, BND, has been eavesdropping on Turkey since 1976 following the Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s government approval, Focus magazine wrote on Saturday.

Passions over previous spying allegations revealed in the media are still running high, but a new report may add fuel to the fire triggering further tensions between the two long-time North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

And International Business Times covers a rare case of candor:

Qatar And Terrorism: For Better Or For Worse, A Strong Connection

  • German Development Minister Gerd Mueller blasted Qatar on Wednesday.

“You have to ask who is arming, who is financing ISIS troops?” Mueller said in an interview with German public broadcaster ZDF. “The keyword there is Qatar – and how do we deal with these people and states politically?”

The U.S. has also wrestled with Qatar’s connections to Sunni Muslim terrorist organizations. The State Department described Qatar as “largely passive” in cooperating with efforts to cut terrorist funding in an internal cable dated Dec. 30, 2009. The cable concluded that al-Qaeda, the Taliban “and other terrorist groups exploit Qatar as a fundraising locale. Although Qatar’s security services have the capability to deal with direct threats and occasionally have put that capability to use, they have been hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals.”

More recently, the U.S. signed a $11 billion arms and defense deal with Qatar for Apache helicopters, missile defense systems and more in July. The U.S. also keeps an Army base and an Air Force base in Qatar.

From the New York Times, the tragedy resumes:

Egypt and U.A.E. Said to Secretly Bomb Militias in Libya

Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior American officials said, in a major escalation of a regional power struggle set off by Arab Spring revolts.

The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing Washington, leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied to American diplomats that their military played any role in the operation, the officials said, in what appeared a new blow to already strained relations between Washington and Cairo.

The strikes in Tripoli are another destabilizing salvo in a power struggle defined by old-style Arab autocrats battling Islamist movements seeking to overturn the old order. Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt last year, the new government and its backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched a campaign across the region — in the news media, in politics and diplomacy, and by arming local proxies — to roll back what they see as an existential threat to their authority posed by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

From Reuters, more blowback:

Rival second Libyan assembly chooses own PM as chaos spreads

The Libyan parliament that was replaced in an election in June reconvened on Monday and chose an Islamist-backed deputy as the new prime minister, leaving the chaotic country with two rival leaders and assemblies, each backed by armed factions.

An election in June had been aimed at rebuilding state institutions in an attempt to quell three years of spreading violence since the ouster of long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

But the old General National Congress (GNC), where Islamists had a strong voice, has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of its successor assembly, the House of Representatives, which is dominated by liberals and federalists.

From the Washington Post, Big Brother R Us:

For sale: Systems that can secretly track where cellphone users go around the globe

Makers of surveillance systems are offering governments across the world the ability to track the movements of almost anybody who carries a cellphone, whether they are blocks away or on another continent.

The technology works by exploiting an essential fact of all cellular networks: They must keep detailed, up-to-the-minute records on the locations of their customers to deliver calls and other services to them. Surveillance systems are secretly collecting these records to map people’s travels over days, weeks or longer, according to company marketing documents and experts in surveillance technology.

The world’s most powerful intelligence services, such as the National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, long have used cellphone data to track targets around the globe. But experts say these new systems allow less technically advanced governments to track people in any nation — including the United States — with relative ease and precision.

The Register covers the ludicrous:

Intelligence blunder: You wanna be Australia’s spyboss? No problem, just walk right in

  • Access control? Yeah, we’ve heard of it

The Australian Security Intelligence Service, ASIS, has seemingly demonstrated a peculiar weakness in its access control systems.

A fluke administrative stuff-up allowed its Director-General – its most senior and therefore most sensitive role – to turn up and function for five days while he wasn’t actually employed by the organization.

As outlined by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, D-G Nick Warner’s contract ended, effectively sacking him, and the cack-handed public service’s computer systems didn’t notice.

From the Independent, a cyber assault:

Sony hit by cyber attack that closes PlayStation Network as plane carrying top executive is diverted following bomb threat

Federal investigators in the United States were attempting on Monday to get to the bottom of a fresh cyber-based assault against the Sony Corporation on Sunday that saw a brief a shut-down of its PlayStation Network and the emergency diversion of a commercial airliner that was carrying one of its top executives.

The company said its network had been fully restored and that no customer information had been compromised in what it said had been a “large-scale” attack, which normally involves an intruder using multiple computers to overwhelm the system forcing it to shut down. Meanwhile, John Smedley, its Online Entertainment President, was safe after what appeared to be a false bomb threat against his plane.

Sony suffered a similar event in 2011 when hackers stole credit card information from about 77 million of its customers crippling the network for two months.

From Deeplinks, a call for Comcastigation:

Comcast Data Breach Leaks Thousands of Unlisted Phone Numbers, Threatening Customers’ Privacy

Four years ago, users of Comcast’s phone service who had paid for their personal information to be unlisted noticed that something was amiss. Complaints started appearing from these individuals who found their names, addresses, and telephone numbers in phone directories both online and off.

Later, it was revealed that this breach of confidential information affected more than 74,000 individuals and households in California—over half of Comcast’s users in California with unlisted numbers. While the breach hit California the hardest, it also occurred with Comcast customers in other states. These numbers were treated just like ordinary listed phone numbers, licensed by Comcast to “publishers,” directory assistance providers, and apparently passed on to other databases and published for everyone to see.

This is but one example of how a mistake in an industry built upon the acquisition and selling of personal information can hurt people.  And this is why California law requires phone companies to protect their customers’ unlisted or non-published phone numbers.1 The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has opened up an investigation [pdf] to determine whether and to what extent Comcast may have broken the law in allowing this release of non-published numbers. EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien has submitted testimony [pdf] as an expert witness for the California PUC in this case.

After the jump, the latest from the Asian Game of Zones, including Sino/American semantic escalation and fears of provocation, a renewed nuclear arms race, two maritime message [one submersible], a Chinese film festival canceled, more Chinese crackdowns and indignation, more Japanese dissent, and more reluctance to acquiesce to Abe’s militarization push. . . Continue reading

EnviroWatch: Ebola, water woes, toxics, nukes


One again, the Ebola virus claims the top spot on our collection of headlinies about the intersection of humans and the world they live in, starting with this from Xinhua:

Senegal reports suspected Ebola infection

A Malian national living in northern Senegal has been quarantined in a hospital due to suspected Ebola symptoms, Senegalese News Agency reported Saturday.

The 27-year-old patient had just returned to the northern city of Ourossogui from a trip to Mali, where he was in contact with nationals of Guinea, said the head doctor of the local medical team, adding samples have been sent to Dakar for analysis and the results could be available within 48 hours.

A doctor accompanied by officers of health services has already been dispatched to the city to disinfect the home of the patient and the bike that was used to transport him.

The Associated Press covers a domestic precaution:

US Ebola check means quarantine of missionaries

Missionaries retuning to the United States after working with patients infected with Ebola will be put in quarantine and monitored, health officials said Sunday.

The quarantine will last at least three weeks since the missionaries were last exposed to people infected with the Ebola virus, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said.

The missionaries are with Charlotte-based SIM USA. None of them are sick or have shown any signs of having Ebola, but they agree with health officials that everyone should be as cautious as possible, SIM USA president Bruce Johnson said in a statement.

And the New York Times parses epidemiology:

Tracing Ebola’s Breakout to an African 2-Year-Old

Patient Zero in the Ebola outbreak, researchers suspect, was a 2-year-old boy who died on Dec. 6, just a few days after falling ill in a village in Guéckédou, in southeastern Guinea. Bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia, Guéckédou is at the intersection of three nations, where the disease found an easy entry point to the region.

A week later, it killed the boy’s mother, then his 3-year-old sister, then his grandmother. All had fever, vomiting and diarrhea, but no one knew what had sickened them.

Two mourners at the grandmother’s funeral took the virus home to their village. A health worker carried it to still another, where he died, as did his doctor. They both infected relatives from other towns. By the time Ebola was recognized, in March, dozens of people had died in eight Guinean communities, and suspected cases were popping up in Liberia and Sierra Leone — three of the world’s poorest countries, recovering from years of political dysfunction and civil war.

From BBC News, chaos on the ground:

Ebola virus: Liberia health system ‘overtaxed’

Liberia’s information minister has admitted that the country’s health care system has been overwhelmed by the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

Lewis Brown told the BBC the system had been “overtaxed” by the outbreak, but that authorities were doing their best in the face of an unprecedented crisis.

The medical charity MSF said officials underestimated the outbreak and that the health system was “falling apart”.

More from the London Telegraph:

The Liberian slum where Ebola spreads death among killer virus ‘deniers’

Blue crosses on houses in New Kru Town mark the few residences to have complied with the advice of visiting health officials, while countless others rely on prayer and witchcraft to fend off Ebola in Monrovia

When some initial cases first appeared in Liberia’s northern Lofa County back in March, health officials initially thought they had it under control. But in June, a resident of a district of New Kru Town known as Carpet Street died, as did several others. According to Dr Bernice Dahn, Liberia’s chief medical officer, three of the victims passed away while they were being sheltered in a local church – a sign of how many some people believe the disease is a curse that can be cured by prayer or witchcraft.

“We must stop keeping people suspected of Ebola in our churches on ground that we can heal them,” she warned at the time. “The churches are not hospitals.”

Liberian hospitals, however, do not always inspire the kind of faith that people have in Liberian churches. A fortnight ago, one the main local health facilities, Redemption Hospital, was stoned by a mob after a woman died in there from a suspected Ebola case, following nationwide rumours that health workers were themselves passing on the disease. Today, the squat, single storey building offers redemption no more, having

A fear abated from the Associated Press:

Saudi: Suspected Ebola victim did not have virus

A Saudi man who died last week after returning from Sierra Leone did not have the Ebola virus, according to initial international laboratory results, Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry said.

The ministry said late Saturday that samples submitted to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came back negative for the Ebola virus, adding that samples were also sent for testing to a laboratory in Germany. The ministry said the CDC is conducting additional tests to further confirm the negative Ebola finding and determine if the patient was infected with a different virus found in Sierra Leone.

The 40-year-old Saudi national died Wednesday in a hospital isolation ward in the Saudi coastal city of Jiddah after showing symptoms of the viral hemorrhagic fever. He was the only suspected Ebola case in the kingdom and had just returned from a trip to affected Sierra Leone.

Channel NewsAsia Singapore eases another fear:

Man tests negative for Ebola in Hong Kong

A Nigerian man in Hong Kong has tested negative for  Ebola, said Chinese broadcaster CCTV. He had been placed in quarantine after he was suspected of carrying the virus, said Chinese media on Sunday (Aug 10).

According to CCTV, the 32-year-old had arrived in the southern Chinese city from Nigeria on Thursday. He was sent to hospital after experiencing vomiting and diarrhoea.

From the Toronto Globe and Mail, ditto:

Brampton, Ont. patient tests negative for Ebola

The Ebola virus has been ruled out in patient at a Brampton, Ont., hospital who was placed in isolation on Friday as a precaution after showing flu-like symptoms and travelling from Nigeria.

“I can now confirm a recent case that underwent testing at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg was found to test negative for Ebola virus disease,” said Eric Hoskins, Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, in a statement released early Sunday morning.

Reuters prepares:

U.S. emergency labs ready to work on Ebola drugs if asked

All three U.S. facilities established to quickly make vaccines and therapeutics in the event of a major public health threat say they are standing by to support any U.S. government effort to scale up a treatment for Ebola.

The facilities, called Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing (ADM), were set up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in partnership with private industry, to respond to pandemics or chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear threats.

They have the expertise to quickly switch production lines to manufacture, for example, a smallpox vaccine if that scourge were to re-emerge, or an anthrax vaccine, and other life-saving compounds against both natural outbreaks and bioterrorism.

And TheLocal.es prescribes that drug the U.S. says they aren’t sending to Africa:

Spanish priest to receive experimental Ebola drug

A Spanish priest infected with Ebola will be treated with an experimental drug that has been used on two Americans infected with the deadly virus, the government said.

The drug called ZMapp arrived at Madrid’s La Paz-Carlos III hospital where the 75-year-old missionary was being treated in isolation, the health ministry said in a statement late on Saturday.

Spain’s drug safety agency allowed the “exceptional importation” of ZMapp under a law that allows “the use of non-authorised medications in cases where a patent’s life is in danger and they can’t be treated satisfactorily with an authorised medication,” it said.

From the Christian Science Monitor, an African counter-example:

Uganda offers lessons on how West Africa can contain Ebola outbreak

So far, the current epidemic has killed nearly 1,000 people in four countries, but it hasn’t touched East Africa. Countries like Uganda, which faced a major outbreak in 2000, are prepared with strategies to isolate and treat patients.

Uganda’s experience shows the importance of moving quickly. Indeed, as soon as laboratory tests confirmed that Lukwiya’s patients had Ebola, the government immediately called a news conference with the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Centers for Disease Control, and major donor nations, asking for assistance.

“In Uganda we have a government with very little shame about infectious disease,” says Roy Mayega, an epidemiologist and lecturer in the school of public health at Makerere University in Kampala. “They are not proud. When there is a crisis, they communicate it quickly.”

Uganda’s Health Ministry immediately blanketed radio stations and newspapers with public service announcements explaining the disease and describing proper procedure for burying the dead — in sealed plastic bags. And crucially, the government hired more than 1,000 local villagers from the area around Gulu and sent them door-to-door, looking for Ebola patients hidden by their families, and offering counsel on treatment and burial.

China Daily sends help:

Chinese Ebola doctors leave for Africa

Chinese disease control experts will leave for three West African nations affected by Ebola on Sunday evening and Monday, the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) said on Sunday.

The NHFPC announced on Saturday that China will send three expert teams and medical supplies to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to assist the prevention and control of the Ebola virus.

China dispatched emergency humanitarian aid supplies from Shanghai to West African nations hit by Ebola on Sunday.

And from Xinhua, a Cuban alert:

Cuba acts on WHO Ebola alert

Cuban health authorities took steps Friday to protect the country against the Ebola virus, after the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global alert to prevent the spread of the disease.

Niurka Molina, head of the Public Health Ministry’s international disease control, said the measures apply to both travelers and Cuban doctors arriving from Africa, where an Ebola outbreak has claimed nearly a thousand lives.

Thousands of Cuban doctors and healthcare workers are working in Africa, and other regions, as part of the country’s four-decade outreach policy, which has come to be known as medical diplomacy.

Deutsche Welle covers worries in Paris:

Ebola concerns hit home in France

With the World Health Organization now calling the Ebola outbreak a global emergency, the virus is no longer seen as a distant problem. That message is hitting home in France, a major hub for West African air traffic.

So far, no cases have been detected in France, although an Air France flight from Conakry was briefly quarantined in April over an Ebola scare.

“Even if the risk of contamination cannot be ruled out, it remains very low,” says Dr. Francois Bricaire, a specialist in infectious and tropical diseases at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital in Paris. “But, in my opinion, the risk of an epidemic appears unlikely. Because from the moment a case is diagnosed, measures will be taken immediately to stop the transmission.”

Still, the country is beefing up its guard. Air France flights from West Africa now screen passengers before departure and French airports watch out for suspect cases. A number of French hospitals, including Pitie-Salpetriere, are equipped with special isolation rooms.

And for our final Ebola headline, Salon ponders the Next Big Thing:

How to survive the next plague: Why we’re unprepared for the outbreak of a super-virus

  • Ebola isn’t going to become a pandemic, but we still need to be better prepared, argues Dr. Stephen Morse

Last week, the World Health Organization declared the West African Ebola epidemic an international health emergency. Since its emergence this spring, the hemorrhagic fever  has killed more than 900 people across three different countries. And since two infected American aid workers returned to Atlanta for treatment, the media has exploded, highlighting any number of horrific (and unlikely) scenarios. But might there be some merit to the fear-mongering? What would happen if a similar disease — say, MERS, or the avian flu — found its way, uncontained, to American soil?

Last week, Salon spoke with Dr. Stephen Morse, professor and director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Certificate program at Columbia University Medical Center. Morse has served on numerous governmental and civilian committees for public health preparedness, most recently at the Department of Defense where he co-directed the Pathogen Countermeasures program.

The Oakland Tribune brings us our first water woes headline:

California drought: Lawmakers consider historic rules to limit groundwater pumping

In what would be the most significant water law passed in California in nearly 50 years, lawmakers in Sacramento are working with Gov. Jerry Brown on a landmark measure to regulate groundwater pumping for the first time.

With an Aug. 31 deadline until the end of the session and billions of dollars at stake, negotiations among farmers, environmentalists, cities and elected officials are reaching a crescendo.

Although landowners who want to divert water from reservoirs and rivers have been required to get a permit from the state since 1914, farmers and cities who tap underground aquifers — California’s largest water source — can pump as much as they want, when they want and with almost no oversight or limits.

One of the accompanying graphics:

BLOG Cal water

The Latin American Herald Tribune covers water woes to the south:

Mexico’s Yaqui Indians Defend Water Rights in Meeting with Senators

Representatives of the Yaqui Indian tribe demanded a halt to the operation of an aqueduct in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, saying in a meeting with senators that it will leave their communities without water.

“Yaqui elders, men, women, youth and children have come to this city to make ourselves heard because we’re sure that what’s happening on our land is a violation of our rights,” Yaqui spokesman Tomas Rojo said, according to a statement by Mexican civil society organization Serapaz.

Rojo also accused Sonora Gov. Guillermo Padres of continuing “with his crassness of taking our water away with projects like the Independence Aqueduct.”

More than 100 Yaqui Indians, who arrived Friday via caravan in Mexico City to meet with legislators and federal authorities, explained to the senators their position in a long-running dispute with the Sonora government that has included road-blocking protests by the indigenous group.

The Washington Post covers suburban sprawl run amok:

Southeast could become an overdeveloped ‘megalopolis’ in the next half century

Giant urban sprawl could pave over thousands of acres of forest and agriculture, connecting Raleigh to Atlanta by 2060, if growth continues at its current pace, according to a newly released research paper from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“We could be looking at a seamless corridor of urban development,” said Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the USGS and an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University who was the study’s lead author.

The development will engulf land from North Carolina to Georgia, and possibly spread to Birmingham, Ala., “if we continue to develop urban areas in the Southeast the way we have for the past 60 years,” he said.

And our first and only Fumushimapocalypose Now! headline comes from the Yomiuri Shimbun:

Fukushima to make decision on soil storage this month

Central and local government officials met in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Friday to discuss the government’s offer of a total of ¥301 billion in financial assistance to the prefecture and two towns there that are candidates for interim facilities to store soil contaminated with radioactive substances released from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

At the meeting, Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara and Takumi Nemoto, state minister for reconstruction, presented the national government’s financial support plan to Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato, Okuma Mayor Toshitsune Watanabe and Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa.

Sato, Watanabe and Izawa responded favorably to the offer. The Fukushima prefectural government will decide by the end of this month whether to green-light construction of the facilities to store tainted soil collected during decontamination work.

From the Mainichi, tempting fate in the Arctic:

Russia starts drilling its northernmost oil well

Russia has begun drilling on its northernmost oil well, in the Kara Sea off the northern coast of Siberia.

The well is part of a joint project between the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft and ExxonMobil to develop the region’s oil reserves, which are estimated at up to 100 billion barrels.

The Russian-American project comes despite deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow over the crisis in Ukraine, in which each side has hit the other with sanctions.

The Guardian covers sin of fracking omission in Old Blighty:

Fracking campaigners criticise ‘censored’ report on house prices

  • Government urged to publish sections cut from study into impact of shale gas wells on local communities

The government has been criticised for censoring a report into the impact of shale gas drilling that examines the effect on house prices and pressure on local services.

Campaigners are calling for full publication of the study carried out by Whitehall officials, as the government continues to resist the idea of offering compensation to individual householders near proposed fracking sites.

The report, called Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts, was written in March and a draft was released under environmental information laws with large portions of the text removed. In particular, the section looking at the effect of drilling on house prices has three missing chunks.

And the Associated Press covers a tar sands recalculation:

Study: Keystone carbon pollution more than figured

The much-debated Keystone XL pipeline could produce four times more global warming pollution than the State Department calculated earlier this year, a new study concludes.

The U.S. estimates didn’t take into account that the added oil from the pipeline would drop prices by about $3 a barrel, spurring consumption that would create more pollution, the researchers said.

Outside experts not connected to the study gave it mixed reviews. The American Petroleum Institute found the study to be irrelevant because regardless of the pipeline, the tar sands will be developed and oil will be shipped by railroad if not by pipeline, spokeswoman Sabrina Fang said.

The new estimates, from scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute, were published Sunday by the journal Nature Climate Change. Peter Erickson, lead author, said his work implies that the pipeline could basically wipe out reductions from some potential pollution-cutting policies under discussion.

For our final item, LiveScience, well, at least its not chemicals:

Computer Games Better Than Medication in Treating Elderly Depression

Computer games could help in treating older people with depression who haven’t been helped by antidepressant drugs or other treatments for the disorder, researchers say.

In a study of 11 older patients, researchers found playing certain computer games was just as effective at reducing symptoms of depression as the “gold standard” antidepressant drug escitalopram. Moreover, those patients playing the computer games achieved results in just four weeks, compared to the 12 weeks it often takes with escitalopram (also known by its brand name, Lexapro).

The computer games even improved what researchers call executive functions more than the drug did, according to the study. These functions are the thinking skills used in planning and organizing behavior, and their impairment has been linked to depression in elderly patients.

InSecurity Watch: Spies, pols, laws, flaws


Lots of ground to cover and the hour’s growing late, so on with the show, starfing with the latest from the Asian wild card via SINA English:

North Korea threatens nuclear strike on White House

A top-ranking North Korean military official has threatened a nuclear strike on the White House and Pentagon after accusing Washington of raising military tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The threat came from Hwang Pyong-So, director of the military’s General Political Bureau, during a speech to a large military rally in Pyongyang on Sunday on the anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

Hwang, who holds the rank of vice marshal in the Korean People’s Army, said a recent series of South Korea-US military drills, one of which included the deployment of a nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier, had ramped up tensions.

Heading to the other wise of the Pacific and the not-so-surprising but tragic, via the McClatchy Washington Bureau:

Obama’s crackdown on leakers damages constitutional protections, activists say

Recent revelations of the U.S. government’s pervasive surveillance program and its crackdown on leaks are making it increasingly difficult for American journalists and lawyers to do their jobs, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report released Monday.

It’s becoming impossible to ensure privacy for sources and clients by protecting their information, the report found. Government officials not only are substantially less willing to be in contact with journalists than they were a few years ago, but they also are even refusing to discuss unclassified matters or personal opinions.

“They are afraid of losing their security clearances, being fired or even being prosecuted,” Alex Sinha, the author of the report and a fellow at Human Rights Watch, said in a news conference at the National Press Club.

More from Common Dreams:

Government Surveillance Threatens Journalism, Law and Thus Democracy: Report

  • Interviews with dozens of leading journalists and attorneys found that U.S. government overreach is eroding critically important freedoms

The impunity with which the American government spies on journalists and attorneys is undermining the American people’s ability to hold their leaders accountable, thus threatening the core of our democracy, charged a joint report published Monday by two leading rights organizations.

The report—With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale US Surveillance is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy, published by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch—draws from extensive interviews with dozens of top journalists, lawyers and senior government officials. What the authors found is that recent revelations of widespread government surveillance have forced many professionals to alter or abandon work related to “matters of great public concern.”

According to the report, “Surveillance has magnified existing concerns among journalists and their sources over the administration’s crackdown on leaks.” With increasing prosecution of whistleblowers, restrictions on communication between intelligence officials and the media, and snitch programs for federal workers, journalists say that their sources have become “increasingly scared to talk about anything.”

On a related note, there’s this from MintPress News:

You’ve Got Mail: Judge Grants Feds Unrestricted Access To Gmail Account

In giving law enforcement unfettered access to search for “some needles” in one individual’s “computer haystack,” a judge fans the flames of the data debate.

Privacy advocates were dealt a major blow on July 18, when a federal judge in New York ruled that law enforcement has the legal authority to search the entire email account of an unnamed individual who police believe was involved in a money laundering scheme.

Google is now legally required to hand over the entire contents of the unnamed individual’s Gmail account — including all emails sent, received and drafted, all contacts, and other information —  to federal prosecutors.

In his 23-page ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein wrote that email accounts should be treated like hard drives when it comes to search and seizure principles. In other words, Gorenstein believes law enforcement should be able to go through an individual’s entire email account if prosecutors can demonstrate probable cause showing a “sufficient chance of finding some needles in the computer haystack.”

Next up, the latest on the iSpy — er, iPhone, via PandoDaily:

Apple hit with class action suit for spying on iPhone users

Apple has been hit with a class action suit on behalf of 100 million iPhone users who, allegedly, are being spied on by the phone’s location tracking tools.

According to the suit, filed in Federal Court in San Jose by lead plaintiff Chen Ma…

In or around September 2012, Apple released iPhone 4 which contains an iOS operating system software that enables iPhone 4 to track its users’ whereabouts down to every minute, record the duration that users stay at any given geographical point, and periodically transmit these data stored on the users’ devices to Apple’s data base for future references.

…Plaintiff alleges that while using her iPhones, including her current iPone [sic] 5S, she was not given notice that her daily whereabouts would be tracked, recorded, and transmitted to Apple database to be stored for future reference. She was not asked for and thus has not given her consent, approval and permission nor was she even made aware that her detailed daily whereabouts would be tracked, recorded and transmitted to Apple database.

Want China Times adds insult to injury:

Apple admits iPhone security flaw

Consumer electronics giant Apple has admitted for the first time that company employees can circumvent backup encryption to extract personal data including text messages, contact lists and photos from user iPhones, according to a report from Reuters.

Tech researcher Jonathan Zdziarskiv said at a conference presentation last week that because Apple is collecting a lot more data as part of its diagnostic services than necessary, the company’s staff, law enforcement agencies or anyone else with access to “trusted” computers to which Apple devices have been connected can use the same methods to gain access to this highly personal data.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Apple users are not notified that the services are running, meaning there is no way they can know what computers have been granted trusted status. They also cannot disable the service by “unpairing” a device from a computer unless the phone is formatted, Zdziarski said.

From CNN, making out like bandits:

Pentagon security clearance holders owe $730M in taxes

About 83,000 Defense Department employees and contractors with security clearances to protect the nation’s secrets have delinquent federal tax debts totaling $730 million, according to an internal government audit.

The findings in the new Government Accountability Office study raise security concerns for the U.S. government. Officials say employees and contractors who have financial problems are top targets of foreign intelligence agents.

Federal regulations governing security clearances say that a person “who is financially overextended is at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds” and that indebtedness should be among factors considered when someone applies for a clearance, the GAO study said. But the study found that government agencies in charge of the issue can’t readily collect data on tax debt, in part because IRS privacy rules prohibit sharing certain taxpayer data.

And from intelNews, a blast from the past that fortunately fizzled:

FBI searched for Soviet atom bombs in 1950s’ New York, files show

American authorities suspected that Soviet intelligence had smuggled atom bombs in New York City and that Moscow was planning to detonate them “at an expedient time”, according to declassified documents. The revelation comes from a set of internal FBI files, which were declassified and released in redacted form in 2010.

Copies of the documents, which date from the early 1950s, were posted (.pdf) on The Government Attic, a website specializing in publishing US government files obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The documents were then noticed last week by The Village Voice’s Anna Merlan. The file, titled “Atomic Bomb in Unknown Consulate, New York City”, is nearly 80 pages-long. It indicates that the search for a supposed Soviet atomic weapon in New York began shortly after the summer of 1950, when the FBI received a tip from a source in Brazil. The source reportedly told the Bureau that Soviet operatives had “placed an atom bomb in a consulate [...] in New York City to be detonated at such time as the Soviets consider expedient”.

The problem was that the FBI was not aware of the identity of the consulate, which was presumed to belong to the USSR or to a country politically aligned with it. The Bureau thus actively engaged in searching for the bomb during the years of 1951 and 1952.

Off to Europe and a more contemporary blast [of sorts] from TheLocal.no:

Swedish terror expert slams Norway terror alert

A Swedish terrorism researcher has blasted Norway’s handling of its recent terror threat, saying the day the threat began was a “total intelligence failure”.

Sweden has started analysing Norway’s reaction to its recent threat.

“It created unnecessary anxiety in Norway,”  Magnus Ranstorp, terrorist expert at the Swedish National Defence College, told The Local.

Norway has been on high-powered, ultra-defensive tip-toe for the past few days, since its intelligence service (PST) said last Thursday that it suspected an “imminent” terror attack.

And from TheLocal.se, a pullback:

Norway set to reduce terror alert

Norway’s terror alert level will be reduced from Tuesday, but security will still be somewhat tighter than normal, police chiefs said on Monday.

Police director Odd Reidar Humlegård informed at a press conference on Monday afternoon in Oslo that all police forces have received a directive to lower security across Norway.

Humlegård said: “The police are still going to be armed, but we are to start preparing for a reduction of visible presence.”

He announced a gradual reduction and change of measures, now more focused towards intelligence and analysis. Humlegård said that the increased security alert level has already come at the cost of several tens of millions of kroner of police resources.

The Guardian covers a setback for Washington:

Venezuelan government joy as Aruba frees former military intelligence head

  • President Maduro’s supporters jubilant after Hugo Carvajal is released instead of facing extradition to the US

Venezuela’s former military intelligence head Hugo Carvajal, wanted by the United States over drug accusations and arrested four days ago on the Caribbean island of Aruba, was released on Sunday.

Instead of being extradited to the US, the retired general flew home after the Netherlands government ruled he had diplomatic immunity, his lawyer and Venezuelan officials said.

Jubilant Venezuelan officials at a congress of the ruling Socialist Party celebrated the release as a “victory” over their ideological foes in Washington who wanted to extradite him.

And from the Independent, playing by the rules of a familiar game:

The secret report that helps Israelis to hide facts

  • The slickness of Israel’s spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by the pollster Frank Luntz

Israeli spokesmen have their work cut out explaining how they have killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians, compared with just three civilians killed in Israel by Hamas rocket and mortar fire. But on television and radio and in newspapers, Israeli government spokesmen such as Mark Regev appear slicker and less aggressive than their predecessors, who were often visibly indifferent to how many Palestinians were killed.

There is a reason for this enhancement of the PR skills of Israeli spokesmen. Going by what they say, the playbook they are using is a professional, well-researched and confidential study on how to influence the media and public opinion in America and Europe. Written by the expert Republican pollster and political strategist Dr Frank Luntz, the study was commissioned five years ago by a group called The Israel Project, with offices in the US and Israel, for use by those “who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel”.

Every one of the 112 pages in the booklet is marked “not for distribution or publication” and it is easy to see why. The Luntz report, officially entitled “The Israel project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary, was leaked almost immediately to Newsweek Online, but its true importance has seldom been appreciated. It should be required reading for everybody, especially journalists, interested in any aspect of Israeli policy because of its “dos and don’ts” for Israeli spokesmen.

Off to Asia and the latest on the Game of Zones, starting with a headline from Kyodo News:

Japan announces additional sanctions on Russia over Ukraine

Japan will impose additional sanctions on Russia for failing to defuse the crisis in Ukraine, where the recent downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet killed all 298 people aboard, the government said Monday.

Assets held in Japan by individuals or groups directly involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the instability in eastern Ukraine will be frozen, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said during a daily press briefing.

Japan will also follow the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s recent decision to freeze funding for new projects in Russia, and limit imports of Crimea-made products, Suga said.

But the McClatchy Washington Bureau makes an interesting point:

U.S. sales to Russia have only risen since sanctions imposed

In the months since the United States imposed sanctions on Russian businesses and close associates of President Vladimir Putin’s, an odd thing has happened: U.S. exports to Russia have risen.

U.S. Census Bureau foreign trade data show that exports rose 17 percent from March through May _ the most recent months for which the data is available _ compared with the previous three months, before sanctions were imposed. The value of exports has risen in each consecutive month this year, an unusual trend in a trade relationship that historically fluctuates on a monthly basis.

Russian markets account for less than 1 percent of U.S. exports, but what the U.S. sells to Russia is largely high-tech and expensive goods, including technology and equipment for the energy sector, which faces the threat of targeted sanctions.

Meanwhile, Japan makes a push ion a new venue. From Nikkei Asian Review:

Japan moves to counter China, Russia influence in Caribbean

Japan’s prime minister met here Monday with leaders and top officials representing 14 Caribbean nations, in a bid to shore up ties in a region where Russia and China have recently made robust overtures of their own.

Attending a summit of the Caribbean Community, or Caricom, Shinzo Abe pledged continued economic assistance and sought support for Japan’s bid for a nonpermanent seat in the United Nations Security Council election next year.

As an ally of the U.S., Japan also aims to counter recent moves by China and Russia to strengthen their influence in what is effectively “America’s backyard.”

And from Xinhua, another blast from the past:

Japanese war criminal confession reveals persecution of Chinese

A written confession by Japanese war criminal Ryusuke Sako made public on Sunday revealed the persecution of thousands of Chinese including underground anti-Japanese operators during World War II.

The document is the latest in a series published on the website of China’s State Archives Administration (SAA) following denials of war crimes by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japanese right-wing politicians.

According to Sako’s confession, before his capture in August 1945, he served as section chief of Inspection Department of the Railway Security Police Forces of the “Manchukuo” puppet state and major general and brigade commander of Railway Security Forces in Jilin and Mudanjiang.

And for our final item, Frontera NorteSur covers a travesty of justice:

Massive Rights Violations Charged at New Mexico Detention Facility

After touring a New Mexico detention facility housing Central American refugees, immigrant advocates and lawyers have charged the Obama Administration with violating due process rights.

In a July 24 telephonic press conference hosted by the National Immigration Law Center, representatives of an advocates’ group that were allowed to conduct a short visit July 22 of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLTEC) in Artesia, New Mexico, where hundreds of Central American women and children are being held, detailed a laundry list of grievances.

In comments to reporters, advocates said women and children were held in crowded conditions; not adequately informed of their due process rights or given timely access to legal counsel, as per U.S. refugee law;  hustled through deportation proceedings; and forced to read  complex forms in English.  Additionally, serious concerns were raised about the physical and emotional health of children and their mothers.

Headlines of the day II: PoliEconoEcoFukus


A statement of reality from Quartz:

This land is not your land

  • Pete Seeger died in an America with record inequality

BBC News sounds a belated theme:

State of the Union: Obama promises action on inequality

  • US President Barack Obama: “Whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do”

US President Barack Obama has promised to bypass a fractured Congress to tackle economic inequality in his annual State of the Union address.

He pledged to “take steps without legislation” wherever possible, announcing a rise in the minimum wage for new federal contract staff.

On Iran, he said he would veto any new sanctions that risked derailing talks.

Bloomberg Businessweek chills out:

Frozen Northeast Getting Gouged by Natural Gas Prices

As temperatures plunge anew into single digits across much of the U.S. Northeast, natural gas prices have been going in the opposite direction. On Jan. 22, thermostats in New York City bottomed out at 7 degrees, a day after the price to deliver natural gas into the city spiked to a record $120 per million British Thermal Units in the spot market on the outskirts of town. That’s about 30 times more expensive than what the equivalent amount of gas cost a hundred miles away in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, the biggest natural gas field in the U.S. and home to some of the lowest gas prices in the world. And you thought this was the age of cheap energy.

Most of the natural gas that gets used in the U.S. is contracted on a long-term basis and bought with futures and forward contracts, meaning that many consumers in the Northeast won’t feel the full brunt of that price spike. They’re not entirely insulated though. The spot market is there for a reason. Essentially, it’s a refuge for the desperate and unprepared—for those who need to buy or sell immediately. And when a natural gas-fired power plant or a big utility finds itself short, having underestimated the amount of demand it has to fill, its traders and schedulers have to jump into the spot market and pay whatever the going price is. For those buying in parts of the Northeast, it’s been reaching new highs.

PandoDaily exerts plutocratic pressure:

The Techtopus: How Silicon Valley’s most celebrated CEOs conspired to drive down 100,000 tech engineers’ wages

In early 2005, as demand for Silicon Valley engineers began booming, Apple’s Steve Jobs sealed a secret and illegal pact with Google’s Eric Schmidt to artificially push their workers wages lower by agreeing not to recruit each other’s employees, sharing wage scale information, and punishing violators. On February 27, 2005, Bill Campbell, a member of Apple’s board of directors and senior advisor to Google, emailed Jobs to confirm that Eric Schmidt “got directly involved and firmly stopped all efforts to recruit anyone from Apple.”

Later that year, Schmidt instructed his Sr VP for Business Operation Shona Brown to keep the pact a secret and only share information “verbally, since I don’t want to create a paper trail over which we can be sued later?”

These secret conversations and agreements between some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley were first exposed in a Department of Justice antitrust investigation launched by the Obama Administration in 2010. That DOJ suit became the basis of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of over 100,000 tech employees whose wages were artificially lowered — an estimated $9 billion effectively stolen by the high-flying companies from their workers to pad company earnings — in the second half of the 2000s. Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied attempts by Apple, Google, Intel, and Adobe to have the lawsuit tossed, and gave final approval for the class action suit to go forward. A jury trial date has been set for May 27 in San Jose, before US District Court judge Lucy Koh, who presided over the Samsung-Apple patent suit.

The London Telegraph constricts:

Emerging markets forced to tighten by US and Chinese monetary superpowers

  • The global chain reaction resembles what happened in the East Asia crisis in 1997-1998 when domino effects swept the region

Turkey, India, Brazil and a string of emerging market countries are being forced tighten monetary policy to halt capital flight despite crumbling growth, raising the risk of a vicious circle as debt problems mount.

Turkey’s central bank on Tuesday night hiked interest rates to 12pc from 7.75pc at an emergency meeting in a bid to defend its currency. The lira strengthened to 2.18 against the dollar after the decision, from 2.25.

The move came as India raised rates a quarter-point to 8pc to choke off inflation and shore up confidence in the battered rupee, the third rate rise since Raghuram Rajan took off in September. South Africa’s central bank is meeting on Wednesday as the rand hovers near a record low at 11.06 to the dollar.

More from Nikkei Asian Review:

Inflation-wary emerging economies go for rate hikes

Fighting inflation has become a new mantra for emerging economies like India, Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia as U.S. moves to curtail quantitative easing help weaken their currencies, pushing up the cost of imported goods in these countries. . .

Weak local currencies are setting off inflation. Drops in currency value translate to costlier imports, driving consumer prices in general higher. Speculation that the U.S. would scale down its ultra-easy monetary policy triggered an exodus of money from emerging economies. In particular, currencies of nations with current-account deficits came under selling pressure in the market. The Brazilian real, the Indian rupee, the Indonesian rupiah, the South African rand and the Turkish lira are dubbed the Fragile Five.

Xinhua charts an uptick with mixed results:

Global foreign direct investment rises to pre-crisis levels, UN reports

Global foreign direct investment (FDI) rose to levels not seen since the start of the global economic crisis in 2008, increasing by 11 percent in 2013 to an estimated 1.46 trillion U.S. dollars, with the lion’s share going to developing countries, said a UN report released on Tuesday.

FDI flows to developing economies reached a new high of 759 billion dollars, accounting for 52 percent, and transition economies also recorded a new high of 126 billion dollars, 45 percent up from the previous year and accounting for 9 percent of the global total, showed the figures provided by the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

But developed countries remained at a historical low, or 39 percent, for the second consecutive year. They increased by 12 percent to 576 billion dollars, but only to 44 percent of their peak value in 2007, with FDI to the European Union (EU) increasing, while flows to the United States continued their decline.

Quartz predicts:

Global unemployment is about to get worse

While the rich countries were most affected by the global economic crisis, there are signs of recovery. Although India and China won’t go back to the days of double-digit growth, other emerging countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, paint a more hopeful picture. But the scale of the recovery won’t help the unemployed much, whose numbers are only set to be growing.

In 2013, the unemployed grew by 5 million to 202 million people globally. According to a new report published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), this number is set to grow by a further 13 million by 2018, even if the rate of underemployment remains same. In countries such as Greece and Spain, the average duration of unemployment has reached nearly nine months.

The ILO’s worries are threefold. First, the recovery is not strong enough to reduce the growing number of unemployed. Second, the fundamental causes of the global economic crisis are yet to be properly tackled. Third, the crisis has forced even those employed into more vulnerable jobs.

ANSAmed has numbers:

Crisis, Lagarde sounds the alarm: 20 mln unemployed in EU

  • IMF director, in Italy and Portugal 1/3 under 25 jobless

The managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde has sounded the alarm on record unemployment levels in Europe where almost 20 million are jobless.

‘We cannot say the crisis is over until its impact on the labor market has not reversed’, said Lagarde. When unemployment is high, growth is slow because people spend less and companies invest and hire less, Lagarde also noted, stressing that the most effective way to boost employment is growth.

According to a number of estimates, a growth increase by one percentage point in advanced economies would cut unemployment levels by half a percentage point, giving work to 4 million people.

More from Bloomberg:

Euro Jobless Record Not Whole Story as Italians Give Up

Euro-area data this week will probably show the region ended 2013 with a record jobless rate that reveals only part of the social legacy of the debt crisis.

While economists predict unemployment in December stayed at an all-time high of 12.1 percent, with about 19 million jobless, that tally excludes legions of adults who would also work if they could. Bloomberg calculations for the third quarter show a wider total of 31.2 million people of all ages are either looking for jobs, willing to do so though unavailable, or else have given up.

Giuseppe Di Gilio, 30, is one of 4.2 million such people who don’t appear in Italy’s unemployment statistics. The most recent so-called labor underutilization rate in the third-biggest economy in the euro area was 24 percent, more than double the official jobless rate.

And still more from New Europe:

Growth in the EU: the IMF warns against unemployment, German Fin Min against social spending

“I am convinced that the real problem in the economy is the human being”. That is how Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German finance minister opened his speech at the presentation of the IMF’s new publication, “Growth and Jobs: Supporting the European Recovery”. . .

German Finance Minister actually warned against “excessive social spending” in euro area countries and “endless regulation” from Brussels. As the EU makes an effort to recover from years of recession, we have to be “frank” he insisted. “Europe on average spends twice as much as other parts of the world in social security. You can see where some of the problems lie,” he said.  Moreover, asked whether investments in green economy can offer a sustainable solution to the problem of unemployment, creating an important number of jobs, he answered that what actually happens is the contrary, because the EU’s environmental regulation has gone a bit too far. “We have increasing energy costs which will harm jobs. We have to rebalance.”

EurActiv divides:

Schäuble advocates separate eurozone parliament

Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said yesterday (27 January) he was open to the creation of a separate European parliament for countries using the euro, a step that could deepen divisions within the European Union.

Schäuble’s comments, made during a visit to Brussels, challenge the very foundations of the European Union where lawmaking for all 28 nations is by the bloc’s current parliament.

Splitting that body, critics believe, would represent a dismantling of one of Europe’s biggest symbols of unity.

And then there’s that key piece of the neoliberal agenda, via EurActiv:

Brussels sets advisory group on EU-US trade deal

The European Commission launched on Monday (27 January) a special advisory group of experts to give fresh input on all issues being discussed at the EU-US negotiating table for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

“The creation of this group confirms the Commission’s commitment to close dialogue and exchange with all stakeholders in the TTIP talks, in order to achieve the best result for European citizens,” read a Commission press release.

The group, composed of 14 advisors from different consumer, labour and business groups, will help the EU executive to frame the discussion at the negotiating table so that Europe’s high standards of consumer and environmental protection are fully respected.

On to Britain by way of the Irish Times:

No longer flush: Queen down to her last million

  • British monarch’s reserve fund has fallen from £35 million in 2001 to £1 millon now

British members of parliament criticised Queen Elizabeth’s royal household for blowing its annual budget while neglecting repairs at Buckingham Palace, which two MPs suggested was falling apart.

The royal household’s latest accounts showed it had exceeded its 2012-13 budget of £31 million by £2.3 million , the report said.

To plug the gap, it had to dip into a reserve fund.

BBC News booms:

UK economy growing at fastest rate since 2007

  • Chancellor George Osborne: “I am the first to say the job isn’t done”

The UK economy grew by 1.9% in 2013, its strongest rate since 2007, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

But growth in gross domestic product (GDP) for the fourth quarter slipped to 0.7%, down from 0.8% in the previous quarter, it said.

And economic output is still 1.3% below its 2008 first quarter level.

“There’s plenty more to do but we’re heading in the right direction,” Chancellor George Osborne told the BBC.

Sky News adds nuance:

Cable Warns About Wrong Type Of Recovery

The Business Secretary stresses Britain must avoid past mistakes and ensure the property market does not overheat.

Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned that Britain’s economic recovery could prove to be a “short-term bounce” if it is based on a housing boom.

He made the comments on the eve of the publication of the latest GDP figures, which have shown the country’s strongest growth since the financial crisis began in 2007.

But the senior Liberal Democrat expressed concern that the recovery is too heavily based on housing prices and consumer spending.

Denmark next and strange bankster dealings from the Copenhagen Post:

Leaked document: Goldman Sachs wasn’t highest DONG bidder

  • As the finance minister faces parliamentary hearing today, a leaked document contradicts his previous claims

New information has changed the agenda ahead of today’s parliamentary hearing in which Finance Minister Bjarne Corydon (S) will explain the details of the controversial partial sale of DONG Energy to US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Despite what the government claims, pension fund PensionDanmark’s bid for partial ownership of the state-owned energy company was higher than the bid Goldman Sachs offered, TV2 News reports.

A leaked note revealed that PensionDanmark estimated the stock capital of DONG shares to be 46 billion kroner, a 40 percent higher rate than the 32 billion kroner Goldman Sachs offered.

On Thursday, parliament will vote on allowing Goldman Sachs to invest eight billion kroner in 19 percent of DONG shares. Critics of the sale are concerned with the investment bank’s plans to establish its DONG Energy partial ownership in global tax havens, as well as conditions of the deal that give Goldman Sachs veto rights over the energy company’s future direction and leadership.

Germany next, and mimesis in action form TheLocal.de:

‘Gate’ named Germany’s English word of the year

The English suffix “gate” has been named Germany’s Anglicism of the Year. The quirky, linguistic award honours the positive contributions English had made to the German lexicon.

Gate is no newbie on German turf, having arrived in 1972 with the reporting of the Watergate scandal.

But Germans were slow to take it into their own language and it wasn’t until many years later that gate gained widespread acceptance as a bona fide suffix.

The London Telegraph drops a bombshell:

Rising risk that German court will block Bundesbank rescue for Southern Europe

  • Court can force German institutions to withdraw support for EU operations, wrecking market credibility for the ECB’s rescue policies

The risk is rising that the German constitutional court will severely restrict the eurozone bond rescue scheme for Italy and Spain, and may reignite the euro debt crisis by prohibiting the German Bundesbank from taking part.

The Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper reports that the verdict has been delayed until April due to the complexity of the case and “intense differences of opinion” among the eight judges.

The longer the case goes on the less likely it is that the court – or Verfassungsgericht – will rubber stamp requests from the German government for a ruling that underpins the agreed bail-out machinery.

On to France and legalized hard times intolerance from TheLocal.fr:

France blocks return of Roma schoolgirl’s family

A French court Tuesday rejected an appeal for residency for the family of a Roma schoolgirl whose deportation sparked outrage and student protests in the country.

A court in the eastern city of Besancon ruled that the public magistrate handling the case had been right in upholding the October 9 expulsion of 15-year-old Leonarda Dibriani, her parents and six siblings to Kosovo.

The Dibriani family can appeal the latest ruling.

The case triggered outrage as Leonarda was taken by the authorities while she was on a school trip. The public magistrate had on January 7 said the decision by local authorities to deport Dibrianis was justified as they had made no attempt to integrate into French mainstream society.

Spain next, and fundamentalist politics from GlobalPost:

Spain’s prime minister pushes ahead with anti-abortion legislation despite almost no popular support

In the midst of a jobs crisis and economic dysfunction, Spain now must face a bitter debate over government plans to radically restrict women’s rights.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has a lot to worry about.

Despite tentative signs of economic recovery, more than a quarter of the workforce is still looking for a job. The legacy of a burst property bubble has saddled the country with around a million unsold homes and much of the banking sector remains crippled by debt.

In politics, Spain’s most populous and richest region — Catalonia — is threatening to break away after an independence referendum this year while the ruling conservative party reels from graft allegations and another fraud scandal is sapping respect for the monarchy.

Not the best time, then, to launch a bitterly divisive new policy initiative opposed by more than 80 percent of the population, including a significant slice of his own party.

TheLocal.es boosts:

Spain to grow ‘nearly one percent’ in 2014: minister

Spain’s economy is set to grow by “nearly 1.0 percent” in 2014, Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said on Tuesday as the euro nation’s struggling recovery gains traction.

The official government prediction for the year is 0.7 percent growth, following a contraction of 1.2 percent in 2013, according to estimates by the Bank of Spain.

“Growth in 2014 will be nearly 1.0 percent but the revision will be included in our stability programme when it is released before the end of April,” de Guindos told reporters ahead of a meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels.

El País retreats:

Madrid abruptly cancels plans to outsource management at public hospitals

  • Regional health commissioner Javier Fernández-Lasquetty, the architect of the proposal, resigns
  • Move comes after court rejects petition to lift a cautionary injunction against PP government

Madrid’s Popular Party (PP) regional government on Monday took a U-turn and canceled its planned outsourcing of management and services at six local hospitals – a move that thousands of health professionals had mobilized against.

At the same time, the region’s health chief, Javier Fernández-Lasquetty, who had been pushing the privatization efforts and outsourcing of services, announced he was stepping down from his post.

The developments came just hours after the Madrid regional High Court, which has been studying a lawsuit, denied the regional government’s petition to lift a cautionary injunction it issued last September against the efforts.

ANSAmed moves out, forcibly:

Evictions of mortgage defaulters rise in Spain

  • Almost double those in 2012, reports central bank

The number of evictions due to an inability to meet mortgage payments rose in Spain last year as a result of the economic crisis, and may double the number of those in 2012, reported the country’s central bank on Tuesday.

Some 19,567 evictions were carried out in the first quarter of 2013 compared with 23,774 in the entire year of 2012, the bank said. However, a sharp decline was seen in the number of cases (88) in which the police intervened to carry out the eviction. Over the past few years forced evictions by police had led to over 20 suicides.

Italy next and a new low from TheLocal.it:

Italian wages rise at lowest rate since 1982

Hourly salaries in Italy rose just 1.4 percent on average in 2013 – the lowest rate since 1982 – the national statistics agency, Istat, said on Tuesday.

However, wages increased more than the level of inflation – 1.2 percent – meaning real incomes nudged up by 0.2 percent last year, Istat said.

Italy’s economy stopped contracting in the third quarter of 2013, technically bringing to an end its longest post-war recession, but it is still struggling with an unemployment crisis and rising debt and deficit levels.

Figures released by the Bank of Italy on Monday revealed that the rate of poverty rose from 12 percent to 14 percent between 2010 and 2012, while half of Italian families live on less than €2,000 a month.

Europe Online covers the retreat of the retreat of the founder of the corporate owner of the neighborhood horse racing venue, Golden Gate Fields and a subject of our own frequent stories at the Berkeley Daily Planet:

Billionaire party founder withdraws from Austrian parliament

Austrian-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach said Tuesday that he would give up his parliamentary seat, as the party he founded ahead of last year’s elections loses popularity amid internal conflicts.

The 81-year-old automotive parts entrepreneur said that, for the time being, he would remain the nominal head of the eurosceptic and pro-business Team Stronach, which he founded in 2012.

Team Stronach initially received high poll ratings, but the party only won 5.7 per cent of the votes in September’s election.

Following the election, a series of party officials were kicked out of Team Stronach amid a debate about Stronach’s authoritarian leadership style.

After the jump, the ongoing and never-ending Greek meltdown, Ukrainian proscription and a pledge, ruble anxieties, interest ramp-ups in Turkey and India, calls for Latin unity and a tegime extension enabled, Thai troubles, Chinese crises averted and anticipated, Abe road platitudes, environmental woes, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFuku’d


We’ll begin today’s compendium of things political, economic, and ecologic right here in esnl’s own Golden State with this from the Pew Research Center:

In 2014, Latinos will surpass whites as largest racial/ethnic group in California

According to California Governor Jerry Brown’s new state budget, Latinos are projected to become the largest single racial/ethnic group in the state by March of this year, making up 39% of the state’s population. That will make California only the second state, behind New Mexico, where whites are not the majority and Latinos are the plurality, meaning they are not more than half but they comprise the largest percentage of any group.

California’s demographers also project that in mid-2014, the state’s residents will be 38.8% white non-Hispanic, 13% Asian American or Pacific Islander, 5.8% black non-Hispanic, and less than 1% Native American. But the state’s demographics in 2014 are very different from what they had been. In 2000, California’s 33.9 million residents were 46.6% white non-Hispanic, 32.3% Latino, 11.1% Asian American or Pacific Islander, 6.4% black non-Hispanic and about 1% Native American. In 1990, white non-Hispanics made up more than half (57.4%) of the state’s then 29.7 million residents, while 25.4% of Californians were Latino, 9.2% were Asian American or Pacific Islander, 7.1% were black non-Hispanic and about 1% were Native American.

More Californiosity from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Income inequity a hot topic on California ballots

When state voters cast their ballots in November, they could be making decisions on several measures intended to bring the income levels of rich and poor closer together. They include a cap on hospital executives’ pay, more taxes on oil companies and a higher minimum wage.

There’s real money behind each effort. The hospital CEOs are being targeted by a deep-pockets union. The oil-tax measure would be financed by a rich former hedge-fund manager, and a Silicon Valley millionaire is behind the minimum-wage hike.

The money lining up against them is just as formidable. Business groups, the health care industry and oil giants are expected to do whatever it takes to try to defeat what some conservatives denounce as the products of class-warfare ideology.

And some reallly bad news for a very dry state from the San Jose Mercury News:

California drought: Past dry periods have lasted more than 200 years, scientists say

California’s current drought is being billed as the driest period in the state’s recorded rainfall history. But scientists who study the West’s long-term climate patterns say the state has been parched for much longer stretches before that 163-year historical period began.

And they worry that the “megadroughts” typical of California’s earlier history could come again.

Through studies of tree rings, sediment and other natural evidence, researchers have documented multiple droughts in California that lasted 10 or 20 years in a row during the past 1,000 years — compared to the mere three-year duration of the current dry spell. The two most severe megadroughts make the Dust Bowl of the 1930s look tame: a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years.

Just how bad is it? From the USDA’s National Drought Monitor:

BLOG Drought

Hopeful signs, via The Guardian:

Occupy the minimum wage: will young people restore the strength of unions?

  • The ‘Fight for 15′ movement, driven by millennials, picks up where Occupy left off and shows a new interest in labour unions

Alicia White, 25, defied the odds of a poor background by attending college on a partial scholarship and going to graduate school. While she spends her days applying for jobs, the only work she has found so far is face-painting at children’s birthday parties.

“By going to college and graduate school, I thought I was insulating myself from being broke and sleeping on friends’ couches and being hungry again. The big, scary part is that I am going to end up where I was, but now I am going to be in that awful situation with $50,000 of debt,” White says.

White’s story is no exception. One in two college graduates are now either unemployed or underemployed. Millennials – even those from the middle class – are experiencing income inequality and America’s failed dream of upward mobility first-hand. The mismatch of college-educated young workers with low-wage, unskilled, precarious jobs is creating a new face of the once-dwindling American labor movement: young, diverse, led by millennials in their twenties and thirties, and fighting what they see as an unfair labor market. Their modest cause? Pushing for a higher minimum wage.

Linking up with Nikkei Asian Review:

Silicon Valley venture capital enhancing US-China economic ties

Tsinghua University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in China, is rapidly expanding its influence in Silicon Valley through a tech-oriented seed accelerator it supports.

Tsinghua, the alma mater of a legion of political and business leaders in China, including President Xi Jinping, is capitalizing on its powerful alumni network to make deep inroads into the heart of technological innovation in the U.S.

The seed accelerator set up by the university in April 2012, InnoSpring, has established a solid presence in America’s vibrant venture capital scene in less than two years.

Obama dives deeper into Reaganomics, resurrecting the Gipper’s “Enterpise Zones” with a new moniker. Via Bloomberg News:

Old Idea to Fix Inner Cities Gets New Name: ‘Promise Zones’

In 1994, Bill Clinton tried to revitalize the mean streets of West Philadelphia. At the time, unemployment and crime were high, graduation rates were low, and businesses were exiting. Clinton’s Philadelphia-Camden Empowerment Zone, one of several in troubled urban areas around the country, received $100 million over 10 years in federal grants and tax credits for companies that hired neighborhood residents and invested in the community. Two decades later, not a lot has visibly changed in West Philly. Shop owners work behind bulletproof glass, jobless men sit on stoops drinking beer, and another president is looking to local leaders and businesses to turn things around.

At a White House ceremony on Jan. 9, President Obama announced the first 5 of 20 “promise zones” in parts of San Antonio, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and West Philadelphia, including a half-dozen blocks that also were part of Clinton’s zone. Obama’s plan calls on federal agencies to help business owners cut through bureaucracy to win federal grants and bring together schools, companies, and nonprofits to support literacy programs and job training. “We will help them succeed,” the president said. “Not with a handout, but as partners with them, every step of the way. And we’re going to make sure it works.”

From Reuters, relevant to our latest Charts of the Day:

Why are US corporate profits so high? Because wages are so low

U.S. businesses have never had it so good.

Corporate cash piles have never been bigger, either in dollar terms or as a share of the economy. The labor market, meanwhile, is still millions of jobs short of where it was before the global financial crisis first erupted over six years ago.

Coincidence?

Not in the slightest, according to Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist at Goldman Sachs:

“The strength (in profits) is directly related to the weakness in hourly wages, which are still growing at just a 2% nominal pace. The weakness of wages and the resulting strength of profits are telling signs that the US labor market is still far from full employment.

Another another American institution offshores its money and most of its ownership, via TheLocal.it:

Fiat-Chrysler to seek US stock listing, British base

The newly combined Fiat-Chrysler automaker will seek a fiscal domicile in Britain and a stock listing on a New York exchange, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.

Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne, who has overseen the company’s gradual purchase of Chrysler since 2009, is set to make the proposal to the board next week, people familiar with the plans told the Journal.

The Italian automaker completed its acquisition of Chrysler this week in a $4.35-billion transaction after a five-year merger that creates a new global car giant.

The deal involved buying the remaining 41.46 percent stake in Chrysler not held by Fiat from Veba, a fund controlled by the US autoworkers’ union UAW.

From USA TODAY, Alpine redoubt surrenders:

Swiss banks closer to deals in tax-evasion probe

  • More than 100 financial institutions willing to ID tax evaders in exchange for non-prosecution deals.

More than 100 Swiss banks and other institutions have signaled they will seek non-prosecution agreements and provide information to U.S. authorities investigating suspected off-shore tax evasion by Americans, a top Department of Justice official said Saturday.

The announcement by Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Keneally provided the first government confirmation on the number of Swiss banks that are expected to disclose how they helped U.S. clients evade taxes, provide financial data about the clients and pay fines to settle criminal investigations.

In all, 106 Swiss financial institutions filed formal letters of intent by the Dec. 31, 2013, deadline set by federal investigators, said Keneally, who made the announcement at the winter meeting of the American Bar Association’s tax section in Phoenix.

And Sky News has good news for Wall Street banksters:

Non-EU Banks Slip Through Bonus Cap Loophole

  • Wall Street banks can raise bonuses without a vote from their parent’s shareholders under new EU rules, Sky News learns.

Major global banks such as Morgan Stanley and Nomura are benefiting from a loophole in new European pay rules that could leave British rivals at a big disadvantage.

Sky News understands that banks based outside the European Union (EU) are able to approve bigger bonuses for employees of their subsidiaries in the trading bloc without recourse to external shareholders.

That means Wall Street and Asian banks can instantly consent to variable pay for senior staff worth double the level of their salaries, the maximum permissible under the new EU cap.

A quick trip to Canada and a mind-boggling headline from the uber-conservative National Post:

‘Economically worthless but emotionally priceless’: Children don’t make you happy, but can still be rewarding, expert says

A global story from The Guardian:

IMF fears global markets threat as US cuts back on cash stimulus

  • Sudden slump in Argentina leads to fears that other emerging countries could face troubles

The International Monetary Fund is closely monitoring recent events in the world’s emerging markets amid concerns that the withdrawal of monetary stimulus by the US will add to the turmoil caused by the sudden slump in Argentina.

The IMF believes that the next phase of the gradual removal of stimulus to the US economy by the Federal Reserve, due later this week, could be the trigger for fresh turbulence in countries seen as vulnerable to capital flight, such as Turkey and Indonesia.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, told participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos that the so-called tapering by the US central bank was a potential problem.

And from Reuters, look forward for more of those too-big-to-fail banks:

Top bankers expect EU stress tests to reignite banking M&A

Bankers expect a thorough European Central Bank (ECB) health check of the euro zone’s largest banks to reignite domestic and cross-border merger activity by rebuilding confidence among lenders.

The sovereign debt crises that nearly caused a break-up of the single currency in 2011/12 has generated mistrust among banks and caused an effective breakdown of cross-border bank investment flows as they hoarded capital at home.

But the ECB’s asset quality review, an assessment of the balance sheets of more than 120 banks that is due to be completed next autumn, should bring transparency on the quality of banks’ loans and other assets, bankers and regulators at the World Economic Forum in Davos said.

Off to England and another sign of the times from The Independent:

Exclusive: Eating disorders soar among teens – and social media is to blame

  • Social media blamed for the doubling in the number of youngsters seeking help for anorexia and bulimia in the last three years

The number of children and teenagers seeking help for an eating disorder has risen by 110 per cent in the past three years, according to figures given exclusively to The Independent on Sunday.

ChildLine says it received more than 10,500 calls and online inquiries from young people struggling with food and weight-related anxiety in the last financial year. The charity believes this dramatic increase could be attributed to several factors, including the increased pressure caused by social media, the growth of celebrity culture, and the rise of anorexia websites.

The problem is most prevalent among girls of secondary school age. During 2012-13, counselling with girls about concerns of eating problems outnumbered counselling with boys by 32:1.

The Guardian covers an exodus:

The great migration south: 80% of new private sector jobs are in London

  • Talented young people are leaving provincial cities to make a success of their lives in London and never go back, report shows

Talented young people are leaving provincial cities in their 20s, making a success of their lives in London and never go back. London is where the work is: the capital was responsible for four out of every five jobs created in the private sector between 2010 and 2012.

The brain drain meant that every major city outside the south-east is losing young people to London. One in three 22-30 year olds leaving their hometowns end up with Oyster cards and Boris as their mayor.

On to Ireland for a very familiar headline from Independent.ie:

Priests’ organisation accuse Education Minster of “underminding religion”

THE Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) has hit out at Education Minister Ruairi Quinn after he claimed that primary schools should divert time spent teaching religion to core subject areas.

The Labour Minister has sparked fury after suggesting that schools should use time allocated for religion to focus on improving pupils’ reading and maths.

The group described Mr Quinn’s remarks as “unacceptable” and accused the Labour TD of attempting to devise educational policy “on the hoof”.

Germany next and a gain for eurofoes from Deutsche Welle:

Germany’s euroskeptic party revamps its image

The upstart Alternative for Germany party attracted voters in the last election with its tough anti-euro currency stance. Now, in a quest to enter the European Parliament, the party is embracing populist sentiments.

At their most recent political convention, members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) were hoping to come up with a list of candidates for the upcoming European Parliament elections, but their plan didn’t quite work out. Around 100 candidates had applied for the 10 available positions. Following a 12-hour session, only six candidates had been decided on – and the session has been extended to next weekend.

Nevertheless, AfD leader Bernd Lucke used the meeting as an opportunity to present the party’s new slogan, “Mut zu Deutschland” (loosely translated: “Courage to be German”) – which replaces the former slogan “Mut zur Wahrheit” (“Courage to Uphold Truth”) that helped the AfD gain 4.7 percent of the votes in Germany’s last federal election. The party members present welcomed the move.

More from EUbusiness:

German eurosceptics poll 7% ahead of European vote

The eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party scored seven percent in a poll published Sunday ahead of May’s European Parliament elections where populist groups are hoping to boost their numbers.

The Emnid institute poll was published by newspaper Bild am Sonntag a day after the political newcomer party elected its top European candidates and railed against Germany’s mainstream political groups.

Party chief Bernd Lucke, 51, branded Chancellor Angela Merkel a “chameleon” and, under a campaign dubbed “Courage for Germany”, promised an alternative to “adaptable, streamlined, slick politicians who stand for nothing”.

The AfD, which has said it favours a return from the euro to the deutschmark currency, was formed last year but missed out on seats in September national elections, scoring just below a five percent threshold.

The rise in anti-euro sentiment met with harsh words from Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner. From Reuters:

German SPD leader raps ‘stupid’ eurosceptic campaign in Europe vote

The head of Germany’s Social Democrats in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition on Sunday denounced eurosceptic parties on the far left and right as “stupid” and pledged a tough fight against them in the European parliamentary election campaign.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, also Merkel’s economy minister and head of the Social Democrats, blasted the “uniting enemies of Europe on the left and right” over their anti-European campaigning for the May election.

“Let’s stand up against these stupid slogans about Germany being ‘the paymaster of Europe’,” Gabriel said, referring in particular to the campaign of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party that has attracted voters opposed to spending taxpayer money on bailing out struggling euro zone countries.

TheLocal.de charts a familiar trend:

‘Land grab’ ups prices in eastern Germany

  • Land prices in eastern Germany are rising at dizzying rates and local farmers feel they are being squeezed out by foreign investors in a phenomenon known as “land grabbing”.

The price of a hectare of land has risen by 54 percent between 2009 and 2012 in Brandenburg state and by 79 percent in neighbouring Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, even if prices remain below those in the west of the country — at least for now.

The rural east of Germany has vast swathes of arable land inherited from communist times, when farming was in the hands of huge collectives, known as LPGs.

But today the land is increasingly being snapped up by foreign investors, often with no background or interest in farming, pushing prices up and forcing out locals.

Denmark next, and more of that hard times intolerance from New Europe:

Right-wing MEP wants to punish beggars in Denmark

Police in Denmark should be allowed to arrest beggars on the spot and the courts should be less lenient, according to one Member of the European Parliamentary who is aligned with the Dansk Folkeparti (a right-wing populist party).

Morten Messerschmidt pointed to official justice ministry figures showing a drop in the number of people convicted of begging over the past five years. For instance, only seven of the 185 people charged with begging were ever convicted.

According to Messerschmidt, this number is “surprisingly low”. He said the reason is probably because police are required to issue a warning to beggars before arresting them. He also said that a growing number of beggars in Denmark are Eastern European.

From DutchNews.nl, booming business:

One of Tilburg’s biggest industries is marijuana: NRC

Between €728m and €884m is earned from marijuana production in Tilburg region on an annual basis, the NRC said at the weekend, quoting confidential research.

The illegal industry is so large that it poses a ‘serious threat to the safety and integrity of society,’ said the report, which was put together by researchers from Tilburg University and crime prevention experts.

Marijuana production in the area involves 2,500 people and between 600 and 900 plantations, the city’s mayor Peter Noordanus told the NRC. The drugs trade has grown into a criminal industry which ‘increasingly corrupts the legal and economic infrastructure,’ report said.

On to France and wild in the streets with France 24:

Thousands take part in Paris ‘Day of Anger’ targeting President Hollande

Several thousand people marched through central Paris on Sunday in a “Day of Anger” directly targeting France’s embattled President François Hollande and his policies, ending in both clashes and arrests.

Security forces used tear gas to disperse several hundred youths who lobbed police with bottles, fireworks, iron bars and dustbins.

Police said at least 150 people had been arrested after the clashes, during which 19 officers were injured, one of these “potentially seriously”, according to one police source.

Italy next and a forced quit from EUbusiness:

Italy minister resigns amid abuse of power, corruption probes

Italy’s Agriculture Minister resigned Sunday amid allegations of abuse of power over the appointment of staff in the public healthcare system and in the wake of an investigation into the management of European Union funds for agriculture.

“I am resigning as minister. I cannot remain part of a government which has not defended my honour,” Nunzia De Girolamo said on Twitter.

De Girolamo was accused this month of exerting improper influence over the choice of healthcare managers in the city of Benevento in the Campania region, following revelations in the media of phone-tapped conversations in 2012.

She is the second minister to step down from Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s shaky coalition government.

More corruption from Corriere della Sera:

Tax-dodging Magnate owned 1,243 Properties

  • Angiola Armellini, daughter of construction entrepreneur, under investigation for hiding more than €2.1 billion from tax authorities

From Rome’s glitzy jet-set and a two-storey penthouse a stone’s throw from the Vatican to an investigation by the prosecution service complete with financial police searches. Angiola Armellini, daughter of a surveyor who made a fortune covering the capital with 90,000 cubic metres of concrete, is alleged to have hidden 1,243 properties from the tax authorities. The buildings, of which 1,239 including three hotels are located in the municipality of Rome, are claimed to be worth €2.1 billion, including cash assets.

Public prosecutor Paolo Ielo entered Ms Armellini in the register of persons under investigation along with eleven nominees and accountants alleged to be complicit. Ms Armellini faces charges of criminal association, failure to submit tax returns and submitting fraudulent returns. Criminal association charges have also been brought against the accountants. Investigators calculate that the taxable base for the avoidance amounts to €190 million. City authorities also want to recover ICI property tax that was almost never paid. The bill could be €3.5 million for two years, a figure which multiplied by five – before that a time bar comes into play – becomes €17 million.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, Ukrainian crisis spreads, Latin American woes and protests, Aussie neooliberalism, Indian uncertainty, Bangla woes, Thai turmoil, Cambodian protests, Chinese financial uncertainty, Japanese wiseguy hopes, tarsands costs, fracking havoc, drought victims, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoGrecoFukuPlus


Straight to it, albeit belatedly and with little embe.llishment, we begin in the Big Apple with the Wall Street Journal:

Shelters Fill as Rent Aid Disappears

New York City residents who received rent subsidies are flocking to homeless shelters.

New York City homeless shelters—swelling with record-high populations not seen since the Great Depression—are increasingly being sought out by people who participated in a now-defunct rent-subsidy program designed to reduce homelessness, according to a report to be released Saturday.

The author of the report, the Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy group, held up the report as evidence that homeless families need longer-term government help with rent to stay out of the shelter system. Since the rental-payment program, known as Advantage, was canceled by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration after state budget cuts in June 2011, the city’s homeless shelter system population has grown to its highest-ever levels: 52,000 people, including 22,000 children.

As of August, the coalition report found, 49.4% of family placements in the Advantage program had returned to the shelter system, climbing from 24.5% nearly three years ago. The numbers rose rapidly as subsidies ran out in 2012, with more than 300 families a month seeking shelter from the city during that summer after losing their rent subsidies. In 2013, more than 200 such families were entering shelters each month, the report said.

MarketWatch uncovers another austerian dimension:

America’s hidden retirement crisis is racial

A troubling new study, Race and Retirement Insecurity in the U.S., reveals that America’s retirement crisis is particularly dire for blacks and Latinos.

“If nothing changes, the future for people of color is frightening,” author Nari Rhee, research manager for the nonprofit National Institute on Retirement Security, told me.

Rhee’s report comes on the heels of other recent surveys from financial services firms and consultants with their own scary stats documenting the general lack of retirement savings among blacks and Latinos.

Reuters closes a chapter:

Fannie Mae settles with Wells Fargo as mortgage review ends

Wells Fargo & Co will pay a net $541 million to Fannie Mae to settle claims over defective home loans, completing the government-controlled mortgage company’s efforts to have banks buy back troubled loans made before the financial crisis.

Fannie Mae said on Monday it has reached settlements worth roughly $6.5 billion over loan buybacks with eight banks, including Wells Fargo, the nation’s largest mortgage lender and fourth-largest bank by assets.

About damn time, with USA TODAY:

13 states raising pay for minimum-wage workers

State minimum wages will exceed the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour in 21 states on Jan. 1.

The trend reflects growing concerns about the disproportionate spread of low-wage jobs in the U.S. economy, creating millions of financially strained workers and putting too little money in consumers’ pockets to spur faster economic growth.

The Progressive covers the despicable:

Norquist Tells ALEC He Wants U.S. to Revive Decapitation

During a speech about criminal justice reform earlier this month at the annual American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference, anti-government crusader Grover Norquist compared criminals to fish caught in a net and exclaimed that he would like to see America revive the practice of beheading convicted killers.

“We gotta fight crime, we gotta have less crime, we have to be more secure in our persons and our property,” he said. “I’m all in favor of chopping the heads off of people who commit murder and putting people in prison for a long, long time. There’s no bleeding heart whatsoever. This is about punishing real criminals and making sure we don’t just toss everybody in the net, the porpoises and the tuna, and treating them all the same.”

And CBC heard the giant sucking sound:

NAFTA turns 20: Mexico is pact’s biggest winner

North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada. U.S. and Mexico signed in 1994

Ross Perot may have had it right after all about who would win under NAFTA.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was an important step for all three members, but the evidence points to Mexico — at the time the weak sister in the group that included two G7 economies, the United States and Canada — as by far the biggest winner.

News Corp Australia takes us global:

World braces for retirement crisis

A GLOBAL retirement crisis is bearing down on workers of all ages.

Spawned years before the Great Recession and the 2008 financial meltdown, the crisis was significantly worsened by those twin traumas. It will play out for decades, and its consequences will be far-reaching.

Many people will be forced to work well past the traditional retirement age of 65. Living standards will fall and poverty rates will rise for the elderly in wealthy countries that built safety nets for seniors after World War II. In developing countries, people’s rising expectations will be frustrated if governments can’t afford retirement systems to replace the tradition of children caring for aging parents.

Off across the pond with Europe Online:

Sceptics, right-wingers set to challenge EU in 2014 poll

Four years into its fight against a debilitating economic crisis, the European Union will in 2014 face a new litmus test: the ballot box.

In May, citizens from the bloc’s 28 member states will vote for a new European Parliament. And the indications are that eurosceptic and far-right parties will score big gains, amid public frustration over the painful measures that have been implemented to tackle the crisis.

“For many, making ends meet isn’t as easy as it used to be, and could well become even harder for their children,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy noted during a recent speech in Berlin. “Today, Europe is seen as being intrusive, meddling, dictating, correcting, prescribing, imposing, even punishing,” he added.

The eurobankster speaks, via Xinhua:

Draghi plays down anticipation of immediate rate cut

European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi has tried to play down the anticipation of an immediate rate cut in an interview published on Saturday.

Draghi told German magazine Der Spiegel that he saw no need of an immediate rate cut, citing “many encouraging signs” including the economic recovery in some euro area countries, decreasing budget deficits and other improvements.

His claim came as expectations for more monetary easing by the ECB are running high. The ECB has clarified in its forward guidance that the current low interest rates would remain for a long period of time or become even lower.

On to Britain with the South China Morning Post and a familiar name on the UC Berkeley campus:

Li Ka-shing’s British power firm UKPN under fire over alleged tax avoidance

UK Power Networks allegedly reduced tax bill with payments to firms in the Cayman Islands

UK Power Networks, owned by Li Ka-shing, is alleged to have avoided £38 million (HK$485 million) in British taxes over last three years. Photo: Sam Tsang

A British energy firm owned by tycoon Li Ka-shing has come under fire amid allegations the company, at the centre of a storm over Christmas power blackouts, avoided paying millions of pounds in taxes.

Fretting with Sky News:

Millions Stress About Finances ‘Every Day’

Money worries are an even greater concern for Britons than health or job security, new research reveals.

In the UK, 18.1 million people feel stressed about their finances every day, according to new research seen by Sky News.

The Independent bills:

Migrants will have to pay at A&E – and all patients will have to prove they are not foreigners to get free NHS treatment

As part of proposals to recoup up to £500m from visitors from outside the European Union who use the NHS, hospitals will be required to identify those patients who are not eligible for free care – and make foreigners pay for life-saving treatment they receive on accident and emergency wards.

But the reforms mean that eligible patients will also have to prove they have the right to be treated free of charge.

Sweden next, where TheLocal.se beggars the conscience:

Swedish professor: Ban begging handouts

A leading Swedish professor has said that it should be illegal for people to give money to beggars but his idea has been described as a “joke” by campaigners.

Bo Rothstein, a political science professor long associated with the University of Gothenburg, made the argument for a begging donation ban in an opinion editorial in Dagens Nyheter.

“Anybody who begs in front of us on the street doesn’t offer anything apart from their social vulnerability and the person that gives is exploiting their situation to get satisfaction and ease their social conscience,” wrote Rothstein in the newspaper.

TheLocal.no takes us to Norwegian opposition:

Most Norwegians oppose new private schools

Norway’s government has said it would like to make it easier to open fee-paying private schools, but most Norwegians are against the idea, according to a new poll.

53 percent of those asked by pollsters Sentio Research said they were opposed to allowing more private schools to open. Some 36 percent were in favour, with 11 percent saying they didn’t know. The poll was carried out for radical left-wing newspaper Klassekampen.

Norway’s governing parties, Høyre and Fremskrittspartiet, have said they want to change the law regulating private schools by the end of 2015. The law currently requires that private schools have a special religious or educational philosophy to qualify for co-financing from the state. The government wants to remove this requirement and allow all private schools that pass quality tests to qualify.

Holland next where DutchNews.nl brings us Beancounters Behaving Badly:

Accountants KPMG fined for role in Ballast Nedam bribery case

Accountancy group KPMG has reached a €7m out of court settlement with the public prosecution department over its role in a construction sector bribery scandal.

The investigation into three former KPMG accountants is continuing, the public prosecution department said in a statement.

KPMG was accused of disguising bribes paid on behalf of building group Ballast Nedam to win orders. The company also failed to pay proper attention to ensuring integrity demands were met, the public prosecutor said.

On to Germany with the London Telegraph:

Draghi complains of ‘perverse angst’ among Germans

ECB head says German worries over eurozone are misplaced

Mario Draghi has spoken out against the “perverse angst” displayed by Germans over the European Central Bank’s policies.

The Frankfurt-based central bank cut rates to a new record low of 0.25pc in November, despite resistance from German policymakers, who are fearful that low interest rates could fuel housing bubbles in its major cities. In April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country’s economy, which has consistently outperformed its eurozone peers since the financial crisis, was ready for a rate rise even though the rest of the single currency bloc needed looser monetary policy.

Reuters looks for a final solution:

Merkel says permanently fixing euro zone crisis vital for Germany

Chancellor Angela Merkel will tell Germans their fate is so closely entwined with the European Union that it is imperative to come up with answers on how to permanently resolve the euro zone’s sovereign debt crisis.

In an advance text of the traditional New Year’s Eve address that she will deliver on Tuesday evening, Merkel said Germany had a lot of work to do to maintain its own economic strength.

EUobserver constrains:

Merkel allies keen to curb EU powers

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian-Social Union (CSU), plans to call for fewer EU commissioners and less new EU legislation in next year’s European Parliament elections.

“We need a withdrawal treatment for commissioners intoxicated by regulation,” the party’s four-page election strategy paper – seen by Der Spiegel and due to be adopted in January at a CSU congress – says.

TheLocal.de has conflicts:

MPs spar over eastern EU immigration fears

Hours before immigration restrictions on people from Romania and Bulgaria coming to Germany are lifted, politicians are arguing over attempts to discourage those with poor work prospects from coming to the country.

As of January 1st, Bulgarians and Romanians will be free to seek work throughout the European Union, which their countries joined back in 2007. This has prompted fears of a flood or an influx of people seeking welfare payments in richer countries.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies have reacted by drawing up proposals to toughen social welfare laws, prompting criticism from Social Democrat politicians – now their coalition partners in the national government.

France next and taxing time with Al Jazeera America:

France’s top court approves 75 percent ‘millionaire tax’ on employers

Companies will be taxed for employees who make more than 1 million euros a year

France’s Constitutional Council – the country’s highest court – gave the green light on Sunday to a controversial “millionaire’s tax,” to be levied on companies that pay salaries of more than 1 million euros ($1.38 million) a year.

The measure, introduced in line with a pledge by President Francois Hollande to make the rich do more to pull France out of crisis, has infuriated business leaders and soccer clubs, which at one point threatened to go on strike.

On to Spain with separation anxieties from El País:

Premier Mas admits EU will expel an independent Catalonia

Government would look for other alternatives “outside the treaties,” says regional leader

For the first time since heated debate broke out over Catalonia’s proposed independence referendum next year, regional premier Artur Mas, who is pushing for the status vote, has admitted that his northeast region would be ejected from the European Union if it seceded from Spain.

Stop the presses with TheLocal.es:

Struggling Spanish paper closes print edition

Spanish national newspaper La Gaceta has scrapped its print edition, a spokeswoman said on Monday, as it fights to survive a financing crisis in the recession-damaged country’s media.

“The paper edition has been closed” since Friday, said a spokeswoman for the strongly conservative newspaper, which was founded in 1989 and employs about 60 people.

“The newspaper will continue, but online — that is what we will focus on,” the spokeswoman told news agency AFP.

Occupy USA TODAY:

Spain squatters take over buildings after foreclosures

One in four Spaniards is out of work, which in a country that boasts one of the highest rates of home ownership in the world means many families fall behind on their mortgage payments and face foreclosure.

At the same time, the number of empty buildings across the country swelled after a building boom went bust.

The Spanish government estimates that there are more than 650,000 finished properties that sit empty across the country, alongside nearly half a million properties that were left idle while under construction.

El País covers a breakthrough:

ETA prisoners recognize damage caused by campaign, accept legitimacy of jails

Collective releases statement giving 527 inmates go-ahead to begin negotiating early release

The prisoner collective of terrorist group ETA, which represents more than 500 inmates from the Basque separatist organization, released a taped statement on Saturday recognizing the legality of Spain’s penitentiary system, expressing its agreement for individual prisoners to negotiate individual early release terms, and rejecting the violence and “suffering and multilateral damage caused” by their terror campaign.

Portugal next with EUbusiness:

EU ready to offer Portugal more help: Rehn

European Union is ready to offer Portugal further aid once its current bailout expires in May, Economics Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said on Monday.

“Europe will keep its word” and continue to help Portugal, but only on condition it “continues reforms already under way,” Rehn wrote in an editorial for business daily Diario Economico.

“The absolute priority is to successfully conclude the current programme,” Rehn wrote, while warning that it was “indispensable that Portugal maintain budgetary discipline and structural reforms in the upcoming years”.

And on to Italy with ANSAmed:

Italy: Poverty hits record high amid unemployment, recession

Absolute poverty double since 2005, triple in industrial north

The number of people in crisis-hit Italy living in absolute poverty has doubled between 2005 and 2012 and tripled in the industrial north, up to 6.4% from 2.5%, according to an annual report on social cohesion by national statistics bureau Istat released on Monday.

Overall, more than 1.7 million families live in a state of absolute poverty for a total of 4.8 million individuals amid rising unemployment and a stubborn recession, Istat said.

On to Eastern Euroipe, with in Solvenia with EUobserver:

Slovenia: Bank tests treated as military secret

Bank stress tests indicate that Slovenian lenders do not need a bailout, but private consultancies played a controversial role in the evaluation.

The test results, published last month and accompanied by positive statements from the Slovenian government, the Bank of Slovenia and the European Commission, say Slovenia can recapitalise its banking sector without international help.

South China Morning Post covers a tragedy:

Romania’s children being left behind as their parents seek work abroad

A generation is growing up with absentee parents, who are supporting their families by working in more prosperous western Europe

Tens of thousands of Romanian children are growing up parentless because their mothers and fathers work abroad, according to figures that raise questions about the extent and impact of large-scale migration on the eve of new EU rules governing Bulgarians and Romanians.

According to the Romanian ministry of labour, family and social protection, there are now more than 80,000 families in Romania in which both parents are working abroad while their children stay at home, with 35,000 more families in which one parent is overseas.

After the jump, the Greek crisis unfolds, Latin American inflation, changes in Cuba, Chinese neoliberalism, Japanese boosterism, environmental woes, and the latest stunning chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading