Category Archives: Mideast

Headlines of the day: Classes, deep politics, more


First, a stunning landmark is reached. From the New York Times:

The American Middle Class Is No Longer the World’s Richest

The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.

While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a New York Times analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades.

After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada — substantially behind in 2000 — now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.

On of the key mechanisms of the collapse of the middle class from Mother Jones:

How Taxpayers Subsidize the Multi-Million Dollar Salaries of Restaurant CEOs

  • Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz raked in $236 million in taxpayer-subsidized compensation over the past two years.

As the fight to raise the minimum wage has gained momentum, the restaurant industry has emerged as the biggest opponent. This is no surprise, since the industry claims the highest percentage of low-wage workers—60 percent—of any other business sector. Front-line fast-food workers earn so little money that about half of them rely on some form of public assistance, to the tune of about $7 billion a year. That hidden subsidy has helped boost restaurant industry profits to record highs. In 2013, the industry reaped $660 billion in profits, and it in turn channeled millions into backing efforts to block local governments from raising pay for low-wage workers and to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 an hour (exactly where it’s been for the past 22 years). But public assistance programs aren’t the only way taxpayers subsidize the restaurant industry.

A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies finds that the public has been contributing to excessive CEO compensation as well, helping to widen the gap between the lowest-paid workers and their bosses. Thanks to a loophole in the tax code, corporations are allowed to deduct unlimited amounts of money from their tax bills for executive compensation, so long as it comes in the form of stock options or “performance pay.” The loophole was the inadvertent result of an attempt by Congress to rein in CEO compensation by limiting the tax deduction for executive pay to $1 million a year. That law exempted pay that came in the form of stock options or performance pay. This loophole has proven lucrative for CEOs of all stripes, but it is particularly egregious in an industry that pays its workers so little that it is already heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

More from UC Berkeley’s Robert Reich:

Raising Taxes on Corporations that Pay Their CEOs Royally and Treat Their Workers Like Serfs

Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times.

Meanwhile, over the same thirty-year time span the median American worker has seen no pay increase at all, adjusted for inflation. Even though the pay of male workers continues to outpace that of females, the typical male worker between the ages of 25 and 44 peaked in 1973 and has been dropping ever since. Since 2000, wages of the median male worker across all age brackets has dropped 10 percent, after inflation.

This growing divergence between CEO pay and that of the typical American worker isn’t just wildly unfair. It’s also bad for the economy. It means most workers these days lack the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing — contributing to the slowest recovery on record. Meanwhile, CEOs and other top executives use their fortunes to fuel speculative booms followed by busts.

Renting wombs to fertilized eggs from abroad via Quartz:

Wealthy Chinese are turning to American surrogates to birth their children

The familiar image of international surrogacy until now has mainly involved Americans and Europeans crossing the world to find women to birth their children. Now, wealthy Chinese couples are seeking surrogates in the US. The practice—a new version of Chinese “birth tourism”—offers a solution to rising infertility in China, a way around Chinese population controls, and even the added bonus of US citizenship for babies born in the States.

For years, pregnant Chinese women have come to the US, mainly to the West Coast, to give birth to baby US citizens who can, at the age of 21, sponsor their parents for green cards. In a new wrinkle, some are instead paying American women to carry their children—a way of getting citizenship as well as dealing with the fact that more Chinese couples are facing trouble having children. (Other surrogacy destinations for wealthy Chinese include Thailand, India, and Ukraine, but the US is still the favorite.)

Salon finds brown noses:

Welcome to Plutocrat-geddon! Obama and Thomas Friedman flatter our new billionaire overlords

  • Forget inequality! Judging by the White House and the media, the real answer is sucking up to the wealthiest

Inequality is a burning topic among economists, especially since the release of Thomas Piketty’s recent book on the subject. Many are questioning whether this is a temporary period of runaway inequality, or whether we are on the verge of an irreversible collapse into extremes of wealth and poverty. (What would we call it? The Oligopolypse? Plutogeddon?)

But numbers alone don’t tell the full story. Culture, too, is adapting to this unequal world. We idealize the wealthy today in ways that would have been unthinkable decades ago.

With the children of today’s baby boomers scheduled to inherit $30 trillion in the next several decades, politicians and the press are hard at work flattering plutocrats of all ages by portraying them as paragons of wisdom.

Another assault on the potential middle class from the New York Times:

Student Loans Can Suddenly Come Due When Co-Signers Die, a Report Finds

For students who borrow on the private market to pay for school, the death of a parent can come with an unexpected, added blow, a federal watchdog warns. Even borrowers who have good payment records can face sudden demands for full, early repayment of those loans, and can be forced into default.

Most people who take out loans to pay for school have minimal income or credit history, so if they borrow from banks or other private lenders, they need co-signers — usually parents or other relatives. Borrowing from the federal government, the largest source of student loans, rarely requires a co-signer.

The problem, described in a report released Tuesday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, arises from a little-noticed provision in private loan contracts: If the co-signer dies or files for bankruptcy, the loan holder can demand complete repayment, even if the borrower’s record is spotless. If the loan is not repaid, it is declared to be in default, doing damage to a borrower’s credit record that can take years to repair.

And a warning to labor from the London Daily Mail:

The future of factories? Swarm of super-fast robotic ‘ANTS’ powered by magnets can independently climb walls and even build

  • The army of robo-ants can move at around 13.7 inches (35cm) a second
  • This is equivalent to a human running at just under the speed of sound
  • Each ant can be individually controlled using magnets on a circuit board
  • Swarm has already built a tower 30cm (11.8 inches) high from carbon rods

Business Insider sounds the alarm:

DAVID EINHORN: ‘We Are Witnessing Our Second Tech Bubble In 15 Years’

Hedge-fund manager David Einhorn, who runs Greenlight Capital, says we’re seeing another tech bubble, CNBC reported, citing his fund’s quarterly investor letter.

“Now there is a clear consensus that we are witnessing our second tech bubble in 15 years. What is uncertain is how much further the bubble can expand, and what might pop it,” Einhorn wrote in the letter (PDF) posted online by @Levered_Hawkeye.

Clicking away your rights from the Christian Science Monitor:

General Mills drops arbitration clause, but such contracts are ‘pervasive’

Consumer advocates warn that clicking ‘I agree’ to online contracts can crimp buyers’ legal rights, if a contract requires arbitration and nixes class-action lawsuits. The practice is spreading, though General Mills encountered a backlash.

When consumers click “I agree” to online contracts, two things can happen: They may give up their right to pursue a class action lawsuit if something goes wrong, and they can seek damages only through arbitration, an out-of-court legal process that many experts say weighs against the harmed consumer.

From the Los Angeles Times. Another landmark:

Supreme Court upholds Michigan ban on affirmative action

The Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on the use of racial affirmative action in its state universities Tuesday, ruling that voters are entitled to decide the issue.

The 6-2 decision clears away constitutional challenges to the state bans on affirmative action, which began in California in 1996.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said the democratic process can decide such issues. “This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” he said. “It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

Kochs go Latino, via Reuters:

Conservative Koch-backed group uses soft touch in recruiting U.S. Hispanics

The conservative advocacy groups backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are known mostly for spending millions of dollars to pelt Democratic candidates with negative television ads.

But this year, one Koch-backed group is using a softer touch to try to win over part of the nation’s booming Hispanic population, which has overwhelmingly backed Democrats in recent elections. The group, known as The Libre Initiative, is sponsoring English classes, driver’s license workshops and other social programs to try to build relationships with Hispanic voters in cities from Arizona to Florida – even as the group targets Democratic lawmakers with hard-edged TV ads.

Taking a cue from liberal groups that have been active in Hispanic neighborhoods for decades, Libre says it aims to use these events to build support for small-government ideas in communities that typically support big-government ideals.

From NPR, a reminder from Mother Nature:

California’s Drought Ripples Through Businesses, Then To Schools

Nearly half of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California, a state that is drying up. , the entire state is considered “abnormally dry,” and two-thirds of California is in “extreme” to “exceptional” drought conditions.

Earlier this year, many farmers in California found out that they would get no irrigation water from state or federal water projects. Recent rains have helped a little. On Friday, government officials said there was enough water to give a little more to some of the region’s farmers — 5 percent of the annual allocation, instead of the nothing they were getting.

>snip<

Economists say it’s too early to accurately predict the drought’s effect on jobs, but it’s likely as many as 20,000 will be lost.

That might not sound like a lot, but many of those workers are already living paycheck to paycheck in communities that depend on that work.

Via the National Drought Monitor, the current state of affairs in California, ranging from lightest [abnormally dry] to darkest [exceptional drought]:

BLOG Drought

After the jump, the latest from Europe [including spiking austerian suicides], Asia’s Game of Zones, an American Nazi whose work inspired a French film, spy games, and muich more. . . Continue reading

On the Ukraine: Curiouser and curiouser indeed


Watching the news from the Ukraine as filtered through the American mainstream media arouses a powerful sense of suspicion that we’re not being told the entire story.

One recent item caught our attention, an inflammatory developement that casts the pro-Russian Ukrainians in an extremely negative light.

From USA Today:

Leaflet tells Jews to register in East Ukraine

World leaders and Jewish groups condemned a leaflet handed out in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk in which Jews were told to “register” with the pro-Russian militants who have taken over a government office in an attempt to make Ukraine part of Russia, according to Ukrainian and Israeli media.

Jews emerging from a synagogue say they were handed leaflets that ordered the city’s Jews to provide a list of property they own and pay a registration fee “or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated,” reported Ynet News, Israel’s largest news website, and Ukraine’s Donbass news agency.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the language of the leaflets “is beyond unacceptable” and condemned whomever is responsible.

Britain’s Sky News reported with a bit more more nuance:

Ukraine Jews Told To ‘Register’ In Mystery Flyer

Donetsk’s chief rabbi says the anti-Semitic leaflet campaign “smells of a provocation”, as its origins remain unclear.

The chief rabbi in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk has told Sky News of his distress at the distribution of a leaflet suggesting Jewish people must “register” with the government.

The leaflet, written in Russian, was apparently signed by Denis Pushilin, a leader of Donetsk People’s Republic, but he has denied his organisation is behind it.

Now if you want to united American politicians behind an issue, just raise the flag of antisemitism and folks all the way from from the Christian Zionist far right to the Democratic party will rouse themselves to condemnation of the alleged perpetrators. . .as well they should, if the allegations are legitimate.

Given that registration of Jewish communities was the first step on the road to the Holocaust, it’s almost as though the flyers are too good to be true, playing on some of the unsavory realities in today’s Russia [ranging from state-sanctioned homophobia to the resurgence of antisemitism] to rouse wrath on behalf of policies favored by Washington and its NATO allies.

The legitimacy of the charges remains to be proved, as Sky News acknowledged, and yet another recent headline raises some very interesting possibilities, especially given the timing on an event that happened several day’s before today’s stories.

Again from USA Today:

White House: Brennan was in Kiev this weekend

The White House confirmed Monday that CIA Director John Brennan traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, in recent days as part of a longer trip to Europe.

Russian media reported Brennan’s visit to Kiev this past weekend, raising suspicions about it.

Those suspicions are unwarranted, said White House spokesman Jay Carney, adding that Brennan was only meeting with intelligence counterparts in Ukraine.

More from Forbes, which adds some interesting detail:

Why CIA Director Brennan Visited Kiev: In Ukraine The Covert War Has Begun

Ukraine is on the brink of civil war, Vladimir Putin has said, and he should know because the country is already in the midst of a covert intelligence war. Over the weekend, CIA director John Brennan travelled to Kiev, nobody knows exactly why, but some speculate that he intends to open US intelligence resources to Ukrainian leaders about real-time Russian military maneuvers. The US has, thus far, refrained from sharing such knowledge because Moscow is believed to have penetrated much of Ukraine’s communications systems – and Washington isn’t about to hand over its surveillance secrets to the Russians.

If you have any doubts that the battle is raging on the ‘covert ops’ front just consider today’s events in Pcholkino where Ukrainian soldiers from the 25th Airborn Division handed over their weapons and APC’s to pro-Russian militiamen and pretty much surrendered. The Ukrainian commander was quoted as saying “they’ve captured us and are using dirty tricks”. This is the kind of morale-busting incident that can spread quickly. It doesn’t happen spontaneously and it often begins with mixed messages, literally – messages purporting to come from the chain of command but actually originate from the enemy’s dirty tricks department.

Given that even the highly conservative Forbes acknowledges the dirty tricks implicit in the disinformation game now underway, one has to wonder whether the passion-arousing flyers are in fact a classic bit of disinformation, akin to tactics used by the FBI in its notorious COUNTELPRO campaigns against American radicals back a half-century ago and more recently against Latin American countries governed by folks who won’t toe the Washington line.

After all, the CIA turned to dirty tricks to target an American citizen and academic who criticized both the George W. Bush administration’s war policies and it’s pro-Israeli politics.

Given Israel’s brilliant use of the Russian expat Nathan Sharansky’s devious Three-D gambit [previously] to sensitive media to condemn any criticism of Israel as antisemitic, the American press is quick to leap uncritically when the dog whistle of of antisemitism is blown.

Given American intelligence’s long history of practicing deception/disinformation and Washington’s powerful interests in destabilizing the Russian government — which oversees the supply of natural gas to Europe — we are highly suspicious of the very convenient timing of the flyers.

Another critique of American coverage

Michael Hudson [previously], one of the sharpest economists around these days, is also highly critical of American media coverage of events in the Ukraine.

Consider the following interview of Hudson, an economist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City by Jessica Desverieux of The Real News Network:

Investigation Finds Former Ukraine President Not Responsible For Sniper Attack on Protestors

An excerpt from the transcript:

DESVARIEUX: So, Micheal, what are you tracking this week?

HUDSON: The big news is all about the Ukraine. And it’s about the events that happened in the shootings on February 20. Late last week, the German television program ARD Monitor, which is sort of their version of 60 Minutes here, had an investigative report of the shootings in Maidan, and what they found out is that contrary to what President Obama is saying, contrary to what the U.S. authorities are saying, that the shooting was done by the U.S.-backed Svoboda Party and the protesters themselves, the snipers and the bullets all came from the Hotel Ukrayina, which was the center of where the protests were going, and the snipers on the hotel were shooting not only at the demonstrators, but also were shooting at their own–at the police and the demonstrators to try to create chaos. They’ve spoken to the doctors, who said that all of the bullets and all of the wounded people came from the same set of guns. They’ve talked to reporters who were embedded with the demonstrators, the anti-Russian forces, and they all say yes. All the witnesses are in agreement: the shots came from the Hotel Ukrayina. The hotel was completely under the control of the protesters, and it was the government that did it.

So what happened was that after the coup d’état, what they call the new provisional government put a member of the Svoboda Party, the right-wing terrorist party, in charge of the investigation. And the relatives of the victims who were shot are saying that the government is refusing to show them the autopsies, they’re refusing to share the information with their doctors, they’re cold-shouldering them, and that what is happening is a coverup. It’s very much like the film Z about the Greek colonels trying to blame the murder of the leader on the protesters, rather than on themselves.

Now, the real question that the German data has is: why, if all of this is front-page news in Germany, front-page news in Russia–the Russian TV have been showing their footage, showing the sniping–why would President Obama directly lie to the American people? This is the equivalent of Bush’s weapons of mass destruction. Why would Obama say the Russians are doing the shooting in the Ukraine that’s justified all of this anti-Russian furor? And why wouldn’t he say the people that we have been backing with $5 billion for the last five or ten years, our own people, are doing the shooting, we are telling them to doing the shooting, we are behind them, and we’re the ones who are the separatists?

What has happened is that the Western Ukraine, the U.S. part, are the separatists trying to break up the Ukraine, in keeping, pretty much, with what Brzezinski advised in his book some years ago when he said breaking Ukraine off from Russia would be the equivalent of blocking any Russian potential military power.

UC Berkeley climbs in bed with the devil


UC Berkeley, mistakenly seen across the world as a hotbed of radicalism, has a strange new bedfellow, and we’re curious just how the school will react to the latest move of their new partner.

First up, the announcement of the partnership, reported by the Brunei Times last 1 May:

UBD and USA varsity to collaborate in new Master’s programme

THE Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) and the Goldman School of Public Policy (GSPP) of the University of California, Berkeley in the USA will be collaborating in the new Master of Public Policy and Management (MPPM) programme to be introduced by UBD later this year.

The MoU was signed by UBD Vice-Chancellor for Global Affairs Dr Hjh Anita Binurul Zahrina POKLWDSS Hj Abdul Aziz and Director of Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at UBD, Dr Joyce Teo Siew Yean with Professor George Breslauer, Executive Vice-Chancellor and Provost and Professor Henry Brady, Dean of GSPP of the University of California, Berkeley.

With the latest signing, IPS has now formalised its partnership with four of the world’s leading schools of public policy, namely Georgetown Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University, School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, a statement from UBD said yesterday.

Read the rest.

And just what sort of enlightened public policies have emerged since the announcement of the partnership.

Well, consider this, posted today by RT, a state organ of Russia, a country not known for tolerance of the victim’s of Brunei’s latest move:

Brunei’s plan to stone gays riles UN

The Sultan of Brunei has announced that those committing same sex relations could be stoned to death. The draconian law has brought condemnation from the UN, with the tiny Asian oil rich nation having a virtual moratorium on the death penalty since 1957.

Homosexuality has long been a criminal offence in Brunei, which is situated on the island of Borneo, with a penalty of 10 years in prison previously handed out for the offence. However, stoning is now set to be allowed for a range of sexual offences, such as rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sexual relations. The law is planned to come into force on April 22.

The United Nations has been very critical of the move, with Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights saying, “the application of the death penalty for such a broad range of offenses contravenes international law.” The death sentence could also be imposed for insulting any verses of the Quran and Hadith, blasphemy, declaring oneself a prophet or non-Muslim, and murder. The new law will only apply to Muslims, who make up about two thirds of a total population of just over 400,000.

Read the rest.

At the minimum, the Berkeley administration should immediately call a halt to the new partnership, but we’ve seen no coverage of the university’s response to Brunei’s move.

Given that the chancellor himself was involved in sealing the pact with the sultanate, action is clearly called for at the highest level, but so far the silence is deafening.

Bruneian Breslaur

Brunei George Breslauer

And Breslauer, the university”s provost and Bruneian visitor, is retiring next spring. We wonder what he thinks now of his much-ballyhooed but thoroughly dubious accomplishment?

Maybe he feels like going out and getting stoned?

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroAsianFukuDup


A very, very long compilation and perhaps the last of its sort, covering a panoply of notable developments in the economic, political, and environmental domains:.

For our first item, via the Press Gazette, proof there’s more than one way to control information:

Journalists seeking accreditation for Brit Awards asked to agree coverage of sponsor Mastercard

A PR company representing MasterCard, who are a major sponsor for tonight’s Brit Awards for pop music, appear to have asked journalists to guarantee coverage of their client as the price of attending.

Before providing two journalists from the Telegraph with accreditation to attend the event House PR has asked them to agree to a number of requests about the coverage they will give it.

They have even gone as far as to draft Twitter messages which they would like the journalists to send out – and asked that they include a mention of the marketing campaign #PricelessSurprises and @MasterCardUK.

And from the Los Angeles Times, What’s in Your Wallet?™:

Capital One says it can show up at cardholders’ homes, workplaces

  • The credit card company’s recent contract update includes terms that sound menacing and creepy.

Ding-dong, Cap One calling.

Credit card issuer Capital One isn’t shy about getting into customers’ faces. The company recently sent a contract update to cardholders that makes clear it can drop by any time it pleases.

The update specifies that “we may contact you in any manner we choose” and that such contacts can include calls, emails, texts, faxes or a “personal visit.”

As if that weren’t creepy enough, Cap One says these visits can be “at your home and at your place of employment.”

The police need a court order to pull off something like that. But Cap One says it has the right to get up close and personal anytime, anywhere.

We switch to a global headline that overshadows pretty much defining the nature of life in the era of neoliberal austerity. From Reuters:

World risks era of slow growth, high unemployment: OECD

Sweeping reforms are urgently needed to boost productivity and lower barriers to trade if the world is to avoid a new era of slow growth and stubbornly high unemployment, the OECD warned on Friday.

In its 2014 study on “Going for Growth”, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said momentum on reforms had slowed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, with much of it now piecemeal and incremental.

From CBC News, another consequence of neoliberalism comes back to bites one its leading proponents in the bottom line:

Wal-Mart cuts growth forecast as poor shoppers spend less

  • Food stamp cuts in U.S. eat into same-store sales

Recent U.S. cuts in federal food stamps for the working poor and unemployed has led Wal-Mart Stores Inc to lower the forecast for its full-year profits.

The world’s largest retailer still expects net sales growth of three to five per cent this year.

But less food stamp aid, higher taxes and tighter credit are eroding its grocery sales, as its low-income customers struggle to get by on less.  As many as a fifth of Wal-Mart’s customers rely on food stamps, according to one analyst quoted by Reuters.

From Salon, more of the same, this time from the company founded by the new publisher of the Washington Post:

Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers

  • You might find your Prime membership morally indefensible after reading these stories about worker mistreatment

Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”—gigantic warehouses where goods ordered by Amazon’s online customers are sent by manufacturers and wholesalers, there to be shelved, packaged, and sent out again to the Amazon customer.

Amazon’s shop-floor processes are an extreme variant of Taylorism that Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, a near century after his death, would have no trouble recognizing. With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.

Amazon is also a truly global corporation in a way that Walmart has never been, and this globalism provides insights into how Amazon responds to workplaces beyond the United States that can follow different rules. In the past three years, the harsh side of Amazon has come to light in the United Kingdom and Germany as well as the United States, and Amazon’s contrasting conduct in America and Britain, on one side, and in Germany, on the other, reveals how the political economy of Germany is employee friendly in a way that those of the other two countries no longer are.

ProPublica covers the sadly predictable:

U.S. Lags Behind World in Temp Worker Protections

‘Permatemping’ cases highlight lack of U.S. protections for temp workers. Other countries limit the length of temp jobs, guarantee equal pay and restrict dangerous work.

Since the 2007-09 recession, temp work has been one of the fastest growing segments of the economy. But a ProPublica investigation into this burgeoning industry over the past year has documented an array of problems. Temps have worked for the same company for as long as 11 years, never getting hired on full-time. Companies have assigned temps to the most dangerous jobs. In several states, data showed that temps are three times more likely than regular workers to suffer amputations on the job. And even some of the country’s largest companies have relied on immigrant labor brokers and fly-by-night temp agencies that have cheated workers out of their wages.

In contrast, countries around the globe have responded to similar abuses by adopting laws to protect the growing number of temps in their workforces. These include limiting the length of temp assignments, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work and restricting companies from hiring temps for hazardous tasks.

Badly Behaving Banksters pay their dues, via TheLocal.ch:

Credit Suisse to pay $196m US fine

Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse has admitted it violated US securities laws and will pay $196 million to settle the charges, the Securities and Exchange Commission said Friday.

The SEC action came as the Department of Justice investigates Credit Suisse for allegedly helping US citizens illegally avoid taxes.

The SEC said that Credit Suisse Group violated laws by providing cross-border brokerage and investment advisory services to US clients without first registering with the SEC.

According to the SEC, the Zurich-based global bank began conducting the unregistered services as early as 2002 and had collected about $82 million in fees on the accounts before completely exiting the business in mid-2013.

Belated action from United Press International:

California unveils legislation to help deal with drought

California officials Wednesday unveiled a $687.4 million plan to help the state cope with its severe drought.

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders said the proposal would provide funds for direct relief for farm workers who will likely be out of a job for an extended period as growers cut back on their planting.

In addition, the legislation provides funding for water-conservation projects and a public-awareness campaign to remind Californians it is shaping up to be a long, dry summer.

The Christian Science Monitor adds context:

California drought: Farmers cut back sharply, affecting jobs and food supply

With drought limiting water deliveries from northern California and the price of irrigation skyrocketing, farmers’ fields lie fallow and the politicized debate over solutions rages.

And from the U.S. Drought Monitor, the latest image of California’s water crisis, with severity increasing with color darkness [the dark brown being the worst, “Exceptional Drought”]:

BLOG Drought

Al Jazeera America campaigns:

Push to boost wages at big LA hotels

  • City council to consider proposal to raise hourly rate to $15.37, which would be among nation’s highest if passed

Three Los Angeles City Council members have launched a bid to nearly double the minimum wage for hotel workers to $15.37 an hour, among the highest proposed minimums nationwide.

The living wage proposal, applicable to about 11,000 workers employed by Los Angeles hotels with more than 100 rooms, would help to lift employees out of poverty and benefit the city economy, proposal supporters said on Tuesday when the proposal was introduced.

California’s minimum wage is $8 an hour with a $1 bump coming in July. It will reach $10 in 2016. Cities and counties can set a higher minimum wage. In San Francisco, for example, the minimum is $10.74 with annual cost of living increases. Nationwide, a number of cities have adopted or are considering minimum wage proposals, including a citywide $15-per-hour rate urged by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

Meanwhile, there’s another crisis in California, reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Many L.A. Unified school libraries, lacking staff, are forced to shut

Budget cuts leave about half of L.A. Unified’s elementary and middle schools without librarians, and thousands of students without books.

About half of the 600 elementary and middle school libraries are without librarians or aides, denying tens of thousands of students regular access to nearly $100 million worth of books, according to district data.

The crisis has exacerbated educational inequalities across the nation’s second-largest system, as some campuses receive extra money for library staff and others don’t. It has also sparked a prolonged labor conflict with the California School Employees Assn., which represents library aides.

Cashing in the Mile High City’s state with the London Telegraph:

Bumper cannabis sales in Colorado form billion-dollar industry

  • In America’s first cannabis-legal state sales are surging far ahead of predictions, bringing huge additional tax revenue

Cannabis is likely to become an annual billion-dollar legal industry in the sate of Colorado by next year after officials suggested greater volumes of the drug are being sold than anticipated.

Colorado was the first state in the US to licence and tax sales of the drug for recreational use, allowing dozens of shops to open for business on Jan 1, 2014.

In the lead up to legalisation it was estimated that sales would reach $395 million in the 2014/2015 financial year.

But in its first assessment since the New Year Governor John Hickenlooper’s budget office has dramatically increased that to $612 million.

When the $345 million in estimated sales of the drug to people with medical conditions is added that means a total of almost $1 billion.

The Hill concedes the despicably considered:

Obama drops proposal to cut Social Security from his budget

Yielding to pressure from congressional Democrats, President Obama is abandoning a proposed cut to Social Security benefits in his election-year budget.

The president’s budget request for fiscal 2015, which is due out March 4, will not call for a switch to a new formula that would limit cost-of-living increases in the entitlement program, the White House said Thursday.

“This year the administration is returning to a more traditional budget presentation that is focused on achieving the president’s vision for the best path to create growth and opportunity for all Americans, and the investments needed to meet that vision,” a White House official said.

Obama last year proposed the new formula for calculating benefits as an overture to Republicans toward a “grand bargain” on the debt.

Barry O continues his neoliberal trade crusade with BBC News:

Obama champions controversial North America-Asia trade deal

US President Barack Obama has vowed to expand trade agreements between North America and Asia, despite concerns within his own political party.

Ending a day of talks with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Mr Obama said they must keep up their “competitive advantage”.

The three countries are negotiating a major Pacific trade deal.

But Mr Obama’s Democratic allies oppose the agreement amid concerns that American jobs could be lost.

Republic Report adds significant context:

Obama Admin’s TPP Trade Officials Received Hefty Bonuses From Big Banks

Officials tapped by the Obama administration to lead the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations have received multimillion dollar bonuses from CitiGroup and Bank of America, financial disclosures obtained by Republic Report show.

Stefan Selig, a Bank of America investment banker nominated to become the Under Secretary for International Trade at the Department of Commerce, received more than $9 million in bonus pay as he was nominated to join the administration in November. The bonus pay came in addition to the $5.1 million in incentive pay awarded to Selig last year.

Michael Froman, the current U.S. Trade Representative, received over $4 million as part of multiple exit payments when he left CitiGroup to join the Obama administration. Froman told Senate Finance Committee members last summer that he donated approximately 75 percent of the $2.25 million bonus he received for his work in 2008 to charity. CitiGroup also gave Froman a $2 million payment in connection to his holdings in two investment funds, which was awarded “in recognition of [Froman’s] service to Citi in various capacities since 1999.”

Getting together with Kyodo News:

Crucial TPP ministerial meeting begins in Singapore

Ministers from the 12 countries involved in the envisioned Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade accord began talks in Singapore on Saturday seeking to achieve the challenging goal of reaching a broad agreement after missing an end-of-2013 deadline.

But the momentum for an early conclusion of the ambitious U.S.-led trade initiative has been overshadowed by U.S. frustration over Japan’s reluctance to open up its agricultural market, as well as Malaysian and Vietnamese opposition to reforming state-owned firms.

During a five-day working-level meeting through Friday, each country held bilateral meetings on the sidelines of plenary sessions to bridge gaps over outstanding issues, but officials made little progress on thorny issues.

The Japan Times covers amen choristers:

Don’t fold on TPP tariffs: senators

A bipartisan group of senators has sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman urging the Obama administration not to make tariff concessions to Japan during the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

The letter, dated Saturday and signed by 15 senators led by Michael Bennett, a Colorado Democrat, and Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, “asked for assurances that the TPP negotiations will not be concluded until Japan agrees to eliminate tariff and non-tariff trade barriers for agricultural products,” the National Pork Producers Council said the same day.

Tokyo and Washington are jousting over Japanese duties on five “sacred” farm product categories — rice, beef and pork, wheat, dairy and sugar — that Tokyo wants to retain under the TPP, which is based on the principle of abolishing all tariffs.

The Obamanations continue via The Guardian:

Obama begins Mexico summit with orders lowering trade barriers

  • Before meeting Mexican and Canadian heads of state, president bypasses Congress by signing trade liberalisation orders

Barack Obama begins a North American summit in Mexico on Wednesday with a gesture of defiance toward allies in Congress who are hampering his ability to negotiate controversial trade liberalisation agreements.

In the latest in a series of so-called executive actions promised in his state of the union address, the US president will sign new measures to speed up imports and exports for businesses by reducing bureaucratic barriers.

And from one Canadian province, a modest resistance to the tenor of the times, via CBC News:

Quebec proposes rules to prevent hostile takeovers

  • Budget sets out economic agenda that includes government taking stakes in mining sector

Quebec’s Parti Québécois government proposed measures to shield businesses headquartered in Quebec from hostile takeovers in a budget tabled Thursday.

It was one in a series of proposals geared at keeping Quebec business in the province that also included plans for the government to buy direct stakes in oil and mining companies with new finds in Quebec.

The proposal comes at a time when the minority government is expected to call a provincial election and may not last long enough to pass through the legislature.

From MercoPress, deserved anxiety:

IMF concerned with risks in emerging markets from pulling back stimulus too quickly

Advanced economies, including the United States, must avoid pulling back stimulus too quickly given the weak global economic recovery and recent market volatility highlights key risks in some emerging markets, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday.

The IMF said there was scope for better coordination of central bank exit plans, something many emerging market policymakers have called for as the Federal Reserve has begun to wind back its US support for the economy.

In a briefing note prepared for upcoming Group of 20 meetings, IMF staff said the outlook for global growth was similar to its last assessment in January, with growth of about 3.75% seen for this year and 4.0% in 2015.

More from China Daily:

Growth in emerging economies to decline: IMF

Anticipated growth in emerging surplus economies, including China’s, is “expected to decline” and output gaps in advanced economies remain negative, the International Monetary Fund said in a report released ahead of this weekend’s G-20 finance meeting in Australia.

Global recovery from the recession has been “disappointingly weak,” and G-20 countries are still producing “far below” the longer-term trend, the report said.

While global economic activity picked up in the second half of 2013 due to strengthening advanced economies, trade volumes remain below trend, decline in unemployment and strong private demand “did not materialize,” the IMF said Wednesday.

Against the backdrop of slower-than-anticipated global growth, emerging economies are experiencing bouts of volatility in the financial sector, influenced in part by weakening sentiment toward emerging economies, the IMF said.

On to Europe with another red flag from BBC News:

Eurozone business growth slowed in February, PMI study suggests

Business growth in the eurozone eased this month but the bloc’s economy continued to expand at a “robust pace”, a closely watched survey suggests.

The latest Markit eurozone composite purchasing managers’ index (PMI) dipped to 52.7 from 52.9 in January. A figure above 50 indicates expansion.

Within the bloc, Germany and France continued to see contrasting fortunes. German companies saw strong growth, but activity among French firms declined for the fourth month in a row.

Another from Deutsche Welle:

Eurozone January inflation too tame to please ECB

In January, price increases in the eurozone remained well below the rate desired by the European Central Bank. The timid inflation rate for the month points to a lackluster recovery in the recession-hit currency area.

Annual inflation in the 18-nation eurozone remained tame in January, recording 0.8 percent higher than in the previous month of December, according to Monday.

In the wider 28-nation European Union, inflation fell to 0.9 percent against 1 percent at the end of last year, Eurostat said.

Compared with January 2013, however, the rates for both areas were significantly lower, coming down from 2 percent and 2.1 percent annual inflation respectively a year ago.

And from Eurostat [PDF], the graphic that tells the deeper story [click to enlarge]:

BLOG Inflate

Another indicator of creepy europoverty from The Guardian [obesity rates rise as poverty increases, with the rates of obesity highest in Europe’s unfortunately named, crisis wracked PIGS]:

Overweight children could become new norm in Europe, says WHO

As many as a third of 11-year-olds in some countries are overweight, as well as two-thirds of UK’s adult population

Being overweight is in danger of becoming the new norm for children as well as adults in Europe, the World Health Organisation warns, issuing figures showing that up to a third of 11-year-olds across the region are too heavy.

According to the EU figures, Greece has the highest proportion of overweight 11-year-olds (33%), followed by Portugal (32%), Ireland and Spain (both 30%).

More anxieties from EurActiv:

Europe tries to reverse drift towards de-industrialisation

After a lost decade, Europe is trying to reverse a decline in manufacturing which has brought industrial output to a standstill. The issue will reach the EU’s top decision-making body in March when European leaders meet for their quarterly summit in Brussels.

Over the past few years, the European Commission has been the most vocal EU institution campaigning for the continent’s industrial revival, positioning itself as a driver of competitiveness and job creation.

Within the EU executive, the commissioner for enterprise, Antonio Tajani, has emerged as the winner of an internal debate opposing supporters of industry to environmentalists, whose policies were blamed for hampering the economy.

Another warning from New Europe:

North-South gap weakens employment and social cohesion

  • The latest European Vacancy Monitor revealed a growing North-South divide

A widening gap in job opportunities between Northern and Southern EU countries is threatening the employment and social cohesion of the EU.

On 24 February, the European Commission announced the latest issue of the European Vacancy Monitor (EVM), which indicated a shortage in labour supply in countries such as Austria, Denmark Sweden, Estonia and Latvia, and an increased competition for jobs in countries such as Greece, Slovakia and Spain.

László Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said that the Northern-Southern employment gap indicates Eurozone’s employment and social asymmetries. “Diverging job prospects in Northern and Southern Europe underline mismatches in the European labour market, linked also to Eurozone asymmetries. Labour mobility might help to reduce those imbalances. Tools supporting workers mobility within the European labour market such as EURES are available to help job seekers find job opportunities,” Commissioner Andor said.

A shift in sentiment from EUobserver:

Poll: Socialists to top EU elections, boost for far-right

Europe’s socialists are set to top the polls in May’s European elections, according to the first pan-EU election forecast.

The projections, released by Pollwatch Europe on Tuesday (19 February), give the parliament’s centre-left group 221 out of 751 seats on 29 percent of the vote, up from the 194 seats it currently holds.

For their part, the centre-right EPP would drop to 202 seats from the 274 it currently holds on 27 percent of the vote across the bloc. If correct, it would be the first victory for the Socialists since 1994.

EurActiv takes a hit:

Financiers snipe at draft EU law against money laundering

Representatives of financial transactions services have criticised harshly the EU’s draft legislation to fight money laundering which will go through its first parliamentary vote today (20 February) and enjoys the support of the anti-corruption champion, Transparency International.

The European Commission proposal, tabled in February last year, is aimed at tightening EU rules on financial transactions in a bid to step up the fight against money laundering and terrorism funding.

One of the main elements of the proposal is the introduction of a mechanism to name the beneficial owners of companies, in order to prevent the illicit activities which are often carried out under anonymity.

The proposal also includes requirements to increase customer due diligence and tightening the rules obliging financial companies to identify their clients and the legitimacy of their activities.

Europe Online pulls back:

Iceland moves to withdraw EU application

Iceland’s centre-right government is to seek parliamentary approval to withdraw its application to join the European Union, opting not to restart accession talks that were put on ice a year ago.

A bill proposing the withdrawal was sent to parliament late Friday and was due to be debated next week, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson told dpa on Saturday.

The move came after the parliamentary caucuses of the ruling parties – the centrist Progressive Party and the conservative Independence Party – voted Friday to withdraw the application.

In comments on the proposal quoted by online news site Visir.is, the government said it “did not have a support base” to complete the accession process.

Off to Britain, with a major policy reversal of the post-equine escape animal enclosure locking sort from Sky News:

Cameron: UK Ready To Fund New Flood Defences

  • David Cameron tells Sky News he is ready to open the Government’s “chequebook” to build new flood defences.

David Cameron has suggested that his “money is no object” pledge on the flood relief effort could be extended to cover the costs of new defences.

In an exclusive interview with Sky News, the Prime Minister said he was ready to take out his “chequebook” following a major review of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented.

“You’ve got to look at where the floods have been this time, compared with 2007, compared with 2003,” he said.

From the London Telegraph, the usual result:

Wages rise but still below inflation

  • Pay increase and a fall in unemployment a boost for the Bank of England

Wages are still failing to keep up with the rising cost of living despite climbing at a faster rate in the final quarter of last year.

Average weekly pay including bonuses edged up 1.1pc to £478 in the three months to the end of December, up from the 0.9pc rate of increase in the three months to the end of November, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

However, the Government’s preferred inflation measure, the consumer prices index (CPI), currently stands at 1.9pc – below the 2pc target – despite a surprise 0.1 point fall on Tuesday.

Another austerian consequence from The Observer:

Cash-strapped older women are forced back to work

  • Older women taking on more jobs, study finds, but pay gap between the sexes is growing wider

More than three-quarters of the rise in female employment, which hit record levels last December, is the result of women aged over 50 taking on jobs, a study has found.

A report by the TUC to be released this week has established that 2,278,000 more women are now working than in 1992, and that 1,645,000 (72%) of these are aged 50 or over.

Last week the government welcomed news that more women were in work, with the proportion – 67.2% – the highest since records began 43 years ago. The TUC study pinpoints how many older women have felt the need to return to work or to continue working until later in life, for a combination of reasons. These include the rising cost of living, the increase in the state pension age and the fall in value of workplace pensions.

While much of the rise in female employment is due to the greater number of over-50s in the population, the rate of employment has risen too. In 1992, 50.7% of women in the 50-64 age group were economically “inactive”, compared with 36.8% today.

The Observer follows hunger in posh places:

‘Most desirable’ district in the country has three food banks

  • In wealthy towns, families hit by falling incomes and benefit cuts are increasingly being forced to rely on charity handouts

Volunteers have sounded the alarm over a growing reliance on food banks in one of the richest areas in Britain.

Weekly earnings in Hart in Hampshire, recently named as the most desirable district in the country for quality of life, are a third higher than the national average. But the district also has three food banks, which have given out more than 1,000 emergency food parcels in the past six months.

Anti-poverty campaigners say that, even in wealthy areas such as Hart, benefit changes and low wages are creating growing pockets of desperate need.

EurActiv readies the trial:

Britain sets out new test to limit EU migrant benefits

Britain laid out new rules on Wednesday (19 February) designed to limit the access that migrants from other European Union states have to the country’s welfare system.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking to curb immigration into Britain in an effort to quell concerns about migrants entering the country to claim benefits, referred to as ‘benefits tourism’. The move may also stop voters defecting to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party.

The new test, due to come into effect on March 1, sets a minimum income threshold to determine whether a migrant working in the UK should have access to the wider suite of benefits that comes with being classed as a worker rather than a jobseeker.

But the Usual Suspects are doing quite well, thankee kindly. Via Reuters, a case of Banksters Behaving Brazenly:

HSBC to announce bonuses totaling $4 billion: report

HSBC will announce staff bonuses totaling just under 2.4 billion pounds ($4 billion) globally for 2013 and is expected to report a significant rise in pretax profit, Sky News reported on its website on Saturday without citing its sources.

Referring to an unnamed source close to the bank, Sky also said Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver will receive a 1.8 million pound bonus as part of an overall pay deal worth more than 7 million pounds, though this would be less than his previous year pay deal of 7.4 million.

Europe’s biggest bank is expected to announce the size of its bonus pool on Monday along with its yearly results. Bonus payments remain a sensitive issue as many Britons still blame banks for the 2008 financial crisis, after which the state was forced to bail out RBS and Lloyds.

On to Scandinavia and some hard times intolerance from TheLocal.no:

Three men charged for racist attack in Norway

Three men in their twenties have been charged for assaulting a black man in northern Norway, allegedly telling him “we do not like immigrants in Verdal” as they hit him on the back with a snow shovel.

Jacob Kuteh, who was born in Liberia, was hospitalized after the  attack, which took place on Saturday night.

Kuteh claimed the men hit him, strangled him and kicked him in the head, before hitting him with a snow shovel, all the while telling him, “we hate you. We’ll take you.”

“I’ve lived here for ten years and have never experienced anything like this,” Kuteh told VG newspaper. “I have kids that go to school here and it’s no fun at all that someone has suddenly come and told me that they do not like the colour of my skin.”

Sweden next, with a demographic note from TheLocal.se:

Immigrants behind boom in Sweden’s population

The population of Sweden saw the biggest yearly increase in 70 years last year, according to new statistics, thanks largely to the almost 120,000 immigrants who arrived throughout the year.

Sweden’s population on the last day of 2013 was 9,644,864 – a 0.93 percent hike from 2012. The total increase was the largest since 1946, and statisticians at Statistics Sweden (Statistiska centralbyrån – SCB) marked it down to a record-high level of immigration.

In total, 115,845 immigrants arrived in Sweden in 2013, many from Syria and Somalia. The figure is the highest Sweden has ever had in a one-year period. The men outnumbered the women by around 5,000.

TheLocal.se again, this time with a contrarian finding:

Romanian beggars cleared in court

A district court in central Sweden has cleared three Romanian nationals of begging following a previous indictment, saying they did not need the permission of the police to beg.

The trio had previously been prosecuted for begging on the streets of Södertälje, Stockholm county, in January. In court it was debated whether the three individuals had broken any local laws regarding the collection of money.

Local newspaper Länstidningen said that the case was unique as the issue has never been tested before by law.

According to local Södertälje regulations police permission is required for the “collection of money in boxes or similar.” In court the example of street musicians, who don’t require police permission, was raised and comparisons were made between the beggars and street performers.

And more academic austerity ahead with TheLocal.se:

Borg to cut student grants and pension perks

With autumn elections on the horizon, Sweden’s Finance Minister Anders Borg said his government would cut student grants and make alcohol and tobacco more expensive, part of a budget plan to fill Sweden’s coffers.

“You shouldn’t stoke the fire in good times,” Borg told reporters in Stockholm on Thursday as he mapped out the centre-right government coalition’s budget prognosis for the near- and medium term. He said he no longer saw the need to use stimulus measures to keep Sweden’s economy buoyant, and argued that it was time to strengthen public finances.

“Sweden needs proper levees in place before the next crisis,” Borg said, adding that Sweden’s reliance on liquidity and its high household indebtedness was “a big element of uncertainty in the Swedish economy”.

Off to the Netherlands with stagnation from DutchNews.nl:

House prices stabilise but building permits reach 60-year low

House prices were down just 0.5 percent in January, compared with January 2013, showing house prices have now stabilised, the national statistics office CBS says on Friday.

Month on month, there was a 0.4% rise in house prices.

House prices are now in line with 11 years ago, after reaching a peak in August 2008, the CBS says. Houses have gone down an average of 20% in price since then.

At the same time, the CBS says the number of permits for new houses reached a record low of 26,000 in 2013. This is 30% down on 2012 and 70% down on 2008. Permits for new housing have not been so low since 1953, the CBS says.

Germany next, and a pain in the wallet from TheLocal.de:

Wages fall for first time since crash

Wages in Germany fell by an average of 0.2 percent last year, the first drop since the 2009 economic crisis, the federal statistics office said on Thursday.

The calculation was in terms of the real buying power of wages, allowing for inflation, and the fall bodes ill for efforts to fire up domestic consumption to boost recovery in Europe’s biggest economy.

Germany has relied mainly on exports to drive growth.

Citing preliminary results, the statistics office said that nominal wages in 2013 were up 1.3 percent from the previous year, but that consumer prices rose faster, at 1.5 percent, over the same period.

“One reason for the decline in real wages in 2013 was a decline in bonuses which are frequently performance-related,” said a statement by the Wiesbaden-based agency which is known as Destatis.

Deutsche Welle tracks a booming business:

Arms manufacturer Rheinmetall logs lower profit but higher orders

Germany’s biggest arms maker, Rheinmetall, has defied weak defense spending in Europe in 2013 to surprise investors with higher-than-expected earnings. A massive order backlog for 2014 boosted company shares further.
Panzer

Last year, Rheinmetall’s performance had been stable, with consolidated sales of 4.6 billion euros ($6.3 billion). Before special items, Rheinmettal also boasted an operating profit of 213 million euros, the German defense and automotive industry conglomerate announced as it released figures for its 2013 fiscal year on Wednesday.

Rheinmetall’s 2013 operating result was about 55 million euros lower than in 2012, but higher than forecast for 2013, the Düsseldorf-based company announced. The decrease was the result of restructuring measures to the tune of 86 million euros, as well as a further 15 million euros in expenses for strategic portfolio measures, Rheinmetall aannounced.

Annual sales also fell in 2013, however, with the 2 percent decline mainly being a result of unfavorable exchange rates for the euro.

And a point we’ve made before, from EUbusiness:

Germany has ‘unfair’ edge with low salaries: minister

Germany’s low salaries have given Europe’s biggest economy an “unfair” competitive advantage over its partners and must be corrected, a junior German minister has said.

Michael Roth, state secretary for European Affairs, was commenting on Germany’s record trade surplus, which surged to nearly 200 billion euros ($270 billion) last year, and has seen Berlin placed under EU scrutiny.

He said in an interview with AFP Thursday that imbalances had appeared among EU members and there “was a duty not only for countries running a deficit but also for Germany to reduce them”.

The comments by the Social Democrat politician differ from the stance of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, who disagree that Berlin has a problem with its trade surplus despite it consistently exceeding EU limits.

France next, and a uniquely Gallic form of action from Europe Online:

New “boss-napping” incident at a French factory

Workers at a French factory were holding three managers captive for a second day Thursday, after its owners announced that it would be shut down.

The managing director, technical director and financial director of Depalor, a company that produces wood panels in the north-eastern Lorraine region, were being held in an office building.

A trade union representative told France Info radio that the three were barred from leaving until the CEO of parent company Swiss Krono Group came to discuss redundancy terms for the 142 workers.

The incident is the second case of “boss-napping” in France within two months.

And the hidden disclosed, via TheLocal.ch:

France says thousands declare Swiss accounts

The French government says that nearly 16,000 people have declared funds hidden abroad after Switzerland curtailed its vaunted banking secrecy.

France’s Budget Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Wednesday that the government was on track to collect 230 million euros ($316 million) from only 2,621 of the cases.

He told the finance committee of the lower house National Assembly that 80 percent of the newly declared accounts were from Switzerland, which has curtailed its banking secrecy traditions under international pressure.

France 24 ponies up:

French government, China’s Dongfeng to invest in Peugeot

Peugeot Citroën, which has been manufacturing automobiles in France for more than 100 years, has agreed to a deal that will see both the French government and Chinese carmaker Dongfeng buy large stakes in the struggling company.

Peugeot announced on Wednesday that its board had approved the agreement, in which the French government and Dongfeng will each invest €800 million ($1.1 billion) in exchange for 14 percent stakes in the company.

The move marks a huge transition for the carmaker, which until now has been controlled by the Peugeot family. Under the agreement, the family’s 25 percent stake and 38 percent of voting rights will now be reduced to equal the French government and Dongfeng’s stakes in the company.

On to Switzerland and a case of resigned to not being resigned from TheLocal.ch:

German professor quits over Swiss ‘xenophobia’

A German professor at the Federal Institute for Technology in Zurich (ETH) has made a splash in the media for quitting his job over the Swiss vote to limit immigration.

Christopher Höcker, who had taught at the university’s Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture since 1999, told his students this week he was stepping down.

The decision by Swiss voters in a February 9th referendum to narrowly support quotas for immigrants from the European Union was the last straw for the 57-year-old German citizen.

“I do not want more exposure to the increasingly xenophobic climate in Switzerland,” Höcker told 20 Minuten newspaper.

TheLocal.ch delays:

EU not compromising but gives Switzerland time

The EU said Thursday it cannot compromise on the principle of freedom of movement but will allow Switzerland time to find a solution after a controversial referendum approved immigration curbs.

“It is a serious . . . not a minor change which we have to assess calmly,” chief operating officer of the EU external affairs service David O’Sullivan said of the referendum outcome.

“Freedom of movement is a fundamental core value” of the European Union and as such is not open for negotiation, O’Sullivan said after talks with Yves Rossier, his counterpart in the Swiss department of foreign affairs.

On to Spain and onto the streets with United Press International:

Spanish marchers protest job cuts, law against protesting

Demonstrators in at least seven Spanish cities have called for an end to a “gagging law” that set large fines for protest marches.

The protesters were joined by factory workers due to be laid off and groups seeking to preserve access to universal healthcare, Think Spain reported. Monday.

The anti-demonstration law, which affects even peaceful protests, calls for fines of $41,000 to $823,000 for anyone staging the marches.

The protests, which drew thousands of supporters in each of the cities, also want the Spanish Parliament to reject a proposed law restricting abortions.

From Spanish Property Insight, the one group of immigrants eagerly sought:

First Chinese property investors get their “Golden Visas”

Chinese nationals investing in property in Spain are starting to get their residency visas, according to Spanish press reports.

A businesswoman from Shanghai who spent €520,000 on flats in Barcelona and Madrid has become one of the first Chinese nationals to get a Spanish residency via the new “Golden Visa” law that offers Spanish residency permits to non-EU nationals in return for real estate investments of €500,000 or more.

She invested in Spanish property via the Emigration Centre at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), which has a programme to help Chinese nationals invest in residency schemes abroad.

On to Lisbon and yet another austerian misery demanded from the Portugal News:

EU calls for Portugal wages to fall by a further 5%

The European Commission has argued that Portugal needs a further 5% average reduction in wages to ensure a balance between the unemployment rate and wage rates.

Portugal’s government responded by saying that it continued to disagree with that view, arguing that recent increases in exports show that wage adjustment in the private sector has been “sufficient”.

In its report on the 10th regular review of Portugal’s economic and financial assistance programme, released on Thursday, the European Union executive states that “Portugal needs wage moderation sufficient to absorb unemployment” and outlines some estimates.

According to the commission’s calculations, “a reduction of one percentage point in the unemployment rate demands a reduction in real wages of about 2.4%” – which it said means real wages falling 5% if the gap is to be closed between the current jobless rate and that at which wage levels will not lead to new increases in unemployment.

Deutsche Welle takes us to Italy and the latest regime:

Italy swears in its youngest-ever prime minister, Matteo Renzi

  • Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and his cabinet have been sworn into office at a ceremony in Rome. The new government is the youngest in the recent Italian history.

The swearing-in of the prime minister took place at a ceremony in Rome under the auspices of Napolitano.

At 39, Renzi is the youngest-ever person to take the reins in the eurozone’s third largest economy, and his cabinet, with an average age of 47.8 years, is also the most youthful in recent Italian history.

As a result, the government is facing widespread skepticism as to whether it has the political maturity to cope with the challenges currently facing the country.

And the road’s already getting bumpy, via TheLocal.it:

Grillo declares ‘war’ as Berlusconi backs Renzi

Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo has lashed out at Matteo Renzi, saying the prime minister designate is “not credible” and declaring a political “war” against the country’s prospective new leader.

Since being nominated for the premiership on Monday, Renzi has been meeting with party leaders to gain the political backing needed to push urgent reforms through parliament.

While some meetings, such as one with Go Italy (Forza Italia) leader Silvio Berlusconi, have gone relatively well, the same cannot be said of Renzi’s meeting with Grillo.

Visible to all by a live internet stream, their meeting appeared to be a dialogue of the deaf, with neither side appearing interested in the other.

ANSA raises an alarm:

Italian recovery slow, growth stalling, say industrialists

  • Urgent need to address competitiveness, demand and bank credit

Italy’s economic recovery is extremely slow and recent data shows that industrial production in the eurozone’s third-largest economy is close to stalling, according to a new report released on Wednesday by Italian employers’ association Confindustria.

“(The recovery is) moving ahead very slowly, almost at a standstill”, Confindustria’s economists said. “These are the harsh facts of the Italian economy”, with employment and industrial production data “confirming that the pick up from the extremely deep hole that has been dug by the recession is extremely slow”.

Fourth-quarter gross domestic product data, which showed the economy expanded 0.1% in the last three months of 2013, was “lower that expected” and “confirms the extreme weakness of the recovery”, according to the report drawn up by Confindustria’s economic research unit which is headed by economist Luca Paolazzi.

And another call for an increasingly mooted move from ANSA:

Re-open cannabis debate, hurt mafia, says ex-health minister

  • Ban on marijuana doesn’t work, says top oncologist Veronesi

It’s time that Italy re-opened the debate on liberalizing marijuana use, to cut out drug traffickers, permit its medical use, while acknowledging the current ban doesn’t work, former health minister Umberto Veronesi said Thursday.

In an opinion article published in La Repubblica newspaper, Veronesi, a prominent oncologist, said that liberalizing the drug would take away power from the mafia and other criminals who now profit greatly from its cultivation and sale.

It would make marijuana more safe for users, including those who need it for pain relief, added Veronesi, whose comments come amid debate about Italy’s illegal-drug laws.

And from New Europe, departures from Bucharest:

Romanian ministers resign

Romania is in the throws of a political crisis after two ministers from the junior party in the ruling coalition resigned.

Finance Minister Daniel Chitoiu and Economy Minister Andrei Gerea, both Liberal Party members, stepped down on Wednesday after Prime Minister Victor Ponta refused to accept the Liberals’ nomination of Klaus Johannis, the popular mayor of Sibiu city, as interior minister. The position, now vacant, was recently held by another Liberal Party official.

Ponta, leader of the Social Democratic Party, will temporarily head the finance portfolio. He named a party colleague as interim economy minister.

After the jump, the latest Greek debacles, unmentionable anxieties in Russia, the latest from Kyiv, an African GMO invasion, the latest turmoil from Latin America, India swings to the right, Thai troubles, worries down under, Chinese alarm bells, Abenomics on the rocks, nucelear woes in the U.S.A., Big Ag hits a roadblock, fracking woes go global, a Spanish snail invasion, and a globl arming cooler. . .plus Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

Headlines of the day I: EspioPoliCorporoZonal


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

Oakland council sours on surveillance system

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

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

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

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

From USA TODAY, American opinion takes a turn:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some consequences, also from The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, parliamentary questions remain, via the London Telegraph:

Inquiry into phone and email snoopers

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

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

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

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

Bloomberg reminds:

NSA Official Warned About Threat 17 Years Before Snowden

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

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

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

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

The McClatchy Washington Bureau has a deal:

Online company hawking Snowden action figure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, gollleeee! From the Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

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

‘Not shocked if Germany spied on us’

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

RT goes for the help:

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking a change with The Hill:

Dems press Holder on secret FBI letters

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

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

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

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

Aviation Week fesses up:

USAF Space Chief Outs Classified Spy Sat Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Brooks denies any wrongdoing.

From Ars Technica, hack attack:

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

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

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

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

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

RT raises the bar:

German telecom firm to roll out text, voice encryption app

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

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

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

And Xinhua calls for a deal:

EU, Brazil to enhance cyber security cooperation

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

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

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

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

From Sky News, recycling:

US Airlines Warned Over Possible Shoe Bombs

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

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

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

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

ANSA keeps the secret keepers safe:

Italian spy agency officials acquitted in CIA snatch

  • State secrecy invoked in extraordinary rendition case

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

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

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

And from Al Jazeera America, the expected:

Turkey increases control of Internet

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

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

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

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

SecurityWeek spots another player:

US Man Sues Ethiopian Government for Spyware Infection

  • US Man Sues Ethiopia for Cyber Snooping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFukunews


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

BLOG Siers

From the Washington Post, consequences of enserfing students:

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

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

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

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

A decline from the Los Angeles Times:

Builder confidence down sharply in February

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

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

From the Los Angeles Times again, another decline:

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

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

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

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

Another sort of decline from the Associated Press:

After UAW defeat, can GOP fulfill promise of jobs?

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

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

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

CNBC posits the negative:

$10.10 minimum wage could hit total employment: CBO

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

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

The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

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

Xinhua invests:

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

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

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

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

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

Salon disgraces:

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

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

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

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

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

And the Los Angeles Times talks a deal:

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

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

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

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

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

EUbusiness covers another deal in the making:

EU, US reps meet ahead of free-trade talks

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

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

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

On to Europe and a call from The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

A lop-sided take from New Europe:

EU industry: Towards an unbalanced recovery

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

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

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

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

Spiegel diagnoses:

The Swiss Virus: Europe Gripped by Immigration Worries

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

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

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

Thames flood defences among schemes hit by coalition funding cuts

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

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

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

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

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

From New Europe, a warning:

Reding: UK would lose influence outside EU

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

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

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

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

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

Ex-Barclays bankers charged with Libor rigging

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

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

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

Pondering a change of course with the London Telegraph:

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re a long way from that.”

The Guardian delivers a jeremiad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roma migrants evicted from Stockholm site

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

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

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

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

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

First charges filed for Stockholm Nazi attack

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

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

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

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

Teacher salaries too low in Sweden: OECD

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

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

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

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

The Associated Press covers a Norwegian whiner:

Breivik hunger strike threat: wants bigger gym

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

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

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

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

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

IW think tank urges change in German investment policy

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

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

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

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

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

From TheLocal.de, a cartel cabal busted:

Sugar giants fined €280m for price fixing

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

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

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

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

And Europe Online notes a decline:

German investor confidence posts surprise fall in February

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

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

While Spiegel covers blowback:

Child Porn Investigation: Merkel Cabinet Rife with Suspicion and Mistrust

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

Deutsche Welle notes another downside to the German miracle:

Study: Eastern Europeans underpaid in Germany

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

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

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

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

And a call to chill from Deutsche Welle:

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

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

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

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

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

On to France and a fear from TheLocal.fr:

French TV execs want protection from Netflix

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

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

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

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

And another Roma tragedy from TheLocal.fr:

Blaze ravages another Roma camp in France

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

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

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

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

Switzerland next and blowback from TheLocal.ch:

EU freezes research and student exchange funds

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

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

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

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

More blowback from TheLocal.ch:

Moody’s: Swiss migrant vote ‘credit negative’

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

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

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

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

And from RT, tucked in for the night:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration law change in works: interior minister

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

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

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

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

TheLocal.es has a deal for you:

Spain rolls out plans to flog off failed bank

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

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

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

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

Europe Online covers another record:

Spain’s public debt at record high

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

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

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

El País covers departures:

Chinese burned

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

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

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

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

On to Lisbon and a caution from the Portugal News:

‘Crisis not over’ – finance minister

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

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

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

Italy next and a change at the top from ANSA:

Renzi handed govt mandate, sets ambitious reform goals

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

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

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

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

Les than enthused with TheLocal.it:

Italians think Renzi takeover is ‘pointless’

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

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

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

Still more enthusiasm absent from ANSA:

Fitch keeps outlook negative, ‘Renzi faces same problems’

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

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

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

A plutocratic spat from the London Telegraph:

Tycoons quarrel over Italy’s young jobless

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

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

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

Unhappy other from TheLocal.it:

Desperate business owners march on Rome

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

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

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

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

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

Headlines of the day I : EspioLegoPoliManiacs


We’ve been a bit under the weather, and consequently a very lonnngggg collection today of headlines for the world of spies, security, operators, militarists, hackers, and deep politics.

Our first headline comes from Al Jazeera America:

Report: Democratic countries curbing press freedoms in name of security

  • Countries like US, UK that pride themselves on media freedoms tumble in annual World Press Freedom Index

Pervasive national security and surveillance programs have scaled back press freedom in established democracies like the United States, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its World Press Freedom Index released Tuesday.

In an index that usually shifts incrementally from year to year, “for the first time, the trend is so clear,” Delphine Halgand, the group’s U.S. director, told Al Jazeera. She said the “chilling effect” on investigative journalists fearful of government prosecution is most palpable in the U.S.

“After 2013, we cannot deny any more that in the U.S., the whistle-blower is the enemy,” Halgand said. “The U.S. is going after confidential sources, compromising the only possibility to do a real journalist’s work.”

From the report:

BLOG Press freedom

More from The Guardian:

NSA actions pose ‘direct threat to journalism’ leading watchdog warns

  • Agency’s dragnet of communications data threatens to destroy the confidence between reporter and source on which most investigations depend, Committee to Protect Journalists said

The National Security Agency’s dragnet of communications data poses a direct threat to journalism in the digital age by threatening to destroy the confidence between reporter and source on which most investigations depend, one of the world’s leading journalism watchdogs has warned.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based body that promotes press freedom around the world, has devoted the first two chapters of its annual report on global threats to an assessment of the impact of the NSA’s data sweep. Its internet advocacy co-ordinator, Geoffrey King, warns that the NSA’s dragnet threatens to put journalists under a cloud of suspicion and to expose them to routine spying by government agencies.

By storing mass data for long periods, the NSA could develop the capability to recreate a reporter’s research, retrace a source’s movements and listen in on past communications, King warns. “It could soon be possible to uncover sources with such ease as to render meaningless any promise of confidentiality a journalist may attempt to provide – and if an interaction escapes scrutiny in the first instance, it could be reconstructed later.”

And then there’s the blunter approach. From Al Jazeera English:

The risk of reporting US drone strikes

  • Yemen researcher says he received a death threat after investigating deadly wedding-convoy attack.

The disturbing phone call came after Baraa Shiban investigated a drone strike on a wedding party that killed 12 people in central Yeen in December. A clear message was delivered to the human rights researcher over the phone after a major news network reported the story based on his research.

“The caller refused to identify himself and threatened my life if I continued my investigation of the strike,” Shiban told Al Jazeera, noting he conducted similar studies of US drone operations in the past, but had never before received death threats.

Shiban works for the UK-based human rights group Reprieve and interviewed survivors two days after the attack. His investigation ascertained that 12 people were killed after four missiles were fired at the convoy. There were also 14 victims with severe wounds; some lost limbs, others their eyes.

From EnetEnglish.gr, another journalist jailed:

Police detain journalist for divulging ‘military secrets’

  • Article based on information from law published in government gazette, journalist says

Police detained journalist Popi Christodoulidou on the orders of a prosecutor, Panagiota Fakou, over a report claiming coastguard divers are involved in guarding sensitive sites along with the police, despite the fact that the law does not provide for that

A screengrab from Popi Christodoulidou’s blogpost, which she has now been ordered to remove A screengrab from Popi Christodoulidou’s blogpost, which she has now been ordered to remove An Athens-based journalist was detained by police for a number of hours on Wednesday at Attica police headquarters on suspicion on disclosing military secrets in a blogpost, which she claims is based on information contained in a law published in the government gazette.

On the same day that Greece was ranked 99th in the World Press Freedom Index, Popi Christodoulidou was detained by police detectives shortly after 1pm, on the orders of a prosecutor, Panagiota Fakou, who at the request of the Hellenic Coastguard’s state security directorate opened a preliminary investigation on the leaking of “military secrets” by a civilian “perpetrator”.

The journalist was released at around 6pm and has been ordered to remove the offending post on her Peiratiko Reportaz blog or face arrest.

More journalistic woes from Mashable:

Report: Ethiopian Government Hacks Journalists in U.S. and Europe

The Ethiopian government reportedly used surveillance technology created by an Italian company to hack into the computers of Ethiopian journalists in the United States and Europe.

Journalists at the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), a news organization comprised mostly of Ethiopian expatriates, were targeted with spying software made by the Italian company company Hacking Team, according to a new report by Citizen Lab, a nonprofit research lab that investigates surveillance technology across the world.

The investigation, released on Wednesday, is another example of how governments around the world are increasingly using hacking tools. These are often purchased from vendors that design and market them specifically for law enforcement agencies — but often governments end up using them against dissidents or journalists.

From EurActiv, a friend of The Guardian:

Media freedom watchdog defends the Guardian against government pressure

Europe’s main media freedom watchdog told Britain today (12 February) it believed that political pressure applied to the Guardian newspaper over its handling of leaked intelligence data could have a “chilling effect” on independent journalism.

Former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden’s disclosures about activities of Britain’s GCHQ eavesdropping agency and its cooperation with America’s National Security Agency (NSA) have embarrassed Prime Minister David Cameron’s government which has said they damaged national security.

Many of the leaks were published in the Guardian.

“The continual accusations and attacks on the Guardian, their editor-in-chief and journalists by leading politicians is nothing but harassment and intimidation,” Dunja Mijatovic, representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told Reuters.

And from euronews, when “liberals” meet:

Hollande and Obama stress common Syria-Iran stance as French state visit nears end

The French and American presidents have continued to stress their common ground as François Hollande’s state visit draws to a close.

Barack Obama said both had resolved to put more pressure on Russia and Iran over stopping the bloodshed in Syria.

The French leader tackled the thorny issue of data protection after the revelations of US spying exposed in the NSA scandal.

“We have worked towards cooperation which can enable the fight against terrorism and at the same time to respect principles. And we are making headway over this cooperation. And there is a mutual trust which has been restored and which should be based both on respect for each other’s country and also based on the protection of privacy,” François Hollande told a joint news conference in Washington.

And on to the world of that espio-Superstar, first from The Guardian:

Congressional trio criticise James Cole’s NSA testimony as misleading

  • Lawmakers write to deputy attorney general after Cole described limits on NSA’s power to surveil members of Congress

Deputy attorney general James Cole testifies on Capitol Hill. Deputy attorney general James Cole. Sensenbrenner, Issa and Nadler said Cole’s testimony was ‘not entirely accurate’. Photograph: Cliff Owen/AP

Three powerful members of the House judiciary committee said James Cole, the US deputy attorney general, was “not entirely accurate” in testimony describing limits on the National Security Agency’s powers to surveil the US Congress.

The letter from former committee chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, oversight committee chair Darrell Issa – both Republicans – and New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, came as the Obama administration saw a new front open up in the battle over its surveillance powers: a class-action lawsuit filed by Senator Rand Paul, a 2016 presidential contender, who said he plans to contest the bulk collection of US phone records “all the way to the supreme court.”

Cole told the House judiciary committee on 4 February that while the NSA “probably” collects the phone records of members of Congress – a subset of the dragnet the NSA casts on practically all US phone data – the NSA only studied those records when it has “reasonable, articulable suspicion” of a number’s onnection to terrorism, a restriction imposed by the secret surveillance court overseeing the NSA.

From the New York Times, making excuses:

Spy Chief Says Snowden Took Advantage of ‘Perfect Storm’ of Security Lapses

The director of national intelligence acknowledged Tuesday that nearly a year after the contractor Edward J. Snowden “scraped” highly classified documents from the National Security Agency’s networks, the technology was not yet fully in place to prevent another insider from stealing top-secret data on a similarly large scale.

The director, James R. Clapper Jr., testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Snowden had taken advantage of a “perfect storm” of security lapses. He also suggested that as a highly trained systems administrator working for Booz Allen Hamilton, which provides computer services to the agency, Mr. Snowden knew how to evade the protections in place.

“He knew exactly what he was doing,” Mr. Clapper said. “And he was pretty skilled at staying below the radar, so what he was doing wasn’t visible.”

But Mr. Clapper confirmed the outlines of a New York Times report that the former N.S.A. contractor had used a web crawler, a commonly available piece of software, to sweep up a huge trove of documents.

The Daily Dot makes an exit:

NSA employee resigns after admitting he gave Snowden access

A civilian employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) has resigned his position after admitting he shared access to classified information with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. A memo detailing the incident and signed by Ethan Bauman, NSA’s director of legislative affairs, was obtained by NBC News and published online.

According to the memo, which was labelled as sensitive but not classified, the unidentified NSA employee entered his password into Snowden’s computer terminal upon request. Allegedly, Snowden was then able to capture the password and use it to gain greater access to classified materials. The letter identifies the civilian as male, but does not refer to him by name.

“On 18 June 2013, the NSA civilian admitted to FBI Special Agents that he allowed Mr. Snowden to his (the NSA civilian’s) Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificate to access classified information on NSANet; access that he knew had been denied to Mr. Snowden,” the memo reads.

From The Hill, the Aqua Buddha acolyte acts:

Paul sues Obama over NSA spying

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) filed a class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the Obama administration for violating the privacy rights of millions of Americans.

Paul, a Tea Party star, called it the largest class-action lawsuit ever filed on behalf of the Bill of Rights.

He and FreedomWorks, the co-plaintiff in the case, have named President Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander among the defendants.

“We will ask the question in court whether a single warrant can apply to the records of every American phone user all the time, without limits, without individualization,” Paul said at a press conference in front of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Paul, who has circulated a petition to build support for his case, said 386,026 people have expressed support.

From The Guardian, no taps for the NSA?:

Utah lawmaker floats bill to cut off NSA data centre’s water supply

  • Impending bill from Republican Marc Roberts highlights growing movement at state level against government surveillance powers

The National Security Agency, already under siege in Washington, faces a fresh attempt to curtail its activities from a Utah legislator who wants to cut off the surveillance agency’s water supply.

Marc Roberts, a first-term Republican lawmaker in the Beehive State, plans this week to begin a quixotic quest to check government surveillance starting at a local level. He will introduce a bill that would prevent anyone from supplying water to the $1bn-plus data center the NSA is constructing in his state at Bluffdale.

The bill is about telling the federal government “if you want to spy on the whole world and American citizens, great, but we’re not going to help you,” Roberts told the Guardian.

Here’s a video report about a similar measure on the other side of the country from RT America:

NSA headquarters could go dark if bill passes in Maryland

Program notes:

State legislators in Maryland have introduced a bill that would cut off water, electricity and other utilities to National Security Agency headquarters, which are located in the Old Line state. The bill is called the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, and supporters say the bill would block the NSA from spying on citizens in Maryland. Similar bills are being introduced in Washington, Utah and Missouri. RT’s Liz Wahl asks Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and who helped draft Maryland’s legislation, how the bill would impact NSA operations.

The Hill raises another legal issue:

NSA operating outside the law, panelist says

The collection of phone records by the National Security Agency has no basis in the law, a member of an independent federal advisory board said Wednesday.

“With all respect to both executive branch officials and judicial officials, nobody looked at the statute as carefully was we did,” James Dempsey, the vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I came to this conclusion slowly. I came to it a little bit to my own surprise. But if you read the statute, the words just don’t add up to this program.”

Members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) testified Tuesday for the first time since their 3-2 decision last month to condemn the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records as an illegal program that should be terminated.

Backtracking, via The Guardian:

Edward Snowden asylum demand dropped by European parliament

  • MEPs fail to reach consensus on amendment to inquiry calling on governments to assure NSA whistleblower of his safety

Edward Snowden Meets With German Green Party MP Hans-Christian Stroebele
The report will call for international protection for whistleblowers without mentioning Edward Snowden by name. Photograph: Sunshinepress/Getty Images

The European parliament is to ditch demands on Wednesday that EU governments give guarantees of asylum and security to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower.

The parliament’s civil liberties committee is to vote on more than 500 amendments to the first ever parliamentary inquiry into the NSA and GCHQ scandal, a 60-page report that is damning about the scale and the impact of mass surveillance.

And the result, via EUobserver:

MEPs say No to Snowden asylum in Europe

A European Parliament committee on Wednesday (12 February) voted against calling for asylum protection for former US intelligence agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Snowden leaked top secret documents last summer to the media exposing the scale of US and British global surveillance. He is in Russia to avoid prosecution from American authorities.

The vote was part of a larger, non-binding, resolution backed by the MEPs in the civil liberties committee. The resolution condemns the blanket collection of personal data on the scale he disclosed.

A short paragraph, buried among the hundreds of amendments in the committee’s National Security Agency (NSA) inquiry report, had requested that EU member states drop criminal charges against him, if any, and “offer him protection from prosecution, extradition or rendition.” But it did not make the final cut.

The Guardian views Snowden from Down Under:

Scott Ludlam’s support of Snowden ‘celebrates treachery’, says Brandis

  • George Brandis says former NSA contractor’s disclosures about western intelligence gathering ‘put Australian lives at risk’

Australia’s attorney general, George Brandis, has criticised a senator for celebrating “the American traitor Edward Snowden”, arguing the disclosures about western intelligence gathering has “put Australian lives at risk”.

Brandis asked in parliament how the Greens senator Scott Ludlam could hold his head up high while honouring the former US National Security Agency contractor’s “criminal conduct and treachery”.

The trigger for the criticism was a question from Ludlam about “indiscriminate government surveillance” and whether the government recognised the legitimate concerns of Australians and the need to follow the US in reforming intelligence practices.

And the target of that Aussie ire raises a question, via United Press International:

Snowden: Danes should question government about NSA surveillance

U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden says Danes should not trust their government’s statement that there has been no illegal surveillance in Denmark.

Snowden, in an interview with the blog denfri.dk, said Danish citizens should not depend on the government or on journalists to reveal the truth, the Copenhagen Post reported Thursday.

“The Danes should start asking some serious questions when their government starts acting in the same way as the German one,” he said.

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said publicly that the U.S. National Security Agency had assured him that on surveillance had been conducted in Germany in violation of its laws or against its interests. Documents leaked by Snowden revealed the NSA had done both.

And from TheLocal.se, a call to end another legal whistleblower nightmare:

‘Interrogate Assange in London’: lawyers

Lawyers representing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Sweden have demanded that he be questioned in London over rape and sexual molestation allegations made by two Swedish women.

“All Assange asks is that he be treated according to Swedish law,” lawyers Thomas Olsson and Per Samuelsson wrote in an op-ed article published on Wednesday in the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD).

Assange broke bail and sought refuge at the Ecuador’s embassy in London in June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning under a European arrest warrant. He claimed that he would risk further extradition to the United States on espionage charges over his whistleblowing website if he went to Sweden.

From TheLocal.de, when a Hawk becomes a turkey:

Drone scandal costs another €200 million

Germany’s Euro Hawk drone scandal showed no sign of ending on Wednesday, with alternatives for the failed programme running €200 million over budget. It means the military may turn back to the discarded, original plan.

The Chief of Staff of the Bundeswehr, Volker Wieker, told a defence committee on Wednesday that the tests on four alternatives to Euro Hawk were not only taking longer than expected but were €200 million over budget. The budget had been set at €613 million.

It means that reactivating the discarded Euro Hawk programme could no longer be ruled out, he said.

The Euro Hawk scandal erupted in May last year when it emerged the drones were unlikely to get permission to fly in German airspace because of a lack of an anti-collision system to protect other aircraft. By that point more than €500 million had already been spent on the programme.

And from RT, class war declared:

Greece on high alert after extremists declare war on ‘German capitalist machine’

Greek authorities have stepped up security after a leftist extremist group declared war on the “German capitalist machine.” The group has claimed responsibility for attacks on a Mercedes-Benz branch and on the German ambassador’s residence in Athens.

An anarchist group calling itself the Popular Fighters has come forward, claiming to be behind a botched rocket attack on the offices of German car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz in the Greek capital.

The attack itself was carried out on January 12. Investigators found evidence this week that showed the rocket was fired from the near vicinity of the factory, but veered off course and landed in a field.

On Tuesday the group sent a 20-page manifesto to Greek satirical magazine To Pontiki, explaining the attack was carried out in solidarity with the Greek people against the “German capitalist machine.”

After the jump, a lethora of Asia news, including Afghan anxieties, Sci Fi scenarios, cyberwar and hack attacks, a Spanish check, the Greek panopticon emerges, another Swedish info-expat, Twitter censorship, drones in your pocket, and Nazis on acid. . .and more: Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliSinoFuku


Opening our compendium of headlines fromn the economic, political, and environmental developments, a Trans-Pacific Panic from Techdirt:

USTR Finally Realizing Its All Encompassing Secrecy May Be A Problem, Calls Frantic Meeting For All ‘Cleared’ Lobbyists

  • from the you’re-doing-it-wrong dept

It’s been funny for years watching the USTR continue to repeat the same laughable line about how they’ve had “unprecedented transparency” concerning the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement — an agreement that is still completely secret, other than a couple chapters leaked to Wikileaks. Here’s a hint: if the text of the agreement is only available thanks to Wikileaks, you’re not being transparent, precedented or not. Even the NY Times slammed the USTR’s lack of transparency, and multiple members of Congress have been arguing that they’re not at all comfortable with the lack of transparency from the USTR. Because of this, it seems that the USTR’s desire for fast track authority, which would let it route around Congressional review, is on life support and close to dead.

Given that, it appears that the USTR is in panic mode, and has frantically called an all day meeting for all “cleared advisors” (i.e., the corporate representatives who actually do get to see the document) concerning the whole transparency issue.

From the New York Times, double trouble:

Payroll Data Shows a Lag in Wages, Not Just Hiring

For the more than 10 million Americans who are out of work, finding a job is hard. For the 145 million or so who are employed, getting a raise is even harder.

The government said on Friday that employers added 113,000 jobs in January, the second straight month of anemic growth, despite some signs of strength in the broader economy. The unemployment rate inched down in January to 6.6 percent, the lowest level since October 2008, from 6.7 percent in December.

But the report also made plain what many Americans feel in their bones: Wages are stuck, and barely rose at all in 2013. They were up 1.9 percent last year, or a mere 0.4 percent after accounting for inflation. Not only was that increase even smaller than the one recorded in 2012, it was half the normal rate of wage gains in the two decades before the last recession.

More from Deutsche Welle:

US employment figures fail to thrill analysts

  • Fresh figures from the US Labor Department have shown employers have hired far fewer workers in January than expected. Analysts viewed this as a loss of momentum in the national economy after an already weak December.

Meager job gains towards the end of last year were barely improved upon in January, the US Labor Department reported Friday.

The latest monthly figures showed nonfarm payrolls rose only by 113,000, with 185,000 penciled in by analysts.

With strong job increases in construction, cold weather was not a major factor for the slow pick-up, nurturing fears of a general loss of momentum of the national economy.

CNBC diversifies:

Wealthy avoiding stocks, buying art

Art often imitates stocks—at least when it comes to prices.

But so far this year, stock markets are down and art is up.

Sotheby’s two days of Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist sales racked up £215.8 million (more than $345 million), the highest ever for a sale series in London. All its lots sold. The top was Camille Pissarro’s 1897 painting “Boulevard Montmartre, Matinee de Printemps,” which went for £19.7 million, or about $32 million—nearly double its top presale estimate.

Christie’s had a good week, too, selling Juan Gris’ 1915 still life “The Checked Tablecloth” for $56.7 million. The previous record for a Gris was $28 million. The Impressionist and Modern evening sale totaled $288 million.

Collectible cars are also on a tear. A 1957 Ferrari Testarossa sold in Britain this week for $40 million. And a series of auctions in Paris set a spate of new records for certain cars. RM Auctions gaveled down on a 1955 Jaguar D-Type for about $5 million.

The Project On Government Oversight notes the exceptional:

Head of SEC Given Waiver to Oversee Past Client

Mary Jo White, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), will be allowed to oversee her former client, Credit Suisse, according to a new ethics waiver the U.S. Office of Government Ethics posted to its website this week.

Before coming to the SEC, White, a former attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton, represented Wall Street giants such as UBS and JPMorgan. President Obama nominated her to head the SEC in January 2013.

Her waiver underscores the complications that can often arise when a former white-collar defense attorney becomes a top regulator overseeing an industry she used to represent.

According to the waiver, signed by the SEC’s ethics officer on Feb. 6, White had been prohibited from overseeing Credit Suisse since joining the agency because she provided legal services to the bank during her stint at Debevoise. In the two years prior to her SEC nomination, she “billed in total less than one hour (0.5 hours in January 2012 and 0.4 hours in February 2012) for work on Credit Suisse matters,” the waiver says.

Wrist-slappage from the Los Angeles Times:

Gov. Brown, Newsom to get warning letters from ethics agency

Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom are among 40 officials receiving warning letters from the state ethics agency after their campaigns received improper contributions from a lobbying firm, representatives said Friday.

A firm headed by Kevin Sloat has reached a tentative agreement with the state Fair Political Practices Commission to pay more than $100,000 in fines involving violations of California’s campaign finance laws, according to sources familiar with the investigation who are not authorized to speak publicly.

The firm Sloat Higgins Jensen and Associates provided prohibited contributions, including expensive wine and cigars, at fundraisers held for elected officials at his Sacramento mansion.

Top-heaviness from The Wire:

Universities Are Cutting Tenured Faculty While They Load Up on ‘Non-Academic’ Administrators

As the cost of college remains exorbitant, recent trends indicate schools in the United States are trading tenured professors for non-academic administrative staff. It’s pretty clear where American colleges have their priorities, and it’s not in academics. Students are paying more to attend schools that are spending less to teach them, and instead spending that tuition money on administration.

According to a new report from the New England Center for Investigating Reporting, “the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years.” Meanwhile, full-time tenured faculty positions are at the lowest rate in 25 years, while the prevalence of adjunct professors – part-time, non-tenured professors – is at its highest. In fact, according to the American Association of University Professors, “more than three of every four (76 percent) of instructional staff positions are filled on a contingent basis,” meaning without tenure.

The reason that non-tenured professors are so much more popular than tenured faculty is simple: they’re cheaper. Adjunct professors, especially, make very little. Most are paid on a per-course basis, making somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000 for each course taught.

Bloomberg Businessweek bemoans:

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Be Born at AOL

AOL Chief Executive Tim Armstrong ruffled more than a few of his employees’ feathers when he disclosed this week that two AOL workers’ “distressed” babies had whacked the company with $2 million in medical bills.

The costly children were cited—along with more than $7 million in costs from the Affordable Care Act—as the reason AOL (AOL) changed its 401(k) account match to an annual lump sum payment. Workers who aren’t on the payroll at year’s end will forfeit AOL’s 3 percent matching contribution to the accounts. IBM (IBM) made a similar change in 2012. If you plan to quit, management thinking goes, forget about collecting our share of your retirement savings.

Many employees didn’t react well to either bit of news, according to news reports. First, there’s the financial blow to workers, who will lose 401(k) funds if they leave AOL, as well as miss the opportunity to have the company’s match bolster their financial returns over a full year. There’s also the shock that accompanies hearing your boss tag a colleague’s difficult pregnancy and her newborn child as the reason your retirement plan was cut.

Stark realization from the Exchange:

Why Walmart is getting too expensive for the middle class

Walmart is struggling with weak sales and an underperforming stock price. The company recently cut its profit outlook, with analysts polled by S&P Capital IQ expecting just a 2.1% gain in sales when Walmart reports its quarterly earnings on February 20. That’s for a company that has consistently outcompeted nearly every other retailer except, perhaps, Amazon. Walmart’s stock has suffered, rising just 4% during the past year, while the S&P 500 index rose 17% during the same timeframe.

Walmart, though known as a discounter, may be too expensive for millions of shoppers finding themselves more pinched — not less — as the pace of the so-called recovery accelerates. “Their consumer is shifting downward,” says Joe Brusuelas, chief economist for financial-data firm Bloomberg LP. “The competition for Walmart is changing. It’s now dollar stores.”

Where some of their money went, via the Los Angeles Times:

Walton group funds more charter schools in L.A. than elsewhere

Los Angeles charter schools have been the largest recipients of funding from the foundation associated with the family that started Wal-Mart, according to figures released Wednesday.

Since 1997, the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation has distributed $35.9 million in start-up grants to 159 L.A.-area charters. By comparison, Walton has supported the creation of 125 charters in New York City.

Last year alone, the foundation made grants to 23 new L.A. schools, totaling more than $4.69 million, that were set to open in the near future. Both the annual and cumulative totals are higher than for any other region.

Charter schools are independently managed, free from some rules that govern traditional schools and outside the direct control of the local Board of Education. In California, local school boards are required by law to authorize and oversee all financially viable and academically sound charter school petitions. No school system has more charters than the L.A. Unified School District.

More from Slashdot:

25% of Charter Schools Owe Their Soul To the Walmart Store

Among the billionaires who helped Bill Gates pave the way for charter schools in WA was Walmart heiress Alice Walton. The Walton Family Foundation spent a whopping $158+ million in 2012 on what it calls ‘systemic K-12 education reform,’ which included $60,920,186 to ‘shape public policy’ and $652,209 on ‘research and evaluation.’

Confirming the LA Times’ speculation about its influence, the Walton Foundation issued a press release Wednesday boasting it’s the largest private funder of charter school ‘startups,’ adding that it has supported the opening of 1 in 4 charter schools in the U.S. since 1997 through its 1,500 ‘investments.’

In These Times fuels around:

Angering Environmentalists, AFL-CIO Pushes Fossil-Fuel Investment

Labor’s Richard Trumka has gone on record praising the Keystone pipeline and natural gas export terminals.

Trumka’s comments come at a sensitive time, as trade unions and leading environmental groups have sought to build political partnerships with each other in recent years.

The nation’s leading environmental groups are digging their heels in the sand by rejecting President Obama’s “all-of-the above” domestic energy strategy—which calls for pursuing renewable energy sources like wind and solar, but simultaneously expanding oil and gas production.

But it appears the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, won’t be taking environmentalists’ side in this fight, despite moves toward labor-environmentalist cooperation in recent years. On a recent conference call with reporters, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed two initiatives reviled by green groups: the Keystone XL pipeline and new natural gas export terminals.

“There’s no environmental reason that [the pipeline] can’t be done safely while at the same time creating jobs,” said Trumka.

In response to a question from In These Times, Trumka also spoke in favor of boosting exports of natural gas.

Bad news from the Associated Press:

Moody’s downgrades Puerto Rico credit rating

Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded Puerto Rico’s credit rating to junk status.

The announcement Friday by the credit rating agency comes just days after Standard & Poor’s cut the U.S. territory’s debt to junk as well.

Moody’s says its decision was based in part of not seeing sufficient economic growth to help reverse negative financial trends.

News from north of the border via South China Morning Post:

Exclusive: Vancouver facing an influx of 45,000 more rich Chinese

  • Over 60pc seeking Canadian wealthy investor visa are from China and want to live in British Columbia’s main city, data shows

A South China Morning Post investigation into Canada’s immigration programme for millionaire investors has revealed the extraordinary extent to which it has become devoted to a single outcome: Helping rich mainland Chinese settle in Vancouver.

Immigration Department data obtained by the Post suggests there was a backlog of more than 45,000 rich Chinese waiting for approval of their applications to move to British Columbia as of January last year. They are estimated to have a minimum combined wealth of C$12.9 billion (HK$90 billion).

And a complication, also from South China Morning Post:

Canada floats new citizenship rules that could affect thousands of Chinese

  • Longer abode requirement and demand for tax returns may affect thousands of Hongkongers and mainlanders granted permanent residency

Canada has unveiled sweeping reforms that would require immigrants spend more time as permanent residents, file tax returns and sign an undertaking to continue living in the country if they want to become citizens.

The proposed redrawing of the Citizenship Act, unveiled on Thursday, would lengthen the period of residency required from three years to four years.

Language proficiency requirements would be extended to children as young as 14 and adults as old as 64, and penalties for fraudulent applications toughened.

China is the biggest single source of applications for Canadian permanent residency and among those who may be affected by the changes are the 110,813 mainland Chinese and 3,305 Hongkongers granted permanent residency between 2010 and the middle of last year.

And a global alarm from Spiegel:

Troubled Times: Developing Economies Hit a BRICS Wall

  • Until recently, investors viewed China, Brazil and India as a sure thing. Lately, though, their economies have shown signs of weakness and money has begun flowing back to the West. Worries are mounting the BRICS dream is fading.

It was 12 years ago that Jim O’Neill had his innovative idea. An investment banker with Goldman Sachs, he had become convinced following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that the United States and Europe were facing economic decline. He believed that developing countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia could profit immensely from globalization and become the new locomotives of the global economy. O’Neill wanted to advise his clients to invest their money in the promising new players. But he needed a catchy name.

It proved to be a simple task. He simply took the first letter of each country in the quartet and came up with BRIC, an acronym which sounded like the foundation for a solid investment.

O’Neill, celebrated by Businessweek as a “rock star” in the industry, looked for years like a vastly successful prophet. From 2001 to 2013, the economic output of the four BRIC countries rose from some $3 billion a year to $15 billion. The quartet’s growth, later made a quintet with the inclusion of South Africa (BRICS), was instrumental in protecting Western prosperity as well. Investors made a mint and O’Neill’s club even emerged as a real political power. Now, the countries’ leaders meet regularly and, despite their many differences, have often managed to function as a counterweight to the West.

On to Europe and uber-bankster empowerment from Reuters:

ECB to gain far-reaching powers as euro zone banks’ supervisor

The European Central Bank will attain significant powers over the euro zone’s commercial banks once it becomes their supervisor later this year, including withdrawing bank licences and assessing acquisitions, it said on Friday.

From November, the ECB will supervise directly around 130 of the bloc’s largest lenders as part of a broader push towards closer integration of Europe’s banks that aims to create a more level regional playing field for the sector.

The region’s other 5,900 or so banks will remain under the brief of national supervisors, though the ECB will have powers to intervene if it deems necessary.

“(The ECB) will be exclusively competent to grant and withdraw authorizations for credit institutions and to assess acquisitions of qualifying holdings in all credit institutions,” it said in a draft document that laid out how the ECB and national supervisors will cooperate under the new Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM).

Channel NewsAsia Singapore tosses in a monkey wrench:

Germany sends ECB’s crisis-killing action to EU court

Germany’s highest court expressed doubts on Friday about the European Central Bank’s bond-buying programme, credited with stopping the eurozone crisis, and sent the case to the European Court of Justice.

Some analysts suggested that the decision might turn out to be helpful to the central bank.

Back in September 2012, the Constitutional Court had rejected legal challenges by a group of eurosceptics to the two key eurozone crisis tools — the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and the European fiscal pact.

As a result, German President Joachim Gauck was able to sign those two crisis tools into law.

But the eurosceptics also filed a last-minute challenge to the ECB’s OMT bond purchase programme, arguing that it amounted to monetisation of sovereign debt and overstepped the central bank’s mandate.

The London Telegraph-ic take:

German court parks tank on ECB lawn, kills OMT bond rescue

  • Doubtful whether ECB’s back-stop scheme for bonds can be implemented if Europe’s debt crisis blows up again

Germany’s top court has issued a blistering attack on the European Central Bank, arguing that its rescue plan for the euro violates EU treaty law and exceeds the bank’s policy mandate.

The tough language leaves it doubtful whether the ECB’s back-stop scheme for Spanish and Italian bonds can be implemented if Europe’s debt crisis blows up again, and greatly complicates any future recourse to quantitative easing if needed to head off Japanese-style deflation.

And an affirmation from EUbusiness:

ECB insists bond buying programme ‘within mandate’

The European Central Bank insisted on Friday that its contested OMT bond buying programme did not breach its rules, after Germany’s constitutional court expressed some scepticism.

“The ECB takes note of the announcement made today by the German constitutional court. The ECB reiterates that the OMT programme falls within its mandate,” the central bank said in a short statement.

On to Britain and a disappointment from Bloomberg:

U.K. Manufacturing Rises Less Than Forecast as Growth Eases

U.K. factories increased production by less than forecast in December, suggesting manufacturing is set for steady rather than runaway growth this year.

Output rose 0.3 percent from November, the Office for National Statistics said today in London. That compares with the 0.6 percent median of 26 estimates in a Bloomberg survey. Industrial production, which also includes utilities and mines, climbed 0.4 percent, also less than predicted.

While the U.K. economy expanded at the fastest rate since 2007 last year, industry surveys on services and manufacturing this week suggested the pace may have eased at the start of 2014. The Bank of England kept its key policy rate at a record-low 0.5 percent yesterday, while a report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research today says consumer spending and a buoyant housing market will drive growth.

The Guardian has guilty knowledge:

Bank of England ‘knew about’ forex markets price fixing

  • Notes from 2012 meeting reportedly show key Bank officials were told of rival currency dealers’ sharing of customer orders

The Bank of England has been dragged into the mounting controversy over allegations of price fixing in the £3tn-a-day foreign exchange markets after it emerged that a group of traders had told the Bank they were exchanging information about their clients’ position.

The latest twist in the unfolding saga – already the subject of investigations by regulators around the world – puts the focus on a meeting between key officials at the central bank and leading foreign exchange dealers in April 2012, when they discussed the way they handled trades ahead of the crucial setting of a benchmark in the prices of major currencies. This benchmark is used to price a wide variety of financial products and is the subject of regulators’ attention amid allegations that traders at rival banks were sharing information about their orders from clients to manipulate the price.

New Europe complicates frack-tiosly:

Shale Gas Fear Leaves UK Vulnerable

Cuadrilla Resources, one of the energy firms hoping to exploit the UK’s shale gas resources, has announced two new exploration sites in Lancashire. But drilling for shale gas in Britain is going to be extremely controversial.

“There is potential but the level of public reaction to it is extremely negative at the moment and anybody trying to carry even testing at the moment is finding a lot of demonstrations,” Justin Urquhart Stewart, Director of Seven Investment Management in London, told New Europe on 7 February, adding that the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron is going to find it very difficult to actually get it through. “The potential is there but realistically I think they’re going to run into a lot of public concern unless it can be proven not to be dangerous to local communities,” Urquhart Stewart said. Unlike America, Britain is a crowded island and has a much bigger impact on a smaller area, he said.

From The Guardian, a land rush:

Fresh wave of super-rich looking to buy up London properties, says estate agent

  • Political and economic instability driving rise in inquiries from Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine and elsewhere, reckons Frank Knight

Political and financial upheaval in some of the world’s largest emerging economies is driving a wave of rich migrants to London to park their wealth in the city’s property market, according to data from a leading estate agency.

Knight Frank, a specialist in upmarket properties, said on Friday that online inquiries from Argentina, Ukraine and Turkey have soared during the past year.

“There is potentially a further wave of investment headed for the prime central London property market,” said Tom Bill of the firm’s residential research team.

The Observer covers austerian reality:

Changes to state pensions will hit the poorest, warns think tank

  • Inequalities set to grow as people in the most deprived parts of the country live healthy lives 20 years shorter than the average

Changes to the state pension age will only expand the already yawning gap between rich and poor in Britain, according to an academic study.

Inequalities are set to grow because of the failure to take into account differences in health and life expectancy across the country, says the report from independent think tank the International Longevity Centre – UK and backed by the charity Age UK.

While most people will live to state pension age and beyond, a large proportion are unlikely to get there in good health, especially in more disadvantaged parts of the UK – places like inner city Glasgow, where the healthy life expectancy is just 46.7 years – close to 20 years lower than the national average of 65.

BBC News embarrasses:

Immigration minister Mark Harper quits over cleaner’s visa

Immigration minister Mark Harper has resigned from the government after it emerged his cleaner did not have permission to work in the UK.

Mr Harper notified Prime Minister David Cameron, who accepted his resignation “with regret”, Number 10 said.

It added there was “no suggestion” the 43-year-old Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean had “knowingly employed an illegal immigrant”.

Fellow Tory James Brokenshire has been appointed the new immigration minister.

The Observer has frustrations:

Nick Clegg: Britain must join debate on new approach to war on drugs

  • Deputy PM angry at Tory refusal to debate alternatives and says: ‘If you are anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform’

Nick Clegg has dragged the case for reforming the drugs laws to the centre ground of British politics, saying that blanket prohibition has seen cocaine use triple in less than 20 years, a trend that has helped perpetuate conflict and violence in South America.

Writing in today’s Observer, after a week in which he visited Colombia to learn first-hand the devastating effects that Europe’s enthusiasm for cocaine has had on the country, Clegg said the UK needed to be at the heart of the debate about potential alternatives to blanket prohibition and that he wanted to see an end to “the tradition where politicians only talk about drugs reform when they have left office because they fear the political consequences”.

The deputy prime minister said such an approach “has stifled debate and inhibited a proper examination of our approach. Put simply, if you are anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform”.

On to the Emerald Isle and a neoliberal endorsement from the Irish Times:

Taoiseach defends corporate tax policy at OECD

  • Kenny shrugs off French anger at loss of internet companies and backs efforts to close tax loopholes

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and the four Cabinet Ministers who flew on the government jet to Paris yesterday did not see a single member of the French socialist government.

Instead, they spent the day at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, that hotbed of liberal economics, at a sensitive time in Franco-Irish relations. The US internet giant Yahoo had just announced it is transferring financial operations from France to Ireland.

Asked about Yahoo’s defection, President François Hollande said “we must act” against “big companies who move to countries with low corporate tax”. He promised to raise the subject with President Barack Obama in Washington next week.

On to Germany and a case of bad heilth from Deutsche Welle:

German newspaper report highlights right-wing crime in Germany

  • More than 11,000 right-wing criminal offenses were committed last year, according to a report by a German newspaper. Of those cases, more than 500 were violent.

German police registered 11,761 criminal offenses motivated by right-wing extremism between January and December of 2013, Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper reported on Friday. Of the reported cases, 574 were violent offenses that resulted in injuries to 561 people, according to Tagesspiegel.

Of the 5,631 suspects in the offenses, 126 people were arrested. In 11 cases, warrants were issued. Some 788 cases were reported as being of an anti-Semitic nature, including 32 cases of assault and other violent crimes.

According to the newspaper, the figures come from monthly inquiries by the Bundestag’s Vice President Petra Pau and her Left Party parliamentary faction. With the release of the December figures, a complete look at the last year is now available.

Tagesspiegel said, however, the actual number of right-wing criminal offenses for 2013 is expected to climb, as many incidents are registered after the fact. In 2012, the total number was initially listed as 11,660, but late registrations ended up driving the total up to 17,134.

TheLocal.de boosts the books:

German trade surplus hits record level

Germany’s trade surplus soared to a new record high in 2013, although export momentum tailed off at the end of the year, official data showed on Friday.

Europe’s biggest economy notched up a trade surplus of €198.9 billion in 2013, the highest since foreign trade data have been compiled.

In 2012, the surplus had stood at 1€89.8 billion.

Germany has come under fire for its booming trade surplus, with critics arguing that its economic prowess comes at the expense of the eurozone’s weaker members.

On to France and the rural right from France 24:

France’s National Front courts the rural vote

As municipal and European elections approach, France’s far-right party the National Front is poised for another strong showing. Rural areas are key to the party’s strategy: economic decline and feelings of neglect in the countryside have been fuelling the National Front’s renaissance.

Our assignment was to understand why the far-right is making strides in rural areas. So we headed out for the “Meuse”, a department in the east of France where the party traditionally does well.

To our initial surprise, villagers readily expressed their support for the National Front, even on camera. “We’re 100 percent for Marine Le Pen around here”, smiled one supporter as we approached. “I’m not afraid to say so, and I always will!”

Reuters turns the coat:

Special Report: Francois Hollande puts on a new political face

As Hollande heads without a First Lady to the United States on Monday, he is projecting a more business-friendly persona than the “regular guy” left-winger France chose in May 2012 to replace conservative ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Several people who know Hollande say that, deep down, he has always been more of a centrist, who had calculated that he should present himself as a man of the left to win election.

“This is not so much a U-turn as a self-revelation. He has finally outed himself,” said Serge Raffy, author of the 2011 Hollande biography “Itineraire secret” (Secret Route).

Switzerland next and a defining vote from Deutsche Welle:

Referendum to keep foreigners out of Switzerland?

  • On Sunday, the Swiss vote on whether to restrict immigration to their country. The ramifications of a yes vote, experts say, could be huge. To their shock, the referendum has a decent shot at passing.

When Germans hear Switzerland, they first think of the children’s book “Heidi”, snow-covered mountains and secure bank accounts. Their neighbor to the south is a popular vacation destination, but more and more Germans also come to Switzerland to work. They can do so because the small, neutral state entered a freedom of movement agreement with the European Union in 1999. Even though Switzerland isn’t a member of the union, EU citizens have been allowed to immigrate to Switzerland with hardly any restrictions since then.

That might change soon. In a nationwide referendum, the Swiss are voting on an “initiative against mass-immigration” this Sunday (09.02.2014). The initiative was put forward by the nationalist-populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP). The party wants to restrict the number of immigrants and allocate a limited number of slots to certain national or occupational groups.

Roughly 80,000 immigrants enter Switzerland every year – and this in a country of 8.1 Million. According to the German weekly “Die Zeit”, this is the largest population growth the country has experienced since the 1960s.

On to Iberia and austerian woes from thinkSPAIN:

More firms and individuals in Spain declared insolvent last year than ever before in history

A RECORD number of companies and sole traders went into receivership or were declared bankrupt last year – a total of 9,660, which is the highest ever seen since bankruptcy became legally-recognised 10 years ago.

This represents a rise of 6.5 per cent on the figure for 2012, and never before have this many insolvencies been declared in the space of a year in Spain, according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE).

In the first three years after the Insolvency Law was passed in 2004, up to and including 2007 there were between 968 and 1,147 firms going bankrupt or into receivership each year, but this shot up to 3,298 with the start of the financial crisis.

This again nearly doubled in 2009 when the recession and mass unemployment began to truly bite in Spain, reaching 6,197 that year, dropping slightly to 5,962 in 2010 but then soaring again in 2011 to 6,863. However, the last two calendar years have seen a sharp increase, with insolvencies shooting up by over 50 per cent.

The Associated Press takes a turnabout:

Spain to restore nationality to Sephardic Jews

Spain has announced new measures to speed up the naturalization of Jews of Sephardic descent whose ancestors fled the Iberian peninsula five centuries ago when they were told to convert to Catholicism or go into exile.

The Cabinet approved a bill amending previous legislation that granted nationality by naturalization to Sephardic Jews who chose to apply for it. The reform will allow dual nationality, enabling people who can prove Sephardic ancestry to also retain their previous citizenships.

Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said Friday the measure smooths the bureaucracy involved in obtaining Spanish nationality.

Italy next, and corruption with a flair from TheLocal.it:

Space boss quits over tango dancer scandal

The head of Italy’s space agency submitted his resignation on Friday after a scandal over dubious expenses including hiring as a consultant a former tango dancer with no apparent aerospace credentials.

Enrico Saggese in a statement denied the accusations and said that he wanted to step down “so as to better defend my integrity, honour and prestige”.

Prosecutors opened an investigation on Thursday into corruption, including Saggese’s use of a credit card provided by an agency subcontractor.

They are also looking into consultancy fees paid to the wife of an employee to provide “psychological assistance” and expense-paid trips to the United States for several managers of the space agency.

After the jump, the latest Greek disasters, Ukrainian turmoil, class war in Brazil, Argentine anger, a Latin American plague, Pakistani stalemate, the latest Thai violence, Vietnamese letdown, Chinese uncertainty, an Abenomics fail, environmental woes, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day I: Spies, lies, & judges


We begin today’s collection of posts from the world of espionage, national security, and militarism with a judicial decision from the McClatchy Washington Bureau:

Secret court approves phone surveillance changes

National intelligence chief James R. Clapper said Thursday that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had approved two limits on how the government can use huge volumes of data it collects about Americans’ phone use. . .

Under the first change, Clapper said, the massive caches of phone records can be searched only after a court finds that there is “a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the selection term is associated with an approved international terrorist organization.”

That limitation will be in place “absent a true emergency,” Clapper said without elaboration.

The second change requires that the data query results “be limited within two hops of the selection term instead of three.”

Another country, another decision sure to provoke from El País:

High Court to follow through on arrest warrants against top Chinese officials

  • Former president Jiang Zemin and ex-PM Li Peng wanted for human rights abuses in Tibet

Despite global pressure and objections by prosecutors, the High Court on Thursday said it would go ahead with its international arrest warrants for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, ex-Prime Minister Li Peng and a host of other officials from China, who are wanted for human rights abuses in Tibet.

The warrants, which were ordered by Judge Ismael Moreno on November 18, are the subject of a diplomatic row between Spain and China in which Beijing has been pressuring the conservative Popular Party (PP) government to step in and block the High Court’s investigation into allegedly genocidal policies applied in Tibet.

Last month, the (PP) filed a bill in Congress to restrict the Spanish judiciary from carrying out international prosecutions based on the universal justice doctrine. The proposed reform to the judicial code has come under fire by the opposition, legal experts and human rights organizations which fear that it will affect future cases involving drug traffickers, child abuse, gender violence and female mutilation.

And yet another judicial finding via Techdirt:

Court Says FBI Agent’s Wrong Checkmark Put Woman On No Fly List, Barred Her From The US For 10 Years

  • from the ouch dept

We’ve been covering the case of Rahinah Ibrahim for a little while now. She’s the Stanford PhD student who was wrongfully placed on the no fly list — something that pretty much everyone admitted early on — but because of that her student visa to the US was pulled, and every attempt she made to come back was rejected, leaving her unable to come back to this country for nearly 10 years. As we noted last month, it seemed clear that Judge William Alsup had ruled that the feds needed to remove her from the no fly list and any other terrorist watch lists, but it was a little unclear, since the full ruling remained under seal. That ruling has now been released in redacted form, and is well worth reading. Not only does it highlight massive bureaucratic bungling over a ten-year period, it also shows how disingenuous and dishonest the DOJ has been in handling the entire case — even to the point of promising not to argue “state secrets” to kill the case, and then (of course) claiming “state secrets” and trying to kill the case just a few weeks later. Judge Alsup appears somewhat limited in what he can do in response to all of this for procedural reasons, but he makes it clear that he’s not pleased about all of this and orders the government to confirm that Ibrahim has been fully removed from the various terrorist databases and lists, as the government has flatly admitted that they don’t believe she poses any threat to national security.

More blowback from that leaked telephonic ambassadorial diatribe from BBC News:

Victoria Nuland gaffe: Angela Merkel condemns EU insult

Germany’s Angela Merkel has said a US official’s apparent insult of the EU’s efforts to mediate in the Ukraine crisis is “totally unacceptable”.

Victoria Nuland has apologised after she referred disparagingly to the EU’s role during a conversation said to be with the US ambassador to Ukraine. A recording of the exchange was posted online, with the US hinting at Russia’s involvement in bugging and leaking it.

The EU and US are involved in talks to end months of unrest in Ukraine. The conversation between Ms Nuland and Mr Pyatt reveals deeper tensions between America and Europe.

Washington seems to prefer a deal brokered by the UN rather than Brussels. If true, that would bruise the feelings of EU officials. They believe this is their crisis to solve.

Today’s comments and accusations are a reminder that this crisis is far from over and that it has the potential to cause division and tension even between allies. In Kiev, Ms Nuland – an assistant secretary of state – said she would not make a public statement on the matter.

Assurances from EUbusiness:

US diplomatic chats safe, State Department says

  • Secret US diplomatic conversations are safe, a top official said Friday, despite the apparent bugging of an American envoy’s phone.

Asked if she was confident about the security of diplomatic communications, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki replied: “Certainly we are.”

“We do indicate and make clear when there are concerns about when information can be tapped. So we’re cognizant of this. We’re aware of this. And we are constantly taking precautions and updating our approach.”

She revealed that data encryption is given to all State Department employees for their government-issued BlackBerry mobile phones.

And a very relevant question from the McClatchy Foreign Staff:

Post-Snowden, why were U.S. diplomats talking on insecure line?

[H]ere you have two high-ranking American officials – Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt – discussing sensitive matters apparently on an unsecured line, just days after a similar call had been recorded and, embarrassingly, put online.

Nuland, who refused to comment on the specifics of a conversation meant to be private, did note during a news conference Friday in Kiev that the static-free recording “was pretty impressive tradecraft. The audio was pretty clear.”

But she didn’t address why she was exposing herself to the obvious threat of being recorded. In the wake of the NSA spying scandal, the U.S. administration has repeatedly defended its actions using the line of reasoning: “Everybody does it.”

But if everybody does it, why wasn’t Nuland more careful, especially since it’s pretty well-known that the Russians don’t like her very much?

China Daily has Swiss NSA blowback:

Swatch CEO ticked off about NSA spy scandal

The eccentric chief executive officer of Swatch Group, one of the world’s top watchmakers, was so incensed by recent allegations of mass U.S. spying that he chastised a top New York official over the matter in a letter late last year.

Nick Hayek’s comments seemed odd coming in response to a letter from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who administers the state’s $161 billion pension fund.

DiNapoli had asked Hayek and nine other Olympic sponsors to take a stance against Russia’s recent clampdown on gays ahead of the winter games in Sochi.

Most corporate executives balk at open political conflict. But not the cigar-chomping Hayek. He vigorously defended his Omega subsidiary’s role as a politically neutral timekeeper at the Olympics. And that’s not all. He also gave DiNapoli a dressing down over the spying scandal surrounding the U.S. National Security Agency.

From France, another online governmental mobilization from RFI:

France launches cyberdefence programme

France is to invest a million euros in cyberdefence to combat a mushrooming number of cyberattacks, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced on Friday. The country was the target of nearly 800 significant cyberattacks in 2013, he said.

“I want speedy results,” Le Drian declared at the launch of his Cyberdefence Pact 2014-2016 in the Brittany town of Cesson-Sévigné.

There were more than 780 “significant attacks” in 2013, he revealed, up from 420 in 2012, and they are becoming “more and more varied, complex and diffuse”.

So cyberdefence has become one of the top priorities of the French military’s 2014-2019 programme and a budget of about a billion euros will be allocated to it.

And the latest Snowden revelations with an Old Blighty focus from NBC News:

Snowden Docs: British Spies Used Sex and ‘Dirty Tricks’

British spies have developed “dirty tricks” for use against nations, hackers, terror groups, suspected criminals and arms dealers that include releasing computer viruses, spying on journalists and diplomats, jamming phones and computers, and using sex to lure targets into “honey traps.”

Documents taken from the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden and exclusively obtained by NBC News describe techniques developed by a secret British spy unit called the Joint Threat Research and Intelligence Group (JTRIG) as part of a growing mission to go on offense and attack adversaries ranging from Iran to the hacktivists of Anonymous. According to the documents, which come from presentations prepped in 2010 and 2012 for NSA cyber spy conferences, the agency’s goal was to “destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt” enemies by “discrediting” them, planting misinformation and shutting down their communications.

Both PowerPoint presentations describe “Effects” campaigns that are broadly divided into two categories: cyber attacks and propaganda operations. The propaganda campaigns use deception, mass messaging and “pushing stories” via Twitter, Flickr, Facebook and YouTube. JTRIG also uses “false flag” operations, in which British agents carry out online actions that are designed to look like they were performed by one of Britain’s adversaries.

The Wire recalculates:

The NSA’s Phone Metadata Connect-The-Dots Program Only Collects 30 Percent of Calls

Lost in the pre-Christmas blur was an NBC News interview with one of the members of the group President Obama tasked with reviewing the government’s surveillance toolkit. In that interview, Geoffrey Stone suggested that the agency’s metadata collection was deliberately incomplete. “Asked if the NSA was collecting the records of 75 percent of phone calls, an estimate that has been used in briefings to Congress,” NBC’s Michael Isikoff reported, “Stone said the real number was classified but ‘not anything close to that’ and far lower.”

Now The Washington Post puts a number on that: 30 percent.

In 2006, the officials said, the NSA was collecting nearly all records about Americans’ phone calls from a number of U.S. companies under a then-classified program, but as of last summer that share had plummeted to less than 30 percent.

There are a few reasons offered for the gap. One rationale offered from “industry officials” is that the increase in internet-based calling would mean that the NSA loses a significant portion of calls. Stone suggested another reason: culling records from smaller cell phone providers wasn’t “cost effective” for the agency, so it didn’t bother.

And The Guardian looks at another spook shop:

CIA confirms agency obliged to follow federal surveillance law

  • Law concerns financial information and government hacking
  • Motive for question at Senate committee not known

The CIA has confirmed that it is obliged to follow a federal law barring the collection of financial information and hacking into government data networks.

But neither the agency nor its Senate overseers will say what, if any, current, recent or desired activities the law prohibits the CIA from performing – particularly since a section of the law explicitly carves out an exception for “lawfully authorized” intelligence activities.

The murky episode, arising from a public Senate hearing on intelligence last week, illustrates what observers call the frustrations inherent in getting even basic information about secret agencies into public view, a difficulty recently to the fore over whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) and its surveillance partners.

Jeepers! Peepers. From the always hyperbolic London Daily Mail:

The spy who scrubbed me: Russian official lets slip that Sochi hotels have hidden surveillance cameras in the SHOWERS

  • Deputy prime minister: I have seen video from inside cubicles
  • Dmitry Kozak claimed the footage showed journalists sabotaging facilities
  • The chief of Olympic preparations had tried to down play criticism of venue
  • Officials quickly try to backtrack and issue hasty denial

Russia’s Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister responsible for Olympic preparation, revealed that authorities have video from hotels showing that people leave the water on.

The astonishing revelations came when Mr Kozak was confronted by journalists about the poor state of facilities around the Olympic Village.

Reuters escalates:

Exclusive: Pentagon to boost missile defense spending by over $4 billion: sources

The U.S. Defense Department plans to ask Congress for $4.5 billion in extra missile defense funding over the next five years as part of the fiscal 2015 budget request, say congressional sources and an expert.

Nearly $1 billion of that sum will pay for a new homeland defense radar to be placed in Alaska, with an additional $560 million to fund work on a new interceptor after several failed flight tests, said Riki Ellison, founder of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, and two of the congressional sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The Pentagon’s request for added funding comes despite continued pressure on military spending and cuts in other arms programs, a sign of Washington’s growing concern about missile development efforts by North Korea and Iran, the sources said.

And Press Trust of India tenses up:

Iran sending warships close to US maritime borders

A senior Iranian naval commander says his country has sent several warships to the Atlantic Ocean, close to US maritime borders for the first time.

The commander of Iran’s Northern Navy Fleet, Admiral Afshin Rezayee Haddad, is quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying today that the vessels have already begun the journey to the Atlantic Ocean via waters near South Africa.

After the jump, the latest Asian crises [cybernetic, geographic, historic, and purely political], corporations snooping and snooped, sins confessed, warnings mandated, mysterious mail, and more. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroSinoFukuFuel


We begin our collection of headlines form the economic, political, and environmental realms with a new reality from CNBC:

More men in their prime working years lack jobs, says WSJ

A large number of men who are still in their prime working years find themselves without jobs for extended periods, despite an improving economy, according to a piece in The Wall Street Journal.

The trend has been building for decades. The percentage of unemployed men 25 to 54 more than doubled between the early 1970s and 2007, from 6 percent to 13 percent, before jumping to 20 percent in the depths of the recession in 2009, according to the article.

As of December 2013, 17 percent of men are not working. Of that group, about two-thirds are not looking for work, which excludes them from the government’s official unemployment numbers.

Economists were alarmed to learn that 40 percent of those looking have been out of work for six months or more, according to the Journal. Some had expected employment figures to rebound to pre-recession levels, but the trend is actually getting worse.

One response, via The Hill:

Senate rejects jobless benefits

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked Democrats’ third attempt to pass an extension of federal unemployment benefits.

The Senate voted 58-40 Thursday on a proposal that would have continued unemployment insurance for three months, just short of the 60 votes needed to end debate.

“I’m beginning to believe there is nothing that will get Republicans to yes,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “It’s a ‘no’ vote because they don’t want to extend unemployment insurance.”

Any excuse to gut environmental laws, via Salon:

House GOP overrides Endangered Species Act protections to pass California water bill

  • The bill would undermine years of conservation efforts in Northern California

Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would override federal rules and protections in California to allocate more water to farmers.

It would allow state and federal officials to pump more water out the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta in Northern California, a source of drinking water to 22 million Californians and home to endangered salmon, in what Gov. Jerry Brown called “an unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California’s efforts to manage this severe crisis” and Rep. John Garamendi (D) referred to as “a theft of water from someone to give to somebody else, plain and simple.”

CNBC shivers in anticipation:

Hedge funds bet on US gas shortage as cold boosts demand

An unexpected fear haunts the land of the shale bonanza story: running low on natural gas.

Furnaces, utilities and power plants have guzzled trillions of cubic feet of the fuel as the U.S. slogs through what may be recorded as the coldest winter since the invention of gas futures in 1990.

Hedge funds are now betting the country will face a critical shortage before spring. The wager comes with long odds but a huge possible payout.

“It’s been a relentless cold,” says Eric Bass, managing partner at Velite Benchmark Capital Management, a Houston gas hedge fund. “This market has slowly started to realize there could potentially be an inventory problem.”

From Al Jazeera America, Banksters Behaving Badly™:

Banks under investigation for alleged currency exchange rate-fixing

  • Barclays, Goldman Sachs among institutions being investigated for allegedly manipulating foreign exchange markets

New York state’s financial regulator has opened an investigation into alleged manipulation of foreign exchange markets and is demanding documents from more than a dozen banks, a source familiar with the investigation told Al Jazeera.

Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, Goldman Sachs and a number of other large banks that the Department of Financial Services regulates will be investigated in the probe, the source said.

Authorities in the U.S., Britain, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore have opened probes into whether the large banks manipulated foreign exchange rates used to set the value of trillions of dollars of investments.

Investigators suspect that traders from different banks may have used chat rooms to share information about trades in ways that benefited their positions.

Profligacy from The Guardian:

National lab in California scolded over Lusitania project

  • $80,000 in taxpayer money spent to help National Geographic with documentary about sinking of the ship during WWI

A federal watchdog agency reprimanded a national lab in Northern California for spending more than $80,000 in taxpayer money to help National Geographic with a documentary film about the sinking of the ship Lusitania during World War I.

The Energy Department’s inspector general said in a report issued last week that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory improperly used its licensing and royalty fees to perform tests for the documentary and should not have done the work.

“Federal officials at Livermore knew about it and didn’t take any action,” said Rickey Hass, a deputy inspector general at the Energy Department. “The work itself was not really the issue, but it was inappropriate in that it may have competed with private sector organizations and was funded with money that should have not been used for that purpose. It also wasn’t necessarily reported with complete transparency.”

NBC News greens the green:

Pot buyers add more than $1M to Colorado tax coffers

In the first month of legal recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, retailers who shared their proprietary data with NBC News say they have collected $1.24 million in tax revenue.

Half of the state’s 35 licensed recreational retailers participated in the NBC News survey. The 18 retailers shared the first 27 days of their tax data because they say they believe it will help their image.

In the first month of operation, sellers of recreational marijuana are doing brisk business in Colorado. One seller said she averages about $20,000 a day in sales.

Blowback from Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

India warns US of consequences on visa reform

India has warned the United States of consequences for its companies if lawmakers tighten visa rules on high-tech firms as part of an immigration overhaul.

Ambassador Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that India would see a decision to restrict certain temporary visas for skilled workers as a sign that the US economy is becoming less open for business.

“We think this is actually going to be harmful to us. It would be harmful to the American economy and, frankly, it would be harmful to the relationship” between the two countries, Jaishankar told AFP in an interview.

Sensible advice from Salon:

Elizabeth Warren calls on Obama to nominate fewer corporate judges

  • Massachusetts’ senior senator promotes more professional diversity in U.S. courts

Speaking at an event hosted by the left-leaning Alliance for Justice, an association of more than 100 groups who work on improving the justice system, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized President Obama for putting forward so many judicial nominees whose prior experience was mainly with big firms representing corporations.

“We face a federal bench that has a striking lack of diversity,” said Warren. “President Obama has supported some notable exceptions but … the president’s nominees have thus far been largely in line with the prior statistics.”

Repeating points made in the AFJ’s recent report on the federal judiciary’s excess of former corporate lawyers, Warren noted that 71 percent of Obama nominees’ prior experience was chiefly defending corporations. Just 3.6 percent of Obama’s nominees, according to the report, have previously worked mainly for public interest organizations.

Warren warned that, in America, “Power is becoming more and more concentrated on one side.” She recommended “professional diversity” in the judiciary, saying it would be “one way to insulate the courts from corporate capture.”

Heading north of the border with capital flight woes of another kind from South China Morning Post:

Exclusive: How mainland millionaires overwhelmed Canada visa scheme

Mainland millionaires swamped HK consulate with applications and led to freezing of world’s most popular investor immigration scheme

Canadian immigration department spreadsheets obtained by the Post show how the huge number of applications forced the government in Ottawa to freeze the world’s most popular wealth-based migration scheme. One document, dated January 8 last year, showed there was a backlog of 53,580 Hong Kong-based applications for Canadian federal investor visas.

That represented more than 70 per cent of the global backlog. And attempts by Ottawa in 2010 to tighten access to the coveted visas by doubling the wealth criteria had the effect of increasing Chinese domination. In 2011, applications sent to the Hong Kong consulate made up 86 per cent of the global total.

Analysis of arrival data suggests that about 99 per cent of applications in Hong Kong were lodged by mainlanders. Under the scheme’s current limits, applicants worth at least C$1.6 million (HK$11.2 million) receive residency if they “invest” C$800,000 in the form of a five-year interest-free loan to Canada.

On to Europe, first with BBC News:

ECB rejects deflation fears as it holds rates at 0.25%

The head of the European Central Bank (ECB) has said deflation is not a threat to the eurozone economy.

The ECB kept its benchmark interest rate at 0.25% after its latest meeting. The rate was cut to its current record low in November.

ECB president Mario Draghi said: “We have to dispense with this idea of deflation. The question is – is there deflation? The answer is no.”

Eurozone inflation slowed to 0.7% in January from 0.8% in December. The figure fuelled worries about whether the euro bloc could suffer deflation, potentially de-railing economic growth.

Another take from the London Telegraph:

Split ECB paralysed as deflation draws closer, tightening job vice in southern Europe

  • Mario Draghi said the ECB’s council had discussed a wide range of measures but needed more information

The European Central Bank has brushed aside calls for radical action to head off deflation and relieve pressure on emerging markets, denying that the eurozone is at risk of a Japanese-style trap.

Yields on German two-year notes almost doubled to 0.12pc as markets slashed expectations for future rate cuts, while the euro spiked 1.5 cents to more than $1.36 against the dollar, implying a further tightening of monetary conditions for Europe.

Mario Draghi, ECB president, said the bank is “alert to the risks, and stands willing and ready to act” if inflation falls even further below target or if the fragile recovery falters, but offered no clear guidance on future policy.

The Guardian hasn’t recovered:

Real wages likely to take six years to return to pre-crisis level

  • Average wages are at 2004 levels and it will take until six years before they return to 2009 peak according to leading thinktank
  • The Governor of Britain’s Bank of England, Mark Carney, speaks

Britons will have to wait six more years before their inflation-adjusted wages are back at pre-crisis levels and it “feels” like recovery, a leading thinktank has warned.

Average real wages are still at 2004 levels and it will take until 2020 before they return to their 2009 peak, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

“It’s a long way off,” said Simon Kirby, principal research fellow at the thinktank. “It will take a number of years before people actually start to feel the recovery.”

The gradual rise in wages could take even longer if Britain’s productivity performance, which has been “abysmal” in recent years, did not improve, he said.

BBC News splits:

Divorce rate up ‘because of recession’, report says

  • A wedding ring on the bible The recession of 2008/9 could be to blame for more marriages failing

The divorce rate in England and Wales has gone up, possibly because of the last recession, according to a report.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said there were 118,140 divorces in 2012, up 0.5% on 2011.

Between 2003 and 2009 there was a general downward trend in the number of divorces, but in 2010 they rose 4.9%.

“One theory suggests recession could contribute to a rise in partnership break-ups because of increased financial strain,” the report says.

Off to Iceland and an immigration crisis denied via the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Minister Dismisses Ministry Employee Requests For Independent Investigation

Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir has allegedly denied requests from ministry staff for an independent investigation of the ministry over a leaked memo regarding a Nigerian asylum seeker.

DV reports that several ministry employees approached the minister with the suggestion that an independent investigator be brought in to examine the ministry with regards to the case of Tony Omos, a Nigerian asylum seeker who, along with the expecting mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph, had his reputation impugned by a memo which leaked to certain members of the press last November. The memo made allegations about Tony and Evelyn which later proved to be untrue.

The minister allegedly told the employees who requested the independent investigation that this was not going to happen. Ministry employees are reportedly unhappy with the minister and her assistants over the matter.

The uncuttest kind of all from TheLocal.no:

Norway politician wants jail for circumcisers

A leading politician for Norway’s Centre Party has stepped up calls for a ban on ritual male circumcision, or failing that up to 10 years in prison, for those who botch the operation, as the government debates a proposed new law on the practice.

Jenny Klinge, the party’s justice spo complained about the stark difference in penalties under law for those who injure children through female genital mutilation and those who injure them through circumcision.

“It can not be such that when a boy dies, then it’s not punished at all, while if a girl dies it’s punishable by up to 10 years,”  Klinge said in parliament, according to NRK.

She called again for a ban, but said that failing that significant penalties should be put in place for those who injure children during the operation.

Danish austerity strikes again,, via the Copenhagen Post:

Parliament expected to end EU insurance coverage

  • As of August, CPR card will no longer cover Danish residents in other EU countries

You may want to be more careful on future trips to other EU countries. Today, parliament is expect to abolish the public travel insurance provided by the yellow health insurance card. According to DR Nyheder, a large majority will vote in favour of the bill, which then will come into effect by August.

When the proposal is passed, Danish residents will no longer have all their medical expenses paid when visiting another EU country. Instead they will fall under the same regulations as citizens of the respective country. To avoid unexpected medical bills on your next holiday in Europe, it will therefore be necessary to take out your own health insurance.

Nexit news from DutchNews.nl:

Leaving the EU would boost Dutch economy, report for PVV says

Leaving the European Union would boost the Dutch economy, Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right PVV, said on Thursday, quoting a study drawn up by a UK agency.

The Capital Economics report says leaving the EU would allow the Netherlands to increase its prosperity in a way only possible in the distant past. Economic growth figures would be higher than if the Netherlands remains in the EU, the report states.

The Netherlands would no longer be tied to EU rules and requirements, allowing a freer hand to trade with other countries. Gross Domestic Product would be between 10% and 12% higher by 2035 if the Netherlands left the EU, Capital Economics said.

EurActiv rebuts:

Dijsselbloem counters Wilders’ EU exit claim

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who also heads the Eurogroup, has hit back at far-right politician Geert Wilders’ claim that leaving the European Union would be good for the Dutch economy.

“The Netherlands is an economic powerhouse in Europe. We earn the bulk of our money in trade with EU countries so the Netherlands has a lot of interest in a single market with easy trade,” Dijsselbloem told local media, adding that quitting the EU would be “very unwise”.

On to Germany and a case of the Benz from TheLocal.de:

Daimler enjoys record €9 billion profit

Luxury auto maker Daimler said on Thursday that it achieved record sales and profits in 2013, and it expects to achieve “significant” growth again this year.

“Daimler concluded the year 2013 with record levels of unit sales, revenue, EBIT [earnings before interest and tax] and net profit,” the car maker said in a statement.

“The company anticipates renewed growth in 2014,” it added.

Net profit climbed by 28 percent to €8.72 billion and underlying profit, as measured by earnings before interest and tax, was up 23 percent at €10.82 billion.

Europe Online declines:

German factory orders post surprise slump in December

German industrial orders posted a surprise 0.5-per-cent fall in December despite a rebound in demand from the eurozone, the Ministry of Economics said Thursday.

The decline in the monthly data failed to offset the surge in orders in November, which jumped by an upwardly revised 2.4 per cent as a result of strong demand for bulk orders from Europe’s biggest economy.

“The trend toward increasing demand for industrial products continues despite the slight decline in December,” the ministry said.

TheLocal.de lights a fuse:

Court grants EU migrants German jobless benefits

A German job centre will have to pay a jobless Spanish family unemployment benefits, a court ruled on Thursday, in an apparent contradiction of German law.

The Court of Social Affairs in Dortmund ruled unemployed immigrants from the European Union could claim Hartz IV unemployment benefits, in a judgment which decided in favour of European Union law over German.

European law states citizens from other EU countries must be treated equally, which includes access to benefits.

But German law grants exemptions by classifying Hartz IV as a “social benefit” which can be denied to EU citizens rather than a “special benefit” which cannot be. It means EU migrants who are in Germany but are not seeking work are excluded from claiming unemployment benefits.

On to France and a walkout ahead from TheLocal.fr:

French teachers to strike over August return

Summer holidays are sacred in France and even more so it seems for French teachers. One union has called for a strike after the government did the unthinkable and timetabled the start of the autumn term before the end of August.

Even though back to school for autumn 2014 is a full six months away—and school isn’t even out yet—the first strike of the next school year has already been called.

The members of the national union of secondary and high school teachers (Sydicat National des Lycées et Collèges) sent out warning on Wednesday of the strike pencilled in for the end of August. This time its not about pay cuts or a lack of funding, but a decision to make them to return to school after the summer holidays, in the sacred holiday month of August.

The government has rewritten the school calendar so that teachers have to be back on August 29. Bearing in mind August is traditionally the month when the whole country pretty much shuts down and everyone goes to the beach, the move has not gone down well with in staff rooms.

Switzerland next and more hard times immigration politics from TheLocal.ch:

Immigration: ‘total chaos’ seen if curbs backed

Switzerland’s ties with the European Union face a crunch test on Sunday as voters decide whether to revive immigration quotas on EU citizens, in a referendum piloted by rightwing populists.

The result could be close, with the latest poll indicating 43 percent back the “Stop Mass Immigration” proposal and 50 percent oppose it.

Switzerland is not in the EU but is ringed by members of the 28-nation bloc, which is its main export market. If passed, the proposal would bind the government to renegotiate within three years a deal which gives the EU’s 500 million residents equal footing on the job market in this nation of 8.1 million people.

Opponents of the plan — the government, most political parties and the business sector — warn that ripping up free labour market rules for EU nationals in force since 2007 would unravel related economic deals.

Another consequence of the battle for women’s bodies from El País:

Doctors shun life-saving abortion

  • As 32-year-old Daniela found out, access to the procedure at a public hospital can be impossible
  • The government is planning to make the law covering terminations even tougher

La Paz Hospital, one of the largest public health centers in Madrid, refused to perform an abortion on Daniela, a 32-year-old woman who had lost all her amniotic fluid when she was 20 weeks pregnant. In these conditions, a fetus no longer has a chance to live, according to all the specialists consulted by this newspaper, and the mother is at risk of serious infection.

Even though she met all the requirements set out in the current abortion law – which the Popular Party government plans to toughen up on – the Madrid hospital refused to terminate her pregnancy. Eventually, Daniela, who was on intravenous antibiotics to prevent infections, was discharged from La Paz so she could go to a private center for her abortion, after the regional government confirmed her right to one.

A spokeswoman at La Paz said that all the doctors there are conscientious objectors – whose rights are enshrined in the current Spanish law on abortion – and that in 2010 the gynecology department in full decided not to carry out any abortions, ever.

thinkSPAIN charts the loss:

Salaries have fallen by 10 per cent since labour reform came into effect, say recruitment centres

  • Mass redundancies falling, but on-the-job training is a must, according to Adecco

WAGES have gone down by an average of 10 per cent, and the typical redundancy pay-off to 26 days’ salary per year of service, according to research by three recruitment agencies.

Adecco, the Sagardoy Foundation and the Excellence in Sustainability Club – which all form the official Observatory for monitoring the government’s labour reform – studied 200 companies, most of which have a minimum of 50 employees.

They say redundancy pay has gone down, but remains on the whole higher than the requisite 20 days’ salary per year of service which is the legal minimum for a ‘fair dismissal’.

TheLocal.es has poor possibilities:

Half of Spain’s job ads pay less than €1K/month

The so-called ‘mileurismo’ phenomenon continues to grow as data from employment portal jobandtalent.com reveals that 49 per cent of jobs offered in Spain in January had net salaries equivalent to less than €1,000 ($1,350) per month.

Information published in the company’s blog showed that jobs in the ‘mileurismo’ category – those that pay less than €1,000 a month – had risen from 30 per cent  to 49 per cent of those on offer.

Of those, positions offering gross annual salaries of under €15,000 rose from 20 per cent to 31 per cent of the total, and jobs offering €16,000 to €20,000  from 6 per cent to 18 per cent.

The blog presented the figures as a complement to data released this week by the Juan Alfaro Club of Excellence’s Labour Reform Monitor which showed that average wages across Spain had fallen by 10% since the introduction of new legislation designed to introduce flexibility into the job market.

But one number is heading up. From TheLocal.es:

Spanish bankruptcies hit the roof in 2013

The number of household and business bankruptcy filings leapt by 6.5 percent to 9,660, the National Statistics Institute said, as the economy emerged from a long recession.

Spain’s economy grew slowly in the second half of 2013, shaking off a double-dip recession but still weighed down by a 26-percent unemployment rate.

The eurozone’s fourth-largest economy is still overshadowed by the aftermath of a decade-long property bubble, which collapsed in 2008 destroying millions of jobs and flooding the nation in debt.

In a sign that the business sector’s decline may be steadying, however, bankruptcy filings rose at a slower pace last year when compared to a 15.1 percent increase in 2011 and a 32.2 percent surge in 2012. But the number of bankruptcy filings remains at historically high levels.

And battle over women’s bodies ends the same way, via thinkSPAIN:

Surrogate births not recognised under Spanish law, rules Supreme Court

CHILDREN born to surrogate mothers cannot be registered as the legal offspring of the parents who commissioned the woman who gave birth, Spain’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Whilst in the USA, couples who cannot have children or all-male couples can ‘rent a womb’ to enable them to start a family and register the baby as their own, Spanish law does not recognise the procedure, as two men discovered when they attempted to do so with their two children born in California.

The couple, who are married, had all the legal certificates issued by the county of San Diego, California to prove they were the legal fathers of the twin boys born in 2008 via a surrogate mother, in accordance with US law.

Italy next and another number of the way up from TheLocal.it:

Rents in Italy soar as wages stagnate

Italians are spending the bulk of their monthly salary on rent as prices climb and landlords refuse to negotiate even in times of job loss, a survey has revealed.

Over 40 percent of those surveyed by mioaffito.it, the Italian property website, said between 35 and 50 percent of their salary goes on rent, while 30 percent said they spend even more.

Rents in Italy have risen by 105 percent over the last twenty years, while average household salaries have gone up by just 18 percent, Gaia Merguicci, a community manager at mioaffito.it told The Local.

The average monthly rent in Italy is around €780, up from €738 since last August, according to data from the website. Florence saw the steepest climb over the past six months, with rents increasing by 14.2 percent.

However, the most expensive place to rent is the business hub of Milan, where the monthly average is €1,823 followed by Rome at €1,629 and Florence at €1,228. The cheapest place is Ragusa, in Sicily, where rents average €390.

The latest Bunga Bunga blowback from TheLocal.it:

Italian senate to join civil case against Berlusconi

The speaker of Italy’s upper house of parliament on Wednesday announced the Senate would declare itself a civil party in a trial against former premier Silvio Berlusconi for allegedly bribing senators, according to Italian media reports.

Speaker Piero Grasso said said it was his “moral duty” to declare the Senate a civil party despite an earlier recommendation by a parliamentary
committee for the upper house to stay out of the media magnate’s latest legal troubles.

Embattled Berlusconi was ousted from parliament and stripped of legal protection in November after he was found guilty of tax fraud.

TheLocal.it once again, and a heads up for the big winners:

Bonino defends German role in euro crisis

Italy’s Foreign Minister Emma Bonino on Thursday defended Germany against charges its austerity demands were the cause of suffering in the crisis-hit eurozone.

“Those who hold Germany responsible for everything are not only telling an untruth but also behaving unfairly,” Bonino told Munich daily the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

“I find this criticism of Berlin quite petty and only partially appropriate,” said Bonino, a former EU commissioner.

After the jump, the latest in the ongoing Greek disaster, Ukrainian warnings, drought and a protest victory in Latin America, Australian and Japanese tapering, Thai troubles, Chinese anxieties, Sony woes, a free-trade-for-dolphins ploy, U.S. and European GMO word wars, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day I: Spies lies. LOLZ, pols


Today’s tales form the world of the dark arts and militarism begins with a saga playing out in classic spy vs. spy fashion, with the tapper suddenly becoming the tapped. Our first headline comes from New Europe:

EU, US, Russia, Ukraine: spy games on your youtube

US officials say they suspect Russia is behind the leak of an apparently bugged phone conversation about Ukraine between two senior American diplomats in which they make disparaging comments about the European Union. Another conversation also leaked features two EU officials making comments about the US.

“I would say that since the video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government, I think it says something about Russia’s role,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

The US officials noted that an aide to Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, was among the first to tweet about a YouTube video that contains audio of the alleged call between the top US diplomat for Europe, Victoria Nuland, and the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. The video, which shows photos of Nuland and Pyatt, is subtitled in Russian.

In the audio, voices resembling those of Nuland and Pyatt discuss international efforts to resolve Ukraine’s ongoing political crisis. At one point, the Nuland voice colorfully suggests that the EU’s position should be ignored. “F— the EU,” the female voice said.

The video in question via Re Post:

Casting suspicions with EUobserver:

Ukraine leak designed to ‘split’ EU-US diplomacy

The publication on YouTube of what appear to be two sensitive US and EU diplomatic conversations on Ukraine is designed to spoil relations between the allies, EU diplomatic sources say.

The items were uploaded by an anonymous user called “Re Post” on Tuesday (4 February) and have several thousand clicks each already.

In the imputed US clip, which appears to date to Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych’s offer of top jobs to opposition MPs on 25 January, Viktoria Nuland, a senior US state department official, is allegedly speaking to Geoffrey Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine.

They bat around ideas on which of the MPs should be Prime Minister in an interim government. Nuland adds she wants a senior UN diplomat to come to Kiev to seal an accord on the US-model cabinet.

“So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the UN help glue it and, you know, fuck the EU,” she says.

“Oh exactly, and I think we’ve got to do something to make it stick together, because you can be sure that if it does start to gain altitude the Russians will be working behind the scenes to torpedo it,” Pyatt replies.

And the mea culpa, via EUbusiness:

Top US diplomat for Europe says sorry for cursing the EU

US officials, while not denying such a conversation took place, refused to go into details, and pointed the finger at Russia for allegedly bugging the diplomats’ phones.

“Let me convey that she has been in contact with her EU counterparts, and of course has apologized,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

While Psaki said she had no independent details of how the conversation was captured and uploaded onto the social networking site, she added: “Certainly we think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft.”

More from the McClatchy Washington Bureau:

White House implicates Russia in leaked call between US diplomats

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney referred most of the questions to the State Department, but noted that the conversation “was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government.

“I think it says something about Russia’s role,” Carney said of the appearance of the leaked remarks. “But the content of the conversation is not something I’m going to comment on.”

Carney said relations between the US and the EU are “stronger than ever” and said there was “no question” that Nuland and the ambassador are trying to “help de-escalate the crisis” in Ukraine.

“It’s certainly no secret that our ambassador and assistant secretary have been working with the government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts to find a peaceful solution through dialogue and political and economic reform,” Carney said. “Ultimately, it’s up to the Ukrainian people to decide their future.”

Here’s a piece about the crisis from a Russian state medium, RT:

‘This is what you cook for Ukraine?’ State Dept. Psaki grilled over leaked tape

Program notes:

Senior US State Department official Victoria Nuland has allegedly been caught giving a harsh message to the EU while discussing Ukrainian opposition leaders’ roles in the country’s future government. The phone call was taped and posted on YouTube. US officials refused to confirm or deny the tape’s authenticity, but State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki said that she “didn’t say it was inauthentic.” While being grilled about this and other tape-related statements, Psaki hinted that the tape could have been leaked by Moscow.

Another Russo-centric crisis in the headlines from Network World:

Experts warn of Russian spying, hackers at Sochi Olympics

Americans heading to Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympics are being warned that privacy is not a right in the host country and all their electronic communications will likely be monitored.

The United States Computer Emergency Response Team (US-CERT), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, is recommending the use of electronic devices that are devoid of sensitive information and can be left behind, if Russian authorities decide to confiscate the equipment.

To avoid problems, personal smartphones, tablets and laptops should be left at home. Americans should only use devices bought or borrowed for the trip and can be wiped clean when leaving the country to avoid taking malware back home.

Sam venue, different focus from Homeland Security News Wire:

DHS alerts Russia-bound airlines of toothpaste tube bombs risk

The U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism agencies have advising airlines flying to Russia to be aware of the possibility that explosive materials could be concealed in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes. DHS issued a bulletin to airlines flying into Russia alerting them to the potential threat. The new concern about explosive toothpaste tubes notwithstanding, the biggest worry is still Islamist groups based in southern Russia’s Caucasus region.

The U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism agencies have advising airlines flying to Russia to be aware of the possibility that explosive materials could be concealed in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes.

Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Wednesday that DHS issued a bulletin to airlines flying into Russia alerting them to the potential threat. McCaul said the bulletin indicated that officials believed the explosives might be used during flights or smuggled into the city of Sochi, where competition at the Winter Olympics begins later today. The opening ceremony will be held Friday.

Bringing it all back home with PCWorld:

More than 4,000 groups sign up to protest NSA

More than 4,000 groups and websites have signed on to support a day of protest against U.S. National Security Agency surveillance programs, scheduled for Tuesday.

In addition, tens of thousands of people have pledged to make calls and post messages on the Web in support of surveillance reform, said organizers of The Day We Fight Back.

Among the groups supporting the day of Web protest are the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, BoingBoing, Demand Progress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Free Press, Mozilla, Reddit and Tumblr.

“Together we will push back against powers that seek to observe, collect, and analyze our every digital action,” organizers wrote on TheDayWeFightBack.org. “Together, we will make it clear that such behavior is not compatible with democratic governance. Together, if we persist, we will win this fight.”

From Nextgov, Tweet this!:

Twitter Breaks Rank, Threatens to Fight NSA Gag Orders

Twitter threatened to launch a legal battle with the Obama administration on Thursday over gag orders that prevent it from disclosing information about surveillance of its users.

The statement puts Twitter at odds with other technology giants including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook, who all struck a deal with the government last month to drop their lawsuits in exchange for looser secrecy rules.

“We think the government’s restriction on our speech not only unfairly impacts our users’ privacy, but also violates our First Amendment right to free expression and open discussion of government affairs,” Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s manager of global legal policy, wrote in a blog post.

He said the company has pressed the Justice Department for greater transparency and is also “considering legal options we may have to seek to defend our First Amendment rights.”

North of the border and suspicions from the Toronto Globe and Mail:

RCMP, intelligence agency accused of spying on pipeline opponents

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has filed complaints against the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, saying the law enforcement agencies may have illegally spied on opponents of pipelines and then shared the intelligence information with the petroleum industry.

The group has asked the Security Intelligence Review Committee and the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP to investigate the situation.

“What we’re hoping here is to find out more about what’s happened,” Josh Paterson, executive director of the BCCLA, said Thursday at a news conference in Vancouver.

RT covers yet another U.S. mea culpa:

US ambassador admits tapping Angela Merkel’s phone was ‘stupid’

The US ambassador to Germany has admitted it was a “stupid” idea to tap the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel while discussing business, friendship and mutual trust at a trade association meeting.

“We have done a number of stupid things, Chancellor Markel’s phone being one of them,” Ambassador John Emerson told the VBKI trade association at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Berlin.

He apologized for the stress and loss of trust the recent NSA wiretapping revelations might have caused the German government, according to reports by the Local.

Big Brother adds eyes via the Washington Post:

New surveillance technology can track everyone in an area for several hours at a time

As Americans have grown increasingly comfortable with traditional surveillance cameras, a new, far more powerful generation is being quietly deployed that can track every vehicle and person across an area the size of a small city, for several hours at a time. Although these cameras can’t read license plates or see faces, they provide such a wealth of data that police, businesses and even private individuals can use them to help identify people and track their movements.

Already, the cameras have been flown above major public events such as the Ohio political rally where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) named Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, McNutt said. They’ve been flown above Baltimore; Philadelphia; Compton, Calif.; and Dayton in demonstrations for police. They’ve also been used for traffic impact studies, for security at NASCAR races and at the request of a Mexican politician, who commissioned the flights over Ciudad Juárez.

Defense contractors are developing similar technology for the military, but its potential for civilian use is raising novel civil liberties concerns. In Dayton, where Persistent Surveillance Systems is based, city officials balked last year when police considered paying for 200 hours of flights, in part because of privacy complaints.

From Al Jazeera America, a crackdown in Ankara:

Turkish parliament adopts Internet censorship bill

  • Measure also forces service providers to submit users’ activity records to officials on request, without notifying users

Turkey’s parliament has adopted a new Internet bill roundly criticized as an assault by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on freedom of expression, access to information and investigative journalism. The measure was approved as Erdogan’s government is in the midst of a sweeping corruption probe that has shaken his Cabinet.

After hours of debate, the measure was adopted late on Wednesday in parliament, where Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) dominates with 319 of the 550 seats.

The bill permits a government agency, the Telecommunications Communications Presidency (TIB), to block access to websites without court authorization if they are deemed to violate privacy or to contain material seen as “insulting.”

Reaction from Deutsche Welle:

EU criticizes Turkey’s Internet law

The EU has criticized Turkey’s tightened Internet controls. Lawmakers adopted the new Internet legislation late on Wednesday following hours of debate involving fierce objections from the opposition.

The criticism came after Turkey’s parliament amended regulations allowing the government to block websites without a court order and mandate Internet service providers to store data up to two years. President Abdullah Gul still must sign the new law, which allows the blocking of websites believed to violate privacy or contain content considered insulting.

“The law needs to be revised in line with European standards,” said Peter Stano, a spokesman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele. “The Turkish public deserves more information and more transparency, not more restrictions.”

The legislation also forces providers to retain user data for two years and present it to authorities without notifying the user in question. The new measures build upon existing Internet restrictions introduced in 2007 that, according to a Google transparency report published in December, make Turkey equal to China as the world’s biggest web censor.

The 2007 law has allowed for temporary blocking of websites including WordPress, Dailymotion and Vimeo. YouTube was also blocked for two years until 2010.

After the jump, the latest developments in Asia’s sundry zonal, military posturing, and historical crises, Mission Impossible tech, a spooky blast from the past, hacks and embarrassments, cartels and vigilantes battle online, hackers seize control of cars, and more. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoGrecoEcoFukuics


Today’s collection of headlines from the realm of human transactions and their consequences begins with the jaded avocations of the big winners. From The Guardian:

Super rich shift their thrills from luxury goods to costly experiences

  • Gourmet dining, private flights, bespoke safaris, slimming clinics and art auctions emerging as top status symbols

They say money can’t buy happiness but the world’s super rich are still giving it their best shot, spending $1.8tn (£1.1tn)last year on luxury goods and services – with extreme holidays, gourmet dining and art auctions emerging as the status symbols du jour.

“Luxury is shifting rapidly from ‘having’ to ‘being’ – that is, consumers are moving from owning a luxury product to experiencing a luxury,” said BCG senior partner Antonella Mei-Pochtler. “They already have the luxury toys; the cars and the jewellery.”

Of the $1.8tn spent on luxuries in 2013, according to BCG an estimated $1tn went on services – from private airline flights to luxury slimming clinics, to a five-star hospital stay where the patient will be waited on by a butler and the en-suite facilities include a marble bath.

The £1.1tn spent is slightly more than the wealth controlled by the poorest half of the world’s population – 3.5 billion people. Oxfam recently estimated their combined wealth at £1tn in a report on inequality, where it pointed out that this sum was the same as the wealth controlled by the world’s richest 85 billionaires.

Warnings of things to come from the London Telegraph:

Currency crisis at Chinese banks ‘could trigger global meltdown’

  • A rise in foreign funding at China’s banks poses a threat for international lenders

The growing problems in the Chinese banking system could spill over into a wider financial crisis, one of the most respected analysts of China’s lenders has warned.

Charlene Chu, a former senior analyst at Fitch in Beijing and now the head of Asian research at Autonomous Research, said the rapid expansion of foreign-currency borrowing meant a crisis in China’s financial system was becoming a bigger risk for international banks.

“One of the reasons why the situation in China has been so stable up to this point is that, unlike many emerging markets, there is very, very little reliance on foreign funding. As that changes, it obviously increases their vulnerability to swings in foreign investor appetite,” said Ms Chu in an interview with The Telegraph.

Reuters covers losses:

Emerging market funds lose $9 billion in past week: data

Investors yanked $9 billion from emerging stock and bond funds during a turbulent past week, with equities seeing their biggest outflow in 2-1/2 years, banks said on Friday citing data from Boston-based fund tracker EPFR Global.

EPFR had released data to clients late on Thursday showing emerging equity funds lost $6.3 billion in the week to January 29, the biggest weekly outflow since August 2011.

This week has seen some major falls in emerging currencies’ exchange rates, with central banks forced into rate rises or market interventions to limit the swings. Those currency losses and rate rises have put pressure on bond and stock holdings, forcing exits.

The New York Times brings it closer to Casa esnl:

Parched, California Cuts Off Tap to Agencies

Acting in one of the worst droughts in California’s history, state officials announced on Friday that they would cut off the water that it provides to local agencies serving 25 million residents and about 750,000 acres of farmland.

With no end in sight for the dry spell and reservoirs at historic lows, Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said his agency needed to preserve what little water remained so it could be used “as wisely as possible.”

It is the first time in the 54-year history of the State Water Project that water allocations to all of the public water agencies it serves have been cut to zero. That decision will force 29 local agencies to look elsewhere for water. Most have other sources they can draw from, such as groundwater and local reservoirs.

But the drought has already taken a toll on those supplies, and some cities, particularly in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, rely almost exclusively on the State Water Project, Mr. Cowin said.

MintPress News eases up:

CA Law Enforcement Proposes Softening Drug Laws

If passed, those convicted for drug possession would be sent to substance-abuse treatment centers, sentenced to probation or ordered to perform community service, instead of being incarcerated.

For decades, law enforcement officers across the U.S. have fought the war on drugs by locking users behind bars. But since that strategy hasn’t proven to be successful in the slightest, some officers in California have come together to propose reducing charges for the simple possession of all drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.

One of the proposal’s biggest supporters is San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who is working with San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne to push for the inclusion of such a measure on the state ballot this fall.

If passed, those convicted for drug possession, including heroin, would be sent to substance-abuse treatment centers, sentenced to probation or ordered to perform community service, instead of being locked behind bars. Unlike a felony, a misdemeanor charge would not appear on an individual’s permanent record.

The Guardian condescends to profit:

US newspapers fall out over ‘dead peasant’ insurance

Two weeks ago, the publisher of two Californian newspapers – the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise – laid off 39 employees, including eight full-time newsroom staff and four part-time sub-editors and designers.

It was part of a restructuring programme by Freedom Communications, following 42 redundancies in December, as it seeks to centralise Press-Enterprise production at the Register’s offices.

Then Freedom followed up that bad news by sending an email to the staff who remain informing them that the company wishes to buy life insurance for them.

But the beneficiaries of the million-dollar-plus policies will not be the employees or their families, but the company’s pension scheme.

A writer in the Los Angles Times (the Register’s rival), Michael Hiltzik, referred to the plan as a “ghoulish corporate strategy”. He went on to explain that it is not illegal – it’s known formally as COLI (“company owned life insurance”).

More losers from Al Jazeera America:

More jobless Americans losing benefits every week

  • Unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, as Congress fails to renew payments for more than 1.5 million on the dole

The lifeline of long-term unemployment benefits ended for at least 1.5 million Americans at the end of December, and more will see their payments cut each week that Congress fails to act. Almost 38 percent of the unemployed had been out of work for 27 weeks or more as of December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the unemployment rate is down to 6.7 percent from 10 percent in October 2008, at the height of the recession, 10.4 million people remained out of work in December.

The Guardian loads up the money bin:

Google reports 17% revenue rise for fourth quarter

  • Results come a day after search giant sells Motorola Mobile
  • Low-cost mobile ads chip away at the price for online ads

Google’s revenues climbed 17% in the final quarter of 2013, the company announced Thursday, but low-cost mobile ads chipped away at the price the tech giant commands for online ads.

The company’s results came a day after it announced it was selling Motorola Mobile for a fraction of its purchase price. Google’s consolidated revenue, which includes the money-losing Motorola smartphone business, rose to $16.86bn for the quarter from $14.42bn in the fourth quarter of 2012. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had expected $16.75bn. Profits rose 17% to $3.38bn, or $9.90 a share, up from $2.89bn, or $8.62 per share, for the same period last year.

From The Hill, Hillary-ous idiocy:

Mont. House candidate calls Hillary Clinton ‘Antichrist’

Montana House candidate Ryan Zinke, the early Republican front-runner for Montana’s open House seat, called former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the “Antichrist” in a recent campaign appearance, according to a local newspaper.

“We need to focus on the real enemy,” he said referring to Clinton, according to the Big Fork Eagle, before calling her the Antichrist.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, is one of six Republicans in a crowded field to replace Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is running for the Senate. He’s emerged as the early front-runner in the GOP primary due to his fundraising prowess. Zinke raised $450,000 in the last three months of 2013 and has $350,000 in the bank.

Bloomberg plays the middle:

House Republicans’ Economic Agenda Targets Middle Class

U.S. House Republican leaders are preparing an economic agenda that includes energy proposals aimed at lowering utility bills and countering President Barack Obama’s focus on income inequality, according to a document obtained by Bloomberg News.

The agenda includes voting on an alternative measure to Obama’s health-care law and re-authorizing a funding program for career and technical education. The framework is designed to reach middle-class voters whose wages have remained stagnant even as the U.S. economy improves.

The broad outline was distributed to Republicans yesterday at a private meeting in Cambridge, Maryland, where lawmakers are concluding a three-day policy retreat today. Republicans, largely blamed for the 16-day partial government shutdown in October, want their positions to be seen as an alternative to those of Obama and the Democrats.

The Guardian spots the flaw:

The problem with retirement savings: making enough money to save

  • The president’s new MyRA plan is a tiny, positive step for Americans, but it won’t help so long as wages are shrinking

Americans don’t have a problem saving for retirement. The real issue is that Americans aren’t making enough money.

There’s no question that a retirement crisis is looming. The numbers just don’t work for many Americans right now. For instance, do you think you can live on only $575 a month? That’s for rent, food, utilities, and transportation as well as any fun you may want to have. Probably not: an income of $575 a month is well below the federal poverty line. Yet that’s the estimate of how much the average American with a 401k plan will be able to earn from his or her nest egg. And about half of all Americans don’t even have a 401k plan, often because their employer doesn’t offer one.

Across the Atlantic with Europe Online:

Annual eurozone inflation unexpectedly falls in January

Annual eurozone inflation unexpectedly fell in January, according to data released Friday, adding to deflation fears and increasing pressure on the European Central Bank to deliver a new interest rate cut.

The cost of living in the 18-member currency bloc dropped to 0.7 per cent in January, from 0.8 per cent in December, the European Statistics Office Eurostat said.

The fall in consumer prices took inflation further away from the ECB’s annual inflation target of below but close to 2 per cent.

Bothering BBC News:

Fall in eurozone inflation rate fuels deflation concerns

Calls for European Central Bank action to help protect the eurozone’s fragile recovery have grown after the release of inflation and jobless data.

Official figures showed that eurozone inflation fell to 0.7% in January, down from 0.8% in December and further below the ECB’s 2% target.

It has fuelled worries about whether the euro bloc could suffer deflation, potentially de-railing economic growth.

Separate data showed the unemployment rate in December was unchanged at 12%.

Edible insecurity from EurActiv:

Food security hindered by seed market dominance, MEPs warn

The EU seed market is dominated by a few large seed businesses rather than a diverse range of smaller companies, which has implications for the continent’s food security, says a report commissioned by European Parliament Green group.

Five companies control about 95% of the vegetable seed sector and 75% of the maize market share specifically, according to the report, presented in the European Parliament on Wednesday (29 January).

The assertion goes against European Commission and seed industry’s position that the market, and the five dominant companies, is made up of some 7000 mainly small and medium-sized entreprises, allowing for healthy competition.

“This is simply not true. The EU seed market is not healthy. It is not diversified,” said Bart Staes, a Green MEP from Belgium who presented the report, ‘Concentration of market power in the EU seed market’.

On to Britain with The Guardian:

Real wages have been falling for longest period for at least 50 years, ONS says

  • Real wages have been falling by 2.2% a year in the longest sustained period of falling real wages in the UK on record

Real wages have been falling consistently since 2010, the longest period for 50 years, according to the Office for National Statistics, adding that low productivity growth seems to be pushing wages down.

Real wage growth averaged 2.9% in the 1970s and 1980s, 1.5% in the 1990s, 1.2% in 2000s, but has fallen to minus 2.2% since the first quarter of 2010, the ONS figures showed.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Over the last four years British workers have suffered an unprecedented real wage squeeze.

All or none with EUbusiness:

British PM pledges renewed EU referendum push

British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Friday to force through parliament a bill guaranteeing an in-or-out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017, after the upper house killed off legislation.

He pledged to wield the Parliament Act, which enforces the supremacy of the elected lower House of Commons over the appointed upper House of Lords.

The act is only rarely used to overcome the Lords blocking the will of the Commons. It has only ever been enacted a handful of times since it was introduced in 1911.

Norway next, with an exclusive from TheLocal.no:

Norway oil fund blacklists Israeli firms

Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, blacklisted two Israeli companies involved in construction of settlements in East Jerusalem, the country’s finance ministry said Thursday.

The ban on investing in the firms revived a three-year prohibition on them that the Government Pension Fund of Norway had dropped in August last year.

The companies are Africa Israel Investments, an Israeli real estate developer, and its construction subsidiary Danya Cerbus.

The ministry cited the company’s alleged “contribution to serious violations of individual rights in war or conflict through the construction of settlements in East Jerusalem,” a territory where Israel’s claims are not recognised by the international community.

On to Amsterdam and an austerian retreat from DutchNews.nl:

Single parents on welfare benefits ‘won’t have to apply for jobs’

The government has agreed to drop plans to force single mothers with young children and on welfare benefits to apply for jobs.

Kees van der Staaij, leader of the orthodox Christian party SGP, broke the news during a debate organised by the religious paper Nederlands Dagblad. Talks between junior social affairs minister Jetta Klijnsma and opposition parties on reaching a compromise on the reforms are currently ongoing.

Klijnsma wants to shake up the welfare system by making sure claimants are actively looking for work and introducing work for welfare schemes. But she needs the support of opposition parties to get the changes through the upper house of parliament, where the government does not have a majority.

Germany next, first with TheLocal.de:

US view of Germany ‘better than ever’

Despite America’s reputation in Germany taking a hit over the NSA spying scandal, Americans have a more positive impression of Germany than at any time in the last 12 years, according to a study released on Thursday.

The annual Magid study, which has been conducted every year since 2002, included questions on US-German relations as well as Germany’s role in Europe.

Carried out at the end of  2013, it found 60 percent of Americans had an excellent or good impression of Germany, particularly on economics, education and technology.

Germany was also seen as an economic leader and was chosen as the country best suited to lead Europe out of its debt crisis, followed by Great Britain and the US.

Europe Online declines:

German Christmas retail sales unexpectedly slump

German retail sales fell during the key Christmas shopping season, according to data released Friday, setting back hopes of private consumption emerging as a driving force behind growth in Europe’s biggest economy.

Retail sales fell 2.5 per cent in real terms in December, after gaining 0.9 per cent in November. Analysts had expected retail sales to increase by 0.2 per cent.

Year-on-year, retail sales also posted a surprise fall, dropping by 2.4 per cent in December, compared with a 1.1-per-cent rise in November.

Another decline from RFI:

France deports fewer illegal immigrants in 2013

French Interior minister Manuel Valls has announced that 27,000 illegal immigrants were deported in 2013, 9,000 fewer than in 2012. The right-wing opposition slammed the Socialist government’s performance as “laxism”.

Some 46,000 undocumented immigrants were given papers to stay, 10,000 more than the previous year, the figures, published Friday, showed.
Parliamentary elections 2012

They are the first official review of government migration policy since François Hollande came to power in May 2012.

TheLocal.fr hits the bricks:

Thousands march for traditional family values

Tens of thousands of people marched in Paris and Lyon on Sunday against new laws easing abortion restrictions and legalising gay marriage, accusing French President Francois Hollande’s government of “family phobia”.

Police said 80,000 people took to the streets of the French capital, creating a sea of blue, white and pink – the colours of the lead organising movement LMPT (Protest for Everyone) – who gave a far higher turnout figure of half a million.

Demonstrator Philippe Blin, a pastor from nearby Sevres, said he felt a “relentlessness against the family” in France.

At least 20,000 rallied in Lyon, many of them ferried in aboard dozens of buses, waving placards reading “Mom and Dad, There’s Nothing Better for a Child” and “Two Fathers, Two Mothers, Children With No Bearings” — a slogan that rhymes in French.

While France 24 notes odd political bedfellows:

Muslims join Paris protest against gender equality drive in schools

Tens of thousands of supporters of the conservative “Manif pour Tous” movement gathered in Paris on Sunday to protest against gender equality teaching in schools and fertility treatment for same-sex couples.

Sunday’s march included a prominent Muslim contribution in a protest movement, originally opposed to gay marriage legislation that was passed in 2013, that has so far been overwhelmingly linked to far-right political parties and to conservative Catholic groups.

The “Manif Pour Tous” (MPT) mounted huge protests before legislation was passed in 2013 allowing gay marriages. Its focus now is on a family law, due to be debated later in the spring, which would allow for medically-assisted procreation (MAP) and IVF treatment for same-sex couples.

Many protesters also told FRANCE 24 they were worried about the state’s role in sex education, and the supposed “gender theory” lurking behind an “ABCD of equality” initiative aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes in schools.

From Spain, a countermarch from TheLocal.es:

Thousands join Madrid abortion-rights rally

Thousands of pro-choice campaigners converged on the Spanish capital Saturday to voice their opposition to a government plan to restrict access to abortion in the mainly Catholic country.

Demonstrators shouting slogans and carrying banners that read “It’s my right, It’s my life” crowded around a Madrid station to greet a “freedom train” of activists from northern Spain for the country’s first major protest against the plan.

Under pressure from the Catholic Church, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government announced on December 20th it would roll back a 2010 law that allows women to opt freely for abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The new law — yet to pass parliament, where the ruling People’s Party enjoys an absolute majority — would allow abortion only in cases of rape or a threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother.

Xinhua takes vows:

Spanish PM Rajoy promises fiscal reform, tax cuts

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy promised on Sunday to see through a program of fiscal reform in the remaining two years of his mandate.

Speaking to close the national convention of his ruling Popular Party (PP), Rajoy said he would continue with the program of reforms his party have introduced in the slightly over two years since they have been in power.

“We will carry out fiscal reform: of course we will,” said Rajoy, who said it would be “an integral reform which will stimulate growth and employment in line with the recovery of the country.”

The ultimate human austerian cost from TheLocal.es:

Spain’s suicide rate highest in eight years

Figures from Spain’s National Institute of Statistics (INE) show a surge in the suicide rate but heart attacks remain the leading cause of death.

The most recent data from 2012, released on Friday, reveals that 402,950 people died in Spain, some 15,039 (3.9 percent) more than in 2011.

There were 3539 suicides (2,724 men and 815 women), up 11.3 percent from the year before, a rate of 7.6  per 100,000 inhabitants. The figures were the highest since 2005.

According to official broadcaster RTVE, suicide was second only to cancer (15 percent of deaths) in the overall 25-34 age group, but the leading cause of death in young men (17.8 percent).

A Fourth Estate loss from TheLocal.es:

Corruption-probing newspaper chief sacked

Spain’s leading centre-right newspaper El Mundo said on Thursday it was dismissing its director Pedro J. Ramirez, under whose leadership the daily broke a series of political corruption stories.

Ramirez’s scoops included a report last year of alleged secret payments to members of Spain’s ruling party, which forced Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to fight off calls to resign.

The paper has vigorously pursued stories of corruption on the right and left, including allegations of fraud involving former officials in the Socialist-run southern region of Andalusia.

The usual suspects, doing quite well, via TheLocal.es:

Spain’s top banks enjoy 2013 profit surge

Top Spanish banks have reported a 2013 profit surge, predicting better times ahead after taking hefty losses in Spain and other crisis-hit eurozone nations.

Santander, BBVA and CaixaBank said they had emerged stronger from banking troubles that led to a 41-billion-euro ($56 billion) rescue of their weaker rivals in Spain.

All Spanish banks have had to set aside money for losses on assets, pounded by the collapse in 2008 of a decade-long property boom.

At the same time, they have been obliged to boost the ratio of rock-solid core capital on their balance sheets.

Analysts say risks remain in the sector, with doubtful loans rising in November to 13.08 percent of all credit extended by Spanish banks, the highest since records began in their existing form in 1962.

Xinhua takes us to Portugal:

Portuguese protest against gov’t austerity measures

Thousands of Portuguese staged a protest Saturday against government austerity measures in the downtown of capital Lisbon.

General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers, or CGTP, who organized the demonstration, called for the Portuguese to struggle against the government, oppose the exploitation and poverty and demand for salary rise, employment and welfare.

Raising high placards, the demonstrators marched from Cais Sodre railway station towards Restaurante Square in downtown Lisbon, chanting slogans against government austerity measures and calling for the government to step down.

Italy next, and a populist movement critiqued via AGI:

M5S has been shown ‘excessive’ tolerance, says Letta

Italy’s Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, said “excessive levels of tolerance” had been shown to the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) following recent controversy.

The group promised to never sit peacefully in parliament again after the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, used the hotly debated ‘guillotine’ to swiftly convert a decree on the IMU property tax into law, culminating in the group demanding her resignation, as well as the impeachment of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

“I think there has been an excessive level of tolerance towards methods falling outside those allowed by democratic rules”, Letta stated during a press conference. “Both the accusations towards President Napolitano and behaviour in parliament must be strongly and clearly condemned”.

After the jump, the ongoing Greek crisis, Ukrainian posturing, Argentine financial woes, Indian uncertainty, Thai electoral turmoil, Malaysian misery, mixed signals from China, Japanese anxieties, ecological disasters, and Fuksuhimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day I: Big Brother, zone zealots


Today’s walk on the dark side begins with the latest in provoked [by Edward Snowden] political posturing from the New York Times:

Obama Calls for Overhaul of N.S.A.’s Phone Data Collection Program

President Obama, declaring that advances in technology had made it harder “to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties,” announced carefully calculated changes to surveillance policies on Friday, saying he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to telephone data, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.

But Mr. Obama left in place significant elements of the broad surveillance net assembled by the National Security Agency, and left the implementation of many of his changes up to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves.

Another take, from The Guardian:

Obama presents NSA reforms with plan to end government storage of call data

  • President stops short of ending controversial bulk collection
  • Obama assures allied foreign leaders on NSA surveillance
  • Reforms also include added Fisa court safeguards

US president Barack Obama forcefully defended the embattled National Security Agency on Friday in a speech that outlined a series of surveillance reforms but stopped well short of demanding an end to the bulk collection of American phone data.

In his widely anticipated address at the Justice Department on the future course of US surveillance policy, Obama said the government should no longer hold databases of every call record made in the United States, citing the “potential for abuse”.

But Obama did not say what should replace the databases and made it clear the intelligence agencies should still be able to access call records information in some unspecified way, signalling a new round in the battle between privacy advocates and the NSA’s allies.

Still another take, also from The Guardian:

Obama’s NSA ‘reforms’ are little more than a PR attempt to mollify the public

  • Obama is draping the banner of change over the NSA status quo. Bulk surveillance that caused such outrage will remain in place

In response to political scandal and public outrage, official Washington repeatedly uses the same well-worn tactic. It is the one that has been hauled out over decades in response to many of America’s most significant political scandals. Predictably, it is the same one that shaped President Obama’s much-heralded Friday speech to announce his proposals for “reforming” the National Security Agency in the wake of seven months of intense worldwide controversy.

The crux of this tactic is that US political leaders pretend to validate and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are “serious questions that have been raised”. They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic “reforms” so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.

And seen from Germany by TheLocal.de:

Obama: We won’t tap allies’ phones

US president Barack Obama announced on Friday in a speech that he would restrict the NSA’s powers. It will no longer be allowed to monitor phones of allied country leaders, including Germany.

The National Security Agency (NSA) will have to get the permission of a special court to view mass telephone data, Obama said from Washington, in a hotly anticipated speech following Edward Snowden’s revealing of the country’s mass spying programmes.

Mass data will also no longer be stored by the NSA, making it harder to access, he said. This curbing should “protect the privacy and civil liberties, no matter their nationality or where they are.”

A laconic techie take from The Register:

Obama reveals tiny NSA reforms … aka reforming your view of the NSA

  • Prez announces tweaks here and there for ordinary American citizens

From TheHill, a critical take:

Critics: Obama spy plan keeps status quo for NSA

Privacy rights advocates and tech companies on Friday dismissed President Obama’s proposed overhaul of government surveillance as preserving the status quo.

CNN parses semantics:

Despite Obama’s NSA changes, phone records still collected

After the firestorm over Edward Snowden’s disclosure of U.S. surveillance programs, the most contentious aspect revealed by last year’s classified leaks will continue under reforms announced Friday by President Barack Obama.

Someone will still collect records of the numbers and times of phone calls by every American.

While access to the those records will be tightened and they may be shifted from the National Security Agency to elsewhere, the storage of the phone metadata goes on.

The Guardian gets itchy:

US telecoms giants express unease about proposed NSA metadata reforms

  • AT&T concerned US may force company to retain data
  • Tech firms hail ‘positive progress’ on privacy protections

Privately, telecoms executives have expressed concern that they will be forced to retain customers’ metadata – information about call duration, recipients and location. Speaking anonymously, one executive said the firms were concerned about how long they would have to keep data, which government agencies would have access to it and what protections they would have should there be legal challenges to their retention or distribution of the information.

The Verge has the predictable praise:

Intelligence and defense leaders offer support for Obama’s NSA reforms

President Obama today announced his approach to reforming some government surveillance practices, and at least for right now, the US intelligence and defense communities are supportive of those ideas. Both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have issued statements vouching for the changes outlined in Obama’s speech. “These programs must always balance the need to defend our national security with the responsibility to preserve America’s individual liberties, and the President’s decisions and recommendations will do that,” said Hagel in a statement.

Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Mike Rogers, who lead the Senate Intelligence Committee and House Intelligence Committee respectively, also seemed happy with Obama’s speech. According to a joint statement, they “look forward to working with the president to increase confidence in these programs.” Not everyone was impressed with Obama’s remarks. Senator Rand Paul said the new strategy basically amounts to “the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration.”

Roseate musing from The Guardian:

NSA critics in Congress sense reform momentum after Obama speech

  • Three new co-sponsors for USA Freedom Act
  • Sensenbrenner: ‘Reform cannot be done by presidential fiat’

Critics of National Security Agency surveillance are hoping President Barack Obama’s call to stop government collection of telephone data will give fresh momentum to legislation aimed at banning the practice entirely.

On Friday, three new co-sponsors joined the 120 congressmen who have already backed the so-called USA Freedom Act, but their reform bill faces tough competition from rival lawmakers who claim the president’s broad support for the NSA favours separate efforts to protect its powers.

Reviews from abroad via The Guardian:

Obama NSA reforms receive mixed response in Europe and Brazil

  • EU commissioner says speech is a step in right direction, but German ex-minister says changes fail to tackle root problem

Europeans were largely underwhelmed by Barack Obama’s speech on limited reform of US espionage practices, saying the measures did not go far enough to address concerns over American snooping on its European allies.

A compendium of the  eurocommentariat from the McClatchy Foreign Staff:

European commentators see little to praise in Obama’s NSA changes

President Barack Obama’s highly anticipated revisions to the National Security Agency international spying program didn’t come close to satisfying European commentators.

The French newspaper Le Monde called them “timid and partial.” The British newspaper The Guardian referred to them as “sleight of hand.” The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel called them “Refoermchen,” meaning less than a real reform, or a “tiny reform.” The Russian news agency Novosti reminded its audience that “neither the reform nor the statement would have happened without the leaks from Edward Snowden,” a former NSA contract worker who began leaking secret files back in June. The German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau simply noted in a headline: “Obama disappoints the world.”

The reason? The speech made it clear to Europeans that the Obama administration intends to continue to collect almost as much data as it always has, but has promised not to use it unless necessary. To Europeans, who since last summer have grown increasingly distrustful of the intentions of the American spy program, such words are of little comfort.

Wired wonders:

So what did the tech companies get?

As expected, they will have more freedom to disclose the number and the nature of requests from the government for data related to national-security concerns. So we can expect more detailed transparency reports from the companies showing that they only provide a fraction of their information to the government.

Additionally, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will add members with expertise in civil liberties and technology and will declassify more of its decisions.

BuzzFeed gets to the bottom of it:

America’s Spies Want Edward Snowden Dead

  • “I would love to put a bullet in his head,” one Pentagon official told BuzzFeed.

The NSA leaker is enemy No. 1 among those inside the intelligence world.

Edward Snowden has made some dangerous enemies. As the American intelligence community struggles to contain the public damage done by the former National Security Agency contractor’s revelations of mass domestic spying, intelligence operators have continued to seethe in very personal terms against the 30-year-old whistle-blower.

“In a world where I would not be restricted from killing an American, I personally would go and kill him myself,” a current NSA analyst told BuzzFeed. “A lot of people share this sentiment.”

Also drawing considerable attention was the latest Snowden leak from The Guardian:

NSA collects millions of text messages daily in ‘untargeted’ global sweep

  • NSA extracts location, contacts and financial transactions
  • ‘Dishfire’ program sweeps up ‘pretty much everything it can’
  • GCHQ using database to search metadata from UK numbers

The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details, according to top-secret documents.

The untargeted collection and storage of SMS messages – including their contacts – is revealed in a joint investigation between the Guardian and the UK’s Channel 4 News based on material provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The documents also reveal the UK spy agency GCHQ has made use of the NSA database to search the metadata of “untargeted and unwarranted” communications belonging to people in the UK.

The NSA program, codenamed Dishfire, collects “pretty much everything it can”, according to GCHQ documents, rather than merely storing the communications of existing surveillance targets.

The Wire sums up:

NSA on Text Messages: ‘A Goldmine to Exploit’

If you were curious: Yes, the National Security Agency is collecting and filtering text messages to the tune of 194 million a day. It’s a collection of data that one agency slide, obtained by The Guardian from leaker Edward Snowden, called “a goldmine to exploit.”

The Guardian details the NSA’s text message collection infrastructure in a new report, including its massive scale.

  • The agencies collect 194 million messages a day.
  • They include 76,000 geocoordinates for users, thanks to people seeking directions or setting up meetings.
  • The agencies track 1.6 million border crossings and 5,000-plus occurrences in which someone is traveling.
  • They’re able to link hundreds of thousands of financial transactions.
  • They collect over 5 million missed call alerts, which then get pushed into the “contact-chaining” system, building out the NSA’s ad hoc social network.

More from The Guardian:

NSA leaks: Dishfire revelations expose the flaws in British laws on surveillance

How can we have a meaningful debate about excessive snooping when so much information is a state secret?

What we have no words for we cannot discuss except crudely. The latest revelation about the security services brings a new word to our growing vocabulary: Dishfire. This week’s exposé reveals the NSA collecting and extracting personal information from hundreds of millions of text messages a day. While messages from US phone numbers are removed from the database, documents show GCHQ used it to search the metadata of “untargeted and unwarranted” communications belonging to British citizens.

We are not so much free citizens, innocent until proven guilty, but rather, as one of the Dishfire slides says, a “rich data set awaiting exploitation”. Prism, Tempora, Upstream, Bullrun – as our language grows we begin to speak with greater clarity. We move from James Bond fantasies to a greater understanding of what the intelligence services actually do in our name and with our money. Is indiscriminate, dragnet surveillance the best way to protect democracy?

NSA Dishfire presentation on text message collection – key extracts

A pre-Obamacast declaration from The Hill:

Sen. Leahy on NSA claim: ‘Baloney’

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Thursday the National Security Agency’s claim that they’re “very protective” of Americans’ information is “baloney.”

Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown” that the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program has not thwarted a single terrorist attack.

President Obama, NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander, and lawmakers, such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), have said the program has helped stop at least 50 terrorist plots.

“The other thing that keeps striking me is that [the NSA says] ‘we’re very protective of this information.’ Baloney,” Leahy said. “They weren’t protective enough that they could stop a sub-contractor, Mr. Snowden, from stealing millions of their biggest secrets. To this day, they still don’t know all of what he’s stolen.”

Leahy has introduced several bills that would change the NSA’s operations. One bill, the USA Freedom Act, would end the NSA’s metadata program.

After the jump, European blowback, German inquiries, NSA-tech-enabled hackers,  compliant corporations, direct action claims, lethal attack on the press, another Mideast causus belli debunked, Asian crises hit the textbooks, claims, zones, corporate espionage, a Google setback, and more. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEcoGrecoFuku


Our excursion into the world of economics, politics, and their impacts on the world we live in begins on a downbeat note from CNBC:

New report says millions of women at risk of falling into poverty, economic ruin

Although in recent decades women have made historic advances in nearly all areas of American public life, a staggering number of women across the country are still teetering on the verge of poverty and economic disaster, a new report released Sunday shows.

The report, co-authored by NBC News special anchor Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, takes a wide-angle snapshot of a national economic crisis — seen through the eyes of women. The key findings paint a portrait of an estimated 42 million women — and 28 million dependent children — saddled with financial hardship.

“These are not women who are wondering if they can ‘have it all,’” Shriver wrote in her introduction to the report. “These are women who are already doing it all — working hard, providing, parenting, and care-giving. They’re doing it all, yet they and their families can’t prosper, and that’s weighing the U.S. economy down.”

The Guardian covers banksters being banksters:

Bank bonuses: brace yourself for the great Wall Street trousering

  • The big US banks are about to reward their employees again, to the tune of another £4bn

This is a big week. A very big week. A several-billion-dollar week, in fact, if you happen to be a Wall Street banker.

Yes, it’s the time of year when US banks reveal how much they’ve stuffed into their bonus pools and – by extension – how robust their employees’ trademark braces must be as we realise how much they trousered.

In the first nine months of 2013, the big US banks set aside about £40bn to top up their staffers’ meagre stipends. Analysts reckon Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs will pour in another £4bn when they report results this week – meaning little work will be done as bankers focus on pretending they got more than they actually did.

The Progressive has the spreadsheet:

Millionaires: Officially the Real Majority in Congress

For the first time ever, a majority of America’s elected officials in Congress are millionaires.

“Of 534 current members of Congress, at least 268 had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012,” a new analysis of financial disclosure forms by The Center for Responsive Politics explains. “The median net worth for the 530 current lawmakers who were in Congress as of the May filing deadline was $1,008,767 — an increase from the previous year when it was $966,000.”

The Senate is where most of the monied members reside, with a median net worth of its current members coming to over $2.7 million. Members of the House tended to be somewhat less wealthy, with a median income of $896,004. With the House and Senate totals averaged together, however, the median net worth in Congress comes out to $1,008,767.

On to Britain with union in name only from Sky News:

IDS Wants Two-Year Ban On Migrant Benefits

  • The Work and Pensions Secretary says he has held talks with other EU countries to forge alliances to prevent “benefit tourism”

EU immigrants may have to wait for up to two years to claim benefits in the UK – rather than the current period of three months, Iain Duncan Smith has said.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, the Work and Pensions Secretary said he had been speaking to other member states including Germany, Italy and the Netherlands who were supportive of the idea.

He said Britain should ask migrants to “demonstrate that you are committed to the country, that you are a resident and that you are here for a period of time and you are generally taking work and that you are contributing”.

BBC News follows up:

Nick Clegg backs ‘eminently sensible’ EU benefit changes

It is “sensible” to consider further curbs to the benefits EU migrants can claim, the deputy prime minister says.

It comes after Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said he was talking to other EU governments about trying to restrict access to welfare.

Nick Clegg told BBC Radio 5 live it was right to insist migrants “jump through hoops” before claiming benefits.

And The Observer delivers a setback:

Brussels slaps down British threats to rewrite immigration rules

  • President of European parliament says UK has ‘no chance of curbing basic principle of free movement’

Brussels has stepped up its fightback against UK attempts to curb EU immigration as leaders of the European parliament declared that rules on freedom of movement were completely non-negotiable, and made clear that attempts to change them would be blocked.

In the latest response to calls from UK politicians to unpick the EU treaties and rewrite one of its founding principles, the European parliament’s president, Martin Schulz, said that while he took UK demands for reform of the EU “very seriously” there was no question of the parliament agreeing to reopen the rule-book on free movement.

The Independent talks divorce:

House of Lords warned not to ‘ignore the public’s wishes’ on EU referendum debate

The House of Lords has been warned that it would be “ignoring” the wishes of ordinary people if it blocks a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Peers are debating the Conservatives’ bid to lay down in law a public vote on membership.

James Wharton, the Tory MP for Stockton South who steered the Bill through the Commons, said: “It is extremely important that the House of Lords recognise that this Bill, which has been passed through every stage of the democratically-elected House of Commons, needs to pass in order to give the British people a say on this very important issue.

“It would be strange indeed for the unelected House of Lords to block a Bill which is to legislate for a referendum.”

And The London Telegraph renegotiates:

Chancellor to back Britain staying in a ‘reformed EU’

  • George Osborne will say UK has allies in its push for more liberal regulations from Brussels

George Osborne is to say that Britain should remain in a reformed European Union and that the UK has allies in its push for liberalisation of regulations that could hinder growth.

In a major speech on Europe next week, the Chancellor will say that as the economic recovery puts Britain at the top of growth league in the European Union, the reform agenda is gaining momentum.

He will also make it clear that Britain is gaining support as it pushes for changes in the way the EU operates.

Sky News sells out:

Jaguar Land Rover: Record Breaking World Sales

Midlands-based manufacturer JLR sets sales records in 38 countries worldwide as demand rises sharply in the last year.

It is thought sales have been doing particularly well in Germany, as well as the rapidly growing developing economies of India and China.

In the UK Jaguar sales were up 15% and Land Rover sales were up 13%.

Globally Land Rover is proving the firm favourite among customers representing the largest share of sales with 348,383 sold in 2013, an increase of 15%. But demand for the luxury Jaguar has surged over the last 12 months, almost doubling its international sales to 76,668.

The Observer again, with inflation:

Childcare costs soar by 19% in just one year – survey

  • Parenting expert says increase is ‘triple whammy’ and financial burden on families is like a ‘second mortgage’

The cost of childcare in Britain has soared by 19% over the past year, according to research given exclusively to the Observer, which also found that a quarter of unemployed parents want to return to work but cannot afford to have their children looked after.

Findababysitter.com, a childcare search website, said parents were struggling with returning to work because of the availability and cost of childcare, which often amounted to a “second mortgage”.

The Observer again, with business as usual:

Lobbying bill will tarnish Britain, says UN official

  • UN rapporteur on freedom of assembly launches fierce attack on bill, while charities demand further concessions

A top UN official has made an outspoken attack on the government’s controversial lobbying bill, describing it as a “stain” on democracy that will undermine elections in the UK, as leading charities demand fresh concessions on the proposals from coalition ministers.

Before key votes on the bill in the House of Lords this week, Maina Kiai, the UN rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, says the legislation, if not amended further, will reduce the ability of people in civil society to express their views before elections, while doing little or nothing to tighten controls on corporate lobbyists.

In an article published on Sunday on this newspaper’s website, Kiai, a Kenyan lawyer appointed by the UN’s human rights council, said: “Although sold as a way to level the electoral playing field, the bill actually does little more than shrink the space for citizens – particularly those engaged in civil society groups – to express their collective will. In doing so, it threatens to tarnish the United Kingdom’s democracy.”

On to Sweden and raw reality from TheLocal.se:

‘Sweden’s mineral wealth is sold too cheaply’

Critics argue that Sweden is selling its vast mineral resources far too cheap, raising the idea that the country should follow neighbouring Norway and establish a wealth fund to invest for future generations.

While concession fees are kept deliberately low in order to attract miners, critics say all nine million Swedes could and should benefit the same way that their Norwegian neighbours all profit from their national oil wealth.

“This is something we own together,” said Jesper Roine, associate professor at the Stockholm School of Economics. Besides, he added, minerals have an intrinsic value even before they are dug out of the earth, and they should be priced accordingly, the way all other raw materials are priced.

Seeking alliance from The Independent:

France’s Marine Le Pen wants her far-right party to join forces with Ukip and destroy ‘European Soviet Union’

The leader of the France’s Front National believes the far-right party and Ukip share a common set of values and should join forces to bring down the “European Soviet Union”.

Marine Le Pen said she expected the “European system… to explode” and suggested Ukip might decide to form a partnership with the Front National and other far-right parties in the future to help make this happen.

However Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage, who insists his party is “strictly non-racist” and “libertarian”, dismissed the idea.

Spain next, and TheLocal.es, blinded by love:

In-love Spanish princess ‘innocent’ of graft: lawyer

Spain’s Princess Cristina loves and trusts her husband “come hell or high water” as he faces a corruption probe and is innocent of wrongdoing herself, her lawyer said Friday.

King Juan Carlos’s youngest daughter, the blonde-haired, 48-year-old Cristina, was summoned this week to appear on March 8th at a court in Palma de Mallorca as a suspect in alleged tax and money-laundering crimes.

Cristina is suspected of being tied to the activities of her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, a 45-year-old former Olympic handball player who has been under investigation since 2011 over the suspected embezzlement of money from public bodies.

El País chats up:

Royals relieved that Cristina will testify in tax fraud case

  • Princess drops appeal plan after being made aware of need to address growing scandal by king’s palace circle

Spain’s royal family is relieved that Princess Cristina will not appeal the preliminary charges against her and will instead testify in court over allegations of tax fraud and money laundering.

Her decision is “very positive,” said the Royal Household in a statement Saturday.

Cristina de Borbón’s lawyer had said on Tuesday that they would appeal the judge’s decision to make her a formal target in the investigation, as had occurred on a previous occasion in April 2013. But on Friday Miquel Roca announced in writing that his client was renouncing this right and would testify voluntarily on March 8.

thinkSPAIN sets limits:

Out-of-work Spaniards abroad see healthcare entitlement capped at 90 days

LONG-TERM dole claimants in Spain will lose their entitlement to free medical care via their European health cards after they have been out of the country for three months in a new government ruling.

This does not apply to students or tourists, but does apply to Spaniards and other EU nationals resident in Spain and entitled to healthcare cover there who leave the country with the intention of this being a longer-term arrangement.

After 90 days, they will be required to have registered as residents in the country they have travelled to and secured their entitlement to healthcare in their destination.

TheLocal.es protests:

Crowds defy Madrid in sensitive Basque demo

Tens of thousands of protesters in Spain’s Basque Country defied Madrid on Saturday by holding a mass demonstration marked by tensions over jailed members of the armed separatist group ETA.

Crowds filled the streets in the northern city of Bilbao in a march for “human rights, understanding and peace”, after a judge banned another demonstration planned to demand concessions for the prisoners.

The treatment of imprisoned ETA convicts is one of the most delicate issues in a standoff between the authorities and western Europe’s last major armed secessionist movement.

Europe Online has numbers:

Poll: Spain’s Socialists more popular than ruling conservatives

Spain’s opposition Socialists have the lead over the ruling conservative party for the first time since its election defeat two years ago, an opinion poll showed Sunday.

The survey published in El Pais newspaper showed 33.5 per cent of voters support the Socialists while 32 per cent were behind Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP).

Elections are scheduled for next year.

On to Italy and a Bunga Bunga blast from AGI:

Beppe Grillo decries continued presence of Berlusconi

Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, decried Silvio Berlusconi’s continued presence on the Italian political scene.

“There’s a guy walking around Italy with the arrogance of someone who has gone unpunished. The Five Star Movement kicked him out of parliament after 20 years of dividing up Italy with the PD (centre-left Democratic Party). But it’s as though he never left. Actually, he’s risen from the ashes as Mr Renzi (leader of the Democratic Party) considers him his main interlocutor for the new electoral law. The dummy from Florence and the author of the pig’s ear of an electoral system (which changed Italy’s majority system into a proportional one) united for a New Italy. Isn’t it just wonderful?” he posted on his blog.

TheLocal.it covers a shakeup shakeup:

Mayor of Italy earthquake town quits over graft

The mayor of the Italian town of L’Aquila, which was partially destroyed in a 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people, stepped down Saturday following a corruption scandal involving members of his team.

“I have no legitimacy left. I am tired. I am angry. I have suffered a full-on media attack. That is why I am resigning,” Massimo Cialente told reporters. “I have understood that I am no longer useful in this town and I am maybe even an obstacle,” he added.

Four people from his administration were placed under house arrest Wednesday for alleged bribery linked to reconstruction contracts following the earthquake in the central Italian town.

Four more have been notified they are under investigation, including deputy mayor Roberto Riga and a local official in charge of restoring damaged monuments.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, Ukrainian protest, wealth and servitude in the Gulf, an Argentine appeal, Pakistani peace talks, Indian uncertainty, Thai troubles, Chinese “reforms,” Japanese numbers, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliFukuRealism


Much happening, and the troubles continue at Fukushima.

We begin our econocentric coverage close to home [literally], with the Oakland Tribune:

Alta Bates Summit Medical Center to slash 358 jobs in Oakland, Berkeley

Alta Bates Summit Medical Center is cutting 358 positions and shutting down its skilled nursing facility.

Alta Bates Summit, which has several East Bay campuses, will eliminate 195 jobs at Summit in Oakland, 133 jobs at Alta Bates in Berkeley and 30 at Herrick in Berkeley, according to the state Employment Development Department.

The company also is closing its skilled nursing facility and infusion program at Summit in Oakland, a hospital spokeswoman said.

SINA English injects:

Chinese investment in US doubled in 2013: study

China’s investment in the United States doubled to $14 billion last year despite sometimes rocky political ties, with private firms leading the way, said a study out Tuesday.

About half of the value consisted of Shuanghui International’s takeover of prominent pork producer Smithfield Foods, a $7.1 billion deal that marked the largest ever Chinese acquisition of a US company.

But the report by the Rhodium Group, a New York-based firm that looks closely at Chinese investment, found that the total number of deals had also risen from 2012 to 82. It said that Chinese companies accounted for 70,000 full-time jobs in the United States.

The total value of investment hit a record high of $14 billion, with high-profile deals in real estate as well as Chinese investors took stakes in the General Motors Building and Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York.

Bloomberg View’s The Ticker finds bubbles in your bong:

Dude, This Pot Stock Is Totally in a Bong Bubble

Shares of Medbox Inc. soared 85 percent yesterday to $73.90, and have been on a wild ride today, trading as high as $93.50 and as low as $46.90. It seems investors got all stoked about the company’s prospects selling vending machines with fingerprint readers to dispense marijuana, now that recreational pot is legal in two states, Colorado and Washington. Yesterday the company, which trades on the Pink Sheets, issued a news release saying “it has improved on its products for use in recreational and medical marijuana facilities.” The day before that, it issued a news release to tout the appearance of its chief executive officer, Bruce Bedrick, on CNBC.

There hasn’t been much else to explain why Medbox’s stock market value suddenly topped $1 billion this week. As recently as Dec. 26, before Colorado’s new law took effect, the stock was trading for about $10. Nor does there seem to be much basis for believing the company should be worth so much now. Medbox had net income of about $23,000 on sales of $2.9 million during the six months ended June 30, according to a prospectus it filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which it has since withdrawn.

Bloomberg covers other agricultural prophets:

Monsanto Profit Tops Estimates on Soybeans and Roundup

Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed company, reported fiscal first-quarter earnings that topped analysts’ estimates on rising sales of engineered soybean seeds and Roundup herbicide.

Net income in the three months through November increased to $368 million, or 69 cents a share, from $339 million, or 63 cents, a year earlier, Monsanto said today in a statement. Profit excluding a discontinued business was 67 cents, beating the 64-cent average of 17 estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Revenue rose 6.9 percent to $3.14 billion, topping the $3.07 billion average of 15 estimates.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Hugh Grant is focused on selling more genetically modified seeds in Latin America to drive earnings growth outside the core U.S. market. Sales of soybean seeds and genetic licenses climbed 16 percent, and revenue in the unit that makes glyphosate weed killer, sold as Roundup, rose 24 percent.

MintPress News sounds a Santayana alert:

Absence Of History, Social Studies Requirements In US Education System Causes Concern

Many have expressed concern that there is no federal requirement that students learn about history.

Creating universal education standards may have been President Barack Obama’s intent when he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan created the Common Core K-12 educational curriculum in 2009. But as education officials have begun to slowly integrate the program into private, public and home-schooled children in about 46 states so far, many education professionals are wondering why there is no social studies or history requirement.

Though some blame social studies teachers for a lack of history requirements — calling a bulk of social studies teachers underqualified — others say the reason the U.S. doesn’t have any history requirements is because Americans don’t always agree on what actually happened in American history.

Sociological Images is stunned:

Teachers Offered Personal Loans to Buy School Supplies

If you’re looking for just one image that says a thousand words about what’s wrong with America, here’s a contender.  It is a screenshot of an email sent to members of the Silver State Schools Credit Union:

BLOG Teacher loans

Yep, it’s an invitation to K-12 teachers to go into debt to do their job.

The London Daily Mail floats it:

The latest perk of working for Google – free private ferry service to work

  • Private passenger catamaran service launched across San Fransisco Bay
  • It carries up to 150 workers to and from the Google HQ near Redwood city
  • Firm’s shuttle bus service had been targetted by angry protesters
  • Employees already enjoy massages, free gourmet food and ‘20 per cent time’

Al Jazeera America blows back:

San Francisco to tax tech companies for employee shuttles

  • City will charge Google, Facebook and others that use public bus stops in an effort to combat traffic, public resentment

San Francisco plans to start regulating employee shuttles for companies like Google, Facebook and Apple, charging a fee for those that use public bus stops and controlling where they load and unload.

The influx of private shuttle buses, which transport thousands of San Francisco workers to their jobs, has created traffic problems on the city’s narrow streets, blocking public bus stops during peak commuting hours.

For some locals, these buses have become a tangible symbol of economic inequality and the aggressive wave of gentrification sweeping through large swaths of San Francisco and Oakland as a result of the burgeoning technology industry.

CNN Political Unit numbers a sea change:

CNN Poll: Americans say marijuana is less dangerous than booze or tobacco

According to a new national poll, marijuana is not as wicked as other illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine, and much less dangerous than legal substances like alcohol and tobacco.

That’s one reason why a CNN/ORC International survey indicates that support for legalizing marijuana is soaring, and why that same support does not extend to hard drugs.

A CNN/ORC poll released Monday showed that 55% of all Americans think that the use of marijuana should be legal – a solid majority and more than triple the 16% who said the same thing a quarter century ago. But according to numbers released Tuesday, the percentage is nowhere near as high as the 81% who say alcohol should remain legal or the 71% who believe that tobacco use is OK.

Austerian NAFTA reality from the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy:

No Golden Pond for NAFTA Generation Retirees

Twenty years after the promoters of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) heralded a new age of prosperity, tens of millions of people in the member nations of the trinational trade and investment pact look forward to an impoverished retirement.  While in the United States and Mexico, huge segments of the working-age population could wind up with a retirement income-if any at all- befitting paupers, even in relatively better-off Canada the status of retirees is showing signs of slippage.

As all three NAFTA countries undergo workforce aging trends, the implications of a multinational retirement crisis in the coming years will be profound for the economic and social health of the region. Recent reports, including the one issued last month by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), carry somber warnings for the futures of millions as they approach their golden years.

For U.S Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), the emerging retirement crunch is a “crisis that is as real and as frightening as any policy problem facing the United States today.”

Across the Atlantic with a plateau from Europe Online:

Eurozone unemployment rate stuck at record 12.1 per cent

Unemployment in the eurozone remained stuck at a record high of 12.1 per cent in November, new data released on Wednesday showed, as the currency bloc struggles to recover from a debilitating economic crisis.

The jobless rate was initially believed to have dropped in October for the first time in almost three years, but Wednesday’s data – issued by the European Union’s statistics agency Eurostat – showed that in fact it has remained unchanged since April 2013.

The eurozone managed to pull out of recession earlier this year, but unemployment has remains stubbornly high. The bloc experienced its last decline in the jobless rate in February 2011.

MarketWatch frets:

Draghi faces deflation threat as ECB, BOE meet

  • Euro risks selloff if Draghi mentions recent strength, hints at further action

The Bank of England and the European Central Bank are both expected to keep monetary policy on hold Thursday. What ECB President Mario Draghi says about low inflation could signal whether the bank expands stimulus at future meetings and move the euro.

The BOE will release its decision at 7 a.m. Eastern. The central bank doesn’t normally release a statement when there is no change in policy, but central-bank watchers say that the BOE could be compelled to do so in light of the rapidly falling unemployment rate and what it means for U.K. interest rates.

New Europe admonishes:

US tells EU, Germany to act on banks and surplus respectively

The US wants Germany to boost its domestic demand and Europe as a whole to strengthen its banks. This much has so far become clear during Jacon Lew’s, the US Treasure Secretary’s visit to the continent. Lew was in Berlin today and visited France on January 7.

“We continue to believe that policies that would promote more domestic investment and demand would be good for the German economy and the global economy,” Lew told a news conference after meeting German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

Even though the newly installed grand coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the SDP has is planning to introduce a national minimum wage and invest in infrastructure, the fundamentals of its economic and European approached will remain unchanged.

Britain next, with a bubbly BBC News:

UK house prices rose by 7.5% in 2013, Halifax says

House prices across the UK rose by 7.5% last year, according to the Halifax, the country’s largest mortgage lender.

However, Halifax said prices actually fell by 0.6% in December, taking the average price of a property to £173,467.

Last week, the Nationwide building society said house prices had risen by 8.4% in 2013.

Sky News prepares for peasants massing:

Boris Wants Water Cannon For London’s Streets

Boris Johnson says the weapons will only be used in “extreme circumstances” but the 2011 riots show why police need them.

Boris Johnson has requested the Metropolitan Police to be able to use water cannon on the capital’s streets by this summer.

The London Mayor said the weapons would be used only in “the most extreme circumstances”, but there are fears the cannon could be deployed to break up small-scale legitimate protests. He said the water cannon were necessary in case there was a repeat of the summer riots of 2011.

The Guardian is buzzing:

UK faces food security catastrophe as honeybee numbers fall, scientists warn

Crop pollination via honeybees sinks to second lowest in Europe as study calls for greater protection of wild pollinators

Europe has 13 million less honeybee colonies than would be needed to properly pollinate all its crops, research shows. Photograph: Judi Bottoni/AP

The UK faces a food security catastrophe because of its very low numbers of honeybee colonies, which provide an essential service in pollinating many crops, scientists warned on Wednesday.

New research reveals that honeybees provide just a quarter of the pollination needed in the UK, the second lowest level among 41 European countries. Furthermore, the controversial rise of biofuels in Europe is driving up the need for pollination five times faster than the rise in honeybee numbers. The research suggests an increasing reliance on wild pollinators, such as bumblebees and hoverflies, whose diversity is in decline.

Iceland next, and a piteous lament from the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Former Landsbanki Manager “Psychologically Tortured” By Government

The lawyer for former Landsbanki manager Sigurjón Þ. Árnason says that his client is being “psychologically tortured” by the state.

In a column he wrote for Fréttablaðið, Sigurður G. Guðjónsson, Sigurjón’s lawyer, contends the government is needlessly prolonging the legal process in his case, whilst at the same time “continuously blabbing about his guilt to the media.”

For the unfamiliar, Sigurjón was charged with market manipulation during his time as Landsbanki’s manager, leading to the eventual collapse of the bank. The resolution committee of the new Landsbanki is seeking compensation from Sigurjón for the damage the bank incurred under his watch.

Germany next with Europe Online:

German economy picks up speed as industrial sector gains ground

The German economy appears to have ended last year on a strong footing with a solid rise in both exports and factory orders helping to fire its key manufacturing base.

While figures released Wednesday by the Ministry of Economics showed monthly factory orders rebounded by 2.1 per cent in November, the statistics office said exports rose for the fourth consecutive month in November, climbing by 0.3 per cent.

The data provides “further evidence that the economy’s industrial backbone is strengthening again,” said ING Bank economist Carsten Brzeski.

Nationalist umbrage from EUbusiness:

Germany to probe welfare fraud by immigrants

The German government said Wednesday it will look into toughening measures against abuse of its welfare system by immigrants in light of fears of an influx from poor EU member states Romania and Bulgaria.

Chancellor Angela Merkel led a cabinet meeting of her new “grand coalition” where the government agreed to task a commission with making recommendations by mid-June.

“It will address the possible consequences of immigration and open borders — both things the government welcomes and wants,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters.

Deutsche Welle labors:

Amazon staff defend company against unions

For months, unions have been trying to pressure Amazon Germany to pay better wages. But now thousands of employees have come out defending Amazon. Are the unions fighting a lost cause?

The remarkable solidarity of the workers with their employer is in stark contrast to the picture painted by the media. That has focussed on the poor working conditions at Amazon Germany. For months, the company has been under fire for its poor wages, permanent stress and the lousy mood among the staff.

Yet when Verdi called strikes in recent weeks, only very few employees took part. The union wants to get a pay deal for them with a pay level similar to other companies in the mail order business. Currently, Amazon pays the lower rates applicable to the logistics sector.

France next, and schismatics from EurActiv:

French leftist coalition blows up ahead of EU, local elections

The French Left Party’s decision to suspend its membership of the European Left has highlighted tensions with their traditional communist allies, which could seriously damage both party’s results at the forthcoming EU elections in May.

As the EU elections approach, European political parties from all sides are gearing up to nominate their candidates for the European Commission’s top job.

The Associated Press convicts:

Frenchwoman fined after Muslim veil prompted riots

A French court has convicted a woman for insulting police who ticketed her for wearing a face-covering Muslim veil, banned by French law.

The confrontation between Cassandra Belin, her husband and police triggered riots in the Paris suburb of Trappes last year. Her lawyer, Philippe Bataille, says Belin was fined 150 euros and given a one-month suspended sentence Wednesday.

The lawyer also argued that the veil law is unconstitutional, and asked for it to be sent to the Constitutional Court. The lower Paris court Wednesday threw out that request.

Spain next, and another decline from El País:

Household savings rate falls further as income drops

  • Families cut back on spending in third quarter of last year

The household savings rate in Spain in the third quarter of last year declined further despite lower consumer spending as high unemployment and downward pressure on wages reduced income.

The National Statistics Institute (INE) said Wednesday that the savings rate in the period July-September of last year declined to 9.2 percent from 10.0 percent in the fourth quarter. That was the lowest rate for the third quarter since 2007. On a four-quarter moving basis, the rate dropped to 10.5 percent from 10.7 percent in the four quarters to June.

Gross disposable household income in the period declined 1.6 percent from a year earlier to 162.521 billion euros as a result of a fall of 1.9 percent in wages. Consumption declined an annual 0.4 percent to 147.037 billion euros.

El País again, this time in opposition:

PP deputy congressional speaker calls for free vote within ruling party on abortion

  • Celia Villalobos says she “represents many people who are against” the proposed restriction on terminations

The rift within the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) over its controversial proposed reform of the abortion law that greatly restricts the right to terminate pregnancy grew on Wednesday after a key figure in the group called for a free vote on the issue in parliament.

Deputy Congressional Speaker Celia Villalobos signaled her opposition to the proposed new law, which does not automatically give women the right to abort in cases of severe fetal malformation, during a meeting of the PP’s executive committee on Wednesday, according to sources.

“I represent many people who are not in agreement with the reform that has been presented,” Villalobos said. “I ask for a free vote.” Villalobos abstained during a congressional vote in 2009 on the abortion law put forward by the former Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and was sanctioned by the party for doing so.

Lisbon next, and a departure date from Xinhua:

Portugal could exit bailout program on May. 17: official

Portugal has received yet another thumbs up that the country’s 78-billion-euro bailout program is coming to an end.

Vice President of the European Parliament Othmar Karas, who is ending a visit to Portugal on Tuesday, said that the bailout program could terminate as soon as May. 17, one week before the European elections.

“I’m sure that Portugal can end the program on the 17th of May of 2014, one week before the European elections,” said Karas, quoted by Portugal’s Lusa News Agency Lusa.

Italy next, and a new record from the London Telegraph:

Italian joblessness hits record as it seeks higher foreign investment

Italian joblessness has hit a fresh high, underlining the challenge for the country’s fragile coalition in convincing the international markets it is on the path to recovery.

Unemployment hit 12.7pc in November, up from October’s 12.5pc and the highest on record. Youth unemployment, at 41.6pc, is also at an all-time high.

The figures show that tentative signs of recovery in Italy’s recession-battered economy have failed to benefit the labour market.

Corriere della Sera knows where the bodies are buried:

Parliamentarians, Priests and Gangsters in Tax Consultant’s Secret Files

  • List found on computers belonging to Paolo Oliverio, arrested on charges of laundering underworld funds

The files detail confidential relations with senior clerics, secret service and financial police officers, business figures and politicians. Paolo Oliverio, arrested in early November on charges of manipulating the internal appointments and business dealings of the Camillian religious order, was actually the go-to accountant for many institutional and business figures.

But, add investigators, he was also the man who laundered cash for ‘Ndrangheta gangsters and some of Rome’s home-grown criminals. Mr Oliverio was privy to a great many secrets, as has emerged from the thousands of files found on the computers and pen drives seized when he was arrested. Many now fear what those files could reveal.

After the jump, Greek posturing, Turkish purging, Israeli divestment, Brazilian numbers, African refocusing, India axes and politics, Thai and Cambodian troubles, Chinese neoliberalism, Japanese economic questions and massive food contamination, and the latest Fukushimapocalyp;se Now!. . . Continue reading

Documentary: Israel/Palestine — 5250


An excerpt from a 50-minute ABC Australia documentary available for purchase at Journeyman Pictures:

Why you wouldn’t like to be caught without ID in Tel-Aviv

Program notes:

5250 – This guerrilla-style documentary follows the notorious Israeli 5250 squad in action as they target foreign workers for deportation.

Israel has found an original solution to illegal immigration: a massive force of anti-immigration police who patrol the streets rounding up foreigners. Every immigrant in Israel knows ‘5250′, the number on the force’s license plates. Since the Deportation Police Force was founded more than 130,000 people have been deported at a rate of 136 per night. Rumour has it that the Deportation Police arrest and assault any migrant they find, whether legal or illegal. Thirty Israeli film students turned on their cameras and followed the Deportation Police on their rounds. This is what they saw.

BBC3 Comedy: The Israeli Embassy’s Extension


Simply brilliant, and certain never to be seen on U.S. network television:

The Israeli Embassy’s Extension

From a report on the video from the Times of Israel:

A recent BBC television sketch lampooned alleged Israeli policies by telling businesses located near the Israeli Embassy in London that their properties were to be taken over to make way for an extension of the embassy.

In the sketch, actors dressed as workmen inform property owners that the embassy did not require paperwork to seize their assets because the embassy had a God-given right to appropriate their land.

The candid camera sketch was broadcast on BBC 3 in December, as part of the channel’s “The Revolution Will be Televised” show, which according to the BBC’s website “bring[s] corruption, greed and hypocrisy to the fore. Politicians, multinationals and tax-shy corporations who have been taking the public for a ride for years are now on the receiving end.”

Headlines of the day II: EconoGrecoGMOFuku


As the shakeout settles into its consolidation phase, patterns emerge.

We open with a warning from the Economic Times:

Retreating US stimulus poses risk to world recovery

The world economy should finally overcome its hangover from the global financial crisis this year as growth picks up and house prices rise, but reduced US monetary stimulus will pose a challenge.

After months of angst, investors will see how the US Federal Reserve handles its decision to curtail its policy of easy money, starting from this month.

From CBC News, a sad reality:

Good-looking CEOs may attract better stock returns

U.S. research finds correlation between how S&P 500 companies perform and CEOs’ attractiveness

Companies with attractive CEOs perform better on the stock market, especially in the early days of their tenure or just after any time they appear on television, new research from two American economists suggests.

Joseph T. Halford and Hung-Chia Hsu from the University of Wisconsin published a paper recently that found a correlation between how companies listed on the S&P 500 performed, and the attractiveness of their CEOs.

The Guardian notes a potential political advantage:

Leading Republicans’ states among worst hit by jobless benefits cuts

Analysis shows rolling cuts to unemployment benefits will severely hurt constituencies of prominent GOP leaders

Senior Republican senators including Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul represent some of the states most affected by the controversial cancellation of long-term unemployment benefits, according to a Guardian analysis of data released this week.

More from the Christian Science Monitor:

Obama asks Republicans to offer holiday charity to jobless. Dare they say no?

The US unemployment rate has been steadily dropping, but millions of Americans remain jobless and many of those are losing unemployment benefits. President Obama is urging lawmakers to extend such benefits.

Fault-finding with the Los Angeles Times:

L.A., Santa Monica buildings may sit atop quake faults

The cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica in the last decade have approved more than a dozen construction projects on or near two well-known faults without requiring seismic studies to determine if the buildings could be destroyed in an earthquake, according to a Times analysis.

The structures include a 49-unit apartment complex on the Westside and a three-story office building near the Mormon temple, whose landmark hill was formed by the Santa Monica fault.

State law prohibits construction on top of faults and requires extensive studies before approval of any building within about 500 feet of faults zoned by the state. But the state has not created fault zones for the neighborhoods around the Hollywood or Santa Monica faults, so the cities are not required to enforce the law there.

CNBC makes an exception:

US put China-made parts in F-35 fighter program

The Pentagon repeatedly waived laws banning Chinese-built components on U.S. weapons in order to keep the $392 billion Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter program on track in 2012 and 2013, even as U.S. officials were voicing concern about China’s espionage and military buildup.

According to Pentagon documents reviewed by Reuters, chief U.S. arms buyer Frank Kendall allowed two F-35 suppliers, Northrop Grumman and Honeywell International, to use Chinese magnets for the new warplane’s radar system, landing gears and other hardware. Without the waivers, both companies could have faced sanctions for violating federal law and the F-35 program could have faced further delays.

From euronews, a pathetic choice — your money or your livelihood:

Boeing workers vote to save jobs but lose pensions

Boeing’s machinists narrowly approved a labour contract that secured thousands of jobs worth billions of dollars but will cost workers their pensions.

The deal means Boeing will build its new 777X jetliner and wings in Seattle where the company has build aircraft for 90 years.

Europe Online delivers a demand:

US: EU members must share risks, costs in banking union

The banking union being gradually assembled for the fragile eurozone economy must go beyond the planned centralized regulator and resolution process for failing banks, a US Treasury senior official said Friday in Washington.

To fully restore confidence in Europe’s financial institutions, the banking union must further establish a capacity to recapitalize banks and forge credible deposit insurance, the Treasury official told reporters on condition of anonymity. Those measures would require “significant” sharing of risk and cost among the eurozone’s member countries.

US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is expected to discuss Washington’s perspectives on the eurozone’s long-running financial crisis during a transatlantic trip next week.

Off to Britain with a bonus from the Yomiuri Shimbun:

Goldman Sachs raised pay for top U.K. bankers amid cuts

The average pay for Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s top British bankers rose 77 percent in 2012 even as it declined at U.S.-based peers amid calls from governments and the public to reduce executive compensation.

Goldman Sachs paid an average of $4.67 million in 2012 to British employees deemed by regulators as risk-takers, as well as their managers, up from $2.64 million in 2011, according to figures disclosed by the firm. For similar staff at Citigroup Inc., average pay climbed 9 percent to $2.38 million. At Bank of America Corp. it fell 2 percent to $2.36 million, and at JPMorgan Chase & Co. it slid 3 percent to $3.4 million, totals disclosed separately show.

The largest U.S. banks reported their figures for 2012 as recently as last week under European disclosure rules that are part of a regulatory push to alter pay practices blamed for contributing to the 2008 financial crisis. The filings show a divergence between Goldman Sachs, which shrank headcount while boosting revenue 19 percent in 2012, and competitors such as JPMorgan, which lost more than $6.2 billion that year on botched derivatives bets by London traders. Figures for 2013 won’t be released until later this year.

From the London Telegraph, inflating the bubble:

Business lending slump deepens, as mortgage approvals hit fresh high

  • Slump in business lending deepens in November, even as British banks approve highest number of mortgages in five years

The slump in business lending has deepened, it has emerged, further sharpening the contrast with a surging mortgage market.

Companies took £4.7bn less in loans in November, the biggest drop in more than two years and nearly five times the recent average monthly decline of £1bn, according to figures from the Bank of England. The slide was due to a fall in lending to large businesses, as loans to small and medium-sized companies actually edged up slightly.

And what have those mortgages accomplished? From The Guardian:

Housing bubble fears renewed after price surge of 8.4% last year

London and Manchester areas showed greatest rise, as survey finds average home deposit grew to £31,000

House prices across the UK rose by an average of 8.4% last year, helped by a late surge in property values which recorded £40 a day being added to the price tag of an average British home in the final weeks of last year.

However, the headline data on prices, collected by the Nationwide Building Society, masked huge regional variations, with the value of homes in Manchester soaring by 21% in the past 12 months, and some London boroughs surging by as much as 25%. At the other end of the scale large cities such as Newcastle, Coventry, Edinburgh and Glasgow managed annual growth of 1% to 2%. In a few areas, such as the north-east coast of Northern Ireland, Herefordshire and the Isle of Wight, property prices remain in decline.

The Independent delivers an austerian blow:

Ancient woodland could be destroyed to make way for building in ‘offsetting’ push

  • The Environment Secretary has suggested that ancient woodland over 400 years old could be cut down if younger trees are planted elsewhere

Developers could be granted permission to destroy ancient woodland if they agree to plant new young trees elsewhere, the Environment Secretary has suggested.

Despite admitting that it would be impossible to recreate in the present highly developed ancient woodland habitats, Owen Paterson argued that the loss could be mitigated by a “huge offset” of planting elsewhere.

Ancient woodland is classed as areas that have been continuously wooded for over 400 years. A third of all woods in England are ancient, covering 350,000 hectares.

From the London Telegraph, blast with the past:

Britain flaunts triumph of Waterloo in heart of Euroland

  • British diplomats in Brussels flaunting Duke of Wellington’s triumph at Battle of Waterloo as David Cameron seeks to wrest back powers from the European Union

It was an audacious and cunning victory that put paid to French ambitions for a European superstate.

Nearly two centuries later, British diplomats in Brussels are flaunting the Duke of Wellington’s triumph at the Battle of Waterloo, as David Cameron seeks to wrest back powers from the European Union.

The Independent counts austerian costs:

George Osborne’s ‘stealth cuts’ will force millions to miss economic recovery

More than three million low-income families risk missing out on the economic recovery even if wages start to keep pace with inflation, according to an analysis for The Independent.

The Resolution Foundation, an independent think-tank which aims to improve living standards for the less wealthy, accused George Osborne of burying a £385m “stealth cut” in the small print of last year’s Autumn Statement, which will force the working poor to  “run uphill” and earn an  extra £1,000 a year just to stand still.

The foundation has analysed the impact of the Chancellor’s decision to freeze the “work allowance” – the amount people can earn before their payment under universal credit starts to be withdrawn. The freeze means that even if their wages rise in line with the cost of living, their income will  fall in real terms because the allowance does not keep pace with inflation.

Off to Finland with a warning via Bloomberg:

Bank of Finland Warns Debt Level Poised to Double: Nordic Credit

The Bank of Finland is warning that the euro area’s best-rated economy risks sliding down a path that could see its debt burden rival Italy’s.

Finland has little room to deviate from a proposal to fill a 9 billion-euro ($12.3 billion) gap in Europe’s fastest-aging economy if it’s to avoid debt levels doubling in the next decade and a half, according to the central bank.

The northernmost euro member risks joining the bloc’s most indebted nations if the government fails to reform spending, according to calculations by the Helsinki-based Bank of Finland. Without the measures, debt could exceed 110 percent of gross domestic product by 2030, according to the bank. The ratio was 53.6 percent in 2012. Success with the plan would help restrain debt levels to about 70 percent by 2030, the bank said.

Germany next, with the winning numbers from Capital.gr:

German employment hits record high in 2013

The number of people in employment in Europe’s biggest economy hit a record high for the seventh consecutive year in 2013, although the increase was smaller than in the last two years, Germany’s Statistics Office said on Thursday.

According to Reuters, with 41.8 million people in work, some 232,000 jobs were created last year but the rise was roughly half the size of the average for 2012 and 2011, the office said.

Germany’s jobless rate has held steady at just below 7.0 percent for the last two years and is the envy of crisis-hit euro zone partners such as Spain and Greece where more than one in four people is officially out of work.

TheLocal.de stigmatizes:

‘Fingerprints for foreigners’ sparks outcry

The debate over Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants arriving in Germany reached a more sinister level on Friday, when one leading Conservative politician called for finger prints to be taken to stop eastern Europeans getting benefits.

Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok, told newspaper Bild: “Immigrants who only come to Germany for Hartv IV (unemployment benefits), child benefit and health insurance must be sent back quickly to their home countries. To prevent multiple entries we should think about taking finger prints.”

Brok, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), was criticized by his own party for the comments.

Fallout from Europe Online:

German coalition infighting over EU immigration policy escalates

A German debate over so-called benefit tourism escalated on Saturday, with Christian Social Union (CSU) leader Horst Seehofer accusing his centre-left coalition partners of “ignorance” about their own immigration policies.

The infighting between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the CSU and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), comes after Bulgarians and Romanians gained access to the European Union’s labour market on January 1.

The disagreement relates to calls by Merkel’s conservatives to issue a three-month ban on welfare payments for immigrants from Eastern European member states. A CSU pamphlet suggesting that “those who commit fraud are out” is a particular cause for concern among centre-left Social Democrats.

Lisbon next, where the cost of austerity is written on your face. From the Portugal News:

Portuguese smiling less

The Portuguese smile very little and have done so ever less in the last year or so, according to a study whose author said had found a “drastic and worrying reduction in the frequency and intensity” of their smiling.

The study, titled “A decade of smiling in Portugal” analysed almost 400,000 photographs published in the press from 2003 to 2013 and concluded that “the Portuguese smile very, very little and this behaviour has been frightening accentuated in the past two years,” according to Freitas Magalhães, director of the Laboratory of Facial Expression of Emotion at the Faculty of Health Sciences of Fernando Pessoa University.

In particular, the results of the analysis in the second half of 2013 reveal “a sharp reduction in the frequency and intensity, the greatest since the start of the study in 2003″, he said at the study’s launch, adding that this was “extremely worrying in terms of the health of the Portuguese.”

On to Italy, and wiseguy pollution from TheLocal.it:

Bishops plea for aid in Italy’s Triangle of Death’

A cardinal and bishops in Italy’s so-called “Triangle of Death” have called for urgent action to tackle toxic mafia dumps blamed for rising cancer rates near Naples.

“Act quickly. We urge the authorities to intervene and be decisive, to stop the spread of worry, fears and ills,” Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Archbishop of Naples, wrote in an open appeal to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, along with bishops from the affected areas.

The local Camorra crime syndicate has been burning and secretly burying millions of tonnes of waste in the Campania countryside for decades but the extent of the problem has only recently been revealed – sparking furious protests from citizens who insist the government take action.

After the jump, the Greek crisis continues, Turkish anger, Israeli arms, , NAFTA shafting, Brazilian worries, Indian tweaking, Bangladeshi turmoil, Indochinese upset, the latest Chinese neoliberal moves and warnings, Japanese economic priorities, GMOS, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEthnoFukufury


Lots to cover, including the latest bizarre twists at Fukushima after the jump/

Our first story, in which the third point precisely refutes the claim made just before, comes from the Department of Ironic Self Refutation via the London Daily Mail:

Home Depot founder hits out at Pope Francis claiming the pontiff ‘fails to understand rich Americans’

  • Billionaire Home Depot founder Kenneth Langone has announced he is uncomfortable with Pope Francis’ recent comments on wealth
  • In an interview with CNBC – Langone explained that he does not think the pontiff appreciates or understands Americans
  • Announced that a potential anonymous donor might not contribute a seven-figure sum to the restoration of Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral because of this

The Washington Post covers betrayal:

Younger military veterans are angered by budget cuts to their pension benefits

The plan to trim pension increases for working-age military retirees such as Preston is by far the most controversial provision in a bipartisan budget deal approved by Congress and signed last week by President Obama.

The cut is small — a one-percentage-point reduction in the annual cost-of-living increase — but it has provoked outrage among veterans, some of whom argue that the country is reneging on a solemn pact. And even though lawmakers, especially in the GOP, fulminate about the need to cut the cost of federal health and retirement benefits, many have vowed to roll the cut back when Congress returns to work next week.

The San Francisco Chronicle covers a border booster:

Mexican sales tax hike seen as boon on US border

Mexican license plates are common in parking lots of shopping malls in U.S. border cities. They will be even more familiar after Mexico raises its federal sales tax in border regions to match the rest of the country, say merchants and shoppers.

The increase to 16 percent from 11 percent, which takes effect Wednesday, has sparked large protests on the Mexican side of the border. Facebook pages with secessionist tones have generated about 200,000 “likes.” Thousands have signed petitions to challenge the tax hike in court.

The Mexican government says the two-tiered tax structure, which was introduced decades ago to make border cities competitive, is no longer justified. Others say the increase may backfire by driving more shoppers north of the border, harming the economy and raising less tax revenue than anticipated.

Another piece of American industry goes, via Bloomberg:

Fiat Agrees to Buy Rest of Chrysler in $4.35 Billion Deal

Fiat SpA (F) agreed to buy the remaining stake in Chrysler Group LLC owned by a United Auto Workers retiree health-care trust in a $4.35 billion deal, the last step needed before the Italian and U.S. carmakers can merge.

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of both carmakers, structured the deal so that Chrysler puts up most of the cash, easing strains on the Italian parent as it seeks to end losses in Europe. The agreement with the trust, structured as a voluntary employee beneficiary association or VEBA, gives Fiat full ownership of the No. 3 U.S. automaker less than five years after its government-financed bankruptcy.

Frackers ahoy, via Jiji Press:

Sumitomo Eyeing Shale Gas Biz in N. America

Major Japanese trader Sumitomo Corp. is considering embarking on shale gas- and share oil-related business in North America, President Kuniharu Nakamura has said in a recent interview.

Sumitomo is examining such possibilities as liquefying shale gas for exports to Japan and leasing machinery used in shale gas production, he said.

Media sellout in the works, via Reuters:

Chinese recycling tycoon says he wants to buy New York Times

An eccentric Chinese recycling magnate said on Tuesday he was preparing to open negotiations to buy the New York Times Co.

Chen Guangbiao, a well-known philanthropist, is something of a celebrity in China. During a particularly murky bout of pollution in January, the ebullient and tireless self-promoter handed out free cans of “fresh air.

But Chen says he is perfectly serious in his bid to buy the Times, something that he said he had been contemplating for more than two years. He said he expected to discuss the matter on January 5, when he is due to meet a “leading shareholder” in New York.

“There’s nothing that can’t be bought for the right price,” Chen said.

Austerity’s the fault, via the Los Angeles Times:

California’s funds for mapping earthquake faults running out

Fault line maps are crucial to enforcing building regulations and understanding risks of new development, seismic experts say.

California is about to run out of money for mapping earthquake faults, leaving many communities across the state with limited information about the seismic risks of new development.

The California Geological Survey has about 300 more fault maps left to complete, including some covering highly populated areas like the Westside of Los Angeles, the San Diego Bay area, and the San Gabriel Valley. But officials say the budget for mapping will run out once the state completes work on the Hollywood fault early next year.

A new way to get Boomers out of hospitals fast? From Disinformation:

Targeted Advertisements Will Be Appearing In Hospital Rooms

Healthcare costs in the United States are spinning out of control, but never fear, there are new sources of revenue in the pipeline.

And the ever-present austerian symptom, via Bloomberg:

Americans on Wrong Side of Pay Gap Run Out of Means to Cope

Rising income inequality is starting to hit home for many American households as they run short of places to reach for a few extra bucks.

As the gap between the rich and poor widened over the last three decades, families at the bottom found ways to deal with the squeeze on earnings. Housewives joined the workforce. Husbands took second jobs and labored longer hours. Homeowners tapped into the rising value of their properties to borrow money to spend.

Those strategies finally may have run their course as women’s participation in the labor force has peaked and the bursting of the house-price bubble has left many Americans underwater on their mortgages.

CBS DC has another one:

Retirement Unlikely For Many Blue-Collar Americans

The share of U.S. workers who are 55 and older is expected to continue growing, according to the “The Oxford Handbook of Retirement 2013.” The group comprised 12.4 percent of the workforce in 1998. The share jumped to 18.1 percent in 2008 and is expected to be almost 25 percent by 2018.

The book is edited by Mo Wang, co-director of the Human Resource Research Center at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration. In an interview, Wang said it’s a misconception that lower-wage workers are slackers in preparing for retirement.

“People don’t have adequate earnings,” Wang told The Associated Press. “It’s not because they don’t want to save. It’s because they just can’t.”

As does Sky News:

Young People Sell Future Earnings To Investors

Start-up firms are offering an alternative to traditional debt by letting people sell a portion of their future earnings for cash.

A new industry is offering people the chance to “sell” a portion of themselves to investors in return for a cut of their future earnings.

Start-up companies such as Pave match carefully vetted, mainly young individuals, known as “prospects” with those willing to offer a one-time cash infusion.

On average prospects seek to raise around $20,000 (£12,100), although so far amounts have ranged between $3,000 (£1,800) and $50,000 (£30,300).

Ars Technica delivers the chop:

HP to cut 5,000 more jobs in 2014, bringing total layoff count to 34,000

Hewlett-Packard swung back into the black in 2013, maybe poised for “expansion.”

Bubble-formation slowing? From MarketWatch:

Case-Shiller: Home prices up, but boom fading

U.S. home prices remained on a solid upward trend in October, according to a report released Tuesday, but price gains may not be as strong in 2014.

The home-price index covering 10 major U.S. cities increased 13.6% in the year ended in October, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home-price report. The 20-city price index also increased 13.6%, close to the 13.7% advance expected by economists.

Both increases are the best since February 2006, the report said.

And from the London Daily Mail, the day’s biggest news for a few million Americans:

Marijuana opponents predict Denver to go ‘hogwild’ today while ‘potrepreneurs’ bet cannabis tourism in Colorado will be like ‘Napa Valley wine tours’

  • Thousands celebrate Colorado becoming the first state in America to legally sell marijuana for recreational use
  • Sean Azzariti, 32, a former Marine and veteran of two tours of Iraq will become the first legal customer in the nation’s history
  • So far, 136 stores have been granted licenses to sell recreational cannabis
  • In addition, 78 marijuana cultivation facilities have been licensed by the state
  • But smoking marijuana in public remains illegal
  • Groups including Colorado Highlife Tours are betting on the weed tour market going off ‘like a Napa Valley wine tour’

And as a public service, we here at esnl feel obligated to warn readers bout the horrors of the devil’s weed. So spark one up, sit back, and enjoy. . .Reefer Madness [1936], a cautionary tale about the dangers of Marihuana and Jazz from the bowels of Old Hollywood [albeit [shudder] colorized [but do note the smoke]:

We head north of the border with a dour Toronto Globe and Mail:

Canada is headed in the wrong direction, majority says in poll

Support for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is dropping sharply, according to a new poll showing a majority of Canadians believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

The Nanos Research poll also shows 56 per cent of people rate the government’s 2013 performance as “somewhat poor” or “very poor,” a far higher share than the poll had found in earlier years. In particular, 44 per cent of respondents in the Prairies said the government’s 2013 performance was “very poor,” signalling unrest in the Harper Conservatives’ backyard.

The Globe and Mail again, with brighter news:

Canadian dollar new favourite among the world’s central banks

The world’s central banks are stashing away Canadian dollars at a faster rate than any other major currency, a vote of confidence at a time when the loonie has lost some of its shine in foreign-exchange markets.

Official holdings of Canadian dollars surged 23.6 per cent to $112.5-billion (U.S.) in the third quarter of this year from their level in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to International Monetary Fund data published Monday.

Off to Europe with discontent from The Independent:

A Greek archipelago for €8.5m, a Maltese passport for €1m and Polish castles going for a song… welcome to the great European fire sale

For some, austerity Europe is a land of opportunity – castles, islands, citizenship are all up for grabs. But not all the locals are happy

For a non-EU citizen with dreams of the good life and a few million in the bank, 2014 could be a good year. First, snap up Maltese citizenship, and thus a European Union passport, for €1.15m (£960,000). Then splurge on a former cardinal’s villa in Italy as the principle residence. For a fairytale winter getaway, Polish castles are going for a song. And what could be better for a summer bolt-hole than a Greek archipelago, a snip at €8.5m?

Europe’s fire sale, which began as the economic crisis forced governments to find innovative ways to plug holes in their dwindling budgets, has reached new heights as ever-more intriguing state assets are touted for sale.

But a backlash is brewing, with governments and enraged citizens clashing over exactly who has the right to flog a nation’s history and culture.

EUbusiness drops the barriers:

European labour market opens for Romanians, Bulgarians

Romanians and Bulgarians will have the right to work in any of the European Union’s 28 countries from Wednesday, sparking fears of mass invasion and benefits tourism in Britain and Germany.

Britain rushed through a series of measures to ban EU migrants from claiming unemployment handouts from the moment they arrive, while German lawmakers raised concerns about social benefits fraud.

But Bucharest and Sofia slapped down the fears, saying their countrymen are not planning an exodus en masse.

The British take from the London Telegraph:

Non-EU citizens will be able to work in Britain after Bulgarian restrictions lifted

Hundreds of thousands of people from poor countries outside the European Union will be free to find jobs in Britain as a result of restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians being lifted

Romania and Bulgaria, whose citizens will now have the right to work freely in the UK, are offering passports to people in non-EU countries including Moldova and Macedonia.

Historic ties also mean that some Serbs, Ukrainians and Turks are eligible to claim passports that would allow them to work anywhere in the EU.

The Guardian ponders Tory intolerance:

Alarm sounded on anti-Roma rhetoric as door opens to more EU workers

Cross-party group calls for calm dialogue after Tory council leader blames Roma in London for disruption and crime

Politicians are inflaming community tensions with anti-Roma rhetoric, an alliance of Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs has warned as Britain opens its borders to Bulgarian and Romanian workers.

MPs on the all-parliamentary party group on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma sounded the alarm about provocative language as a prominent Tory council leader suggested some Roma are planning to come to the UK to “pickpocket and aggressively beg” following the end of labour market controls on the two eastern European countries.

Meanwhile, the real thieves and pickpockets are faring quite well. From The Guardian:

£2m: average pay award for JP Morgan’s top staff in 2012 revealed

  • Banks disclose figures in dying hours of 2013 to comply with new European rule demanding information on bankers’ pay

Fresh evidence of the pay deals on offer in the City has emerged, with the biggest US bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co, revealing it gave more than 100 of its top staff in London an average of £2m each in 2012.

The disclosure comes after Goldman Sachs said its high flyers received £2.7m on average – up 50% on the year before – adding to anger about bankers’ bonuses.

The Guardian overcharges:

Energy firms paid £4bn more for power than market rate, claims Labour

  • Big six firms deny inflating prices to make extra profits from their own plants or striking expensive deals to detriment of consumers

Households may have paid £150 over the odds for their electricity over the past three years because energy companies bought their power for almost £4bn more than the average market rate, Labour has claimed.

In a new analysis of official figures, the Labour party, which has pledged to freeze prices for 20 months if it wins the general election in 2015, said the big six energy suppliers appear either to be inflating their prices to make extra profits for their own power plants, or striking very expensive deals to the detriment of consumers.

Norway next, where TheLocal.no covers growing numbers:

2014 will be record refugee year – Norwegian charity

A Norwegian charity has predicted that the number of refugees in the world will continue to rise in 2014, after a record year in 2013. Norway needs to be ready to help, the charity’s boss says.

“The international community must be ready to strengthen its efforts,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugees Council.

The war in Syria is currently the biggest source of refugees, although conflicts in Africa are also a significant factor. South Sudan could be heading for a catastrophic civil war and the Central African Republic continues to be one of the world’s most under-reported war zones, according to the charity.

A necon demand, via TheLocal.no:

Jensen: Norway’s firms pay too much tax

Norwegian companies pay too much in tax, Finance Minister Siv Jensen has said, particularly in comparison to neighbouring countries. She now plans to appoint an expert committee to look at how corporation tax can be cut.

“A major challenge from the Norwegian perspective is that the difference between us and most other countries is getting very big. There’s no doubt that there’s a gap to close – particularly when you look at  proposals for further tax reductions in the countries around us. We have a situation where high corporation tax is distorting competition, to the detriment of Norwegian companies,” she said.

Germany next, and a conservative demand from Europe Online:

Personal responsibility plea central to Merkel’s New Year’s message

Personal responsibility and initiative are two of the qualities Germans will need to move both their country and Europe forward in 2014, Chancellor Angela Merkel argued in her New Year’s message, released Tuesday.

“The state can invest. It can create good conditions,” she said in her annual message.

“But politics can only accomplish a little without all of you in our country. What every one of us accomplishes individually on a small scale – that affects our country in large.”

Off to Paris and a promise from FRANCE 24:

Hollande vows to create jobs in New Year’s address

French President François Hollande reiterated his pledge to reduce unemployment in a televised message on Tuesday evening, the president’s annual New Year’s message to the French people from the Elysée Palace.

Hollande proposed establishing a “responsibility pact” for corporations that would lower their labour charges in return for boosting recruitment as part of a raft of measures to reduce unemployment, which he had vowed to reduce by the end of 2013.

France’s unemployment numbers rose 0.5% in November to almost 3.3 million, with the jobless rate continuing to hover stubbornly at 10.5% within metropolitan France.

TheLocal.fr covers a lighter-shade-of-blue law:

France says DIY stores can open on Sundays

Home improvement stores will be allowed to open on Sundays it has been announced after a fierce debate over the country’s strict laws on trading on the traditional day of rest.

Retailers can only open on a Sunday under certain conditions — if they are located in a tourist or a high-density area, for example. Any shop selling food can operate until 1:00 pm.

But the rules have infuriated workers who want to work Sundays at a time of sky high unemployment, and drawn criticism that they are archaic and ill-suited to a time of economic hardship.

Spain next, with an upbeat pronouncement from El País:

Economy minister forecasts “significant” job creation for 2014

  • De Guindos says government labor reforms will help drive recovery

Following on from Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s year-end speech, in which he said 2014 would be the year of economic recovery, Economy Minister Luis de Guindos predicted in an interview broadcast on Wednesday that the creation of jobs this year would be “significant.”

“In 2014, the projections we have at the Economy Ministry point to a net creation of jobs, even above what we forecast when we drew up the state budget,” De Guindos said in an interview recorded a few days previously with radio station Cadena Ser.

TheLocal.es delivers a blast:

‘Spain’s abortion law is pure ideology’: Le Monde

France’s prestigious Le Monde newspaper dedicated their Monday editorial to Spain’s new abortion law, calling it both ‘regressive’ and a politically motivated attack on ‘the left’s moral high ground’.

Le Monde ran the piece under the title “Abortion: Spain’s step backwards”.

The left-leaning daily begins by describing how its European neighbour was once at the forefront of “progressive” laws that protected women’s rights, from abortion to gender violence.

El País offers a counterblast:

Bothersome intellectuals and media” threaten families, says cardinal

Cardinal Antonio María Rouco said Sunday that Spain’s traditional Christian families were being threatened by “a culture of sadness,” including a “bothersome environment generated by intellectuals and the media.”

Speaking in his homily during an outdoor Mass held in Colón square in Madrid, which was dedicated to the day of the Holy Family, Rouco told thousands of church-goers that for “the chronically and terminally ill, the unemployed,” and “youths who have succumbed to alcohol, drugs and wild sex,” “there was no other place” like the family unit to seek refuge and help.

El País again, with intra-party blowback in the reigning neoliberal party:

Extremadura premier joins chorus of PP voices speaking out against abortion law

  • “No one can deny anyone the right to be a mother, nor can anyone force someone to become one,” says Monago

Another top Popular Party (PP) official publicly came out against his government’s proposed abortion law on Monday. Extremadura premier José Antonio Monago said he plans to present his argument against the reform on January 8 during the party’s next executive committee meeting.

“No one can deny anyone the right to be a mother, nor can anyone force someone to become one,” Monago said during his New Year’s message.

TheLocal.es drops the curtain:

EU calls time on Spain’s bank bailout

The eurozone aid programme for struggling Spanish banks closed as scheduled on Tuesday after providing some €41 billion ($55 billion) to get them through the debt crisis, a statement said.

The support “has proven instrumental in recapitalizing and restructuring Spain’s troubled banks, which are today on a sound footing,” said Klaus Regling, head of the European Stability Mechanism, the fund set up to help eurozone countries at the height of the crisis.

More hard times for another member of the ruling party via thinkSPAIN:

Bárcenas admitted to hospital

FORMER treasurer of the PP Luis Bárcenas was admitted to hospital yesterday due to an allergic reaction, according to prison governors at the Soto del Real jail in Madrid.

Bárcenas, investigated for tax evasion and over the alleged cash-in-hand dealing and bribery thought to have taken place within the PP party for over 20 years, has been behind bars since June 27 – despite having consistently cooperated with judge Pablo Ruz and his investigations.

Portugal next, with an offer of help via EUobserver:

EU prepares to offer Portugal more aid

European Commissioner for economic affairs Olli Rehn wrote in a Monday editorial in the business daily Diario Economico that the EU would offer additional help to Portugal once its bailout ends in May, reports the AFP. Portugal received €78bn in 2011 from international creditors in exchange for deep reforms.

Italy next, and a worrisome report from TheLocal.it:

Syrian behind shock migrant film disappears

The Syrian man who filmed fellow immigrants being subjected to naked disinfection showers in Italy has disappeared, national media reported on Tuesday.

The Syrian, who arrived by boat in early October, has not been seen at the Lampedusa immigration centre since Sunday morning, Corriere della Sera said.

His footage led to the centre’s management staff being sacked, a national investigation launched and the EU to warn Italy of the way it treats migrants.

And AGI enthuses:

Italian Labour Minister sees an economic trend reversal

“There are signs of a possible trend reversal”, said Italian Labour Minister Enrico Giovannini on the Radio Anch’io show. GDP stopped falling in the third quarter of this year and the “first signs of recovery” are forecast for the fourth quarter.

In the same period, “new labour contracts outnumbered the contracts terminated”, the minister said defining it “an important fact that shows that the labour market is gaining momentum”.

Still referring to the labour market, Giovannini recalled that a Youth Guarantee Implementation Plan has been submitted in Brussels: “We are now waiting for the green light to allocate 1.5 billion euros.”

Eastern Europe next, with BBC News:

Latvia becomes 18th state to join the eurozone

Latvia has begun the new year by joining the eurozone, becoming the 18th member of the group of EU states which uses the euro as its currency.

After the jump, the lastest from Greece, Turkish troubles, Iranian oil, Putin warns, Aussie anxiety, Vietnam opens up, China debts and doubts, Japanese worries, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day I: Spies, drones, bellicosity


We begin today’s tour of the black realm with a look, up in the sky! from CBC:

U.S. drone testing sites to be developed in 6 states

Test sites will work on how to introduce drones to U.S. skies

Drones have been mainly used by the military, but governments, businesses, farmers and others are making plans to join the market. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

The Federal Aviation Administration announced six states on Monday that will develop test sites for drones, a critical next step for the unmanned aircraft’s march into U.S. skies. The agency said Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia as states that will host research sites.

The Independent adds another draconian Orwellian touch to life in Old Blighty:

MoD tightens security at American spy bases linked to drone strikes

‘Draconian’ laws would help the US cover up illegal activities

The Ministry of Defence is set to introduce “draconian” new powers to tighten security and limit access to US airbases in Britain implicated in mass surveillance and drone strikes, The Independent can reveal.

The measures, which include powers to arrest for offences ranging from taking photographs to failing to clean up dog mess, would be put in place through a little-known project to overhaul the by-laws surrounding military facilities across the country.

Among the sites where the new rules are set to be imposed are two US Air Force bases used as key communication hubs for clandestine eavesdropping.

And the really big story the latest Snowden leaks bombshell, first from Spiegel:

Inside TAO: Documents Reveal Top NSA Hacking Unit

The NSA’s TAO hacking unit is considered to be the intelligence agency’s top secret weapon. It maintains its own covert network, infiltrates computers around the world and even intercepts shipping deliveries to plant back doors in electronics ordered by those it is targeting.

An internal description of TAO’s responsibilities makes clear that aggressive attacks are an explicit part of the unit’s tasks. In other words, the NSA’s hackers have been given a government mandate for their work. During the middle part of the last decade, the special unit succeeded in gaining access to 258 targets in 89 countries — nearly everywhere in the world. In 2010, it conducted 279 operations worldwide.

Indeed, TAO specialists have directly accessed the protected networks of democratically elected leaders of countries. They infiltrated networks of European telecommunications companies and gained access to and read mails sent over Blackberry’s BES email servers, which until then were believed to be securely encrypted. Achieving this last goal required a “sustained TAO operation,” one document states.

This TAO unit is born of the Internet — created in 1997, a time when not even 2 percent of the world’s population had Internet access and no one had yet thought of Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. From the time the first TAO employees moved into offices at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, the unit was housed in a separate wing, set apart from the rest of the agency. Their task was clear from the beginning — to work around the clock to find ways to hack into global communications traffic.

More from The Guardian:

NSA ‘hacking unit’ infiltrates computers around the world – report

  • NSA: Tailored Access Operations a ‘unique national asset’
  • Former NSA chief calls Edward Snowden a ‘traitor’

A top-secret National Security Agency hacking unit infiltrates computers around the world and breaks into the toughest data targets, according to internal documents quoted in a magazine report on Sunday.

Details of how the division, known as Tailored Access Operations (TAO), steals data and inserts invisible “back door” spying devices into computer systems were published by the German magazine Der Spiegel.

The magazine portrayed TAO as an elite team of hackers specialising in gaining undetected access to intelligence targets that have proved the toughest to penetrate through other spying techniques, and described its overall mission as “getting the ungettable”. The report quoted an official saying that the unit’s operations have obtained “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen”.

Here’s one of the NSA slides revealed by Spiegel, revealing both the name of a TAO program and the peculiar attutudes of cybersnoopers:

ACHTUNG SPERRFRIST 30.12.2013 Quantum-Biga #01 Foxacid

The Verge takes its own focus:

NSA reportedly intercepting laptops purchased online to install spy malware

According to a new report from Der Spiegel based on internal NSA documents, the signals intelligence agency’s elite hacking unit (TAO) is able to conduct sophisticated wiretaps in ways that make Hollywood fantasy look more like reality. The report indicates that the NSA, in collaboration with the CIA and FBI, routinely and secretly intercepts shipping deliveries for laptops or other computer accessories in order to implant bugs before they reach their destinations. According to Der Spiegel, the NSA’s TAO group is able to divert shipping deliveries to its own “secret workshops” in a method called interdiction, where agents load malware onto the electronics or install malicious hardware that can give US intelligence agencies remote access.

While the report does not indicate the scope of the program, or who the NSA is targeting with such wiretaps, it’s a unique look at the agency’s collaborative efforts with the broader intelligence community to gain hard access to communications equipment. One of the products the NSA appears to use to compromise target electronics is codenamed COTTONMOUTH, and has been available since 2009; it’s a USB “hardware implant” that secretly provides the NSA with remote access to the compromised machine.

And the Verge finds still another focus:

The NSA’s elite hackers can hijack your Wi-Fi from 8 miles away

Attendees at the Chaos Communications Congress in Hamburg this weekend got a surprising rundown of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities, courtesy of security researcher Jacob Appelbaum. Appelbaum, who co-wrote the Der Spiegel article that first revealed the NSA catalog, went into further detail onstage, describing several individual devices in the catalog and their intended purposes.

Alongside pre-packaged exploits that allowed control over iOS devices and any phone communicating through GSM, Appelbaum detailed a device that targets computers through packet injection, seeding exploits from up to 8 miles away. He even speculated the exploits could be delivered by drone, although he conceded that in most cases, an unmarked van would likely be more practical.

The Daily Dot has another focus:

NSA has top-secret catalog of ‘keys’ into world’s security architecture

Around the world, corporations, nonprofits and government agencies depend on the computer security architecture made by companies like Cisco, Juniper, and Huawei to protect their most valuable secrets. But for years the vast majority of these systems have been compromised.

A 2008 document obtained by German newspaper Der Spiegel reveals the National Security Agency has been able to slip into the majority of systems made by the major players in the computer security industry, thanks to an entire catalog of resilient and hard-to-detect backdoors, some of which are capable of burrowing as deep as a computer’s motherboard.

The Daily Dot has another focus:

NSA has top-secret catalog of ‘keys’ into world’s security architecture

Around the world, corporations, nonprofits and government agencies depend on the computer security architecture made by companies like Cisco, Juniper, and Huawei to protect their most valuable secrets. But for years the vast majority of these systems have been compromised.

A 2008 document obtained by German newspaper Der Spiegel reveals the National Security Agency has been able to slip into the majority of systems made by the major players in the computer security industry, thanks to an entire catalog of resilient and hard-to-detect backdoors, some of which are capable of burrowing as deep as a computer’s motherboard.

While PandoDaily gets philosophical:

Snowden’s biggest revelation: We don’t know what power is anymore, nor do we care

That the US and Britain spy on our allies (and on each other) is not in and of itself a shocking revelation, but this is more important than mere novelty. What matters most about the Snowden leaks is what will come of them, and what we’ll do with them, if anything. There is no guarantee that leaks lead to positive change, nothing inherently transformative about leaking, not without a larger political movement – what Joe Costello would call “a politics” — pushing it. And right now, the only thing close to a politics around leaking is libertarianism, the worst of all political worlds.

Even with a politics, there’s no guarantee leaks end up making things better without a long fight. The last time frightening NSA spying programs (SHAMROCK, MINARET) were leaked in the 1970s, the political reforms that followed turned out to be far worse than what we had before: namely the secret FISA courts. The FISA courts were supposed to provide judicial check on the NSA, but instead turned into a nightmarish secret court that not only rubber stamps nearly every surveillance warrant the NSA asks for, but worse, has been used to restrict Americans’ constitutional rights.

Away from NSA and off to Moscow with the Buenos Aires Herald:

Russia calls for unity in fight against ‘terrorists’

Russia has likened two deadly suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd to attacks by militants in the United States, Syria and other countries and called for international solidarity in the fight against “terrorists.”

“We will not retreat and will continue our consistent fight against an insidious enemy that can only be defeated together,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

From BuzzFeed, the latest and possibly terminal entry in a long series:

Administration Won’t Comment On Israeli Report About Imprisoned Spy

An Israeli TV report says Secretary of State John Kerry is preparing to offer to release Jonathan Pollard. The White House and State Department refuse to comment.

The White House and State Department on Friday refused to confirm or deny an Israeli report that Secretary of State John Kerry was offering the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in return for Israel freeing Arab Israeli prisoners as part of its next round of Palestinian prisoner releases.

Pollard was convicted in 1987 of stealing classified information and passing it on to the Israeli government while working as an intelligence analyst. He was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995 and his eventual release has become a cause in Israeli politics, with 106 members of the Knesset signing a letter to Obama this week calling for Pollard to be freed from prison.

After the jump, tensions heat up n Asia with Afghan gloom, Pakistani violence, moves and countermoves in the China sea, more blowback from the Japanese prime minister’s visit to a war shrine housing remains of war criminals, hardening of the Japanese security state, corporate intel, and much more. . . Continue reading