Category Archives: Military

Seymour Hersh: The U.S. bankrolled ISIS founders


Gosh, is this starting to sound familiar?

Back under Rotten Ronnie Reagan, the White House decided to bankroll and arm religious fundamentalists in Afghanistan to cause the Soviet Union to bog down in their own version of Vietnam.

Well, it worked.

Sort of.

The Soviets are gone [along with the Soviet Union], but those fundies lingered on, even [on 9/11] biting the hand that fed them.

Well, we did it again, and are now witnessing the consequences, says Pulitzer-winning reporter Seymour Hersh in a fascinating interview with RT’s Afshin Rattansi on Going Underground.

From Going Underground:

DUH! Somebody denies something, that means it isn’t true? – Seymour Hersh on Middle East crisis

Program notes:

Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, talks to Going Underground host Afshin Rattansi about the war against ISIS. He wrote an article that around 2006-7 the Bush administration decided to be pro-Sunni, and finance some of jihadist extremists, to work against Shias in Iran and Syria. He thinks ISIS has emerged out of that, partly due to the behaviour of the Iraqi government with Maliki being very anti-Sunni.

He says there is an inherent contradiction in democracy, as unlike in monarchies where the Royals take control of the military, a democracy needs wars in order for people to rise through the ranks, so there is a constant thirst for more war. The troop surge that was claimed to end the war in Iraq was simply a decision to support Sunni jihadist groups, often filled with former members of the Ba’ath party, working with the US to kill Al Qaeda.

The Syrian army, tasked with dealing with ISIS, has received good training from Hezbollah, and is one of the most battle-tested armies in the Middle East at the moment. He believes it is an amazing situation that Iran is working with the US and Syrian air forces on bombing, dismissing official denies that it is happening. He thinks it is clear that the story of Assad using chemical weapons is very problematic – why would he invite a US inspection team to look at previous uses of Sarin (which found previous uses of Sarin by Al Nusra) and then stage a gas attack? He also points to the sarin samples recovered by Russia and passed to the UK for analysis, which was determined to have nothing to do with the gas in the Syrian arsenal. He says that the idea that Syria was not bombed because it agreed to give up its arsenal is ‘lunacy’, because this had been proffered a year earlier, but once there is a narrative in the Western press, it is very hard to change that.

He says that the moderate rebels that Cameron wants to fund have already cut deals with Assad for their own little ‘fiefdom’ as long as they pay allegiance to Assad. Erdogan is in a bad spot, he thinks, because he can’t break with ISIS. He says he has had serious discussions with people saying they should have stayed out of Afghanistan, rather than fighting the cold war there using the Sunni fundamentalists, funding people like Bin Laden and the original militias that have become ISIS. With Ukraine, he quotes Jack Matlock, a former American ambassador to the Soviet Union, who said, ‘I never believe we should get involved in family fights,’ and that since the cold war ended, any country, no matter how corrupt, would get arms from the US if they said they’d fight Russia. But Syria is the ‘biggest game’ going right now, and ‘if that goes the wrong way, we’re in trouble.’

Think we’ll ever learn the obvious lesson?

Judging by the history of the U.S. in the nearly seven decades we’ve lived here, we’re not optimisitic.

Scenes from a religious civil war in Thailand


Here’s an excellent video narrated by Patrick Winn, Global Post‘s senior Southeast Asia correspondent, focusing on the bloody civil war raging in southern Thailand in a region filled with brothels serving Malaysian men seeking indulgences not allowed in their own country.

The fight pits an Islamic minority enraged both by wayward ways of fellow Muslims and by the repressive measures taken by the Thai military and police against the Thai Buddhist majority, plunging an already deeply divided state into a conflict that may be, in the end, unwinnable, despite the military dictatorship imposed on the country after the electoral process led only to endless stalemates and recriminations.

From From Patrick Winn, Global Post’s senior Southeast Asia correspondent, and videographer/producer Mark Oltmanns:

Red Light Jihad: Thai vice under attack

From the accompanying article:

Red Light Jihad: Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s strangest party town

  • A holy war in the city where Muslims indulge in sleaze forbidden back home

SUNGAI GOLOK, Thailand — Pin is stumbling drunk. When she bends down to refill a customer’s Heineken, her hair dips into the beer. Her breath smells like menthols and fish sauce. She is shrieking advances in tortured English at any male who passes by.

None of this is particularly odd in Sungai Golok, a gritty border town in Thailand. Pin is a 35-year-old sex worker in one of the city’s countless open-air bars. Cooing at strangers and plying them with overpriced beer is part of her job.

But nerves are extra raw tonight. The city is under attack.

Again.

One hour earlier, five bombs erupted in quick succession in various parts of the city. An innocent woman, killed by flying shrapnel, is sprawled in the street just a few blocks away. Soldiers have hastily draped a white sheet over her body. It covers all but her feet and a single manicured hand.

John Pilger on torture, the Ukraine, and history


John Pilger [his website] is one of the best documentarians around, relkentlessly charting the course of imperialism since the days of the Vietnam War.

An Australian native who lives in Britain, Pilger covered social issues for the London Daily Mirror for two decades, winning awards and producing for documentaries for Granada Television as well.

As Noam Chomsky writes of Pilger, “John Pilger’s work has been a beacon of light in often dark times. The realities he has brought to light have been a revelation, over and over again, and his courage and insight a constant inspiration.”

In this interview by RT’s Afshin Rattansi, Pilger covers a wide range, starting with the revelations of the torture report and moving on the conflict in the Ukraine — revealing, among other things, that one major beneficiary of the crisis has been Joe Biden’s son, who sits on the board of a fracking company that landed a contract in the Ukraine.

Pilger’s historical analysis is critical to gaining an understanding of the crisis that as been sorely lacking the U.S. mainstream media.

From Going Underground:

John Pilger: ‘Real possibility of nuclear war’ – Ukraine crisis could start World War 3

Program notes:

John Pilger, film-maker and award winning journalist, talks to Going Underground host Afshin Rattansi about the headline events of the year, from CIA torture to the Ukraine crisis. He says the whole tenure of the BBC coverage of the Torture report was ‘does torture work?’ Modern British history is full of torture, and the British were ‘masters’ at it. When the OSS become the CIA, it split into 2 sections – one an intelligence gathering section, the other a covert operations arm for the presidency, the central part of which was torture.

He warns that the culture of apologising for the state, to minimise its responsibility, has ‘burrowed’ into the minds of correspondents, citing the defence correspondent on Newsnight failing to mention the role of Britain when appraising why the Middle East was a mess. He also says that parliamentary inquiries like the Nolan inquiry and the Chilcot inquiry are stopped before they can get anywhere, describing it as a ‘series of whitewashes.’ He talks of a ‘consensus’ to cover up, citing the arms to Iraq inquiry, where the only person that the judge commended was a Foreign Office official who described the Foreign Office as a ‘culture of lying.’

He says that the number of high-ups in the British establishment who committed serious offences ‘numbered in the dozens,’ and the only difference between the US and UK in torture is ‘in terms of scale.’ The real issue in democracies is ‘dissent being constrained’ physically on the streets. He believes it is ‘dangerous’ to protest in the way people did in 2003, whether you are an establishment figure, a journalist, or just a man on the street.

He says the Sydney siege, whilst horrific, still has to be deconstructed to find what’s missing from it. He points out that the Australian PM declared it a ‘terrorist act’ within minutes of it starting, when it turned out to be a lone wolf, and asks why someone with his history was on the loose. He argues that looking at the list of demands, they were all negotiable, and asks why force was used, and says ‘it seems very likely that the people in there were killed by the police and not by the terrorist.’

With Russia, he says he has never known the truth ‘so inverted’ over any one issue. He believes we are in the midst of a cold war more dangerous than the one he grew up with, comparing the raw propaganda of the prior to what we’re seeing now, with a ‘real possibility’ of a nuclear war. He compares it to Iraq, because both involved ‘fiction,’ the idea that Russia is attacking the West. He says oil prices were driven down by agreement between the US and Saudis, to wreck the Russian economy. He says it was NATO and the US that took over Ukraine, to the point that Joe Biden’s son is on the board of Ukraine’s biggest private gas provider. At a meeting in Yalta in September 2013, the ‘takeover of Ukraine was planned’ by prominent politicians and multinationals. There was a ‘coup stage-managed by the Obama administration,’ and blame shifted to Russia, who acted purely defensively. He says there is a ‘real prospect of war’ with a nuclear power and strong conventional military, and Putin has now started ‘talking red lines’ himself. He describes ‘extraordinary propaganda’ promoting tension and demonising Russia, which ‘may end up being self-fulfilling.’

John is crowdfunding his new documentary, ‘The Coming War between America and China’, about the perceived threat to the US from China.

You can find out more and contribute at bit.ly/ComingWar

InSecurityWatch: War, hacks, cops, and more


We begin with the latest from Ferguson, Missouri, via BuzzFeed News:

Prosecutor Says He Knew Some Witnesses Were Lying To The Ferguson Grand Jury

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch says he knew some of the witnesses who said they saw Michael Brown get shot were lying, but he let them testify to the grand jury anyway.

In his first interview since announcing Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting of Mike Brown, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch told radio station KTRS that he allowed witnesses to testify to the grand jury he knew were lying.

KTRS: Why did you allow people to testify in front of the grand jury in which you knew their information was either flat-out wrong, or flat-out lying, or just weren’t telling the truth?

McCulloch: Well, early on, I decided that anyone who claimed to have witnessed anything was going to be presented to the grand jury.

And I knew that no matter how I handled it, there would be criticism of it. So if I didn’t put those witnesses on, then we’d be discussing now why I didn’t put those witnesses on. Even though their statements were not accurate.

A fugitive’s status secured, via Al Jazeera America:

Extradition of Assata Shakur from Cuba unlikely despite restored ties

  • Exiles from both sides unlikely to face extradition given political nature of any alleged crimes, legal experts say

Soon after President Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with Havana on Wednesday, Cuba watchers began to raise questions over potential extradition orders U.S. exiles in Cuba, specifically regarding rights activist Assata Shakur — who has been living on the island for decades.

Shakur and other black activists, including Black Panther Party (BPP) founder Huey P. Newton, fled from U.S. intelligence and security agencies in the 1960s and 1970s to Cuba, which was sympathetic to socialist ideals. Now supporters of Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard, wonder what the future holds for the 67-year-old exile.

Questions have also been raised over Cubans who fled to the United States during the same period, especially those who allegedly took part in organizing the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

But legal experts say extraditions from either country are unlikely to pass muster considering provisions contained in the extradition treaty the United States has with Cuba.

From the Guardian, bellicose branding:

US general rebrands Isis ‘Daesh’ after requests from regional partners

  • Leader of operations against group uses alternative name – a pejorative in Arabic that rejects fighters’ claims on Islam

A top Pentagon general has informally rebranded the jihadists of Isis with the name “Daesh” after allies in the middle east asked he not use the group’s other monikers for fear they legitimize its ambitions of an Islamic state.

Lieutenant General James Terry almost exclusively used Daesh in reference to the militants at a press conference Thursday, although the Pentagon’s policy to primarily use “Isil” – an acronym for “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” – has not changed.

Terry, who leads US operations against Isis in Iraq, said partners in the region had asked him not to use the terms Islamic State, Isil or Isis (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Secretary of state John Kerry has also shifted his language in recent weeks, using Daesh 16 times and Isil only twice during remarks to Nato counterparts in Belgium. Retired general John Allen, the US envoy to coordinate the coalition against Isis, also prefers Daesh. French president Francois Hollande has used Daesh interchangeably with the group’s other names.

Daesh is also an acronym for an Arabic variation of the group’s name: al-Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham. Most of the middle east and many Muslims abroad use Daesh, saying that although the jihadists have declared the nebulous region they control a caliphate, they neither adhere to Islam nor control a real state. Islamic clerics in particular have taken issue with the terms that include “Islamic State”. A group of British imams has suggested to prime minister David Cameron that he call the group “the Un-Islamic State”.

Another branding, via United Press International:

Egyptian jihadists thank U.S. for terror designation

The new terror designation was well received by Ajnad Misr, which posted a message to its official Twitter page thanking the U.S. for the “blessing.”

Ajnad Misr, a Salafist militant group in Egypt, was designated a “global terrorist” by the U.S. Department of State Thursday, eliciting an unexpected expression of gratitude from the extremist group.

The State Department designated Ajnad Misr, a splinter group of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Foreign Terrorist Organization, citing claims of “numerous attacks on Egyptian security forces at government buildings, public spaces and universities, often injuring or killing innocent bystanders.”

The new designation was well received by Ajnad Misr, which posted a message to its official Twitter page thanking the U.S. for the “blessing.”

BBC News covers dronal dubeity:

Leaked CIA report: Targeting Taliban leaders ‘ineffective’

The removal of senior Taliban leaders has had little impact on the organisation, a CIA report released by Wikileaks has said.

The 2009 report analyses “high value targeting” in a number of conflicts – the assassination of senior insurgents. It said the Taliban’s ability to replace lost leaders has hampered the effectiveness of coalition operations against its leadership.

The CIA would not comment on the leaked documents.

The report, which Wikileaks describes as “pro-assassination”, looks at the pros and cons of “high value targeting” (HVT) programmes.

Cold War 2.0 from United Press International:

Poland orders more Norwegian missiles

  • Poland has ordered missiles from Norway’s Kongsberg Defense for a second coastal defense missile squadron

Poland is getting a second coastal defense missile squadron equipped with truck-mounted naval strike missiles from Kongsberg Defense & Aerospace.

The Norwegian company said the contract from Poland’s Ministry of National Defense is worth about $175.3 million.

“This agreement proves the leading position of NSM and our position as a reliable partner and supplier to Poland,” said Harald Annestad, president of Kongsberg Defense.

Neoliberal vengeance? From El País:

“Ruined businessman” rams car with explosives into PP headquarters

  • Gas canisters failed to explode. Man blames ruling party for his financial woes

A man claiming to be a ruined businessman drove a car containing explosive material into the headquarters of the ruling Popular Party (PP) in Madrid early Friday morning, police said.

The failed attack took place shortly before 7am, with no injuries reported.

The car, a Citroën Xantia with Guadalajara license plates, contained two gas canisters, along with two sacks of industrial fertilizer. The material failed to explode, and police said there was no further risk of detonation.

A fed fail from the McClatchy Washington Bureau:

FBI’s genetic tests didn’t nail anthrax killer, GAO says

For a second time in three years, a federal inquiry cast doubt Friday on the FBI’s assertion that genetic testing had cinched its conclusion that a now-dead Army bioweapons researcher mailed anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and terrorized the East Coast in 2001.

The long-awaited report from the Government Accountability Office found that the FBI’s exhaustive, cutting-edge attempt to trace the killer with matches of genetic mutations of anthrax samples at times lacked precision, consistency and adequate standards.

The 77-page report, perhaps the final official word on the FBI’s seven-year investigation known as Amerithrax, lent credence to a National Academy of Sciences panel’s finding in 2011 that the bureau’s scientific evidence did not definitely show that the anthrax came from the Maryland bioweapons laboratory of Bruce Ivins.

More of the same from the New York Times:

F.B.I. Evidence Often Mishandled, Inquiry Finds

F.B.I. agents in every region of the country have mishandled, mislabeled and lost evidence, according to a highly critical internal investigation that discovered errors with nearly half the pieces of evidence it reviewed.

The evidence collection and retention system is the backbone of the F.B.I.’s investigative process, and the report said it is beset by problems. It also found that the F.B.I. was storing more weapons, less money and valuables, and two tons more drugs than its records had indicated.

The report’s findings, based on a review of more than 41,000 piece of evidence in F.B.I. offices around the country, could have consequences for criminal investigations and prosecutions. Lawyers can use even minor record-keeping discrepancies to get evidence thrown out of court, and the F.B.I. was alerting prosecutors around the country on Friday that they may need to disclose the errors to defendants.

Many of the problems cited in the report appear to be hiccups in the F.B.I.’s transition to a computer system known as Sentinel, which went online in 2012 and was intended to move the bureau away from a case-management system based on paper files. But other problems, including materials that disappeared or were taken from F.B.I. evidence rooms and not returned, are more serious.

More dronal dubeity from the Associated Press:

Poll: Americans skeptical of commercial drones

Americans broadly back tight regulations on commercial drone operators, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, as concerns about privacy and safety override the potential benefits of the heralded drone revolution.

By a 2-1 margin, the poll found, those who had an opinion opposed using drones for commercial purposes. Only 21 percent favored commercial use of drones, compared with 43 percent opposed. Another 35 percent were in the middle.

Only 3 percent of people say they’ve operated small drones, which are essentially the same as remote-controlled model aircraft.

Support for using commercial drones was the weakest among women and seniors, while college graduates and wealthier people were more apt to favor it.

After the jump, government cyberspooks abound, and on the the Sony hack and Obama fingering Pyongyang, faulting Sony, and vowing vengeance, Sony fires back, and the FBI piles on Pyongyang, Staples customers’ payment cards hacked, Target customers can sue for losing data to hackers, major flaws patched in software controlling oil and gas pipelines, on to Asia and soaring Afghan civilian deaths, Pakistan begins an campaign of executions as a school mass execution triggers a crackdown on the Taliban, China gains growing military projection power, approaching American frigate sale to Tawian triggers Beijing anger, and hints of a Chinese nuclear buildup, Japan gets its own whistleblower website as Korean peace activists seek a Nobel for the engandered pacifist provision of Japan’s constitution. . . Continue reading

MexicoWatch: Charges, protest, troops, pols


We begin with a allegation from a military whistleblower reported by Proceso, here in a translation by Borderland Beat:

Mex. Army General: “The only way an event (Iguala) of this magnitude could happen is collusion and participation of the Army. …. may cause a civil war”

From his personal experience in the militia, where he tried without success to create the office  of  military ombudsman within the army (to protect the public from human rights abuses), the general in retirement José Francisco Gallardo Rodríguez affirms that,  his attitude after looking at the facts of Tlatlaya and Ayotzinapa, is that president Enrique Peña Nieto  is betting on repression.

What we see” – he says -“ is a sign, an escape valve for the people through active participation in dissent and social mobilization, which these two serious developments show. Paradoxically the only support that Enrique Peña Nieto has as the President of the Republic are the armed forces’

In an interview, the retired General indicates that according to the Geopolitical Observatory of Armed  Groups in Latin America there exists 42 such groups in Mexico.

“The Government must be very careful because it may cause a civil war in the country: we are seeing it in Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Guerrero; there are 16 states with the presence of self-defense groups”.

These groups, he adds, were not created to ask for the resignation of Peña Nieto or with the purpose of dismissing and supplanting the government, but because “there is no government, there are no institutions and there is a power vacuum that has been created because we have authorities of illegitimate origin, who have come through fraudulent elections”.

From Fox News Latino, the search continues:

Full of distrust, parents of 43 missing students comb Mexican state searching for their kids

The revelation that the DNA of Alexander Mora, one of the 43 Mexican students missing for almost three months now, was among the charred remains found in a public dump last week, failed to bring the cool-off effect government officials hoped for.

But the crushed family members of the young men last seen on Sept. 26 are not giving up.

They said they are determined to keep combing the state of Guerrero, where the students were allegedly abducted by local police forces during a street protest. Considering that Guerrero, the second poorest state in Mexico, is about the size of the state of West Virginia, the search team has decided to split up into smaller groups to cover the area.

“We will keep looking for our sons,” Felipe de la Cruz, father of one of the missing students, told Fox News Latino. De la Cruz and the other family members say they never truly believed the official version put out by Mexico’s head prosecutor, Jesús Murillo Karam, on Nov. 7.

Parents denied again, via teleSUR:

Elections in Mexico’s Guerrero State Will Not Be Cancelled

  • The Ayotzinapa parents had asked that 2015 local elections be canceled in the wake of exposed widespread government corruption.

Cancelling local elections in Guererro state will cause serious problems says the president of Mexico’s National Electoral institute, rejecting petitions by the families of the Ayotzinapa victims that the process be halted and the government dissolved.

After an evaluation conducted over the existing situation in the state, the Electoral Institute President, Lorenzo Cordova, said that “serious problems” would come from cancelling upcoming elections.

The elections, scheduled for June 7, 2015, will go ahead as usual, the Institute conformed. Voters will elect nine federal lawmakers, the state governor, 48 legislators and 81 mayors as usual.

In view of the failure of local, state and federal officials to produce the missing Ayotzinapa students alive, dissident teachers and other activists have raised the possibility of boycotting the upcoming elections.

The collision of two very different worlds, from Fox News Latino:

Acapulco, Mexico mayor caught up in protest over missing students

The mayor of this Mexican resort city was effectively held captive in his car on Friday by people protesting the Sept. 26 abduction and apparent murder of 43 students.

Protesters formed a human wall to block Mayor Luis Walton’s vehicle as he traveled to Acapulco International Airport for an event.

The demonstrators, who included relatives of the missing students and members of the Guerrero state teachers union, proceeded to puncture the tires and paint slogans on the vehicle as a visibly frightened Walton made calls on his cellphone.

From InSight Crime, fears expressed:

Conflict in Mexico’s South Spurs Guerrilla Worries

  • The disappearance and presumed death of 43 student protesters in Iguala, Guerrero has sparked concerns of a new surge of guerilla movements in southern Mexico, but just how likely is it?

The situation in Guerrero has clearly sparked a democratic crisis. The mayor of Iguala and his wife, charged with overseeing the mass murder of the protesters, were arrested after going underground for several weeks. The governor of Guerrero, Angel Aguirre, resigned amid protests. And activists within Guerrero, including family members of the disappeared students, are now calling for a boycott of all elections until the students are found. One spokesman spoke ominously of “thinking about actions that we don’t want to be thinking about.”

It’s not a surprise, therefore, that some media outlets are reporting increased activities of local guerilla groups. This doesn’t make a return of a full-blown insurgent movement a foregone conclusion, and the barriers to a Mexican descent into sustained civil conflict remain substantial. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine a set of circumstances in modern Mexico more conducive to fomenting armed civil opposition to the government.

Many of the factors are historical: southern Mexico, and Guerrero in particular, has long been an insurgent hotbed for decades. Much of that steps from the South’s persistent inequality, a social problem that correlates strongly with insurgent movements. Guerrero was the second most unequal state in the country according to one recent study by the Mexican government, and its status in that regard is longstanding.

From the Latin American Herald Tribune, one party excluded in another shootout:

Mexico Vigilante Leader Says Elite Police Unit Not Involved in Deadly Clash

The founder of one of the first self-defense groups in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan denied Thursday that the Federal Police’s elite Gendarmerie division was involved in this week’s armed clash between rival vigilante forces that left 11 dead.

“The Gendarmerie held their position well, and even moved back from where we were,” Hipolito Mora told Radio Formula in regard to the shootout in the Tierra Caliente region, which straddles the states of Michoacan, Guerrero and Mexico.

Remarks by rival Luis Antonio Torres, who accused the Gendarmerie of conspiring with Mora’s group during Tuesday’s clash, are false, the vigilante leader said.

Torres told reporters Wednesday that the Gendarmerie had made a “pact” with Mora’s group and that his men had no idea they would come under fire while traveling through La Ruana, the town in Michoacan where the clash occurred.

And from teleSUR, a market alarm:

S&P: Violence, Corruption Could Affect Mexico’s Economy

  • The international rating agency Standar and Poors said Mexico has important challenges in corruption and security.

U.S. rating agency Standard and Poors said on Wednesday that corruption and violence in Mexico are major challenges that could affect the country’s economic panorama.

“The disappearance and death of 43 students in the city of Iguala, Guerrero in September 2014 highlights the important challenges that Mexico has to control violence related with drugs trafficking,” said the agency, according to Mexican newspaper Reforma.

“Even when that kind of violence is not new for the country, Iguala events raised doubts on the capacity of the government to deal with this critic topic and with the impact that violence could have on the economic perspectives,” it added.

Quote of the day: CIA Taliban failure admission


From a secret 2009 CIA report, Making High-Value Targeting Operations an Effective Counterinsurgency Tool [PDF], just released by [who else] Wikileaks:

BLOG CIA

InSecurityWatch: Cuba, cops, Sony, war, woes


We open with the long-overdue, via the New York Times:

Obama Announces U.S. and Cuba Will Resume Relations

The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century after the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, President Obama announced on Wednesday.

In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 miles off the American coast.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Hosting a sit-down with the Associated Press:

Canada hosted secret meetings between Cuba and US

Canada hosted about seven meetings between the U.S. and Cuba that helped lead to President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday that the two countries will establish full diplomatic relations, a senior Canadian government official said.

The meetings were held in Ottawa and Toronto from 2013 to 2014, according to the official. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, lacking authority to discuss the meetings publicly.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada did not play a role in the discussions themselves.

“I don’t want to exaggerate Canada’s role. We facilitated places where the two countries could have a dialogue and explore ways on normalizing relations,” Harper told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “We were not trying in any way to direct or mediate the talks. We just wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to have the kind of dialogue they needed to have.”

Anticipating another missile crisis, presumably non-Cuban this time, via the Christian Science Monitor:

Pentagon’s floating missile defense future: a pair of billion-dollar blimps

  • The Pentagon previewed two helium-filled surveillance airships Wednesday. The giant dirigibles are expected to be deployed over the East Coast in February as the United States’ new missile defense system.

Two US military blimps flying 10,000 feet above the East Coast will act as a new missile defense system for the United States.

The giant airships, known as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS within the Pentagon, will be able to scan the oceans and coastline in a 340-mile radius, or from Norfolk, Va., to Boston.

It is designed to defend against cruise missile attacks, or the sort of rogue aircraft incursions that happened during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The US military previewed the giant balloons, which cost a reported $2.8 billion, in the skies near Baltimore for the media on Wednesday. They are expected to be fully operational by February and will be integrated into the defense systems of US Northern Command, which can respond with patriot missiles in the event of an attack on the US homeland.

On to U.S. domestic issue of the day, via the Smoking Gun:

“Witness 40″: Exposing A Fraud In Ferguson

  • TSG unmasks witness who spun fabricated tale

The grand jury witness who testified that she saw Michael Brown pummel a cop before charging at him “like a football player, head down,” is a troubled, bipolar Missouri woman with a criminal past who has a history of making racist remarks and once insinuated herself into another high-profile St. Louis criminal case with claims that police eventually dismissed as a “complete fabrication,” The Smoking Gun has learned.

In interviews with police, FBI agents, and federal and state prosecutors–as well as during two separate appearances before the grand jury that ultimately declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson–the purported eyewitness delivered a preposterous and perjurious account of the fatal encounter in Ferguson.

Referred to only as “Witness 40″ in grand jury material, the woman concocted a story that is now baked into the narrative of the Ferguson grand jury, a panel before which she had no business appearing.

That cop thing, much closer to Casa esnl, via the Oakland Tribune:

Berkeley: Police Department denounced at raucous City Council meeting

A smaller-than-expected crowd showed up at a rescheduled, venue-changed City Council meeting on a rainy Tuesday night, but what the gathering may have lacked in size, it more than made up in passion.

More than 50 speakers denounced, in often scathing terms, the conduct of Berkeley police and other cities’ forces that assisted them during recent, mostly peaceful protests against decisions by grand juries in Missouri and New York not to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men.

But perhaps the biggest beating Tuesday was to Berkeley’s image as the most liberal city in America, a phrase used derisively by several speakers. Many painted a picture of a Berkeley not much different from Ferguson, Missouri, or the New York City borough of Staten Island, as a place where people of color as well as people with mental health issues bear the brunt of police suspicion and use of force.

“We haven’t come to grips with some of the issues that have plagued us for over 400 years in this country,” Councilman Max Anderson said during a break. “For us to have to declare, in 2014, that black lives matter, is an indictment of our failure to address the problems that beset us in this society.”

Terror ties question from StarAfrica:

Mauritania trade union wants CIA links clarified

The General Confederation of Mauritania Workers (CGTM) has demanded the government to clarify its alleged cooperation with the CIA over the presence of secret prisons in the country.

Over the last few days, some of the nation’s media have published articles, quoting [The Independent], suggesting information relating to a CIA program to build secret prisons in some countries, CGTM claimed in a statement.

According to the statement published in Nouakchott on Tuesday, the newspaper listed Mauritania among countries cooperating with the program.

For CGTM, “these practices banned by international conventions, including the Geneva Convention, must be prohibited and denounced by all those who have deep love for peace and justice.”

Old school spookery, via intelNews:

Estonian intel officer comes out as Russian spy in TV interview

Estonian authorities have charged a retired officer in the country’s internal intelligence service with espionage, after he revealed in a television interview that he spied for Russia for nearly 20 years.

Uno Puusepp retired from the Internal Security Service of Estonia, known as KaPo, in 2011. He first joined the Soviet KGB as a wiretapping expert in the 1970s, when Estonia was part of the USSR. Following the dissolution of the USSR, when Estonia became an independent nation, he was hired by KaPo and worked there until his retirement, three years ago, at which time he moved permanently to Russian capital Moscow.

Last Sunday, however, Puusepp was the main speaker in a documentary entitled Our Man in Tallinn, aired on Russian television channel NTV. In the documentary, Puusepp revealed that he was a double spy for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which is KGB’s successor, from 1996 until his retirement.

And the possibly related, via RT:

Italian ex-MEP arrested, kicked out of Estonia & called Russian ‘agent of influence’

Journalist and former European Parliament member, Giulietto Chiesa of Italy, was detained by the Tallinn police due to his pro-Russian views, which make him a threat to Estonia’s national security, the country’s Foreign Ministry told RT in an e-mail.

Chiesa spent several hours behind bars after being taken into custody from his hotel in center of the Estonian capital Monday. The police told the Italian politician that he had violated a ban on entering the country imposed on him on December 13.

“Due to the current activities of Mr Giulietto Chiesa, there is a good reason to believe that he is involved in the Russian influence operations and his stay in Estonia may pose threat to Estonia’s security, its public order and public safety,” Mari-Liis Valter, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, wrote in answer to questions from RT.

On to the hack of the year, first with the Los Angeles Times:

Sony Pictures cancels Christmas Day release of ‘The Interview’

Sony Pictures Entertainment has canceled the Christmas Day release of “The Interview” after the nation’s major theater chains said they would not screen the film.

The studio said “we respect and understand our partners’ decision” and “completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theatergoers.”

Regal, AMC and Cinemark — the three largest chains in the United States — decided not to screen “The Interview” starting on Christmas Day in the wake of threats made by Sony hackers, said people familiar with the decision. The chains asked Sony to postpone the release date of the controversial film.

“Due to the wavering support of the film “The Interview” by Sony Pictures, as well as the ambiguous nature of any real or perceived security threats, Regal Entertainment Group has decided to delay the opening of the film in our theatres,” Regal said in a statement.

And it’s not just theatrical release that’s DOA, reports USA Today:

Some industry insiders speculated Sony might release the film in the video-on-demand format, but the studio tells USA TODAY there will be no further release plans of any kind.

“I think they just want to wash their hands of it,” says Matthew Belloni, executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter.

Internal blowback, again via the Los Angeles Times:

Sony hack draws lawsuits by former employees

The massive computer breach at Sony Pictures Entertainment could test laws that require companies to protect their employees’ personal and medical information.

Lawyers representing former Sony Pictures employees have separately filed in Los Angeles two lawsuits that seek class-action status, alleging Sony Pictures Entertainment was negligent in the months leading up to the devastating hack. One of the complaints — a 45-page federal lawsuit, which seeks to represent former and current Sony employees — contends that Sony ignored warnings that its computer network was prone to attack.

Sony “failed to secure its computer systems, servers and databases, despite weaknesses that it has known about for years” and “subsequently failed to timely protect confidential information of its current and former employees from law-breaking hackers,” according to the federal complaint filed late Monday.

The other suit, which was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday, also alleges negligence and invasion of privacy of former Sony employees.

The United Press International fingers a suspect:

Reports: U.S. officials blame Sony hacking on North Korea

U.S. officials believe those responsible for hacking into Sony Pictures were working under the direction of the North Korean government, several media organizations reported Wednesday.

Sources with direct knowledge of a U.S. government investigation into the security breach told the Wall Street Journal it is believed a North Korean government hacking team known as Unit 121 is behind the attack. The sources were not identified.

CNN, also quoting unnamed sources, reported that an official announcement is expected Thursday blaming the Pyongyang-based group called Bureau 121.

The London Daily Mail covers the sadly inevitable:

State Department saw graphic Kim Jong-un death scene in ‘The Interview’ and ‘approved of it,’ hacked emails reveal

  • Sony executives hired an foreign policy analyst to consult after North Korea called the film The Interview ‘an act of war’ for depicting the assassination of Kim Jon-un
  • The consultant gave a greenlight and said the scene showing the dictator’s death could be good for Koreans – on both sides of the dividing line
  • Consultant also said he spoke about the film to US envoy for North Korean issues
  • Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton said he also talked to a ‘very senior’ official at the State Department

And from the London Daily Mail again, , another film dies:

Hollywood studio pulls the plug on Steve Carell’s new movie Pyongyang just hours after Sony scraps release of The Interview

New Regency decided to cancel production of the thriller based on graphic novel by Guy Delisle

  • Movie that was set to be directed by Gore Verbinski, with Carell playing an American living in Pyongyang
  • The cancellation comes in the wake of Sony hacking scandal

The Sony hacking scandal continued reverberating throughout the Hollywood film industry Wednesday, leading New Regency studio to pull the plug on a new film about North Korea starring Steve Carell.

The announcement was made just hours after Sony scrapped the release of the controversial Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview, which was scheduled to premiere Christmas Day.

Titled Pyongyang, New Regency’s now-defunct film has been described as a thriller based on Guy Delisle’s eponymous graphic novel about his experiences living in the totalitarian state, reported The Wrap.

Following the news that Pyongyang has been scrapped, Steve Carell tweeted to his 3.64million followers: ‘Sad day for creative expression,’ followed by the hashtag, ‘feareatsthesoul.’

After the jump, it’s on to drone anxieties and a proposed Big Apple ban, Arab Springs succeeded by what was before, a born again demand on Swedish Jews, Nigerian mutiny ends in 54 death warrants, top Afghan spook bids a sad farewell to Western boots on the ground, a plea from Pakistan to Afghanistan to help catch the butchers of children, a lethal retaliatory assault, another killer drone strike, Pakistan’s peculiarly spooky complications, and the zealot in question whose most notable prior action made a Pakistani girl a Nobel Peace Price winner, and a solidarity demonstration for the children in Berkeley, Thai police launch an international hunt for lese majeste suspects, Chinese nuclear aircraft carrier ambitions, Obama and Abe — Trans-Pacific BFFs, and a university stands up to Tojo revisionism. . . Continue reading