Category Archives: Crime

Headlines again, with anxieties and ironies


First up, one of the world’s smallest nations takes on nine heavy hitters: The U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Via the Japan Times:

Tiny Marshall Islands sues nine nuclear-armed powers

The tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands is taking on the United States and the world’s eight other nuclear-armed nations with an unprecedented lawsuit demanding that they meet their obligations toward disarmament and accusing them of “flagrant violations” of international law.

The island group that was used for dozens of U.S. nuclear tests after World War II was filing suit Thursday against each of the nine countries in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. It also was filing a federal lawsuit against the United States in San Francisco, naming President Barack Obama, the departments and secretaries of defense and energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The Marshall Islands claims the nine countries are modernizing their nuclear arsenals instead of negotiating disarmament, and it estimates that they will spend $1 trillion on those arsenals over the next decade.

From CNN Investigations, a national shame, and another neoliberal triumph:

A fatal wait: Veterans languish and die on a VA hospital’s secret list

At least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list.

The secret list was part of an elaborate scheme designed by Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources.

For six months, CNN has been reporting on extended delays in health care appointments suffered by veterans across the country and who died while waiting for appointments and care. But the new revelations about the Phoenix VA are perhaps the most disturbing and striking to come to light thus far.

Internal e-mails obtained by CNN show that top management at the VA hospital in Arizona knew about the practice and even defended it.

Salon covers another national shame:

Massive new fraud coverup: How banks are pillaging homes — while the government watches

  • When financial crimes go unpunished, the root problem of fraud never gets fixed — and these are the consequences

From Boing Boing, another imminent national shame from the administration of Hope™ and Change™:

FCC planning new Internet rules that will gut Net Neutrality. Get ready to pay more for the stuff you love online.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report that The Federal Communications Commission will propose new open Internet rules this Thursday that will allow content companies to pay Internet service providers “for special access to consumers.”

Under the new rules, service providers may not block or discriminate against specific websites, but they can charge certain sites or services for preferential traffic treatment if the ISPs’ discrimination is “commercially reasonable.”

Bye-bye, Net Neutrality, and the internet as we know it. Hello, greater connectivity gap between rich and poor in America.

The covers another neoliberal triumph:Associated Press:

Postal workers unions protest Staples program

Postal workers around the country protested in front of Staples stores on Thursday, objecting to the U.S. Postal Service’s pilot program to open counters in stores, staffed with retail employees.

Rallies were planned at 50 locations in 27 states. In New York, about 100 workers marched from the main office on 8th Avenue to a Staples store about five blocks away, carrying signs and chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Staples deal has got to go.”

In Washington, D.C., more than 200 people gathered at a Staples, drumming on buckets and holding signs that read: “Stop Staples. The US Mail is Not for Sale.”

Bloomberg casts doubt:

Is the U.S. Shale Boom Going Bust?

It’s not surprising that a survey of energy professionals attending the 2014 North American Prospect Expo overwhelmingly identified “U.S. energy independence” as the trend most likely to gain momentum this year. Like any number of politicians and pundits, these experts are riding high on the shale boom — that catch-all colloquialism for the rise of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that have unleashed a torrent of hydrocarbons from previously inaccessible layers of rock.

But this optimism belies an increasingly important question: How long will it all last?

Among drilling critics and the press, contentious talk of a “shale bubble” and the threat of a sudden collapse of America’s oil and gas boom have been percolating for some time. While the most dire of these warnings are probably overstated, a host of geological and economic realities increasingly suggest that the party might not last as long as most Americans think.

And from Los Angeles Times, signs of a bubble deflating?:

Homes selling slower in Southern California. A sign of stability?

The share of houses that have been listed for sale for at least two months climbed in the Los Angeles, Orange County, Inland Empire and Ventura regions of Southern California compared with a year ago, according to an analysis by real estate website Trulia.

Thanks to perennially tight supply, Southern California housing markets are still pretty “fast” by historic standards, notes Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko. More than half of all homes in Los Angeles and Orange Counties sold in less than two months — among the 10 highest rates in the country.

But compared with last year, when prices were significantly lower and the supply of homes for sale was even tighter, the market has slowed a bit. The share of homes on the market for two months in Los Angeles climbed to 44% from 40 a year ago, to 45% from 38% in Orange County and to 53% from 49% in Riverside-San Bernardino. By comparison, that share fell in the Bay Area, Denver and Seattle.

The Guardian nags:

Big riders mean bigger horses on US’s western trails

  • Ranches are turning to draft horses – the ‘diesels’ of the horse world – to accommodate flood of overweight tourists

Wranglers in the US west who have for decades cashed in on the allure of getting on a horse and setting out on an open trail say they have had to add bigger horses to their stables to help carry larger tourists over the rugged terrain.

The ranches say they are using draft horses, the diesels of the horse world, in ever greater numbers to make sure they don’t lose out on income from potential customers of any size who come out to get closer to the west of yesteryear.

“Even though a person might be overweight, or, you know, heavier than the average American, it’s kind of nice we can provide a situation where they can ride with their family,” said wrangler T James “Doc” Humphrey.

And from the New York Times, a deal with the devil:

F.B.I. Informant Is Tied to Cyberattacks Abroad

An informant working for the F.B.I. coordinated a 2012 campaign of hundreds of cyberattacks on foreign websites, including some operated by the governments of Iran, Syria, Brazil and Pakistan, according to documents and interviews with people involved in the attacks.

Exploiting a vulnerability in a popular web hosting software, the informant directed at least one hacker to extract vast amounts of data — from bank records to login information — from the government servers of a number of countries and upload it to a server monitored by the F.B.I., according to court statements.

The details of the 2012 episode have, until now, been kept largely a secret in closed sessions of a federal court in New York and heavily redacted documents. While the documents do not indicate whether the F.B.I. directly ordered the attacks, they suggest that the government may have used hackers to gather intelligence overseas even as investigators were trying to dismantle hacking groups like Anonymous and send computer activists away for lengthy prison terms.

The Los Angeles Times covers cops gone bad:

Ex-deputies charged in planted-guns case

Two former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies are accused of cutting off electricity and security cameras in order to plant weapons and arrest two men at a medical marijuana dispensary.

Two former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies have been charged with planting guns at a medical marijuana dispensary to arrest two men, one of whom prosecutors said was sentenced to a year in jail before the bad evidence was discovered.

Julio Cesar Martinez, 39, and Anthony Manuel Paez, 32, face two felony counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice and altering evidence, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office announced Wednesday. Martinez was charged with two additional felony counts of perjury and one count of filing a false report.

If convicted of the charges, the former deputies face more than seven years in prison.

While the London Daily Mail covers the Case of the Homicidal Snitch:

How KKK ‘Jewish center shooter’ entered the witness protection program after he was caught having sex with a black male prostitute dressed as a woman

  • Frazier Glenn Cross was arrested on April 14 for shooting three at Kansas City Jewish centers
  • Previously worked as a government informant after he was arrested under his original name, Frazier Glenn Miller
  • Had a history of arrests- including one following a tryst with a black male prostitute posing as a woman- that led to his 1987 capture
  • Was released and given a new identity as part of his 1990 informant deal

And from the Washington Post, a high-flier brought low:

Navy reassigns ex-Blue Angels commander after complaint he allowed sexual harassment

The Navy has reassigned a former commander of the Blue Angels, its acrobatic fighter squadron, and is investigating allegations that the elite team of pilots was a hotbed of hazing, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination, documents show.

The Navy announced Friday that it had relieved Capt. Gregory McWherter, a two-time commander of the Blue Angels, of duty for alleged misconduct. At the time, the Navy did not describe the nature of the accusations or provide other details except to say that the case remained under investigation.

From Eyes on Trade, Barry O continues the sell-out:

As Obama Visits TPP Countries, New Obama Administration Report Targets Their Public Interest Policies as “Trade Barriers” to be Eliminated

As President Obama leaves on his Asia tour today to try to paper over the deep divisions that have bewitched the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, he will likely refrain from reiterating the criticisms his administration recently levied against the sensitive domestic policies of the TPP governments he will be visiting.

The 2014 National Trade Estimate Report, published earlier this month by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), targets financial, privacy, health, and other public interest policies of each TPP nation as “trade barriers” that the U.S. government seeks to eliminate. The report offers unusual insight into why negotiations over the sweeping, 12-nation deal are contentious and have repeatedly missed deadlines for completion.

And a helpful reminder, via ExposeTheTPP:

BLOG TPP

Gawker covers a sensible but long-belated move:

Brooklyn DA to Stop Prosecuting for Low-Level Pot Arrests

The Brooklyn district attorney’s office will stop prosecuting low-level marijuana arrests, according to a confidential memo obtained by the New York Times.

The district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson sent the policy proposal to the New York Police Department earlier this month.

The memo states that charges against anyone arrested with a small amount of marijuana who lacks a prior conviction will be “immediately dismissed,” and “the police will be directed to destroy the defendant’s fingerprints.” Some 8,500 people were processed last year in Brooklyn on low-level drug charges.

From the National Post, a story that raises so many questions north of the border and raises the prospect of another drinking buddy for Toronto’s mayor::

‘Intoxicated’ 18-year-old girl reportedly rushed to hospital from Prime Minister Harper’s residence

  • 24 Sussex medical call won’t be investigated by RCMP

The RCMP have confirmed that Ottawa EMS was called to the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive last Saturday night as media reports said an 18-year-old girl needed to be taken to hospital for severe intoxication.

RCMP would not confirm who the call was for, only that it was not Stephen Harper or one of his family members.

On to Europe with some rare good news for workers from the Portugal News:

EU workers to enjoy fully portable pension rights when moving abroad

EU workers moving to a different EU country will be able to take their full pension rights with them following a draft law passed by the European Parliament last week. It still needs to be formally approved by the Council of Ministers.

“The text represents a genuine improvement for many workers. It is a big step forwards for the free movement of workers and a boost for a social Europe”, said Dutch MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten, adding that “a good pension is a necessity, now that Europeans can expect to live much longer.”

Current EU rules ensure that workers moving to another EU country do not lose their statutory pension rights, i.e. those provided by the state.

However, no such EU-wide rules exist for supplementary pension schemes, financed or co-financed by employers. So people who move between member states risk losing entitlements built up over a period that is not deemed long enough by the state to which they move.

From intelNews.org, the second oldest profession with familiar adversaries:

Russian espionage in Germany rising sharply, says Berlin

Russian espionage activity in Germany has reached levels not seen since the days of the Cold War, according to senior counterintelligence officials in Berlin.

An article published in weekly newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag on Sunday said Russian intelligence-gathering activities in the German capital center on infiltrating German political institutions and corporations. The Berlin-based publication said Russian spies typically seek to gain “intimate knowledge” of German energy policy as well as corporate practices.

Another area of interest for Russian intelligence concerns Germany’s activities in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Citing Hans-Georg Maassen, Director of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV —Germany’s primary counterintelligence agency), Die Welt said that no foreign intelligence service is more active on German soil than Russia’s SVR —one of the KGB’s successor agencies. Most Russian intelligence officers “pose as embassy workers”, said the paper, adding that the BfV believes up to a third of all Russian diplomats stationed at the German capital have a “background in intelligence gathering”.

On to France and more familiar adversaries from TheLocal.fr:

Neo-Nazi Hitler party shocks French village

The mayor of a small village in eastern France was forced to explain this week how he ended up giving the green light for a neo-Nazi party commemorating the 125th anniversiary of Hitler’s birth. The mayor said he presumed it was just going to be an ordinary birthday party.

When André Sherrer, the mayor of the tiny village of Oltingue, in the Alsace region of Eastern France, gave the go-ahead for a function in a municipal building he had no idea the outrage it would provoke.

Sherrer, who is in charge of the village of 700 residents thought he was renting the room out for an ordinary birthday party but little did he know that 150 to 200 neo-Nazis would be turning up to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Hitler’s birth on April 20th 1889.

And from France 24, when all else fails, play up flesh:

Ségolène Royal denies banning cleavage at French ministry

Ségolène Royal, French President François Hollande’s former partner and the mother of his four children, has denied claims she ordered female staff at the Environment Ministry to “dress appropriately” and avoid revealing tops.

The report, published by French weekly Le Point on Thursday, claimed Royal, who joined Hollande’s Socialist government following a cabinet reshuffle earlier this month, had also banned smoking in the ministry’s courtyard and gardens in her presence.

Denying the “ridiculous rumours” on her Twitter account, Royal said the only instruction she had given colleagues was to be sparing in their use of public funds.

From TheLocal.ch, a Swiss challenge to the financializers:

Vote set for ban on food trading ‘speculation’

The Swiss will vote on a proposal to ban speculation on agricultural commodities and food, the government said on Wednesday, announcing that organizers had gathered enough signatures to put the issue to a referendum.

The Swiss Socialist Party’s youth wing gathered nearly 116,000 valid signatures — well beyond the 100,000 needed to organize a popular vote in Switzerland, one of the world’s main trading hubs for commodities.

The initiative, entitled “No speculation in food commodities”, will likely come up for a vote within the next two or three years, giving voters the possibility to put a stop to all trading in financial instruments linked to agricultural products.

From thinkSPAIN, voices against austerity:

Doctors from Médicos del Mundo collect 43,000 signatures calling for ‘free healthcare for all’

DOCTORS working for a worldwide charity have raised a petition of 43,000 signatures in protest over the healthcare reform proposed by minister Ana Mato.

Médicos del Mundo (‘world doctors’) say the restrictions are ‘unjust and cruel’ and that ‘two years of reforms’ had ‘put more human lives at risk’ by ‘targeting those who are the most vulnerable’.

The charity says it has seen literally hundreds of immigrants without residence cards being denied medical care, and Spanish families with low incomes struggling to pay for treatment they need, ‘endangering their lives and health’.

Opprobrium for Madrid from The Guardian:

Spain restricting people’s right to protest, Amnesty report finds

  • Report paints picture of heavy-handed government response to country’s growing social movements

The Spanish government is using fines, harassment and excessive police force to limit the right to protest, Amnesty International warned in a new report released on Thursday.

Against a backdrop of chronic unemployment and shrinking public funds for education, health and social services, a growing number of Spaniards have taken to the streets in recent years. But “instead of listening to their demands, instead of starting a dialogue, authorities are doing everything they can to impede people from protesting”, said the report’s author, Virginia Álvarez.

Amnesty International tracked several protests in Madrid and Barcelona during the past year, gathering first-person accounts, interviewing journalists and lawyers and analysing videos and photographs.

And from TheLocal.es, allegations of book-cooking:

Spain ‘fiddles numbers’ to shave jobless rate

Spain has managed to push down its unemployment rate to 25.77 percent — by adjusting the formulas used to establish the country’s jobless rate to include the latest census data.

Spain’s official unemployment rate fell from 26.03 percent to 25.77 percent in one fell swoop on Thursday.

The sudden drop came after the national statistics institute (INE) revised its formulas to include data from the 2011 national census.

Spain’s official unemployment rate is based on a survey of 65,000 households across the country, known as the EPA, or Active Population Survey.

On to Italy and more hard times intolerance from EUobserver:

Italian right calls for end to migrant rescue programme

Italian right-wing politicians have called for the country’s programme to rescue North African refugees from the Mediterranean sea to be scrapped after figures suggested that 1,100 immigrants had been rescued in the past two days.

The figures are the highest since Italy launched a naval operation known as “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea) last October to rescue would-be migrants at sea in the wake of two shipwrecks off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa which killed more than 600 people.

Since its creation, Mare Nostrum has rescued more than 20,000 people from the Mediterranean at an estimated cost of €9 million a month, according to Italian media reports.

From EUobserver, currency losing currency:

Anti-euro talk spreads in Italy

Rome – In the 1990s, qualifying against the odds for eurozone membership was a matter of pride for most Italians. Now leaving the euro – once a political taboo – is routinely discussed by the media, as the campaign for next month’s European Parliament elections gets into full swing.

Polls suggest that eurosceptics may win as much as 50 percent of the votes, if support levels for Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia are totted up with those for smaller right-wing parties such as the Northern League and Brothers of Italy.

“There is more talk about Europe, but it is being talked about in bad terms,” Franco Frattini, a former EU commissioner and ex-Italian foreign minister, lamented at a public event in Rome on 16 April.

From TheLocal.it, feeling cross, or when symbolism turns lethal:

Italian man crushed to death by giant crucifix

An Italian man was crushed to death on Wednesday by a giant crucifix honouring John Paul II that collapsed during a ceremony ahead of the late pope’s canonization.

A piece of the 30-metre high wooden cross fell during the event near an Alpine village, killing the young man on the spot, Italian media reported.

The Jesus Christ statue on the cross is six metres high and weighs 600 kilogrammes and the crucifix was curved and fixed to the ground with cables, the reports said. The victim’s age was given at 20 or 21 years old.

And for our final Italian item, a symbolic step from ANSA:

Napolitano signs tax-cut decree

  • Includes ban on hiring for late-paying local administrations

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Thursday signed the government’s decree bringing in 10 billion euros of tax cuts for low earners, ANSA sources said. Napolitano met Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan earlier on Thursday for clarification about aspects of the legislation.

Opposition parties have expressed doubts about the financing of the cuts.

Premier Matteo Renzi, on the other hand, said Wednesday that the cuts were the start of a “revolution in the relationship between citizens and the State”.

After the jump, the latest from Greece [including bailout news and rising discontent], a Putinesque pronouncement, pot rules in Montevideo, the latest Asian zonal games, religious resurgence in China, and the curious case of the the not-so-green geothermal Icelandic woes. . . Continue reading

Headlines again, with global warning signs


Today’s entries cover everything from social media to troubling tensions in Asia.

We open with a tale of corporatized medicine from the Los Angeles Times:

UC OKs paying surgeon $10 million in whistleblower-retaliation case

The settlement ends a case brought by the ex-head of UCLA’s orthopedic surgery department, who says the medical school allowed doctors to take industry payments that may have compromised patient care.

The settlement reached Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court came just before closing arguments were due to begin in a whistleblower-retaliation case brought by Dr. Robert Pedowitz, 54, a surgeon who was recruited to UCLA in 2009 to run the orthopedic surgery department.

In 2012, the surgeon sued UCLA, the UC regents, fellow surgeons and senior university officials, alleging they failed to act on his complaints about widespread conflicts of interest and later retaliated against him for speaking up.

From Reuters, a tale of not-so-rigorous regulation:

Special Report: For private deals, no one is watching the watchdogs

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the industry’s self-regulating body, requires that broker-dealers conduct “a reasonable investigation” of a private placement before selling it for the issuer. That’s the due diligence. At a minimum, FINRA requires that for each new placement, the broker’s investigation entail a review of the issuer and its management; its business prospects; assets it holds or plans to acquire; the intended use of proceeds from the offering; and claims made in any offering documents.

Some brokers lack the resources to cover all of that, so they rely on reports supplied by third-party due diligence firms. The reports are paid for by the issuer of the private placement. Brokers are meant to use the reports to help them decide whether to market the placements. They don’t typically show the reports to clients.

The set-up constitutes what many see as a fundamental conflict of interest: Companies that raise money through private placements, such as Provident, are paying due diligence firms to review their deals so that broker-dealers will sell them. “They have to write these reports in such a manner that it’s gotta be acceptable” to the issuer, said Michael Miller, a due diligence officer at Sigma Financial, a broker-dealer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This isn’t the only instance of regulatees selecting their regulatory overseers. Developers seeking approval for their projects also select the folks who prepare their Environmental Impact Reports [EIRs]. During our coverage of tribal casinos in California we discovered that most of the projects we covered had EIRs prepared by one single company. Their reports always seemed to find that the casinos would have negligible impact. The same was true in communities like Berkeley, where successful developers generally used the same handful of consultants. . .

From BBC News, soaring profits from the intangible:

Facebook earnings surge on mobile advertising

Social networking giant Facebook reported profits of $642m (£383m) during the first quarter of 2014, beating analyst expectations.

The firm said surging mobile advertising helped push first quarter revenue 72% higher, to $2.5bn.

Mobile now makes up 59% of advertising revenue, from 30% a year ago.

BBC News again, this time with profits for a media makers whose products carry those Facebook ads:

Apple announces share buyback as earnings rise

Technology giant Apple reported profits of $10.2bn (£6.1bn) after selling 43.7 million iPhones during the three-month period ending 29 March.

Apple also announced plans to buy an additional $30bn of its stock back from shareholders and to increase its quarterly dividend by 8%.

It also said it would split its stock for the first time in nine years.

The moves are meant to appease investors as the firm reports slowing revenue growth.

From Jiji Press, hands across the Pacific struggle to engage in the neoliberal handshake:

Japan, U.S. to defer broad trade accord

Japan and the United States are now seen deferring a broad trade agreement until after a summit meeting set for Thursday due to differences over key issues, informed sources said Tuesday.

The two countries’ leaders are now expected to welcome progress so far made in bilateral trade talks under the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership framework and reaffirm their nations’ commitment to concluding the TPP negotiations, the sources said.

A stalemate over Japanese tariffs on U.S. pork continued during a working-level session in Tokyo on Tuesday.

On to Europe with this report of realism from From New Europe:

Majority of Germans think eurozone crisis not over

A new opinion poll shows that a majority of Germans believed the eurozone crisis is far from over, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported Wednesday.

According to a survey conducted by polling institute INSA, 81 percent of those asked said the European debt crisis was not yet over, while only 7 percent believed the crisis had ended.

The poll said many German citizens were concerned about developments in Greece. Only 34 percent of respondents saw the country on the right track. A further 39 percent said Greece was not making enough efforts to implement reforms.

The Portugal News covers lingering neoliberalism at work:

Austerity ‘certain’ to continue after troika – Socialist Party

  • The Portuguese Socialist Party said on Tuesday it was “certain” after a meeting with the troika (International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Commission) that austerity would continue in Portugal despite the financial assistance programme formally coming to an end shortly

And from Reuters, a billionaire and former chief executive gets a mere wrist-slap for profitable corruption:

Italy’s Berlusconi to start community service work next week

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Wednesday he would start doing community service with the elderly next week as part of a one-year tax fraud sentence.

A court ruled earlier this month that Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men, must spend four hours a week [emphasis added] in a Catholic old people’s home on the outskirts of Milan.

After completing the first six months, Berlusconi’s one-year sentence will automatically be reduced to 10 and a half months.

And from United Press International, Italian blackshirt nostalgia:

Mussolini’s birthplace in Italy to get a fascist museum

A museum dedicated to the history of fascism will be created in Predappio, Italy, the birthplace of dictator Benito Mussolini, Mayor Giorgio Frassineti announced.

A museum dedicated to the history of fascism will be created in Predappio, Italy, the birthplace of dictator Benito Mussolini, Mayor Giorgio Frassineti announced.

The northern Italian city, known for neo-fascist pilgrimages, already maintains the home in which Mussolini was born, as well as the mausoleum where he is buried. The museum will be located in the now-abandoned Casa del Fascio, built in the 1930s as part of an urban renewal program, to accommodate visitors and to glorify Mussolini.

On to Greece, in the first of three stories on the austerian numbers game, first from ANA-MPA:

Greek primary surplus totalled 3.4 billion euros in 2013?

  • Greece’s primary surplus totalled 3.4 billion euros in 2013 (excluding the financial support offered to banks), Alternate Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said on Wednesday.The primary surplus figure was based using Eurostat’s methodology, while the troika estimates this figure at 1.5 billion euros.

A contrary take from The Guardian:

Greece’s public finances are in a dire state, and cooking the books won’t help

  • Primary budget facts and details in the small print can no longer be hidden by creative accounting and a sleight of hand

It was dodgy accounting that got Greece into a mess in the first place. Now, more dodgy accounting is being used to dress up the dire state of the nation’s public finances.

When the government in Athens announced last week that it was running a surplus in its primary budget – a measure of financial health that strips out interest payments – it could only do so by recording more than €3bn (£2.5bn) in arrears owed to hospitals and the social security fund as assets. Without this creative accounting, there would have been a primary deficit.

And the third story, with Neos Kosmos covering one of the consequences:

Greece lines up tax cuts

  • Greece is set to ask its eurozone partners to gradually reduce corporation tax rates as part of a wider plan to generate growth in Greece

Greece is set to ask its eurozone partners when the Eurogroup meets on May 5 for permission to gradually reduce corporation tax rates as part of a wider plan to generate growth in Greece, Kathimerini understands.

Several government officials, including Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras and Development Minister Costis Hatzidakis met Tuesday to finalize a three-page proposal that will form the basis for a growth plan that will run from this year until 2020. Both coalition parties, New Democracy and PASOK, were represented at the meeting.

From EnetEnglish.gr, austerity’s fruit ripening:

Uninsured mother unable to afford medication loses her life

  • How many more patients must die from austerity, asks voluntary health clinic
  • Woman’s death proves once again that the government’s ‘policy of excluding our uninsured fellow citizens from healthcare means that human life is endangered and often lost’, says the Metropolitan Community Clinic in Elliniko, Athens

40-year-old uninsured single mother of two young children from the island of Mytilini died earlier this month from the effects of a stroke because she didn’t have the money to pay for her medication, the country’s leading voluntary health clinic said on Wednesday.

Raising the woman’s case, the Metropolitan Community Clinic at Elliniko, Athens, said the woman’s death proved once again that the government’s “policy of excluding our uninsured fellow citizens from healthcare means that human life is endangered and often lost”.

And from To Vima, more of that hard times intolerance:

ANTARSYA condemns fascist attack against election campaign offices

  • Attack took place on Easter Monday, on the anniversary of the military junta’s rise to power in 1967

Leftist party ANTARSYA has condemned a fascist attack against its election campaign offices in Athens, which took place on Monday the 21st of April, anniversary of the 1967 military dictatorship’s rise to power.

ANTARSYA’s municipal candidate Petros Konstantinou claimed to have personally received threatening telephone calls on Thursday evening, with the caller threatening “to show you what Golden Dawn can do”.

The attackers smashed the front door of the offices and ripped down anti-fascism posters that were in the building’s lobby. A trail of blood was discovered outside the offices on the 5th of floor, which the attackers unsuccessfully tried to break into.

On to the Ukraine and journalistic errata from Consortiumnews:

NYT Retracts Russian-Photo Scoop

  • Exclusive: After starting a propaganda stampede – with a lead story about photos of Russian troops purportedly in Ukraine – the New York Times admits the pictures really don’t prove much, and one photo was labeled as snapped in Russia when it was really taken in Ukraine, writes Robert Parry.

After the jump, more escalation and anxieties in Asia’s game of Thrones [with Uncle Sam jumping in], an almost-admirable death sentence, Asian environmental woes, the lLatest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now!, plus new developments in the world of Big Brothering and covert ops, plus the latest from the realm of cannabis and crime. . . Continue reading

Big Brother is watching you, really watching


From the Center for Investigative Reporting via Journeyman Pictures, a disturbing look atg police surveillance technology now deployed in the U.S.:

The Frightening New Technology Transforming State Surveillance

Program Notes:

State of Surveillance: Across the US, Hollywood-style surveillance technology is inching closer to reality. Sophisticated technologies enable access to more data than ever before raising questions about how the information is used.

For downloads and more information visit: http://www.journeyman.tv/?lid=67097 – private

“You can lie about your name, date of birth, address but tattoos, birthmarks, scars don’t lie”, says officer Rob Halverson. Mobile facial recognition technology allows him to capture a person’s face and confirm their identity within seconds. Wide-area surveillance is another technology revolutionising surveillance. Capturing images from a plane, it has the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city. Meanwhile, the FBI is finalizing plans this year to make 130 million fingerprints digital and searchable. FBI’s Jeremy Wiltz is thrilled about the potential of solving cold cases: “I can’t wait till those success stories come out”. But many of the fingerprints belong to people who have simply submitted their prints for background checks while seeking jobs. Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is suing the FBI for what she believes subverts basic democratic rights: “Those people whose face images come up suddenly have to prove their innocence rather than the government having to prove their guilt”.

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

April 20, 1914: The bloody Ludlow Massacre


The latter half of our childhood was spent in Colorado, where today marks the anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre, one of the bloodiest assaults on organized labor in American history, when company goons from John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron and troops from the National Guard opened fire on striking coal miners in Ludlow, killing two dozen in the tent camp erected by striking miners and their families.

Thirteen of the dead were children, most burned to death in the ensuing fires.

In this brief video, Anton Woronczuk of The Real News Network talks about the bloodshed with author Jeff Biggers and Colorado State University-Pueblo historian Jonathan Rees:

From The Real News Network:

Hundredth Anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre

From the transcript:

REES: Well, the Ludlow massacre was the culminating event of the Colorado coalfield war of 1913-1914. There’d been small-scale violence on both sides throughout Southern Colorado in the days and months leading up to April 20, but on April 20 there were some stray explosions, and as a result a gunfight broke out between the Colorado National Guard and the striking miners.

When that happened, a lot of the people fled the tent colony, but not all of them, and the Colorado National Guard set fire to the tent colony, trapping 11 children and two women in a pit under one of the tents. They suffocated. There were also a few murders of strike leaders who were trying to broker a peace.

But once the massacre was over, you got the infamous ten-day war, when the coal miners decided they would strike back against the people who had killed their colleagues and their women and children, and literally the miners managed to take over most of southern Colorado from everywhere just south of Denver all the way down to the New Mexico line. It’s really an extraordinary event in American labor history. The miners did very well in the days afterwards, inspired by the horrible violence of April 20.

WORONCZUK: And what impact did the Ludlow massacre, as well as the Colorado Cold War, have on the labor movement and labor laws in the country?

REES: I think of the Ludlow massacre as being something that draws an enormous attention to just how difficult the conditions that miners face are. But really it’s one of a series of very bad losses for the labor movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. You could take it back to the Great Railway Strike of 1877, continue on to Blair Mountain. And without those losses, without those sacrifices, I don’t think you would have had the labor reforms of the 1930s that are the bedrock of [incompr.] today.

Woody Guthrie remembers the Ludlow Massacre in this venerable ballad:

Woody Guthrie: The Ludlow Mssacre

From Forbes: The United States of Marijuana


The number crunchers at the magazine for millionaires parse the numbers, coming to some interesting conclusions in this video report:

The United States of Marijuana

Program note:

As laws ease and public opinion leans towards legalization, Forbes looks inside the billion dollar industry of marijuana and the impact it can have on the economy.

Random headlines again, for your consideration


We begin with one from United Press International, offering proof of what we all know:

The US is not a democracy but an oligarchy, study concludes

  • “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Oligarchy is a form of government in which power is vested in a dominant class and a small group exercises control over the general population.

A new study from Princeton and Northwestern Universities concluded that the U.S. government represents not the interests of the majority of citizens but those of the rich and powerful.

“Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” analyzed extensive data, comparing nearly 1,800 U.S. policies enacted between 1981 and 2002 with the expressed preferences of average and affluent Americans as well as special interest groups.

UPDATE: Link fixed. Read it all here [PDF].

From The Guardian, Bubba’s bankster buddies:

Wall Street deregulation pushed by Clinton advisers, documents reveal

  • Previously restricted papers reveal attempts to rush president to support act, later blamed for deepening banking crisis

Wall Street deregulation, blamed for deepening the banking crisis, was aggressively pushed by advisers to Bill Clinton who have also been at the heart of current White House policy-making, according to newly disclosed documents from his presidential library.

The previously restricted papers reveal two separate attempts, in 1995 and 1997, to hurry Clinton into supporting a repeal of the Depression-era Glass Steagall Act and allow investment banks, insurers and retail banks to merge.

And from USA Today, high anxiety:

Nerves fray as anniversaries of April attacks arrive

As most Americans this week enjoy mid-April’s well-deserved warm weather, educators, law enforcement and civil rights groups are perhaps understandably a bit on edge with the approach of several dates that bring bad memories.

Saturday marks the anniversary of the 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, as well as the 1993 FBI attack of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, which killed cult leader David Koresh and 75 followers.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh called his attack payback for the deaths at Waco at the hands of the FBI, calling the siege “first blood.” The Oklahoma City bombing killed killed 168 people.

Six years later, Colorado teenager Eric Harris would boast in his journal that he planned to outdo McVeigh’s body count in an attack on Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. The 15th anniversary of that attack falls on Sunday. Harris, along with Dylan Klebold, killed 13 in a siege that was actually a failed bombing, police say. The Columbine attacks took place on the 110th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birth.

From the London Daily Mail, justice American style:

Judge rules that Texas inmate still behind bars 34 years after his conviction was overturned is at fault because he NEVER asked for a new trial

  • Jerry Hartfield was sentenced to death row in 1976 but his conviction was overturned four years later
  • He has an IQ of 51 and maintains police used a false confession in his case
  • Judge ruled that his right to a speedy trial had not been violated, even though the state was negligent in failing to retry him

Another potential unemployment casualty in France from RFI:

President Hollande won’t run for re-election if unemployment remains high

French President François Hollande made a shock announcement on Friday during a lunch with employees of the Michelin company: if unemployment continues to plummet between now and 2017, he will have “no reason to be a candidate” for a second mandate.

Hollande said that employment, particularly for young people, was a priority for him. “We’re going to put all our energy into this issue because there’s no other challenge [this important],” said the president.

From El País, the Iron Chancellor reneges on a promise:

Germany cancels scheme designed to attract young jobless from abroad

  • Spaniards made up half of all applicants for The Job of My Life
  • The program offered funding for language studies and help finding work
  • “I thought the Germans were serious”

The German government has announced that it is closing its The Job of My Life program, set up at the beginning of last year to attract young people from some of Europe’s hardest-hit economies – such as Greece and Spain – to work in Germany.

The €400-million program, which was aimed at 18- to 35-year-olds, was initially scheduled to run until 2018. This year’s budget, €48 million, has already been spent. The aim was to provide financial aid to young people in their own countries while they learned German, help them with interviews and then assist with the move to Germany to look for work.

From United Press International, giving the boot on The Boot:

Venice secession vote underscores autonomist movements

“We are now experiencing a strong return of little nations, small and prosperous countries, able to interact with each other in the global world,” Paolo Bernardini, European history professor at Italy’s University of Insubria, commented.

A vote in Italy’s Veneto region, which includes the city of Venice, indicating widespread support for secession from Italy, underscores the rise of nationalism in the world.

Considering the recent referendum in Crimea, the legitimacy of which was questioned, and prior to a September referendum in Scotland, whose approval could mean independence from England as early as 2016, the Venice vote in March was more like a survey. Online and without official status, it nonetheless indicated 89 percent of two million voters approved of formally separating themselves from Italy.

A blow to partisan plutocrats from the New York Times:

China Signals a Change as it Investigates a Family’s Riches

A corruption inquiry targeting the retired Communist Party leader Zhou Yongkang and his family could challenge a tacit rule that has allowed elite clans to accumulate vast wealth.

DVICE eyeballs a spooky development:

Forget Glass, Google wants to put a camera on your eyeball

Google Glass has been getting a lot of time in the spotlight lately, but if the boffins from Mountain View have their way, that fancy Google Glass rig may soon look about as cutting edge as having a Motorola Razr phone attached to your hip.

A recently published patent shows that Google has been looking at ways to build a camera directly into a contact lens on the surface of your eye. That would certainly make it more discreet than the clunky looking Glass, perfect for when you don’t want people to know that you’re using it. But it also means that the camera will be able to follow the direction of your vision, opening new possibilities for how it could be used.

From the Miami Herald, a rare chance to look inside the black box:

Guantánamo judge to CIA: Disclose ‘black site’ details to USS Cole defense lawyers

The military judge in the USS Cole bombing case has ordered the CIA to give defense lawyers details — names, dates and places — of its secret overseas detention and interrogation of the man accused of planning the bombing, two people who have read the still-secret order said Thursday.

Army Col. James L. Pohl issued the five-page order Monday. It was sealed as document 120C on the war court website Thursday morning and, according to those who have read it, orders the agency to provide a chronology of the overseas odyssey of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 49, from his capture in Dubai in 2002 to his arrival at Guantánamo four years later.

The Usual Suspects, cashin’ in — via Wired:

High Tech

How Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are rushing to cash in on cannabis.

For the science and technology set, it’s a classic opportunity to disrupt an industry historically run by hippies and gangsters. And the entire tech-industrial complex is getting in on the action: investors, entrepreneurs, biotechnologists, scientists, industrial designers, electrical engineers, data analysts, software developers. Industry types with experience at Apple and Juniper and Silicon Valley Bank and Zynga and all manner of other companies are flocking to cannabis with the hopes of creating a breakout product for a burgeoning legitimate industry. Maybe it’s the Firefly. Maybe it’s something still being developed in someone’s living room. There’s a truism about the gold rush days of San Francisco: It wasn’t the miners who got rich; it was the people selling picks and shovels. As the legalization trend picks up steam, Silicon Valley thinks it can make a better shovel.

From the Los Angeles Times, stiffing Californians to collect on high out-of-state tuitions:

California students feel UC admission squeeze

  • Most campuses take a lesser number of state students even as more get in from elsewhere.

California high school seniors faced a tougher time winning a freshman spot at most of the UC campuses for the fall, with their chances at UCLA and UC Berkeley now fewer than one in five, according to a report released Friday.

Six of UC’s nine undergraduate campuses accepted a smaller number of California students than last year even though the number of applicants rose. Competition was fiercest at UCLA, where only 16.3% of state students were admitted, down from 17.4% last year, and at UC Berkeley, where 18.8% were accepted, compared with 21.4% last year.

Increased competition is part of a national trend this year at the most elite level of higher education. Even though the population of American high school graduates dropped a bit, students are applying to more colleges, and schools are recruiting more overseas, especially in Asia. In the most extreme example, Stanford University accepted only 5% of applicants; many other highly selective campuses reported record low rates.

From Al Jazeera America, nostalgic for blasts from the past:

Boom town: Atomic tourism blooms in a western desert

  • As nuclear age approaches eighth decade, visitors flock to historic bomb craters at New Mexico test sites

Standing a few yards from the spot where the world’s first atomic bomb detonated with a blast so powerful that it turned the desert sand to glass and shattered windows more than 100 miles away, tourist Chris Cashel explained what drew him here.

“You don’t get to go to very many places that changed the entire world in a single moment,” said Cashel as he glanced around the windswept, desolate Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert packed with tourists. “The world was never going to be the same after that.”

The military veteran was among thousands of visitors who piled into cars and buses to drive out to the secluded site about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, where Manhattan Project scientists split the atom shortly before dawn on July 16, 1945, ushering in the atomic age. The successful test of the nuclear “gadget” unleashed a blast equivalent to 19 kilotons of high explosive, and led to the devastation of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weeks later.

And for our final item, worrisome corona virus censorship from Avian Flu Diary:

Saudi Govt. Prohibits ‘Unauthorized’ Media Coverage Of MERS

As you might expect, this announcement is making quite a stir on the twitter feed from Saudi Arabia, with many people clearly not pleased with this edict.

Quote of the day: Kunstler on the Ukraine


From James Howard Kunstler, writing in his always-provocative blog, Clusterfuck Nation:

Barack Obama, who I voted for twice, is on his way to becoming the worst US president in my lifetime, at least — and maybe in the whole cavalcade going back to the very start of the republic. I don’t want to get too sidetracked in this brief blog space today, but isn’t it stupendously asinine that Mr. Obama’s Justice Department and his SEC appointees only just last week became interested in the pervasive swindle of high frequency trading on Wall Street after author Michael Lewis went on 60 Minutes. Like, they hadn’t heard about this years-long orgy of front-running until now? Strange to relate, I actually might feel more comfortable if Vladimir Putin was massing troops on the Mexican side of the US border to keep Americans safe from our own bungling and destructive government.

 Aren’t a number of things obvious about the Ukraine situation? Such as: the Russians have a greater interest in preventing chaos there than the US has in any provisional disposition of the Ukrainian border and the composition of its government. Such as: for most of the 20th century Ukraine was essentially a Russian province, and at various times before that the ward of several other eastern European kingdoms. Such as: Russia has a huge investment in gas pipeline infrastructure in Ukraine upon which depends a substantial portion of its national income, not to mention the winter-time comfort of most of the countries in western Europe.

More of those not-so-random headlines. . .


We open with this grim assessment from United Press International:

One-fifth of Chinese farmland is polluted, study says

  • Nearly one-fifth of China’s available farmland is polluted.

Nearly one-fifth of China’s available farmland is polluted, a government report said.

Issued Thursday by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land Resources, it said 16.1 percent of the country’s land was polluted, as was 19.4 percent of its farmland, citing “human industrial and agricultural activities” as the cause. The report was based on a study, from 2005 to 2013, on land across China.

China’s rapid industrialization, a lack of regulations and a dominance of commercial interests were cited as the cause.

The most common pollutants are cadmium, nickel and arsenic, three materials whose presence in soil have risen sharply since 1986. The cadmium level in southwestern land increased by 50 percent since 1986, and southern Chinese soil is more severely polluted than that in the north, the report said.

And an even grimmer warning from The Guardian:

Entire marine food chain at risk from rising CO2 levels in water

  • Fish will make themselves vulnerable by being attracted to predator odour and exhibiting bolder behaviour

Escalating carbon dioxide emissions will cause fish to lose their fear of predators, potentially damaging the entire marine food chain, joint Australian and US research has found.

A study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University and the Georgia Institute of Technology found the behavior of fish would be “seriously affected” by greater exposure to CO2.

Researchers studied the behavior of coral reef fish at naturally occurring CO2 vents in Milne Bay, in eastern Papua New Guinea.

And from Reuters, a case of too little, too late:

Manager at Japan’s Fukushima plant admits radioactive water ‘embarrassing’

The manager of the Fukushima nuclear power plant admits to embarrassment that repeated efforts have failed to bring under control the problem of radioactive water, eight months after Japan’s prime minister told the world the matter was resolved.

Tokyo Electric Power Co, the plant’s operator, has been fighting a daily battle against contaminated water since Fukushima was wrecked by a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government pledged half a billion dollars last year to tackle the issue, but progress has been limited.

“It’s embarrassing to admit, but there are certain parts of the site where we don’t have full control,” Akira Ono told reporters touring the plant this week. He was referring to the latest blunder at the plant: channelling contaminated water to the wrong building.

From the Washington Post, yet another take on Obama’s alleged “recovery”:

Long-term unemployed struggle to find — and keep — jobs

For the long-term unemployed, finding a job is hard — but keeping one may be even harder.

New research tracking people who have been out of work for six months or longer found that 23 percent landed a job within a few months of the study. But a year later, more than a third of that group was unemployed again or out of the labor force altogether.

The findings are the latest in a bleak but growing body of literature suggesting long-term unemployment has become a trap that is difficult to escape.

Economists say that means the long-term unemployed could become a permanent underclass, left behind by the nation’s broader economic recovery.

From MediaWire, a case of censorship from afar:

NYT abides by Israeli gag order, draws questions from public editor

The New York Times delayed publication of a story this week about a young journalist and Palestinian rights advocate held by Israeli authorities, abiding by a court gag order, the Times’ public editor wrote Friday.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren told Public Editor Margaret Sullivan that the paper is bound by the gag orders:

She said that the situation is analogous to abiding by traffic rules or any other laws of the land, and that two of her predecessors in the bureau chief position affirmed to her this week that The Times has been subject to gag orders in the past.

The newspaper’s newsroom lawyer told Sullivan “the general understanding among legal counsel in other countries is that local law would apply to foreign media,” but said the Times hasn’t challenged the restriction in Israel.

And from the Japan Times, rebranding militarism:

Military waging popularity campaign

  • SDF charm offensive coincides with Abe’s collective defense push

Pacifist Japan is gradually learning to love its military, with an apparent public relations campaign to soften its image featuring online popularity contests, a much-touted soprano vocalist and dating events.

The armed forces are also visible in youth culture, with young teens tuning in to “Girl und Panzer,” a cartoon about schoolgirls who do battle in tanks. Japan’s most popular Twitter hashtag in 2013 was #KanColle, a reference to an online game in which anthropomorphized warships compete to out-pretty each other as young girls.

The image change comes as nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to give the Self Defense Forces more money and scope to act as a normal military might, at a time of rising tensions with China.

From the Reykjavík Grapevine, the curious case of the peaceful latter-day Vikings:

Examining The First Use Of Lethal Force By Icelandic Police

In a large apartment block in the Árbær suburb, the police gunned down a middle-aged man early morning on December 2, 2013. Not only was this the first time the Icelandic police used lethal force, but also the first time they fired a live round in the line of duty. Considering its monumental significance in Icelandic history this incident has received remarkably little attention from the media.

Finally, via the Oakland Tribune, a criticism of the profiteering spouse of California’s plutocratic senator:

Berkeley: USPS doesn’t follow historic preservation rules, report says

An agency that oversees preservation of federally owned historic property took the United States Postal Service to task in a report issued April 17, noting “significant concerns” resulting from sales of historic post offices due to the loss to the public of facilities built for public use, and the risk to historic art and architecture.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation report “Preserving Historic Post Offices: A Report to Congress,” states that “these concerns include not just the decision to close the facilities, but the manner in which the USPS is conducting its decision-making process, the transparency of that process, and how it conducts the … consultation process” mandated under the National Historic Preservation Act.

>snip<

One of the problem areas the report noted was that the postal service did not look at alternatives to sales, such as leasing properties.

“The ACHP has no evidence that the USPS has explored (as mandated under the preservation act) any alternatives to disposal of any of the historic post offices to date,” the report said.

ACHP further criticized USPS for not using “alternative property disposal systems.”

Currently, USPS has charged the giant real estate firm CBRE with marketing historic post offices. CBRE chair is Richard Blum, UC Berkeley trustee and spouse of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco.

The report says it would be preferable to market the properties through the General Services Administration’s Office of Real Property Disposal, which “offers comprehensive services to federal agencies … in the marketing and sale of federal real estate at a cost lower than commercial vendors.”

By now, the pattern should be clear: The catastrophic consequences of our brave new neoliberal world are global, with a notable exception provided by the descendants of those who were once some of planet’s most violent predators.

Chart of the day: Natural born killers, and white


A conclusion one might draw from some of the latest findings of the Pew Research Center:

BLOG Killers

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?

California state senator en route to the hoosegow


Whilst on the subject of corrupt California politicians, it’s been a bad week for Democrats in the California Senate, with three of the rascals getting the boot, including one exceptional notes that caught the eye of those always over-the-top Taiwanese Animators:

California state Senator Leland Yee: Part-time politician, full-time arms dealer

Program notes/transcript:

California state Senator Leland Yee, a staunch advocate of gun control, was arrested on Wednesday by the FBI for illegally trafficking firearms and multiple counts of public corruption.

Yee supposedly asked for campaign donations in exchange for introducing an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker and told him how to obtain shoulder-fired automatic weapons and missiles from a Muslim separatist group in the Philippines, according to court documents opened Wednesday.

The charges against Yee were outlined in an FBI affidavit that accused Yee of conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms. He was arrested Wednesday and showed up later in federal court, where bail was set at $500,000.

Yee is also accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and accepting cash to provide introductions, help a client get a contract and influence legislation. He or members of his campaign team accepted at least $42,800 in cash or campaign contributions from undercover FBI agents in exchange for taking care of the agents’ specific requests.

Senator Yee told an undercover agent he could get him $500,000 to $2.5 million in automatic weapons and missiles from the Philippines. Yee also took the undercover agent through the entire process of getting the arms from a Muslim Separatist group in the Philippines to bringing them to the United States, according to the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Emmanuel V. Pascua.

Leland was also kind enough to accept cash from another undercover agent to set up a meeting, while in another instance, he took cash from the feds in exchange for a Senate proclamation.

Senator Yee was arrested on Wednesday with 25 other people including Raymond ‘Shrimp Boy’ Chow. Looks like it’s going to be Chinese on the prison menu.

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

Business as usual: A little Dutch hypocrisy


From the television arm of Holland’s Katholieke Radio Omroep [Catholic Radio Broadcasting], a nice little takedown of corporate profiteering.

While esnl’s a cannabis-friendly blog, much of our journalism career has been spent tracking corporate shenanigans and organized crime [and, yes, the two are increasingly synonymous these days].

So when we caught this video we were delighted at the expose of corporate connivance with a large and still-illegal industry, an enterprise that continued until it was finally derailed in part because of the work of journalists.

Via Journeyman Pictures:

How Multinational Philips Profited From Illegal Cannabis Farms

Program notes:

Corporate Cannabis: The corporation that made millions from the illegal drug trade

When Philips, a huge multinational company, started supplying lamps to the cannabis industry it wasn’t breaking the law. Growing is illegal, supplying lamps isn’t. But it wasupporting a €1bn criminal network.

“I think his revenues are €5 to 6 million on Philips products alone. Philips is THE brand in the industry”, an insider says of the intermediary that Philips sold their lamps to the cannabis industry through. Nothing was put on paper with this intermediary and they were careful to filter their operations through a wholesaler, but his lawyer attests to his partnership with Philips and shows us an email in which Philips gave him advice on how the lamps were best used for growing cannabis.

As criminologist Frank Bovenkerk points out, while it may not have been illegal, the morals are certainly questionable. “It is absolutely clear that a number of serious criminal organizations are dealing with this business. Very unpleasant people.” Now that the law is changing to outlaw the supply of lamps to the growing industry, Philips has changed its policy and left its intermediary badly in the lurch, but many say it is too little too late. “They’re in a position that is conductive to crime, often organised crime.” A fascinating look at how large companies make money at the fringes of the law and a warning of the kind of industries that can grow up around Cannabis legalisation.

A transcript is posted online here.

Shareholder-owned corporations are, by law, immoral — potentially immortal creations endowed with a single prime directive: The generation of maximum profits for investors.

Banks have fallen over each other to attract the wealth of drug dealers, so why shouldn’t one of world’s leading suppliers of lighting?

And it might be argued quite reasonably that Philips is doing a lot less harm than those corporations which, will full government approval, sell the instruments of mass murder and social control. . .

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFukunews


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

BLOG Siers

From the Washington Post, consequences of enserfing students:

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

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

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

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

A decline from the Los Angeles Times:

Builder confidence down sharply in February

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

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

From the Los Angeles Times again, another decline:

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

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

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

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

Another sort of decline from the Associated Press:

After UAW defeat, can GOP fulfill promise of jobs?

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

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

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

CNBC posits the negative:

$10.10 minimum wage could hit total employment: CBO

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

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

The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

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

Xinhua invests:

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

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

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

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

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

Salon disgraces:

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

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

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

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

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

And the Los Angeles Times talks a deal:

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

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

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

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

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

EUbusiness covers another deal in the making:

EU, US reps meet ahead of free-trade talks

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

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

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

On to Europe and a call from The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

A lop-sided take from New Europe:

EU industry: Towards an unbalanced recovery

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

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

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

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

Spiegel diagnoses:

The Swiss Virus: Europe Gripped by Immigration Worries

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

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

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

Thames flood defences among schemes hit by coalition funding cuts

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

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

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

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

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

From New Europe, a warning:

Reding: UK would lose influence outside EU

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

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

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

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

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

Ex-Barclays bankers charged with Libor rigging

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

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

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

Pondering a change of course with the London Telegraph:

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re a long way from that.”

The Guardian delivers a jeremiad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roma migrants evicted from Stockholm site

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

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

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

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

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

First charges filed for Stockholm Nazi attack

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

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

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

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

Teacher salaries too low in Sweden: OECD

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

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

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

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

The Associated Press covers a Norwegian whiner:

Breivik hunger strike threat: wants bigger gym

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

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

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

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

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

IW think tank urges change in German investment policy

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

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

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

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

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

From TheLocal.de, a cartel cabal busted:

Sugar giants fined €280m for price fixing

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

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

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

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

And Europe Online notes a decline:

German investor confidence posts surprise fall in February

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

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

While Spiegel covers blowback:

Child Porn Investigation: Merkel Cabinet Rife with Suspicion and Mistrust

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

Deutsche Welle notes another downside to the German miracle:

Study: Eastern Europeans underpaid in Germany

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

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

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

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

And a call to chill from Deutsche Welle:

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

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

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

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

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

On to France and a fear from TheLocal.fr:

French TV execs want protection from Netflix

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

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

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

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

And another Roma tragedy from TheLocal.fr:

Blaze ravages another Roma camp in France

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

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

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

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

Switzerland next and blowback from TheLocal.ch:

EU freezes research and student exchange funds

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

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

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

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

More blowback from TheLocal.ch:

Moody’s: Swiss migrant vote ‘credit negative’

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

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

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

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

And from RT, tucked in for the night:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration law change in works: interior minister

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

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

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

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

TheLocal.es has a deal for you:

Spain rolls out plans to flog off failed bank

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

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

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

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

Europe Online covers another record:

Spain’s public debt at record high

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

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

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

El País covers departures:

Chinese burned

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

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

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

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

On to Lisbon and a caution from the Portugal News:

‘Crisis not over’ – finance minister

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

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

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

Italy next and a change at the top from ANSA:

Renzi handed govt mandate, sets ambitious reform goals

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

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

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

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

Les than enthused with TheLocal.it:

Italians think Renzi takeover is ‘pointless’

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

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

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

Still more enthusiasm absent from ANSA:

Fitch keeps outlook negative, ‘Renzi faces same problems’

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

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

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

A plutocratic spat from the London Telegraph:

Tycoons quarrel over Italy’s young jobless

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

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

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

Unhappy other from TheLocal.it:

Desperate business owners march on Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Journalists who broke NSA story in Guardian receive George Polk Awards

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

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

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

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

And a related story from The Guardian:

Press freedom groups urge David Cameron to lay off The Guardian

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

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

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

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

From the International Business Times, intimidation by proxy:

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

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

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

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

And The Guardian confers an honor:

Edward Snowden elected as Glasgow University rector

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

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

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

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

From TheLocal.fr, European blowback:

‘European internet’ plan to prevent US spying

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

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

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

More from Spiegel:

Striking Back: Germany Considers Counterespionage Against US

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

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

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

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

A graphic take from China Daily’s Li Feng:

BLOG NSA China

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

Merkel targets Facebook in Euro-web privacy push

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

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

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

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

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

From Ars Technica, a sad tale of underutilized hysteria:

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

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

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

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

The Guardian offers a rationale:

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

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

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

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

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

And the latest Snowden lead, via The Intercept:

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

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

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

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

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

And the target speaks, via RT:

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

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

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

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

The Hill desists:

NSA, DHS drop parody complaint

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

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

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

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

The McClatchy Washington Bureau sources:

Report: Cyberattack on German government traced to China

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

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

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

A well-considered rationale from Slate:

Why the NSA Should Keep Holding On to Surveillance Data

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

I think the proposal makes things worse in several respects.

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

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

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

The Independent beams:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Germany to Beef Up Spy Defenses Against Allies: Report

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

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

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

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

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

German Response on NSA Spying Scandal

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

NSA reform stalls in committee

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

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

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

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

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

And from The Guardian, the latest Snowden revelation:

Australia spied on Indonesia talks with US law firm in 2013

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

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

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

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

And the response from Down Under via Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

Australia says spying “for the benefit of our friends”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indonesia: Australia and US need to clean up their mess

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

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

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

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

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

And the result, again from The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet another American endorsement from Kyodo News:

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

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

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

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

Want China Times covers Chinese anxiety:

Beijing slams US Navy official for ‘aiding Philippines’ remarks

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

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

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

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

And a demand from the China Post:

Kerry presses China to ease Internet controls

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

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

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

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

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

Please, send us to a Norwegian prison. Now!


You’ll see why such a fate could be appealing to, say, an unemployed member of a dying vocation like, say, journalism, in this clip from RT:

Sing Sing: Norway jail with music studio, cooking classes

Program notes:

In Norway some criminals may loose their right to freedom but not jogging trails, salmon steaks and flat-screen televisions. 252 million dollars in the making of one jail resting in a tranquil forest place law-breakers in conditions many would consider a blessing rather than a punishment. RT’s Egor Piskunov reports.

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


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

We open with some numbers from PCWorld:

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

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

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

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

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

Threat Level covers the loathesome:

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

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

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

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

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

And from The Guardian, yet another challenge raised:

Rights groups begin UK court challenge over mass surveillance

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

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

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

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

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

And one more step contemplated from the European Parliament:

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

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

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

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

A bemused response from RT:

Former German chancellor surprised that NSA continued to spy on Merkel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And another German tale from TheLocal.de:

Child porn scandal: Minister quits over leak

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

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

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

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

The Daily Dot outsources:

NSA seeking private company to store its massive collection of metadata

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

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

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

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

And from Defense One, how Tweet it is:

Secret Military Contractors Will Soon Mine Your Tweets

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

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

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

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

And a case of security enhanced from MercoPress:

Colombian peace process makes headway before presidential elections

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

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

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

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

Headlines of the day II: MegaloEconoPoliFuku


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

First up, playing monopoly with Sky News:

Comcast To Buy Time Warner Cable For $45bn

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

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

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

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

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

More from Business Insider:

What’s in it for Comcast Cable shareholders?

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

How are they going to do that?

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

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

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

Still more from The Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Hill, reversing idiocy:

Senate reverses pension cut

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

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

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

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

From MintPress News, necessary action:

Justice Department Sued Over Secretive JPMorgan Settlement

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

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

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

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

CNBC frets:

Wealthy more worried about being seen as wealthy

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

A new poll from American Express Publishing and Harrison Group finds that 1 percenters no longer like to be seen as such.

One-third of members of the group said they “like it when others recognize me as wealthy.” Though that number (taken in the fourth quarter of 2013) may sound high, it’s down from 40 percent a year earlier. And it’s far below the 53 percent who agreed with the statement in 2010.

Fully 28 percent say they worry about “being scorned for being in the top part of the economy,” versus 24 percent who were concerned about that in the first quarter of 2013.

From USA TODAY, that old hard times intolerance [the first of several in today’s compendium]:

Immigration debate is reignited in Fremont, Neb.

Voters in Fremont, Neb., are still trying to curb illegal immigration.

Residents voted 60%-40% on Tuesday to re-approve an ordinance that requires property owners not to rent houses or apartments to illegal immigrants and requires renters to declare their legal residency. Landlords who violate the ordinance face fines.

Fremont has a complicated history with the ordinance, which thrust this city of 26,000 people near Omaha into the national spotlight in 2010, when residents first approved the law after the City Council defeated the proposal. The law also requires employers to verify the legal status of employees; that part of the law is in effect.

After voters approved the measure, the City Council put the law on hold when the Nebraska ACLU and other groups sued. Lower courts upheld the law, and the council sent the housing portion back for another vote of the people.

Al Jazeera America protests:

Portland, Ore., residents tell mayor: ‘Stop arresting homeless people’

Residents of Portland, Ore., gathered in front of City Hall on Tuesday to protest the government’s treatment of its homeless population. The group, a self-described “angry mob,” carried pitchforks and torches while demanding that Mayor Charlie Hales end policies that criminalize homelessness.

The city government has come under fire in recent months for enforcing an ordinance that prohibits camping on public property, which critics say unfairly targets the homeless.

A 2013 city count found nearly 1,900 individuals in the Portland metropolitan area to be homeless and unsheltered, a 10 percent increase from 2011.

From PandoDaily, paying the piper:

The Wolf of Sesame Street: Revealing the secret corruption inside PBS’s news division

On December 18th, the Public Broadcasting Service’s flagship station WNET issued a press release announcing the launch of a new two-year news series entitled “Pension Peril.” The series, promoting cuts to public employee pensions, is airing on hundreds of PBS outlets all over the nation. It has been presented as objective news on  major PBS programs including the PBS News Hour.

However, neither the WNET press release nor the broadcasted segments explicitly disclosed who is financing the series. Pando has exclusively confirmed that “Pension Peril” is secretly funded by former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.

In recent years, Arnold has been using massive contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, think tanks and local front groups to finance a nationwide political campaign aimed at slashing public employees’ retirement benefits. His foundation which backs his efforts employs top Republican political operatives, including the former chief of staff to GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey (TX). According to its own promotional materials, the Arnold Foundation is pushing lawmakers in states across the country “to stop promising a (retirement) benefit” to public employees.

Despite Arnold’s pension-slashing activism and his foundation’s ties to partisan politics, Leila Walsh, a spokesperson for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), told Pando that PBS officials were not hesitant to work with them, even though PBS’s own very clear rules prohibit such blatant conflicts. (note: the term “PBS officials” refers interchangeably to both PBS officials and officials from PBS flagship affiliate WNET who were acting on behalf of the entire PBS system).

United Press International sues:

Magazines sue Colorado over marijuana advertising restrictions

Two publications are challenging Colorado’s recreational marijuana rules about advertising, with a lawsuit filed in federal court, records said.

The national magazine High Times and the local weekly magazine Westword sued the state of Colorado Monday because of rules stating recreational marijuana stores can advertise only in publications aimed at a readership over the age of 21, the Denver Post reported Wednesday.

The lawsuit argues the rules, which also apply to outdoor and broadcast advertising, are restrictions of free speech, and notes there are no similar restrictions on medical marijuana businesses.

It marks the first time the state’s advertising rules have been challenged in court.

From MintPress News, a stunning development:

HIV/AIDS Cure May Be Found In Marijuana: Study

For years, many Americans with HIV/AIDS have used medical marijuana to relieve some common symptoms associated with the illness such as nausea, vomiting and appetite loss.

Now, a new study published last week in the journal AIDS Researcher and Human Retroviruses found that a daily dosage of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, may actually fight the HIV/AIDS virus itself.

In this most recent study, the team of researchers from Louisiana State University found that when HIV-infected monkeys were given THC daily during a 17-month time period, the monkeys had less damage in the immune tissue of their gut — an important site of HIV infection — than those given a placebo.

Researchers also reported that they found consuming THC had improved the monkeys immune tissue at a gene level as well, and was in a way, preventing the disease from killing healthy immune cells — a discovery other studies have found as well.

From the McClatchy Washington Bureau, blowing smoke:

Marijuana gets a show of support on Capitol Hill

  • Eighteen House members ask Obama to reclassify the banned drug

In the biggest show of support yet for legalizing marijuana on Capitol Hill, 18 House members today asked President Barack Obama to reclassify the drug, removing it from a list of banned substances deemed to have no medical value.

The letter, distributed by Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, argued that including marijuana in the Schedule 1 list of banned drugs, along with heroin and LSD, disregards the laws of 20 states that allow pot to be used for medical purposes.

It comes after Obama last month said that he doesn’t believe that marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol.

MintPress News cashes out:

Banking Regulations For Marijuana Industry “Imminent”

“Without access to basic banking services, many legitimate cannabis businesses are forced to manage sales, payroll, and even tax bills entirely in cash.”

On Tuesday U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, Wash., said the federal government’s new guidance for banks and bank regulators will be released “imminently.”

What Heck is referring to is Attorney General Eric Holder’s pledge that the Justice Department and the Treasury Department would issue guidance “very soon” to banks on how they can work with marijuana businesses.

Though the guidance had not been issued by the time of this article’s publication, Heck, a member of House Committee on Financial Services, who along with Congressman Ed Perlmutter of Colorado has pressed for marijuana banking reform, said legal marijuana businesses will be provided with a “full range of banking service, including accepting credit cards, direct depositing payroll checks and more,” under the guidance.

In other words, marijuana-related businesses will no longer be forced to operate on a cash-only basis.

On to latest in the global neoliberal trade agreement games from Jiji Press:

Japan, U.S. to Hold Working-Level TPP Talks Next Week

Working-level officials of Japan and the United States will meet in Japan next week to discuss sticky issues in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks ahead of key four-day TPP ministerial talks in Singapore from Feb. 22, Japanese government sources said Wednesday.

Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler will arrive in Japan on Monday and hold talks with Hiroshi Oe, Japan’s deputy chief representative in the TPP negotiations, and other officials, according to the sources.

The two sides are expected to discuss the handling of tariffs on farm products and issues related to automobile trade, the sources said.

Another deal, with problems, via Deutsche Welle:

Tripping over TTIP: Obstacles overshadow EU-US trade pact

  • With talks on the EU-US transatlantic free trade deal set to continue next month, this week’s outrage over a European Parliament vote on genetically modified corn will hardly be the last obstacle negotiators face.

This coming Monday (17.02.2014), EU trade chief Karel de Gucht and his US counterpart Michael Froman are scheduled to meet in Washington to discuss the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a transatlantic free trade area. They are expected to make a political assessment of the past three rounds of US-EU trade talks and to discuss the upcoming fourth round of negotiations in March.

The pact would unify standards and licensing procedures across a EU-US trade zone and would waive tariffs on goods traded between the EU and the US. According to the Munich-based IFO institute, the treaty will create up to 400,000 new jobs in Europe – 110,000 of them in Germany alone. A done deal, it would seem.

But the deal is far from done: the EU and the US differ over a wide variety of issues, one of which is genetically modified food. On Tuesday (11.02.2014), a new type of genetically modified corn from the US was approved by the European Parliament amid great controversy. The decision paves the way for compromise over one of the differences in EU-US consumer attitudes that has been a stumbling stone in TTIP negotiations.

But opponents of the trade pact are becoming more vocal, and more debates over standards, consumer protection, cultural protectionism threaten to erupt when EU-US negotiators get down to the deal’s fine print and put the agreement up for domestic scrutiny.

From Canada, riches spurned from South China Morning Post:

Canada scraps millionaire visa scheme, ‘dumps 46,000 Chinese applications’

Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires in the queue will have their applications scrapped and their application fees returned

Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires face an uncertain future after Canada’s government moved to scrap its controversial investor visa scheme, which has allowed waves of rich Hongkongers and mainland Chinese to immigrate since 1986.

The surprise announcement was made in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget, delivered to parliament in Ottawa on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires in the queue for visas will have their applications “eliminated” and their fees returned.

The announcement came less than a week after the South China Morning Post revealed how the scheme was overwhelmed by an influx of applications from mainland millionaires at Canada’s Hong Kong consulate. Applications to the scheme were frozen in 2012 as a result, as immigration staff struggled to clear the backlog.

ANSAmed covers a ploy:

EU and southern Europe in re-industrialization pact

  • Italy, Spain, Portugal heads of State meet at COTEC in Lisbon

An EU Industrial Compact adopted in January has led to a ‘pact’ between the European Commission and southern European countries to speed up the re-industrialization of Europe by exploiting the first signs of economic recovery, European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani made known in a joint statement with ministers from Italy, Spain and Portugal on Wednesday in Lisbon.

The statement was issued on the sidelines of the annual COTEC conference, which was attended by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, Spanish King Juan Carlos, and Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva.

The aim of the Industrial Compact is for the manufacturing sector to make up 20% of EU GDP, and this can be achieved by speeding up innovation and marketing, COTEC experts from Italy, Spain and Portugal said.

And from MintPress News, more of that old hard times intolerance:

The Rebirth Of European Racism

The mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders.

Bulgaria has recently seen a surge in xenophobic attacks since a wave of Syrian refugees escaping the horrors of the war started arriving. But it appears what these refugees have found in Bulgaria isn’t much better than what they left behind.

Last year, roughly 11,600 migrants and asylum seekers crossed into Bulgaria from Turkey, most of them Syrian. Human rights organizations expect tens of thousands to make the journey across the Turkish border in the coming months.

But the mass influx of migrants has triggered a wave of nationalistic fervor goaded by public statements of right-wing leaders. Last November, several neo-Nazi factions, including the local branch of the international Blood and Honor Skinhead network, formed the Nationalist Party of Bulgaria, which says it wants to “cleanse Bulgaria from the foreign and alien immigrant scum that have been flooding the towns of Bulgaria.”

The party has organized so-called “civil patrols,” which stop and check foreigners—and a portion of the general population thinks that this is a good idea.

And an admission from The Guardian:

Migration in the EU ‘has caused strains,’ admits José Manuel Barroso

  • President of the European Commission says free movement is open to abuse but that he will not compromise on citizens’ rights

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, will on Friday acknowledge that the free movement of people across the EU has put “unintended strains” on public services and is open to abuse.

In a move to show that Brussels understands the concerns raised in Britain, Barroso will say in London that the commission has recently clarified anti-abuse rules to crack down on sham marriages which allow non-EU citizens to claim benefits as a family member.

But the commission president will make clear in a speech to the London School of Economics that he will not compromise on the right of all EU citizens to move across all 28 member states – one of the four founding pillars which guarantees the free movement of labour, capital, goods and services.

Reuters ponders:

ECB still assessing if lower inflation temporary: Coene

The European Central Bank is awaiting further information, particularly signs on whether the current easing of euro zone inflation is temporary, before it acts, Governing Council member Luc Coene said.

Annual inflation in the 18-member euro zone slowed to 0.7 percent in January from 0.8 percent in December, confounding expectations of a rise and matching a four-year low hit last October.

The ECB left interest rates at record low last week, but put markets on alert for a possible move in March, when the Governing Council should have new forecasts from the bank’s staff extending into 2016.

On to Britain and an ongoing disaster from the London Telegraph:

Flood-hit areas are a ‘battlefield’ as thousands of soldiers are deployed

  • Army chief says that commanding officers are applying ‘battle-group’ skills an ‘unparalleled natural crisis’

Britain is in the grip of an “unparalleled natural crisis”, the Army officer in charge of the flood recovery effort declared on Wednesday.

As hurricane-force winds gusting at more than 100mph lashed the country, forecasters warned that the weather will get worse this weekend as a month’s worth of rain falls in just 48 hours.

The chaos now threatens to derail Britain’s economic recovery, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England warned. His comments came as storms that have battered the South West and Wales for weeks spread to the north of England for the first time this winter, bringing parts of the country to a standstill.

A bankster alert from the London Telegraph:

RBS warned of credit rating ‘downgrade’

  • Royal Bank of Scotland has been told its credit could be downgraded by ratings agency Moody’s

Royal Bank of Scotland has been warned by one of the world’s main ratings agencies that its credit is at risk of being downgraded following the surprise revelation last month of weaker than expected capital levels.

Moody’s said it had put RBS’s debt “on review for downgrade” pointing to the taxpayer-backed lender’s “weaker than previously anticipated regulatory capital position”.

The move comes after RBS’s unscheduled announcement on January 27 of £3.1bn of extra provisions for issues ranging from its sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities to the mis-selling of payment protection insurance and interest rate hedging products.

More immigration tension, this time from Iceland and the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Newspaper Editor Defends Leaked Memo

Davíð Oddsson – the current co-editor of Morgunblaðið – defended the leak of a memo on an asylum seeker that launched a police investigation as “allowing the public to get the whole picture”.

In an editorial for Morgunblaðið, Davíð – who is also, amongst other things, the former chairperson of the Independence Party, from which Ministry of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir hails – argued in favour of government offices publishing personal information about refugees as a means to take part in the public discussion about asylum seekers.

“Is it not right that the public get the whole picture?,” Davíð wrote. “That nothing is hidden about what’s at stake?”

As reported, the police are currently investigating the Ministry of the Interior over a leaked memo which impugned the reputations of Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos and the mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph. It later came to light that the accusations in the memo were false. Whilst the ministry denies the memo came from their offices, all evidence indicates the ministry as the only source.

On to Norway with EUbusiness and a hard times intolerance rebuke:

Norway rules out referendum on immigration

Norwegian Justice Minister Anders Anundsen on Wednesday ruled out holding a referendum on immigration, rejecting a request by a fellow member of his populist party to follow in the footsteps of Switzerland.

“For many years, the (populist) Progress Party has claimed that more influence should be granted to the citizens. This proposition shouldn’t shock anybody,” Anundsen, a Progress Party minister was quoted by Norwegian news agency NTB during parliamentary question time.

“But within the government coalition, the Progress Party is sticking to our cooperation agreement (with the other right and centre-right parties) and does not plan a referendum on this matter.”

A Finnish proclamation from New Europe:

Finland: OECD wants more structural reforms

Most people would not associate Finland with past high-tech successes like Nokia and Ericksson with structural reforms that have come to be associated with the EU’s troubled south. But the latest report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) urged Helsinki to make more efforts in the structural reform to stimulate the economy, Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE reported on Wednesday.

OECD called for more measures in restructuring municipalities, raising retirement age and stricter mortgage rules, in order to promote the economic growth and deal with the aging population in Finland.

The report pointed out that the rising cost of pensions and healthcare for an aging population is one economic to Finland, suggesting higher retirement age and an end to part-time retirement.

On to the Netherlands and significant decision from DutchNews.nl:

The Netherlands to vote against approving the EU’s 2012 accounts

The Netherlands will join Britain and Sweden in voting against giving approval to the EU’s accounts for 2012 because of an increase in mis-spending, finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said on Thursday.

Dijsselbloem told MPs there are still too many uncertainties about the accounts and the error rate in the EU’s books has risen from 3.9% in 2011 to 4.8% in 2012. This is equivalent to €6.7bn being wrongly spent.

The problems centre on funds allocated to reducing the prosperity gap between different members states and money earmarked for rural development. In some cases, projects were not put out to tender properly or they were ineligible for grants under Brussels’ rules.

‘We cannot simply let this happen,’ Dijsselbloem, who also chairs the influential Euro Group, is quoted as saying by news agency ANP.

Germany next and higher hopes from Deutsche Welle:

German government revises growth forecast slightly upwards

The German government has confirmed the Economic Ministry’s 2014 growth outlook, saying that GDP will expand slightly more this year than previously predicted. It said the labor market would benefit as well.

German cabinet ministers on Wednesday adopted the 2014 Annual Economic Report, which included slightly higher expectations for growth in the course of this year.

The government said it expected the national economy to expand by 1.8 percent in 2014, marginally up from an earlier prediction of 1.7 percent. The report said the growth rate would increase to 2 percent next year.

Commenting on the report, conservative lawmakers in Berlin said everything should be done to avoid jeopardizing the growing economic momentum amid problems caused by the country’s energy transition and the aftermath of the protracted eurozone debt crisis.

And from Deutsche Welle, another chorus of that old. . .:

DW exclusive: Germans would vote just like the Swiss on curbing immigration

  • A survey commissioned by Deutsche Welle has found the majority of German citizens would vote for limiting immigration. The survey follows a decision in Switzerland to limit its annual immigration from the EU.

If Germans were to vote in a referendum on limiting immigration to Germany nearly half would support the measure (48 percent ) while almost as many (46 percent) would oppose it, according to a DW commissioned survey.

On behalf of DW, opinion research institute infratest dimap surveyed 1,001 Germans over the age of 18 on February 11-12, 2014. Three percent of those surveyed were undecided.

The survey showed that a particularly high number of Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party members (84 percent) would support an immigration limit. Members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and its sister party the Christian Social Union voted 51 percent for a limit.

Paris next, and plutocratic woes from France 24:

French billionaire senator Dassault loses immunity over graft claims

The French Senate stripped billionaire industrialist senator Serge Dassault of parliamentary immunity on Wednesday, clearing the way for him to face possible criminal charges for allegedly buying votes.

The decision by a Senate committee means that UMP senator Dassault, 88, can be taken into custody for interrogation by judges investigating allegations dating from his 14 years as mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes, a Paris suburb.

The judges suspect Dassault of operating an extensive system of vote-buying that influenced the outcome of three mayoral elections in Corbeil in 2008, 2009 and 2010, which were won either by Dassault or by his successor and close associate Jean-Pierre Bechter, the current mayor of Corbeil.

Dassault is ranked by Forbes magazine as France’s 4th richest man and the 69th richest in the world, with an estimated fortune of 13 billion euros. He heads Dassault Group, which owns France’s prestigious conservative newspaper “Le Figaro” and holds a majority stake in Dassault Aviation, which makes business and military aircraft including the Rafale fighter jet.

Europe Online rakes it in:

Societe Generale nearly triples profits in 2013

France’s second-biggest bank Societe Generale nearly tripled its profits in 2013, helped by higher earnings in both its retail and corporate and investment banking units, the group said Wednesday.

Net income shot up to 2.2 billion euros (3 billion dollars), from 774 million euros in 2012. Group revenues were up 4.3 per cent to 22.8 billion euros.

Societe Generale ended the year on a high note, with fourth-quarter profits of 322 million euros far exceeding analysts’ expectations.

TheLocal.fr parks it:

French taxi drivers call for ‘indefinite strike’

The announcement will not go down well with Parisians or tourists but angry taxi drivers in France are clearly not willing to lie down without a fight. On Tuesday they called for an “indefinite strike”, saying they will take action “anytime, anywhere”.

Paris taxi drivers continued to vent their anger on Tuesday when they brought traffic to a standstill in the centre of the French capital leading to the arrest of dozens of drivers. The trouble comes as unions called for ongoing industrial action.

On Tuesday evening as cabbies fronted up to police at Place de La Concorde union leaders called for an indefinite strike, which could see wildcat blockades and go slows continue for the foreseeable future.

In a joint statement drivers’ unions said they “reserved the right to take action at any place at any time.”

Switzerland, and that old familiar tune from TheLocal.ch:

Populists urge more immigration controls

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which spearheaded the initiative narrowly accepted by Swiss voters to limit immigration from the European Union, is set on Friday to push for for more measures to tighten immigration as tensions mount in Switzerland over the issue.

The initiative against massive immigration, backed by 50.3 percent of the electorate, calls for an end to the freedom of movement agreement between Switzerland and the EU and the imposition of quotas.

But the deal is fuzzy on details. It does not, for example, stipulate how many foreigners would be accepted into the country and through what criteria the level of needed workers would be selected for different sectors of the economy.

The SVP is being prodded to clarify how it expects the quota system to work.

Spain next, and an affirmative declaration from thinkSPAIN:

Economy starts to grow as GDP predictions more optimistic

SPAIN’S Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will increase by 0.9 per cent this year and 1.9 per cent next year – signs that the economy is growing once again, according to figures released by the BBVA bank.

This will be enough for creation of ‘sustainable’ employment to begin, says the entity, but it warns that jobless figures are unlikely to drop below 25.6 per cent this year and 24.8 per cent in 2015.

Consumer spending in Spain is expected to rise in 2014 by 0.9 per cent and by 1.3 per cent next year, with lack of national demand gradually ceasing to pose barriers to micro-economic growth over the next two years and ongoing efforts in increasing exports will set the scene for the economy to begin its recovery, the BBVA reveals.

ANSAmed has a harsher take:

Spain: fewer jobs, lower wages two years after reform

  • Trade unions and ILO slam reform, OECD praises it

Two years to the day from Spain’s last labor reform, there are fewer jobs, more long-term unemployed, and fewer people paying into social security.

A negative balance according to trade unions and a ‘’not very encouraging’‘ picture according to the Savings Banks Foundation (Funcas), but the government says the reform is beginning to have positive effects within the context of a recovering economy.

Jobless benefit claims totaled 4,599,829 people as of January 2012, one month before the labor reform was enacted. Two years later, that number is at 4,814,435, up by 241,606 people or +4.6% as of January 2014. In the same period, the number of workers paying into the social security fund dropped by 769,627 people, or -4.5%, to a total of 16,176,610 people. A quarterly report by national statistics bureau INE showed 5,273,600 were unemployed when the reform was enacted in the fourth quarter of 2011, a number that rose to 5,896,300 in the same period of 2013, equal to 622,700 more unemployed people (+11.8%) in two years.

ANSAmed again, and a comedown for high-flyers:

Spain: Iberia; agreement with pilots, salaries down 14%

  • The deal provides for a salary freeze till 2015

Spanish carrier Iberia and pilots’ union Sepla have reached an agreement in principle ending years of conflict which provides for salary cuts by at least 14%.

The agreement also introduces ‘’permanent structural changes’‘ at the company to cut costs and allow the development of the airline and its low-cost company Iberia Express, Iberia’s Iag group said in a statement to the market authority committee on Thursday.

The deal provides for a salary freeze till 2015, previously rejected by pilots, and from that date onwards salary increases depending on the company’s results.

From El País, the bankster blues:

Failed lender CAM wants prison for two of its former executives

  • Bank’s lawyer seeks six to 10 years for ex-director general and oversight committee chief
  • Attorney accuses them of inflating expense accounts and favoring own interests

The lawyer of failed lender Caja de Ahorros del Mediterráneo (CAM), appointed by the government’s bank bailout fund, the FROB, wants prison terms for two of the bank’s former top executives.

Former director general Roberto López Abad and former chairman of the Valencian savings bank’s oversight committee, Juan Ramón Avilés, face the prospect of between six and 10 years in prison for misappropriation of funds and deliberate mismanagement.

The state prosecutor is seeking shorter jail terms for the two men.

And the social counterrevolution prevails, via TheLocal.es:

‘New abortion law to stay’: Spanish lawmakers

A controversial plan to ban women in Spain from freely opting for abortions overcame a key hurdle on Tuesday when lawmakers voted in secret against a motion to scrap the reform.

The plan has outraged pro-choice groups and brought thousands of people out onto the streets to protest, but has sparked division even within the conservative ruling party.

Lawmakers rejected a proposal submitted by the opposition Socialists to “immediately withdraw” the bill by 183 votes to 151. Six lawmakers abstained.

The ruling Popular Party (PP) holds a strong majority in parliament, but the abortion reform, supported by the Roman Catholic Church, has been delayed amid dissent by senior party figures.

And another sign of the times from El País:

House sales fall for third year in a row

  • Property purchases hit record low in December

The Spanish housing market remained locked in a trough in 2013, six years after a massive property bubble burst.

According to figures released by the National Statistics Institute (INE), the number of homes sold last year, excluding public housing schemes, fell 1.2 percent from a year earlier to 276,600 after falling 11.3 percent in 2012 and 18.2 percent in 2011. During the height of the boom over 800,000 houses were exchanged in a year. In December alone sales fell 11.0 from a year earlier to a new monthly record low of 18,619.

The only respite the market has had since boom turned to bust was in 2010 when sales increased 4.8 percent, driven by the purchase of new homes before the introduction of a hike in value-added tax.

And from TheLocal.es, an unconscionable demand:

Cancer drug maker wants 4000% Spanish price hike

Drug manufacturer Aspen Pharmacare has reportedly threatened to stop selling its leukaemia and ovarian cancer treatments in Spain if Health Minister Ana Mato refuses to raise fixed purchase prices by up to 4,000 percent.

According to online daily El Confidencial Digital, the habitual bargaining between Aspen and the Ministry of Health has taken a turn for the worse.

The South African manufacturer of generic medicines is currently undergoing a rapid expansion in international markets.

The company is allegedly insisting on massive price increases for a number of drugs but the Ministry has flatly refused.

On to Lisbon with EUbusiness:

Portugal passes new IMF rescue program review

The International Monetary Fund approved Wednesday the disbursement of 910 million euros ($1.24 billion) to Portugal after the country passed the 10th review of its bailout program.

The disbursement took the country a step closer to the May 2014 end of the European Union-IMF rescue program, with the country’s finances stabilizing.

But the IMF urged the Portuguese government not to give in to pressure to increase public spending and to keep pushing ahead on structural reforms to its finances.

“The Portuguese authorities’ implementation of their Fund-supported program has been commendable,” said IMF Deputy Managing Director Nemat Shafik in a statement.

And on to Italy with the New York Times:

Italy’s Prime Minister Announces Resignation Amid Party Revolt

Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy, whose weak coalition government has come under increasing criticism, announced his resignation on Thursday night after his own Democratic Party staged a dramatic insurrection and voted to replace him with the party’s new leader, Matteo Renzi.

The Democratic Party is the largest member of Italy’s coalition government, and the party’s decision to dump Mr. Letta will likely have to be put to a confidence vote in Parliament. Mr. Letta will meet with his cabinet on Friday morning and then present his resignation letter to Italy’s president, making way for Mr. Renzi, 38, to become Italy’s youngest prime minister.

Mr. Renzi, the mayor of Florence who recently won a nationwide primary to become leader of the Democratic Party, has a reputation for boldness and has long been considered Italy’s most promising young politician. He has spoken repeatedly about the need for sweeping political and economic changes. But few analysts foresaw that he would lead a revolt against his party’s sitting prime minister.

AGI has a skeptical take from the populist right:

M5S co-founder doubtful government will last until 2018

M5S co-founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio says he is doubtful the government can last until 2018: “I see a high instability situation. A 2018 forecast is very risky”.

The statement was made at the Termini train station, while Casaleggio was waiting for a train to Milan. Asked by journalists about the likelihood of a government lead by Matteo Renzi to survive until 2018, Casaleggio added: “One can never tell, but the beginning of this year seems to be marked by a great political instability”.

From TheLocal.it, austerian rigor:

Italians drop holiday plans as crisis bites

The number of trips taken by Italians since the economic crisis began in 2008 has plummeted by 48.6 percent, new statistics show.

Last year Italy’s resident population took just over 63 million trips with overnight stays, whether for work or holiday, the country’s statistics agency Istat said this week.

With a population of nearly 60 million one trip per person may seem like a fair ratio, but a broader look shows that Italians have nearly halved travel in recent years.

They took 48.6 percent fewer holidays or work trips last year than five years’ previously, continuing a year-on-year decline.

EUbusiness divides:

Catalonia, Scotland, Venice? Italian party eyes autonomy

The head of Italy’s Northern League on Wednesday said he supported the autonomy bids of Catalonia from Spain and Scotland from Britain, and hoped that the Venice region “will be next on the list”.

Matteo Salvini said two other regions of northern Italy — Lombardy and Piedmont — could also follow suit, adding that it was time to reduce the powers of the European Union and return to “national and regional sovereignty”.

Salvini also said that plans for a coalition of far-right parties including his own at the European Parliament after elections in May were “well advanced”.

The coalition “will not be Eurosceptic but will be in favour of a different Europe,” he said, adding however that he continues to support an abandonment of the euro. “The euro has massacred our economy,” he said.

TheLocal.it inhales:

Italy relaxes cannabis penalties

Italy’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday struck down an anti-drug law from 2006 that imposed tough sentencing for the sale and possession of cannabis, putting it on the same level as heroin and cocaine.

The court declared “illegitimate” the law, which imposed sentences of six to 20 years for trafficking in cannabis, whereas the previous law which is now back in force included sentences of between two and six years.

Leftist lawmakers and civil society representatives immediately hailed the court ruling, saying it would help ease overcrowding in Italian prisons.

The scrapping of the law could affect 10,000 detainees who are in pre-trial detention or serving time and could see a revision of their sentences and their release.

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