Friday, October 31, 2014

Foreign jihadists flocking to Iraq and Syria on 'unprecedented scale'

UN report suggests decline of al-Qaida has yielded an explosion of jihadist enthusiasm for its even mightier successor organisations, chiefly Isis

Spencer Ackerman in New York, The Guardian
Thursday 30 October 2014 17.13 EDT

The United Nations has warned that foreign jihadists are swarming into the twin conflicts in Iraq and Syria on “an unprecedented scale” and from countries that had not previously contributed combatants to global terrorism.

A report by the UN security council, obtained by the Guardian, finds that 15,000 people have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State (Isis) and similar extremist groups. They come from more than 80 countries, the report states, “including a tail of countries that have not previously faced challenges relating to al-Qaida”.

The UN said it was uncertain whether al-Qaida would benefit from the surge. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida who booted Isis out of his organisation, “appears to be maneuvering for relevance”, the report says.

The UN’s numbers bolster recent estimates from US intelligence about the scope of the foreign fighter problem, which the UN report finds to have spread despite the Obama administration’s aggressive counter-terrorism strikes and global surveillance dragnets.

(More here.)

The answer is ‘no’

The question: Do Republicans have a plan for the country? 

By Eugene Robinson Opinion writer October 30 at 7:20 PM WashPost

No matter how well Republicans do at the polls Tuesday — and my hunch is they won’t do as well as they hope — the GOP won’t be able to claim any kind of mandate. That’s because they have refused to articulate any vision for governing.

I do not celebrate this failure. I’ve always believed the nation’s interest is best served by competition in the marketplace of ideas. An innovative, forward-looking conservative platform would force those of us who call ourselves progressives to update and sharpen our own thinking.

Sadly, this year’s campaign has been dull and disheartening. It is a testament to the cynicism of our times that the failure of most candidates to say anything meaningful is intentional. The near-universal message isn’t “vote for me.” It’s “vote against my opponent.”

Actually, that’s not quite accurate. The dominant Republican message is an exhortation to vote against someone who’s not on any ballot: President Obama.

(More here.)

Win or Lose, Republicans Are Still a Wreck

By Francis Wilkinson, Bloomberg
Oct 30, 2014 9:28 AM EDT

On the verge of victory in the midterm elections, the Republican Party looks no less shaky than it did on the verge of defeat in 2012. The base appears no less irate than at any other moment in the Obama era, and the party leadership's plans look no more coherent or calibrated to the times.

House Speaker John Boehner's policy speech last month at the American Enterprise Institute garnered little attention, perhaps because it was such a wee bitty thing, small and sad. (When your economic plan has five pillars and one is "tort reform," you are really asking more of the 1980s than a creaky bygone decade can deliver.) Even some conservative economists can't muster enthusiasm for the jumble of haphazard suggestions that constitute the party's "jobs" agenda.

Perhaps that's why my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru isn't ready to break out the champagne. I'm betting on a Republican victory, but I'm also betting that will be the high point of Republican control of Congress. They still haven't figured out whether a majority in both houses of Congress would require them to behave more responsibly, proving they can be competent, or more fanatically, showing they can better channel the base's rage. It's not clear that they will reach a conclusion soon.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told donors that if Republicans don't use the next Congress to "prove we could govern, there won’t be a Republican president in 2016.” Politico described McCarthy's agenda with this shorthand: "Legislative cliffs are over."

(More here.)

Sunni Tribesmen Say ISIS Exacts Brutal Revenge

By BEN HUBBARD, NYT, OCT. 30, 2014

Islamic State militants have been exacting harsh revenge against an Iraqi Sunni tribe that fought for months to keep the jihadists at bay, capturing and summarily executing scores of its members, tribal leaders and local officials said Thursday.

The death toll among the tribe, the Albu Nimr, remains unclear; one account put it at more than 200 based on mass grave sites, though that could not be independently verified. But the reports mesh with the Islamic State’s pattern of methodical slaughter as it has consolidated its territorial grabs in Syria and Iraq.

The killings also came amid meetings between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Sunni tribal leaders to discuss how to enlist more tribes in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

American and Iraqi officials have said that it is vital to get more Iraqi Sunnis to cooperate with the government, after widespread hostility to the previous Shiite-led administration led many Sunnis to welcome the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq. But plans to formally incorporate Sunni tribes into the fight have been slow to develop, and many tribes that have resisted the Islamic State have faced brutal retribution from the militants.

(More here.)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Airstrikes against the Islamic State have not affected flow of foreign fighters to Syria

By Greg Miller October 30 at 1:25 PM WashPost

More than 1,000 foreign fighters are streaming into Syria each month, a rate that has so far been unchanged by airstrikes against the Islamic State and efforts by other countries to stem the flow of departures, according to U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials.

The magnitude of the ongoing migration suggests that the U.S.-led air campaign has neither deterred significant numbers of militants from traveling to the region nor triggered a spike in the rate of travel among Muslim populations inflamed by American intervention.

“The flow of fighters making their way to Syria remains constant, so the overall number continues to rise,” a U.S. intelligence official said. U.S. officials cautioned, however, that there is a lag in the intelligence being examined by the CIA and other spy agencies, meaning it could be weeks before a change becomes apparent.

The trend line established over the past year would mean that the total number of foreign fighters in Syria has already exceeded 16,000, a pace eclipsing that of any other comparable conflict in recent decades, including the 1980s war in Afghanistan.

(More here.)

Going solar in the middle of coal country

Labor of Love: How My Small WV Town Launched a Game-Changing New Model to Go Solar

by Mary Anne Hitt

This week, my small town in West Virginia cut the ribbon on a solar project that isn't just the largest crowd-funded solar project in the state, but also launches a new model making it possible for any WV community organization to go solar. On a perfect sunny day, 100 elementary school students and dozens of community members joined my husband, Than Hitt, and my daughter Hazel, who cut the ribbon for a 60-panel solar system at the historic Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. It was an unforgettable day that crystalized all our hopes for the future of West Virginia, and exemplified the power of regular people to change the world.

The genius of this project was that the church went solar for just $1, thanks to over 100 community members who contributed - but they donated their water heaters, not their dollars. Maryland-based Mosaic Power pays homeowners $100 per year to have smart meters installed on their home water heaters that save energy and, in the aggregate, operate as a safe, efficient mini-power plant. These community members are each donating their $100 per year to the church solar project, collectively raising enough money to pay for the solar system. The financing model was developed by our brilliant friend Dan Conant and his company Solar Holler, and now that we have proof of concept in Shepherdstown, he's taking it statewide.

The church is going to generate nearly half of its electricity from the sun, reducing pollution, saving money, and living out the congregation's commitment to caring for the Earth. I'm a member of this remarkable church, where we've spent many a Sunday morning lamenting the destruction polluting energy development has wreaked on our state, from mountaintop removal mining to the coal chemical spill in Charleston earlier this year.

(Continued here.)

If that viral street harassment video shocked you … you're probably a man

Women aren’t surprised by video ‘proof’ that sexism exists. We share it because we’re hoping that all men will finally believe that it does, too.

Shoshanna Roberts walked around Manhattan for 10 hours while a videographer documented her being street harassed.

Jessica Valenti, the Guardian
Thursday 30 October 2014 07.15 EDT

There is by now a familiar pattern to campaigns to bring attention to the problems women face in the world: sexism gets documented in a way that is irrefutable, it goes viral, and then sexism continues on unabated.

The latest example: a viral video put out by the anti-street harassment organisation Hollaback! in which Shoshana Roberts walks down a New York street in a T-shirt and jeans, stone-faced, as men walk alongside her, look her up and down and comment on her body, her lack of a smile and generally demand that she pay attention to them. It’s awful, uncomfortable, and entirely unsurprising – at least to 50% of the population.

The purpose of a video like this one isn’t to remind women how awful it can be – believe me, we know – but to create something to show to and share with men to be able to say See, this happens!

But how many secretly taped encounters, screenshots of rape threats or elevator videos is it going to take before men just take our word for it? I’m sick of women constantly having to “prove” that discrimination and harassment exist – and I know I’m not the only one.

(Video here.)

Woman receives rape threats after recording 10 hours of harassment in New York

Paul Owen and Amanda HolpuchThe Guardian

Actor Shoshana B Roberts recorded all the catcalls and remarks she got from passersby as she walked for 10 hours through New York

An actor who recorded 10 hours of catcalls and remarks from passersby in New York City has received rape threats in response to a video detailing the harassment.

In a two-minute video, actor Shoshana B Roberts was told to smile, told, “Somebody is acknowledging you for being beautiful – you should say thank you,” and comments were made about her clothes and appearance.

At one point in the video, which has been viewed nearly 10m times in fewer than 24 hours, a man walked alongside her silently for five minutes.

(More here.)

For Turkey and U.S., at odds over Syria, a 60-year alliance shows signs of crumbling

By Liz Sly October 29 at 6:46 PM WashPost

ANKARA, Turkey — The increasingly hostile divergence of views between Turkey and the United States over Syria is testing the durability of their 60-year alliance, to the point where some are starting to question whether the two countries still can be considered allies at all.

Turkey’s refusal to allow the United States to use its bases to launch attacks against the Islamic State, quarrels over how to manage the battle raging in the Syrian border town of Kobane and the harsh tone of the anti-American rhetoric used by top Turkish officials to denounce U.S. policy have served to illuminate the vast gulf that divides the two nations as they scramble to address the menace posed by the extremists.

Whether the Islamic State even is the chief threat confronting the region is disputed, with Washington and Ankara publicly airing their differences through a fog of sniping, insults and recrimination over who is to blame for the mess the Middle East has become.

(More here.)

NATO Tracks Large-Scale Russia Air Activity in Europe

 
A photo released Wednesday by the Norwegian Air Force shows what it said was a Norwegian F-16AM Fighting Falcon, left, accompanying a Russian Tupolev Tu-95MS at an undisclosed location within the last year, in an encounter similar to one NATO says happened this week. European Pressphoto Agency
NATO Says Russian Air Activity Poses Potential Risk to Civilian Flights

By Stephen Fidler, WSJ
Updated Oct. 29, 2014 7:33 p.m. ET

BRUSSELS—Russian military aircraft conducted aerial maneuvers around Europe this week on a scale seldom seen since the end of the Cold War, prompting NATO jets to scramble in another sign of how raw East-West relations have grown.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said that more than two dozen Russian aircraft in four groups were intercepted and tracked on Tuesday and Wednesday, an unusually high level of activity that the alliance said could have endangered passing civilian flights.

Military jets from eight nations were scrambled to meet the Russian aircraft, which a NATO spokesman said remained in international airspace and didn’t violate NATO territory.

However, NATO officials said such flights heighten the risks of military miscalculations. They also come at a time when U.S. officials have been voicing concern about Moscow’s actions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, where thousands have been killed in months of fighting between the government and Russia-backed separatists.

(More here.)

Prosecutors Suspect Repeat Offenses on Wall Street

By Ben Protess and Jessica Silver-Greenberg
October 29, 2014, NYT

It would be the Wall Street equivalent of a parole violation: Just two years after avoiding prosecution for a variety of crimes, some of the world’s biggest banks are suspected of having broken their promises to behave.

A mixture of new issues and lingering problems could violate earlier settlements that imposed new practices and fines on the banks but stopped short of criminal charges, according to lawyers briefed on the cases. Prosecutors are exploring whether to strengthen the earlier deals, the lawyers said, or scrap them altogether and force the banks to plead guilty to a crime.

That effort, unfolding separately from a number of well-known investigations into Wall Street, has ensnared several giant banks and consulting firms that until now were thought to be in the clear.

Prosecutors in Washington and Manhattan have reopened an investigation into Standard Chartered, the big British bank that reached a settlement in 2012 over accusations that it transferred billions of dollars for Iran and other nations blacklisted by the United States, according to the lawyers briefed on the cases. The prosecutors are questioning whether Standard Chartered, which has a large operation in New York, failed to disclose the extent of its wrongdoing to the government, imperiling the bank’s earlier settlement.

(More here.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Trickle down a myth to justify tax cuts

by Tom Maertens, Mankato Free Press, 10/29/14

The Wall Street Journal editorial board lamented recently that the Republican Party doesn’t have a platform going into the mid-term elections.

But they do have a platform.

They oppose the Ex-Im Bank; they also:
--Oppose Medicare and Medicaid;
--Oppose Social Security;
--Oppose abortion;
--Oppose birth control (see the Blunt amendment);
--Oppose voting rights, for non-white people anyway;
--Oppose the Affordable Care Act;
--Oppose the Common Core;
--Oppose the teaching of evolution;
--Oppose food stamps;
--Oppose unemployment compensation;
--Oppose same sex marriage;
--Oppose environmental rules and action on global warming;
--Oppose the United Nations; and
--Oppose anything they can label communism, socialism, or progressive.

Their program also includes general fear-mongering about ISIS, Ebola and immigrants by people such as Karl Rove and Bobby Jindal, hoping that voters will somehow blame Democrats.

Where Congressional Republicans are unsurpassed is at obstructionism. As of mid-September the 113th Congress had passed only 165 bills that became law, although they found time to “repeal” Obamacare more than 50 times. The “do-nothing” Congress of 1947-1948, in contrast, passed 906 pieces of legislation.

As Brent Budowsky commented in The Hill, “Republicans promise they will continue to hate President Obama with a fanatical passion and politics of total gridlock. They promise to continue investigating Benghazi forever. They pledge to loathe Lois Lerner, vow to defeat the minimum wage and promise to prevent pay equity for women. … They vow to arrest Hispanic Dreamers and send them back where they belong. They promise to prove that climate change does not exist and to destroy ObamaCare.”

What Republicans favor are tax cuts for the wealthy: tax cuts in good times and tax cuts in bad times, because they believe that, in some land far, far away, tax cuts once paid for themselves.

They firmly believe that Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts brought prosperity, ignoring his Keynesianism stimulus ­— a huge military spending program. Reagan subsequently increased taxes 11 times, mostly on the middle class, to cover a sea of red ink, although he retained the tax cuts for the wealthy. Despite those tax increases, his policies tripled the national debt.

Bush Junior also believed in the Tax Fairy, and cut taxes while fighting two wars, resulting in even greater deficits. He left behind a major recession, a $1.2 trillion budget deficit, and a fiscal imbalance that guaranteed more deficits.

While the federal government can finance such deficits — at a cost — that doesn’t work for states that try “supply side economics” because they don’t have their own currencies. Thus, states that get into fiscal trouble have to resort to gimmicks, such as Tim Pawlenty used to conceal a $6 billion dollar deficit: accounting shifts, advanced payments on taxes, delaying bill payments and pushing spending down to local governments. Pawlenty raided the tobacco settlement fund, the K-12 education fund, and the Healthcare Access Fund for low-income families, and then claimed he left the state a surplus. A 2010 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures showed that Minnesota used one-time budget tricks to close 41 percent of its spending gap during Pawlenty’s last year in office.

Chris Christie has also tried the magical tax-cutting formula. The resulting damage to the state’s finances led to New Jersey’s credit rating being lowered eight times, according to Bloomberg last month.

Kansas governor Sam Brownback also invoked the Tax Fairy, which resulted in state budget shortfalls of 11 percent of revenue, according to the nonpartisan Kansas Legislative Research Department. As a result, Kansas’ credit rating has been downgraded three times.

That’s because trickle down is a myth, dreamed up to justify tax cuts for the wealthy. The International Monetary Fund recently released a study showing that redistribution of income from the affluent to the poor, contrary to conservatives’ claims, actually seems to increase economic growth.

The reality is that the US economy has grown for 55 straight months, the longest uninterrupted job growth in our history, and the budget deficit is at 2.8 percent of GDP and falling, the lowest level since 2007. We are working our way out of a deep hole, no thanks to “voodoo economics.”

Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.

Nothing in Moderation

Thomas B. Edsall, NYT
OCT. 28, 2014

What if the notion that a large segment of the electorate is made up of moderates who hunger for centrist compromise is illusory? What if ordinary voters are, in many respects, even more extreme in their views than members of Congress?

Two political science graduate students at Berkeley, David E. Broockman and Douglas J. Ahler, have made a persuasive case that not only are there few voters who are actually centrist or moderate, but that many voters – and on some issues, a majority of voters – are further to the left or right than the congressmen and legislators who represent them.

The Broockman-Ahler argument, if it’s correct, undermines advocacy organizations, think tanks and commissions premised on the belief that moderates remain a powerful but untapped source of support in federal elections. Such organizations include Third Way, a pro-Democratic think tank, which contends that “In the eleven most competitive Senate races of 2014, moderates hold the key to Democratic wins”; the Centrist Project, which asserts that “Most Americans Are Moderates”; the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget; the Bipartisan Policy Center; the Progressive Policy Institute; the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform; the Concord Coalition; No Labels; and the Campaign to Fix the Debt.

Political scientists have long debated how polarized ordinary voters are compared with political elites. In a paper completed earlier this month, “An Artificial Disconnect,” Broockman disputes in detail the work of scholars and activists who have sought to promote “an ambitious reform agenda” based on the “widely accepted empirical finding” that “voters reliably support more moderate policies than elites.” The mistake here, Broockman writes, is to “crucially rely on the assumption that voters’ preferences can be summarized on one dimension.”

(More here.)

ISIS and Vietnam

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
OCT. 28, 2014

In May, I visited Vietnam and met with university students. After a week of being love-bombed by Vietnamese, who told me how much they admire America, want to work or study there and have friends and family living there, I couldn’t help but ask myself: “How did we get this country so wrong? How did we end up in a war with Vietnam that cost so many lives and drove them into the arms of their most hated enemy, China?”

It’s a long, complicated story, I know, but a big part of it was failing to understand that the core political drama of Vietnam was an indigenous nationalist struggle against colonial rule — not the embrace of global communism, the interpretation we imposed on it.

The North Vietnamese were both communists and nationalists — and still are. But the key reason we failed in Vietnam was that the communists managed to harness the Vietnamese nationalist narrative much more effectively than our South Vietnamese allies, who were too often seen as corrupt or illegitimate. The North Vietnamese managed to win (with the help of brutal coercion) more Vietnamese support not because most Vietnamese bought into Marx and Lenin, but because Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades were perceived to be the more authentic nationalists.

I believe something loosely akin to this is afoot in Iraq. The Islamic State, or ISIS, with its small core of jihadists, was able to seize so much non-jihadist Sunni territory in Syria and Iraq almost overnight — not because most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis suddenly bought into the Islamist narrative of ISIS’s self-appointed caliph. Most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis don’t want to marry off their daughters to a bearded Chechen fanatic, and more than a few of them pray five times a day and like to wash it down with a good Scotch. They have embraced or resigned themselves to ISIS because they were systematically abused by the pro-Shiite, pro-Iranian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq — and because they see ISIS as a vehicle to revive Sunni nationalism and end Shiite oppression.

(More here.)

Inside the Koch Brothers' Toxic Empire

Together, Charles and David Koch control one of the world's largest fortunes, which they are using to buy up our political system. But what they don't want you to know is how they made all that money.

By Tim Dickinson | September 24, 2014, RollingStone

The enormity of the Koch fortune is no mystery. Brothers Charles and David are each worth more than $40 billion. The electoral influence of the Koch brothers is similarly well-chronicled. The Kochs are our homegrown oligarchs; they've cornered the market on Republican politics and are nakedly attempting to buy Congress and the White House. Their political network helped finance the Tea Party and powers today's GOP. Koch-affiliated organizations raised some $400 million during the 2012 election, and aim to spend another $290 million to elect Republicans in this year's midterms. So far in this cycle, Koch-backed entities have bought 44,000 political ads to boost Republican efforts to take back the Senate.

What is less clear is where all that money comes from. Koch Industries is headquartered in a squat, smoked-glass building that rises above the prairie on the outskirts of Wichita, Kansas. The building, like the brothers' fiercely private firm, is literally and figuratively a black box. Koch touts only one top-line financial figure: $115 billion in annual revenue, as estimated by Forbes. By that metric, it is larger than IBM, Honda or Hewlett-Packard and is America's second-largest private company after agribusiness colossus Cargill. The company's stock response to inquiries from reporters: "We are privately held and don't disclose this information."

But Koch Industries is not entirely opaque. The company's troubled legal history – including a trail of congressional investigations, Department of Justice consent decrees, civil lawsuits and felony convictions – augmented by internal company documents, leaked State Department cables, Freedom of Information disclosures and company whistle­-blowers, combine to cast an unwelcome spotlight on the toxic empire whose profits finance the modern GOP.

Under the nearly five-decade reign of CEO Charles Koch, the company has paid out record civil and criminal environmental penalties. And in 1999, a jury handed down to Koch's pipeline company what was then the largest wrongful-death judgment of its type in U.S. history, resulting from the explosion of a defective pipeline that incinerated a pair of Texas teenagers.

(More here.)

Online Security Experts Link More Breaches to Russian Government

By NICOLE PERLROTH, NYT
OCT. 28, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — For the second time in four months, researchers at a computer security company are connecting the Russian government to electronic espionage efforts around the world.

In a report released on Tuesday by FireEye, a Silicon Valley firm, researchers say hackers working for the Russian government have for seven years been using sophisticated techniques to break into computer networks, including systems run by the government of Georgia, other Eastern European governments and militaries, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other European security organizations

The report does not cite any direct evidence of Russian government involvement, such as a web server address or the individuals behind the attack, nor does it name the Russian agency responsible. The researchers have made the government connection because the malicious software used in the incidents was written during Moscow and St. Petersburg working hours on computers that use Russian language settings and because the targets closely align with Russian intelligence interests.

“This is state espionage,” Laura Galante, FireEye’s manager of threat intelligence, said in an interview on Tuesday. “This is Russia using its network operations to bolster their key political goals.”

(More here.)

Russia Backs Plan by Ukraine Separatists for an Early Election

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and ANDREW ROTH, NYT
OCT. 28, 2014

MOSCOW — Setting the stage for renewed tensions with the West, the Russian government said on Tuesday that it would recognize the results of coming elections in the separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, where rebel leaders have scheduled a vote in defiance of the Ukrainian government and in violation of an agreement signed last month in Minsk, Belarus.

The agreement between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists, signed on Sept. 5 in Minsk, and a follow-up document signed later last month had called for local elections to be held in accordance with Ukrainian law. The Ukrainian Parliament set Dec. 7 as the date for nationwide elections, but the separatist leaders announced plans to hold the balloting on their own schedule, in early November.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, told Russian news agencies that the elections to be held in the embattled regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were “important for legitimizing the authority” of the separatist governments there.

“We expect the elections to take place as agreed,” Mr. Lavrov said. “And we of course will recognize their results.”

(More here.)

White House Hit With What Appears To Be Sustained Cyberattack

Ryan Grimm, HuffPost

WASHINGTON -- The White House computer network has been hit by what appears to be a sustained cyberattack, administration sources told HuffPost.

The White House -- or the Executive Office of the President (EOP) -- regularly gets hit with hapless cyberattacks from all corners of the web, but the one revealed Tuesday, said people familiar with the situation, has been much more significant in duration and strength, putting the system on the fritz for nearly two weeks, if not longer.

A White House official confirmed on Tuesday that the White House had "identified activity of concern on the unclassified EOP network." Network outages are not uncommon in the White House, but they typically last no more than a few hours. For the system to be damaged for days on end indicates an attack of significant strength.

"Certainly a variety of actors find our networks attractive targets and seek access to sensitive government information. We are still assessing the activity of concern, and we are not in a position to provide any additional details at this time," the White House official said in a statement.

(More here.)

The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here

The Obama administration's anger is "red-hot" over Israel's settlement policies, and the Netanyahu government openly expresses contempt for Obama's understanding of the Middle East. Profound changes in the relationship may be coming.

Jeffrey Goldberg Oct 28 2014, The Atlantic

The other day I was talking to a senior Obama administration official about the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most. “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” this official said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname.

This comment is representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli officials now talk about each other behind closed doors, and is yet another sign that relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations— dual guarantors of the putatively “unbreakable” bond between the U.S. and Israel—is now the worst it's ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse after the November midterm elections. By next year, the Obama administration may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, but even before that, both sides are expecting a showdown over Iran, should an agreement be reached about the future of its nuclear program.

The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu, and in particular, to the behavior of his cabinet. Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has “written off” the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached. For their part, Obama administration officials express, in the words of one official, a “red-hot anger” at Netanyahu for pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process.

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.) But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickenshit.” I thought I appreciated the implication of this description, but it turns out I didn’t have a full understanding. From time to time, current and former administration officials have described Netanyahu as a national leader who acts as though he is mayor of Jerusalem, which is to say, a no-vision small-timer who worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency. (President Obama, in interviews with me, has alluded to Netanyahu’s lack of political courage.)

(More here.)

U.S. Immigration Laws Face New Scrutiny After Killings

By JENNIFER MEDINA and JULIA PRESTON, NYT
OCT. 28, 2014

LOS ANGELES — It would seem to be a worst case that opponents of the Obama administration on immigration had long forecast: An illegal immigrant — one who had been deported twice, yet returned to the country each time — is accused of killing two Northern California sheriff’s officers in a six-hour shooting rampage Friday.

The suspect led the authorities on a manhunt through two counties. After he was booked into the Sacramento County jail, federal immigration authorities used his fingerprints to identify the man, who gave his name as Marcelo Marquez: They said he was Luis Enrique Monroy Bracamonte, a Mexican who lived without papers in this country for more than a decade after he was deported in 1997 and again in 2001 because of drug- and weapon-related arrests.

“This case shows that our laws are not being enforced, and there are tragic consequences to not enforcing them,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a group that advocates tougher immigration controls.

The case could create a new problem for the Obama administration, as officials weigh steps the president could take after the Nov. 4 elections to expand protections from deportation for immigrants here illegally.

Emerging details of the suspect’s history — he gave his second last name in court in Sacramento on Tuesday as Bracamontes, not Bracamonte — show that he crossed the southwest border at least twice in a wave of illegal immigration more than a decade ago, then used several aliases and stayed out of trouble just enough to elude detection as the Obama administration ramped up deportations in recent years and expanded systems to identify foreigners who committed crimes.

(More here.)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Russian Government Linked to More Cybersecurity Breaches

By NICOLE PERLROTH, NYT
OCT. 28, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — For the second time in four months, researchers at a computer security company are connecting the Russian government to electronic espionage efforts around the world.

In a report released on Tuesday by FireEye, a Silicon Valley firm, researchers say hackers working for the Russian government have for seven years been using sophisticated techniques to break into an array of computer networks, including systems run by the government of Georgia, other Eastern European governments and militaries, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other European security organizations

The report does not cite any direct evidence of Russian government involvement, such as a web server address or the individuals behind the attack, nor does it name the Russian agency responsible. But the researchers have made the government connection because the malicious software, so-called malware, used in the incidents was written during Moscow and St. Petersburg working hours on computers that use Russian language settings and because the targets so closely align with Russian intelligence interests.

(More here.)

The Bumpkinification of the Midterm Elections

By MARK LEIBOVICH, NYT
OCT. 28, 2014

Joni Ernst, the Iowa state senator and Iraq War veteran, was standing in a barn in a purple flannel shirt and an unzipped vest. Beside her, various swine burrowed in the hog lot; two small pigs spooned; there was copious squealing. When Ernst, who grew up on a farm castrating hogs, opened her mouth to speak, she drew the inevitable connection between her upbringing and her current role as a Republican candidate for the United States Senate. “When I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” Ernst said, smiling. Title cards reinforced her credentials. (“Joni Ernst: Mother. Soldier. Conservative.”) “I’m Joni Ernst, and I approve this message because Washington is full of big spenders. Let’s make ‘em squeal.”

The 30-second spot, titled “Squeal,” was part of a trilogy of ads for the candidate released earlier this year. In another, Ernst, enrobed in a biker jacket, rides a Harley-Davidson to a gun range. (“Joni Ernst: Set Sights on Obamacare”). In a third, titled “Biscuits,” the camera focuses on a man’s hands as they add butter to flour and use molds to cut circles. “When I was working fast food, I learned the key to a great biscuit is lots of fat,” Ernst tells the camera. “Problem is, Washington thinks the same thing about our budget.”

Ernst is not the only candidate to have brought such a Capra-esque advertising strategy to this year’s midterm elections. Something Else Strategies, the media-consulting firm responsible for “Squeal,” also masterminded a widely noted spot for the Republican Mike McFadden, who is challenging Al Franken for his Senate seat in Minnesota. McFadden, a former college-football player who now coaches a youth team, recruited his players to appear in a “Bad News Bears"-style spot in which they mess up handoffs (“Washington is fumbling our future”) and clobber each other (“Obamacare needs to be sacked”) before the coach rouses them to “get out there and hit somebody.” At that point, for no particular reason, one player hits him below the belt, leaving the coach to recite the “I’m Mike McFadden, and I approve this message” bit in a high-pitched squeal — the universal signifier of a guy who has just been hit in his junk.

(More here.)

Naomi Oreskes Imagines the Future History of Climate Change

A Chronicler of Warnings Denied

Claudia Dreifus, NYT
OCT. 27, 2014

Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science at Harvard, but she is attracting wide notice these days for a work of science fiction.

“The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future,” written with Erik M. Conway, takes the point of view of a historian in 2393 explaining how “the Great Collapse of 2093” occurred.

“Without spoiling the story,” she told me, “I can tell you that a lot of what happens — floods, droughts, mass migrations, the end of humanity in Africa and Australia — is the result of inaction to very clear warnings” about climate change caused by humans. The 104-page book was listed last week as the No. 1 environmental best-seller on Amazon. Dr. Oreskes, 55, spoke with me for two hours at her home in Concord, Mass., and later again by telephone. Here is an edited and condensed version of the conversations.

(More here.)

Reversing Course on Beavers

By JIM ROBBINS, NYT
OCT. 27, 2014

BUTTE, Mont. — Once routinely trapped and shot as varmints, their dams obliterated by dynamite and bulldozers, beavers are getting new respect these days. Across the West, they are being welcomed into the landscape as a defense against the withering effects of a warmer and drier climate.

Beaver dams, it turns out, have beneficial effects that can’t easily be replicated in other ways. They raise the water table alongside a stream, aiding the growth of trees and plants that stabilize the banks and prevent erosion. They improve fish and wildlife habitat and promote new, rich soil.

And perhaps most important in the West, beaver dams do what all dams do: hold back water that would otherwise drain away.

“People realize that if we don’t have a way to store water that’s not so expensive, we’re going to be up a creek, a dry creek,” said Jeff Burrell, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bozeman, Mont. “We’ve lost a lot with beavers not on the landscape.”

(More here.)

Netanyahu Expedites Plan for More Than 1,000 New Apartments in East Jerusalem

By ISABEL KERSHNER and JODI RUDOREN, NYT
OCT. 27, 2014

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that Israel would fast-track planning for 1,060 new apartments in populous Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, a move that appears calibrated to appeal to the maximum number of Israelis while causing the minimum damage to Israel internationally, according to Israeli analysts.

But as is often the case, Mr. Netanyahu’s decision prompted swift international condemnation at a time when Israel’s relations with Washington are already strained and risked further igniting Palestinian anger and tensions in Jerusalem. It was also unlikely to satisfy the right-wing political rivals it was intended to appease, the analysts said.

Right-wing ministers have been pressuring Mr. Netanyahu to speed construction in what most of the world considers illegal settlements in the West Bank. Naftali Bennett of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party had threatened to destabilize the government coalition, accusing Mr. Netanyahu of carrying out a quiet building freeze despite many announcements about the advancement of plans.

Unlike more far-flung settlements in the West Bank, building in East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the 1967 lines enjoys wide support among Israeli politicians and the public, given the broad consensus in the country that these are areas Israel is likely to keep under any permanent deal with the Palestinians. Analysts note that the parameters for a two-state solution outlined by President Bill Clinton in 2000 envisioned granting Israel sovereignty over Jewish areas in Jerusalem and the Palestinians sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods, though it was not clear if that allowed for enlarging those Jewish areas over time.

(More here.)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Justices Drawing Dotted Lines With Terse Orders in Big Cases

By ADAM LIPTAK, NYT
OCT. 27, 2014

WASHINGTON — People used to complain that Supreme Court decisions were too long and tangled. Those were the days.

In recent weeks, the court has addressed cases on the great issues of the day without favoring the nation with even a whisper of explanation. In terse orders, the court expanded the availability of same-sex marriage, let a dozen abortion clinics in Texas reopen, and made it harder to vote in three states and easier in one.

Judges and lawyers who used to have to try to make sense of endless, opaque opinions now have to divine what the Supreme Court’s silence means.

There is something odd about the court’s docket these days. When the court considers a minor case on, say, teeth whitening, it receives a pile of briefs, hears an hour of arguments and issues a carefully reasoned decision noting every justice’s position.

(More here.)

Make way for solar

Rooftop solar is just the beginning; utilities must innovate or go extinct

Solar PV is mostly a threat to utility investors and shareholders, not ratepayers

By David Roberts, Grist
21 Oct 2014

By now, most people are aware that solar power — particularly distributed solar power, in the form of rooftop panels — poses a threat to power utilities. And utilities are fighting back, attempting to impose additional fees and restrictions on solar customers. These skirmishes generally center on “net metering,” whereby utilities (forced by state legislation) pay customers with solar panels full retail price for the power they produce, which can often cancel out the customer’s bill entirely. That’s lost revenue for the utility.

Net metering, however, is largely a distraction, a squabble over how long utilities can cling to their familiar business model. Larger reforms are inevitable, because the threat to utilities goes far beyond solar panels and demands a response far more substantial than rate-tweaking. Sooner or later, there must be a wholesale rethinking of the utility business model. And if utilities are smart, they’ll do it sooner.

To understand why, let’s have a look at two recent analyses. One examines the short-term issue for utilities, revealing the core problem lurking within. The second pulls the lens back to take in the big picture.

(Continued here.)

Ideology and Investment

Paul Krugman, NYT
OCT. 26, 2014

America used to be a country that built for the future. Sometimes the government built directly: Public projects, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, provided the backbone for economic growth. Sometimes it provided incentives to the private sector, like land grants to spur railroad construction. Either way, there was broad support for spending that would make us richer.

But nowadays we simply won’t invest, even when the need is obvious and the timing couldn’t be better. And don’t tell me that the problem is “political dysfunction” or some other weasel phrase that diffuses the blame. Our inability to invest doesn’t reflect something wrong with “Washington”; it reflects the destructive ideology that has taken over the Republican Party.

Some background: More than seven years have passed since the housing bubble burst, and ever since, America has been awash in savings — or more accurately, desired savings — with nowhere to go. Borrowing to buy homes has recovered a bit, but remains low. Corporations are earning huge profits, but are reluctant to invest in the face of weak consumer demand, so they’re accumulating cash or buying back their own stock. Banks are holding almost $2.7 trillion in excess reserves — funds they could lend out, but choose instead to leave idle.

And the mismatch between desired saving and the willingness to invest has kept the economy depressed. Remember, your spending is my income and my spending is your income, so if everyone tries to spend less at the same time, everyone’s income falls.

(More here.)

To Improve a Memory, Consider Chocolate

By PAM BELLUCK, NYT
OCT. 26, 2014

Science edged closer on Sunday to showing that an antioxidant in chocolate appears to improve some memory skills that people lose with age.

In a small study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, healthy people, ages 50 to 69, who drank a mixture high in antioxidants called cocoa flavanols for three months performed better on a memory test than people who drank a low-flavanol mixture.

On average, the improvement of high-flavanol drinkers meant they performed like people two to three decades younger on the study’s memory task, said Dr. Scott A. Small, a neurologist at Columbia University Medical Center and the study’s senior author. They performed about 25 percent better than the low-flavanol group.

“An exciting result,” said Craig Stark, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the research. “It’s an initial study, and I sort of view this as the opening salvo.”

(More here.)

In Cold War, U.S. Spy Agencies Used 1,000 Nazis

By ERIC LICHTBLAU, NYT
OCT. 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — In the decades after World War II, the C.I.A. and other United States agencies employed at least a thousand Nazis as Cold War spies and informants and, as recently as the 1990s, concealed the government’s ties to some still living in America, newly disclosed records and interviews show.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, law enforcement and intelligence leaders like J. Edgar Hoover at the F.B.I. and Allen Dulles at the C.I.A. aggressively recruited onetime Nazis of all ranks as secret, anti-Soviet “assets,” declassified records show. They believed the ex-Nazis’ intelligence value against the Russians outweighed what one official called “moral lapses” in their service to the Third Reich.

The agency hired one former SS officer as a spy in the 1950s, for instance, even after concluding he was probably guilty of “minor war crimes.”

And in 1994, a lawyer with the C.I.A. pressured prosecutors to drop an investigation into an ex-spy outside Boston implicated in the Nazis’ massacre of tens of thousands of Jews in Lithuania, according to a government official.

(More here.)

The Bushes, Led by W., Rally to Make Jeb ‘45’

By PETER BAKER, NYT, OCT. 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — When Jeb Bush decides whether to run for president, there will be no family meeting à la Mitt Romney, no gathering at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport to go over the pros and cons. “I don’t think it’ll be like a big internal straw poll,” said his son, Jeb Bush Jr.

But if there were, the results of the poll are pretty much in. As Mr. Bush nears a decision to become the third member of his storied family to seek the presidency, the extended Bush clan and its attendant network, albeit with one prominent exception, are largely rallying behind the prospect and pulling the old machine out of the closet.

“No question,” Jeb Jr. said in an interview, “people are getting fired up about it — donors and people who have been around the political process for a while, people he’s known in Tallahassee when he was governor. The family, we’re geared up either way.” Most important, he added, his mother, Columba, the prospective candidate’s politics-averse wife, has given her assent.

(More here.)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Exit polls in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections show win for pro-Western blocs

By Michael Birnbaum October 26 at 3:09 PM WashPost

KIEV, Ukraine — Under the cloud of a bitter war in their nation’s east, Ukrainians on Sunday elected the most pro-European parliament in their country’s 23-year-old history, firmly backing an effort to steer their nation away from Russia’s orbit.

The work of the new legislature will be critical to Ukraine’s prospects for overcoming its towering challenges. The election was a final step to empower President Petro Poroshenko, who was elected in May after protests toppled Ukraine’s previous leader and unleashed the worst conflict between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The new parliament, whose ranks will include a host of new faces, will have to help Ukraine resolve difficulties that would faze even the most experienced statesman. The country’s economy is ravaged by war. A cutoff of Russian natural gas threatens to create a heating crisis as early as January. And Russian-backed rebels firmly control key portions of the country’s industrial heartland in the east.

“I am proud of my people. I am proud of Ukraine,” Poroshenko told supporters in Kiev late Sunday. “At last we will have a pro-Ukrainian, pro-European coalition.” Earlier in the day, dressed in military fatigues, he visited a polling station in Kramatorsk, an eastern Ukrainian town formerly held by rebels that is about 25 miles from the front lines.

(More here.)

Let’s Talk About How Islam Has Been Hijacked

I’m appalled by what is done in the name of my religion. Yet my American friends don’t want to hear it.

By Aly Salem, WSJ
Oct. 26, 2014 7:23 p.m. ET

This week a Canadian Muslim gunman went on a rampage in Ottawa, killing a soldier and storming into the Parliament building before he was shot dead. Authorities have since said he had applied for a passport to travel to Syria. Three Muslim schoolgirls from Colorado were intercepted in Germany apparently on their way to Syria, the base for attacks there and in Iraq by the terror group Islamic State, or ISIS. An Aug. 20 article in Newsweek estimated that perhaps twice as many British Muslims are fighting for ISIS as are serving in the British army.

What could possibly inspire young Muslims in the West to abandon their suburban middle-class existence and join a holy war? How could teenagers in Denver or anywhere be lured by a jihadist ideology—or are grisly videos of ISIS beheadings and crucifixions not enough of a deterrent?

What is so compelling about radical Islamism may lie within its founding texts. It is time we acknowledged the powerful influence these texts have had even on ordinary Muslims. The political ideology based on them has already dragged the Middle East back toward the Stone Age.

As a teenager growing up in Egypt in the 1980s, I liked to stroll through Cairo’s outdoor book market, fishing out little gems like an Arabic translation of “War and Peace.” One day I stumbled upon a book that shook everything I believed in.

(More here.)

Wake Up, Europe

George Soros, New York Review of Books
November 20, 2014 Issue

The following article will appear in The New York Review’s November 20 issue.

Europe is facing a challenge from Russia to its very existence. Neither the European leaders nor their citizens are fully aware of this challenge or know how best to deal with it. I attribute this mainly to the fact that the European Union in general and the eurozone in particular lost their way after the financial crisis of 2008.

The fiscal rules that currently prevail in Europe have aroused a lot of popular resentment. Anti-Europe parties captured nearly 30 percent of the seats in the latest elections for the European Parliament but they had no realistic alternative to the EU to point to until recently. Now Russia is presenting an alternative that poses a fundamental challenge to the values and principles on which the European Union was originally founded. It is based on the use of force that manifests itself in repression at home and aggression abroad, as opposed to the rule of law. What is shocking is that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has proved to be in some ways superior to the European Union—more flexible and constantly springing surprises. That has given it a tactical advantage, at least in the near term.

Europe and the United States—each for its own reasons—are determined to avoid any direct military confrontation with Russia. Russia is taking advantage of their reluctance. Violating its treaty obligations, Russia has annexed Crimea and established separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. In August, when the recently installed government in Kiev threatened to win the low-level war in eastern Ukraine against separatist forces backed by Russia, President Putin invaded Ukraine with regular armed forces in violation of the Russian law that exempts conscripts from foreign service without their consent.

(More here.)

In his own words: Ben Bradlee on liars

By Ben Bradlee October 22, WashPost

Ben Bradlee, who passed away Tuesday at age 93, was executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. This essay is excerpted from the Press-Enterprise Lecture he delivered at the University of California, Riverside, on Jan. 7, 1997.

Newspapers don’t tell the truth under many different, and occasionally innocent, scenarios. Mostly when they don’t know the truth. Or when they quote someone who does not know the truth.

And more and more, when they quote someone who is spinning the truth, shaping it to some preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth, omitting details that could be embarrassing.

And finally, when they quote someone who is flat-out lying. There is a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times — in politics, in government, in sports and everywhere. It’s gotten to a point where, if you are like me, you no longer believe the first version of anything. It wasn’t always that way.

(More here.)

The Shifting Politics of Cuba Policy

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, NYT
OCT. 25, 2014

There was a time, not too long ago, when any mainstream politician running for statewide or national office in Florida had to rattle off fiery rhetoric against the Cuban government and declare unquestioning faith that the embargo on the island would one day force the Castros from power.

For generations, among Cuban-Americans, once a largely monolithic voting bloc, the embargo was a symbol of defiance in exile — more gospel than policy.

That has changed dramatically in recent years as younger members of the diaspora have staked out views that are increasingly in favor of deepening engagement with the island. Cuba still looms large in Florida politics, and to an extent nationally. But it is far from the clear-cut issue it once was.

That evolution has allowed a growing number of seasoned politicians to call the embargo a failure and argue that ending America’s enmity with Cuba represents the best chance of encouraging positive change on the island. Several prominent Cuban-American businessmen who were once strong supporters of the embargo have changed their stance and become proponents of engagement. The pro-embargo lobby raises a fraction of the money it once did. President Obama now receives more correspondence from lawmakers who favor expanded ties than from those who want to keep robust sanctions.

(More here.)