Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bill Targets Pro Sports Leagues’ Tax-Exempt Status

Bill Targets Pro Sports Leagues’ Tax-Exempt Status

Amid uproar over the N.F.L.’s handling of domestic abuse cases involving some of its players, Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, has introduced a bill that would disallow major professional sports leagues, most notably the N.F.L., from claiming status as tax-exempt nonprofits.
The bill is aimed at raising $100 million over 10 years, according to Booker’s office, which would be used to pay for state domestic abuse programs across the country. It is unlikely to gain widespread support.
Under the tax code, N.F.L. teams pay taxes, but the league office, which is funded by dues from its franchises, does not. The league has enjoyed this status, which is similar to those granted to industry associations, since the 1960s.
Other prominent leagues that have a similar status, including the N.H.L. and the women’s and men’s golf and tennis associations, would also be affected.

(More here.)

U.S. General to Seek Combat Troops if Airstrikes Can’t Stop ISIS

WASHINGTON — Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States combat forces against Islamic extremists in specific operations if the current strategy of airstrikes was not successful, offering a more expansive view of the American role in the ground war than that of President Obama.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said that while he was confident in the ability of the coalition of American, European and Middle Eastern governments to stop the Islamic State, he could not completely close the door to eventually asking Mr. Obama to commit ground troops to fight the group, known as ISIS or ISIL.
“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” he said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

(More here.)

What’s Behind Germany’s New Anti-Semitism

Jochen Bittner, NYT
SEPT. 16, 2014

HAMBURG, Germany — Europe is living through a new wave of anti-Semitism. The president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews calls it the worst the Continent has seen since World War II. He may well be right. Attacks on synagogues are an almost weekly occurrence, and openly anti-Semitic chants are commonplace on well-attended marches from London to Rome. And yet it is here, in Germany, where the rise in anti-Semitism is most historically painful.

On Sunday, thousands of people marched through Berlin in response, and heard both Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck denounce the resurgence in anti-Jewish hatred.

We’ve seen this before, of course. But there’s an important difference this time. The new anti-Semitism does not originate solely with the typical white-supremacist neo-Nazi; instead, the ugly truth that many in Europe don’t want to confront is that much of the anti-Jewish animus originates with European people of Muslim background.

Until recently, Germany has been unwilling to discuss this trend. Germans have always seen Muslim anti-Semitism as a less problematic version of the “original” version, and therefore a distraction from the well-known problem of anti-Jewish sentiment within a majority of society.

(More here.)

Mississippi Death Row Case Faults Bite-Mark Forensics

SEPT. 15, 2014

In one of the country’s first nationally televised criminal trials, of the smirking serial murderer Ted Bundy in Florida in 1979, jurors and viewers alike were transfixed as dental experts showed how Mr. Bundy’s crooked teeth resembled a bite on a 20-year-old victim.

Mr. Bundy was found guilty and the obscure field of “forensic dentistry” won a place in the public imagination.

Since then, expert testimony matching body wounds with the dentition of the accused has played a role in hundreds of murder and rape cases, sometimes helping to put defendants on death row.

But over this same period, mounting evidence has shown that matching body wounds to a suspect’s dentition is prone to bias and unreliable.

(More here.)

ISIS Draws a Steady Stream of Recruits From Turkey


ANKARA, Turkey — Having spent most of his youth as a drug addict in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Turkey’s capital, Can did not think he had much to lose when he was smuggled into Syria with 10 of his childhood friends to join the world’s most extreme jihadist group.

After 15 days at a training camp in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto headquarters of the group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the 27-year-old Can was assigned to a fighting unit. He said he shot two men and participated in a public execution. It was only after he buried a man alive that he was told he had become a full ISIS fighter.

“When you fight over there, it’s like being in a trance,” said Can, who asked to be referred to only by his middle name for fear of reprisal. “Everyone shouts, ‘God is the greatest,’ which gives you divine strength to kill the enemy without being fazed by blood or splattered guts,” he said.

Hundreds of foreign fighters, including some from Europe and the United States, have joined the ranks of ISIS in its self-proclaimed caliphate that sweeps over vast territories of Iraq and Syria. But one of the biggest source of recruits is neighboring Turkey, a NATO member with an undercurrent of Islamist discontent.

(More here.)

Obama seeks faster phaseout of popular coolant in effort to curb greenhouse gases

By Joby Warrick September 15 at 11:59 PM WashPost

The Obama administration is preparing to introduce major steps to phase out production of a popular chemical coolant used in refrigerators and air conditioners, citing growing evidence that the substance is contributing to the warming of the planet.

The White House will announce on Tuesday a series of voluntary commitments by some of the country’s largest chemical firms and retailers to move rapidly away from R-134a and similar compounds used in nearly every office, home and automobile in the country, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the effort.

The administration is simultaneously stepping up diplomatic efforts to encourage major U.S. trading partners to phase out production of the potent greenhouse gas, the officials said. The initiatives are being disclosed in advance of next week’s summit of world leaders at the United Nations to debate options for slowing the buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

The class of chemicals to which R-134a belongs — called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs — became popular as a replacement for Freon, the refrigerant banned since the 1990s for damaging the Earth’s ozone layer. Most HFCs are harmless to ozone, but collectively they have become a significant driver of climate change — some are up to 10,000 times as potent per ounce as carbon dioxide, climate scientists say.

(More here.)

Study Links Increased Drilling With Earthquakes

Scientists Say Tremors in Colorado, New Mexico Likely Connected to Nearby Wastewater Injection Wells

By Tamara Audi, WSJ
Updated Sept. 15, 2014

A magnitude-5.3 earthquake that hit Colorado in 2011 was likely caused by the injection of wastewater into the ground, a process used in natural-gas drilling, according to new research to be released Tuesday.

The new study, published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, adds more detail to a growing body of work seeking to establish and explain the connection between human activity and seismic events, known as induced quakes.

Geologists have been intensely focused on the field in the past few years, as some states, including Oklahoma, Ohio, Colorado and New Mexico, have seen a rise in quakes that coincides with an uptick in activities associated with oil and gas extraction, scientists say.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the energy industry, there have been "fewer than 40 incidents of seismic activity" over the past five decades "potentially associated" with thousands of injection wells across the country.

(More here.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

How to Get It Wrong

Paul Krugman, NYT
SEPT. 14, 2014

Last week I participated in a conference organized by Rethinking Economics, a student-run group hoping to promote, you guessed it, a rethinking of economics. And Mammon knows that economics needs rethinking in the wake of a disastrous crisis, a crisis that was neither predicted nor prevented.

It seems to me, however, that it’s important to realize that the enormous intellectual failure of recent years took place at several levels. Clearly, economics as a discipline went badly astray in the years — actually decades — leading up to the crisis. But the failings of economics were greatly aggravated by the sins of economists, who far too often let partisanship or personal self-aggrandizement trump their professionalism. Last but not least, economic policy makers systematically chose to hear only what they wanted to hear. And it is this multilevel failure — not the inadequacy of economics alone — that accounts for the terrible performance of Western economies since 2008.

In what sense did economics go astray? Hardly anyone predicted the 2008 crisis, but that in itself is arguably excusable in a complicated world. More damning was the widespread conviction among economists that such a crisis couldn’t happen. Underlying this complacency was the dominance of an idealized vision of capitalism, in which individuals are always rational and markets always function perfectly.

Now, idealized models have a useful role to play in economics (and indeed in any discipline), as ways to clarify your thinking. But starting in the 1980s it became harder and harder to publish anything questioning these idealized models in major journals. Economists trying to take account of imperfect reality faced what Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff, hardly a radical figure (and someone I’ve sparred with) once called “new neoclassical repression.” And it should go without saying that assuming away irrationality and market failure meant assuming away the very possibility of the kind of catastrophe that overtook the developed world six years ago.

(More here.)

Holder Says Private Suit Risks State Secrets


WASHINGTON — In his first year in office, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. put new limits on when the government could dismiss lawsuits in the name of protecting national security. Now, in what he has said is likely his final year, Mr. Holder has claimed broad authority to do just that in a case unlike any other.

The Justice Department intervened late Friday in a defamation lawsuit against United Against Nuclear Iran, a prominent advocacy group that pushes for tough sanctions against Tehran. The government said the case should be dropped because forcing the group to open its files would jeopardize national security.

The group is not affiliated with the government, and lists no government contracts on its tax forms. The government has cited no precedent for using the so-called state-secrets privilege to quash a private lawsuit that does not focus on government activity.

The lawsuit, by a Greek shipping magnate, accuses United Against Nuclear Iran of falsely accusing him of doing business with Iran. The businessman, Victor Restis, subpoenaed the group for its donor list and all information it had collected about him. That was when the Justice Department stepped in.

(More here.)

Health Law Has Caveat on Renewal of Coverage

SEPT. 14, 2014

WASHINGTON — Millions of consumers will soon receive notices from health insurance companies stating that their coverage is being automatically renewed for 2015, along with the financial assistance they received this year from the federal government.

But consumer advocates and insurers say they see a significant potential for confusion because some of the information will be out of date and misleading on costs and other aspects of coverage. Some people who have been receiving monthly subsidy payments this year could get much less if they stay in their current health plans.

The Obama administration announced in June that most people with insurance purchased in the federal marketplace would be automatically enrolled in the same or similar plans next year, so they would not need to file applications or go back to HealthCare.gov to continue their coverage.

Now, however, the administration is emphasizing that consumers should revisit the marketplace to make sure they are getting the right amount of financial assistance and to compare other health plans.

(More here.)

At a Steak Fry in Iowa, the Clintons Sell Their Brand of Sizzle

SEPT. 14, 2014

INDIANOLA, Iowa — It was a preview of coming distractions.

When Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton decided to return to the state where her presidential ambitions first came undone six years ago, the idea was that they would remind Democratic activists about the importance of the midterm elections and honor their host, Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, who is retiring from Congress and held his final steak fry fund-raiser here Sunday. And that was what transpired, in part, on a sun-splashed day on a balloon field here, just south of Des Moines.

But as is often the case wherever Mr. Clinton goes, what amounted to the unofficial start of the next Iowa presidential caucuses was as much about the Clinton who already served as president as the one who appears to have designs on the office.

The 37th Harkin Steak Fry began with an impromptu 15-minute question-and-answer session between Mr. Clinton and a few dozen reporters at what is traditionally only a brief photo-op with the V.I.P.s and the beef on the grill.

(More here.)

Conservative Experiment Faces Revolt in Reliably Red Kansas

SEPT. 14, 2014

HUTCHINSON, Kan. — In his 40 years living in Kansas, Konrad Hastings cannot remember voting for a Democrat. He is the type who agonizes over big purchases, trying to save as much money as possible. He is against stricter gun laws, opposes abortion in most cases and prefers less government involvement in his life.

But when he casts his ballot for governor in November, he plans to shun the leader of this state’s conservative movement, the Republican incumbent, Sam Brownback, and vote for the Democratic challenger.

“He’s leading Kansas down,” said Mr. Hastings, 68, who said he voted for Mr. Brownback four years ago, when he easily won his first term. “We’re going to be bankrupt in two or three years if we keep going his way.”

Voters like Mr. Hastings are at the heart of Mr. Brownback’s surprising fight for political survival.

(More here.)

Japan may soon learn the fate of its citizens abducted by North Korea

By Anna Fifield September 15 at 3:00 AM WashPost

OSAKA, Japan — Yoshi Takeuchi realized they had made a mistake as soon as the ferry docked in Chongjin, a major industrial city on North Korea’s east coast.

Instead of finding the “paradise on Earth” promised by her ethnic Korean husband, who was being “repatriated” to a country he’d never set foot in, the Japanese woman discovered a dilapidated city in even worse condition than their impoverished neighborhood in post-war Japan.

“As soon as we arrived, I said, ‘Let’s get back on the ferry and go back to Japan,’ ” recalls Takeuchi, now 80 and living in the western Japanese city of Osaka, having escaped from North Korea after spending 46 years there against her will.

“But it was too late. Some of the people on our ferry actually killed themselves when we arrived in Chongjin rather than have to live in North Korea,” she said in the tiny apartment she shares with her 40-year-old daughter, who fled North Korea last year.

(More here.)

Islamic State sells ‘blood antiquities’ from Iraq and Syria to raise money

By Mark V. Vlasic September 14 at 7:58 PM, WashPost

Mark Vlasic, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, was the head of operations of the joint World Bank-U.N. Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. He is also counselor to the Antiquities Coalition.

As President Obama moves ahead with his plan to confront the so-called Islamic State, all options, as they say, should be on the table. Thus, while “kinetic force” is a likely focus, the terrorism financing must not be overlooked. By targeting one of the group’s funding sources, policy-makers can also help to preserve the history of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. What’s needed is an immediate, multifaceted initiative to curb the sale of “blood antiquities.”

The Islamic State is reported to be the world’s richest terrorist organization, and it has been made rich, in part, by looting Iraq and Syria. The group’s advance has been fueled by the sale of stolen artifacts that are vital to defining the Syrian and Iraqi cultures, which pre-date Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Indeed, the ongoing pillaging of this legacy is a blow to our collective humanity.

As reported by the Guardian, the Islamic State has made millions from its plunder — including $36 million alone from the looting of al-Nabuk in Syria. With antiquities that are as much as 8,000 years old at its disposal, the group needs no state sponsor; it is financing its carnage with the wealth of past civilizations.

(More here.)

Syrian Leaders See Opportunities and Risks in U.S. Striking ISIS on Their Soil

SEPT. 14, 2014

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The fortunes of President Bashar al-Assad have suffered over the past two months, with battlefield setbacks and new signs of doubt emerging within his political base, as the civil war in Syria drags on with no end in sight.

Now, though, he and his inner circle believe they have been granted a reprieve — at least politically — by President Obama’s declaration that he may strike in Syria against the extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to analysts and allies of the Syrian government who say they are in contact with officials in Damascus.

To Mr. Assad and his closest advisers, these people say, the American decision represents a victory for his longstanding strategy: obliterating any moderate opposition to his rule and persuading the world it faces a stark choice between him and Islamist militants who threaten the West.

But there are also worries in Damascus that the potential American strikes in Syria, part of a ramped-up campaign against ISIS, carry new risks. Pro-government analysts say that Syrian officials are unsure who would benefit militarily — government forces, or Syrian insurgents and separatist Kurds, who have also clashed with the foreign-led ISIS militants.

(More here.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

In just a year Obamacare goes from top Congress issue to barely mentioned

By Colby Itkowitz September 13 WashPost

Was it really only a year ago that we were gearing up for the big unveil of Healthcare.gov where the uninsured could seamlessly go online and shop for health care as they would their vacation travel?

It was last September when Republicans sparred with Democrats over the future of the health-care law, a disagreement that prompted a 17-day federal government shutdown and overall chaos. It was pretty much anyone on Capitol Hill talked about. Republicans wanted you to know how terrible it was for America, and Democrats wanted you to remember to sign up on Oct. 1.

In that month, a mere 12 months ago, the word Obamacare was uttered on the House and Senate floor 2,753 times, according to Sunlight Foundation’s database of floor speeches from the Congressional Record.

Oh, how much changes in a year. With just one full week of work left this month, members of Congress have brought up Obamacare in floor speeches just 27 times.

(More here.)

China’s ‘creeping invasion’ on the global order

Jackson Diehl Deputy editorial page editor September 14 at 7:59 PM WashPost

A few months ago it looked like East Asia might be the place where the crumbling global order of the past quarter-century, centered on U.S. power and values, would face a decisive crisis. Chinese boats, planes and oil rigs were pressing into territories claimed by Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines; there was anti-Japanese fervor in the Chinese media and disturbing nationalist gestures from the most hawkish Japanese government in years.

Instead, it was Vladimir Putin who launched a frontal military assault to stop the spread of Western influence and institutions to Ukraine, and the Islamic State that forced President Obama to reverse the U.S. retreat from foreign military commitments. In Asia — to which Obama promised to shift U.S. attention and security resources — tensions are, somewhat surprisingly, inching downward.

Senior Japanese officials here say Chinese naval incursions around the disputed Senkaku islands, the most likely trigger point for a crisis, have dropped in recent months. A Chinese oil rig that had appeared in waters claimed by Vietnam was withdrawn. Nationalist propaganda has paused, envoys are quietly shuttling among capitals, and diplomats are thinking that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may finally meet in November, breaking a long freeze in high-level contacts.

(More here.)

Best state in America: North Dakota, for its smooth elections

By Reid Wilson September 12 WashPost

Reid Wilson is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tipsheet on politics. If you have a candidate for best state, e-mail him at reid.wilson@washpost.com.

On Election Day, just seven weeks away, voters in many states will wait in seemingly endless lines. Others will have problems reaching their polling places or returning their absentee ballots.

But voters in North Dakota are far less likely to find interminable waits and far more likely to have their ballots accepted. In fact, a recent survey found that North Dakota administers its elections better than any other state in the country.

The survey, conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that voters in North Dakota waited an average of 7 1/2 minutes before they were able to cast their ballots in 2012, four minutes less than the national average.

North Dakota’s voter turnout was higher than the nation’s average. Just 0.1 percent of mail ballots issued to North Dakota voters were rejected, while more than 80 percent of military and overseas ballots were returned in time to be counted in 2012. Both of those results were far better than the national average.

(More here.)

Proposed Texas textbooks are inaccurate, biased and politicized, new report finds

Valerie Strauss, WashPost

When it comes to controversies about curriculum, textbook content and academic standards, Texas is the state that keeps on giving.

Back in 2010, we had an uproar over proposed changes to social studies standards by religious conservatives on the State Board of Education, which included a bid to calling the United States’ hideous slave trade history as the “Atlantic triangular trade.” There were other doozies, too, such as one proposal to remove Thomas Jefferson from the Enlightenment curriculum and replace him with John Calvin. Some were changed but the board’s approved standards were roundly criticized as distorted history.

There’s a new fuss about proposed social studies textbooks for Texas public schools that are based on what are called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Scholarly reviews of 43 proposed history, geography and government textbooks for Grades 6-12 — undertaken by the Education Fund of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog and activist group that monitors far-right issues and organizations — found extensive problems in American Government textbooks, U.S. and World History textbooks, Religion in World History textbooks, and Religion in World Geography textbooks. The state board will vote on which books to approve in November.

(More here.)

Ukraine fights off attack on Donetsk airport by pro-Russia forces

Russian rocket launchers seen moving through eastern city as Ukraine's PM says his country is in 'stage of war' with Russia

Martin Williams and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 13 September 2014

Ukraine's military says it has successfully defended the government-held airport in Donetsk from an attack by pro-Russia rebels.

A large plume of black smoke hung over the airport after it came under artillery fire late on Friday, in one of the biggest battles since a fragile ceasefire was declared.

Continuous rocketfire could be heard overnight in the city of Donetsk, controlled by pro-Russia forces. City officials said shells had hit residential buildings near the airport, although no casualties were reported.

A column of three Russian multiple rocket launchers was seen moving freely through Donetsk on Saturday morning.

(More here.)

Obama’s Strategy for Fighting ISIS Isn’t All About Us

What’s Their Plan?

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
SEPT. 13, 2014

THERE are three things in life that you should never do ambivalently: get married, buy a house or go to war. Alas, we’re about to do No. 3. Should we?

President Obama clearly took this decision to lead the coalition to degrade and destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, with deep ambivalence. How could he not? Our staying power is ambiguous, our enemy is barbarous, our regional allies are duplicitous, our European allies are feckless and the Iraqis and Syrians we’re trying to help are fractious. There is not a straight shooter in the bunch.

Other than that, it’s just like D-Day.

Consider Saudi Arabia. It’s going to help train Free Syrian Army soldiers, but, at the same time, is one of the biggest sources of volunteer jihadists in Syria. And, according to a secret 2009 U.S. study signed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and divulged by WikiLeaks, private “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

(More here.)

U.S. intelligence agencies remain uncertain about danger posed by Islamic State

By Greg Miller and Juliet Eilperin September 13 at 9:57 PM WashPost

Hours before President Obama announced a new U.S. military offensive against the Islamic State, one of his top counter­terrorism officials testified to Congress that the al-Qaeda offshoot had an estimated 10,000 fighters.

The next day a new assessment arrived from the CIA: The terrorist organization’s ranks had more than doubled in recent months, surging to somewhere between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters across Iraq and Syria.

The enormous discrepancy reflects, in part, significant uncertainty among U.S. intelligence agencies over the dimensions of and danger posed by America’s latest Islamist adversary.

But the trajectory of those numbers — and the anxiety that they have induced among U.S. counter­terrorism and military officials — also helps to explain Obama’s decision to go to war against an Islamist group that has yet to be linked to any plot against the United States.

(More here.)

Sun and Wind Alter German Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind

SEPT. 13, 2014

HELIGOLAND, Germany — Of all the developed nations, few have pushed harder than Germany to find a solution to global warming. And towering symbols of that drive are appearing in the middle of the North Sea.

They are wind turbines, standing as far as 60 miles from the mainland, stretching as high as 60-story buildings and costing up to $30 million apiece. On some of these giant machines, a single blade roughly equals the wingspan of the largest airliner in the sky, the Airbus A380. By year’s end, scores of new turbines will be sending low-emission electricity to German cities hundreds of miles to the south.

It will be another milestone in Germany’s costly attempt to remake its electricity system, an ambitious project that has already produced striking results: Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. Many smaller countries are beating that, but Germany is by far the largest industrial power to reach that level in the modern era. It is more than twice the percentage in the United States.

(More here.)

In Jordan, Ever Younger Syrian Brides

By RANA F. SWEIS, NYT, SEPT. 13, 2014

MAFRAQ, Jordan — The bride-to-be was so young and shy, she spent her engagement party cloaked in a hooded robe that swallowed her slim figure but could not quite hide the ruffled pink dress her fiancé’s family had rented for her.

As the Syrian women celebrating her coming wedding to an 18-year-old cousin chattered around her in the Zaatari refugee camp, she squirreled herself in a corner, perking up only when a photo or message from a friend popped up on her cellphone. The girl, Rahaf Yousef, is 13.

Speaking wistfully of her days at school, she declared herself throughout the day to be “indifferent” to the marriage she says will keep her from finishing her education. But no one seemed to be listening.

For many Syrians stuck in Jordan’s squalid and sometimes dangerous refugee camps, marrying girls off at younger and younger ages is increasingly being seen as a necessity — a way of easing the financial burden on families with little or no income and allaying fears of rape and sexual harassment in makeshift living spaces where it is harder to enforce the rule of law. As a result, Unicef says, the number of marriages involving girls younger than 18 has ballooned since the war in Syria started.

(More here.)

Paths to War, Then and Now, Haunt Obama

SEPT. 13, 2014

WASHINGTON — Just hours before announcing an escalated campaign against Islamic extremists last week, President Obama privately reflected on another time when a president weighed military action in the Middle East — the frenzied weeks leading up to the American invasion of Iraq a decade ago.

“I was not here in the run-up to Iraq in 2003,” he told a group of visitors who met with him in the White House before his televised speech to the nation, according to several people who were in the meeting. “It would have been fascinating to see the momentum and how it builds.”

In his own way, Mr. Obama said, he had seen something similar, a virtual fever rising in Washington, pressuring him to send the armed forces after the Sunni radicals who had swept through Iraq and beheaded American journalists. He had told his staff, he said, not to evaluate their own policy based on external momentum. He would not rush to war. He would be deliberate.

(More here.)

Building Legacy, Obama Reshapes Appellate Bench

SEPT. 13, 2014

WASHINGTON — Democrats have reversed the partisan imbalance on the federal appeals courts that long favored conservatives, a little-noticed shift with far-reaching consequences for the law and President Obama’s legacy.

For the first time in more than a decade, judges appointed by Democratic presidents considerably outnumber judges appointed by Republican presidents. The Democrats’ advantage has only grown since late last year when they stripped Republicans of their ability to filibuster the president’s nominees.

Democratic appointees who hear cases full time now hold a majority of seats on nine of the 13 United States Courts of Appeals. When Mr. Obama took office, only one of those courts had more full-time judges nominated by a Democrat.

The shift, one of the most significant but unheralded accomplishments of the Obama era, is likely to have ramifications for how the courts decide the legality of some of the president’s most controversial actions on health care, immigration and clean air. Since today’s Congress has been a graveyard for legislative accomplishment, these judicial confirmations are likely to be among its most enduring acts.

(More here.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nations Trying to Stop Their Citizens From Going to Middle East to Fight for ISIS

SEPT. 12, 2014

UNITED NATIONS — France wants more power to block its citizens from leaving the country, while Britain is weighing whether to stop more of its citizens from coming home. Tunisia is debating measures to make it a criminal offense to help jihadist fighters travel to Syria and Iraq, while Russia has outlawed enlisting in armed groups that are “contradictory to Russian policy.”

The rapid surge of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and its ability to draw fighters from across the globe, have set off alarm bells in capitals worldwide. Countries that rarely see eye to eye are now trying to blunt its recruitment drive, passing a raft of new rules that they hope will stop their citizens from joining extremist groups abroad.

The United States has seized on the issue, pushing for a legally binding United Nations Security Council resolution that would compel all countries in the world to take steps to “prevent and suppress” the flow of their citizens into the arms of groups considered to be terrorist organizations.

Recruits from 74 countries are among the estimated 12,000 foreign militants in Syria and Iraq, many of them fighting with ISIS, according to Peter Neumann, a professor at King’s College London, who has culled the figures largely from government sources. The largest blocs of these fighters come from nearby Muslim countries, like Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, but smaller contingents come from countries as far away and disparate as Belgium, China, Russia and the United States.

(More here.)

Detained, Beaten and Tortured by Separatists in Donetsk Ordeal

SEPT. 12, 2014

DONETSK, Ukraine — FOR months as this region slipped deeper into war, with armed gunmen on patrol and artillery shells slamming into the regional capital daily, Aleksandr and his wife, Olga, had learned to take precautions. With people disappearing from the streets every week, they usually went everywhere together, and when apart kept in constant touch by cellphone.

But Aleksandr never thought he would run into trouble. A trained electronic engineer, at 49 he had lived in the Donetsk region for 40 years and had worked for the last 20 as a small-time merchant with his wife at the city’s open-air market. A slight man with a wiry strength, he looks like an ordinary worker in casual clothes. Luckily for him, he was fit.

“He does not drink or smoke,” said Olga, who like her husband would not give her last name out of fear for her safety.

He was on his way home from the market on Aug. 10, and had just changed buses and taken out his cellphone to call Olga so she could meet the bus. The fighting around the city had intensified and there were few people out. It was midafternoon and there was just one other passenger on the bus, a young woman.

(More here.)

Putin wants to destroy Ukraine and restore Soviet Union, says Yatseniuk

Ukranian PM tells a conference of European politicians that his country is in a ‘stage of war’ and Russia is the aggressor

theguardian.com, Saturday 13 September 2014 03.35 EDT

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, wants to destroy Ukraine as an independent country and to restore the Soviet Union, Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk said on Saturday.

Speaking at an conference in Kiev attended by European and Ukrainian politicians and business leaders, Yatseniuk also praised a new wave of economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the United States and said they posed a major threat to the Russian economy.

“We are still in a stage of war and the key aggressor is the Russian Federation ... Putin wants another frozen conflict (in eastern Ukraine),” Yatseniuk said.

“His aim is not just to take Donetsk and Lugansk,” Yatsenyuk said. “His goal is to take the entire Ukraine ... Russia is a threat to the global order and to the security of Europe.”

He described the truce signed on 5 September in Minsk between Kiev, pro-Russian rebels and Moscow and the European security body the OSCE after five months of conflict in eastern Ukraine as just a “first step” to “stop a massacre”.

(More here.)

ISIS Strikes Deal With Moderate Syrian Rebels

Akbar Shahid Ahmed , Ryan Grim
Posted: 09/12/2014 9:49 pm

As the United States begins to deepen ties with moderate Syrian rebels to combat the extremist group ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, a key component of its coalition appears to have struck a non-aggression pact with the group.

According to Agence France-Presse, ISIS and a number of moderate and hard-line rebel groups have agreed not to fight each other so that they can focus on taking down the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Other sources say the signatories include a major U.S. ally linked to the Free Syrian Army.

The deal between ISIS and the moderate Syrian groups casts doubt over President Barack Obama's freshly announced strategy to arm and train the groups against ISIS.

The AFP report cited information from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based group monitoring the Syrian civil war, which said parties to the agreement "promise not to attack each other because they consider the principal enemy to be the Nussayri regime." The term Nussayri refers to the Alawite ethnic group that Assad and many of his supporters belong to. AFP said the agreement was signed in a suburb of the Syrian capital, where ISIS has a strong presence.

(More here.)

Leaders talk peace, some Ukrainians contemplate guerrilla war

Soldiers of Ukrainian self-defence battalion Azov take a break at a check-point on a road in Mariupol, after fighting against pro-Russian separatists near the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupo. Ukraine has said regular Russian troops have joined with separatist forces in the area. (Anatoly Maltsev/EPA)

By Anthony Faiola September 12 at 3:17 PM, WashPost

MARIUPOL, UKRAINE — Their leaders back in Kiev may be offering peace. But here on the front lines, the battle-scarred patriots staring down pro-Russian rebels talk of giving Russian President Vladimir Putin just the opposite — a Ukrainian version of Chechnya’s guerrilla war.

“Every man in this battalion is ready to change tactics to liberate our homes,” said Apis, the nom de guerre of a 40-year-old division commander in Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, one of several paramilitary units fighting the separatists.

Staring out at the no man’s land dividing his ragtag group from the rebels, he added, “This peace will not last. Putin thinks he is a monarch, that we must all kneel before him. We will never kneel, but we can become guerrillas and send him body bags with Russian soldiers.”

Pro-Russian separatists first occupied government buildings, then solidified control of large swaths of territory in the east, sparking a bloody battle with Ukrainian forces that by mid-August had rebels on their back heels. Then, NATO and Kiev say, came an infusion of Russian support that almost immediately reversed the course of battle.

(More here.)

Central, East Europe Brace for Energy Shortages as Russian Gas Flows Fall

Moscow's Dispute With Ukraine Over Gas Payments Threatens Supplies

By Sean Carney WSJ
Updated Sept. 12, 2014

PRAGUE—A fall in natural gas flows from Russia to several Central and Eastern European countries this week has sent a chill through the region as it prepares for possible energy shortages this winter.

Austria's energy regulator E-Control and oil and gas company both said on Friday that gas shipments from Russia were down 15% from previously ordered volumes.

The decline in supplies to Austria began Thursday and was expected to continue through Friday, said Robert Lechner, of OMV's press office.

"Until now we are not aware of the specific reasons for this," Mr. Lechner said.

(More here.)

Russia Denies Ukraine War Role As Soldiers Return In Coffins

By Thomas Grove and Maria Tsvetkova
MOSCOW, Sept 12, 2014

(Reuters) — Late last month Yelena Tumanova was handed the body of her son in a coffin at her home in Russia's Western Volga region. Anton Tumanov was 20 and a soldier serving in the Russian army in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya.

The documents Yelena Tumanova was given with the body raised more questions than they answered — questions about how her son died and about the Russian government's denials that its troops are in Ukraine. The records do not show Anton Tumanov's place of death, said human rights activists who spoke to his mother after she got in touch with them.

"Medical documents said there were shrapnel wounds, that is he died from a loss of blood, but how it happened and where were not indicated," said Sergei Krivenko, who heads a commission on military affairs on Russia's presidential human rights council.

Yelena Tumanova could not be reached for comment and Reuters was unable to review the documents. But more than 10 soldiers in her dead son's unit told Krivenko and Ella Polyakova, another member of the presidential human rights council, that Anton Tumanov died in an Aug. 13 battle near the Ukrainian town of Snizhnye. The battle, the soldiers said, killed more than 100 Russian soldiers serving in the 18th motorized rifle brigade of military unit 27777, which is based outside the Chechen capital of Grozny.

(More here.)

New sparks fly between CIA, Senate Intelligence Committee

By Ali Watkins
McClatchy Washington Bureau, September 12, 2014

WASHINGTON — Tensions between the CIA and its congressional overseers erupted anew this week when CIA Director John Brennan refused to tell lawmakers who authorized intrusions into computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compile a damning report on the spy agency’s interrogation program.

The confrontation, which took place during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, came as the sides continue to spar over the report’s public release, providing further proof of the unprecedented deterioration in relations between the CIA and Capitol Hill.

After the meeting, several senators were so incensed at Brennan that they confirmed the row and all but accused the nation’s top spy of defying Congress.

“I’m concerned there’s disrespect towards the Congress,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who also serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told McClatchy. “I think it’s arrogant, I think it’s unacceptable.”

(More here.)

Brain Trauma to Affect One in Three Players, N.F.L. Agrees

Kevin Turner, a former N.F.L. player who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, has supported a settlement with the league. Credit Josh Ritchie for The New York Times

SEPT. 12, 2014

The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

The findings are a result of data prepared by actuaries hired by the league and provided to the United States District Court judge presiding over the settlement between the N.F.L. and 5,000 former players who sued the league, alleging that it had hidden the dangers of concussions from them.

“Thus, our assumptions result in prevalence rates by age group that are materially higher than those expected in the general population,” said the report, prepared by the Segal Group for the N.F.L. “Furthermore, the model forecasts that players will develop these diagnoses at notably younger ages than the generation population.”

(More here.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Study Highlights 12 State Policies to Advance Clean Energy and Help Meet Pending EPA Rules

New Stanford Report Features U.S. States Pioneering Effective Renewable Energy and Energy-Efficiency Policies

Hoover Institution, Stanford University, September 11, 2014 6:00 AM

With growing gridlock in Washington, states throughout the country – both red and blue – are implementing innovative renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs which could be adopted by their neighbors to improve their economies and reduce emissions cost-effectively, according to a new joint study by Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance and Hoover Institution’s Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy. These policies could be particularly valuable as states develop plans to meet pending U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations to cut power plant carbon emissions.

The new study, The State Clean Energy Cookbook: A Dozen Recipes for State Action on Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, was led by former U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman and former Secretary of State and Treasury George Shultz. The report analyzes and makes specific recommendations regarding 12 policies that states are using today to encourage energy efficiency and renewable energy. It also analyzes the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) State Energy Program, which assists all 50 states.

(Continued here.)