Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Obama-backed surveillance reform bill introduced in US Senate

Patrick Leahy’s popular bill contains stricter privacy measures than the USA Freedom Act, which the House passed in May

Spencer Ackerman in New York
theguardian.com, Tuesday 29 July 2014 14.52 EDT

A surveillance reform bill backed by the Obama administration was introduced in the Senate on Tuesday, raising the possibility that Congress could this year take the National Security Agency out of the business of collecting and storing all US phone data.

Introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, the bill is a counterpart to the USA Freedom Act, which the House of Representatives passed in May, but contains some stricter privacy measures and broader transparency requirements – the absence of which caused civil libertarians, privacy groups and technology firms to abandon their support for the House version. Many of them are backing Leahy’s bill.

The question underlying the legislation is “whether we are in control of our own government or the other way around,” Leahy, the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, said on the Senate floor.

Warning that the legislative calendar will make passing reform this year difficult, Leahy said he wants to take the bill directly to the Senate floor. His 13 co-sponsors include Republicans Ted Cruz, Dean Heller and Mike Lee, who on the floor said the “broad-based bipartisan” bill “is absolutely necessary.”

(More here.)

McDonald’s Ruling Could Open Door for Unions

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE, NYT
JULY 29, 2014

The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Tuesday that McDonald’s could be held jointly liable for labor and wage violations by its franchise operators — a decision that, if upheld, would disrupt longtime practices in the fast-food industry and ease the way for unionizing nationwide.

Business groups called the decision outrageous. Some legal experts described it as a far-reaching move that could signal the labor board’s willingness to hold many other companies to the same standard of “joint employer,” making businesses that use subcontractors or temp agencies at least partly liable in cases of overtime, wage or union-organizing violations.

The ruling comes after the labor board’s legal team investigated myriad complaints that fast-food workers brought in the last 20 months, accusing McDonald’s and its franchisees of unfair labor practices.

Richard F. Griffin Jr., the labor board’s general counsel, said he found merit in 43 of the 181 claims, accusing McDonald’s restaurants of illegally firing, threatening or otherwise penalizing workers for their pro-labor activities.

(More here.)

Ex-First Couple’s Defense in Virginia: The State of Their Union

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell left the courthouse in Richmond, Va., where he and his wife, Maureen, face corruption charges. Credit Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch, via Associated Press
By TRIP GABRIEL, NYT
JULY 29, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. — Former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and his wife, Maureen, on trial for conspiring to use his office for personal enrichment, outlined an unexpected defense on Tuesday: Their marriage was so broken that they did not communicate enough to conspire about anything.

In opening arguments in the couple’s corruption trial in federal court here, their lawyers made clear that they planned to rely on the sordid details of their unhappy union as the basis of their legal defense. It was the first time the McDonnells’ version of events had been heard in a widely publicized case that for months has been characterized by the lengthy indictment against them, which charges the couple with accepting more than $165,000 in cash and luxury gifts from a Virginia businessman.

Ms. McDonnell, her lawyer said, had a “crush” on the businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the prosecutors’ star witness, who the government said would detail the designer clothing, vacations, golf rounds and cash he provided in exchange for the governor’s help in promoting his company, which made a dietary supplement.

Mr. Williams was a frequent visitor to the Executive Mansion, where he and Ms. McDonnell would meet privately. He was known as “Maureen’s favorite playmate,” the lawyer, William A. Burck, told jurors. “Maureen McDonnell and Jonnie Williams had a relationship some would consider improper for two people not married.”

(More here.)

Coordinated Sanctions Aim at Russia’s Ability to Tap Its Oil Reserves

By PETER BAKER, ALAN COWELL and JAMES KANTER, NYT
JULY 29, 2014

WASHINGTON — The United States and Europe kicked off a joint effort on Tuesday intended to curb Russia’s long-term ability to develop new oil resources, taking aim at the Kremlin’s premier source of wealth and power in retaliation for its intervention in Ukraine.

In announcing coordinated sanctions, American and European leaders went beyond previous moves against banking and defense industries in an effort to curtail Russia’s access to Western technology as it seeks to tap new Arctic, deep sea and shale oil reserves. The goal was not to inhibit current oil production but to cloud Russia’s energy future.

The new strategy took direct aim at the economic foundation of Russia, which holds the largest combined oil and gas reserves in the world.

The growth of the oil industry in the last two decades has powered Russia’s economic and geopolitical resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union and enriched allies of President Vladimir V. Putin. Russia pumps about 10.5 million barrels of oil a day, making it among the largest producers.

(More here.)

Federal Marijuana Ban Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia

By BRENT STAPLES, NYT
JULY 29, 2014

The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria during the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that is it almost impervious to reason.

The cannabis plant, also known as hemp, was widely grown in the United States for use in fabric during the mid-19th century. The practice of smoking it appeared in Texas border towns around 1900, brought by Mexican immigrants who cultivated cannabis as an intoxicant and for medicinal purposes as they had done at home.

Within 15 years or so, it was plentiful along the Texas border and was advertised openly at grocery markets and drugstores, some of which shipped small packets by mail to customers in other states.

The law enforcement view of marijuana was indelibly shaped by the fact that it was initially connected to brown people from Mexico and subsequently with black and poor communities in this country. Police in Texas border towns demonized the plant in racial terms as the drug of “immoral” populations who were promptly labeled “fiends.”

(More here.)

As Sanctions Pile Up, Russians’ Alarm Grows Over Putin's Tactics

By NEIL MacFARQUHAR, NYT
JULY 29, 2014

MOSCOW — Russia, facing the toughest round of Western sanctions imposed since the Ukraine crisis erupted, has adopted a nonchalant public stance, with President Vladimir V. Putin emphasizing the importance of self-reliance and a new poll released Tuesday indicating a “What, me worry?” attitude among the bulk of the population.

But beneath that calm facade, there is growing alarm in Russia that the festering turmoil in Ukraine and the new round of far more punitive sanctions — announced Tuesday by both European nations and the United States — will have an impact on Russia’s relations with the West for years to come and damage the economy to the extent that ordinary Russians feel it.

Until now, Mr. Putin’s tactics seemed to be working. Russia was feeding the separatist insurgency in Ukraine without leaving distinct fingerprints — able to press Kiev to come to terms while avoiding a rupture with Europe that would alienate Russia’s business elite. But that strategy is beginning to crumble, battered under successive shock waves generated by the crisis.

(More here.)

Paying Ransoms, Europe Bankrolls Qaeda Terror

By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, NYT, JULY 29, 2014

BAMAKO, Mali — The cash filled three suitcases: 5 million euros.

The German official charged with delivering this cargo arrived here aboard a nearly empty military plane and was whisked away to a secret meeting with the president of Mali, who had offered Europe a face-saving solution to a vexing problem.

Officially, Germany had budgeted the money as humanitarian aid for the poor, landlocked nation of Mali.

In truth, all sides understood that the cash was bound for an obscure group of Islamic extremists who were holding 32 European hostages, according to six senior diplomats directly involved in the exchange.

The suitcases were loaded onto pickup trucks and driven hundreds of miles north into the Sahara, where the bearded fighters, who would soon become an official arm of Al Qaeda, counted the money on a blanket thrown on the sand. The 2003 episode was a learning experience for both sides. Eleven years later, the handoff in Bamako has become a well-rehearsed ritual, one of dozens of such transactions repeated all over the world.

(More here.)

Federal review stalled after finding forensic errors by FBI lab unit spanned two decades

By Spencer S. Hsu, July 29 at 7:49 PM, WashPost

Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.

The findings troubled the bureau, and it stopped the review of convictions last August. Case reviews resumed this month at the order of the Justice Department, the officials said.

U.S. officials began the inquiry after The Washington Post reported two years ago that flawed forensic evidence involving microscopic hair matches might have led to the convictions of hundreds of potentially innocent people. Most of those defendants never were told of the problems in their cases.

The inquiry includes 2,600 convictions and 45 death-row cases from the 1980s and 1990s in which the FBI’s hair and fiber unit reported a match to a crime-scene sample before DNA testing of hair became common. The FBI had reviewed about 160 cases before it stopped, officials said.

(More here.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Zionism and Israel’s War with Hamas in Gaza

Zionism and Its Discontents

Roger Cohen, NYT
JULY 29, 2014

My great-grandfather’s brother, Michael Adler, was a distinguished rabbi who in 1916 compiled the “Prayer Book for Jewish Sailors and Soldiers” at the front during World War I. As “chaplain,” he toured battlefields administering last rites. At the end of the war he asked if British Jews had done their duty.

“Did those British citizens of the House of Israel to whom equality of rights and equality of opportunity were granted by the State some sixty years ago, did these men and women do their duty in the ordeal of battle?” he wrote. “Our answer is a clear and unmistakable YES! English Jews have every reason to be satisfied with the degree of their participation both at home and on the battlefronts in the struggle for victory. Let the memory of our sacred dead — who number over 2,300 — testify to this.”

The question for European Jewry was always the same: belonging. Be they French or German, they worried, even in their emancipation, that the Christian societies that had half-accepted them would turn on them. Theodor Herzl, witnessing French anti-Semitism during the Dreyfus case, wrote “The Jewish State” in 1896 out of the conviction that full acceptance for the Jews would never come.

Herzl was prescient. Zionism was born of a reluctant conclusion: that Jews needed a homeland because no other place would ever be home. Scrawny scholars would become vigorous tillers of the soil in the Holy Land. Jews would never again go meekly to the slaughter.

(More here.)

Chinese hackers steal Israel’s Iron Dome missile data

Hacking group previously linked to hacks on US defence contractors steals detailed missile schematics

Samuel Gibbs
theguardian.com, Tuesday 29 July 2014 07.05 EDT

A Chinese hacking group has been accused of stealing data from Israel’s billion-dollar Iron Dome missile system.

The state-sponsored Comment Crew hacking group, thought to operate out of China, was responsible for attacks from 2011 onwards on three Israeli defence technology companies Elisra Group, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (Rads) all involved with the Iron Dome project.

The Iron Dome is Israel’s advanced anti-missile defence system – part funded to the tune of $1bn by the US government. It fires missiles to intercept rockets and artillery shells fired from between 2.5 miles and 43 miles away into populated areas, commonly described as a missile shield.

The revelation comes as cyber attacks against Israel have intensified during its current conflict with Palestine, including recent attacks defacing Israel Railways and hospital websites and denial of service attacks which slow Israeli’s internet connections, according to Dina Beer, managing director of the Israeli Internet Association, talking to Bloomberg.

(More here.)

Moscow may walk out of nuclear treaty after US accusations of breach

Russia said to be on point of leaving 1987 treaty, after Obama administration said it violated the accord with tests of R-500

Alec Luhn in Moscow and Julian Borger
theguardian.com, Tuesday 29 July 2014 07.38 EDT

Russia may be on the point of walking out of a major cold war era arms-control treaty, Russian analysts have said, after President Obama accused Moscow of violating the accord by testing a cruise missile.

There has been evidence at least since 2011 of Russian missile tests in violation of the 1987 intermediate range nuclear forces (INF) treaty, which banned US or Russian ground-launched cruise missiles with a 500 to 5,500-mile (805 to 8,851km) range. But the Obama administration has been hesitant until now of accusing Moscow of a violation in the hope that it could persuade Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to stop the tests or at least not deploy the weapon in question, known as the Iskander, or R-500.

Washington has also been reticent because of the technical differences in definition of what constitutes the range of a missile under the INF treaty. That ambiguity now seems to have dropped away. According to Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence analyst and columnist for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Russia has indeed broken the treaty by testing the R-500 which has a range of more than 1,000km.

"Of course, this is in gross violation of the 1987 treaty, but Russian officials including Putin have said this treaty is unfair and not suitable for Russia," Felgenhauer said. "The United States doesn't have [medium-range missiles] but other countries do have them, such as China, Pakistan and Israel, so they say this is unfair and wrong."

(More here.)

When Middle East Conflicts Become One

No War Is an Island

David Brooks, NYT, JULY 28, 2014

It’s amazing how much of the discussion of the Gaza war is based on the supposition that it is still 1979. It’s based on the supposition that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a self-contained struggle being run by the two parties most directly involved. It’s based on the supposition that the horror could be ended if only deft negotiators could achieve a “breakthrough” and a path toward a two-state agreement.

But it is not 1979. People’s mental categories may be stuck in the past, but reality has moved on. The violence between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, may look superficially like past campaigns, but the surrounding context is transformed.

What’s happened, of course, is that the Middle East has begun what Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations has called its 30 Years’ War — an overlapping series of clashes and proxy wars that could go on for decades and transform identities, maps and the political contours of the region.

The Sunni-Shiite rivalry is at full boil. Torn by sectarian violence, the nation of Iraq no longer exists in its old form.

(More here.)

The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests

By JESSE WEGMAN, NYT, JULY 28, 2014

America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.

In October 2010, Bernard Noble, a 45-year-old trucker and father of seven with two previous nonviolent offenses, was stopped on a New Orleans street with a small amount of marijuana in his pocket. His sentence: more than 13 years.

At least he will be released. Jeff Mizanskey, a Missouri man, was arrested in December 1993, for participating (unknowingly, he said) in the purchase of a five-pound brick of marijuana. Because he had two prior nonviolent marijuana convictions, he was sentenced to life without parole.

Outrageously long sentences are only part of the story. The hundreds of thousands of people who are arrested each year but do not go to jail also suffer; their arrests stay on their records for years, crippling their prospects for jobs, loans, housing and benefits. These are disproportionately people of color, with marijuana criminalization hitting black communities the hardest.

(More here.)

Not Meant for Public Eyes

Georgia Democrat’s Senate Campaign Plan Is Published

By ALAN BLINDER, NYT, JULY 28, 2014

ATLANTA — Less than one week after Republicans selected their nominee for a United States Senate race in Georgia, the campaign of the Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn, was jolted on Monday by the publication of an internal document that charted plans for a contest that is expected to be one of the country’s most competitive and one of the few where Democrats have any realistic chance of retaking a Republican-held seat.

The document, labeled “The Campaign Plan” and distributed to Ms. Nunn and key supporters last year, includes standard plans for the campaign to coordinate with other Georgia Democrats, sketches out timetables for contacting voters and sets out a schedule for opposition research. But it also lists potential political liabilities in a way the Nunn campaign surely did not expect to become public, saying that Ms. Nunn might be attacked as a “lightweight,” “too liberal” and “not a ‘real’ Georgian,” and laying out strategies to respond to criticisms of her biography and record.

The presentation, which was published on the website of National Review, is candid in its assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Ms. Nunn, who is seeking public office for the first time, and her campaign.

(More here.)

Putin's Ukraine Unreality Show

The crucifixion of a 3-year old, the U.S. helped Kiev shoot down Flight 17, and other tales the Kremlin media tell

By Arkady Ostrovsky, WSJ
July 28, 2014 7:33 p.m. ET

On July 12 Russia's main state television channel, Channel One, interviewed a Ukrainian woman with a heart-wrenching story. The woman said she had witnessed the public execution of a 3-year-old boy, who was crucified in the crowded main square of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine. The town had been a rebel stronghold but was retaken by the Ukrainian army a week earlier—and that's when the execution took place, the woman said. Viewers of the prime-time news program were told that the Ukrainian "animals"—descendants of the fascist collaborators during World War II—cut the little boy's flesh and made him suffer for an hour before he died. The woman added that the boy's mother was then tied to a tank and dragged until she too was dead.

The Russian correspondent shook her head compassionately. "Are you not afraid to tell us this story?" she asked the woman three times, without trying to verify the facts.

Just as well—there weren't any facts. The story was fake. As fake as the stories reported in Russia about the Ukrainian fascists who staged a coup in Kiev in February and then attacked the Russian-speaking southeastern Ukraine. As fake as some of the supposedly indigenous separatist leaders. The rebels' self-styled defense chief, Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov, or "shooter"), for instance, is a former or maybe even current Russian security-services officer with a passion for theatrical re-enactments of battles in the post-1917 civil war.

The narrative of the civil war in Ukraine was scripted in Moscow and executed by state television channels that have substituted reality with fiction. The consequence of this fiction is the spilling of real blood and death, including the deaths of the 298 people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

(More here.)

Goldie Taylor Reveals The True Danger Of Stephen A. Smith's Comments

The Huffington Post | By Melissa Jeltsen
Updated: 07/28/2014 4:59 pm EDT

ESPN panelist Stephen A. Smith has been roundly panned for his comments on domestic violence, in which he suggested women should do what they can not to "provoke" their partners into abusing them.

On Monday, Smith apologized for his comments, but MSNBC pundit Goldie Taylor wasn't about to let him off the hook.

In a series of tweets, the journalist explained exactly why his comments were so dangerous. She opened up about her own experience being stabbed by an abusive partner, and revealed the victim-blaming she suffered -- even from her own family.

On top of the physical abuse, Taylor was also financially abused by her partner. According to her testimony, he made her turn over her paycheck each week and would not allow her to have a credit card, a common tactic used by abusers to control and isolate their victims.

[Below] are a selection of Taylor's tweets; visit her twitter feed to read the entire conversation.

(More here.)

When Cell Door Opens, Tough Tactics and Risk

By ERICA GOODE, NYT
JULY 28, 2014

NASHVILLE — The August night was hot, but Charles Jason Toll wrapped himself in a coat and covered his mouth to protect against the electrical shocks and gas he thought might come his way.

Outside the door of his solitary confinement cell at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution here, five corrections officers in riot gear lined up, tensely awaiting the order to go in. When it came, they rushed into the small enclosure, pushing Mr. Toll to the floor and pinning him down with an electrified shield while they handcuffed him and shackled his legs.

Mr. Toll, 33, a heavyset man who suffered from diabetes and mental illness, said, “I can’t breathe” — a complaint he would repeat, with increasing urgency, at least 12 times that night.

“You’re not going to be able to breathe,” an officer, Capt. James Horton, can be heard telling him on a prison video. And then, “You wanted this.”

The officers carried him, face down, to a dark outdoor recreation yard to search him. A short while later, Mr. Toll was dead.

(More here.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Setbacks Complicate Putin's Ukraine Strategy

Pro-Russia Rebels Suffer Setbacks as West Readies Tougher Sanctions; Kremlin Prepares for Deeper International Isolation

By Gregory L. White in Moscow, Anton Troianovski in Berlin and Laurence Norman in Brussels, WSJ

Updated July 28, 2014 7:32 p.m. ET

Pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine saw some of their worst battlefield setbacks in weeks Monday as the West agreed on tougher sanctions aimed at forcing Moscow to cut support for the militias—posing fresh challenges on two fronts for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ukrainian forces were advancing from the north and south in an effort to cut off Donetsk, one of two remaining separatist strongholds, from fellow rebels in the other, Luhansk, as well as their supply lines to the Russian border, officials on both sides of the fighting said.

At the same time, the U.S. and Europe said they would adopt the harshest economic sanctions yet on the Kremlin this week. The European Union—Russia's largest trading partner—is expected to move as early as Tuesday to restrict transactions with Russia's state banks, as well as limit technology exports vital for the country's oil and weapons industries. The U.S. has vowed to follow suit.

In the past, every time such sectoral sanctions were threatened, the Kremlin managed to head them off with moves that appeared to signal de-escalation of the conflict. In reality, those moves "were only meant to buy time," a European official said. "Now, they are no longer trying to buy time."

(More here.)

Why Conspiracy Theories Take Hold in Russia

Elliot Borenstein, HuffPost, Posted: 07/28/2014 10:23 am

All it takes is an hour or two of Russian state television to learn that someone is plotting against Russia. Watch for a few more hours, and you'll find that everyone is plotting against Russia. Watch for a few more days, and the truth comes out: Russia is plotting against Russia.

Thanks to the increasingly baroque explanations of "what really happened" to Flight MH17, the Western media have turned their attention to a feature of post-Soviet Russia that is all too familiar to those of us who've been paying attention: Russia has become a world leader in the production of conspiracy theories.

Until now, Russian conspiracy theories have been for domestic consumption (no network of pipelines exports them to Europe and beyond). This is to be expected; while that tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion continues to be a world-wide hit, Russia's more recent forays into paranoid fear-mongering (centered on post-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine) are a tough sell on the global market. Conspiracies, like riddles, depend on the audience's familiarity with the objects in question. People who haven't even heard of alien abductions can't be expected to obsess over anal probes.

But now, Russian conspiracy is ready for prime time, or at least for late night. The New Republic's Julia Ioffe gave a delightful synthesis of Russian MH17 counternarratives when she appeared on The Colbert Report. MH17, it turns out, is actually the original missing Malaysian airliner, which had been captured by the Americans, spirited away to the Netherlands, filled up with corpses, and then flown out over Donetsk, whereupon the pilots parachuted to safety before the on-board explosives brought the plane down. To Colbert's audience, this sounded less like a theory than like a punchline, Ioffe's gracious gift to her famously funny host.

(More here.)

The Republican Move to Sue Obama

The Fight Over ‘Impeachment Lite’

Charles M. Blow, NYT
JULY 27, 2014

Rather than getting on with the country’s business and focusing solely on can’t-wait issues before they jet out of town this weekend — like the unfinished bill to fix veterans’ health care and the stalled bill to deal with the humanitarian crisis of Central American children arriving at the border — House Republicans are gearing up for a grand maneuver: an apparently unprecedented move by the House to sue the president over his use of executive orders.

Talk about misplaced priorities.

But this isn’t about the public’s priorities, not even close. This is about base-voter activation; this is about midterm turnout. The president’s most ardent opposition wants more punishing actions taken. There is an insatiable vengeance-lust for the haughty president who refuses to bend under pressure or fold under duress.

He must be brought to heel. He must be chastened. He must be broken. So, House Republicans are throwing the red meat into the cage.

Even Paul Ryan, fresh off his “Opportunity Grant” move to address poverty in this country — a plan that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said “would likely increase poverty and hardship” rather than decrease it — said Friday that he would vote for the measure to sue the president.

(More here.)

U.S. releases images purporting to show that Russia fired over border

This image purports to show the before and after of an artillery strike. (AP)
By Carol Morello and Karen DeYoung July 27 at 11:54 PM , WashPost

KIEV, Ukraine — Rebels and government troops fired on each other’s positions Sunday in a strategically important city in eastern Ukraine, sending residents into bomb shelters, as Washington released images that it said prove Russia is shooting across the border into Ukraine to support separatists.

At least 13 civilians were reported killed in the fighting around Horlivka, an industrial city of almost 300,000 people about 30 miles from the rebel bastion of Donetsk. According to a resident reached by telephone, parts of the city are without water or electricity, grocery stores are empty, and rebels and residents are fleeing.

The Ukrainian military denied targeting civilians and said the pro-Russian rebels were to blame for the damage and casualties. The military accused the rebels of firing into residential neighborhoods.

The battle in Horlivka is part of a major push by the military to isolate and eventually oust the rebel fighters from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. It would be a huge symbolic and strategic victory.

(More here.)

Still Torn by Factional Fighting, Post-Revolt Libya Is Coming Undone

By KAREEM FAHIM, NYT
JULY 27, 2014

CAIRO — For weeks, rival Libyan militias had been pounding one another’s positions with artillery, mortar rounds and rockets in a desperate fight to control the international airport in the capital, Tripoli. Then suddenly, early Saturday morning, the fighting just stopped.

The pause came as United States military warplanes circled overhead, providing air cover for a predawn evacuation of the American Embassy’s staff. Apparently fearing the planes, the militias held their fire just long enough for the ambassador and her staff to reach the Tunisian border — a reminder to Libyans of how even their most powerful allies were incapable of putting out their incendiary feuds.

American officials said the evacuation was a temporary measure after fighting drew too close to the embassy. But, coming so soon after the withdrawal of other diplomatic missions, including the United Nations, the moment appeared to signal a defeat — for Libyans who had convinced themselves that the country would band together to save the revolution, and for the country’s Western allies, who sometimes acted as if Libya’s stability would take care of itself.

“No one in Libya can win,” said Mahmoud Okok, 33, a civil engineer who lived near the airport and the United States Embassy, and who abandoned his apartment because of the shelling. A cousin who also lived near the airport was killed when a rocket landed on his home. Now Mr. Okok was moving, with his wife and young son, overseas.

(More here.)

Let Sunnis Defeat Iraq’s Militants

By RAFE AL-ESSAWI and ATHEEL al-NUJAIFI, NYT, JULY 27, 2014

ERBIL, Iraq

THE situation in Iraq today is perilous, particularly for Sunni Muslim Arabs. Their prospects for inclusion in Iraq’s government and fair treatment from it have been declining since 2010, when Iraqiyya, the nonsectarian coalition to which we belonged, drew more votes than any other parliamentary bloc but was denied a chance to form a government. We might not have succeeded, but letting us try would have built public trust in democracy.

Instead, Iran and the United States used their influence to insist that Nuri Kamal al-Maliki remain prime minister. A sectarian-minded Shiite Muslim with authoritarian tendencies, he also pressured Iraq’s judiciary to decide in his favor. Since then, Mr. Maliki has detained thousands of Sunnis without trial; pushed leading Sunnis out of the political arena by accusing them of terrorism; stopped paying members of the Sunni Awakening, the movement that fought Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007; and labeled all Sunnis as terrorists.

A request by provincial councils in Salahuddin, Diyala and Nineveh to hold votes on how to reorganize as more autonomous regions — as the Constitution allows — was rejected, and for a year peaceful Sunni protests were met by violence. As Iraqi security forces killed dozens of unarmed protesters, Mr. Maliki again bent the judiciary to his will, leaving Sunnis to feel they could not receive justice.

Now the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has burst onto the stage well organized and funded: In Falluja early this year, then Mosul last month, it seized territory, claiming to defend Sunnis against Mr. Maliki’s Iranian-backed government.

(More here.)

Fear of Ebola Breeds a Terror of Physicians

By ADAM NOSSITER, NYT
JULY 27, 2014

KOLO BENGOU, Guinea — Eight youths, some armed with slingshots and machetes, stood warily alongside a rutted dirt road at an opening in the high reeds, the path to the village of Kolo Bengou. The deadly Ebola virus is believed to have infected several people in the village, and the youths were blocking the path to prevent health workers from entering.

“We don’t want any visitors,” said their leader, Faya Iroundouno, 17, president of Kolo Bengou’s youth league. “We don’t want any contact with anyone.” The others nodded in agreement and fiddled with their slingshots.

Singling out the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, Mr. Iroundouno continued, “Wherever those people have passed, the communities have been hit by illness.”

Health workers here say they are now battling two enemies: the unprecedented Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 660 people in four countries since it was first detected in March, and fear, which has produced growing hostility toward outside help. On Friday alone, health authorities in Guinea confirmed 14 new cases of the disease.

(More here.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Tax Avoidance du Jour: Inversion

Corporate Artful Dodgers

Paul Krugman, NYT
JULY 27, 2014

In recent decisions, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has made clear its view that corporations are people, with all the attendant rights. They are entitled to free speech, which in their case means spending lots of money to bend the political process to their ends. They are entitled to religious beliefs, including those that mean denying benefits to their workers. Up next, the right to bear arms?

There is, however, one big difference between corporate persons and the likes of you and me: On current trends, we’re heading toward a world in which only the human people pay taxes.

We’re not quite there yet: The federal government still gets a tenth of its revenue from corporate profits taxation. But it used to get a lot more — a third of revenue came from profits taxes in the early 1950s, a quarter or more well into the 1960s. Part of the decline since then reflects a fall in the tax rate, but mainly it reflects ever-more-aggressive corporate tax avoidance — avoidance that politicians have done little to prevent.

Which brings us to the tax-avoidance strategy du jour: “inversion.” This refers to a legal maneuver in which a company declares that its U.S. operations are owned by its foreign subsidiary, not the other way around, and uses this role reversal to shift reported profits out of American jurisdiction to someplace with a lower tax rate.

(More here.)

Who Bears More Responsibility for the War in Gaza?

By John B. Judis, TNR

Like almost all conflicts that have occurred in Israel, this latest war in Gaza has provoked a furious debate. Was Israel’s ground and air assault on the Gaza Strip justified by Hamas’s rocket attacks? Or were Hamas’s rocket attacks a justifiable response to Israel’s arrest of hundreds of Hamas supporters and officials? I am not going to defend Hamas’s charter, which describes Israel and the occupied territories as an “Islamic Waqf,” nor its strategy of hurling rockets at Israel, but I am also not going to defend Israel’s response. What matters to me, and what is often ignored, is the overall moral and political context in which this and past conflicts have occurred.

Israel is one of the world’s last colonial powers, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are its unruly subjects. Like many past anti-colonial movements, Hamas and Fatah are deeply flawed and have sometimes poorly represented their peoples, and sometimes unnecessarily provoked the Israelis and used tactics that violate the rules of war. But the Israeli government has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to rule harshly over its subjects, while maintaining a ruinous blockade on Gaza. That’s the historical backdrop to the events now taking place.

The Occupation

Israel’s founding in 1948 began to address the terrible wrongs that Europe’s Jews had suffered. It provided a state and what seemed like a safe haven. But Palestine’s Arabs, who had made up the overwhelming majority of the region, and who believed after the promises of World War I that they would gain their own state, came instead under Jordanian and Egyptian rule after Israel won its independence. And after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel annexed Jerusalem, occupied the West Bank and Gaza, and turned the Palestinians who lived there into colonial subjects. The Israeli government encouraged and subsidized Jewish settlements in the territories in violation of the fourth Geneva Convention that prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population into the territories it has seized.

(More here.)

No Time to Think

By KATE MURPHY, NYT, JULY 25, 2014

ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.

When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.

And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.

“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”

The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.

(More here.)

The boggle threshold

Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins

T.M. Luhrman, NYT
JULY 26, 2014

STANFORD, Calif. — NOT long ago, I was at an event in which many people, most of them professors, were arguing for the existence of things that many of their colleagues did not believe in. Someone gave a talk in which he explained that he knew that U.F.O.s existed even though all the best evidence for them turned out to be false. Others spoke sympathetically about shamanic healing, reincarnation and near-death visions. But then a woman described her research on what it was like to be dead, which she had based on reports from mediums who claimed to have had the dead speak through them. She cited, as evidence of the benevolence in the afterlife, an Anglican priest, Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, who wrote a book attacking spiritualism while alive but who, she said, recanted the book after his death in 1914. The group stared at her in disbelief. This, they felt, was flabby-minded.

In a delightful account of the British Society for Psychical Research (a remarkable group in its turn of-the-last-century heyday, and whose presidents have included William James, Nobel laureates and fellows of the Royal Society), Renée Haynes, a writer and historian who died in 1994, introduced the concept of the “boggle threshold”: “the level above which the mind boggles when faced with some new fact or report or idea.” Haynes herself was fine, she wrote, with telepathy; hesitant about reincarnation; but appalled that a woman had flown across the Atlantic to have her torn “aura” repaired by a guru expert in invisible mending.

We all have these boggle lines. Praying in an ancient language you don’t understand is fine; praying in tongues (not a human language, but thought to be a spiritual one) anathema. A god who has a human son whom he allows to be killed is natural; a god with eight arms and a lusty sexual appetite is weird. You believe in the Holy Spirit, but you draw the line at exorcism. You take for granted that Christ will come again to earth, but riding on a white horse and wearing a robe dipped in blood? That’s obviously a prophet’s besotted fantasy.

(More here.)

In Israel and Gaza, extremism run amok

Aflame

By David Remnick, New Yorker

Because memory, particularly historical memory, fails unfailingly, this summer feels like a uniquely horrific season of dissolution and blood. “You name it, the world is aflame,” Gary Samore, a former national-security aide in the Obama Administration, told Peter Baker, of the Times, the other day. “We always have a mix of complicated interests. That’s not unusual. What’s unusual is there’s this outbreak of violence and instability everywhere.”

The supposed tranquillity of earlier seasons is almost always an artifact of distance. And yet Samore’s “everywhere” is forgivable hyperbole. In eastern Ukraine, where hundreds of corpses, and a dozen or so planes, lay shattered in fields of wheat and sunflowers, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear his intention to base his legitimacy at home on defiance abroad. In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, President Goodluck Jonathan’s government appears powerless to stop Boko Haram, which has kidnapped hundreds of girls to demonstrate its pious opposition to the values of secularism and education. The men of ISIS, a radical Islamic force with origins in Al Qaeda, have planted their black flag over swaths of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Earlier this year, when President Obama was asked how he could claim that Al Qaeda had been “decimated” when jihadi flags were now aloft in Falluja, he resorted to a blithe formulation. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” the President told this magazine. The tone at the White House is no longer quite so unalarmed.

(More here.)

Taliban Making Military Gains in Afghanistan

By AZAM AHMED, NYT
JULY 26, 2014

MAHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters are scoring early gains in several strategic areas near the capital this summer, inflicting heavy casualties and casting new doubt on the ability of Afghan forces to contain the insurgency as the United States moves to complete its withdrawal of combat troops, according to Afghan officials and local elders.

The Taliban have found success beyond their traditional strongholds in the rural south and are now dominating territory near crucial highways and cities that surround Kabul, the capital, in strategic provinces like Kapisa and Nangarhar.

Their advance has gone unreported because most American forces have left the field and officials in Kabul have largely refused to talk about it. The Afghan ministries have not released casualty statistics since an alarming rise in army and police deaths last year.

At a time when an election crisis is threatening the stability of the government, the Taliban’s increasingly aggressive campaign is threatening another crucial facet of the American withdrawal plan, full security by Afghan forces this year.

(More here.)

Pentagon Plan Would Help Ukraine Target Rebel Missiles

By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT, NYT
JULY 26, 2014

The Pentagon and American intelligence agencies are developing plans that would enable the Obama administration to provide specific locations of surface-to-air missiles controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine so the Ukrainian government could target them for destruction, American officials said.

But the proposal has not yet been debated in the White House, a senior administration official said. It is unclear whether President Obama, who has already approved limited intelligence sharing with Ukraine, will agree to give more precise information about potential military targets, a step that would involve the United States more deeply in the conflict.

Already, the question of what kind of intelligence support to give the Ukrainian government has become part of a larger debate within the administration about how directly to confront President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and how big a role Washington should take in trying to stop Russia’s rapid delivery of powerful weapons to eastern Ukraine.

At the core of the debate, said several officials — who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the policy deliberations are still in progress — is whether the American goal should be simply to shore up a Ukrainian government reeling from the separatist attacks, or to send a stern message to Mr. Putin by aggressively helping Ukraine target the missiles Russia has provided. Those missiles have taken down at least five aircraft in the past 10 days, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

(More here.)

The Public Lightens Up About Weed

By JULIET LAPIDOS, NYT, JULY 26, 2014

When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he admitted that he had “experimented with marijuana,” but said he “didn’t like it,” “didn’t inhale it” and “never tried it again.” Whatever the accuracy of that statement, he was accused of pandering to the marijuana-wary voting public.

Flash forward to the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign. At an event in Iowa, then-candidate Barack Obama disclosed that he had not only smoked marijuana as a young man, but inhaled it, too. “That was the point,” he said. The public responded with a shrug.

Between the two campaigns, Americans had loosened up considerably. By the time Mr. Obama was wooing voters in Iowa, Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” slogan was a relic of a fustier era, and “Weeds,” a comedy about a widowed mother who sells marijuana to support her family, was on TV. Few people remembered Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who in 1987 had to withdraw from consideration as a Supreme Court justice after admitting that he had used marijuana while a professor at Harvard Law School.

Seventy-eight percent of Americans thought marijuana should be illegal in 1991. That figure fell to 57 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2013, for the first time in over four decades of polling on the issue, prohibition was a minority position. Fifty-two percent said they favored legalizing marijuana use; 45 percent were opposed.

(More here.)

In Hunt for Red Abalone, Divers Face Risks and Poachers Face the Law

Prized but Perilous Catch

By JOHN BRANCH, NYT
JULY 25, 2014

FORT BRAGG, Calif. — Every year, as steady as the tides, lifeless bodies are pulled from the cold, restless water along the rugged coastline north of San Francisco.

Most of the victims are middle-aged men. They wear black wet suits, usually hooded. They are often found in small coves framed by crescents of jagged rocks. An abandoned float tube sometimes bobs about nearby. Almost without exception, the victims are found wearing weighted belts that help them sink.

Sometimes the bodies are discovered by friends nearby. If the fog is not too thick, the victims might be spotted from the towering bluffs above, where lifeguards patrol dozens of miles of desolate coast and armed game wardens spy for poachers. Many of the bodies are plucked from the swells by a search-and-rescue helicopter crew accustomed to making daring rope rescues and recoveries several times a year.

The bodies are those of abalone divers.

(More here.)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

NYT: The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana

Repeal Prohibition, Again

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, NY

It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol.

The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.

We reached that conclusion after a great deal of discussion among the members of The Times’s Editorial Board, inspired by a rapidly growing movement among the states to reform marijuana laws.

There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use. But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs — at the state level.

(More here.)

The Typical Household, Now Worth a Third Less

By ANNA BERNASEK, NYT, JULY 26, 2014

Economic inequality in the United States has been receiving a lot of attention. But it’s not merely an issue of the rich getting richer. The typical American household has been getting poorer, too.

The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation. Those are the figures for a household at the median point in the wealth distribution — the level at which there are an equal number of households whose worth is higher and lower. But during the same period, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially.

The Russell Sage study also examined net worth at the 95th percentile. (For households at that level, 94 percent of the population had less wealth and 4 percent had more.) It found that for this well-do-do slice of the population, household net worth increased 14 percent over the same 10 years. Other research, by economists like Edward Wolff at New York University, has shown even greater gains in wealth for the richest 1 percent of households.

For households at the median level of net worth, much of the damage has occurred since the start of the last recession in 2007. Until then, net worth had been rising for the typical household, although at a slower pace than for households in higher wealth brackets. But much of the gain for many typical households came from the rising value of their homes. Exclude that housing wealth and the picture is worse: Median net worth began to decline even earlier.

(More here.)

What happens when extremism becomes mainstream?

The Existential Battle for the Soul of the GOP

By Norm Ornstein, National Journal
July 23, 2014

The most interesting, and important, dynamic in American politics today is the existential struggle going on in the Republican Party between the establishment and the insurgents—or to be more accurate, between the hard-line bedrock conservatives (there are only trace elements of the old-line center-right bloc, much less moderates) and the radicals.

Of course, tugs-of-war between establishment forces and ideological wings are nothing new with our political parties. They have been a continuing factor for many decades. The Republican Party had deep-seated struggles between its Progressive wing, led by Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Follette, and its conservative establishment, led by William Howard Taft and House Speaker "Uncle Joe" Cannon, going back to the turn of the 20th century.

The Progressives succeeded in stripping Speaker Cannon of his dictatorial powers in 1910, and TR's willingness to bolt the GOP and run in 1912 as a Progressive on the Bull Moose Party line killed Taft's chances of winning and elected Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The struggles continued with moderates Wendell Wilkie and Tom Dewey battling Taft's progeny Robert through the 1940s. And, of course, the insurgents' struggles continued through Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Reagan first moved into national politics in 1968, with an abortive challenge to centrist Richard Nixon, who won and governed in the middle on domestic policy, promoting liberal social policies on welfare and health reform. Reagan reemerged in 1976, and his foray against centrist President Ford cost Ford the election—but Reagan's own election as president in 1980 led to an era of relatively pragmatic center-right policy-making. At the same time, however, the ongoing regional changes in the country were eliminating the bases of moderate and liberal Republicans and moving the GOP center of gravity to a lily-white and hard-line base in the South and rural West.

Democrats have had their own battles. The radical populist William Jennings Bryan won control (and lost the White House three times) around the turn of the century. But the victory of the establishment with Woodrow Wilson ushered in an era of relative calm. However, a Democratic Party built on two disparate wings—Southern rural conservatives determined to maintain segregation, Northern urban liberals determined to deploy and maintain the New Deal—had an uneasy alliance that enabled the party to keep a hammerlock on Congress for decades but began to unravel in the 1960s with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

(More here.)