Friday, February 12, 2016

Detainee Interrogation Chief: Waterboarding Doesn't Work

A detainee holds onto a fence as a U.S. military guard walks past. Brennan Linsley / AP.
By Carrie Johnson, NPR
Originally published on February 12, 2016, 8:12 am

The director of the federal government team that interrogates key terrorism suspects has a message for people who want to see a return to waterboarding and other abusive strategies: They don't work.

Frazier Thompson, who leads the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, said research demonstrates that "rapport-based techniques elicit the most credible information."

In an interview at FBI headquarters this week, Thompson added: "I can tell you that everything that we do is humane, lawful and based on the best science available."

Thompson spoke as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is calling for a return to simulated drowning and other interrogation techniques that critics have likened to torture. The FBI said it was taking the unusual step of making the head of the High-Value Interrogation Group available to counteract the idea that it has operated in "clandestine and nefarious" fashion when it questions suspected terrorists.

President Obama created the interrogation group to bring together elite interrogators from the FBI, the Pentagon and other intelligence agencies in 2009. Fewer than 50 people work there permanently, but authorities said they have the ability to bring in part-timers as needed.

(More here.)

The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth

Little Sweden has taken in far more refugees per capita than any country in Europe. But in doing so, it’s tearing itself apart.

By James Traub, Foreign Policy

The Swedish Migration Agency in Malmo, the southern port city on the border with Denmark, occupies a square brick building at the far edge of town. On the day that I was there, Nov. 19, 2015, hundreds of refugees, who had been bused in from the train station, queued up outside in the chill to be registered, or sat inside waiting to be assigned a place for the night. Two rows of white tents had been set up in the parking lot to house those for whom no other shelter could be found. Hundreds of refugees had been put in hotels a short walk down the highway, and still more in an auditorium near the station.

When the refugee crisis began last summer, about 1,500 people were coming to Sweden every week seeking asylum. By August, the number had doubled. In September, it doubled again. In October, it hit 10,000 a week, and stayed there even as the weather grew colder. A nation of 9.5 million, Sweden expected to take as many as 190,000 refugees, or 2 percent of the population — double the per capita figure projected by Germany, which has taken the lead in absorbing the vast tide of people fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

That afternoon, in the cafeteria in the back of the Migration Agency building, I met with Karima Abou-Gabal, an agency official responsible for the orderly flow of people into and out of Malmo. I asked where the new refugees would go. “As of now,” she said wearily, “we have no accommodation. We have nothing.” The private placement agencies with whom the migration agency contracts all over the country could not offer so much as a bed. In Malmo itself, the tents were full. So, too, the auditorium and hotels. Sweden had, at that very moment, reached the limits of its absorptive capacity. That evening, Mikael Ribbenvik, a senior migration official, said to me, “Today we had to regretfully inform 40 people that we could [not] find space for them in Sweden.” They could stay, but only if they found space on their own.

Nothing about this grim denouement was unforeseeable — or, for that matter, unforeseen. Vast numbers of asylum-seekers had been pouring into Sweden both because officials put no obstacles in their way and because the Swedes were far more generous to newcomers than were other European countries. A few weeks earlier, Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, had declared that if the rest of Europe continued to turn its back on the migrants, “in the long run our system will collapse.” The collapse came faster than she had imagined.

(More here.)

My View: Putin deadly, dangerous to the U.S. and West

By Tom Maertens, Mankato Free Press

A British government inquiry recently determined that Russian president Vladimir Putin likely gave the order to assassinate dissident Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Litvinenko had revealed Putin’s long history of corruption and the criminal activities of Russia’s secret police, detailed by Karen Dawisha in Putin’s Kleptocracy. For example, the Spanish government reportedly tracked 37 secret trips Putin made as head of the FSB to visit Russian Mafiosi living in Spain; major media outlets, including the BBC, have labeled Russia “a mafia state.” Estimates of Putin’s personal wealth run from $40 billion to $200 billion.

Many Putin critics have met Litvinenko’s fate, including more than 300 journalists who disappeared or were murdered in Russia, according to the International Federation of Journalists; unsurprisingly, no one was ever successfully prosecuted.

Jerrold Post, professor of psychiatry and CIA psychological profiler, judges that the driving force behind Putin’s actions is extreme narcissism and a strong need for power and control.

Post labelled Putin “A brutally ruthless dictator … obsessed with masculinity, power, size and strength...” (possibly) the result of being bullied as a kid (he’s 5 feet 6 inches). Putin used to express outrage for being reprimanded and continues to react intensely to criticism: “any oligarch or journalist who criticizes or opposes him is likely to find themselves in prison or dead.”

Putin presides over what is historically the greatest imperialist power ever, a constant threat to its neighbors.

According to Henry Kissinger (World Order, p. 53.) from 1552 to 1917, Russia expanded its territory an average of 100,000 square kilometers annually, an area larger than the entire territory of some European states.

Stalin continued Russian acquisitiveness in the 20th century, conducting a joint attack with Hitler that started WWII in Europe: Germany invaded Poland Sept. 1; Russia invaded 16 days later. Stalin then took Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, and, a few months later, he invaded Finland and annexed Karelia — while simultaneously condemning the “imperialist” West.

“Even today,” … historian Max Hastings has written, “Russia clings to … its war booty, embracing eastern Poland, eastern Finland, and parts of East Prussia and Romania, along with Stalin’s Pacific coast conquests.”

Putin has termed the breakup of the Soviet Union the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" and is now trying to turn back the clock: since 2008 Russia has snatched Crimea from Ukraine; supported a military uprising in eastern Ukraine; and sent troops to occupy Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), as well as Transnistria (Moldova).

Putin has said he was prepared to put his nuclear forces on alert prior to annexing Crimea, prompting a top Russian TV anchor to threaten turning the U.S. into “radioactive ash,” and another state television host to call on air for Moscow to nuke Washington.

Russian officials reportedly told a NATO meeting in Germany recently that any attempt to return Crimea to Ukraine would be met “forcefully including through the use of nuclear force.” They added, ominously, that the same conditions that justified Russian intervention in Ukraine applied to three NATO members: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

As Newsweek reported “The Kremlin has made a number of nuclear threats against the Baltic states, Finland, Great Britain, Norway, Poland and Sweden — all while undertaking a long-term massive conventional and nuclear buildup that shows no sign of stopping.”

The U.S. says this buildup involves violating the INF Treaty by testing new long-range cruise missiles and violates a second agreement by constructing new long-range bombers.

Russia also threatened to nuke Danish ships because of Copenhagen’s support of a U.S.-backed missile defense in Europe.

The Wall Street Journal characterized Putin’s “open nuclear threats … with WMD largely unseen even in the days of the Cold War.”

In Putin’s mafia state, his friends get rich and his enemies, like Boris Nemtsov, get killed; he maintains domestic support by stoking up Russian nationalism with his land grabs and war-mongering.

As part of his strategy of sabre rattling and intimidation, Putin openly subsidizes some European political parties, including France’s second largest party, the National Front, which reciprocates by parroting Kremlin propaganda.

Most European countries are heavily dependent on Russian gas. They also have bitter memories of war, and, in the end, they expect the U.S. will defend them – and indeed Obama is asking for billions more to defend NATO.

These factors make many Euros reluctant to confront Russia; some even support a Russian sphere of influence as though Moscow had special rights in Ukraine that limited Ukraine’s independence.

Such craven weakness could lead Putin to make dangerous miscalculations.

Tom Maertens worked on Soviet and then Russian affairs for a dozen years, inside the State Department, at the U.S. Consulate General in Leningrad, and as Minister-Counselor for Science, Environment and Technology at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Alan Grayson’s Double Life: Congressman and Hedge Fund Manager

By ERIC LIPTON, NYT
FEB. 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — The hedge fund manager boasted that he had traveled to “every country” in the world, studying overseas stock markets as he fine-tuned an investment strategy to capitalize on global companies’ suffering because of economic or political turmoil.

But the fund manager had an even more distinctive credential to showcase in his marketing material in June 2013: He was a “U.S. congressman,” Representative Alan Grayson, Democrat of Florida, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Now he is also among the leading Democratic candidates for one of Florida’s United States Senate seats.

This highly unusual dual role — a sitting House lawmaker running a hedge fund, which until recently had operations in the Cayman Islands — has led to an investigation of Mr. Grayson by the House Committee on Ethics.

The inquiry has become public, but emails and marketing documents obtained by The New York Times show the extent to which Mr. Grayson’s roles as a hedge fund manager and a member of Congress were intertwined, and how he promoted his international travels, some with congressional delegations, to solicit business.

(More here.)

Court Gives Deadline to Fix Kansas School Financing

By JULIE BOSMAN, NYT
FEB. 11, 2016

The Kansas Supreme Court on Thursday gave the state until June 30 to fix its system of financing public schools, or face a court-ordered shutdown before the next school year begins.

Rather than improve the way it doled out state money, the court ruled, the Republican-controlled Legislature has failed to cure inequities between rich and poor school districts.

“The legislature’s unsuccessful attempts to equitably, i.e., fairly, allocate resources among the school districts not only creates uncertainty in planning the 2016-2017 school year but also has the potential to interrupt the operation of Kansas’ public schools,” the court said.

The decision is the latest blow to Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and the state Legislature, which will probably have to find tens of millions of dollars in its budget for additional education funding.

Kansas is already facing deep fiscal woes in the wake of Mr. Brownback’s decision to cut taxes, which he predicted would help bolster the state economy. Revenue has fallen short of projections and he and lawmakers are scrambling to fill a roughly $200 million budget gap before the close of the session.

(More here.)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The G.O.P. Created Donald Trump

Nicholas Kristof, NYT, FEB. 11, 2016

The betting markets now say that the most likely Republican nominee for president is a man who mocks women, insults Latinos, endorses war crimes like torture, denounces party icons and favors barring people from the United States based on their religion.

He’s less a true-believer conservative than an opportunist, though, for he has supported single-payer health insurance, abortion rights and tighter gun measures. Lindsey Graham says he’s “crazy,” Jeb Bush says he would be worse than President Obama, and the conservative National Review warned that he is a “menace to American conservatism.”

It’s Donald Trump, of course. He’s smarter than critics believe — he understood the political mood better than we pundits did — but I can’t think of any national politician I’ve met over the decades who was so ill informed on the issues, or so evasive, or who so elegantly and dangerously melded bombast and vapidity.

So how did we get to this stage where the leading Republican candidate is loathed by the Republican establishment?

In part, I think, Republican leaders brought this on themselves. Over the decades they pried open a Pandora’s box, a toxic politics of fear and resentment, sometimes brewed with a tinge of racial animus, and they could never satisfy the unrealistic expectations that they nurtured among supporters.

(More here.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

NATO agrees Russian deterrent but avoids Cold War footing

By Robin Emmott and Phil Stewart, Reuters

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO agreed on Wednesday its boldest steps yet to deter Russia from any attack in the Baltics or eastern Europe, setting out ways to rapidly deploy air, naval and ground forces without resorting to Cold War-era military bases.

In an effort to dissuade Moscow after its 2014 annexation of Crimea, NATO defence ministers will rely on a network of new alliance outposts, forces on rotation, warehoused equipment and regular war games, all backed by a rapid-reaction force.

"Russia is a threat," Lithuanian Defence Minister Juozas Olekas told Reuters at an alliance meeting in Brussels. "It is Moscow's actions in Crimea, their support for separatists in Ukraine and their snap exercises that concern us".

The measures, which British Defence Minister Michael Fallon said proved that "NATO means what it says", showed a unity the West has not been able to muster against Russia in Syria, where the United States faces criticism for not stopping the Russian-backed assaults on rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

(More here.)

Activist Supreme Court Conservatives Block Clean Power Plan

Unusual 5–4 decision halts the federal effort to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants while the court battle continues

Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer for coal-powered utilities that challenged the rule, said the court has never before blocked an EPA rule. "To say it's unusual is a bit of an understatement," Holmstead added.
By Lawrence Hurley and Valerie Volcovici
February 9, 2016

WASHINGTON, Feb 9 - The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday delivered a major blow to President Barack Obama by putting on hold federal regulations to curb carbon dioxide emissions mainly from coal-fired power plants, the centerpiece of his administration's strategy to combat climate change.

The court voted 5-4 along ideological lines to grant a request by 27 states and various companies and business groups to block the administration's Clean Power Plan, which also mandates a shift to renewable energy from coal-fired electricity.

The highly unusual move by the justices means the regulations will not be in effect while a court battle continues over their legality.

The plan was designed to lower carbon emissions from U.S. power plants by 2030 to 32 percent below 2005 levels. It is the main tool for the United States to meet the emissions reduction target it pledged at U.N. climate talks in Paris in December.

(More here.)

Everybody Hates Ted

A lot of people don't like this dude

By Alex Shephard and Clio Chang, TNR
February 04, 2016

Indeed indeed, I cannot tell, / Though I ponder on it well, / Which were easier to state, / All my love or all my hate. — Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau, it seems, never met Ted Cruz, a man so blissfully easy to hate that loathing for him has become a form of political poetry: “wacko-bird,” “abrasive,” “arrogant,” and “creepy” are some of the kindest adjectives that have been thrown his way. Cruz has alienated about everyone he’s ever encountered in life: high school and college classmates, bosses, law professors, Supreme Court clerks, and especially his Republican colleagues in the Senate. Some detest Cruz the politician because of his grandstanding, but most dislike Cruz the person. In that respect, he’s really not your average politician—after all, most people hate politicians. But everyone hates Ted Cruz.

(More here.)

The Many Mideast Solutions

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
FEB. 10, 2016

In December at the Brookings Saban Forum on the Middle East, Atlantic magazine reporter Jeff Goldberg asked the right-wing former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman this provocative question: “Things are shifting radically not only in non-Jewish America but in Jewish America as it concerns Israel and its reputation. My question is: (A) Do you care? (B) What are you going to do about it? And (C) how important is it to you?”

“To speak frankly, I don’t care,” Lieberman responded, adding that Israel lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Give Lieberman credit for honesty: I don’t really care what American Jews or non-Jews think about Israel.

That conversation came back to me as I listened to the Democratic and Republican debates when they briefly veered into foreign policy, with candidates spouting the usual platitudes about standing with our Israeli and Sunni Arab allies. Here’s a news flash: You can retire those platitudes. Whoever becomes the next president will have to deal with a totally different Middle East.

It will be a Middle East shaped by struggle over a one-state solution, a no-state solution, a non-state solution and a rogue-state solution.

(More here.)

Stung by Low Oil Prices, Companies Face a Reckoning on Debts

By CLIFFORD KRAUSS and MICHAEL CORKERY, NYT
FEB. 9, 2016

MIDLAND, Tex. — On the 15th floor of an office tower in Midland looms a five-foot-long trophy black bear, shot by the son of an executive at Caza Oil & Gas.

But it is Caza that has recently fallen prey to a different kind of predator stalking the Texas oil patch: too much debt.

While crude prices have dropped more than 70 percent over the last 20 months, a reckoning in the nation’s vast oil industry has only just begun. Until recently, companies were able to ride out the slump using hedges to sell their oil for higher than the low market prices.

In recent months, however, most of those hedges expired, leaving a number of oil companies low on cash and unable to pay their debt. More broadly, energy executives and their lenders are realizing that a recovery in oil prices is at least a year away, too long for many companies to hold out.

Energy executives and their bankers are bracing for a prolonged downturn that could remake the energy industry in a way not seen since the turmoil of the late 1990s gave rise to mega-mergers like Exxon Mobil.

(More here.)

As Donald Trump Wins, Mainstream G.O.P. Is Left to Muddle On

By ALEXANDER BURNS, NYT, FEB. 9, 2016

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republican leaders had aimed to bring a swift and orderly resolution to the party’s presidential primaries, avoiding a long and costly fight that could stretch well into the spring.

Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary dashed those hopes.

Despite strenuous efforts to overtake Donald J. Trump, none of his mainstream Republican opponents stood out from the pack. Now, they are left to muddle forward with no particular momentum into the next contests, in South Carolina and Nevada.

If any strong alternative to Mr. Trump is to emerge, senior Republicans say, it will most likely come only after a long nomination fight, spanning dozens of states and costing many millions of dollars. At this stage, his most formidable rival appears to be Ted Cruz, the hard-right Texas senator who won last week’s Iowa caucuses, and who is even less acceptable to traditional party leaders than Mr. Trump.

Former Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, who led the Republicans’ campaign committee in the House of Representatives from 2003 to 2006, said there would ultimately be room in the Republican race for just one candidate besides Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz. The New Hampshire outcome, he said, will most likely leave the traditional Republican candidates fighting among themselves. “For the establishment, it’s almost like a hockey fight,” Mr. Reynolds said. “And the gloves are off and the refs can’t get in the middle of it.”

(More here.)

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Identity Thieves Breached IRS Computer Systems, Agency Says

Automated attack last month sought e-file PINs for individual taxpayers

By Laura Saunders and Richard Rubin, WSJ
Updated Feb. 9, 2016 8:33 p.m. ET

The Internal Revenue Service said Tuesday that it identified an automated attack on its computer systems aimed at getting information that could be used to steal tax refunds.

The agency said identity thieves last month used personal data of taxpayers that was stolen elsewhere in an attempt to generate e-file personal identification numbers to file fraudulent returns and claim tax refunds.

E-file PINs are used by some individuals to file their tax returns. The numbers are different from Identity Protection PINs, which the IRS gives victims of tax ID theft to protect them from future issues.

The agency said it identified unauthorized attempts to obtain e-file PINs for 464,000 Social Security numbers, of which 101,000 successfully accessed an e-file PIN.

No personal taxpayer data was disclosed by IRS systems, the agency said. The IRS is notifying affected taxpayers by mail that their personal information was used by criminals. The IRS said it is protecting their accounts against tax ID theft.

(More here.)

Muslims in Russia See Putin’s Antiterrorism Efforts at Home as Backfiring

North Caucasus residents say crackdown often leads to new recruits for Islamic State

By Thomas Grove, WSJ
Feb. 9, 2016 1:04 p.m. ET

MAGAS, Russia—President Vladimir Putin justifies his military action in Syria in part as a way to head off the terrorist threat at home, especially here in the mostly Muslim north Caucasus. But residents say the government’s often heavy-handed measures are instead creating potential recruits for Islamic State.

Roza Bogatyryova, a former police officer in Magas, capital of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, says her husband, Musa Bogatyryov, was one.

After marrying, he adopted the shorter pants and longer beard of those who adhere to the strict Salafi interpretation of Islam. That caught the police’s attention, and Ms. Bogatyryova said her husband was frequently stopped on the street. The police raided their house in early 2014, turning furniture upside down in a hunt for extremist literature; Ms. Bogatyryova said she was eventually forced from her job on the force.

Frustrated by the harassment, Mr. Bogatyryov, who drove for a living, sold his truck to pay for his trip to Syria, attracted by Islamic State’s message of a global caliphate that would deliver justice and punish unbelievers. His journey ended there: He was killed last year in an attack on an airport and his body was buried in Syria.

(More here.)

Italy’s Crackdown on Tax Evasion Deals Another Blow to Swiss Banks

Financial industry in Ticino, an Italian-speaking canton, is particularly hard hit

By Giovanni Legorano and John Letzing, WSJ
Feb. 9, 2016 11:12 a.m. ET

LUGANO, Switzerland—Rome’s latest crackdown on tax evasion is serving up fresh headaches for Swiss banks and dealing a sharp blow to the financial industry in Ticino, an Italian-speaking sliver of Switzerland pinched between the Alps and Italy’s northern border.

Switzerland, the world’s biggest repository for foreign wealth, has bled assets in recent years as tax evaders succumb to pressure from their home countries and come clean. Now Italy, in the thick of an aggressive new tax amnesty program, is squeezing money out of Ticino’s banks, long dependent on Italians who flocked to the Swiss canton, or state, to avoid the taxman at home. That is leaving the canton grasping for a new future.

In December, Rome said its amnesty—which threatened possible criminal penalties for those who didn’t step forward—had unearthed €40 billion ($44.6 billion) in undeclared money belonging to Italians in Swiss banks, about two-thirds of it in Ticino. That follows Italy’s prior recovery of €60 billion from Switzerland during back-to-back amnesties in 2009-2010, mostly from Ticino.

“Italian clients found themselves with basically nowhere to go,” said Paolo Bernasconi, a Swiss tax lawyer and former prosecutor based in Ticino. “Their safest option was to come clean. There are no more countries that offer the level of safety that Switzerland offered.”

(More here.)

Monday, February 08, 2016

Congress Declines to Hear Obama’s Budget Proposal in Person

Carl Hulse, NYT

The president’s budget is traditionally declared dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. This year, President Obama’s final budget proposal is just dead.

In a harsh partisan snub, the Republican chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees — Senator Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Representative Tom Price of Georgia — have chosen not to invite Shaun Donovan, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, to testify about the administration’s plan, set to be released on Tuesday as part of the traditional budget week festivities.

“Rather than spend time on a proposal that, if anything like this administration’s previous budgets, will double down on the same failed policies that have led to the worst economic recovery in modern times, Congress should continue our work on building a budget that balances and that will foster a healthy economy,” Mr. Price said in a statement.

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, called the decision an insult and said it was representative of the “corrosive radicalism that has gripped congressional Republicans.” White House officials said it raised doubts about the frequent Republican leadership claims to restore “regular order” in Congress.

(More here.)

Fact checking the eighth GOP debate

By Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee
February 7, WashPost

Republican presidential candidates argued over lack of experience, waterboarding and even the Super Bowl at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., three days before the New Hampshire primary. Here are the key moments in less than three minutes.

ABC News aired the eighth GOP presidential debate on Feb. 6, a prime-time event starring the seven top-tier candidates, based on an average of recent polls.

Not every candidate uttered statements that are easily fact checked, but the following is a list of 15 suspicious or interesting claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates.
“I’m the only one up here, when the War in Iraq, I was the one who said, don’t go, don’t do it, you’re going to destabilize the Middle East. So I’m not the one with the trigger.” – Donald Trump
Trump continues to say he opposed the Iraq War ahead of the invasion. But the evidence is slim he warned against it prior to the invasion on March 20, 2003.

(More here.)

Drug Industry Launches Ad Campaign Aimed at Lawmakers

Trade group lobbies against efforts to rein in prescription costs

By Joseph Walker, WSJ
Feb. 7, 2016 5:45 p.m. ET

The pharmaceutical industry, under fire this election season for rising drug prices, is ramping up a new advertising campaign designed to improve its reputation with lawmakers as it lobbies against any effort to rein in prescription costs.

The sector’s largest trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, says it intends to spend several million dollars this year, and 10% more than in 2015, on digital, radio and print ads that emphasize the industry’s role in developing new drugs and advancing medical science.

Many of the ads are running on social-media sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, because PhRMA wants to target federal and state lawmakers, policy analysts and other political “influencers,” said Robert Zirkelbach, senior vice president of communications at PhRMA, which represents nearly three dozen of the largest drugmakers, including Pfizer Inc. and Amgen Inc.

Websites like Facebook promise to deliver ads to specific audiences based on characteristics including their location, occupation and keyword search history.

The campaign is primarily directed at policy makers in Washington, but ads will also run in some select states that have yet to be determined, Mr. Zirkelbach said.

(More here.)

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Climate change: We actually broke the record for breaking records

2015 Was the Hottest Year on Record, by a Stunning Margin

Tom Randall
Blacki Migliozzi
Bloomberg, January 20, 2016

To say that 2015 was hot is an understatement. The average recorded temperature across the surface of the planet was so far above normal that it set a record for setting records.

The year was more than a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit warmer than the last global heat record—set all the way back in 2014—according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures released on Wednesday. A quarter of a degree may not sound like much, but on a planetary scale it's a huge leap. Most previous records were measured by hundredths of a degree.

A powerful El Niño is largely responsible for the year’s extremes, but make no mistake: This is what global warming looks like. Temperatures are rising 10 times faster than during the bounce back from the last ice age. Fifteen of the hottest 16 years on record have come in the 21st century. This animation shows earth’s warming climate, recorded in monthly measurements from land and sea dating back to 1880. Temperatures are displayed in degrees above or below the 20th century average.

(Continued here.)

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Islamic State is no longer so formidable on the battlefield

By Hugh Naylor February 6 at 3:24 PM WashPost

BEIRUT — The Islamic State’s recent defeats on the battlefield signal that its once-vaunted militia army has been hobbled by worsening money problems, desertions and a dwindling pool of fighters, analysts and monitoring groups say.

U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces have seized significant amounts of territory from the extremist group in the parts of Iraq and Syria where it declared a caliphate in 2014. Those losses are linked to the group’s struggles to pay fighters and recruit new ones to replace those who have deserted, defected to other militant groups or died on the battlefield, the analysts say.

“These issues suggest that as an entity that is determined to hold onto territory, the Islamic State is not sustainable,” said Jacob Shapiro, an expert on the Islamic State who teaches politics at Princeton University.

Only a year ago, the Islamic State was seen as a juggernaut — rich, organized and fielding thousands of motivated fighters — that overran rival forces in Iraq and Syria with astonishing speed and brutality.

But in recent months, its momentum has been reversed.

(More here.)

Shorts and sandals time in the Arctic

Arctic sea ice sets January record low

Doyle Rice, USA TODAY9:18 a.m. EST February 5, 2016

The amount of Arctic sea ice set a record low for the month of January, the National Snow and Ice Data Center announced Thursday.

January 2016 was a remarkably warm month there, the data center said. Air temperatures were 13 degrees above average across most of the Arctic Ocean.

Just before New Year’s, a slug of mild air pushed temperatures above freezing to within 200 miles of the North Pole, according to Weather Underground meteorologist Bob Henson.

This was due in part to a strong negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation for the first three weeks of the month, according to the data center. (The Arctic Oscillation refers to variations in pressure patterns over the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.)

Sea ice is frozen ocean water that melts each summer and refreezes each winter. It typically reaches its smallest "extent" in September and largest in March of each year, and is tracked by the data center, located in Boulder, Colo.

(More here.)

Jihad Comes to Africa

Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and other ruthless groups threaten to turn the continent into global jihad’s deadliest front

By Yaroslav Trofimov, WSJ
Feb. 5, 2016 12:23 p.m. ET

Africa’s Muslim belt is getting bloodier.

Boko Haram—the regional affiliate of Islamic State and one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups—has accelerated its campaign of almost daily suicide bombings. Just last month, the group massacred 86 people, many of them children, in the Nigerian village of Dalori and 32 others in the Cameroonian village of Bodo.

To the west, al Qaeda’s regional franchise has been waging war on the government of Mali and expanded its reach last month to the previously peaceful country of Burkina Faso, slaying at least 30 people—many of them Westerners—in an assault on a luxury hotel. In the east, another al Qaeda affiliate, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, overran an African Union military base three weeks ago and slaughtered more than 100 Kenyan troops.

Sub-Saharan Africa was long seen as relatively immune to the call of Islamist militancy because of its unorthodox religious practices—rooted in Sufism, a more mystical mode of Islam that focuses on individual spirituality—and its traditional cultures, which are far removed from strict Middle Eastern ways. Today the area has become the fastest-growing front of global jihad—and perhaps its deadliest.

(More here.)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

France Shaken by New Terror Revelation

Woman says leader of Paris attacks told her dozens of Islamic State militants entered Europe with him

By Matthew Dalton and Inti Landauro, WSJ
Feb. 4, 2016 4:45 p.m. ET

PARIS—The presumed leader of the Islamic State operatives who attacked Paris in November boasted that he slipped into Europe among refugees from Syria as part of a team of dozens of militants, according to a key witness.

If true, the testimony adds urgency to a continentwide effort by security services to track down people with links to the extremist group. Authorities fear that Islamic State smuggled many of its fighters into Europe among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Syria and Iraq in recent years, officials say.

The investigation into the Paris attacks has raised questions about Europe’s ability to screen those refugees for potential threats. At least two people involved in the Paris attacks had registered as refugees on a Greek island in the months before they surfaced in Paris.

The latest testimony, which dominated French media Thursday, came from a woman who provided information that led French police to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian who is believed to have orchestrated the Nov. 13 killing spree in Paris that left 130 dead and hundreds injured.

(More here.)

State Dept. Says Classified Data Was Found in Ex-Secretaries’ Personal Email

By STEVEN LEE MYERS and MARK MAZZETTI, NYT
FEB. 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — The State Department has discovered a dozen emails containing classified information that were sent to the personal email accounts of Colin L. Powell and close aides of Condoleezza Rice during their tenures as secretaries of state for President George W. Bush.

Two emails were sent to Mr. Powell’s personal account, and 10 to personal accounts of Ms. Rice’s senior aides. Those emails have now been classified as “confidential” or “secret” as part of a review process that has resulted in similar “upgrades” of information sent through the personal email server that Hillary Clinton used while she was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. The State Department did not say who sent the emails to Mr. Powell or to Ms. Rice’s aides.

It is against the law to have classified information outside a secure government account.

Of the nearly 30,000 emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server that have been released by the State Department under a court order, 18 emails sent to or from her have also been classified as secret, and 1,564 others have been classified at the lower level of “confidential.”

(More here.)

More consequences of man's addiction to fossil fuels

The Atlantic Ocean Is Acidifying at a Rapid Rate

A new study finds the ocean is absorbing 50 percent more carbon than it was a decade ago, and that could have dire consequences for dolphins, whales, and other marine life.

Author Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Over the past 10 years, the Atlantic Ocean has soaked up 50 percent more carbon dioxide than it did the decade before, measurably speeding up the acidification of the ocean, according to a new study.

The paper published Saturday in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, “shows the large impact all of us are having on the environment,” Ryan Woosley, of the University of Miami, said in a statement. “Our use of fossil fuels isn’t only causing the climate to change, but also affects the oceans by decreasing the pH.”

Burning oil, coal, and natural gas for energy and destruction of forests are the leading causes of the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 355 parts per million in 1989 to just over 400 ppm in 2015.

Decreasing pH in seawater can harm the ability of shelled organisms, from microscopic coccolithophores to the oysters and clams that show up on our dinner plates, to build and maintain their bony exteriors.

(Continued here.)

Chris Christie's office 'refusing to release Bridgegate emails'

Attorneys say they have discovered that New Jersey governor’s office withheld ‘critical documents’ related to bridge affair as case returns to court

Jon Swaine, The Guardian, Thursday 4 February 2016 07.15 EST 

Chris Christie’s office is refusing to release emails and documents dating from the week of the “Bridgegate” scandal, it has been alleged, as the case returns to court just days before the New Hampshire primary on which the New Jersey governor has staked his presidential campaign.

Attorneys for a former Christie appointee who is battling criminal charges over the incident said in a court filing on Wednesday that they had “newly discovered” that the governor’s office had withheld “critical documents” originating from the days around the lane closures in September 2013 that gridlocked the town of Fort Lee.

Claims made by Christie’s lawyers for why these documents should be kept secret do not “pass the red face test”, according to the filing. Among the documents are emails between Christie’s press secretary Michael Drewniak and David Wildstein, a state official who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, which were withheld on the basis of attorney-client privilege despite neither man being an attorney.

A spokesman for Christie did not respond to a request for comment.

The new allegations against Christie’s team were filed as a federal judge prepared to consider arguments in court in Newark on Friday including whether the New Jersey governor’s office should be forced to hand over thousands more emails and documents.

Attorneys for allies of the governor facing criminal charges over the Bridgegate saga are asking judge Susan Wigenton to compel prosecutors to obtain and hand over files such as Christie’s text messages, emails from his official account and any testimony he gave to a federal grand jury.

(More here.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

FLASH! The 'free market' is dead!

'Long live the free market!'

In case no one has noticed it, the so-called "free market" has died.

Yes, I know it's a blow to all you Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman fans, but heck, someone's got to tell you the truth.

Go ahead. Give me an example of a free market. I double-dog dare ya. I have one maybe: my local farmer's market. And maybe some swap meets. But other examples in the U.S.? Can't think of any.

Yeah, there are lots of examples in so-called less developed countries, where there are public markets with many sellers and buyers, as opposed to the U.S. where there are fewer sellers and more buyers.

But all large markets in modern, industrialized countries are sanctioned, molded and manipulated by government action, including international trade.

This is the truth, folks: The so-called free market is like the Wizard of Oz. It's just a false image manipulated by a little man behind a curtain.

Yet here is a big difference between Professor Marvel and today's market manipulators. Professor Marvel admits his ruse and apologizes. Many of today's market manipulators actually believe the myth even as they twist it to their needs. Admission of guilt and apology are the last thing on their minds.

So go ahead and believe in the "free market" if you must. I can give you several other things you can believe in: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Loch Ness monster; the moon landing was faked, man-made climate change is not occurring, the earth is 6,000 years old, the moon is made of green cheese; Darwin was wrong, Freud was right, Clapton is God — although the last is probably truer than all the others combined.

The free market is dead. Long live the free market!

— LP

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

U.S. Fortifying Europe’s East to Deter Putin

By MARK LANDLER and HELENE COOPER, NYT
FEB. 1, 2016

WASHINGTON — President Obama plans to substantially increase the deployment of heavy weapons, armored vehicles and other equipment to NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe, a move that administration officials said was aimed at deterring Russia from further aggression in the region.

The White House plans to pay for the additional weapons and equipment with a budget request of more than $3.4 billion for military spending in Europe in 2017, several officials said Monday, more than quadrupling the current budget of $789 million. The weapons and equipment will be used by American and NATO forces, ensuring that the alliance can maintain a full armored combat brigade in the region at all times.

Though Russia’s military activity has quieted in eastern Ukraine in recent months, Moscow continues to maintain a presence there, working with pro-Russian local forces. Administration officials said the additional NATO forces were calculated to send a signal to President Vladimir V. Putin that the West remained deeply suspicious of his motives in the region.

“This is not a response to something that happened last Tuesday,” a senior administration official said. “This is a longer-term response to a changed security environment in Europe. This reflects a new situation, where Russia has become a more difficult actor.”

(More here.)

Monday, February 01, 2016

Even if he loses, Trump will call it a win. It’s what he always does.

Donald Trump’s Art of the Fail

By Michael Kruse
1/31/2016

In a boardroom on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, in a meeting in the late 1980s in the offices of the Trump Organization, one of Donald Trump’s deputies had had it. Blanche Sprague earlier in the day had learned of the death of a friend in a car wreck, and Trump was berating one of the people seated at the conference table, and so Sprague angrily stood up. “It just became too much,” she said the other day on the phone from New York, “and I said, ‘I can’t take it anymore,’ and I just walked out.”

She regretted it immediately, thinking surely Trump would fire her. Then her phone rang. It was him. She told him she wanted to write letters of apology to the 20 or so people at the meeting.

Don’t, Trump said.

“He said, ‘No, that would hurt you, possibly change you—I don’t want you to do it,’” Sprague said. “He didn’t want to put me in a position of having to be weakened by my mistake.”

Over these last 40 lime-lighted years, Trump has won a lot, but he has lost a lot, too—four corporate bankruptcies, two failed marriages and a vast array of money-squandering business ventures. He lost his signature Trump Shuttle airline to his lenders. His self-branded casinos in Atlantic City struggled consistently to turn profits. In each case, though, he has heeded a form of the advice he gave that day to Sprague: Never acknowledge failure. Never admit defeat.

(More here.)

The Nation Obama Built

A POLITICO review of Barack Obama’s domestic policy legacy—and the changes he made while nobody was paying attention.

By Michael Grunwald
Vol. 3, No. 2, 1/06/2016

On March 23, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the 906-page health care reform law known as Obamacare. It was, as a live microphone caught Vice President Joe Biden exclaiming to his boss, a big deal, with Biden memorably inserting an extra word for emphasis—and for history—between “big” and “deal.”

Obamacare would cover millions of the uninsured, a giant step toward the Democratic dream of health care for all. It also included dozens of less prominent provisions to rein in the soaring cost and transform the dysfunctional delivery of American medicine. It was the kind of BFD that the most consequential presidencies are made of, even though it had squeaked through Congress without any Republican votes, and few Americans truly understood what was in it.

Even fewer Americans understood what was in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, the 55-page addendum that officially finalized Obamacare. This was the strange legislative vehicle that Democrats had jerry-rigged to drag reform around a Republican filibuster. Its substance was mostly an afterthought—the New York Times ran a dutiful story on page A16 after it passed—but as Obama noted when he signed it the next week at Northern Virginia Community College, it included another BFD.

“What’s gotten overlooked amid all the hoopla, all the drama of last week, is what’s happened in education,” he said.

Yes, education. Tucked into the parliamentary maneuver that rescued his health care law was a similarly radical reform of the trillion-dollar student loan program. When Biden’s wife, Jill, a professor at Northern Virginia, introduced Obama that day, she called it “another historic piece of legislation.” The House Republican leader, John Boehner of Ohio, complained that “today, the president will sign not one, but two job-killing government takeovers.”

(More here.)

Ethanol Mandate, a Boon to Iowa Alone, Faces Rising Resistance

By CORAL DAVENPORT, NYT, JAN. 31, 2016

AMES, Iowa — Tim Recker has been growing corn in this state his whole life, and using his crops to make ethanol almost as long, at first by the jar for his trucks, now by the barrel for the nation. That is in large part because Congress in 2005 mandated that oil refiners blend ethanol into gasoline.

“When I look out my window and see farms that have built and expanded and improved, it’s because of the ethanol mandate,” Mr. Recker said from his farm in Arlington, Iowa. Mr. Recker, a Republican, said his decision at the presidential caucuses on Monday would be driven by what candidates have said about the 2005 law, which created the Renewable Fuel Standard.

But beyond the borders of a state with outsize importance in the selection of presidents, ethanol may be losing its grip on the body politic. Energy policy experts, advocates in the fight on poverty and even other farmers say a law that has been a boon for Iowa has been a boondoggle to the rest of the country. The ethanol mandate has driven up food costs while failing to deliver its promised environmental benefits. Rising domestic oil production and a global energy glut have all but nullified the pitch that ethanol would help wean the country off foreign oil.

(More here.)

Report Describes Lawyers’ Advice on Moving Suspect Funds Into U.S.

By LOUISE STORY, NYT
JAN. 31, 2016

With attention growing on the use of shell companies in high-end real estate, an activist organization released a report Sunday night that said several New York real estate lawyers had been caught on camera providing advice on how to move suspect money into the United States.

The report is the result of an undercover investigation carried out in 2014 by Global Witness, a nonprofit activist organization that has been pushing for stricter money-laundering rules.

The lawyers featured in the report include a recent president of the American Bar Association.

“It wasn’t hard to find lawyers to suggest ways to move suspect funds into the United States,” said Stefanie Ostfeld, a spokeswoman for Global Witness. “We went undercover because it is the only way we could show what really happens behind closed doors. The findings speak for themselves — something urgently needs to change.”

The real estate industry has been under growing scrutiny as evidence has emerged that suspect money is flowing into luxury real estate. Global Witness cited an investigation last year in The New York Times that documented numerous foreign officials and their family members buying multimillion-dollar properties in Manhattan and quantified the rising use of shell companies in real estate transactions.

(More here.)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

More evidence that climate change is feeding on itself

Cloud blanket warms up melting icecap

By Tim Radford
January 30, 2016

New study shows that up to 30% of the Greenland icecap melting is due to cloud cover that is helping to raise temperatures − and accelerate sea level rise.

LONDON, 30 January, 2016 – Researchers have identified another piece in the climate machinery that is accelerating the melting of the Greenland ice cap. The icy hills are responding to the influence of a higher command system: the clouds.

An international research team led by scientists from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium report in Nature Communications journal that cloud cover above the northern hemisphere’s largest single volume of permanent ice is raising temperatures by between 2° and 3°C and accounting for 20-30% of the melting.

The conclusion, based on imaging from satellites and on computer simulations, is one more part of the global examination of the intricate climate systems on which human harvests, health and happiness ultimately depend.

(More here.)

The G.O.P.’s Holy War

Frank Bruni JAN. 30, 2016, NYT

DES MOINES — IN the final, furious days of campaigning here, it was sometimes hard to tell whether this state’s Republicans were poised to vote for a president or a preacher, a commander or a crusader.

The references to religion were expansive. The talk of it was excessive. A few candidates didn’t just profess the supposed purity of their own faith. They questioned rivals’ piety, with Ted Cruz inevitably leading the way.

A rally of his devolved into an inquisition of Donald Trump. Speakers mocked Trump’s occasional claims of devout Christianity. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, pointedly recalled Trump’s admission last summer that he never really does penance.

Cruz, in contrast, “probably gets up every morning and asks God for forgiveness at least a couple of times, even before breakfast,” Perry told the audience.

The evangelist or the apostate: That’s how the choice was framed. And it underscored the extent to which the Iowa caucuses have turned into an unsettling holy war.

(More here.)

U.S. missile destroyer sailed close to island claimed by China

By Missy Ryan January 30 at 10:11 AM WashPost

A U.S. missile destroyer passed close to a tiny disputed island in the South China Sea late on Friday in the Pentagon’s latest assertion of U.S. naval freedom despite growing territorial feuds there.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the ship, the USS Curtis Wilbur, passed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, one of a series of coral islands and reefs known as the Paracel Islands, whose ownership is disputed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

“This operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and others, not about territorial claims to land features,” Davis said in a statement early on Saturday.

China’s Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun said in a statement the U.S. action “severely violated the law.”

“It damaged the peaceful, safe and good order in relevant waters and is not beneficial to regional peace and stability,” said Yang.

(More here.)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Elizabeth Warren: Corporate criminals routinely dodge the law

One Way to Rebuild Our Institutions

By ELIZABETH WARREN, JAN. 29, 2016, New York Times

WASHINGTON — WHILE presidential candidates from both parties feverishly pitch their legislative agendas, voters should also consider what presidents can do without Congress. Agency rules, executive actions and decisions about how vigorously to enforce certain laws will have an impact on every American, without a single new bill introduced in Congress.

The Obama administration has a substantial track record on agency rules and executive actions. It has used these tools to protect retirement savings, expand overtime pay, prohibit discrimination against L.G.B.T. employees who work for the government and federal contractors, and rein in carbon pollution. These accomplishments matter.

Whether the next president will build on them, or reverse them, is a central issue in the 2016 election. But the administration’s record on enforcement falls short — and federal enforcement of laws that already exist has received far too little attention on the campaign trail.

I just released a report examining 20 of the worst federal enforcement failures in 2015. Its conclusion: “Corporate criminals routinely escape meaningful prosecution for their misconduct.”

(Continued here.)