Thursday, October 02, 2014

Paying Afghanistan’s Bills


By the end of the year, Congress will have appropriated more money for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, when adjusted for inflation, than the United States spent rebuilding 16 European nations after World War II under the Marshall Plan.
A staggering portion of that money — $104 billion — has been mismanaged and stolen. Much of what was built is crumbling or will be unsustainable. Well-connected Afghans smuggled millions of stolen aid money in suitcases that were checked onto Dubai-bound flights. The Afghan government largely turned a blind eye to widespread malfeasance. Even as revelations of fraud and abuse stacked up, the United States continued shoveling money year after year because cutting off the financial spigot was seen as a sure way to doom the war effort.
As the Pentagon winds down its combat mission there at the end of the year, it’s tempting to think of the Afghan war as a chapter that is coming to an end — at least for American taxpayers. But, as things stand, the United States and its allies will continue paying Afghanistan’s bills for the foreseeable future. That commitment was solidified Tuesday as the American ambassador in Kabul and Afghanistan’s security adviser signed a bilateral security agreement that will keep a small contingent of NATO troops there for at least two years.
The United States and NATO partners recently agreed to spend $5.1 billion a year to pay for the army and police, until at least 2017. Western donors are expected to continue to give billions more for reconstruction and other initiatives, recognizing that Afghanistan won’t be weaned off international aid anytime soon. In fact, the government appears to be broke.

(More here.)

Mobile Malware: Small Numbers, but Growing

Molly Wood, NYT
THE warning was dire: A small security company revealed a flaw in millions of smartphones that could allow dangerous software to masquerade as a legitimate app and seize control of a phone.
The threat was a big conversation topic at this year’s Black Hat security conference. But after that, we didn’t hear much more about it.
Perhaps that should not be surprising. For some time, computer security companies have been on the lookout for apps meant to do harm to smartphones. But for all the concern, so-called mobile malware has not had much of an impact on regular people.
A recent report by the security company McAfee said that there was a 197 percent increase in mobile malware from 2012 to 2013.

(More here.)

Loan Fraud Inquiry Said to Focus on Used-Car Dealers



Lenders in the housing boom created so-called liar loans, which enabled borrowers, even those with no income or assets, to inflate their income. Government authorities are now taking aim at a new generation of liar loans. Only this time it is subprime auto loans.
Federal and state authorities, a group that includes prosecutors in New York, Alabama and Texas, are zeroing in on the most powerful, and arguably the least regulated, rung of the subprime auto loan chain, used-car dealerships, according to people briefed on the investigations. Already, they have found hundreds of fraudulent loans that together total millions of dollars.
At their center, the people said, the investigations are examining whether dealerships are inflating borrowers’ income or falsifying employment information on loan applications to ensure that anyone, no matter what their credit quality, can buy a car.
Some of the same dynamics — the seemingly insatiable demand for loans as the market heats up and the dwindling pool of qualified borrowers — that helped precipitate the 2008 mortgage crisis are now playing out, albeit on a smaller scale, in the auto loan market. Under pressure to generate more and more loans, salesman at some used-car dealers are suspected of getting inventive.

(More here.)

At Berkeley, Free (Though Subdued) Speech, 50 Years Later

Photo
A protest at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement of 1964, which spread to other campuses. Credit Steve Marcus, via The Bancroft Library/University of California, Berkeley
BERKELEY, Calif. — Fifty years ago Wednesday, Jack Weinberg sat in the back of a police car on the University of California campus here for 32 hours while thousands of students blocked the vehicle’s exit, protesting Mr. Weinberg’s arrest on charges of manning an information table about the civil rights movement. The demonstrators politely removed their shoes — to avoid scratching the vehicle — before climbing to the roof of the patrol car, which became a pulpit for grievances.
“It was an open mike,” Mr. Weinberg recalled, returning to campus this week to commemorate the birth of what became known as the Free Speech Movement, of which he was a chief tactician.
His arrest on Oct. 1, 1964, and confinement in the police car marked the beginning of widespread student activism at Berkeley, which would spread to other campuses, fueling the antiwar movement and other political causes while empowering their conservative critics. At Berkeley, where tables with political literature were not allowed, Mr. Weinberg and others argued that the right to free speech — to mobilize on civil rights and other issues — should not be denied them because they were at the university.

(More here.)

Netanyahu Sees Arab Alliance Aiding Mideast Peace


WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday raised the tantalizing prospect that a new Arab alliance could resuscitate Israel’s moribund peace talks with the Palestinians, but President Obama responded with a familiar complaint — that Jewish settlements are the real problem.
In an Oval Office meeting that spoke to both the rapidly shifting landscape in the Middle East and the enduring realities of the peace process, Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu discussed how the militant group, Islamic State, was reshaping the region, with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states lining up with Israel against a common foe.
That new alignment, Mr. Netanyahu declared in a speech on Monday at the United Nations, could be the foundation for the renewal of the Palestinian peace negotiations, which fell apart in April over Jewish settlements and other disputes. It has also left the Israeli leader in an arguably stronger position in the region, if not internationally.

(More here.)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Dying Without Morphine

By RONALD PIANA, NYT, SEPT. 30, 2014

HUNTINGTON, N.Y. — IMAGINE watching a loved one moaning in pain, curled into a fetal ball, pleading for relief. Then imagine that his or her pain could be relieved by an inexpensive drug, but the drug was unavailable.

Each day, about six million terminal cancer patients around the world suffer that fate because they do not have access to morphine, the gold standard of cancer pain control. The World Health Organization has stated that access to pain treatment, including morphine, is an essential human right.

Most suffering because of a lack of morphine is felt in the poorer regions of the globe. About 90 percent of the world’s morphine consumption is in countries in North America and Europe, whereas all the globe’s low- and middle-income countries combined use a mere 6 percent. In sub-Saharan Africa, which has the world’s lowest consumption of morphine and other opioids, 32 of 53 countries have little, if any, access to morphine.

However, this grossly lopsided use of morphine is not about the unequal distribution of wealth. Morphine is easy to produce and costs pennies per dose. But its per-dose profits are also low, which decreases a drug company’s incentive to enter low-income markets in the developing world.

(More here.)

This Is What's the Matter With Kansas

Sam Brownback tried to create a conservative utopia. He created a conservative hell instead.

By John B. Judis, TNR

The midterm elections of 2010 were good for Republicans nearly everywhere, but amid the national Tea Party insurgency, it was easy to overlook the revolution that was brewing in Kansas. That year, the GOP won every federal and statewide office. Sam Brownback, a genial U.S. senator best known for his ardent social conservatism, captured the governor’s mansion with nearly double the votes of his Democratic opponent. And having conquered Kansas so convincingly, he was determined not to squander the opportunity. His administration, he declared, would be a “real live experiment” that would prove, once and for all, that the way to achieve prosperity was by eliminating government from economic life.

Brownback’s agenda bore the imprint of three decades of right-wing agitation, particularly that of the anti-government radicals Charles and David Koch and their Wichita-based Koch Industries, the single largest contributors to Brownback’s campaigns. Brownback appointed accountant Steve Anderson, who had developed a model budget for the Kochs’ advocacy arm, Americans for Prosperity, as his budget director. Another Koch-linked group, the Kansas Policy Institute, supported his controversial tax proposals. As Brownback later explained to The Wall Street Journal, “My focus is to create a red-state model that allows the Republican ticket to say, ‘See, we’ve got a different way, and it works.’”

Brownback established an Office of the Repealer to take a scythe to regulations on business, he slashed spending on the poor by tightening welfare requirements, he rejected federal Medicaid subsidies and privatized the delivery of Medicaid, and he dissolved four state agencies and eliminated 2,000 state jobs. The heart of his program consisted of drastic tax cuts for the wealthy and eliminating taxes on income from profits for more than 100,000 Kansas businesses. No other state had gone this far. He was advised by the godfather of supply-side economics himself, the Reagan-era economist Arthur Laffer, who described the reforms as “a revolution in a cornfield.”

(More here.)

France’s premier steers a vigilant course on Islamist extremism

By Jim Hoagland September 29, WashPost

Jim Hoagland is a Post contributing editor and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

PARIS — The European countries that have joined the U.S. air war on Islamic terrorists fight in a spirit of allied unity. But they are also driven by a mounting fear that their citizens who have fought for the jihadists in Syria and Iraq may soon return home to form an “enemy within” and mount a European 9/11.

Manuel Valls, the tough-minded French prime minister, sums up his nation’s existing security concerns this way: “We have no indication of a planned attack on French soil. But we have to be vigilant every day against the development of an enemy within.”

My conversation with the prime minister came a few days before terrorists in Algeria beheaded French tourist Herve Gourdel in a self-proclaimed act of solidarity with the Islamic State. Valls has long watched with mounting concern the growth of European involvement in what President Obama last week labeled a “network of death.”

(More here.)

Europeans Accuse Ireland of Giving Apple Illegal Tax Break

By PATRICIA COHEN and JAMES KANTER, NYT
SEPT. 30, 2014

In a warning shot to companies shopping for tax deals around the globe, the European Commission publicly accused Ireland on Tuesday of giving illegal subsidies to Apple and cautioned that the country might need to collect back taxes from the company, which outside analysts said could reach into the billions of dollars.

These findings, which constitute a preliminary indictment of Apple’s past arrangements with Ireland, come as policy makers in the United States and Europe try to block some of the inventive maneuvers multinationals use to limit taxes in their home countries and reduce their worldwide payments as much as possible.

“The light bulb has gone off that trade wars by another name and conducted through the tax system are just as ruinous,” said Edward D. Kleinbard, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law and a former chief of staff to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

The commission’s 21-page report, which was sent to Ireland in mid-June but released with redactions only on Tuesday, chastises Irish officials for giving Apple unlawful “state aid” that masqueraded as tax breaks. These special deals, it said, created unfair advantages for Ireland over other European Union member countries.

(More here.)

An Ever-Expanding List of Unwelcome Visitors to the White House

By PETER BAKER, NYT
SEPT. 30, 2014

WASHINGTON — American presidents like to refer to the White House as “the people’s house,” and over the past two centuries, a surprising number of uninvited people have made their way in.

Long before the latest fence jumper captured international attention by getting as far as the East Room, the history of White House security breaches was vast and varied. One intruder in a white karate outfit carried in a knife hidden in a Bible. A stranger slipped in to watch a movie with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And a pilot crashed his Cessna into the mansion.

Theodore Roosevelt once agreed to see a man who identified himself as “Mr. John Smith” and insisted he had an appointment, even though the president did not recognize him. But after talking with him for a bit, Mr. Roosevelt quickly changed his mind. “Take this crank out of here,” he ordered an usher. In the man’s back pocket, it turned out, was a large-caliber pistol.

Over the decades, the Secret Service has installed more and more barriers to keep out the unwanted, even as presidents struggled to preserve their home as welcoming to visitors. Roads have been closed to traffic, gates fortified, ballistic windows installed and sharpshooters deployed on the roof. Yet that has not always stopped the determined, the curious and the mentally unstable from trying to force their way in.

(More here.)

U.S. Takes Asteroid Threat Seriously


Some Nuclear Warheads, Once Set for Disassembly, Are Kept in Reserve

By John R. Emshwiller, WSJ
Sept. 30, 2014

Some U.S. nuclear-warhead components, scheduled for disassembly in the next year, have gotten at least a temporary new lease on life. The reason: possible use in defending the Earth against killer asteroids.

That bit of information was tucked deep inside a 67-page Government Accountability Office report on the National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the U.S. atomic-weapons arsenal. The warhead components, containing highly enriched uranium, are being retained "pending a senior-level government evaluation of their use in planetary defense against earthbound asteroids," the April report said.

An NNSA spokesman declined to comment.

Government officials and space scientists say we aren't anywhere near a real-life replay of "Armageddon," the 1998 science-fiction extravaganza in which actor Bruce Willis and friends used a nuclear weapon to smash apart a giant asteroid hurtling toward Earth. While hundreds of asteroids with a diameter of about a kilometer or bigger—the size that could "produce global devastation," according to a 2010 National Research Council report—pass relatively near the Earth's orbit, none are expected to be a worry for at least 100 years and probably much longer, they say.

(More here.)

As Wild Horses Overrun the West, Ranchers Fear Land Will Be Gobbled Up

By DAVE PHILIPPS, NYT, SEPT. 30, 2014

BEAVER COUNTY, Utah — When he was a boy on a 150,000-acre ranch here in the desert mountains, which are so remote that there is no power line and electricity comes from a turbine in a mountain spring, Mark Wintch would thrill at the sight of a rare band of wild horses kicking up dust as they disappeared over a rise.

“Now there’re so darned many,” Mr. Wintch, 38, said, shaking his head as he bounced his red pickup through sage-dotted public land that his family has ranched since 1935. “Look out there. You barely see a blade of grass.”

Management plans by the federal government call for no horses in this area. But five horses looked up in alarm at his truck, then wheeled off through the brush. “I counted 60 last night,” Mr. Wintch said. “If I put my cows out here, they’d starve.”

Wild horses may be a symbol of America’s unbound freedom in the Old West. But in the new West, they are a tightly controlled legal entity, protected by federal law and managed by a perplexing system on the brink of a crisis.

(More here.)

Showing Concern for the President, Even While Criticizing Him

By PETER BAKER, NYT
SEPT. 30, 2014

WASHINGTON — President Obama must be touched by all the concern Republicans are showing him these days. As Congress examines security breaches at the White House, even opposition lawmakers who have spent the last six years fighting his every initiative have expressed deep worry for his security.

“The American people want to know: Is the president safe?” Representative Darrell Issa of California, the Republican committee chairman who has made it his mission to investigate all sorts of Obama administration missteps, solemnly intoned as he opened a hearing into the lapses on Tuesday.

Yet it would not be all that surprising if Mr. Obama were a little wary of all the professed sympathy. Although the target of the legislative scrutiny is the Secret Service, not the president, the furor over security has left the White House on the defensive. At Tuesday’s Capitol Hill hearing and at the daily White House news briefing, the questions fueled an air of scandal: Who knew what when, and was there a cover-up?

(More here.)

The Destruction of Mecca

By ZIAUDDIN SARDAR, NYT, SEPT. 30, 2014

WHEN Malcolm X visited Mecca in 1964, he was enchanted. He found the city “as ancient as time itself,” and wrote that the partly constructed extension to the Sacred Mosque “will surpass the architectural beauty of India’s Taj Mahal.”

Fifty years on, no one could possibly describe Mecca as ancient, or associate beauty with Islam’s holiest city. Pilgrims performing the hajj this week will search in vain for Mecca’s history.

The dominant architectural site in the city is not the Sacred Mosque, where the Kaaba, the symbolic focus of Muslims everywhere, is. It is the obnoxious Makkah Royal Clock Tower hotel, which, at 1,972 feet, is among the world’s tallest buildings. It is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers that includes luxury shopping malls and hotels catering to the superrich. The skyline is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling peaks. Ancient mountains have been flattened. The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures — an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.

The “guardians” of the Holy City, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the clerics, have a deep hatred of history. They want everything to look brand-new. Meanwhile, the sites are expanding to accommodate the rising number of pilgrims, up to almost three million today from 200,000 in the 1960s.

(More here.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ukraine Forces Repel Two Fresh Assaults on Donetsk's Airport

Airport Has Become Center of Battles in Recent Days Despite Sept. 5 Truce

By Nick Shchetko, WSJ
Updated Sept. 30, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine—Ukrainian forces repelled two fresh assaults by pro-Russia rebels on the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk on Tuesday, a military spokesman said, as fighting for the strategic site showed no sign of ending despite a cease-fire signed nearly a month ago.

European Union diplomats, meanwhile, decided to keep sanctions on Russia in place while the truce deal is still being implemented.

The spokesman, Col. Andriy Lysenko, said the army had fought off the attacks with no casualties. A rebel representative told Interfax news agency that they had managed to take some of the airport's territory.

The airport—the last part of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk held by government forces—has become the center of battles in recent days. Despite the violence there and elsewhere, officials in Kiev and Moscow have said the cease-fire signed Sept. 5 is mostly holding.

(More here.)

Kochs sent hundreds of thousands of fake voter registration mailings in North Carolina

by Joan McCarter, DailyKos

When the North Carolina arm of the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity group tried to register a cat to vote it was amusing. But with more of the story unfolding now, it's downright infuriating.

It didn't make any sense. Jennifer Odom's daughter shouldn't have gotten anything in the mail, let alone a voter registration form. "It was disturbing for a couple of reasons," said Odom. "First, Samantha would only be four-and-a-half years old. So it's a far cry from the age of voting. Secondly, she passed away two years ago."

Odom says her daughter died on Sept. 11, 2012.

"That's right about the time we started getting these notices," said Odom.

It turns out that AFP has sent hundreds of thousands of these error-ridden, confusing voter registration forms in North Carolina, and both local elections offices and the state board of elections have been swamped with phone calls from confused voters. The forms had numerous bits of misinformation, from filing deadlines to where to send the completed forms to who to contact for more information. The scope of this misinformation is massive, considering it's gone to hundreds of thousands of voters, and has resulted in an investigation by the state, after the state Democratic Party filed an official complaint. Deliberately misinforming voters is a felony.

But here's an interesting part to the story. Remember all the pooh-poohing about the Democrats' strategy of hitting the Kochs? When Republicans and pundits alike were saying that the Koch brothers had no name recognition and it would all backfire? Look at how the local news framed this story: "The group behind the mailing is the sharply conservative, Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity Foundation." No, nobody ever heard of the Kochs and their anti-democratic activities.

So far, there's no word whether AFP is trying this in other states with tightly contested Senate races, but as David Ramsey points out in the Arkansas Blog, they've got affiliates in a lot of states, and they're on a mission to misinform "educate" voters and "keep get out the vote" this cycle. So this probably won't be the last we hear of their phony voter registration drives.

(More here.)

Hirohito: String Puller, Not Puppet

By HERBERT P. BIX, NYT, SEPT. 29, 2014

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — LAST month, I received a startling email from an employee at one of Japan’s largest newspapers, about a development I’d long awaited. The government was about to unveil a 12,000-page, 61-volume official biography of Emperor Hirohito, which a large team of scholars and civil servants had been preparing since 1990, the year after his death.

I was asked if I would examine an embargoed excerpt from this enormous trove and then comment on the emperor’s perspective on various events, including Japan’s 1937 expansion of its conflict in China and its decision four years later to go to war with the United States and Britain; the trial of war criminals; the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the American military occupation of postwar Japan.

But there was a condition: I could not discuss Hirohito’s “role and responsibility” in World War II, which would be strictly outside the scope of the newspaper’s reporting. Having devoted years of my life to examining precisely this topic, I politely refused.

The release of Hirohito’s official biography should be an occasion for reflection around the world on a war that, in the Pacific theater, took the lives of at least 20 million Asians (including more than three million Japanese) and more than 100,000 citizens of the Western Allied nations, primarily the United States and Britain.

(More here.)

A Rising Tide of Contaminants

Scientists are concerned by the increasing variety of contaminants in the environment. Traces of pesticides and caffeine were found in the Zumbro River, above, in Minnesota. Credit Brent Frazee/Kansas City Star, via MCT, via Getty Images

By Deborah Blum, NYT
September 25, 2014 2:13 pm

Deborah Swackhamer, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota, decided last year to investigate the chemistry of the nearby Zumbro River. She and her colleagues were not surprised to find traces of pesticides in the water.

Neither were they shocked to find prescription drugs ranging from antibiotics to the anti-convulsive carbamazepine. Researchers realized more than 15 years ago that pharmaceuticals – excreted by users, dumped down drains – were slipping through wastewater treatment systems.

But though she is a leading expert in so-called emerging contaminants, Dr. Swackhamer was both surprised and dismayed by the sheer range and variety of what she found. Caffeine drifted through the river water, testament to local consumption of everything from coffee to energy drinks. There were relatively high levels of acetaminophen, the over-the-counter painkiller. Acetaminophen causes liver damage in humans at high doses; no one knows what it does to fish.

“We don’t know what these background levels mean in terms of environmental or public health,” she said. “It’s definitely another thing that we’re going to be looking at.”

(More here.)

Opposition in Syria Is Skeptical of U.S. Airstrikes on ISIS

By ANNE BARNARD, NYT, SEPT. 29, 2014

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Across insurgent-held Syria over the past week, images have proliferated of protesters burning American flags, calling President Obama “the enemy of God,” and declaring that the American-led airstrikes against the Islamic State extremist group are helping the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“America became the arm of Bashar to the terrorist,” read a sign held by a child in Kafr Daryan, in Idlib Province, in one of the dozens of protests that Syrians filmed and uploaded to the Internet.

Some of the protesters are Islamic State supporters carrying its black flag, though in Raqqa, the northeastern city long run by the group, those demonstrations have grown smaller and smaller as the attacks have proceeded, with many residents relieved to see the extremists on the run.

But the execution of the strikes has also been criticized, in interviews as well as online, by numerous Syrians bitterly opposed to the Islamic State. These insurgents and opposition activists have pleaded for years for the United States to strike the Syrian government forces that have been bombarding their towns and villages, and they initially welcomed the strikes on the Islamic State as a helpful second best.

(More here.)

Beware of Joy

By Anna North
September 29, 2014 11:26 am, NYT

If you’re a defensive pessimist (or even just a regular pessimist), you may already be familiar with the phenomenon known as “fear of happiness.”

If you’re not, Bettina Chang of Pacific Standard offers a baseball-related example:

“Give me a game where my team is winning in the final seconds, and I’ll enumerate the ways to lose the lead before it’s over. It’s come to the point where I get more anxious when my team is winning than when it is losing. I would rather root for them to pull off a stunning comeback than deal with the psychological torture of a premature celebration or a last-minute defeat.”

Fear of happiness is that creeping feeling that you shouldn’t get too comfortable, because something bad is bound to happen. Ms. Chang reports that the postdoctoral researcher Mohsen Joshanloo, of Chungbuk National University in South Korea, has studied this feeling across a variety of cultures, asking people how much they agreed with statements like “I prefer not to be too joyful, because usually joy is followed by sadness,” and “Something might happen at any time and we could easily lose our happiness.” He found fear of happiness more common in less-developed countries, where, he told Ms. Chang, “the conditions of life are more uncertain and changing.”

(More here.)

Scientists Trace Extreme Heat in Australia to Climate Change

By JUSTIN GILLIS, NYT, SEPT. 29, 2014

The savage heat waves that struck Australia last year were almost certainly a direct consequence of greenhouse gases released by human activity, researchers said Monday. It is perhaps the most definitive statement climate scientists have made tying a specific weather event to global warming.

Five groups of researchers, using distinct methods, analyzed the heat that baked Australia for much of 2013 and continued into 2014, briefly shutting down the Australian Open tennis tournament in January when the temperature climbed to 111 degrees Fahrenheit.

All five research groups came to the conclusion that last year’s heat waves could not have been as severe without the long-term climatic warming caused by human emissions.

“When we look at the heat across the whole of Australia and the whole 12 months of 2013, we can say that this was virtually impossible without climate change,” said David Karoly, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne who led some of the research.

(More here.)

Many Missteps in Assessment of ISIS Threat

By PETER BAKER and ERIC SCHMITT, NYT
SEPT. 29, 2014

WASHINGTON — By late last year, classified American intelligence reports painted an increasingly ominous picture of a growing threat from Sunni extremists in Syria, according to senior intelligence and military officials. Just as worrisome, they said, were reports of deteriorating readiness and morale among troops next door in Iraq.

But the reports, they said, generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq. “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it,” said a senior American intelligence official. “They were preoccupied with other crises,” the official added. “This just wasn’t a big priority.”

The White House denies that, but the threat certainly has its attention now as American warplanes pound the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State in hopes of reversing its lightning-swift seizing of territory in Iraq and Syria. Still, even as bombs fall from the sky thousands of miles away, the question of how it failed to anticipate the rise of a militant force that in the space of a few months has redrawn the map of the Middle East resonates inside and outside the Obama administration.

(More here.)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Inside the Koch Brothers' Toxic Empire

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

By Tim Dickinson | September 24, 2014 Rollling Stone

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

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

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

(Continued here.)

Life After Putin: Russia Needs to Be Rebuilt From Scratch

The Moscow Times
Sep. 29 2014 21:06

It is strange to recall in 2014 that back at the beginning of his rule, President Vladimir Putin was hailed as a reformer. His main agenda during his first term in the Kremlin in 2000-04 included a cull of the swelling, ineffective bureaucracy and a municipal reform meant to foster grassroots self-governance — a prerequisite for lasting democracy and a tradition historically weak in his highly centralized country.

Putin never finished most of the reforms he started — including the most vital ones, such as regional and municipal self-governance, justice, health, education, law enforcement and democratic political procedures — having become distracted by the construction of the power vertical.

Reformist drive surged again when he installed Dmitry Medvedev as his placeholder in the Kremlin in 2008-12. While Medvedev's role as Putin's proxy is, in retrospect, obvious, his pledges to improve the business climate, build a high-tech economy and reform health care, education and the remaining social services generated a lot of enthusiasm.

Medvedev's promises were never fulfilled either, and the disappointment at his stepping-down in favor of Putin without having seen through any reforms triggered the street protests of 2011-13, the biggest in two decades.

(More here.)

To Russia With Love

Kaufmann, NYT
SEPT. 29, 2014

It’s not only the actor Gérard Depardieu, his new residency in Saransk, Mordovia, where he benefits from a 6 percent income tax rate as a “private entrepreneur” and his antics about how proud he is to have become Russian. Less colorful friends of Russia have been quite vocal in France lately, in a sign of the divisions that the conflict over Ukraine has created among the French elite.

When Sergei Naryshkin, the president of the Duma, the Russian Parliament’s lower house, came to Paris on Sept. 1, he had no problem meeting with French businessmen and legislators, even though he is not supposed to set foot in France: Mr. Naryshkin is one of 119 Russian and Ukrainian individuals targeted by waves of European Union sanctions.

A close ally of President Vladimir Putin, he was in fact the guest of the Council of Europe, an international organization based in Strasbourg. Russia is a member, and the French government had no choice but to let him into the country for two days. He certainly made the most of it: The Council of Europe was pretty low on his agenda. The highlight of his visit was a packed conference hosted by the Russian ambassador in Paris, where C.E.O.s of French companies with big investments in Russia and 10 members of the French National Assembly and senators from various political parties listened to his presentation of the “internal conflict” in Ukraine. Several of them in turn voiced their complaints about the European sanctions.

Ten days later, a group of 14 French legislators was in Moscow, again meeting Mr. Naryshkin and his Duma colleagues. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund who sits on the board of two Russian banks, is another visitor to Moscow and critic of sanctions.

(More here.)

Our Invisible Rich

Paul Krugman, NYT
SEPT. 28, 2014

Half a century ago, a classic essay in The New Yorker titled “Our Invisible Poor” took on the then-prevalent myth that America was an affluent society with only a few “pockets of poverty.” For many, the facts about poverty came as a revelation, and Dwight Macdonald’s article arguably did more than any other piece of advocacy to prepare the ground for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

I don’t think the poor are invisible today, even though you sometimes hear assertions that they aren’t really living in poverty — hey, some of them have Xboxes! Instead, these days it’s the rich who are invisible.

But wait — isn’t half our TV programming devoted to breathless portrayal of the real or imagined lifestyles of the rich and fatuous? Yes, but that’s celebrity culture, and it doesn’t mean that the public has a good sense either of who the rich are or of how much money they make. In fact, most Americans have no idea just how unequal our society has become.

The latest piece of evidence to that effect is a survey asking people in various countries how much they thought top executives of major companies make relative to unskilled workers. In the United States the median respondent believed that chief executives make about 30 times as much as their employees, which was roughly true in the 1960s — but since then the gap has soared, so that today chief executives earn something like 300 times as much as ordinary workers.

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For ISIS, Slaughter Is an End in Itself

Here There Is No Why

Roger Cohen, NYT
SEPT. 29, 2014

LONDON — In a famous passage from “Survival in Auschwitz,” Primo Levi relates an incident upon arrival in the Nazi death camp that captures the intersection of the human with the inhuman. He and other Italian prisoners have been held in a shed as they await their fate. Levi looks around in search of some means to quench his thirst:

“I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.”

Here there is no why. The phrase has been reverberating in me since I watched a henchman of the organization that calls itself Islamic State behead two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a British aid worker, David Haines. The men had been broken by their imprisonment. They had been hollowed out, a terrible thing to behold. How many times they must have asked themselves the why of their captivity, humiliation and torture right up to the moment when a small knife was applied, with a sawing motion, to their throats. Each of the three men died alone, unlike the Yazidis murdered in droves, the Shiite soldiers massacred, the women and children slaughtered during the advance of black-clad ISIS forces across northern Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has created a cult of violence that makes the elimination of all nonbelievers the cornerstone of a movement whose avowed objective is a restored Islamic caliphate but whose raison d’être is the slaughter itself.

(More here.)

How Belgium Became a Jihadist-Recruiting Hub

Sharia4Belgium, Born in Antwerp, Faces Trial of 46 Members Who Allegedly Went to War

By Matthew Dalton and Margaret Coker
Sept. 28, 2014 10:38 p.m. ET

ANTWERP, Belgium—Nabil Kasmi left for Syria's battlefields in May 2012, the first jihadist an extremist Islamic group named Sharia4Belgium dispatched from this city, Belgian authorities allege.

On Monday, the 23-year-old Mr. Kasmi and 45 other Sharia4Belgium members will go on trial, in Europe's most high-profile legal effort yet to address a dangerous new reality of the bloody war in Syria and Iraq: Europe is increasingly becoming a recruiting ground for jihadists heading there to join terrorist groups like Islamic State.

In the months after Mr. Kasmi left, dozens of Sharia4Belgium members allegedly joined him to fight to create a puritanical Islamic nation, Belgian authorities say, helping turn Belgium into a hub for jihadists going to Syria. Prosecutors will try those members, including 38 who are still believed to be in Syria, before Antwerp's criminal court on charges ranging from terrorism to kidnapping and murder.

The trial is part of a get-tough strategy Belgian officials say is stemming the flow of people leaving for groups like Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It is clear that potential jihadists "don't want to go to jail, which helps us a lot," a senior Antwerp police official says.

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Dire Warnings by Big Tobacco on E-Smoking

By MATT RICHTEL, NYT
SEPT. 28, 2014

Tobacco companies, long considered public health enemy No. 1, have suddenly positioned themselves as protectors of consumer well-being in the digital age.

They are putting out among the strongest health warnings in the fledgling e-cigarette industry, going further even than the familiar ones on actual cigarettes, a leading cause of death. It has left the industry’s critics scratching their heads and deeply skeptical.

One warning, from Altria, maker of Marlboros, reads in part: “Nicotine is addictive and habit forming, and is very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed.”

Another, from Reynolds American, maker of Camels, says the product is not intended for persons “who have an unstable heart condition, high blood pressure, or diabetes; or persons who are at risk for heart disease or are taking medicine for depression or asthma.”

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Costs Can Go Up Fast When E.R. Is in Network but the Doctors Are Not

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL, NYT
SEPT. 28, 2014

When Jennifer Hopper raced to the emergency room after her husband, Craig, took a baseball in the face, she made sure they went to a hospital in their insurance network in Texas. So when they got a $937 bill from the emergency room doctor, she called the insurer, assuming it was in error.

But the bill was correct: UnitedHealthcare, the insurance company, had paid its customary fee of $151.02 and expected the Hoppers to pay the remaining $785.98, because the doctor at Seton Northwest Hospital in Austin did not participate in their network.

“It never occurred to me that the first line of defense, the person you have to see in an in-network emergency room, could be out of the network,” said Ms. Hopper, who has spent months fighting the bill. “In-network means we just get the building? I thought the doctor came with the E.R.”

Patients have no choice about which physician they see when they go to an emergency room, even if they have the presence of mind to visit a hospital that is in their insurance network. In the piles of forms that patients sign in those chaotic first moments is often an acknowledgment that they understand some providers may be out of network.

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Spy Agencies Urge Caution on Phone Deal

By ERIC LICHTBLAU, NYT
SEPT. 28, 2014

WASHINGTON — An obscure federal contract for a company charged with routing millions of phone calls and text messages in the United States has prompted an unusual lobbying battle in which intelligence officials are arguing that the nation’s surveillance secrets could be at risk.

The contractor that wins the bid would essentially act as the air traffic controller for the nation’s phone system, which is run by private companies but is essentially overseen by the government.

And with a European-based company now favored for the job, some current and former intelligence officials — who normally stay out of the business of awarding federal contracts — say they are concerned that the government’s ability to trace reams of phone data used in terrorism and law enforcement investigations could be hindered.

A small Virginia company, Neustar, has held the job since the late 1990s, but a private phone-industry panel has recommended to the Federal Communications Commission that an American division of Ericsson, the Swedish-based technology company, get the work instead. No final decision has been made.

In its bid to hold on to the $446 million job, Neustar has hired Michael Chertoff, a well-connected former secretary of homeland security, to examine the implications of the proposed switch.

(More here.)

Iraq Army Woos Deserters Back to War on ISIS

By KIRK SEMPLE, NYT
SEPT. 28, 2014

QUSH TAPA, Iraq — The Iraqi military command has begun a campaign to re-enlist soldiers and officers who abandoned their units, a crucial step in its effort to rebuild an army that has been routed in battle after battle by Islamic State jihadists.

Even as the government has continued to equip volunteers, the de facto amnesty for deserters is an acknowledgment that the army desperately needs experienced soldiers — even ones who ran — for a force that is sustaining heavy losses despite the American-led airstrike campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Army officials at re-enlistment centers in Baghdad and in the northern Kurdistan region say they have seen some success in the effort. More than 6,000 soldiers and officers, including those who were sent home by their commanders as well as those who fled unilaterally, had registered at a military outpost here in Kurdistan, and more than 5,000 had signed up in Baghdad, officials said.

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The GOP's scorched earth politics

By Tom Maertens
Published in the Mankato Free Press, Sept. 28, 2014

An August Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll demonstrates the extent of Americans’ lost optimism.

When asked if “life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us,” 76 percent said no, and only 21 percent agreed. That was the worst the poll ever recorded; in 2001, 49 percent were confident and 43 percent not.

The pessimism extended across the political spectrum, regardless of wealth, gender, race, region, age and ideology.

Some of the pessimism is likely due to the 2008 economic meltdown and slow recovery that followed.

Others attribute it to political obstructionism in Washington, an unwillingness to address even simple problems. Dana Milbank, writing in the Washington Post, attributed the gridlock to two decades of scorched-earth politics.

The trend toward extreme partisanship began under Richard Nixon who presided over a break-in of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate, and a series of other crimes, all in the service of winning reelection in 1972. Among them was the political sabotage of the “plumbers,” which included burglary, distributing forged documents, and bugging, all directed at Democrats. The Nixon administration then attempted to use the FBI, the CIA and the IRS to cover up their crimes, as the Washington Post documented at length.

Wikipedia lists sixty-nine government officials who were charged with crimes and forty-eight who were found guilty, including two attorneys general, Mitchell and Kleindienst, and Nixon was forced to resign.

This was a record of corruption and criminality later exceeded only by the Reagan administration, the most corrupt in US history: Wikipedia lists 138 Reagan administration officials who were indicted for various offenses.

It was also Nixon who empowered the “dirty tricks” of Lee Atwater, who taught a seminar on such tricks to young Republicans, including Karl Rove. It was Atwater, as George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager, who created the infamous, and racist, Willy Horton ad that helped Bush defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988. Although Bush denied it, it was later shown that he had authorized the ad.

And no, both parties do not do it.

While Nixon was associated with the criminal activity collectively known as Watergate, it was Newt Gingrich who instituted many of today’s scorched earth policies.

After taking over as Speaker of the House in 1994, Gingrich took several steps to enforce a highly partisan discipline on Republican House members.

One was for him to appoint all committee chairmen rather than following the previous practice of allowing committees to vote in their chairmen. Not surprisingly, he appointed people who supported his partisan style of governing.

A second was to stop his caucus from fraternizing with “the enemy” at the usual cocktail parties and weekend BBQs with their Democratic colleagues. To break up the collegiality, he directed Republicans to get out of town on weekends, preferably to return to their districts.

A third effort was a coordinated campaign of partisan name-calling, drawing from his suggested list of derogatory terms to be used in referring to Democrats. For example, he urged House Republicans to use words like “sick,” pathetic,” “traitor,” “corrupt,” “illegitimate” or “criminal” when referring to the Clinton administration, according to “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” a memo Gingrich sent to fellow House Republicans in 1994, described in Sidney Blumenthal’s “The Clinton Wars.” He once called Bill Clinton “the enemy of normal Americans.”

Lyons and Conason ("The Hunting of the President") reported on the Gingrich-led series of formal House investigations of Bill Clinton, part of a long-term campaign by the right wing labeled “The Arkansas Project.”

David Brock ("Blinded by the Right") has detailed the 16 House investigations, including allegations that the Clintons “misused” the White House Christmas Card list – for which the House took 130 hours of sworn testimony – and that Clinton illegally fired White House travel office employees. I know from personal experience that the White House professional staff spent countless hours responding to a continuing stream of House subpoenas.

The “corrupt and criminal” charges later boomeranged on Gingrich. He was the first speaker to be brought before the full House of Representatives on ethics charges; he faced 84 ethics violations, according to the Washington Post, including tax cheating and converting campaign funds to personal use. He was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee and fined $300,000. Gingrich acknowledged making “inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements.” His top henchman was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who set a record by being reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee four times. He was later convicted for fund-raising abuses, which was overturned by a stacked Republican appeals court.

Gingrich didn’t quit his hysterical partisanship just because he was thrown out as speaker. In 2011, he wrote in his book “To Save America,” that the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress represent “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.”

Such extreme rhetoric is characteristic of today’s Tea-party led Republican Party, which is not the party of Lincoln, but the scorched earth party of Newt Gingrich.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

For Obama, a swift leap from no strategy to a full battle plan for Islamic State

By Karen DeYoung September 27 at 8:28 PM, WashPost

After keeping his promise to avoid American involvement in extended wars for nearly six years, President Obama on Monday began a military engagement that he acknowledged is likely to far outlive his time in office.

The launch of airstrikes in Syria and expanded U.S. action in Iraq, at the head of a dozens-strong coalition of nations, is by far the biggest commitment of U.S. might Obama has made, far beyond 2011’s limited air action in Libya or the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

Yet his decision seemed all but inevitable as Islamic State militants publicly executed U.S. hostages and it became clear that extremist advances in Iraq — whose survival is key to a host of U.S. objectives in the Middle East — could not be reversed without direct intervention in Syria. Once decided, the plan commenced with head-spinning speed.

(More here.)

Secret Service fumbled response after gunman hit White House residence in 2011

By Carol D. Leonnig September 27 at 11:11 PM, WashPost

The gunman parked his black Honda directly south of the White House, in the dark of a November night, in a closed lane of Constitution Avenue. He pointed his semiautomatic rifle out of the passenger window, aimed directly at the home of the president of the United States, and pulled the trigger.

A bullet smashed a window on the second floor, just steps from the first family’s formal living room. Another lodged in a window frame, and more pinged off the roof, sending bits of wood and concrete to the ground. At least seven bullets struck the upstairs residence of the White House, flying some 700 yards across the South Lawn.

President Obama and his wife were out of town on that evening of Nov. 11, 2011, but their younger daughter, Sasha, and Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, were inside, while older daughter Malia was expected back any moment from an outing with friends.

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It Pays to Be Putin’s Friend

By STEVEN LEE MYERS, JO BECKER and JIM YARDLEY, NYT
SEPT. 27, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Weeks after President Vladimir V. Putin annexed Crimea in March, an obscure regulatory board in Moscow known as the Market Council convened inside an office tower not far from the Kremlin to discuss the country’s wholesale electricity market. It is a colossal business, worth 2 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product, and a rich source of fees for the bank that had long held the exclusive right to service it.

With no advance notice or public debate, though, the board voted that day in April to shift that business to Bank Rossiya, a smaller institution that lacked the ability to immediately absorb the work. For Bank Rossiya, it was a tidy coup set to yield an estimated $100 million or more in annual commissions, yet it was hardly the only new business coming in. State corporations, local governments and even the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea were suddenly shifting their accounts to the bank, too.

In a matter of days, Bank Rossiya had received an enormous windfall, nearly all from different branches of the Russian state, which was delivering a pointed message. In late March, the United States had made Bank Rossiya a primary target of sanctions, effectively ostracizing it from the global financial system. Now the Kremlin was pushing back, steering lucrative accounts its way to reduce the pain.

(More here.)