TBR News December 20, 2014

Dec 20 2014


The Voice of the White House


        Washington, D.C. December 18, 2014: “There are three major, and very serious, problems facing the United States, none of which are ever reported in the media. The first is the growing unemployment situation. By off shoring most heavy industry, American oligarchs initially saved millions of dollars in wages paid to Americans. This might have been an initial boost to their profits, but in the end, it will destroy them. By removing millions of Americans from the employment market, they have created a situation wherein the unemployed cannot afford to buy, let us say, American cars. Look today at the number of new cars on a busy highway and note that there are very few of them compared with earlier times. That is the first problem. The second is the dependence on oil; a product America does not have and must get from outside sources. The national demand for gasoline is immense so the United States is always looking for new sources. Russia is the world’s largest producer of oil and gas but instead of dealing with Russia, American policy is to attempt to get control of Russia, as she nearly did in the 1990s, and not have to pay for the oil. This has failed and created terrible economic and political problems and now it emerges that Saudi Arabia, America’s primary source for oil, is nearly out of it. And the third problem is the mortgage swindle. Led by Countrywide, millions of faked mortgages were dumped on the American home-buying public and now, it has been conservatively estimated that thanks to a corrupt banking industry and with governmental connivance, seventy million Americans with a home mortgage cannot own their own homes because no one knows who owns their mortgage. The governmental response has been to hide this issue and hope, fingers crossed, that the eventual immense damage will happen after they have retired.”



Cheney: ‘No problem’ with detaining innocents

December 15, 2014

by Anthony Zurcher


Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney made no apologies on Sunday for the US interrogation programme that he helped devise after the 9/11 attacks and expressed no regrets for any innocents who may have been harmed in the process.

Mr Cheney had said in an interview last week on Fox News that he considers the now-released summary of the Senate report on interrogation of suspected al-Qaeda militants to be “full of crap” and that the programme was “fundamentally justified”.

Critics who hoped the former vice-president would receive more pointed questions in a Sunday appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press weren’t disappointed, but Mr Cheney didn’t back down from his defence of his actions. He said Bush administration policies have kept the US safe for 13 years, repeatedly referencing the horrors of the 9/11 attacks to justify his actions.

How does he define torture?

“Torture to me … is an American citizen on his cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York,” he replied.

Did he have a problem with the “involuntary rectal feeding” of some detainees, as detailed in the Senate report?

“What was done here apparently certainly was not one of the techniques that was approved,” he said. “I believe it was done for medical reasons.” (That contention is disputed by the report and medical experts.)

Was he concerned by the report’s findings that up to 25% of detainees were innocents captured as a result of mistaken identity and that one such man, Gul Rahman, froze to death after being doused with water and chained to a wall?

“The problem I have was with all of the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield,” he said. “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that in fact were innocent.”

And in case that wasn’t clear enough, he added:

“I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.”

Mr Cheney’s remarks were greeted with equal parts outrage and bitter resignation on the part of many liberal commentators.

“An innocent man died,” writes MSNBC’s Steven Benen. “For Cheney, there is no remorse, no reflection, no acknowledgement of an obvious tragedy. Rather, there is an immediate shift to others he wishes he could have imprisoned longer.”

Mr Cheney is fine with the ends justifying the means, he says, “just so long as Cheney is the one dictating both the means and the ends”.

Benen also warns that it’s too easy to write Mr Cheney off as a retired politician who no longer has influence in the Washington corridors of power.

“Most of the contemporary Republican Party not only agrees with Cheney, but GOP policymakers literally welcome Cheney to Capitol Hill to help offer guidance to Republican lawmakers on matters of national security,” he writes.

Mr Cheney’s views shouldn’t be surprising, writes Salon’s Heather Digby Parton, since it’s all part of the “1% doctrine” the vice-president laid out more than a decade ago.

“If even a 1% chance existed that we might suffer an attack,” she says, “we had to do whatever was in our capability, including torture, to stop it.”

According to blogger Andrew Sullivan, Mr Cheney’s answer reveal that his interrogation programme was motivated less by the desire to prevent another attack as it was by rage and revenge.

“It was torture designed to be as brutal to terror suspects as 19 men on 9/11 were to Americans,” he writes. “Tit-for-tat. Our torture in return for their torture; their innocent victims in return for ours. It was a programme that has no place in a civilised society.”

The former vice-president is a “sociopath”, Sullivan says, who “needs to be brought to justice”.

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson, on the other hand, lauds Mr Cheney as “one of the few men publicly pushing back against the Democrats”. His views may be unpopular, he writes for RedState, but his cause is just.

“Because of Dick Cheney, George W Bush and many nameless men and women, the Democrats and their friends in the media get to morally preen because they are alive and might not be had Dick Cheney, George W Bush and these nameless men and women not done what needed doing,” he says.

Others on the right weren’t as enthusiastic as Erickson, however.

“Whatever you think of Cheney’s general approach to torture, the indifference to the innocents caught in the machine seemed callous to me,” tweeted the National Review’s Charles CW Cooke.

In his 1765 Commentaries on the Laws of England, jurist William Blackstone wrote: “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

This ratio, commonly called Blackstone’s Formulation, drew from the Old Testament and has been a bedrock principle of Western jurisprudence, having been cited repeatedly by US Supreme Court justices.

Mr Cheney may or may not believe this formulation applies to US citizens, but when it comes to foreign detainees, it appears he takes a decidedly different view.


Torture, Police Brutality and the Arrogance of Power

December 16, 2014

by Nat Parry



The international fallout from last week’s long-delayed release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 500-page executive summary of its still-classified 6,000 report on CIA torture could hardly be more intense, with calls coming from the United Nations, foreign governments and the human rights community for prosecutions of those who carried out or authorized the torture techniques described in the report, including senior officials from the Bush administration.

But judging from the self-assured comments of CIA and former administration officials, there is no real concern over the possibility of any criminal liability, a lack of accountability which has led to a palpable arrogance among those who would be behind bars if laws were actually enforced on an equal basis in the United States.

The above-the-law sense of entitlement was perhaps most clearly on display in former Vice President Dick Cheney’s appearance this Sunday on Meet the Press, stating that when it comes to using torture, “I’d do it again in a minute.”

When presented with gruesome details from the Senate report on torture – for example the newly revealed “enhanced interrogation technique” of “rectal feeding,” i.e., anal rape – and asked for his definition of what might constitute “torture” in a legal sense, Cheney retorted that torture is “an American citizen on his cellphone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York on 9/11.”

Short of this rather high bar, nothing, by definition, that the United States does to its detainees could conceivably be considered torture.

Similarly, when asked about the large number of innocent people (26 out of 119 CIA detainees, according to the report) who had tragically been detained and tortured in error, for example Gul Rahman – a victim of mistaken identity who was chained to the wall of his cell, doused with water and froze to death in CIA custody – Cheney stated indifferently that these individuals essentially don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The only problem that Cheney had was “with the folks that we did release that end up back on the battlefield.”

“I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with a few that, in fact, were innocent,” he said. Taken to its logical conclusion, Cheney’s reasoning would seem to hold that it is preferable to indefinitely detain and torture a million innocent people than to allow one “bad guy” to slip through the cracks. The implications of this logic are, needless to say, chilling (not to mention completely at odds with the legal principle of presumed innocence).

At times, watching Cheney make these cold rationalizations on Meet the Press, it may have occurred to viewers that the more appropriate venue for this interview would have been on the witness stand of a courtroom. After all, what Cheney was defending was not just controversial policy choices, but clearly defined crimes of torture and murder. Although he was sure to emphasize that “All of the techniques that were authorized by the president were, in effect, blessed by the Justice Department,” the fact remains that providing the cover of law to a crime makes it no less of a crime.

This is a point that UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism Ben Emmerson specifically made last week following the release of the report. In a statement, Emmerson said, “The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the U.S. government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.”

Emphasizing that all individuals responsible for “the criminal conspiracy” described in the Senate report “must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes,” Emmerson noted that “international law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture.”

Judging from Cheney’s arrogant display on Meet the Press, however, there appears to be very little appreciation for the niceties of international law such as its expressed prohibition on official immunity when it comes to the crime of torture. He seems to be quite confident, indeed, that official immunity is unnecessary when there is an implied unofficial immunity that is granted to public officials in the United States, this being the case whether it pertains to CIA torture or police brutality.

The same arrogance that Cheney is so casually displaying can also be seen in the closely paralleled story of the recent spate of police shootings of innocent African Americans, and the remarkable wave of demonstrations that has taken hold across the country in response. With large-scale protests happening in most major American cities over the past month – particularly since grand juries decided not to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City – one might think that cops would be extra careful these days not to come across overly arrogant or obdurate.

This, however, would not be the case.

In response to the NFL’s Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver Andrew Hawkins taking the field on Sunday wearing a T-shirt protesting recent police shootings in Ohio – reading “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” on the front and “The Real Battle for Ohio” on the back – Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland police union, claimed the shirt was disrespectful and disparaged the very idea of athletes holding opinions about anything other than sports.

“It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law,” Follmer said in a statement. “They should stick to what they know best on the field.” In other words, keep your opinions to yourself, boy, and just play football. Follmer also demanded an apology from the Clevelend Browns organization, which to their credit, the Browns did not extend.

Instead, the Browns fired back with a statement saying the organization endorses the rights of players “to project their support and bring awareness to issues that are important to them if done so in a responsible manner.”

Hawkins also weighed in with comments to the media that revealed, in fact, a deep knowledge and understanding of what law and justice mean (or should mean), contrary to Follmer’s condescending remarks. “Justice,” he said, “is a right that every American should have. Justice means that the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment.”

His six-minute locker-room monologue to reporters ended with him choking up while drawing a parallel between his own young son and the tragic death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot by police in Cleveland on Nov. 22 while holding a toy gun.

“My number one reason for wearing the T-shirt was the thought of what happened to Tamir Rice happening to my little Austin. And that scares the living hell out of me,” he said.

This genuine, personal fear of police violence is one that has been widely expressed over the last several weeks of protests taking hold across the country. As Democracy Now’s Aaron Maté reported from New York’s “Millions March” on Saturday, one of the dominant themes being expressed on the streets was “a sense of not feeling safe, not feeling safe themselves and not feeling safe for their loved ones, people of color in heavily policed communities.”

Interviewing protester Darrell Greene, Maté asked him to explain his sign, which read “Me, my father, my son. Who’s next?”

Greene responded, “At this point, I know I’m a productive citizen, and I don’t feel safe in my own community. I’ve never been in trouble with law enforcement. And from what I’m seeing on the news and what’s been going on, I really wonder: Am I next? I’m wondering if the people in my community are next. We’re all productive citizens, and we’re in fear for our life. We feel like it’s open season on all minorities, and we want to know if we’re really safe.”

Protester Nilan Johnson echoed these sentiments. “I’m here because Americans, period, are being preyed on, right now,” he said. “African Americans are once again fighting for the right to be human, and I think that’s horrible.”

Asked whether he feels, as a person of color, whether he is unsafe in his community, Johnson replied, “That’s – I feel that daily, so I feel that’s a preconditioned nature now. I feel threatened and marked and cornered. And everybody here feels the same way. And we’re trying to keep our humanity.”

If not a direct byproduct of the war on terror’s excesses and the impunity that law-breakers at the highest levels of government enjoy, this feeling of powerlessness, insecurity and injustice is certainly closely related. Indeed, as far back as 2007, civil rights leaders were drawing these connections, in particular in a report prepared for the United Nations entitled “In The Shadows Of The War On Terror: Persistent Police Brutality and Abuse of People of Color in the United States.”

Since 9/11, the report explained, “there have been dramatic increases in law enforcement powers in the name of waging the ‘war on terror,’” while simultaneously, counter-terrorism policies have “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies.”

This has led to an erosion of public discussion and accountability with respect to the use of excessive force against people of color, while at the same time, “systemic abuse of people of color by law enforcement officers has not only continued since 2001 but has worsened in both practice and severity,” according to the report. As a representative of the NAACP put it, “the degree to which police brutality occurs … is the worst I’ve seen in 50 years.”

Even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed the troubling trend of rising police violence and its connections with the war on terror. As a feature article in WSJ put it in August 2013, “the war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop – armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.”

This threat to liberties is compounded when the justice system fails to hold accountable those who break the law and violate people’s rights. Whether it is Eric Garner in New York or Gul Rahman in Afghanistan, the victims of injustice must have redress, and “those who do wrong should get their due punishment,” in the words of Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.

As human rights advocates and civil libertarians have warned since the early days of the war on terror, human rights violations of terror suspects will eventually set the United States on a slippery slope in which authorities deem it optional whether to respect the human rights of anyone, including U.S. citizens. At that point, anyone is fair game, and all of us, including law-abiding Americans, may find ourselves at the mercy of an unsympathetic authoritarian state.


This article originally appeared at Essential Opinion.


Anti-immigration protests grow in Germany

Decenber 15, 2014

by Erik Kirschbaum


DRESDEN, Germany  – A new grass-roots movement that assails the German government for ignoring its fears of being overrun by Muslims and other immigrants attracted a record 15,000 marchers on Monday in the eastern city of Dresden.

The fast-growing movement that calls itself PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, has drawn support from the far-right as well as some ordinary Germans alarmed by a sharp rise in refugees, many fleeing conflict in the Middle East.

The rallies have spread rapidly across Germany since starting with a local social media appeal in Dresden two months ago. They are now beginning to unsettle the German political establishment, which has spent decades restoring Germany’s image as an open, tolerant country after the devastation of the Nazis.

“The politicians in Germany have lost touch with the people and that’s why they can’t comprehend what’s happening here,” Lutz Bachmann, the 41-year-old gravel-voiced leader of the movement, told marchers from a makeshift stage.

In recent weeks, media reports have exposed Bachmann’s own criminal record for among other things burglary, drunk driving and drug dealing.

At the rally on Monday he lashed out at the media for what he said were lies about the movement, eliciting chants of “Luegenpresse! Luegenpresse!” (media lies!) from a fired-up group of demonstrators, mostly white men over 40 wearing shabby clothing.

Bachmann started PEGIDA in October to protest plans to add 14 centres for roughly 2,000 refugees in Dresden.

The number of asylum-seekers in Germany has surged to some 200,000 this year, more than any other western country, due in part to an influx of Syrians.

Even though foreigners are scarce in Dresden and the Saxony region compared to other parts of Germany, Bachmann’s protest reverberated and his Monday rallies have grown from a few hundred to 10,000 a week ago and now to 15,000.

Marchers on Monday carried banners reading “Courage for the truth”, “Stop immigrants abusing our social welfare system” and “We miss our country”.

They chanted: “If you don’t love Germany, leave it” and “We’re the people” – the slogan used by pro-democracy demonstrators whose marches in eastern cities like Dresden led to the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.

Roughly 6,000 protesters marched in a separate anti-PEGIDA rally in Dresden on Monday evening.




Germany’s Justice Minister Heiko Maas, a leading figure in the centre-left Social Democrats, has called the movement a disgrace for the country.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has condemned all forms of xenophobia and stressed that Germany needs immigrants to help it cope with a looming demographic crisis resulting from one of the lowest birth rates in Europe.

But she is also keen to avoid alienating voters that might ordinarily support her conservatives. Some are already leaving for a new party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was founded last year in opposition to the euro currency but now talks tough on immigration and law-and-order issues.

The AfD scored surprisingly well in three eastern state votes, including Saxony, earlier this year, entering regional parliaments for the first time.

“Anyone who goes to such a rally needs to watch out that they are not instrumentalised by the organisers,” Merkel said in Berlin on Monday, adding that her government was working with states and cities to ensure any problems arising from the influx of asylum seekers were resolved.

Political scientists say that the ferocity of the PEGIDA movement has caught the country’s political leaders off guard.

“It’s extremely dangerous for Germany and its reputation as a country that is open to the world,” said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University.

“It’s also extremely dangerous for Merkel because a political movement is now opening up to the right of her conservative party and that had never happened before,” he said.

Lutz Hagen, a professor at Dresden’s Technical University, said it was wrong to write off all PEGIDA supporters as far-right nuts. “It’s already a broad movement and could become even broader,” he said.

Dresden is a conservative bastion and the venue for Germany’s biggest annual neo-Nazi march, which takes place on the anniversary of the controversial bombing of the city by Allied forces near the end of World War Two.

Thomas Tretz, a 46-year-old chauffeur, who was proudly waving a large German flag in front of the stage before Bachmann’s speech, bristled at the suggestion PEGIDA was anti-foreign.

“We’re not Nazis,” Tretz snapped. “We’re just peaceful citizens against the Islamisation of Germany. We’re not against foreigners who come here to work. We’ve got nothing against the Turks or anyone else.”

However the rallies are also drawing far-right supporters and sympathisers. A 35-year-old woman who identified herself only as Heidrun was passing out free copies of the far-right weekly “Junge Freiheit”.

Michael Stuetzenberger, 55, drove five hours from Munich to join the rally.

“We’re being inundated by asylum-seekers and 70 percent of them have no right to be here,” he said. “We want to talk about that. And we’ve got a problem with Islam overrunning us in Germany and Europe. It’s just stupid to say that’s not happening because it is.”Estimated 15,000 people join ‘pinstriped Nazis’ on march in Dresden Far-right group Pegida holds ‘Islamisation’ protest, using slogan from 1989 campaign against East German government

‘Pinstripe Nazis’ show the temperature of the immigration debate needs to be reduced


German town tricks neo-Nazis into raising thousands of euros for anti-extremist charity

December 15, 2014

by Kate Connolly in Berlin



Its members have been dubbed the “pinstriped Nazis” and they refer to their demonstrations as “evening strolls” through German cities. But on Monday night, an estimated 15,000 people joined Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against Islamisation of the West, in a march through Dresden carrying banners bearing slogans such as “Zero tolerance towards criminal asylum seekers”, “Protect our homeland” and “Stop the Islamisation”.

Lutz Bachmann, the head of Pegida, a nascent anti-foreigner campaign group, led the crowds, either waving or draped in German flags, in barking chants of “Wir sind das Volk”, or “We are the people”, the slogan adopted by protesters in the historic “Monday demonstrations” against the East German government in the runup to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Associating themselves with the freedom demonstrations has given Pegida protests an air of moral respectability even though there are hundreds of rightwing extremists in their midst, as well as established groups of hooligans who are known to the police, according to Germany’s federal office for the protection of the constitution.

“The instigators are unmistakably rightwing extremists,” a federal spokesman said.

It was the ninth week in a row that Pegida had taken its protest on to the city’s streets in the eastern German state of Saxony.

Its first march, advertised on Facebook and other social media, attracted just 200 supporters. By last week the figure had risen to 10,000. By Monday night it had grown to an estimated 15,000.

“Muslims are plotting to infect our food chain with their excrement,” said a man in his 60s, who refused to give his name.

Another, a middle-aged woman in a red leather jacket, said she was shocked that “asylum seekers in Germany have expensive mobile phones, while I cannot afford such luxury and others still cannot afford to eat properly”.

While avoiding blatantly racist slogans, some told the Guardian of their angst over the “demise of the West” due to the rise of Islam or voiced their distaste of salafists and homosexuals in the same breath, or decried the recent decision by local politicians to increase the number of homes for asylum seekers. One group, knocking back bottles of the local beer, talked openly of their fears of what they call “fecal jihad”.

Mario Lupo, a 40-year-old tourist from Milan, was among the onlookers sipping glühwein at Germany’s oldest Christmas market, the Striezelmarkt.

“We came here for the romance and joviality of the Christmas markets,” he said. “We expected some light-hearted carousing appropriate to this time of year, but didn’t expect to stumble upon these rabble-rousers and police in riot gear.”

Among the groups taking part, according to the police, were two soccer hooligan organisations already known to the police called “Faust des Ostens” (Fist of the East) and Hooligans Elbflorenz (Florence of the Elbe Hooligans), as well as members of the National Democratic Party (NPD). Alongside them were old and young men and women, including families with children in pushchairs, many of whom said they had no political affiliation.

At one of two counter-demonstrations taking place elsewhere in the city centre, participants were keen to counteract the negative publicity the city of Dresden – usually better known for its splendid baroque architecture than its politics – has been receiving of late.

Its participants held banners reading “Act against the right” and “Nazis, no thanks”. The leader of the Green party, Cem Özdemir, who took part in the counter-protest, told the Guardian: “Being in a party whose members took part in the 1989 Monday demos, I take great umbrage at the abuse of the slogan used back then, ‘Wir sind das Volk’.

“We need to be permanently vigilant to ensure that Germany stays as open-minded as it had become in recent years and the government needs to ensure that it doesn’t take for granted that the far right will not make ground.”

Pegida’s growing presence has presented politicians with a dilemma over how to uncouple the strong neo-Nazi element believed to form the core of the protests from ordinary Germans with grievances against the government, who make up the bulk of the protesters.

Almost two-thirds of Germans, according to a poll for news magazine Spiegel by the TNS institute, believe that Angela Merkel’s government is not doing enough to address concerns about immigration and asylum seekers, and 34% think Germany is enduring a process of “Islamisation”.

The chancellor had earlier warned that a right to demonstrate did not extend to “rabble-rousing and defamation” against foreigners.

Merkel said that those participating in the protests should “take care not to be exploited” by radical elements trying to tap into fears of a foreigner takeover in Germany.

Led by Bachmann, a 41-year-old butcher’s son who runs a PR agency, Pegida has spawned clones across Germany. Legida is the name of the Leipzig branch, Bogida the Bonn branch, while in Darmstadt it is known as Dagida.

At a recent rally in Dresden, Bachmann’s hometown, he told his followers that while asylum seekers enjoyed luxury accommodation, many impoverished German pensioners were “unable to even afford a single slice of Stollen” (German Christmas cake).

Bachmann, who has a criminal record for burglary, for which he was sentenced to over three years in prison, and a conviction for drug possession, has claimed he is an insignificant part of Pegida.

“I’m just a small cog in a much bigger wheel,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung in a rare interview.

But political scientists have said the group’s presentation of itself as a harmless protest movement is what makes it so insidious.

“Something quite new is brewing here,” said Hajo Funke, a researcher into rightwing extremism at the Free University in Berlin. “We haven’t seen rudiments like these of an extreme rightwing inspired mass movement for years”.

Funke said that even the group’s name was incendiary. “It’s nothing short of a veritable call to arms by far-right populists,” he said, suggesting that the message triggered comparisons to Third Reich propaganda.

But across Germany resentment over a sharp rise in the number of refugees seeking political asylum in Germany, many from war-torn countries including Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, has grown in recent months.

Last Friday, a newly refurbished home for asylum seekers in Nuremberg in southern Germany was badly damaged in an suspected xenophobic arson attack. Anti-foreigner slogans and swastikas were found daubed on the walls.



Amid terrorism fears in Europe, are security forces going too far?

December 14, 2014

by Griff Witte

Washington Post


BIRMINGHAM, England — As a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Moazzam Begg was able to escape only in his dreams — his nightly chance to leave the grim confines of his U.S. military cell and return to his family in England.

But after being held for seven months this year at a maximum security British prison on terrorism charges that were ultimately dropped, Begg, now free, has seen his dreams turn to nightmares. He’s been imprisoned for nearly four years on three continents by the West’s two leading powers, all without a trial.

Amid a new wave of terrorism-related anxiety sweeping Europe as fighters return from Syria, he fears it’s only a matter of time before he’s arrested again.

“How many prisons? How many police stations? How many secret detention sites are they going to put me in, and then not try me? And then not give me my day in court?” said Begg, his face scarred by the beatings he says he endured while in U.S. custody.

Begg, soft-spoken and small in stature, has long been a vocal critic of the sort of post-9/11 brutality that was documented this month in chilling detail by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation practices.

But his most recent detention has become emblematic here of what human rights groups, Muslim leaders, terrorism experts and even some security officials say is an overzealous response to the threat posed by European returnees from Syria.

The threat itself is undeniable: Thousands of Europeans have flocked to Syria to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and many have linked up with the Islamic State or other extremist groups. Speaking on propaganda videos from the battlefield, European fighters have called on their countrymen to carry out attacks at home. When American and British hostages were decapitated, it was a Brit who wielded the knife.

And yet, critics say, European governments may be exacerbating the problem with a heavy-handed response that includes mandatory arrests of returnees, lengthy prison sentences and a lack of lighter alternatives, including reintegration programs.

“Arresting and prosecuting people doesn’t really tackle the root causes of the problem,” said Imran Awan, a criminologist at Birmingham City University who studies counterterrorism strategies. “You just alienate and isolate people even more if the government is locking people up and throwing away the key.”


Tightening laws

Policies are expected to get tougher in the months ahead, as several governments push legislation authorizing new powers to seize passports. In Britain, the government has fast-tracked a bill that could prevent former fighters from returning home for up to two years, temporarily stripping them of their rights as British citizens.

Experts say the policies fail to distinguish between hardened extremists who pose a legitimate threat to the West and those who travel to Syria for other reasons, including humanitarian concerns and an interest in toppling a Western enemy: Assad.

Begg, for instance, was arrested in February on charges stemming from his travels to Syria in 2012 and early 2013, before the Islamic State even existed in its current form.

In an interview in his native Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city, Begg said that he never fought, but he acknowledged working with some of the rebels that Britain, the United States and the West were backing in their struggle against the Syrian dictator.

“Up until late August last year, the British government was seeking to bomb the Assad regime with airstrikes,” Begg said. “But then the policy changed.”

Nearly a year after his return from Syria, Begg was arrested and charged with attending a terrorist training camp. The case against him collapsed in October after Britain’s main domestic intelligence service, MI5, acknowledged to prosecutors that Begg had told them of his plans before he traveled.

Begg has made no secret of his hard-line Islamist sympathies, having operated a bookstore that was a hub for British jihadists in the 1990s and moving his family to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 to live under the Taliban.

But the 46-year-old has denied participating in violence or being affiliated with terrorist organizations.

Both before and after this year’s arrest, he has been sharply critical of the Islamic State, expressing disgust at the group’s ritualized executions and disregard for civilian life. He even wrote a personal letter from prison to the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, urging him to release British aid worker Alan Henning. It remains unclear whether authorities delivered the letter; Henning was subsequently beheaded.

Begg’s lengthy detention this year has only confirmed the suspicions of many Muslims in Birmingham, and across Britain, that their community is being unfairly targeted.

“They feel like they’ve been vilified, demonized and stigmatized,” Awan said. “Moazzam Begg epitomizes the struggle.”


On murky ground

His case is not the only one that has raised hackles.

Two 22-year-olds from Birmingham were sentenced by a judge to 12 years in prison this month after returning from the Syrian front lines. The judge, Michael Topolski, described the pair as “deeply committed to violent extremism.”

But the men’s families said that they felt betrayed by the stiff sentences and that they had been promised leniency in exchange for cooperation.

“This sends out the wrong message to other families who might have concerns about their sons and daughters, and now might not come forward,” the family of one of the men, Mohammed ­Nahin Ahmed, said in a statement.

The security crackdown has extended even to those who never traveled to Syria. On Thursday, a 35-year-old mother of six, Runa Khan, was sentenced to five years in prison for posting statements and photos on Facebook. Khan’s posts included images of a suicide vest and expressions of hope that her young son would one day become a fighter.

Security officials acknowledge that they are on murky ground when it comes to prosecuting Brits for alleged crimes committed in Syria, a country where Western governments have little visibility into events on the ground. Some officials have also called for a more robust debate over where to draw the line in prosecuting extremist language.

Peter Fahy, police chief in the northern English city of Manchester and a leader of the national counterterrorism strategy, recently told the Guardian newspaper that without such a conversation, he feared a “drift toward a police state” in which officers become “thought police.”

Ironically, by locking up people like Begg, the government is actually silencing those who could best rebut Islamic State propaganda, said Ben Ward, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe.

“It removes the voice of people who might actually be most persuasive in directing young people away from violence,” Ward said.

In Begg’s case, that voice is made more credible by the three years he spent in U.S. custody, during which he says U.S. troops beat him, kicked him, deprived him of sleep, held guns to his head and threatened his then-6-year-old daughter.

Nonetheless, he befriended his guards at Guantanamo Bay and has even traveled with them to speak out against the dehumanizing impact of torture.

“I used to tell the fighters in Syria, when they would ask, ‘What are the Americans like?’ I’d say, ‘Well, some of the guards and soldiers are my friends,’ ” he said. “They were shocked.”

But Begg was not surprised by the abuses he read about this month in the Senate’s report on CIA detention and interrogation.

“Every torture technique that they described, we’ve been talking about till we were blue in the face,” said Begg, who has resumed his work as outreach director for the London-based prisoners’ rights group Cage. “The only thing that surprised me was that they released it.”


Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.


As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up

December 15, 2014

by Claire Cain Miller

New York Times

A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.

Although fears that technology will displace jobs are at least as old as the Luddites, there are signs that this time may really be different. The technological breakthroughs of recent years — allowing machines to mimic the human mind — are enabling machines to do knowledge jobs and service jobs, in addition to factory and clerical work.

And over the same 15-year period that digital technology has inserted itself into nearly every aspect of life, the job market has fallen into a long malaise. Even with the economy’s recent improvement, the share of working-age adults who are working is substantially lower than a decade ago — and lower than any point in the 1990s.

 Economists long argued that, just as buggy-makers gave way to car factories, technology would create as many jobs as it destroyed. Now many are not so sure.

             Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary, recently said that he no longer believed that automation would always create new jobs. “This isn’t some hypothetical future possibility,” he said. “This is something that’s emerging before us right now.”

            Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at M.I.T., said, “This is the biggest challenge of our society for the next decade.”

Mr. Brynjolfsson and other experts say they believe that society has a chance to meet the challenge in ways that will allow technology to be mostly a positive force. In addition to making some jobs obsolete, new technologies have also long complemented people’s skills and enabled them to be more productive — as the Internet and word processing have for office workers or robotic surgery has for surgeons.

More productive workers, in turn, earn more money and produce goods and services that improve lives.

            “It is literally the story of the economic development of the world over the last 200 years,” said Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist and an inventor of the web browser. “Just as most of us today have jobs that weren’t even invented 100 years ago, the same will be true 100 years from now.”

            Yet there is deep uncertainty about how the pattern will play out now, as two trends are interacting. Artificial intelligence has become vastly more sophisticated in a short time, with machines now able to learn, not just follow programmed instructions, and to respond to human language and movement.

At the same time, the American work force has gained skills at a slower rate than in the past — and at a slower rate than in many other countries. Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 are among the most skilled in the world, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Younger Americans are closer to average among the residents of rich countries, and below average by some measures.

Clearly, many workers feel threatened by technology. In a recent New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 who were not working, 37 percent of those who said they wanted a job said technology was a reason they did not have one. Even more — 46 percent — cited “lack of education or skills necessary for the jobs available.”

Self-driving vehicles are an example of the crosscurrents. They could put truck and taxi drivers out of work — or they could enable drivers to be more productive during the time they used to spend driving, which could earn them more money. But for the happier outcome to happen, the drivers would need the skills to do new types of jobs.

The challenge is evident for white-collar jobs, too. Ad sales agents and pilots are two jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will decline in number over the next decade. Flying a plane is largely automated today and will become more so. And at Google, the biggest seller of online ads, software does much of the selling and placing of search ads, meaning there is much less need for salespeople.

            There are certain human skills machines will probably never replicate, like common sense, adaptability and creativity, said David Autor, an economist at M.I.T. Even jobs that become automated often require human involvement, like doctors on standby to assist the automated anesthesiologist, called Sedasys.

Elsewhere, though, machines are replacing certain jobs. Telemarketers are among those most at risk, according to a recent study by Oxford University professors. They identified recreational therapists as the least endangered — and yet that judgment may prove premature. Already, Microsoft’s Kinect can recognize a person’s movements and correct them while doing exercise or physical therapy.

Other fields could follow. The inventors of facial recognition software from a University of California, San Diego lab say it can estimate pain levels from children’s expressions and screen people for depression. Machines are even learning to taste: The Thai government in September introduced a robot that determines whether Thai food tastes sufficiently authentic or whether it needs another squirt of fish sauce.

Watson, the computer system built by IBM that beat humans at Jeopardy in 2011, has since learned to do other human tasks. This year, it began advising military veterans on complex life decisions like where to live and which insurance to buy. Watson culls through documents for scientists and lawyers and creates new recipes for chefs. Now IBM is trying to teach Watson emotional intelligence.

IBM, like many tech companies, says Watson is assisting people, not replacing them, and enabling them to be more productive in new types of jobs. It will be years before we know what happens to the counselors, salespeople, chefs, paralegals and researchers whose jobs Watson is learning to do

Whether experts lean toward the more pessimistic view of new technology or the most optimistic one, many agree that the uncertainty is vast. Not even the people who spend their days making and studying new technology say they understand the economic and societal effects of the new digital revolution.

When the University of Chicago asked a panel of leading economists about automation, 76 percent agreed that it had not historically decreased employment. But when asked about the more recent past, they were less sanguine. About 33 percent said technology was a central reason that median wages had been stagnant over the past decade, 20 percent said it was not and 29 percent were unsure.

Perhaps the most worrisome development is how poorly the job market is already functioning for many workers. More than 16 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 are not working, up from 5 percent in the late 1960s; 30 percent of women in this age group are not working, up from 25 percent in the late 1990s. For those who are working, wage growth has been weak, while corporate profits have surged.

            “We’re going to enter a world in which there’s more wealth and less need to work,” Mr. Brynjolfsson said. “That should be good news. But if we just put it on autopilot, there’s no guarantee this will work out.”

Some say the nature of work will need to change. Google’s co-founder, Larry Page, recently suggested a four-day workweek, so as technology displaces jobs, more people can find employment. Others believe the role of the public sector should expand, to help those struggling to find work. Many point to education, in new technologies and in the skills that remain uniquely human, like creativity and judgment.

            “The answer is surely not to try to stop technical change,” Mr. Summers said, “but the answer is not to just suppose that everything’s going to be O.K. because the magic of the market will assure that’s true.”




Billion Dollar Surveillance Blimp to Launch over Maryland

December 17, 2014

by Dan Froomkin

The Intercept


In just a few days, the Army will launch the first of two massive blimps over Maryland, the last gasp of an 18-year-long $2.8-billion Army project intended to use giant airships to defend against cruise missiles.

And while the blimps may never stave off a barrage of enemy missiles, their ability to spot and track cars, trucks and boats hundreds of miles away is raising serious privacy concerns.

The project is called JLENS – or “Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System.” And you couldn’t come up with a better metaphor for wildly inflated defense contracts, a ponderous Pentagon bureaucracy, and the U.S. surveillance leviathan all in one.

Built by the Raytheon Company, the JLENS blimps operate as a pair. One provides omnipresent high-resolution 360-degree radar coverage up to 340 miles in any direction; the other can focus on specific threats and provide targeting information.

Technically considered aerostats, since they are tethered to mooring stations, these lighter-than-air vehicles will hover at a height of 10,000 feet just off Interstate 95, about 45 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., and about 20 miles from Baltimore. That means they can watch what’s happening from North Carolina to Boston, or an area the size of Texas.

At one point, there were supposed to be nearly three dozen blimps. But after a series of operational failures and massive cost overruns, the program was dramatically scaled back to the two existing prototypes that the Army plans to keep flying continuously above the Aberdeen Proving Ground for three years, except for maintenance and foul weather.

As soon the blimps are up, if you’re driving on the interstate north of Baltimore, you won’t be able to miss them. They are 80 yards long and their total volume is somewhere around 600,000 cubic feet. That’s about the size of three Goodyear blimps. Or over 3,500 white elephants

“There’s something inherently suspect for the public to look up in the sky and see this surveillance device hanging there,” says Ginger McCall, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an advocacy group. “It’s the definition of persistent surveillance.”

Army officials claim they have no interest in monitoring anything other than missiles, or maybe boats. But JLENS can detect plenty more than that.

“A lot of people may hear radar and they picture a fuzzy green screen with little blips. But today’s radar is significantly more sophisticated than that and is in some ways akin to a camera,” warns Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Raytheon promotional material touts a recent test, when the JLENS radar “simultaneously detected and tracked double-digit swarming boats, hundreds of cars and trucks, non-swarming boats and manned and unmanned aircraft.”

Aerostats like JLENS aren’t limited to radar. If equipped with extremely high-resolution video cameras, they can see and record everything for miles, with extraordinary detail. In Kabul, for example, residents are used to seeing the U.S. military’s tethered aerostat—called the Persistent Ground Surveillance system—hovering above the city, capturing video of daily life below.

The Army insists that there will be no cameras on JLENS for now. In a test last year, however, Raytheon equipped one of the blimps with an MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System that provides both day and night imaging, laser designation, and laser illumination capabilities.

The result: JLENS operators could “watch live feed of trucks, trains and cars from dozens of miles away.” They also watched Raytheon employees “simulate planting a roadside improvised explosive device.”

Maj.Beth Smith, the spokesperson for the JLENS program, says the Army isn’t planning to spy on anyone. JLENS “has no cameras, it has no video, nor is it tracking any people,” she says. “It does not possess the capability to see people.”

And while it can see cars, “for the purposes of this test, we have no intent to track any vehicles. Well, any civilian vehicles.”




Back in 2005, the Army planned to have Raytheon build 32 blimps at a cost of about $180 million each. But growing doubts and hemorrhaging costs, along with the destruction of one blimp in a collision, led the Pentagon to hit the brakes in 2012. There would be no more new blimps, just testing for the prototypes that had already been constructed.

That brings the price tag for the two remaining blimps to around $1.4 billion each, if development costs are counted. (Technically, there’s another duo mothballed in storage in the Utah desert, but there are no current plans to use them.) That’s serious money, even by federal government standards.

Raytheon trumpets the results of several successful tests of the system, including an August 2013 demonstration in which JLENS helped an F-15 knock a mock cruise missile out of the sky. But a blistering analysis from the Pentagon’s Operational Test & Evaluation office for fiscal year 2013 found that testing had been inadequate and that JLENS needed improvement in critical areas, including “non-cooperative target recognition, friendly aircraft identification capabilities, and target track consistency” – i.e. telling the difference between friends and enemies.

The testing report found JLENS failed to meet its goals for reliability, because of both software and hardware problems, that it was too dependent on good weather, and that it “did not demonstrate the ability to survive in its intended operational environment.”

Indeed, one blimp got totaled at its manufacturing and test facility in North Carolina in September 2010 after it was struck by a different dirigible moored nearby that had broken loose in a storm. The Army and Raytheon sat on the news for more than six months, until InsideDefense.com saw a mention of the collision in a GAO report.

The crash cost the Army another $168 million.

And the money keeps on flowing. Just two weeks ago, the Army awarded Raytheon another contract, this one for $12 million simply to keep the blimps maintained for the next six months




Raytheon has tried to assuage privacy concerns in a few of the “Frequently Asked Questions” from its promotional material, which insists that JLENS cannot be used to track individual people.

“Radars can tell that something is moving, but because of the way radars work, they simply can’t determine identifying characteristics of cars, such as make, model or color,” Raytheon says. “Along similar lines, they can’t tell who is driving the vehicle or see a license plate.”

Maj. Nelson insists that “JLENS is an elevated radar system and has no task to monitor ground targets. It does not organically store any radar data.”

Even so, radar can track hundreds of square miles of traffic, and the real question is what the Army will do with that data.

Extensive redactions in the hundreds of pages of contracting documents related to JLENS in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by EPIC leave the true scope of the project unclear.

One EPIC researcher poring through the documents found an alarming passage. The Army’s contract with Raytheon, it said, will be evaluated based on its “potential to grow to accommodate new and/or alternative missions.”

Talk to blimp experts, and they’ll tell you what blimps are good for.

“They’re wonderful for staring at things,” says Ed Herlik, a former Air Force officer and technology analyst with a particular interest in airships. “That’s what the Israelis use them for.”

And it’s not just their ability to document what they see that’s so valuable; it’s the psychological effect. “If you put a camera in a sky over an area where you expect a lot of unrest, the area will calm down,” he says.

The ACLU’s Jay Stanley says the Army’s promises are not enough.

“I’m sure that the people who are giving us these assurances mean everything they say, but the nature of government programs and government agencies is that things tend to expand and privacy protections tend to shrink.”

What the program needs, according to Stanley, is oversight and it doesn’t have that now. “If we’re going to have massive blimps hovering over civilian areas, or within radar-shot of civilian areas, then we need some very ironclad checks and balances that will provide confidence that there’s no domestic surveillance going on,” Stanley says.

Federal privacy regulations currently don’t apply. “JLENS does not operate under privacy rules,” Smith, the spokesperson for JLENS, explains. “It is a military radar and as such carries no electro-optical or infrared cameras, nor does it have acoustic or electronic surveillance capability. There is no ability to ‘listen’ to cellular or radio traffic, nor can it optically ‘see’ any ground objects.”

For now, the closest thing to public oversight will be a media day at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on Wednesday, where the Army will give reporters a chance to ooh and ah during an up-close look at one of the blimps, fully inflated with enough helium to fill about two million nine-inch latex party balloons.

But even this blimp isn’t ready for its much-delayed launch. And the other one isn’t even inflated yet.



11 trillion gallons of water to relieve California drought – NASA

December 17, 2014



NASA scientists say it would require 11 trillion gallons of water – more water than California’s 38 million residents use each year for domestic purposes – to relieve the state’s record drought, currently in its third year.

A team of NASA scientists, using the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, discovered that the state’s Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins were 11 trillion gallons (41.6 trillion liters) below normal seasonal levels. The researchers say that since the launch of GRACE in 2002 water levels have steadily dropped.

Californians use an average of 181 gallons of water each day, a state total of around 2.5 trillion gallons a year, according to data from the UGSC website.

But the bad news for Californians looking for a reprieve from the worst drought in centuries doesn’t end there. NASA said the satellite images show the Sierra Nevada range snowpack is half the amount of past estimates.

“The 2014 snowpack was one of the three lowest on record and the worst since 1977, when California’s population was half what it is now,” Tom Painter, principal investigator of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in the NASA release.

Jay Famiglietti, who led the team of NASA scientists, was confident of the accuracy of the data.

“Spaceborne and airborne measurements of Earth’s changing shape, surface height and gravity field now allow us to measure and analyze key features of droughts better than ever before, including determining precisely when they begin and end and what their magnitude is at any moment in time,” Famiglietti said.

NASA’s research indicates that groundwater levels across the American Southwest are in the lowest two to 10 percent since 1949.

Meanwhile, residents of the most populated US state have expressed optimism recently after many inches of rain fell across California. Experts say it’s just a drop in the bucket as far as the drought conditions are concerned.

“Recent rains are no reason to let up on our conservation efforts,” Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board Felicia Marcus said recently.

Famiglietti agreed with that statement.

“It takes years to get into a drought of this severity, and it will likely take many more big storms, and years, to crawl out of it,” he acknowledged.

The data was presented by the NASA team on Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.



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