TBR News April 29, 2016

Apr 29 2016

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. April 29, 2016: “The growing illiteracy of the American public, aided by a decaying and grossly incompetent public educational system, coupled with various computer-based systems, bodes ill for society in general. These systems draw more and more into their nets and by doing so, make it very, very easy for governmental surveillance systems to keep its eyes on the citizenry, to watch their every move and study their daily activities without even leaving their offices. That this trend is deliberate is without a doubt and the so-called ‘social networks’ are a boon to what the agencies hope is the ability to watch each and every citizen, from age nine upwards. The government wants no more civil defiance such as it experienced during the Vietnam war and wants to identify, and crush, any person or any movement it deems threatening to whatever plans it wishes to implement. ”Won’t you come into my parlor? said the Spider to the Fly…”


Please, Facebook, don’t make me speak to your awful chatbots

The future of apps is chatbots, and it’s going to be terrible

April 29, 2016

by Alex Hern

The Guardian

Have you heard? Apps are dead: chatbots are the new apps. And they will soon be doing everything, from taking your pizza orders to scheduling your meetings. This is the future and it’s going to be terrible.

The rise of the chatbot has been foretold for some time but only in the past few weeks with Facebook’s Messenger bots, chat app Kik’s bot store and the rise of subversive artbots have they really hit the public consciousness.

So how did we get here? In many ways, it’s the perfect convergence of almost every tech trend of the past five years.

Trend one: the hybrid command line

Remember Peach? Probably not. At this stage, four months after launch, it seems unlikely that even Peach’s developers remember Peach. The app, a social network from the co-founder of Vine, tried to live somewhere between a Twitter-style social network and a WhatsApp-style messaging platform. It was fun for about three days, and then it died a quick death as everyone got bored.

But Peach did have one thing going for it: a pseudo-command-line, that let users type simple commands in without needing to plough through menus. Typing “g” in the compose box brings up a gif search; typing “c” lets you share a calendar event.

The same practice used, with more success, by business-focused chat app Slack. In both cases, the commands let the app offer a rich set of features, without becoming over-cluttered or difficult to use, and they let power-users become rapid and efficient.

Trend two: natural language parsing and voice recognition

It’s been almost five years since the iPhone 4S introduced Siri into our lives, and voice control is now a mainstream feature on smartphones. Every major phone platform offers its own voice-controlled assistant, while Amazon will even ship you the Echo, an obelisk that sits on your living room table listening to everything.

These personal assistants still aren’t great, even after half a decade of improvement, but they are sometimes good enough. That is actually pretty impressive because it means they have dealt with two very difficult, largely unrelated tasks. They can understand what you say, and they can understand what you mean. The former is voice recognition, and the latter is natural language parsing.

Trend three: the Facebook Platform

Facebook is already utterly dominant as a social network. But its attempts to grow beyond that have been a more stop-start affair. From 2009, companies could build “apps” on Facebook’s website, which led to the runaway success of Farmville in particular. But the Facebook-hosted apps failed to take off beyond games, and were lost in the switch to mobile.

More recently, Facebook managed to branch out in a different way, offering up its own platform as a way for other developers to authenticate users. Facebook gets knowledge of what their users are doing in other apps, and the apps get to trawl through Facebook for data on their new users. But that too isn’t enough for Facebook: time spent in other apps is time spent out of Facebook, and that’s time when you can’t be shown adverts. So the latest attempt is to keep you inside Facebook for good.

Instant Articles do that for the news articles you used to click while Facebook Video replaces all those YouTube links. For the sites that need people to leave Facebook, it’s terrifying. But for Facebook books its much more convenient.

So how do these come together?

When Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook’s chatbot-based vision of the future this month, it was the obvious next step to all these things: third-party bots which plug into Facebook’s Messenger service.

The new bots build on the command line model of Peach and Slack, not by forcing you to learn intricate commands to type in the midst of your messages with friends, but by allowing you to quickly and easily send a few words to the right chatbot to fulfil complex commands.

They take the lessons of Siri and Google Now, by using Facebook’s own AI engine to parse the natural language you speak to the them in and performing complex tasks in response.

And they are built into Facebook’s walled-off version of the internet. Now you don’t even need to click on an instant article to get the headlines: you just ask the Wall Street Journal’s chatbot, and it will tell you what’s happening.

There’s just one problem: the chatbots suck.

The bots really suckOne day, chatbots will be widely used, and a useful solution to a number of everyday problems. But not today.

The problems with existing chatbots begin with how they actually work. Almost uniformly, the initial examples of Messenger bots are disastrous: unable to parse any instruction that doesn’t fit their (entirely undocumented) expectations, slow to respond when they are given the correct command, and ultimately useful only for tasks which are trivial to perform through the old apps or websites.

CNN’s bot is the worst of a bad bunch, but serves as an example of how low the bar is set. It can only do two things: interpret short phrases and do a keyword search (so if you say “Clinton”, you get a few headlines about Hilary Clinton).

Actually, it does one other thing: the instant the bot gets any message at all from a user, the user is subscribed to a daily roundup of emails.

How can you unsubscribe from this? If, and only if, you reply with the word “unsubscribe” and no other text. Though the bot responds to you in a chatty fashion, it’s unable to understand anything more natural sounding than “unsubscribe”.

Give it any other command at all and it replies with a literal ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Cute, but not the fifth time you try to guess how to unsubscribe unsuccessfully.

Yes, this kind of problem will go away in time, Facebook’s natural language parsing will improve allowing developers to more easily understand a phrase like “please, please stop sending me messages” but right now it’s a bad experience.

While some problems will be solved with better tech, others will simply be fixed with more money. Facebook’s own pioneering chatbot, M, is instructive. The bot, which is still only available in the US, acts as a sort of digital concierge. Like older services such as Magic, you can ask the Facebot to help with almost anything you want, and it will do it for you. It will order you food, make reservations at restaurants, or tell you the quickest way to get from A to B. It will even let you send a parrot to your friend’s office. But this chatbot has a secret. It is made of people.

The human touch

Facebook says that the humans behind the service are just there for training purposes: when the AI can’t handle something, it passes it on to a human to do the heavy lifting, and watches what happens, to better learn how to deal with the query on its own.

That might be the long term goal, but in the short term it’s pretty clear that M does a lot of things which Facebook has no hope of automating any time soon, like making a booking at a restaurant that only takes phone reservations.

So the mid-term success for many chatbots will be as a shield, protecting us from the reality that much of the benefits of automation are actually just low-paid grunt work from call centres in developing nations. Be nice to your bots; you never know when they’re actually people.

But technology won’t overcome the more fundamental problem with chatbots: they are misguided attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, built largely because they are popular in east Asia for a completely different set of reasons.

Is ‘WeFacebook’ the future?

If you want to know why Facebook is pushing its Messenger bots so hard, look at WeChat. The Chinese app started as a simple messaging app, similar to WhatsApp, but has grown enormously.

Brands and companies have “official accounts”, allowing them to interact directly with customers. Those accounts started as human-managed customer-service accounts but grew. First came a simple phone-tree-style navigation menu, giving users a bit of control over who they could speak to speak to by texting the number relating to their issue. Then came a simple fixed menu, at the bottom of the screen, letting them have some permanent options always available. And then, gradually, intelligence: they became chatbots.

Those official accounts are a large part of WeChat’s dominance in China. Mark Zuckerberg wishes he could have as big an influence on daily life in the US. But, as WeChat product manager Dan Grover points out, looking at what’s happening inside the conversation is missing the point.

Even in China, even with WeChat’s lead in chatbots, doing anything important or complicated through a conversational interface sucks. Grover uses the example of ordering a pizza: a chat app takes 73 taps on the screen to order a pizza, the vast majority of them on the tiny onscreen keyboard where a single misplaced tap can render a message nonsense. The Pizza Hut app, by contrast, takes 16. And unlike the chatbot, it also conveys a huge amount of useful information in those few taps, letting the user see the full list of toppings, letting them find out the prices of various options, letting them browse a menu, and letting them discover the unknown unknowns – the things they otherwise wouldn’t even know the company could offer.

Where chatbots go to die

This problem alone is the death knell for a huge amount of conversational software. Until it’s good enough to do everything, users pretty quickly learn what a chatbot, or voice-controlled assistance, can and can’t do – and they stop exploring. That means that as the assistant gets better, the user stays ignorant. You can find the last three apps you added to your phone by looking at the icons. Can you name the last three things your chosen brand of voice assistant gained the ability to do? Would you even know how to find out?

The benefit, Grover argues, isn’t in the chat; it’s in the inbox. Almost every app on a modern smartphone is concerned, in some way, with the dissemination of information. But the notification systems on iOS and Android simply aren’t up to the task: the notifications are too divorced from the action itself, too difficult to manage and control, and too binary – either unread, or cleared entirely.

“It’s no stretch to see WeChat and its ilk not as SMS replacements but as nascent visions of a mobile OS whose UI paradigm is, rather than rigidly app-centric, thread-centric (and not, strictly speaking, conversation-centric),” Grover writes.

Some things don’t need to be part of a thread at all. A calculator app wouldn’t gain anything from that system. Nor would a photo-editing app, nor (certain kinds of) games. But for those which do, it’s not hard to see how the WeChat experience improves things

That’s the end goal that Facebook is chasing, make no mistake. The company wants its app to effectively become the homescreen for your phone: not only the place you go to manage your relationships, but also where you go to hail a cab, check on the weather, book a table or pay a bill. But unlike WeChat, which was building an infrastructure that didn’t previously exist, Facebook needs a carrot to entice us all off the internet and out of our homescreens and into its friendly, cozy, but padlocked walled garden.

That carrot is the chatbots. Right now, the carrot’s rotten, but Facebook will find a tastier one soon enough. Even so, though. I think I’ll pass.

The Social Network Follies

by Harry von Johnston,PhD

The Internet has an enormous storehouse of information and nearly any desired material can be located and downloaded. That is the positive aspect of the Internet. The negative side is that the Internet supplies an enormous flood of false, misleading and useless information, almost all of invented out of whole cloth by the same types that also have rushed to join, and use, what is known as the Social Network.

The Social Networks are a handy means for persons to express their personal views on almost any subject and to communicate with others of a like mind. The problem that one notes from reading their postings is the same one observes in reading the comments appended to serious articles on major newspapers. In reading both of these areas, one is at once struck by the utter stupidity of the writers, their total lack of English, their constant bad grammar and terrible spelling and, most important, their desire not to express a thoughtful view but to parade their insignificance and ignorance to a wide audience.

Another negative aspect of the Social Network is that, at least in the United States, all of the networks of any size are working closely with such official governmental agencies as the DHS and the FBI, to spy on their members at no cost or effort to themselves. In these cases, the mindless babblings and boastings of the dim of wit load federal surveillance files with moronic chatters from which the authorities can easily build a criminal case.

We did some research on the social networks and discovered that they have attracted more members than the government can keep up with, redolent of the thousands of hungry flies congregating in a cow pen.



750,000,000 – Monthly Visitors


250,000,000 – Monthly Visitors


110,000,000 – Monthly Visitors


85,500,000 – Monthly Visitors


70,500,000 – Monthly Visitors

Google +

65,000,000 – Monthly Visitors


25,500,000 – Monthly Visitors

Live Journal

20,500,000 – Monthly Visitors


19,500,000 – Monthly Visitors


17,500,000 – Monthly Visitors


12,500,000 – Monthly Visitors


12,000,000 – Monthly Visitors


7,500,000 – Monthly Visitors


5,400,000 – Monthly Visitors


4,300,000 – Monthly Visitors


117,000,000 Yearly Visitors

BlackPlanet (Black Americans)

20,000,000 Yearly Visitors

Blauk  Anyone who wants to tell something about a stranger or acquaintance.       1,081,215  Yearly Visitors              .

Formspring  social Q&A website

290,000,000  Yearly Visitors

Habbo  For teens. Chat room and user profiles.

268,000,000 Yearly Visitors

Itsmy    Mobile community worldwide, blogging, friends, personal TV shows

2,500,000 Yearly Visitors

Kiwibox General.

2,400,000 Yearly Visitors


Conversations with the Crow

On October 8th, 2000, Robert Trumbull Crowley, once a leader of the CIA’s Clandestine Operations Division, died in a Washington hospital of heart failure and the end effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Before the late Assistant Director Crowley was cold, Joseph Trento, a writer of light-weight books on the CIA, descended on Crowley’s widow at her town house on Cathedral Hill Drive in Washington and hauled away over fifty boxes of Crowley’s CIA files.

Once Trento had his new find secure in his house in Front Royal , Virginia, he called a well-known Washington fix lawyer with the news of his success in securing what the CIA had always considered to be a potential major embarrassment. Three months before, July 20th of that year, retired Marine Corps colonel William R. Corson, and an associate of Crowley, died of emphysema and lung cancer at a hospital in Bethesda, Md.           After Corson’s death, Trento and his Washington lawyer went to Corson’s bank, got into his safe deposit box and removed a manuscript entitled ‘Zipper.’ This manuscript, which dealt with Crowley’s involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, vanished into a CIA burn-bag and the matter was considered to be closed forever

After Crowley’s death and Trento’s raid on the Crowley files, huge gaps were subsequently discovered by horrified CIA officials and when Crowley’s friends mentioned Gregory Douglas, it was discovered that Crowley’s son had shipped two large boxes to Douglas. No one knew their contents but because Douglas was viewed as an uncontrollable loose cannon who had done considerable damage to the CIA’s reputation by his on-going publication of the history of Gestapo-Mueller, they bent every effort both to identify the missing files and make some effort to retrieve them before Douglas made any use of them.

Douglas had been in close contact with Crowley and had long phone conversations with him. He found this so interesting and informative that he taped and later transcribed them.

These conversations have been published in a book: ‘Conversations with the Crow” and this is an excerpt:


Conversation No. 30

Date:  Tuesday, August 6, 1996

Commenced: 11:10 AM CST

Concluded: 11:47 AM CST

GD: Ah, good morning to you, Robert. How is life treating you today?

RTC: Good morning, Gregory. There are good days and bad days. I’m not sure about today.

GD: Certainty is illusion, Robert. I was talking to an old friend of mine last night. He’s down at Norfolk. Was Navy but retired. I went to school with him. King’s Point and then the NSG.

RTC: King’s Point is Merchant Marine.

GD: I know. They have a reserve commission and they can activate it if they want to. He did. Nuclear vessels surface and then the NSG. He was the Naval Attaché in the Dominican Republic. Worked on the Trujillo assassination. But that’s not the issue now. We got to talking about AIDS and since he had quite a bit of sherry, he told me quite a story about how that originated. I thought you might have some input on that. Want me to go on?

RTC: Why not?

GD: Well, according to him, the Navy had an experimental medical station down in Haiti. They were down there because there was a huge pool of very poor locals they could use as subjects in tests. He said that they were developing something that would lower a person’s resistance to the point where a common cold would put them out of action for weeks.

RTC: Go on. What then?

GD: Well, they hit on a virus that does this, experimented with the locals and when they were sure it actually worked, somehow they got this into local whores whom the Cuban government then shipped over to Angola to service their volunteers fighting there.

RTC: I’ve heard stories about that.

GD: But somehow, the virus mutated into something far more serious. The HIV thing. And they didn’t care if all the Cubans died, or the whores either, but it seems that some the younger Haitians got this and when American gays made excursions down there for some cheap black cock, they got it, too, and you can see where that went. Then, my friend said, after they found out what had gone wrong, the Navy shut down its facility, disposed of their volunteer locals by taking them out on boats and dumping them into the water. Anyway, that’s what he said, and I believe him. That’s what I wanted to ask you about.

RTC: There is something to that. Your friend had best be very quiet or he’ll end up taking a one-way boat trip. And I would be careful not to put any of that into one of your books. If you take my drift.

GD: No, it wouldn’t fit in with the Mueller material. It is true, then?

RTC: Basically it is. Take note that it didn’t start out to kill off all the homos, although the Christians thought it was a wonderful thing, but your friend was right when he said it mutated. I was never in that part of the agency but one hears things or talks to colleagues. I mean there was only the intention to interfere with the combat capabilities of enemy troops, not liquidate social outcasts. When we learned about this, the burn bags were used overtime at Langley.

GD: Were your people part of it?

RTC: In a sense. The Navy supplied the tactical, and we supplied the strategic. They produced the weapon and we, the targets. We were planning to use this on the Russians.

GD: Well, I know something about that aspect. You know about General Ishi?

RTC: Oh yes, I do indeed.

GD: His Japanese military units had a BW lab up in Manchuria and they used to develop the plague and God knows what else. Poisoned thousands of Chinese, wanted to loose the plague against their Russian neighbors and used Allied POW’s as lab specimens. Most of them died of plague and other nasty things.

RTC: Ah, the redoubtable Dr. Ishi. After we took over Japan, he was caught along with his staff and they were planning to try him for very ugly war crimes but MacArthur, acting on specific orders from the Pentagon, rescued him, set him with a big lab in Tokyo and back they went to developing the bubonic plague. I guess they were going to use it on the Russians if all else failed.

GD: That I know all about. Not the Japanese but using the plague against the Russians. There was a German Army doctor, a Dr. Walter Schreiber, who was a specialist in communicable diseases. He developed a form of the plague and the military used it to clean out the overcrowded Russian POW cages. Cost too much to feed and guard them. The rationale was that they never used them in the West. Roosevelt, as you might know, was planning to use mustard gas against the Germans in Russia until the Bari raid blew up a boat-full of mustard gas, and when Hitler learned of this, he threatened to let nerve gas loose on London and Washington. Amazing how quickly FDR backed off.

RTC: You do your homework, don’t you?

GD: Oh yes. Schreiber came over to us in Berlin after the war and we vetted him and sent him to San Antonio to set up a lab there to cultivate the plague. Again, we planned to use it against the Russians. I don’t what the Russians did to infuriate our sacred leaders, but I don’t think they would have deserved that. Schreiber got outed and had to be shipped back to Germany.

RTC: Drew Pearson was the man who did that.

GD: Whatever. Well, the Brits practiced BW when they gave the Indians smallpox-laced blankets back in the eighteenth century, but Mueller and I were discussing Schreiber’s project. Mueller was very angry when he heard this and rounded Schreiber up. Had to let him go. Orders from on high. Mueller said that there were no Customs agents at the borders to stop the spread of such filthiness right back from whence it came. But he told me about a CIA plan to ruin the Asian rice crop. That failed but only barely. It would have spread and ruined everyone’s rice crop. He said that creatures that dabbled in such things should be shot out of hand or they would destroy everyone, good or bad. I suppose the definition of good or bad depends on your politics, but the whole thing should be forbidden by law.

RTC: I believe it is, but only in theory.

GD: But they put the story out that AIDS came from monkeys in Africa and other funny stories.

RTC: Well, now it’s raging in Africa and they estimate that in ten years, everyone there will be infected. Of course, there is something to be said about depopulating Africa. They’re a bunch of incompetents who are sitting on very valuable natural resources, such as gold and uranium and when they all die, the treasures are there for the finding.

GD: That’s a bit cynical but true. But what about the American homosexuals?

RTC: The Christians and the far right would be in favor of exterminating them all. However, that having been said, we would lose so many really valuable public servants, not to mention all the florists and interior decorators.

GD: Thank God I’m not a Christian. They’re such filthy bigots. If they ever get into power here, I’ll move to some cleaner place.

RTC: I don’t see that happening, Gregory.

GD: I have no problems with the mainline faiths but the extremists are flat-out nuts and we don’t need that rampant and fanatical bigotry.

RTC: But it could be useful.

GD: But you can’t really control it. I’ve known a few Jesus freaks and, believe me, they are as nutty as they come. Most of them try to hide it from us sane ones but once in a while, it leaks out. It would be entertaining if the head of the Navy’s medical branch caught AIDS from his cousin or how about the DCI?

RTC: Now, now, Gregory, you must realize that accidents happen. Try not to be too judgmental about such things.

GD: It’s bloody difficult not to.

RTC: Look, Africa is full of people who are only a generation or two out of the jungle. They ran out the white people, who set up the business structure, and now they are running around with spears, eating each other. Why be concerned if they pass away and give the civilized part of the world access to their unused natural resources? After all, that’s why we killed off the head of the UN. He was interfering with the uranium business in the Congo so we had a little aircraft accident. We basically shot him out of the air. And that put an end to his meddling in important matters. Uranium, I don’t need to remind you, is vital for our weapons programs. Balance that against one meddling Swede and I don’t think there’s much of a problem.

GD: Well, for him…

RTC: Against the common good? You need to consider the practical priorities, Gregory. Believe me, we had no intention of causing AIDS. Our goal was to render a battlefield enemy incapable of combat, that’s all. These things sometimes happen and there is no reason at all to dwell on unexpected and certainly not planned consequences.

GD: Ah, remember that Lenin once said you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Of course, it didn’t originate with him and I know it won’t end there but you take the point because you articulate it. But I have to agree with Mueller when he tore into such projects. And if you know the Bible, remember that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword. Wars once were conducted by gentlemen with a certain amount of civility but those days are gone. Democracy, not kings, now rules and civility is dead.

RTC: You sound like a monarchist, Gregory.

GD: In many ways I am, Robert. I recall my German grandfather saying that democracy was government of the mentally misfit by the mentally mediocre and tempered by the saving grace of snobbery. Grandfather was usually right I remember once at one of his formal family dinners when one of my idiot aunts was going on about her constant attendance at the local Methodist church and her choir practices. My grandfather turned to me and told me, so the whole table could hear, that I ought to take a lesson in piety from my aunt. I recall saying, and I am not being funny here, that it seemed to me that there was considerable madness in aunt’s Methodism.

RTC: Did you actually say that, Gregory?

GD: Yes, and I was only ten, Robert.

RTC: Your family must have loved you.

GD: I don’t actually think so. When Grandfather said at some other occasion that my aunt and uncle were going to Lower Asbury Avenue, I said that they certainly would if they lived there long enough.

RTC: (Laughter) You must have been a most unpleasant child, Gregory.

GD: I do not suffer fools gladly, Robert. Lincoln has been misquoted. He said, or is supposed to have said, that God must love the common people because he made so many of them. What he actually said was that God must love fools because he had made so many of them.

RTC: Now you can see why our organization is so necessary. Imagine leaving state policy in the hands of idiots.

GD: Point of view here, Robert. Whose ox is gored? Destroying the Asian rice crop? Thousands or millions dead of starvation?

GTC: But consider the common good. These are Communists, Gregory, and they want to destroy our system.

GD: Another point of view once more, Robert. Yes, abstract Communism is utopian nonsense, just like abstract Christianity is. No one wants to work to help others, but they will help themselves. But that still does not justify slaughtering millions, does it?

RTC: But that is a very extreme and certainly tainted view, Gregory.

GD: Again, it’s the gored ox. But civilized people can disagree with each other and still remain civilized, Robert. Right?

RTC: I assume so but let’s try to be a bit more objective. You need to view the larger picture.

GD: Mueller said it so well to me once, just before one of my nice French dinners. He said that morals and ethics were excellent norms but hardly effective techniques.

RTC: Those sentiments I can agree with.

GD: A difference without much a distinction. Well, enough moralizing here. I’m glad to see that my naval friend was not just engaging in drunken babble.

RTC: I would strongly urge you not to take this issue any further. I would be concerned about your safety if you did.

GD: A point well taken. As a cross between a social Darwinist and a monarchist, even I can see the perils of contemplating moral issues from a neutral point of view.

RTC: And if you felt like giving me your talkative friend’s name and address, it might be appreciated. He ought to be spoken to.

GD: I doubt that I would want to do that, Robert. After all, I have never discussed our conversations with anyone else.

RTC: Point taken.

(Concluded 11:47 AM CST)




German foreign minister criticizes Trump’s ‘America first’ foreign policy

April 28, 2016


Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Thursday criticized U.S. Republican front-runner Donald Trump for a speech in which he said it would be “America first” if he were elected president.

Trump said on Wednesday that if elected, his foreign policy would leave European and Asian allies of the U.S. fending for themselves if they did not pay more for U.S. defense measures.

“I can only hope that the election campaign in the USA does not lack the perception of reality,” Steinmeier said.

“The world’s security architecture has changed and it is no longer based on two pillars alone. It cannot be conducted unilaterally,” he said, referring to Trump’s “America first” message.

Steinmeier said international conflicts could only be solved nowadays if heavyweights like the United States and Russia and others joined forces.

“No American president can get round this change in the international security architecture,” Steinmeier said, adding that this was why “‘America first’ is actually no answer to that”.

Steinmeier also said that Trump’s speech was contradictory, with the Republican calling on the one hand for ‘America first’ but on the other hand urging the United States to withdraw from the world: “Those two things don’t seem to fit together very well to me,” he said.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Michelle Martin Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)


North Korea rushes to re-test intermediate missile, fails again: South Korea

April 28, 2016

by Ju-Min Park


Seoul-North Korea fired what appeared to have been an intermediate range ballistic missile on Thursday but it crashed seconds after the test launch, South Korea’s defense ministry said, the second such failure in the run-up to next week’s ruling party congress.

Isolated North Korea has conducted a flurry of missile launches, in violation of U.N. resolutions, and tests of military technology ahead of the Workers’ Party congress that begins on May 6, and Thursday’s launch looks to have been hurried, according to a defense expert in Seoul.

A South Korean defense ministry official told Reuters that the launch at about 6:40 a.m. local time (2140 GMT Wednesday) from near the east coast city of Wonsan appeared to have been of a Musudan missile with a range of more than 3,000 km (1,800 miles).

It crashed within seconds, the official said.

“They are in a rush to show anything that is successful, to meet the schedule of a political event, the party congress,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum and a policy adviser to the South Korean navy.

“They need to succeed but they keep failing. They didn’t have enough time to fix or technically modify the system, but just shot them because they were in hurry,” he said.

Thursday’s apparent failure marks another setback for the North’s young leader Kim Jong Un. A similar missile launched on the April 15 birthday of his grandfather, the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, exploded in what the U.S. Defense Department called a “fiery, catastrophic” failure.

Some experts had predicted that North Korea would wait until it had figured out what went wrong in the previous failed Musudan missile launch before attempting another, a process that could take months and a sign that Thursday’s firing was rushed.

However, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency had reported on Tuesday that the North appeared to be preparing the second launch of a Musudan, which theoretically has the range to reach any part of Japan and the U.S. territory of Guam. According to South Korea, the missile has never been successfully flight-tested.

North Korea lists South Korea, the United States and Japan as its main enemies.

South Korea also says the North is ready to conduct a nuclear test at any time. It would be its fifth nuclear test.

“Signs for an imminent fifth nuclear test are being detected ahead of North Korea’s seventh Party Congress,” President Park Geun-hye said at a national security meeting on Thursday.


The defense ministry official, who declined to be identified by name, said South Korean and U.S. officials were analyzing the cause of Thursday’s missile crash, declining to comment on why news of the launch was revealed several hours after it took place.

Yonhap said the fired missile was not detected by South Korean military radar because it did not fly above a few hundred meters, and was spotted by a U.S. satellite.

The South Korean defense ministry told Reuters it could not confirm that report.

North Korea’s missile tests are in defiance of United Nations Security Council sanctions against the country, which were strengthened following a January nuclear test and a space rocket launch the following month.

On Saturday, North Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, which traveled about 30 km (18 miles) off its east coast.

(Writing by Tony Munroe,; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)


Look Who Funds Ukraine’s ‘Anti-Putin’ Internet TV

April 27, 2016

by Kenneth Rapoza


The best way to raise funds for a media project in Ukraine? Go full-bore anti-Russia to easily woo North American and European governments to give you money.

Kiev-based Hromadske.TV is the symbol of the info wars between Moscow and the Western world, a war that the West claims it is losing to the big guns in Moscow. So worried are the Europeans, Canadians and Americans that the Russians are beating them at their own game –the sexy world of news and entertainment — that they’re funding the company

According to their financial report for the year ending 2015, they have nearly a dozen foreign backers. Some long term, some more fly-by-night.

Who are they? They are the Canada International Development Agency (CIDA); the Embassy of The Netherlands in Ukraine; another Canadian charity called the Ukrainian World Foundation; independent DC-based Pact World; the U.S. Embassy of Ukraine’s Media Development Fund;

California based Internews Network; Swiss Cooperation Office and the Swiss International Development Agency; eBay EBAY +3.23% founder Pierre Omidyar’s fund is one of the four biggest donors; the Swedish International Liberal Center; Thomson Foundation; the German Embassy of Ukraine and the biggest funder of all, the European Commission’s Ukrainian delegation office.

The U.S. is the smallest donor while European and Canadian government backed agencies are the biggest.

Many of the donations are harmless funds from organizations like Pact and Thomson that train young reporters. But donations from the European Commission are a particularly interesting reveal given the anti-Russian government news flowing coming out of Hromadske.

The site was created by 43 year old Ukrainian journalist, Roman Skrypin, during the heat of the Euromaidan movement in 2013. Within a year, the site became one of the go-to spots for news from the activist’s point of view, all of whom were pro-Europe.

The movement began following the rejection of a trade deal between Brussels and Kiev by then-president Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was then “rewarded” by the Russians by getting a Gazprom subsidized natural gas agreement. Ukrainians in Kiev saw this as a slap in the face to national sovereignty, and Yanukovych was ousted from power in February of 2014, punished for kowtowing to Vladimir Putin. Ukraine quickly moved to install a pro-Western government and Hromadske was its young, aggressive, digital chronicler of events.

Not unlike Ukraine, Skrypin allegedly stole around $250,000 from the online media company he created. The channel is suing their ex-CEO.

Although Hromadske’s producers go after president Petro “Panama Papers” Poroshenko too, the media outlet can be relied on to push anti-Russia rhetoric about Putin’s aims in Ukraine and the Baltics, a three hour flight north of Kiev.

The Baltic story line has been one of particular interest to the West. Even Hillary Clinton has chimed in saying the Russians were coming to a Baltic country near you. Hromadske follows that narrative and others regularly seen in Russia-Ukraine headlines out of the U.S. and Europe.

For instance, this week it ran a story favorite to Western journalist sentiments about how the Crimean Tatars were under attack and being treated as third class citizens in Crimea, now owned by Russia. The Russian government barred a separate assembly for the minority group, which set off the firestorm.

Nevertheless, the Tatars are a constant cause of concern for the U.S. press. They make up 10.6% of the population of Crimea. By comparison, African-Americans are around 13% of the U.S. population.

Hromadske also ran a piece this week assuring readers that NATO and Russia are most definitely not friends, despite recent meetings between the two sides. Whew…  If they were actually talking to each other sensibly, and someone reported on it, that

would really throw a wrench in the narrative.

Interestingly enough, both the U.S., U.K. and Germany have sounded alarm bells about Russian television’s impact on public opinion in Ukraine and abroad. The Daily Beast, no friend of Putin, reported back in September that the reach of Russia Today, better known as RT, was not as big as Russia said it was. RT is Russia’s BBC.

Sure, the Russians fund this and the Russians fund that and the CIA funds this and the CIA funds that. But until governments are 100% transparent in what they spend on foreign ventures, it is safe to say that the West equally invests in promoting its official story line to influence public opinion as the Russians do.

Hromadske.TV is merely an example. American consumers of news media would be disgusted if they learned that the Huffington Post received grants from Russian think tanks. It may not lead to outright editorial input in daily operations, but journalists and newsrooms are notorious self-censors. And increasingly under financial strain. Who will bite the hand that feeds it? Judging by a small sampling of Hromadske’s daily coverage, not them.


Debacle at Doha

The Collapse of the Old Oil Order

by Michael T. Klare

Tom Dispatch

Sunday, April 17th was the designated moment.  The world’s leading oil producers were expected to bring fresh discipline to the chaotic petroleum market and spark a return to high prices. Meeting in Doha, the glittering capital of petroleum-rich Qatar, the oil ministers of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), along with such key non-OPEC producers as Russia and Mexico, were scheduled to ratify a draft agreement obliging them to freeze their oil output at current levels. In anticipation of such a deal, oil prices had begun to creep inexorably upward, from $30 per barrel in mid-January to $43 on the eve of the gathering. But far from restoring the old oil order, the meeting ended in discord, driving prices down again and revealing deep cracks in the ranks of global energy producers.

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Doha debacle. At the very least, it will perpetuate the low oil prices that have plagued the industry for the past two years, forcing smaller firms into bankruptcy and erasing hundreds of billions of dollars of investments in new production capacity. It may also have obliterated any future prospects for cooperation between OPEC and non-OPEC producers in regulating the market. Most of all, however, it demonstrated that the petroleum-fueled world we’ve known these last decades — with oil demand always thrusting ahead of supply, ensuring steady profits for all major producers — is no more.  Replacing it is an anemic, possibly even declining, demand for oil that is likely to force suppliers to fight one another for ever-diminishing market shares.

The Road to Doha

Before the Doha gathering, the leaders of the major producing countries expressed confidence that a production freeze would finally halt the devastating slump in oil prices that began in mid-2014. Most of them are heavily dependent on petroleum exports to finance their governments and keep restiveness among their populaces at bay.  Both Russia and Venezuela, for instance, rely on energy exports for approximately 50% of government income, while for Nigeria it’s more like 75%.  So the plunge in prices had already cut deep into government spending around the world, causing civil unrest and even in some cases political turmoil.

No one expected the April 17th meeting to result in an immediate, dramatic price upturn, but everyone hoped that it would lay the foundation for a steady rise in the coming months. The leaders of these countries were well aware of one thing: to achieve such progress, unity was crucial. Otherwise they were not likely to overcome the various factors that had caused the price collapse in the first place.  Some of these were structural and embedded deep in the way the industry had been organized; some were the product of their own feckless responses to the crisis.

On the structural side, global demand for energy had, in recent years, ceased to rise quickly enough to soak up all the crude oil pouring onto the market, thanks in part to new supplies from Iraq and especially from the expanding shale fields of the United States. This oversupply triggered the initial 2014 price drop when Brent crude — the international benchmark blend — went from a high of $115 on June 19th to $77 on November 26th, the day before a fateful OPEC meeting in Vienna. The next day, OPEC members, led by Saudi Arabia, failed to agree on either production cuts or a freeze, and the price of oil went into freefall.

The failure of that November meeting has been widely attributed to the Saudis’ desire to kill off new output elsewhere — especially shale production in the United States — and to restore their historic dominance of the global oil market. Many analysts were also convinced that Riyadh was seeking to punish regional rivals Iran and Russia for their support of the Assad regime in Syria (which the Saudis seek to topple).

The rejection, in other words, was meant to fulfill two tasks at the same time: blunt or wipe out the challenge posed by North American shale producers and undermine two economically shaky energy powers that opposed Saudi goals in the Middle East by depriving them of much needed oil revenues. Because Saudi Arabia could produce oil so much more cheaply than other countries — for as little as $3 per barrel — and because it could draw upon hundreds of billions of dollars in sovereign wealth funds to meet any budget shortfalls of its own, its leaders believed it more capable of weathering any price downturn than its rivals. Today, however, that rosy prediction is looking grimmer as the Saudi royals begin to feel the pinch of low oil prices, and find themselves cutting back on the benefits they had been passing on to an ever-growing, potentially restive population while still financing a costly, inconclusive, and increasingly disastrous war in Yemen.

Many energy analysts became convinced that Doha would prove the decisive moment when Riyadh would finally be amenable to a production freeze.  Just days before the conference, participants expressed growing confidence that such a plan would indeed be adopted. After all, preliminary negotiations between Russia, Venezuela, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia had produced a draft document that most participants assumed was essentially ready for signature. The only sticking point: the nature of Iran’s participation.

The Iranians were, in fact, agreeable to such a freeze, but only after they were allowed to raise their relatively modest daily output to levels achieved in 2012 before the West imposed sanctions in an effort to force Tehran to agree to dismantle its nuclear enrichment program.  Now that those sanctions were, in fact, being lifted as a result of the recently concluded nuclear deal, Tehran was determined to restore the status quo ante. On this, the Saudis balked, having no wish to see their arch-rival obtain added oil revenues.  Still, most observers assumed that, in the end, Riyadh would agree to a formula allowing Iran some increase before a freeze. “There are positive indications an agreement will be reached during this meeting… an initial agreement on freezing production,” said Nawal Al-Fuzaia, Kuwait’s OPEC representative, echoing the views of other Doha participants.

But then something happened. According to people familiar with the sequence of events, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and key oil strategist, Mohammed bin Salman, called the Saudi delegation in Doha at 3:00 a.m. on April 17th and instructed them to spurn a deal that provided leeway of any sort for Iran. When the Iranians — who chose not to attend the meeting — signaled that they had no intention of freezing their output to satisfy their rivals, the Saudis rejected the draft agreement it had helped negotiate and the assembly ended in disarray.

Geopolitics to the Fore

Most analysts have since suggested that the Saudi royals simply considered punishing Iran more important than lowering oil prices.  No matter the cost to them, in other words, they could not bring themselves to help Iran pursue its geopolitical objectives, including giving yet more support to Shiite forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.  Already feeling pressured by Tehran and ever less confident of Washington’s support, they were ready to use any means available to weaken the Iranians, whatever the danger to themselves.

“The failure to reach an agreement in Doha is a reminder that Saudi Arabia is in no mood to do Iran any favors right now and that their ongoing geopolitical conflict cannot be discounted as an element of the current Saudi oil policy,” said Jason Bordoff of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Many analysts also pointed to the rising influence of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, entrusted with near-total control of the economy and the military by his aging father, King Salman. As Minister of Defense, the prince has spearheaded the Saudi drive to counter the Iranians in a regional struggle for dominance. Most significantly, he is the main force behind Saudi Arabia’s ongoing intervention in Yemen, aimed at defeating the Houthi rebels, a largely Shia group with loose ties to Iran, and restoring deposed former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. After a year of relentless U.S.-backed airstrikes (including the use of cluster bombs), the Saudi intervention has, in fact, failed to achieve its intended objectives, though it has produced thousands of civilian casualties, provoking fierce condemnation from U.N. officials, and created space for the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Nevertheless, the prince seems determined to keep the conflict going and to counter Iranian influence across the region.

For Prince Mohammed, the oil market has evidently become just another arena for this ongoing struggle. “Under his guidance,” the Financial Times noted in April, “Saudi Arabia’s oil policy appears to be less driven by the price of crude than global politics, particularly Riyadh’s bitter rivalry with post-sanctions Tehran.” This seems to have been the backstory for Riyadh’s last-minute decision to scuttle the talks in Doha. On April 16th, for instance, Prince Mohammed couldn’t have been blunter to Bloomberg, even if he didn’t mention the Iranians by name: “If all major producers don’t freeze production, we will not freeze production.”

With the proposed agreement in tatters, Saudi Arabia is now expected to boost its own output, ensuring that prices will remain bargain-basement low and so deprive Iran of any windfall from its expected increase in exports. The kingdom, Prince Mohammed told Bloomberg, was prepared to immediately raise production from its current 10.2 million barrels per day to 11.5 million barrels and could add another million barrels “if we wanted to” in the next six to nine months. With Iranian and Iraqi oil heading for market in larger quantities, that’s the definition of oversupply.  It would certainly ensure Saudi Arabia’s continued dominance of the market, but it might also wound the kingdom in a major way, if not fatally.

A New Global Reality

No doubt geopolitics played a significant role in the Saudi decision, but that’s hardly the whole story. Overshadowing discussions about a possible production freeze was a new fact of life for the oil industry: the past would be no predictor of the future when it came to global oil demand.  Whatever the Saudis think of the Iranians or vice versa, their industry is being fundamentally transformed, altering relationships among the major producers and eroding their inclination to cooperate.

Until very recently, it was assumed that the demand for oil would continue to expand indefinitely, creating space for multiple producers to enter the market, and for ones already in it to increase their output. Even when supply outran demand and drove prices down, as has periodically occurred, producers could always take solace in the knowledge that, as in the past, demand would eventually rebound, jacking prices up again. Under such circumstances and at such a moment, it was just good sense for individual producers to cooperate in lowering output, knowing that everyone would benefit sooner or later from the inevitable price increase.

But what happens if confidence in the eventual resurgence of demand begins to wither? Then the incentives to cooperate begin to evaporate, too, and it’s every producer for itself in a mad scramble to protect market share. This new reality — a world in which “peak oil demand,” rather than “peak oil,” will shape the consciousness of major players — is what the Doha catastrophe foreshadowed.

At the beginning of this century, many energy analysts were convinced that we were at the edge of the arrival of “peak oil”; a peak, that is, in the output of petroleum in which planetary reserves would be exhausted long before the demand for oil disappeared, triggering a global economic crisis. As a result of advances in drilling technology, however, the supply of oil has continued to grow, while demand has unexpectedly begun to stall.  This can be traced both to slowing economic growth globally and to an accelerating “green revolution” in which the planet will be transitioning to non-carbon fuel sources. With most nations now committed to measures aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases under the just-signed Paris climate accord, the demand for oil is likely to experience significant declines in the years ahead. In other words, global oil demand will peak long before supplies begin to run low, creating a monumental challenge for the oil-producing countries.

This is no theoretical construct.  It’s reality itself.  Net consumption of oil in the advanced industrialized nations has already dropped from 50 million barrels per day in 2005 to 45 million barrels in 2014. Further declines are in store as strict fuel efficiency standards for the production of new vehicles and other climate-related measures take effect, the price of solar and wind power continues to fall, and other alternative energy sources come on line. While the demand for oil does continue to rise in the developing world, even there it’s not climbing at rates previously taken for granted. With such countries also beginning to impose tougher constraints on carbon emissions, global consumption is expected to reach a peak and begin an inexorable decline. According to experts Thijs Van de Graaf and Aviel Verbruggen, overall world peak demand could be reached as early as 2020.

In such a world, high-cost oil producers will be driven out of the market and the advantage — such as it is — will lie with the lowest-cost ones. Countries that depend on petroleum exports for a large share of their revenues will come under increasing pressure to move away from excessive reliance on oil. This may have been another consideration in the Saudi decision at Doha. In the months leading up to the April meeting, senior Saudi officials dropped hints that they were beginning to plan for a post-petroleum era and that Deputy Crown Prince bin Salman would play a key role in overseeing the transition.

On April 1st, the prince himself indicated that steps were underway to begin this process. As part of the effort, he announced, he was planning an initial public offering of shares in state-owned Saudi Aramco, the world’s number one oil producer, and would transfer the proceeds, an estimated $2 trillion, to its Public Investment Fund (PIF). “IPOing Aramco and transferring its shares to PIF will technically make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil,” the prince pointed out. “What is left now is to diversify investments. So within 20 years, we will be an economy or state that doesn’t depend mainly on oil.”

For a country that more than any other has rested its claim to wealth and power on the production and sale of petroleum, this is a revolutionary statement. If Saudi Arabia says it is ready to begin a move away from reliance on petroleum, we are indeed entering a new world in which, among other things, the titans of oil production will no longer hold sway over our lives as they have in the past.

This, in fact, appears to be the outlook adopted by Prince Mohammed in the wake of the Doha debacle.  In announcing the kingdom’s new economic blueprint on April 25th, he vowed to liberate the country from its “addiction” to oil.”  This will not, of course, be easy to achieve, given the kingdom’s heavy reliance on oil revenues and lack of plausible alternatives.  The 30-year-old prince could also face opposition from within the royal family to his audacious moves (as well as his blundering ones in Yemen and possibly elsewhere).  Whatever the fate of the Saudi royals, however, if predictions of a future peak in world oil demand prove accurate, the debacle in Doha will be seen as marking the beginning of the end of the old oil order.


Italy says uncovers possible plot to attack Rome, arrests suspects

April 28, 2016

by Emilio Parodi


Italian police issued arrest warrants on Thursday for six people suspected of conspiring to join Islamic State, and court documents said three of them had been discussing possible attacks on the Vatican and the Israeli embassy in Rome.

Four of the suspects – a couple living near Lake Como, a 23-year-old-man and a woman, all of them Moroccans – were detained in Italy on Thursday, Milan prosecutor Maurizio Romanelli told a news conference.

The other two – a Moroccan man and his Italian wife – left Italy last year, traveled to Iraq and Syria and are still on the loose, Romanelli added.

Italy has not suffered the kind of deadly Islamist attacks that hit France and Belgium, but authorities have arrested a number of people suspected of planning assaults.

Transcripts of wire-tapped phone conversations between three of the suspects, contained in the arrest warrant and seen by Reuters, mentioned the possibility of an attack against the Vatican and the Israeli embassy in the Italian capital.

“I swear I will be the first to attack them in this Italy of crusaders, I swear I’ll attack it, in the Vatican God willing,” one of the arrested men is quoted as telling the man on the run in the transcript.

In a separate conversation with another of the suspects arrested on Thursday, the same man said he wanted to hit the Israeli embassy in Rome and had contacted an Albanian man to get a gun.

“The new aspect here is that we are not talking about a generic indication (of an attack) but a specific person being appointed to act on Italian soil,” Romanelli said.

“Rome attracts attention because it is a destination for Christian pilgrims,” the prosecutor added.

A lawyer appointed to represent two of the suspects declined to comment, saying he was waiting for court papers.

A 22-year-old Somali asylum seeker who worked as an imam was detained in southern Italy last month on suspicion of planning an attack in Rome.

(Reporting By Emilio Parodi, writing by Isla Binnie; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Andrew Heavens)


Street protests in France ahead of debate on changes to labor code

Protesters have hit the French streets as proposed reforms to the country’s labor rules move closer to parliament. The battle lines are drawn in a make-or-break moment for the socialist government.

April 28, 2016


Protestors and police clashed in Marseille and the capital Paris Thursday, where a strike by air traffic controllers canceled 20 percent of all flights at Orly Airport and caused delays at Charles De Gaulle.

Riot police using tear gas also intervened in protests in cities such as Nantes on France’s western coast. Workers burned tires at road blocks across the country.

Cuts to the heart of Frenchness?

The government’s draft bill – which will be debated by parliament starting next Tuesday – aims to amend the 35-hour working week and relax other labor rules.

The 35-hour week would remain as the foundation of labor law, but the proposal would allow companies to organize alternative working times without industry-wide deals. Workers would also be able to put in a 48-hour week or 12-hour shifts.

The reforms have already been watered down under pressure following an earlier wave of protests.

Presidential hopeful

President Francois Hollande hopes to stand for re-election next year but his popularity can be judged by the 58 percent of French people who are opposed to the measures, according to a recent poll.

The labor code has traditionally been regarded in France as untouchable. Successive governments have made piecemeal amendments to its 10,000 articles, lifting restrictions on layoffs and working hours, but without a comprehensive overhaul.

The changes proposed now by Socialist Party Prime Minister Manuel Valls are seen as a test of the reformist credentials of the government and possibly also a turning point in France’s struggle with 10-percent unemployment nationwide. They are also seen as a test for Emmanuel Macron, the country’s economy minister, who is reportedly behind its most controversial parts.

On a wider level they also play into debates about the sustainability of France’s social and economic model, and moving the country – for many reluctantly – towards a less regulated approach to business.

Stand up and deliver

Union leaders are seeking to maintain the momentum of a movement that has staged four separate days of protest over the legislation.

The head of the large CGT union attacked the proposed law, saying it would allow employers to “short-circuit national regulation of basic worker rights by giving bosses greater freedom to set terms of pay, rest and overtime rates.”

“We want it withdrawn as long as the goal means the law is no longer the rule, and that every company can opt out on work time or overtime rates. That’s unacceptable,” Philippe Martinez said.

With traditional Labour Day rallies organised for Sunday May 1, local media are speculating about the risk of a more broad-based movement, even a rolling strike, as called for by some of the marchers.

An opinion poll published by BFM TV suggested almost 80 percent of French people fear an escalation in the protests.

Internal party resistance

Meanwhile, Socialist Party dissidents have also presented a “counter-reform,” with protests being led by former Socialist Party leader and author of the 35-hour week, Martine Aubry. She resigned from all her official positions within the party, condemning the law as a betrayal of the French “social contract.”


Traffic to Wikipedia terrorism entries plunged after Snowden revelations, study finds

April 27, 2016

by Joseph Menn


SAN FRANCISCO-Internet traffic to Wikipedia pages summarizing knowledge about terror groups and their tools plunged nearly 30 percent after revelations of widespread Web monitoring by the U.S. National Security Agency, suggesting that concerns about government snooping are hurting the ordinary pursuit of information.

A forthcoming paper in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal analyzes the fall in traffic, arguing that it provides the most direct evidence to date of a so-called “chilling effect,” or negative impact on legal conduct, from the intelligence practices disclosed by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Author Jonathon Penney, a fellow at the University of Toronto’s interdisciplinary Citizen Lab, examined monthly views of Wikipedia articles on 48 topics identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as subjects that they track on social media, including Al Qaeda, dirty bombs and jihad.

In the 16 months prior to the first major Snowden stories in June 2013, the articles drew a variable but an increasing audience, with a low point of about 2.2 million per month rising to 3.0 million just before disclosures of the NSA’s Internet spying programs. Views of the sensitive pages rapidly fell back to 2.2 million a month in the next two months and later dipped under 2.0 million before stabilizing below 2.5 million 14 months later, Penney found.

The traffic dropped even more to topics that survey respondents deemed especially privacy-sensitive. Viewership of a presumably “safer” group of articles about U.S. government security forces decreased much less in the same period.

Penney’s results, subjected to peer-review, offer a deeper dive into an issue investigated by previous researchers, including some who found a 5.0 percent drop in Google searches for sensitive terms immediately after June 2013. Other surveys have found sharply increased use of privacy-protecting Web browsers and communications tools.

Penney’s work may provide fodder for technology companies and others arguing for greater restraint and disclosure about intelligence-gathering. Chilling effects are notoriously difficult to document and so have limited impact on laws and court rulings.

More immediately, the research could aid a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Wikipedia’s nonprofit parent organization and other groups against the NSA and the Justice Department.

The year-old suit argues that intelligence collection from backbone Internet traffic carriers violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn; editing by Jonathan Weber)


U.S. high court approves rule change to expand FBI hacking power

April 28, 2016

by Dustin Volz


Washington-The Supreme Court on Thursday approved a rule change that would let U.S. judges issue search warrants for access to computers located in any jurisdiction despite opposition from civil liberties groups who say it will greatly expand the FBI’s hacking authority.

U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts transmitted the rules to Congress, which will have until Dec. 1 to reject or modify the changes to the federal rules of criminal procedure. If Congress does not act, the rules would take effect automatically.

Magistrate judges normally can order searches only within the jurisdiction of their court, which is typically limited to a few counties.

The U.S. Justice Department, which has pushed for the rule change since 2013, has described it as a minor modification needed to modernize the criminal code for the digital age, and has said it would not permit searches or seizures that are not already legal.

Google, owned by Alphabet Inc, and civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Access Now contend the change would vastly expand the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ability to conduct mass hacks on computer networks.

They say it also could run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

While Congress can reject amendments to the rules that govern federal courts, it rarely exercises that authority and is not expected to do so during a heated election year. And few lawmakers have shown interest in the subject.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, condemned the rule change as having “significant consequences for Americans’ privacy,” and vowed to introduce legislation to reverse it.

“Under the proposed rules, the government would now be able to obtain a single warrant to access and search thousands or millions of computers at once; and the vast majority of the affected computers would belong to the victims, not the perpetrators, of a cybercrime,” Wyden said in a statement.

The Justice Department’s quest to broaden warrant jurisdiction has not drawn as much attention as other recent confrontations over government access to digital information. These included the FBI’s standoff with Apple over encryption arising from the agency’s effort to unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in December’s San Bernardino massacre.

A Justice Department spokesman said the change was necessary because criminals increasingly use “anonymizing” technologies to conceal their identity online, and remote searches are often the only way to apprehend such suspects.

The change does not authorize any new authorities not already permitted by law, the spokesman said.


Letter Details FBI Plan for Secretive Anti-Radicalization Committees

April 28, 2016

by Cora Currier and Murtaza Hussain

The Intercept

Of the plans put forward by the federal government to identify and stop budding terrorists, among the least understood are the FBI’s “Shared Responsibility Committees.”

The idea of the committees is to enlist counselors, social workers, religious figures, and other community members to intervene with people the FBI thinks are in danger of radicalizing — the sort of alternative to prosecution and jail time many experts have been clamoring for. But civil liberties groups worry the committees could become just a ruse to expand the FBI’s network of informants, and the government has refused to provide details about the program.

The Intercept has obtained a letter addressed to potential committee members from the FBI, outlining how the process would work. While the letter claims that committees will not be used “as a means to gather intelligence,” it also makes clear that information from the committees may be shared widely by the FBI, including with spy agencies and foreign governments, and that committee members can be subpoenaed for documents or called to testify in cases against the people they are trying to help. At the same time, committee members are forbidden even from seeking advice from outside experts without permission from the FBI.

The letter implies that Shared Responsibility Committees (or SRCs) would emerge organically, as “multidisciplinary groups voluntarily formed in local communities — at the initiative of the group and sometimes with the encouragement of the FBI.” The FBI would refer “potentially violent extremists” to the SRC, whose members would design an intervention plan, possibly including mental health or substance abuse treatment and help with education or housing.

According to the letter, the FBI “may or may not” inform the committee of any ongoing investigation, and law enforcement could also decide to arrest or charge the referred individual without telling the SRC. If committee members give information to the FBI, “the FBI may share any information the SRC provides with other law enforcement agencies, members of the U.S. intelligence community, and foreign government agencies as needed.”

SRC members, in contrast, must sign confidentiality agreements, and cannot consult outside experts on treatment plans. The committee members get no special legal protection, raising concerns they could be held liable if an individual they are helping turns violent as feared.

“Our society has established a number of protective zones where you’re allowed to be candid: with your doctor, your religious clergy, even to a certain extent within a school system, with student privacy laws,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “This program that the FBI is setting up seems not to acknowledge those privileges, and in fact, seems to be intent on undermining them.”

The FBI declined to comment for this story.

But the letter closely echoes draft memoranda of understanding that were shown to activists in meetings with the FBI last summer and fall.

People who attended the meetings, alarmed by what they saw as an inappropriate commingling of law enforcement with mental health and education, complained to the Justice Department, and SRCs were reportedly put on hold.

Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was one of those who attended the initial meetings, and has been critical of the program.

“There are many reasons why we feel the SRC program is problematic, but the main reason is that the FBI seems to be outsourcing its intelligence gathering and surveillance to the community,” Ayoub told The Intercept. “There are issues with liability and information sharing, particularly with foreign governments. But it is also troubling that the people on these committees would be ordinary civilians with little training, who may well have their own personal biases.”

Following the initial backlash, SRCs drew attention again late last month, after the ISIS attacks in Belgium, when Politico ran a piece describing SRCs as part of the “FBI’s secret Muslim network” to spot would-be terrorists. But the FBI would not give examples of groups that were part of the program nor even specify in which cities it would be tested.

In a March letter in response to questions from Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, a Justice Department official said that “the FBI is in the process of rolling out a limited pilot of the [SRC] concept,” in order to “assess its viability and effectiveness.”

Countering Countering Violent Extremism

The controversy over SRCs is part of a broader debate about other government “countering violent extremism” (or CVE) efforts and about the surveillance of Muslim communities by various law enforcement agencies.

Federal CVE initiatives in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis and St. Paul have been criticized by Muslim community groups as stigmatizing and ineffective. They have also proven divisive. In Minnesota, for example, there has been a debate within the Somali-American community over whether taking much-needed funds for youth and educational programs paints Somali youth as particularly prone to extremism.

Arun Kundnani, a lecturer on terrorism studies at New York University, said the SRCs, as described in the letter, resemble a highly controversial British anti-radicalization program called Channel.

“Like in the U.S., the program began as a voluntary arrangement between community organizations, high schools, and law enforcement. But it has since become compulsory for all public sector agencies,” said Kundnani. (A wide range of public entities, including police, schools, and local government, must “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” under a U.K. counterterrorism law passed in July 2015. Government officials refer to the requirement as the “Prevent duty,” a reference to the Prevent anti-radicalization program to which Channel belongs.)

“In Britain, a lack of transparency has meant that questions and concerns about the program have remained unanswered,” Kundnani added. “Accordingly, there is little trust in the program at community level.”

German said one of his biggest concerns about SRCs is the secrecy surrounding their rollout.

“It’s a public-facing program, so one would think that everyone should have access to the same information,” he said. But like other CVE programs, “it seems they are being pushed to certain groups to the exclusion of others. That tends to be very divisive. It causes alienation of the ‘out’ group, and suspicion of the ‘in’ group.”

An overarching problem with CVE initiatives is that there is little evidence of a reliable set of indicators that someone is likely to become violent. As the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Counterterrorism and Human Rights stated in a recent report, “Many programs directed at radicalization are based on a simplistic understanding of the process as a fixed trajectory to violent extremism with identifiable markers along the way.”

Last year The Intercept published a questionnaire, developed by the National Counterterrorism Center, which police, social workers, and educators could use to score people based on risk factors for extremism, including poverty, depression, poor health, and isolation. Many of the indicators were highly subjective, while others were so commonplace as to be meaningless.

The FBI has its own controversial record of mixing counterterrorism and community engagement. In recent years, the American Civil Liberties Union uncovered cases in California where FBI agents attended events at mosques and Ramadan dinners and kept records on the participants. In 2009, an FBI initiative, which the FBI claims was quickly scrapped, used outreach to collect information on communities and build a “baseline profile of Somali individuals that are vulnerable to being radicalized.” And then there is the FBI’s widespread use of informants, believed to number at least 15,000 domestically. That figure, revealed in a 2008 budget request, is roughly 10 times the number of informants active during the era of J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO.

More recently, the FBI previewed a website called “Don’t Be A Puppet,” which offered a series of games challenging players to spot signs of radicalization. Groups asked by the FBI to give input on the program worried that it focused heavily on Islamic terrorism and would lead to stigmatization of Arab and Muslim youth.

FBI’s Efforts in the Dark

Last fall, when Thompson, the congressman, sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding more information about the committees and other CVE initiatives, he highlighted a recent report by the 9/11 Review Commission that argued the FBI’s “fundamental law enforcement and intelligence responsibilities do not make it an appropriate vehicle for the social and prevention role in the CVE mission.”

As Thompson was likely aware, SRCs are not the FBI’s first attempt to try and intervene with potential future criminals. “The whole premise [of SRCs] is to professionalize a process that has been ad hoc for a long time,” an unnamed law enforcement official told Politico.

After the September 11 attacks, the FBI reportedly worked with “deradicalizers,” members of the Muslim-American community who helped locate and dissuade youth who had joined or were at risk for joining terror groups. The FBI’s “Behavioral Analysis Unit,” meanwhile, has worked to divert people who appear to be plotting gun violence toward counseling. This program successfully disrupted nearly 150 shootings and violent attacks in 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder has claimed. FBI Director James Comey last year said of the unit, “I have these people who spend all day long thinking dark thoughts and doing research at Quantico, my Behavioral Analysis Unit. They have an incredibly important role to play in countering violent extremism.”

This January, the FBI released a presentation on “Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools,” which notes that many schools already have teams in place to handle troubled and potentially violent youth, teams that could “expand their scope to include violent extremism-specific concerning behavior.” The model of intervention and creation of an “off-ramp” described in the presentation echoes the SRC letter, although without precisely outlining the FBI’s role.

With SRCs, “the FBI has been unclear about what the threshold would be for even opening a case against an individual,” said Hoda Hawa, director of policy and advocacy at the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “The lack of transparency has been a challenging thing to overcome. At the moment, it’s not clear why an agency tasked with arresting people would also be handling community interventions.”


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