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ACLU calls for Massachusetts moratorium on controversial license plate readers

ACLU – 12/14/2013

BOSTON — The ACLU of Massachusetts calls for a moratorium on the use of controversial and unregulated license plate scanner technology in all Massachusetts police departments, following a Boston Globe exposé of problems in the Boston Police Department’s program.

The story, published in today’s Globe, shows that contrary to officials’ claims about why departments need the technology, police routinely do not respond to live ‘hits’ alerting them to the location of stolen cars. This suggests that the program is, as the ACLU feared, largely oriented towards compiling vast databases enabling the warrantless tracking of millions of innocent motorists.

In response to these alarming findings, the Boston Police Department announced it would suspend the program, at least until proper oversight and procedures are put into place.

“The Globe’s investigation into the Boston Police Department’s license plate reader program, based largely on a series of public records requests initiated nearly a year ago, confirms that police departments need outside oversight and guidance in order to responsibly use this powerful technology. We applaud the Boston police decision to suspend the program,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty project at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “In light of these disturbing revelations, no police department in the state should continue to use this technology until the legislature passes the License Plate Privacy Act. We need uniform statewide rules for departments’ use of plate readers.”

Currently the Massachusetts State Police and more than 50 cities and towns deploy license plate scanners, which snap photographs of each license plate they encounter, noting the time, date and location, and run the plate numbers against “hot lists” to identify stolen cars, outstanding warrants and other violations. Today, no license plate reader program in the state is subject to outside regulation.

“The License Plate Privacy Act will establish accountability and public transparency requirements to ensure that the kinds of abuses the Globe uncovered at the Boston Police Department are not happening in other cities and towns,” said Crockford. “Technologies that target ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives create tremendous opportunity for abuse, without keeping us safe. We must ensure that the law keeps pace with these new technologies.”

The License Plate Privacy Act allows departments to use license plate readers to identify cars associated with criminal suspects or crimes, while preventing the government from amassing databases containing the historical travel records of millions of innocent people.

“The Globe’s investigation makes crystal clear that departments cannot police their own use of this complex and powerful tool,” said Crockford. “The legislature must step in to provide some basic rules, as well as checks and balances to make sure license plate readers aren’t used for warrantless tracking of innocent drivers. The Joint Transportation Committee should recommend swift approval of the License Plate Privacy Act, the legislature should pass it, and the Governor should sign it into law.”

Advanced surveillance tools can work to promote public safety while simultaneously respecting the privacy and liberty interests that help our Commonwealth thrive, but in order for that to happen the law needs to catch up with the technology. The License Plate Privacy Act strikes the right balance. Police departments statewide should follow Boston’s lead and immediately halt their use of the technology until the legislature acts.

For more on the License Plate Privacy Act, go to:
https://aclum.org/privacy_agenda#LPA

To take action on this issue, go to:
https://ssl.capwiz.com/aclu/ma/issues/alert/?alertid=63008551&type=ML

For more information about automatic license plate readers, go to:
https://www.aclu.org/alpr

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Corruption, Deception, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Football game or tear gas and bullets? Palestinians put racist ad to test

By Haitham Sabbah • Jul 23, 2009

The row over a racist advert of Cellcom – an Israeli mobile phone operator, which shows Israel Occupation Forces soldiers playing football with Palestinians on both sides of the Apartheid Wall, continues.

In the Cellcom advert, IOF soldiers on patrol along the Wall stop their army jeep when it is hit by a soccer ball from the Palestinian side of the Wall. A game ensues, back and forth with the unseen Palestinians after a soldier dials up “reinforcements,” including two smiling women in uniform, to come and play.

The advertisement made by McCann Erickson, part of U.S. Interpublic Group, ends with the upbeat voiceover: “After all, what are we all after? Just a little fun.”

The advert has been extensively criticized for making light of the Palestinian suffering inflicted by the West Bank Apartheid Wall.

The Palestinians put controversial ad to test. A video recently posted on YouTube has tried to reenact the game in reality, and found that the result could not be further removed from the situation on the ground: when the Palestinians kick the ball to the other side of the Wall, what they get in return is a salvo of tear gas grenades and bullets.

Protesters in Bilin tested the “fun” claimed by Cellcom to find that it “smells” and can “kill you” if you play it with Israelis.

One of the activists in Bil’in said: “We wanted to show everyone how the soldiers really behave, contrary to what was shown in the ad. This is a message from the protestors on what really goes on at the separation fence – this is what we get from the soldiers, tear gas.”

The Israeli ad prompted Arab lawmakers in Israel to demand it be taken off air. MK Ahmed Tibi called to scrap this television commercial.

What the Israelis sees as “Just a little fun” is actually an Apartheid Wall that separates families and prevents children from reaching schools and clinics, yet the advertisement presents the Wall as though it were just a garden fence in Tel Aviv.

Cellcom, however, has remained defiant and stood by the commercial.

“We are a communications company that facilitates human interaction,” they said. “We don’t deal with politics. We’ve had very positive feedback about the advert. There was absolutely no cynical intention behind it.”

The ad went out during the same week as Palestinians marked the fifth anniversary of a World Court ruling that Israel’s walls and fences in the West Bank were illegal.

Hagai Matar, an Israeli activist, said that the violent atmosphere near the fence was far from resembling the pastoral, pleasant atmosphere reflected in the Cellcom advert.

“While the people of Bilin suffer from frequent and repeated harassments by the army, while the residents are subjected to nightly arrests, violence and tear gas, not only during rallies but also in their yards, the people of Bilin continue to use amusing and creative ways to protest the separation fence,” he said.

I got really too nauseous watching the ad. You see the Israeli occupation forces playing with ?!… the people that they are incarcerating behind the Apartheid Wall. But the most grotesque and disgusting part of this TV ad is the fact that the Palestinians basically aren’t seen. Why? Because they are not there waiting for the football, but for … This ad correctly portray the occupation as monsters or aliens … This is the alienation that Israeli society feels toward the Palestinian people. In reality, if a Palestinian comes close to the Apartheid Wall to return a football … he is likely to get shot.

Cellcom should take this racist commercial off the air immediately and apologies for the Palestinian people. Refusing to do so only confirms the fact that racism is a culture that is widely adopted, believed and practiced in Israel.

Source

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Timeless or most popular, Video | , , , , | 4 Comments

US to hold talks with Syrian jihadists in Turkey: rebel source

Al-Akhbar | December 14, 2013

Syrian rebel commanders from the Islamic Front which seized control of bases belonging to Western-backed rebels last week are due to hold talks with US officials in Turkey in coming days, rebel and opposition sources said on Saturday.

The expected contacts between Washington and the jihadist fighters reflect the extent to which the Islamic Front alliance has eclipsed the more moderate Free Syrian Army brigades – which Western and Arab powers tried in vain to build into a force able to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

The talks could also decide the future direction of the Islamic Front, which is engaged in a standoff with yet more radical takfiri fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

A rebel fighter with the Islamic Front said he expected the talks in Turkey to discuss whether the United States would help arm the front and assign to it responsibility for maintaining order in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria.

He declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the talks, and gave no further details. Diplomatic sources in Turkey said that America’s Syria envoy Robert Ford was expected in Istanbul soon but his schedule was not yet confirmed.

The Islamic Front, formed by the unification of six major Islamist groups last month, seized control a week ago of weapons stores nominally under the control of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Command (SMC).

It has since said it was asked to take over the base by the SMC to protect it from attack by ISIL fighters. Whether or not the move was requested, it demonstrated how little power the Western-backed SMC wields in rebel-held Syria.

An SMC rebel commander also said he had been told the Islamic Front would hold talks with US officials in Turkey in the coming days.

The infighting and rivalries among the rebels have undermined their fight against Assad in Syria’s 2-1/2 year civil war.

The conflict has also reduced whole city districts across Syria to rubble, causing tens of billions of dollars of damage, driven 2 million refugees to seek safety abroad and made millions more homeless and vulnerable to a winter storm which has covered the region in snow and biting rain.

The Islamic Front rebel told Reuters that rivalry with the ISIL had already led to a spate of hostage-taking between the two sides, and that the Front’s decision to talk to the Americans had further escalated tension.

Although he described the two Islamist forces as ideologically close, he said ISIL appeared set on confrontation, perhaps encouraged by some of their backers in Saudi Arabia.

“The front has to talk to ISIL via messengers because of the tense situation,” he said. “ISIL sees things in black and white. They are very stubborn.”

“So far the Islamic Front has been restraining itself, having some sort of dialogue with ISIL,” the rebel said. But he said that unless the hostages were released soon “there will be more discussions and a different decision will be taken.”

Contacts with the United States will not be undertaken lightly by the Islamic Front, which includes Salafi groups such as Ahrar al-Sham brigades which are mainly hostile to the West and have rejected US-Russian backed UN peace talks for Syria, due to be held in Switzerland next month.

But their leaders have compared engaging with Washington to the Prophet Mohammad’s temporary and tactical truces with enemy tribes as he built up his power.

The US State Department, asked earlier this month whether it was in contact with Islamist rebels in Syria, said it wanted to work with a range of groups to try to persuade them to be part of the peace negotiations.

Rebels control a large region of northern and eastern Syria but have failed to unite in a single military force, allowing Assad’s army to make some inroads around the northern city of Aleppo in recent weeks.

The army, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, has also recaptured towns and suburbs around Damascus and along the main highway north from the capital towards the central city of Homs.

Last week’s Islamic Front seizure of the SMC weapons bases led the United States and Britain to suspend non-lethal aid into northern Syria. But the opposition Syrian National Coalition said on Friday that more help, not less, was desperately needed.

“We know that we have a problem, we know that we don’t have the organized military institutions that we want. We know of the challenges of the loose organization of the Free Syrian Army,” Coalition chief of staff Monzer Abkik said in London.

Appealing for international support to restructure the rebel forces, he said the alternative to an overhaul of their military operations was “complete chaos.”

“There are many, many groups fighting the regime and fighting each other and fighting al-Qaeda. It is a complete mess on the ground,” he said.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , | Leave a comment

Mexico Opens Energy Industry to Foreign Investment

By Diego Cupolo | Upside Down World | December 13, 2013

In a historic move, Mexican congress members have voted to open the state-controlled energy sector to foreign investment for the first time in 75 years. On Thursday, President Enrique Peña Nieto applauded the legislation, which is poised to become the nation’s most significant economic reform since the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement.

“The energy reform marks a fundamental transformation that will allow us to increase our energy sovereignty and self-sufficiency in Mexico,” Peña Nieto wrote on Twitter Thursday morning. “It will also drive productivity, economic growth and job creation in Mexico.”

The legislation will alter several articles of Mexico’s Constitution, allowing private multinationals to develop the country’s oil and natural gas resources for the first time since 1938, when former President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the energy industry with the creation of Pemex, or Petróleos Mexicanos.

Though Mexico still owns its natural resources, foreign companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp will be able to search, drill and open gasoline stations under contract with the Mexican state.

The end of the Pemex energy monopoly is expected to bring Mexico an additional $20 billion in foreign investment per year as multinationals race to tap vast deepwater oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the region is the largest unexplored oil patch outside the Arctic Circle.

Yet in a country where local oil production has long been a source of national pride and is often equated with sovereignty, the reform has been heavily contested by opposition leaders from the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), who have said the measure should go before a national referendum.

“We warn all private, national and, above all, transnational businesses and companies that want to come and invest in Mexico and petroleum, in order to expropriate Mexican petroleum, to think again,” said Jesus Zambrano, president of the PRD. “The most probable outcome is that within a year and a half, a recall referendum will reject this change.”

On Thursday, PRD members blocked the entrances to the lower house’s main voting hall to prevent discussion of the bill. Antonio Garcia, a PRD lawmaker, even stripped down to his underwear during to symbolize a nation stripped of its wealth.

Regardless, members from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the conservative National Action Party (PAN), met in an adjacent conference room where they passed the legislation with 353-134 vote. Peña Nieto is expected to sign the bill in February after it has been ratified by state legislatures.

Currently, Mexico is the 10th largest oil producer in the world and proponents of the reform say it could propel the nation into the top five by taking advantage of new extraction and deepwater exploration technologies that Pemex cannot afford.

After peaking in 2004, Mexico’s oil production has declined by 25 percent to 2.5 million barrels a day. During the same period, Pemex has more than doubled operational spending to $20 billion per year, gaining the company a reputation for inefficiency and corruption.

Still, Pemex revenues provide a third of Mexican government’s annual budget and the company’s 160,000 employees face an uncertain future as lawmakers finalize the reform details, which include the removal of all five representatives of Pemex’s worker’s union from the company board.

To put the PRI agenda in perspective, The Financial Times said “energy is the climax of a sweeping agenda of reforms, including telecoms, labor, tax and education, which Enrique Peña Nieto has championed in his first year as president.”

Sources:
El Pais: México cambia su historia energética a contrarreloj – http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2013/12/12/actualidad/1386888542_011957.html
Bloomberg: Mexico Passes Oil Bill Seen Luring $20 Billion a Year – http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-12/mexico-lower-house-passes-oil-overhaul-to-break-state-monopoly.html
New York Times: Mexico’s Pride, Oil, May Be Opened to Outsiders – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/13/world/americas/mexico-oil.html?hpw&rref=business
Financial Times: Mexico courts foreign investment with energy reform – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/e2242e2c-632e-11e3-886f-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2nIk7FhZe
Wall Street Journal: Mexico Congress Passes Historic Energy Bill – http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303932504579254013051981266

Reuters: Mexican Congress passes radical shake-up of oil industry – http://ca.reuters.com/article/businessNews/idCABRE9BB16820131212

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Economics | , , , | Leave a comment

NAFTA at 20: State of the North American Worker

Twenty years since its passage, NAFTA has displaced workers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, depressed wages, weakened unions, and set the terms of the neoliberal global economy.

By Jeff Faux | Foreign Policy in Focus | December 13, 2013

Foreign Policy In Focus is partnering with Mexico’s La Jornada del campo magazine, where an earlier version of this commentary appeared, to publish a series of pieces examining the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) 20 years since its implementation. This is the first in the series.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, was the door through which American workers were shoved into the neoliberal global labor market.

By establishing the principle that U.S. corporations could relocate production elsewhere and sell their products back into the United States, NAFTA undercut the bargaining power of American workers, which had driven the expansion of the middle class since the end of World War II. The result has been 20 years of stagnant wages and the upward redistribution of income, wealth, and political power.

A Template for Neoliberal Globalization

NAFTA impacted U.S. workers in four principal ways.

First, it caused the loss of some 700,000 jobs as companies moved their production to Mexico, where labor was cheaper. Most of these losses came in California, Texas, Michigan, and other states where manufacturing is concentrated (and where many immigrants from Mexico go). To be sure, there were some job gains along the border in the service and retail sectors resulting from increased trucking activity. But these gains are small in relation to the losses, and have generally come in lower paying occupations. The vast majority of workers who lost jobs from NAFTA, therefore, suffered a permanent loss of income.

Second, NAFTA strengthened the ability of U.S. employers to force workers to accept lower wages and benefits. As soon as NAFTA became law, corporate managers began telling their workers that their companies intended to move to Mexico unless the workers lowered the cost of their labor. In the midst of collective bargaining negotiations with unions, some companies even started loading machinery into trucks that they said were bound for Mexico. The same threats were used to fight union organizing efforts. The message was: “If you vote to form a union, we will move south of the border.” With NAFTA, corporations also could more easily blackmail local governments into giving them tax breaks and other subsidies, which of course ultimately meant higher taxes on employees and other taxpayers.

Third, NAFTA drove several million Mexican workers and their families out of the agriculture and small business sectors, which could not compete with the flood of products—often subsidized—from U.S. producers. This dislocation was a major cause of the dramatic increase of undocumented workers in the United States, putting further downward pressure on North American wages, particularly in already lower-paying labor markets.

Fourth, and ultimately most importantly, NAFTA created a template for the rules of the emerging global economy, in which the benefits would flow to capital and the costs to labor. Among other things, NAFTA granted corporations extraordinary protections against national labor laws that might threaten profits, set up special courts—chosen from rosters of pro-business experts—to judge corporate suits against governments, and at the same time effectively denied legal status to workers and unions to defend themselves in these new cross-border jurisdictions.

The U.S. governing class—in alliance with the financial elites of its trading partners—applied the NAFTA principles to the World Trade Organization, to the policies of the World Bank and IMF, and to the deal under which employers of China’s huge supply of low-wage workers were allowed access to U.S. markets in exchange for allowing American multinational corporations to invest there. The NAFTA doctrine of socialism for capital and free markets for labor also drove U.S. policy in the Mexican peso crisis of 1994-95, the Asian financial crash of 1997, and the global financial meltdown of 2008. In each case, the U.S. government organized the rescue of banks and corporate investors while letting the workers fend for themselves.

A Watershed in U.S. Politics

In U.S. politics, the passage of NAFTA under President Bill Clinton signaled that the elites of the Democratic Party—the “progressive” major party—had accepted the reactionary economic ideology of Ronald Reagan.

A “North American Accord” was first proposed by the Republican Reagan in 1979, a year before he was elected president. A decade later, his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush, negotiated the final agreement with Mexico and Canada.

At the time, the Democrats who controlled Congress would not approve the agreement. And when Democrat Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, it was widely assumed that the political pendulum would swing back from the right, and that therefore NAFTA would never pass. But Clinton surrounded himself with economic advisers from Wall Street and in his first year pushed the approval of NAFTA through the Congress.

Despite the rhetoric, the central goal of NAFTA was not “expanding trade.” After all, the United States, Mexico, and Canada had been trading goods and services with each other for three centuries. NAFTA’s central purpose was to free American corporations from U.S. laws protecting workers and the environment. Moreover, it paved the way for the rest of the neoliberal agenda in the United States: the privatization of public services, the deregulation of finance, and the destruction of the independent trade union movement.

The inevitable result was to undercut the living standards of workers all across North America: Wages and benefits have fallen behind worker productivity in all three countries. Moreover, despite declining wages in the United States, the gap between the typical American and typical Mexican worker in manufacturing remains the same. Even after adjusting for differences in living costs, Mexican workers continue to make about 30 percent of the wages that workers make in the United States. Thus, NAFTA is both symbol and substance of the global “race to the bottom.”

Creating a New Template

Here in North America there are two alternative political strategies for change.

One is repeal: NAFTA gives each nation the right to opt out of the agreement. The problem is that by now the three countries’ economies and populations have become so integrated that dis-integration could cause widespread dislocation, unemployment, and a substantial drop in living standards.

The other option is to build a cross-border political movement to rewrite NAFTA in a way that gives ordinary citizens rights and labor protections at least equal to the current privileges of corporate investors. For example, all three NAFTA nations should adopt similar high standards for the protection of free trade unions, collective bargaining, and health and safety—and their citizens should have the right to sue other countries for violations.

This would obviously not be easy. But a foundation has already been laid by the growing collaboration among immigrant, trade unionist, human rights, and other activist organizations in all three counties.

If such a movement could succeed in drawing up a new continent-wide social contract, North American economic integration—instead of being a blueprint for worker exploitation—might just become a model for bringing social justice to the global economy.

Jeff Faux is the founder, and now Distinguished Fellow, of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC. His latest book is The Servant Economy.

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Economics, Environmentalism, Solidarity and Activism, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Excuse to throw us out’: Spanish cave dwellers say authorities’ actions ‘unlawful’

RT | December 14, 2013

A rare way of life is under threat in Spain where authorities have renewed attempts to evict dozens of cave-dwelling families from their homes in an ancient settlement in Granada. Residents say “it’s a disgrace”, and are determined to resist eviction.

Throughout the week dozens of activists have been protesting the eviction they deem unlawful and unfair.

The San Miguel cave dwellers say they have been the victims of the authorities, violating their human rights, and evicting people for cynical reasons only.

San Miguel is the site of one of the four main cave neighborhoods in Southern Spain. For over a thousand years, hundreds of caves carved out of the eye-catching hilltop have been home to gypsies and other homeless settlers.

Abandoned in the 1960s, in recent times eight caves have been occupied by squatters, who reclaimed them to turn them into modest and unconventional homes.

However, several years ago the council announced plans to turn the site into a tourist attraction. The Sacramento caveman heritage would include flamenco caves for tourists, a number of “artisan” and souvenir workshops, as well the main landmark – a hotel – which, according to the council, would “respect the harmony of the area”. The caves happen to be located in a lucrative location, affording the best views over the city, which relies on a robust tourism economy.

The authorities aren’t ruling out the possibility of going to court to get an eviction order. According to the cave dwellers, the court in Strasbourg has already ruled that eviction must be suspended until they have been provided with proper accommodation.

On Thursday, Granada’s city council proposed providing social housing to the cave dwellers.

RT’s Lucy Kafanov, reporting from the site, spoke to local residents and activists who told her it’s the third attempt by the authorities to clear cave dwellings in the past six years. Officials have repeatedly claimed that the “hand-made” homes built there are dangerous.

A spokesman for the cave dwellers argues their homes may be lacking fancy furniture but are perfectly habitable. Juan Antonio Parra told RT that should eviction take place this time round, people will band together to resist it.

“We certainly will resist, using every legal means available. Which is more than can be said of the city council, whose actions have been unlawful and underhand all along the way. First, they have no property rights on the caves. Secondly, they never did an expert assessment of the caves’ condition. There have been no cave-ins in any of the caves that the city council proclaimed to be crumbling as far back as three years ago, not even after the heavy rainfall we have had. So we can see their lie for what it is: they just need an excuse to throw us out.”

Parra says that what is happening these days is in fact highly reminiscent of past events.

“This has happened before, the seizures and the evictions: under the Francoist regime, and before that, during the reign of the Catholic kings. These caves have always sheltered Arabs, Gypsies, etc. The past still prevails in this part of Granada, so we believe the authorities will not succeed here.”

Local activist, Antonio Redondo, believes that plans to evict the cave dwellers have nothing to do with worries about comfortable and safe living conditions.

“It is a disgrace. This has nothing to do with concerns for the people. The government cares nothing for the fact that there are some 500 evictions administered in Andalusia every day. Instead, they keep trying to exploit the situation. They insist on eviction rather than carry out an assessment of the caves’ condition, or call a town hall meeting with the cave dwellers in order to explain the makeover plan and offer to relocate the inhabitants. This shows how totally unconcerned they are about these people.”

The government of Andalusia is expected to bring experts to the site to evaluate it. The cave dwellers are also looking for independent architects to confirm that their houses are a safe place to live.

In a bid to resolve the escalating crisis, the activists are planning to establish a co-op tenant council to help sort out property rights.

“After all, these caves belong to the original settlers. That makes the city council complicit of a fraudulent sale scheme, where all of their assets are effectively illegal,” Parra told RT.

“Right now, we are attending various meetings to figure out what our nearest future looks like.”

So far initial plans to convert the caves into a tourist area have been canceled due to the global economic crisis.

Spain, whose banks suffered a severe blow during the financial downturn, is said to be slowly emerging from a deep economic slump. Although Spain’s economy grew 0.1 percent in the July-to-September period, it still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the industrialized world. Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund predicted that the debt-ridden country is likely to be saddled with unemployment of about 25 percent until up to 2018. Unpopular austerity measures have led to riots across the country.

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Corruption, Economics | , , , | Leave a comment

Who’s Excited About Another Decade in Afghanistan?

By David Swanson | FDL | December 12, 2013

With 196 nations in the world and U.S. troops already in at least 177 of them, there aren’t all that many available to make war against. Yet it looks like both Syria and Iran will be spared any major Western assault for the moment. Could this become a trend? Is peace on the horizon? Are celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s nonviolence sincere?

The glitch in this optimistic little photo-shopped storyline starts with an A and rhymes with Shmafghanistan.

The U.S. public has been telling pollsters we want all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan “as soon as possible” for years now. We’re spending $10 million per hour, and $81 billion in the new annual budget, on an operation that many top officials and experts have said generates hostility toward our country. The chief cause of death for U.S. troops in this operation is suicide.

And now, at long last, we have an important (and usually quite corrupt) politician on our side, responding to public pressure and ready — after 12 years — to shut down Operation Enduring … and Enduring and Enduring.

Oddly, this politician’s name is not President Barack Obama. When Obama became president, there were 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He escalated to over 100,000 troops, plus contractors. Now there are 47,000 troops these five years later. Measured in financial cost, or death and destruction, Afghanistan is more President Obama’s war than President Bush’s. Now the White House is trying to keep troops in Afghanistan until “2024 and beyond.”

Sadly, the politician who has taken our side is not in Washington at all. There are a few Congress Members asking for a vote, but most of their colleagues are silent. When Congress faced the question of missiles into Syria, and the question was front-and-center on our televisions, the public spoke clearly. Members of both parties, in both houses of Congress, said they heard from more people, more passionately, and more one-sidedly than ever before.

But on the question of another decade “and beyond” in Afghanistan, the question has not been presented to Congress or the public, and we haven’t yet found the strength to raise it ourselves. Yet someone has managed to place himself on our side, namely Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Like the Iraqi government before him, Karzai is refusing to agree to an ongoing occupation with U.S. forces immune from prosecution under Afghan laws. Before signing off on an ongoing military presence, Karzai says he would like the U.S. to stop killing civilians and stop kicking in people’s doors at night. He’d like the U.S. to engage in peace negotiations. He’d like Afghan prisoners freed from Guantanamo. (Of the 17 still there, 4 have long since been cleared for release but not released; none has been convicted of any crime.) And he’d like the U.S. not to sabotage the April 2014 Afghan elections.

Whatever we think of Karzai’s legacy — my own appraisal is unprintable — these are remarkably reasonable demands. And at least as far as U.S. public opinion goes, here at long last is a post-invasion ruler actually engaged in spreading democracy.

What about the Afghans? Should we “abandon” them? We told pollsters we wanted to send aid to Syria, not missiles. Humanitarian aid to Afghanistan — or to the entire world, for that matter, including our own country — would cost a fraction of what we spend on wars and war preparations (51.4% of the new federal budget), and could quite easily make us the most beloved nation on earth. I bet we’d favor that course of action if we were asked — or if we manage to both raise the question and answer it.

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Militarism, Progressive Hypocrite | , , , | 1 Comment

Four Kaupthing Banking Executives Sentenced To Prison

By Paul Fontaine – Grapevine – December 12, 2013

In a landmark ruling, Reykjavík District Court sentenced four former executives of Kaupthing Bank to between 3 and 5 1/2 years in prison for financial crimes dating back to 2008.

Vísir reports that former Kaupthing director Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson received the heaviest sentence: five and a half years, minus time already spent in custody. He was also sentenced to pay 33.4 million ISK in legal fees.

Former Kaupthing chairperson – and former Interpol fugitive – Sigurður Einarsson was sentenced to five years, and a total of 14.3 million ISK in legal fees.

Investor Ólafur Ólafsson was sentenced to three and a half years, and 20.6 million ISK in legal fees.

Former director of the Luxemborg branch of Kaupthing Magnús Guðmundsson was sentenced to three years in prison.

In the court’s opinion, the four conspired to conceal the fact that one of the investors in Kaupthing, Mohammad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, owned his 5.01% stake in the bank thanks to money lent to him by the bank itself.

Investigations into the four go back to the Icelandic bank crash of autumn 2008. In the wake of a report on the contributing causes of the crash from the Special Investigative Commission, the Special Prosecutor’s Office was created. The office targeted many top bank officials from Glitnir and Kaupthing.

Eva Joly, who at one point served as an assistant to the Special Prosecutor, told the Grapevine last year that Iceland should “be proud you invested in these investigations”, while cautioning to have patience – investigations were three years along at the time.

The four are expected to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. All of their prison sentences are non-probationary.

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Corruption, Economics | , , , | Leave a comment

Paul Krugman’s Ignorant Assessment Of TPP Shows What A Nefarious Proposal It Is

By Mike Masnick | Techdirt | December 13, 2013

… It appears that Krugman has decided to discuss the TPP agreement after many of his readers asked him to weigh in. And his response is basically to dismiss the entire agreement as not really being a big deal one way or the other. The entire crux of his analysis can be summed up as: trade between most of the countries in the negotiations are already quite liberalized, so removing a few more trade barriers is unlikely to have much of a consequence. Therefore, the agreement is no big deal and he doesn’t get why people are so up in arms over it.

On his basic reasoning, he’s correct. There’s little trade benefit to be gained here. In fact, some countries have already realized this. But that’s why the TPP is so nefarious. It’s being pitched as a sort of “free trade deal,” and Krugman analyzes it solely on that basis. That’s exactly what the USTR would like people to think, and it’s part of the reason why they’ve refused to be even the slightest bit transparent about what’s actually in the agreement.

Instead, the TPP has always been a trade liberalization agreement in name only. Sure, there’s some of that in there, but it’s always been about pushing for regulatory change in other countries around the globe, using trade as the club to get countries to pass laws that US companies like. That’s why there’s an “IP chapter” that is entirely about building up barriers to trade in a so-called “free trade” agreement. It’s why a key component of the bill is the corporate sovereignty provisions, frequently called “investor state dispute settlement” (in order to lull you to sleep, rather than get you angry), which allow companies to sue countries if they pass laws that those companies feel undermine their profits (e.g., if they improve patent laws to reject obvious patents — leading angry pharmaceutical companies to demand half a billion dollars in lost “expected profits.”)

Krugman judging the TPP solely on its net impact on trade is exactly what TPP supporters are hoping will happen, so it’s disappointing that he would fall into that trap. Thankfully, economist Dean Baker, who does understand what’s really in TPP, was quick to write up a powerful and detailed response to Krugman that is worth reading.

However it is a misunderstanding to see the TPP as being about trade. This is a deal that focuses on changes in regulatory structures to lock in pro-corporate rules. Using a “trade” agreement provides a mechanism to lock in rules that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get through the normal political process.

To take a couple of examples, our drug patent policy (that’s patent protection, as in protectionism) is a seething cesspool of corruption. It increases the amount that we pay for drugs by an order of magnitude and leads to endless tales of corruption. Economic theory predicts that when you raise the price of a product 1000 percent or more above the free market price you will get all forms of illegal and unethical activity from companies pursuing patent rents.

Anyhow, the U.S. and European drug companies face a serious threat in the developing world. If these countries don’t enforce patents in the same way as we do, then the drugs that sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars per prescription in the U.S. may sell for $5 or $10 per prescription in the developing world. With drug prices going ever higher, it will be hard to maintain this sort of segmented market. Either people in the U.S. will go to the cheap drugs or the cheap drugs will come here.

For this reason, trade deals like the TPP, in which they hope to eventually incorporate India and other major suppliers of low cost generics, can be very important. The drug companies would like to bring these producers into line and impose high prices everywhere. (Yes, we need to pay for research. And yes, there are far more efficient mechanisms

for financing research than government granted patent monopolies.)

Full article

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Corruption, Economics | , , , , | Leave a comment

Spain ‘won’t have enough tanks’: Catalonia to vote on independence, defy Madrid

RT | December 13, 2013

The Catalan regional parliament has set November next year for a referendum on the Spanish province’s independence. The government in Madrid blandly said the vote won’t happen, but activists wonder how it might be stopped.

Catalonia’s four pro-independence parties, which hold a majority in the regional parliament, announced Thursday that the rich industrial Spanish province will hold a referendum on whether to gain greater autonomy or even total independence from the country’s central government.

The vote’s preliminary date is November 9, Catalan regional government head Artur Mas said. The people will be asked two questions: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state?” and “Do you want that state to be independent?”

The former question was added for those Catalans who seek to change Spain into a federation, with Catalonia forming part of it. According to a Metroscopia poll in newspaper El Pais last month, 46 percent of Catalans favor separatism versus 42 percent who wish to remain within Spain. The support for greater autonomy, however, is very strong.

Just minutes after the announcement Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon rejected the idea, saying it would be unconstitutional.

“The vote will not be held,” he said.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy spoke out later in the day, saying his government will not allow the Catalan referendum to happen.

“As prime minister I have sworn to uphold the constitution and the law and, because of this, I guarantee that this referendum will not happen,” he stressed. “Any discussion or debate on this is out of the question.”

But in Catalonia pro-independence moods are not withered by Madrid’s rebuke. They say the central government would have few options, if it does want to stop the referendum.

“They will have to show how they are going to prevent a vote from happening,” Elisenda Paluzie, professor of economics at the University of Barcelona, told RT. “What are they going to do? Will they send the police to the polling stations? It’s up to them to show what kind of democracy they support.”

Catalonia, a land with strong cultural roots and its own language, has had strong pro-independence sentiment for decades and shares a painful history with the rest of Spain. It was oppressed during the rule of military dictator Francisco Franco (1939-75), who stripped it of autonomous powers and issued a ban on Catalan language to fight separatist tendencies.

The situation now is different however, and Catalans don’t believe that Madrid would use force to block their independence aspirations.

“If Spanish tanks rumbled into Barcelona, like they did in 1939, there wouldn’t be enough tanks to go around. There wouldn’t be enough soldiers to go around. Spain, being a modern country, has drastically reduced its armed forces,” Miquel Strubell, member of a pro-independence grassroots organization, the Catalan National Assembly, said to RT.

In modern Spain, Catalonia renewed autonomy and currently governs itself in areas like health and education. It has a regional parliament and maintains its own police force. But the calls for independence from Madrid have gained stronger support in the last few years, as Catalans complained that it is being drained of tax money, which is spent in other Spanish regions.

The situation is aggravated by the economic crisis, which forces the Rajoy government to adopt painful austerity policies. But financial considerations are not the prime reason why Catalans seek independence, says Strubell.

“I think most of my colleagues would agree that this isn’t about money. It’s about a much more basic issue of running our own things,” he assured “It’s all been on the cards for years. It all started before 2003, which is well before the economic crisis.”

The referendum in Catalonia will be held less than a month after a similar vote in Scotland, which will hold it on September 18. Joan Maria Pique, a top aide and spokesman for Catalan President Mas, criticized the Spanish government, saying that London agreed to the Scottish vote on self-determination, while Madrid is reluctant to do the same for Catalonia.

“We expect to open negotiations with Madrid. The Spanish state can’t be blind about it,” he said.

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties | , | Leave a comment