Archives for September 2012

Bashar al-Assad ‘betrayed Col Gaddafi to save his Syrian regime’

The Daily Telegraph reports: The Assad regime in Syria brought about Muammar Gaddafi’s death by providing France with the key intelligence which led to the operation that killed him, sources in Libya have claimed.

French spies operating in Sirte, Gaddafi’s last refuge, were able to set a trap for the Libyan dictator after obtaining his satellite telephone number from the Syrian government, they said.

In what would amount to an extraordinary betrayal of one Middle East strongman by another, President Bashar al-Assad sold out his fellow tyrant in an act of self-preservation, a former senior intelligence official in Tripoli told the Daily Telegraph.

With international attention switching from Libya to the mounting horrors in Syria, Mr Assad offered Paris the telephone number in exchange for an easing of French pressure on Damascus, according to Rami El Obeidi.

“In exchange for this information, Assad had obtained a promise of a grace period from the French and less political pressure on the regime – which is what happened,” Mr El Obeidi said. [Continue reading…]

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Al-Jazeera’s political independence questioned amid Qatar intervention

The Guardian reports: Al-Jazeera’s editorial independence has been called into question after its director of news stepped in to ensure a speech made by Qatar’s emir to the UN led its English channel’s coverage of the debate on Syrian intervention.

Journalists had produced a package of the UN debate, topped with excerpts of President Obama’s speech, last Tuesday when a last-minute instruction came from Salah Negm, the Qatar-based news director, who ordered the video to be re-edited to lead with the comments from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

Despite protests from staff that the emir’s comments – a repetition of previous calls for Arab intervention in Syria – were not the most important aspect of the UN debate, the two-minute video was re-edited and Obama’s speech was relegated to the end of the package.

There are hints at staff dissatisfaction within the film, available for viewing on al-Jazeera’s website and YouTube, which notes that the emir “represents one of the smallest countries in the Arab world … but Qatar has been one of the loudest voices condemning Syria”.

The episode left a bitter taste among staff amid complaints that this was the most heavy-handed editorial intervention at the global broadcaster, which has long described itself as operating independent of its Qatari ownership.

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Power, pollution and the internet

A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.

Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.

To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show. In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters.

Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants, according to estimates industry experts compiled for The Times. Data centers in the United States account for one-quarter to one-third of that load, the estimates show.

“It’s staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems,” said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town.”

Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations.

A server is a sort of bulked-up desktop computer, minus a screen and keyboard, that contains chips to process data. The study sampled about 20,000 servers in about 70 large data centers spanning the commercial gamut: drug companies, military contractors, banks, media companies and government agencies.

“This is an industry dirty secret, and no one wants to be the first to say mea culpa,” said a senior industry executive who asked not to be identified to protect his company’s reputation. “If we were a manufacturing industry, we’d be out of business straightaway.”

These physical realities of data are far from the mythology of the Internet: where lives are lived in the “virtual” world and all manner of memory is stored in “the cloud.”

The inefficient use of power is largely driven by a symbiotic relationship between users who demand an instantaneous response to the click of a mouse and companies that put their business at risk if they fail to meet that expectation.

Even running electricity at full throttle has not been enough to satisfy the industry. In addition to generators, most large data centers contain banks of huge, spinning flywheels or thousands of lead-acid batteries — many of them similar to automobile batteries — to power the computers in case of a grid failure as brief as a few hundredths of a second, an interruption that could crash the servers.

“It’s a waste,” said Dennis P. Symanski, a senior researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit industry group. “It’s too many insurance policies.”

At least a dozen major data centers have been cited for violations of air quality regulations in Virginia and Illinois alone, according to state records. Amazon was cited with more than 24 violations over a three-year period in Northern Virginia, including running some of its generators without a basic environmental permit.

A few companies say they are using extensively re-engineered software and cooling systems to decrease wasted power. Among them are Facebook and Google, which also have redesigned their hardware. Still, according to recent disclosures, Google’s data centers consume nearly 300 million watts and Facebook’s about 60 million watts.

Many of these solutions are readily available, but in a risk-averse industry, most companies have been reluctant to make wholesale change, according to industry experts.

Improving or even assessing the field is complicated by the secretive nature of an industry that is largely built around accessing other people’s personal data. [Continue reading…]

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Azerbaijan eyes aiding Israel against Iran

Reuters reports: Israel’s “go-it-alone” option to attack Iran’s nuclear sites has set the Middle East on edge and unsettled its main ally at the height of a U.S. presidential election campaign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exudes impatience, saying Tehran is barely a year from a “red line” for atomic capacity. Many fellow Israelis, however, fear a unilateral strike, lacking U.S. forces, would fail against such a large and distant enemy.

But what if, even without Washington, Israel were not alone?

Azerbaijan, the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic on Iran’s far northern border, has, say local sources with knowledge of its military policy, explored with Israel how Azeri air bases and spy drones might help Israeli jets pull off a long-range attack.

That is a far cry from the massive firepower and diplomatic cover that Netanyahu wants from Washington. But, by addressing key weaknesses in any Israeli war plan – notably on refueling, reconnaissance and rescuing crews – such an alliance might tilt Israeli thinking on the feasibility of acting without U.S. help.

It could also have violent side-effects more widely and many doubt Azeri President Ilham Aliyev would risk harming the energy industry on which his wealth depends, or provoking Islamists who dream of toppling his dynasty, in pursuit of favor from Israel.

Yet despite official denials by Azerbaijan and Israel, two Azeri former military officers with links to serving personnel and two Russian intelligence sources all told Reuters that Azerbaijan and Israel have been looking at how Azeri bases and intelligence could serve in a possible strike on Iran. [Continue reading…]

When Mark Perry broke this story in March this year, the White House swiftly denied that the administration had leaked any such information and at least one commentator in Israel dismissed its plausibility. An Azerbaijani diplomat also described the story as “fiction.” The denials followed the same tack: to try and cast as much doubt on the messenger as the message — which suggested then (and now, since the sources are different) that the story is not baseless.

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Iranians, West wonder if Rafsanjani set for a comeback

Reuters speculates: Seeing two of your children jailed in three days would not normally signal your luck is on the up. But for the great survivor of Iranian politics it could mean just that.

Few Iranians have wielded more influence than Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997 and a behind-the-scenes operator since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

But since voicing sympathy for the protesters who said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 was rigged, Rafsanjani has come under intense criticism from hardliners and seen his power fade.

Ahmadinejad survived the protests thanks to a security crack-down and the support of Iran’s most powerful authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Three years on, with the leadership divided and under intense pressure from economic sanctions, there is growing talk of the need once again for some Rafsanjani pragmatism.

“The reformists have been closed out, conservatives have little attraction because of the situation Iran is in and there is potential for Rafsanjani,” said a well-informed Iranian source based in Europe.

“Since the 2009 election, the stature of the leader has diminished and Rafsanjani has gained credibility.”

On Saturday, his daughter Faezeh, who openly backed Ahmadinejad’s election rivals, was jailed for spreading “anti-government propaganda” and, two days later, her brother Mehdi was incarcerated on return from three years abroad.

But rather being the latest humiliation for Rafsanjani, 78, who was stopped from leading Friday prayers three years ago and lost his post at the top of an important state body, analysts say it may be a sign his fortunes are improving. [Continue reading…]

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On CNN’s Fareed Zacharia GPS an interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

FAREED ZAKARIA: You have indicated that you think that the Israeli prime minister’s threats toward Iran are ones you don’t take very seriously. But I was wondering how seriously you take the rhetoric of the president of the United States. President Obama said at the United Nations that he was determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Do you regard that as a bluff?

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRAN (through translator): You set forth two or three questions here. I have never used the word bluff. When we say we do not take it seriously, we mean that it impacts — it does not impact our policies in the slightest. Iran is a vast country. It’s a great country. Let’s assume a few terrorists come and assassinate some of our officials. Will the country be damaged? No. A couple of bombs would be set to explode. Will the country be destroyed? No. We see the Zionist regime at the same level of the bombers and criminals and the terrorists. And even if they do something — even if they do something, hypothetically, it will not affect us fundamentally. But vis-a-vis the expressions of the president of the United States, because I do not wish to speak in any way about anything that may be interpreted as meddling or interfering in America’s domestic or electoral affairs — but perhaps myself — compared to everyone else in the world, I am perhaps much more keen than anyone else not only that there will be no more production of nuclear bombs around the world, that even those that exist today would be eliminated.

ZAKARIA: If there were an Israeli strike on Iran, there are other senior Iranians who have said things that are much more forceful about how Iran would respond. And they seem to take it very seriously. The head of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohammed Ali Jafri, said that in response to Israeli strike, Iran would strike back with missiles. And I think he says nothing will remain of Israeli. I don’t think any spot would remain safe. Is that also your view of what the nature of Iranian retaliation would be?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I — understand this: that Iranians never start a war unprovoked, never start a war, period. But if they are attacked, they defend themselves very well, quite well. And no one throughout her history has been able to gain and come out on top from an attack on Iran.

ZAKARIA: President Ahmadinejad, you said in a couple of your interviews that you don’t really think much is going to happen on the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, until after the American election. What do you think will happen after the elections? Do you expect that at that point there will be a new proposal from the major powers? Or do you think Iran will present another proposal?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): As you touched upon, yes, during a couple of interviews, yes, I did speak of this. I think, at the end of the day, that the decision making vis-a-vis Iran’s nuclear issue with Five Plus One is a very important decision. And it is one of the most — and one of the most important players in the Five Plus One equation is America. But we have seen during many years that as we approach the United States presidential elections, no important decisions are made. Also keep it in mind that certainly following the election, certainly the atmosphere will be much more stable. And important decisions can be made and announced. We have set forth proposals. We are holding dialogue. And, as of late, Mr. Jalili and Ms. Ashton have had productive talks. And we do hope to be able to take some steps forward.

* * *

ZAKARIA: Mr. President, let me ask you a question about human life. You spoke a great deal while you were here in New York about the value you place on human life. Every life is important, you say. The government of Syria has, by all accounts, killed about 20,000 people. About 250,000 Syrians, men, women and children, have fled the country. And 1.2 million Syrians have been displaced within the country. Why will you not call on Bashar al-Assad to resign and leave the presidency of Syria?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Do you think that if we do such a thing, the problem will be resolved?

ZAKARIA: If you say that you care about human life, you should take a moral stand.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Yes, but do you think that if we make the request that you ask, the problem will be resolved? Not so. The problem of Syria is very complicated. And it requires a just and the right solution. And I’m truly sorry and saddened not only in Syria, but anywhere in the world, from any side, where there are people losing their lives. The opposition members, the Syrian Army, they’re all from Syria. They’re all the people of Syria. Why should they be killed? There can be two proposals and solutions for Syria. One is that of warfare. But there is also a second way of thinking, a national understanding. And I do believe that if both sides sit and reach an understanding on a free election, a national understanding on a free election, and follow — and become subservient to the choice of the people, every — all sides should accept the wish of the Syrian people. Therefore, we are standing up a contact group. And I do hope that they will have their first meeting and gathering here in New York City. Thereby, we can succeed in bringing both sides closer together, so they can reach an agreement for a political process. In my opinion, Syria has no military solution. And I think it is amply clear. I think my opinion is amply clear about Syria. I’ve said it 50 plus times thus far. We are on the side of the people. Everywhere we’re on the side of the people.

ZAKARIA: But the people are getting killed by the government. You keep saying you’re on the side of the people, and yet you support a government that is massacring its people.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): You mean that we should then enter the scene and provide arms, like other countries have, in order to — for the battling groups, in order for the war to continue? Is that your opinion?

ZAKARIA: No, my opinion is you should ask the Syrian government — for the president to step down, since he is presiding over a mass massacre.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Well, we make all kinds of requests. We have announced it officially. Do you think with our request, things will come to an end?

ZAKARIA: You mentioned the contact group that you believe could be a path to a negotiated or diplomatic solution. And this is a group that is meant to be — include Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But at the first meeting of the group, Saudi Arabia refused to attend and let it be known that the reason they would not attend is they will not sit down with Iran in the same room. How do you get over that obstacle?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): This I hear from you for the first time.

ZAKARIA: I can tell you it based on my reporting. It’s true. You know it is a fact they didn’t attend the meeting.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): This is something — what they have announced officially is that they have said that our minister of foreign affairs is ill.

(Rush transcript provided by CNN.)

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After the Arab Spring, what’s next for the new Egypt?

In a long feature article on the new Egypt, Stephanie Nolen reports: In a late-night conversation in his living room, filled with gold Louis XIV-inspired furniture, Mr. [Amr] Darrag, a congenial and clean-shaven engineer [who is a senior Muslim Brotherhood member who chairs the “foreign relations” committee of its Freedom and Justice Party], says his is the most reluctant of governments, and came about only because the Brotherhood was forced to abandon its pledge not to field a presidential candidate.

“We never intended to run for the presidency, we’d been saying that all the time. But at a certain moment we realized that, if we want to move forward, the only thing to do is to field a candidate for the presidency … because we were told that, ‘You have no hope’ – not we as Muslim Brothers: Egyptians. They will not have any say in the executive power of running the country.”

He says the military had made it clear it did not intend to cede power to a civilian ruler, and only a Brotherhood candidate could rally the Egyptian people sufficiently and thus display the authority needed to oppose the military successfully. The other candidates running against Ahmed Shafik, a former Mubarak-era cabinet minister who for many represented the return of the old regime, had only small parties and no such authority.

And indeed, Mr. Morsi challenged the military and pulled it off. Last month, in his one bold move to date, he shocked the nation (and international observers) by cutting a deal with some second-tier generals and putting them in charge of the armed forces, forcibly retiring Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defence minister seen as the architect of the military’s bid for ever-greater political power.

He also cancelled a decree that gave the military the power to, essentially, supersede the constitution – and thus checkmated the strongest threat to his government. Egyptians of every political persuasion were thrilled to see Mr. Tantawi gone – and then began to speculate about what Mr. Morsi intended to do with his new clout.

Such suspicion frustrates Mr. Darrag. “People insist on getting their view of what we would do from what the Taliban does or what Iran does. We’ve been [in power] for months now, and look at TV, look at the streets – nothing changed and there is no inclination to change anything.”

In fact, he adds, “You cannot change these things by force. Look at some other countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, where by force, by law, women have to cover their bodies totally – if you travel to Saudi Arabia, and look at what happens on [departing] airplanes where women take off their [veils] and put on full makeup and then go out.

“We don’t want that; this is hypocrisy, in our opinion. We want people who really willingly follow the Islamic tradition, the Islamic rules. Not by force. Because, if you enforce that, they will just give them up the first moment they are allowed to. This is not what we’re after. We would like to have a person with a better relationship with God.”

Mr. Darrag’s breezy assurances are typical of the public face of his party. But for Egyptians concerned about the Brotherhood’s ability to govern, the embassy attack is emblematic of a key issue – it suggests the government’s hands are tied by its Islamist ideology and the flowering of conservative political groups in the wake of the revolution.

For example, Salafis criticized the Brotherhood for its willingness to participate in earthly politics under Mr. Mubarak – but then got into the game themselves in the first election, organizing an Islamist bloc led by al-Hizb an-Nour, the Party of the Light, that claimed 127 of 498 seats, second only to Freedom and Justice.

Now, some Salafis appear to sense an opportunity to push the envelope: The embassy attack is one of many examples, as is the recent arrest of blogger Alber Saber, accused of atheism. He was first detained by ordinary citizens; then the police he called for protection instead chose to jail him.

Tamer Mowafy, a veteran researcher with the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, says the Brotherhood, speaking a public language of freedom of belief and tolerance, wants no part of such actions, but cannot move swiftly against these actors because it has a pious public image to protect.

“The critics know the state is weak and the Muslim Brotherhood can’t punish them for certain things because they are supposed to be defenders of Islam, so we can expect attacks to come from everywhere,” he explains as activists hunch over laptops in every corner of his smoke-filled office.

“The bureaucracy is suspicious of [the Brotherhood] and they know it, the military doesn’t like them and they know it, and the Brotherhood is not willing to go against other forces, either – not against liberals or NGOs defending human rights.

“Right now, they don’t want to struggle with anyone, they want to take steps cautiously, and it’s making them look weak. They are not in full control.”

The Brotherhood knows it needs the co-operation of the military, and appears to have tacitly reassured the behemoth institution that it will not try to wrest back control of the estimated 15 per cent of the Egyptian economy that it controls as a private fiefdom. Even cronies of Mr. Mubarak are being welcomed into senior political positions and big business deals, as the Brotherhood tries to solidify its position. No one on either end of the political spectrum likes that.

But Mr. Mowafy says that, above all, the Brotherhood is characterized by its long-term view. “They take their time, and it may be a very long time, but they get to what they want.

“You have to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t want, as an organization, to take control of the state – they want the state to become the organization. Every Egyptian should be a Brother. Not today or tomorrow – they want to plant their seeds and watch them grow.”

A critical indicator of what seeds are being sown – what plans the government has for the future face of Egypt – is the new constitution, which is months past its deadline. Until it is accepted in a national referendum, now tentatively slated for November, no new parliament can be elected and all else – bailouts from international financial institutions, reform of the vast public service, changes to a deeply skewed subsidy system that does little to help the poor – remains on hold. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab Spring still blooms

Moncef Marzouki, the president of Tunisia, writes: The violent demonstrations that have spread across the Muslim world in recent weeks have convinced many in the United States and Europe that the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010 are now over and that the democratic project has failed. Bitterness and a sense of impending catastrophe are replacing the enthusiasm that followed the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt last year.

Now there is ominous talk of an “Islamist Fall” and “Salafi Winter” after a supposedly failed Arab Spring. To these skeptics, religion is the driving force in Arab politics, and hateful anti-Western slogans and the killing of America’s ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, are evidence of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West.

While these fears are understandable, such alarmism is misplaced. The Arab revolutions have not turned anti-Western. Nor are they pro-Western. They are simply not about the West. They remain fundamentally about social justice and democracy — not about religion or establishing Shariah law.

The democratization of Tunisia, Egypt and other countries has allowed a number of extremist free riders into the political system. But it has also definitively refuted the myth that democracy and Islam are incompatible. Islamists are political actors like any others: they are no more pure, more united or more immune from criticism than anyone else.

Islamist parties are now free to take part in political debates and to win seats in legislatures and governments. However, these political changes have also rendered the divisions among Islamists more apparent than ever before. [Continue reading…]

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In Aleppo, fire ravages ancient market

The New York Times reports: Fire swept through the old central souk, or marketplace, of Aleppo, Syria, on Saturday, damaging a vast and well-preserved labyrinth of medieval storehouses, shops, schools and ornate courtyards as fierce clashes between security forces and insurgents vowing to carry out a “decisive battle” for the city continued.

One video shot by antigovernment activists showed a curtain of dark smoke hanging over the center of Aleppo near the old city, a Unesco World Heritage site. Another showed intense, crackling orange flames engulfing heavy wooden doors in what appeared to be one of the market’s arched stone passageways. The activists said they believed that the fire, whose origins were unclear, had destroyed a large portion of the market’s shops overnight, though the claim could not be immediately verified.

For many residents, the old city, with the souk at its center, is the soul of Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and Syria’s largest. Aleppo has been staggering for months under a bloody battle that has reduced some residential areas to rubble, and with no deaths immediately reported from the blaze, the damage to the souk pales compared with the recent human toll.

Yet serious damage to an area that Syrians widely consider one of their greatest treasures is likely to stir anger at both sides — each of which blames the other for the destruction in the city — in a conflict that seems mired in stalemate. It could also make the rebels’ latest push in Aleppo backfire politically: Some opponents of President Bashar al-Assad were already incensed on Saturday at insurgents they said had operated conspicuously near the old city.

“Our hearts and minds have been burned in this fire,” said a doctor in Aleppo who gave her name only as Dima. “It’s not just a souk and shops, but it’s our soul, too.”

She said she supported peaceful resistance against Mr. Assad, and pronounced herself “annoyed, annoyed, annoyed” with fighters from the rebel Tawhid Brigade, which announced the offensive on Thursday. The fighters said they were seeking to “liberate” neighborhoods that had remained largely pro-government and were being used as posts from which to attack the opposition.

But in a Skype interview, Dima said the recent fighting cast doubt on both the rebel leaders’ tactical wisdom and their intentions. She called them “performers” who had needlessly provoked the government by posing for pictures outside the souk and the nearby 12th-century mosque — which she worried would now be shelled — and who “talked nonsense.”

“There is no decisive battle,” she said. “There are no liberated areas.”

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The heady days of revolution in Syria give way to a grim reality

Amal Hanano writes: One night in mid-March, activist Rami Jarrah and I – in our typical Damascus versus Aleppo rivalry – were bickering. Our dispute was about the date of the “real” anniversary of the revolution. But as we argued, and later as we discussed the sad events of the day in Syria, there was a lightness, a slight joyfulness that we did not discuss. Yet it lingered and I knew why. We couldn’t believe we had really made it – the revolution had survived an entire year.

The feeling of elation was nothing compared to what we had felt the day the students of Aleppo University took over the campus, or the evening the brave people of Homs reclaimed Clock Square. Still, it was a revolution high.

Moments like those have become scarce, dissolving into memories. Those days when hope was enough – when a witty sign from Kafranbul could lift millions out of despair; when the spirit of the Syrian people seemed unbreakable – are over.

Now the lows exceed the highs. Now we talk about what has been lost more often than what will be gained. And the losses have been heavy: some of the people we once spoke to daily are no longer in Syria; some have abandoned the revolution; many have died. Peaceful protests have dwindled as the bombs drop onto our cities and villages. Civilians are caught in the crossfire; thousands have become refugees – outsiders just like us.

And everyone is depressed.

We are now silent witnesses, watching as our country is reduced to a headline and the opening act for the United Nations General Assembly. Syria cues endless analysis from pundits and continuous hand-wringing by world leaders. The UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi says without shame: “There is no prospect for today or tomorrow to move forward.” And our dead are a steadily growing but meaningless number.

As we crashed from euphoric highs, cracks in the revolution have appeared. Power struggles on the front lines and between the political groups exposed us as a fractured opposition. Bickering on social media sites turned activists against each other as loyalties were questioned. In contrast, the regime was steadfast, unflinching in its kill, burn and bomb strategy. Somewhere along revolution road our narratives had crossed and we wondered, was this the beginning of the end? Was the revolution dying? Or worse, the question I asked people: was the revolution dead?

On September 16, yet another massacre was reported from the village of Kafr Awayd in Idleb province. I thought I had become immune to the images of slaughtered children. I thought we had learnt lessons of detachment from Houla and Qubeir. But this time there was a little girl in a blue dress and white tights, a girl we could only imagine as pretty because she was missing her head. While I watched a man carry her like a rag doll in front of the camera, I realised we had not seen the worst yet. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Is it time for Arab intervention in Syria?

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Obama risks handing ‘loaded gun’ drone programme to Romney

At the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Alice K Ross writes: President Obama’s personal involvement in selecting the targets of covert drone strikes means he risks effectively handing a ‘loaded gun’ to Mitt Romney come November, says the co-author of a new report aimed at US policymakers.

‘If Obama leaves, he’s leaving a loaded gun: he’s set up a programme where the greatest constraint is his personal prerogative. There’s no legal oversight, no courtroom that can make [the drone programme] stop. A President Romney could vastly accelerate it,’ said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at the Columbia Law School.

The president ‘personally approves every military target’ in Yemen and Somalia and around a third of targets in Pakistan, the report says. The remainder of strikes in Pakistan are decided by the CIA, so are even further from formal decision-making processes and public scrutiny.

‘We are asking President Obama to put something in writing, to disclose more, because he needs to set up the limitations of the programme before someone else takes control,’ Shah told the Bureau. [Continue reading…]

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New Justice Department documents show huge increase in warrantless electronic surveillance

For the ACLU, Naomi Gilens reports: Justice Department documents released on Thursday by the ACLU reveal that federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.

The documents, handed over by the government only after months of litigation, are the attorney general’s 2010 and 2011 reports on the use of “pen register” and “trap and trace” surveillance powers. The reports show a dramatic increase in the use of these surveillance tools, which are used to gather information about telephone, email, and other Internet communications. The revelations underscore the importance of regulating and overseeing the government’s surveillance power. (Our original Freedom of Information Act request and our legal complaint are online.)

Pen register and trap and trace devices are powerfully invasive surveillance tools that were, twenty years ago, physical devices that attached to telephone lines in order to covertly record the incoming and outgoing numbers dialed. Today, no special equipment is required to record this information, as interception capabilities are built into phone companies’ call-routing hardware. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Lars Danielsson — ‘Orange Market’

For more music see individual artists A-F, G-K, L-S, T-Z, and the complete playlist.

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Video: The revolution is NOT dead

Antoine Gregoire, a journalist for iloubnan.info, speaking in Beirut.

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AIPAC may end up paying the price for Netanyahu’s overreach

Dave Lindorff writes: Netanyahu blinked. That’s the takeaway from the goofy address by the right-wing, Chicago-raised, MIT-educated Israeli prime minister to the United Nations General Assembly Thursday.

Prior to that address, Netanyahu had been virtually campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, hinting repeatedly on US television interviews of a pre-election attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear energy facilities, criticizing incumbent US President Barack Obama, and demanding that Obama and the US draw a “red line” on how far Iran could go in refining nuclear fuel before it would be considered essential for the US to join Israel in destroying Iran’s military infrastructure.

It was the most blatant attempt by a foreign leader to interfere in a US election in memory, but it was a bust.

American Jews have historically supported the Democratic Party by wide margins, and despite Netanyahu’s threats and bluster, and President Obama’s smack-down — a refusal of Netanyahu’s request for a meeting during his trip to the US –that support didn’t budge. In fact, a number of leading Jewish Democrats, including powerful Congressman Barney Frank and Henry Waxman, publicly told the Israeli leader to back off and stay out of US politics. In endorsing Obama’s refusal to meet with Netanyahu, Rep. Frank said, ”The Israelis have to consider American public opinion. America’s not ready to go to war until it’s absolutely necessary.” He added, “I think it’s a mistake from Israel’s standpoint if they give the impression they’re trying to push us into going to war. I don’t think any pressure’s going to work.”

Analysts are now suggesting that Netanyahu has backed off, even complimenting President Obama and giving him a valentine — an endorsement before election day of sorts–saying in his UN address, “I very much appreciate the president’s position, as does everyone in my country.” This was a reference to Obama’s rather tame if ambiguous warning to Iran in his own UN address that the US would “do what we must” to ensure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear bomb.

Since Iran insists that it is not trying to develop a nuclear bomb, and since the Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has declared that building and stockpiling such weapons would be “a big sin,” there should be no need for the US to do anything, then.

The important point though, for the US, for Israel, and for Iran, as well as for the world at large, is that a combination of overreach by Netanyahu, a bumbling Republican presidential candidate and campaign, and a widespread weariness among most Americans over this country’s more than a decade of pointless, losing wars in the Middle East, have combined to seriously and perhaps terminally blunt the influence of the right-wing pro-Israel lobby in the US, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). [Continue reading…]

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Mitt Romney’s real agenda

Tim Dickinson writes: It was tempting to dismiss Mitt Romney’s hard-right turn during the GOP primaries as calculated pandering. In the general election – as one of his top advisers famously suggested – Romney would simply shake the old Etch A Sketch and recast himself as the centrist who governed Massachusetts. But with the selection of vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the shape-shifting Romney has locked into focus – cementing himself as the frontman for the far-right partisans responsible for Washington’s gridlock.

There is no longer any ambiguity about the path that Romney would pursue as president, because it’s the same trajectory charted by Ryan, the architect of the House GOP’s reactionary agenda since the party’s takeover in 2010. “Picking Ryan as vice president outlines the future of the next four or eight years of a Romney administration,” GOP power broker Grover Norquist exulted in August. “Ryan has outlined a plan that has support in the Republican House and Senate. You have a real sense of where Romney’s going.” In fact, Norquist told party activists back in February, the true direction of the GOP is being mapped out by congressional hardliners. All the Republicans need to realize their vision, he said, is a president “with enough working digits to handle a pen.”

The GOP legislation awaiting Romney’s signature isn’t simply a return to the era of George W. Bush. From abortion rights and gun laws to tax giveaways and energy policy, it’s far worse. Measures that have already sailed through the Republican House would roll back clean-air protections, gut both Medicare and Medicaid, lavish trillions in tax cuts on billionaires while raising taxes on the poor, and slash everything from college aid to veteran benefits. In fact, the tenets of Ryan Republicanism are so extreme that they even offend the pioneers of trickle-down economics. “Ryan takes out the ax and goes after programs for the poor – which is the last thing you ought to cut,” says David Stockman, who served as Ronald Reagan’s budget director. “It’s ideology run amok.” [Continue reading…]

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Video: Netanyahu’s ‘red line’

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