Archives for March 2013

Obama is channeling Bush fever in Iran

Falguni A. Sheth writes: Iran has no intentions of attacking Israel. One obvious reason is that Iran has no plausible ability to attack Israel. As the erudite journalist and political analyst Nima Shirazi has documented carefully and exhaustively here, here, here, here, and perhaps crystallized most clearly here, Iran presents no threat, nuclear or otherwise, to Israel. None. Zilch. Nada. President Obama knows this. Shimon Peres knows this. Bibi knows this. As Shirazi writes:

Netanyahu deliberately ignored the fact that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium remains far from weapons-grade and that Iran has, for over a year now, been systematically converting much of its 19.75% enriched stock to fuel plates that precludes the possibility of being diverted to military purposes.

Of course, the fact that Iran has an inalienable legal right to a fully-functioning nuclear energy program – including the indigenous mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle – was not addressed at all. For Netanyahu and his acolytes, any Iranian nuclear program is synonymous with a weapons program – and not only that, but a weapons program designed to “exterminate” Israel’s “Jewish people.” Facts remain irrelevant.

Hans Blix, the UN Inspector who repeatedly declared in 2002 that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, knows this (a fact that our liberal pundit class has only now come to acknowledge. See Beinart et al. above). He has again affirmed there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iran. As reported by an Australian news site, Blix insists:

“Memories of the failure and tragic mistakes in Iraq are not taken sufficiently seriously.”

“In the case of Iraq, there was an attempt made by some states to eradicate weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, and today there is talk of going on Iran to eradicate intentions that may not exist. I hope that will not happen.”

Today, Mr Blix believes that the international community has even less evidence of the existence of atomic weapons in Iran, which is facing international pressures over its controversial nuclear program.

Moreover, even senior Israeli officials with close ties to the intelligence community are unconvinced of Iran’s danger to the United States or to Israel:

Beyond being obvious that Iran poses literally no threat to the United States, numerous Israeli military and intelligence officials openly reject the notion that a nuclear-armed Iran would “present an existential threat to Israel.” Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy recently told the UK Zionist Federation that Israel’s existence “is not in danger and shouldn’t be questioned.”

( lists Israeli officials who are not concerned about Iran’s threat to Israel here.)

In essence, the increasingly menacing public posture of U.S. officials toward Iran — coming in the same month as the 10-year anniversary of the jingoistic, imperially smug, and devastatingly destructive invasion of Iraq — cannot but remind us of the spurious calls for war made back in 2002.


Video: Muzzling critics of Israel on American campuses


Israel’s anti-missile system ‘likely to leave civilians exposed in event of war’

The Guardian reports: Israel’s vaunted missile defence system is likely to leave the civilian population exposed to an incoming barrage of rockets in the event of a war as it is deployed to protect key strategic and military sites, according the country’s commander of the home front.

Despite the success of the Iron Dome anti-missile batteries at intercepting rockets launched from Gaza during November’s eight-day conflict, the five units currently operational are insufficient to protect against the superior firepower of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“I will recommend protecting the country’s functional continuity and the ability to maintain an [Israeli Defence Forces] offensive effort over time, until the war is won,” Major General Eyal Eisenberg, head of the home front command, said in an interview with Haaretz.


Video: Divisions in Syria’s opposition


Why many American workers should be more afraid of their employers than al Qaeda

The New York Times reports: Sheri Farley walks with a limp. The only job she could hold would be one where she does not have to stand or sit longer than 20 minutes, otherwise pain screams down her spine and up her legs.

“Damaged goods,” Ms. Farley describes herself, recalling how she recently overheard a child whispering to her mother about whether the “crippled lady” was a meth addict.

For about five years, Ms. Farley, 45, stood alongside about a dozen other workers, spray gun in hand, gluing together foam cushions for chairs and couches sold under brand names like Broyhill, Ralph Lauren and Thomasville. Fumes from the glue formed a yellowish fog inside the plant, and Ms. Farley’s doctors say that breathing them in eventually ate away at her nerve endings, resulting in what she and her co-workers call “dead foot.”

A chemical she handled — known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB — is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years.

Such hazards demonstrate the difficulty, despite decades of effort, of ensuring that Americans can breathe clean air on the job. Even as worker after worker fell ill, records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that managers at Royale Comfort Seating, where Ms. Farley was employed, repeatedly exposed gluers to nPB levels that exceeded levels federal officials considered safe, failed to provide respirators and turned off fans meant to vent fumes.

But the story of the rise of nPB and the decline of Ms. Farley’s health is much more than the tale of one company, or another chapter in the national debate over the need for more, or fewer, government regulations. Instead, it is a parable about the law of unintended consequences.

It shows how an Environmental Protection Agency program meant to prevent the use of harmful chemicals fostered the proliferation of one, and how a hard-fought victory by OSHA in controlling one source of deadly fumes led workers to be exposed to something worse — a phenomenon familiar enough to be lamented in government parlance as “regrettable substitution.”

It demonstrates how businesses at once both suffer from and exploit the fitful and disjointed way that the government tries to protect workers, and why occupational illnesses have proved so hard to prevent.

And it highlights a startling fact: OSHA, the watchdog agency that many Americans love to hate and industry often faults as overzealous, has largely ignored long-term threats. Partly out of pragmatism, the agency created by President Richard M. Nixon to give greater attention to health issues has largely done the opposite.

OSHA devotes most of its budget and attention to responding to here-and-now dangers rather than preventing the silent, slow killers that, in the end, take far more lives. Over the past four decades, the agency has written new standards with exposure limits for 16 of the most deadly workplace hazards, including lead, asbestos and arsenic. But for the tens of thousands of other dangerous substances American workers handle each day, employers are largely left to decide what exposure level is safe. [Continue reading…]

Over a decade of war, a massively bloated defense budget, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security along with cancerous growth of the intelligence community — all have been justified on the basis of a miniscule threat to American lives posed by a handful of terrorists.

At the same time, the deaths of tens of thousands of American workers, along with the incapacitation of hundreds of thousands more, is all regarded as part of the price of doing business.

When it comes to national security, no expense is spared, but when it comes to commerce, all is subservient to the pursuit of profit.

Chronic ailments caused by toxic workplace air — black lung, stonecutter’s disease, asbestosis, grinder’s rot, pneumoconiosis — incapacitate more than 200,000 workers in the United States annually. More than 40,000 Americans die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic substances at work — 10 times as many as those who die from the refinery explosions, mine collapses and other accidents that grab most of the news media attention.

Occupational illnesses and injuries like Ms. Farley’s cost the American economy roughly $250 billion per year because of medical expenses and lost productivity, according to government data analyzed by J. Paul Leigh, an economist at the University of California, Davis, more than the cost of diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Roughly 40 percent of medical expenses from workplace hazards, or about $27 billion a year, is paid by public programs like Medicare and Medicaid.


The invisible victims of America’s wars

Glenn Greenwald writes: Yesterday I had the privilege to watch Dirty Wars, an upcoming film directed by Richard Rowley that chronicles the investigations of journalist Jeremy Scahill into America’s global covert war under President Obama and specifically his ever-growing kill lists. I will write comprehensively about this film closer to the date when it and the book by the same name will be released. For now, it will suffice to say that the film is one of the most important I’ve seen in years: gripping and emotionally affecting in the extreme, with remarkable, news-breaking revelations even for those of us who have intensely followed these issues. The film won awards at Sundance and rave reviews in unlikely places such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. But for now, I want to focus on just one small aspect of what makes the film so crucial.

The most propagandistic aspect of the US War on Terror has been, and remains, that its victims are rendered invisible and voiceless. They are almost never named by newspapers. They and their surviving family members are virtually never heard from on television. The Bush and Obama DOJs have collaborated with federal judges to ensure that even those who everyone admits are completely innocent have no access to American courts and thus no means of having their stories heard or their rights vindicated. Radical secrecy theories and escalating attacks on whistleblowers push these victims further into the dark.

It is the ultimate tactic of Othering: concealing their humanity, enabling their dehumanization, by simply relegating them to nonexistence. As Ashleigh Banfield put it her 2003 speech denouncing US media coverage of the Iraq war just months before she was demoted and then fired by MSNBC: US media reports systematically exclude both the perspectives of “the other side” and the victims of American violence. Media outlets in predominantly Muslim countries certainly report on their plight, but US media outlets simply do not, which is one major reason for the disparity in worldviews between the two populations. They know what the US does in their part of the world, but Americans are kept deliberately ignorant of it.

What makes Dirty Wars so important is that it viscerally conveys the effects of US militarism on these invisible victims: by letting them speak for themselves. Scahill and his crew travel to the places most US journalists are unwilling or unable to go: to remote and dangerous provinces in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, all to give voice to the victims of US aggression. We hear from the Afghans whose family members (including two pregnant women) were slaughtered by US Special Forces in 2010 in the Paktia Province, despite being part of the Afghan Police, only for NATO to outright lie and claim the women were already dead from “honor killings” by the time they arrived (lies uncritically repeated, of course, by leading US media outlets). [Continue reading…]


Israel and Turkey restore ties with energy as a motivator

Joseph Dana writes: During President Barack Obama’s final hour in Israel on March 22, he was able to broker an unlikely apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his counterpart in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Over the past several years, diplomatic relations soured between the two traditional allies over Israel’s stubborn refusal to apologise for the deaths of eight Turkish activists and one Turkish-American aboard an aid convoy en route to the Gaza strip in 2010.

Analysts quickly pegged the apology to instability in Syria and even the Iranian nuclear crisis. But there is another possibility that could be fuelling this rapprochement: a potential stake in the lucrative export of Israeli natural gas.

After years of fruitless exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, in 2009 Israel discovered some of the largest offshore reserves of natural gas in the last decade. The exact size of the gasfields are unknown but they are rumoured to contain upwards of 150 years’ worth of production.

According to Eytan Sheshinski, an economist at the Hebrew University and the head of an Israeli parliamentary fact-finding commission on the gas, Israel will have a sovereign wealth fund worth roughly $80 billion (Dh293.6 billion) by the year 2030. That amount corresponds only to the revenue from a super-profits tax levied on the sought-after resource.

Israel’s Central Bank forecasts the natural gas will account for nearly a third of Israel’s economic growth this year. That could soften the impact of Israel’s growing international isolation.

Natural gas from one deepwater field started flowing on Saturday for internal consumption, prompting Israeli Energy Minister Sivan Shalom to declare Israel’s economic independence for the first time in history.

Which begs the question: with Israel’s growing sovereign wealth fund, how will the Israel lobby in Washington have the gall to keep on insisting that U.S. taxpayers have an obligation to pay for 20% of Israel’s defense budget?


Short of money, Egypt sees crisis on fuel and food

The New York Times reports: A fuel shortage has helped send food prices soaring. Electricity is blacking out even before the summer. And gas-line gunfights have killed at least five people and wounded dozens over the past two weeks.

The root of the crisis, economists say, is that Egypt is running out of the hard currency it needs for fuel imports. The shortage is raising questions about Egypt’s ability to keep importing wheat that is essential to subsidized bread supplies, stirring fears of an economic catastrophe at a time when the government is already struggling to quell violent protests by its political rivals.

Farmers already lack fuel for the pumps that irrigate their fields, and they say they fear they will not have enough for the tractors to reap their wheat next month before it rots in the fields.

United States officials warn of disaster unless Egypt soon carries out a package of tax increases and subsidy cuts tied to a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. That would persuade other lenders that Egypt was creditworthy enough to obtain billions more in additional loans needed to meet its yawning deficit. But fearful of a public reaction at a time when the streets are already near boiling, the government of President Mohamed Morsi has so far resisted an I.M.F. deal, insisting that Egypt can wait.

Those who say Egypt cannot afford enough fuel are “trying to make problems for Dr. Morsi and his party,” said Naser el-Farash, the spokesman for the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade and a fellow member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm.

Mr. Farash placed blame for the shortage of fuel on corruption left over from the government of Hosni Mubarak, combined with hoarding inspired by fear-mongering in the private news media. “They are against the revolution,” he said.

Independent analysts say that the growing shortage of fuel and the fear about wheat imports now pose the gravest threats to Egypt’s fragile stability. “It has the potential to make things very, very bad,” said Yasser el-Shimy, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Egypt has held two years of unsuccessful talks with the I.M.F., and the current government is still balking at the politically painful package of overhauls — even as rising prices and unemployment make those measures more difficult with each passing day.

“They are operating on the notion that Egypt is too big to be allowed to fail, that the U.S. and the West will step in,” Mr. Shimy said. “They think Egypt has a right to get the loan, and I think they will probably keep pushing all the way.”

Officials of the Morsi government have indicated that they prefer to wait until the election of a new Parliament, which might demonstrate broader public agreement on the need for changes. But a court decision striking down the election law has postponed the vote until at least the fall, and many economists say Egypt cannot endure the delay. [Continue reading…]


Music: Bugge Wesseltoft — ‘Mitt Hjerte Alltid Vanker’


The Islamophobia of the New Atheists

Nathan Lean reviews some of the latest Islamophobic rants from Richard Dawkins and fellow militant atheists: Dawkins’ quest to “liberate” Muslim women and smack them with a big ol’ heaping dose of George W. Bush freedom caused him to go berzerk over news that a University College of London debate, hosted by an Islamic group, offered a separate seating option for conservative, practicing Muslims. Without researching the facts, Dawkins assumed that gendered seating was compulsory, not voluntary, and quickly fired off this about the “gender apartheid” of the supposedly suppressed Muslims: “At UC London debate between a Muslim and Lawrence Krauss, males and females had to sit separately. Krauss threatened to leave.” And then this: “Sexual apartheid. Maybe these odious religious thugs will get their come-uppance?”

Of course, the fact that the Barclays Center in New York recently offered gender-separate seating options for Orthodox Jews during a recent concert by Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman didn’t compute in Dawkins’ reasoning. Neither did the case of El Al Airlines, the flag carrier of Israel, when, in August of 2012, a stewardess forced a Florida woman to swap seats to accommodate the religious practice of a haredi Orthodox man. Even if Dawkins were aware of these episodes, he likely wouldn’t have made a fuss about them. They undermine the conclusion he has already reached, that is, that only Muslims are freedom-haters, gender-separating “thugs.”

Where exactly Dawkins gets his information about Islam is unclear (perhaps Fox News?). What is clear, though, is that his unique brand of secular fundamentalism cozies up next to that screeched out by bloggers on the pages of some of the Web’s most vicious anti-Muslim hate sites. In a recent comment he posted on his own Web site, Dawkins references a site called Islam Watch, placing him in eerily close proximity to the likes of one of the page’s founders, Ali Sina, an activist who describes himself as “probably the biggest anti-Islam person alive.” Sina is a board member for the hate group, Stop the Islamization of Nations, which was founded by anti-Muslim activists Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer and which has designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Dawkins is also on record praising the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, a man who says that he “hates Islam” and that Muslims who desire to remain in the Netherlands should “rip out half of the Koran” (Later, he blabbed that the Muslim holy book should be banned entirely). The peroxide-blonde leader of the Party of Freedom, who faced trial in 2009 for hate speech, produced an amateurish flick called “Fitna” the year before. The 17-minute film was chockablock with racist images such as Muhammad’s head attached to a ticking time bomb and juxtapositions of Muslims and Nazis. For Dawkins, it was pure bliss. “On the strength of ‘Fitna’ alone, I salute you as a man of courage who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy,” he wrote. [Continue reading…]


Who represents the Palestinian people?

Osamah Khalil writes: At its height, the PLO was successful in keeping the Palestinian struggle alive and in the world’s view. In 1974, both the United Nations and the Arab League recognized the organization as the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” However, as Palestinians prepare to observe the 65th anniversary of the Nakba and the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, the failure of the Palestinian national movement to achieve its goals has never been clearer. Which raises the question: who represents the Palestinian people today?

The question of representation is particularly pressing due to several recent trends and initiatives. First, are the Arab revolutions and counterrevolutions, which have led to the overthrow of several of the region’s long-standing dictatorships. Meanwhile, Palestinians have largely been on the sidelines of the “Arab Spring.” Second, is the recent vote by the United Nations to accept Palestine as a non-member observer state. This decision has uncertain implications for the standing of the PLO and Palestinians living outside the borders of the “State of Palestine.” Third, are the continuing negotiations between Fatah and Hamas and the elusive promise of national unity. Fourth, is a recent initiative calling for direct elections to the Palestinian National Council (PNC), following implementation of a unity agreement. Finally, the terminal state of the “peace process,” which will be further highlighted by President Barack Obama’s planned visit to the region this month without a proposal to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Since 1974, the PLO’s leadership has fiercely defended the organization’s designation as the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Indeed, the phrase was used as a shield and a cudgel against internal and external foes and competitors (real and perceived). As a national liberation movement, the PLO claimed that it was essential to speak with one voice. Following the 1993 Oslo Accords and creation of the PA, this was transformed into the imperative that there could only be “one authority” in the West Bank and Gaza.

Attempts to critique the leadership of the PLO or the PA invariably led to the accusatory question: “Who are you?” Who are you, the leadership would declare, to speak, to question, to criticize? The purpose was clear: To silence, intimidate, and limit the parameters of permissible discussion and dissent. By defining and shaping who and what represented the Palestinians, the PLO’s leadership deliberately limited their accountability to their people. The leadership’s autocratic behavior reflected the PLO’s origins and would be reproduced in its institutional structures. [Continue reading…]


Egypt orders arrest of satirist over skits on Islam and Morsi

The New York Times reports: Egypt’s public prosecutor on Saturday ordered the arrest of a popular television satirist on charges that included insulting President Mohamed Morsi and denigrating Islam, a state news agency reported, a move that amplified criticisms that the Islamist government is moving aggressively to silence its critics and stifle freedom of expression.

The satirist, Bassem Youssef, who hosts a widely watched show modeled on “The Daily Show,” has been the subject of numerous legal complaints filed by Islamist lawyers and citizens who took umbrage at Mr. Youssef’s skewering of Egypt’s political class, including Mr. Morsi, his loyalists and the opposition.

But the arrest warrant seemed to represent a sharp escalation of the campaign against Mr. Youssef, with the public prosecutor appointed by Mr. Morsi lending official credence to the complaints. In the nine months since Mr. Morsi took office, his government has been accused of employing the same harsh measures against dissent as did the previous authoritarian leaders, including prosecuting critics, confiscating newspapers and placing sympathetic journalists in state news media organs.

Last week, the public prosecutor, Talaat Ibrahim, ordered the arrest of five anti-Islamist activists on charges that they had used social media to incite violence against the Muslim Brotherhood.


Washington’s failure to diffuse tensions on the Korean peninsula

The Wall Street Journal reports: American defense officials are vowing additional displays of advanced U.S. military might as they continue joint maneuvers with South Korea in the midst of growing tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Defense officials declined to detail their next steps, citing operational security concerns. But a new show of force would come after a pair of B-2 bombers flew over South Korea on Thursday and dropped dummy munitions. Earlier this month, U.S. B-52s flew over the peninsula.

The assertive U.S. response came in an intensifying exchange of threats and oaths with North Korea and as Russia and China appealed for calm. U.S. officials are seeking to dissuade Pyongyang from rash steps while assuring allies that, if necessary, American force would be used to defend them.

Pentagon officials said they expected to see still-more-heated rhetoric from North Korea. With joint U.S.-South Korean exercises scheduled to last for about 45 more days, there also will be additional demonstrations of American firepower.

“The United States will continue to demonstrate unique advanced capabilities as these exercises continue,” said a defense official.

Although the use of U.S. heavy bombers risks provoking the North into a dangerous miscalculation, U.S. officials believe the joint exercises with South Korea ultimately will have a stabilizing effect.

Robert Mackey interviewed B. R. Myers, a North Korea analyst at Dongseo University in South Korea who said:

We need to keep in mind that North and South Korea are not so much trading outright threats as trading blustering vows of how they would retaliate if attacked. The North says, “If the U.S. or South Korea dare infringe on our territory we will reduce their territory to ashes,” and Seoul responds by saying it will retaliate by bombing Kim Il-sung statues. And so it goes. I think the international press is distorting the reality somewhat by simply publishing the second half of all these conditional sentences. And I have to say from watching North Korea’s evening news broadcasts for the past week or so, the North Korean media are not quite as wrapped up in this war mood as one might think. The announcers spend the first 10 minutes or so reporting on peaceful matters before they start ranting about the enemy.

The regime is exploiting the tension to motivate the masses to work harder on various big first-economy projects, especially the land-reclamation drive now under way on the east coast. Workers are shown with clenched fists, spluttering at the U.S. and South Korea, and vowing to work extra hard as a way of venting their rage.

It is all very similar to last year’s sustained vilification of South Korea’s then-president, Lee Myung-bak, when you had miners saying that they imagined Lee’s face on the rocks they were breaking, and so on. The regime can no longer fire up people with any coherent or credible vision of a socialist future, so it tries to cast the entire work force — much as other countries do in times of actual war — as an adjunct to the military. Work places are “battlegrounds,” and all labor strengthens the country for the final victory of unification, etc.

So, given these domestic reasons for North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and given that it’s threats are all retaliatory threats, why should the U.S. respond with displays of American might? It seems like the U.S. itself is trapped in its own knee jerk reactions and a fabricated need to assume a military posture where none is required.


Will Congress act to stop U.S. support for Honduras’ death squad regime?

Mark Weisbrot writes: The video (warning: contains graphic images of lethal violence), caught randomly on a warehouse security camera, is chilling.

Five young men walk down a quiet street in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. A big black SUV pulls up, followed by a second vehicle. Two masked men with bullet-proof vests jump out of the lead car, with AK-47s raised. The two youths closest to the vehicles see that they have no chance of running, so they freeze and put their hands in the air. The other three break into a sprint, with bullets chasing after them from the assassins’ guns. Miraculously, they escape, with one injured – but the two who surrendered are forced to lie face down on the ground. The two students, who were brothers 18- and 20-years-old, are murdered with a burst of bullets, in full view of the camera. Less than 40 seconds after their arrival, the assassins are driving away, never to be found.

The high level of professional training and modus operandi of the assassins have led many observers to conclude that this was a government operation. The video was posted by the newspaper El Heraldo last month; the murder took place in November of last year. There have been no arrests.

Now, the Obama administration is coming under fire for its role in arming and funding murderous Honduran police, in violation of US law. Under the Leahy Law, named after Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the US government is not allowed to fund foreign military units who have commit gross human rights violations with impunity. The director general of Honduras’ national police force, Juan Carlos Bonilla, has been investigated in connection with death squad killings; and members of the US Congress have been complaining about it since Bonilla was appointed last May. Thanks to some excellent investigative reporting by the Associated Press in the last couple of weeks – showing that all police units are, in fact, under Bonilla’s command – it has become clear that the US is illegally funding the Honduran police. [Continue reading…]


FBI pursuing real-time Gmail spying powers as “top priority” for 2013

Slate: Despite the pervasiveness of law enforcement surveillance of digital communication, the FBI still has a difficult time monitoring Gmail, Google Voice, and Dropbox in real time. But that may change soon, because the bureau says it has made gaining more powers to wiretap all forms of Internet conversation and cloud storage a “top priority” this year.

Last week, during a talk for the American Bar Association in Washington, D.C., FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann discussed some of the pressing surveillance and national security issues facing the bureau. He gave a few updates on the FBI’s efforts to address what it calls the “going dark” problem — how the rise in popularity of email and social networks has stifled its ability to monitor communications as they are being transmitted. It’s no secret that under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the feds can easily obtain archive copies of emails. When it comes to spying on emails or Gchat in real time, however, it’s a different story.

That’s because a 1994 surveillance law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act only allows the government to force Internet providers and phone companies to install surveillance equipment within their networks. But it doesn’t cover email, cloud services, or online chat providers like Skype. Weissmann said that the FBI wants the power to mandate real-time surveillance of everything from Dropbox and online games (“the chat feature in Scrabble”) to Gmail and Google Voice. “Those communications are being used for criminal conversations,” he said. [Continue reading…]


Portugal’s humanistic and pragmatic approach to drug use

Der Spiegel reports: Twelve years ago, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for drug users. Since then, those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or heroin go unindicted and possession is a misdemeanor on par with illegal parking. Experts are pleased with the results.

Before he got involved in the global war on drugs, João Goulão was a family physician with his own practice in Faro, on Portugal’s Algarve coast. Arriving in his small office in Lisbon, the 58-year-old tosses his jacket aside, leaving his shirt collar crooked. He looks a little tired from the many trips he’s taken lately — the world wants to know exactly how the experiment in Portugal is going. Goulão is no longer able to accept all the invitations he receives. He adds his latest piece of mail to the mountain of papers on his desk.

From this office, where the air conditioning stopped working this morning, Goulão keeps watch over one of the world’s largest experiments in drug policy.

One gram of heroin, two grams of cocaine, 25 grams of marijuana leaves or five grams of hashish: These are the drug quantities one can legally purchase and possess in Portugal, carrying them through the streets of Lisbon in a pants pocket, say, without fear of repercussion. MDMA — the active ingredient in ecstasy — and amphetamines — including speed and meth — can also be possessed in amounts up to one gram. That’s roughly enough of each of these drugs to last 10 days.

These are the amounts listed in a table appended to Portugal’s Law 30/2000. Goulão participated in creating this law, which has put his country at the forefront of experimental approaches to drug control. Portugal paved a new path when it decided to decriminalize drugs of all kinds.

“We figured perhaps this way we would be better able get things under control,” Goulão explains. “Criminalization certainly wasn’t working all that well.”

As part of its war on drugs, Portugal has stopped prosecuting users. The substances listed in the Law 30/2000 table are still illegal in Portugal — “Otherwise we would have gotten into trouble with the UN,” Goulão explains — but using these drugs is nothing more than a misdemeanor, much the same as a parking violation. [Continue reading…]


EPA report: More than half nation’s rivers in poor shape

The Associated Press reports: More than half of the country’s rivers and streams are in poor biological health, unable to support healthy populations of aquatic insects and other creatures, according to a nationwide survey released Tuesday.

The Environmental Protection Agency sampled nearly 2,000 locations in 2008 and 2009 — from rivers as large as the Mississippi River to streams small enough for wading. The study found more than 55 percent of them in poor condition, 23 percent in fair shape, and 21 percent in good biological health.

The most widespread problem was high levels of nutrient pollution, caused by phosphorus and nitrogen washing into rivers and streams from farms, cities and sewers. High levels of phosphorus — a common ingredient in detergents and fertilizers — were found in 40 percent of rivers and streams.


Poisoning the planet for profit

The mealy-mouthed, equivocating, spineless New York Times reports on the devastating loss in bee populations caused by what is termed “colony collapse disorder.”

The insidious feature of this report is that while it highlights the magnitude of the problem, it implies that concern about the dangers from pesticides is prevalent mostly among beekeepers — as though scientists remain largely agnostic on how much harm derives from chemicals, as opposed for instance to naturally occurring viral epidemics.

The takeaway narrative is that humble beekeepers, perturbed by their losses are afraid of the chemicals, scientists are earnestly investigating the issue, while industry meekly awaits the results, happy to be guided by whatever science reveals.

But have no doubt, the manufacturers of chemicals such as imidacloprid — which are like liquid gold — will take every possible measure exercising their immense strength to lobby governments, tilt scientific research in their favor and obfuscate the issues in the media, all in the pursuit of profit.

A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.

The pesticide industry disputes that. But its representatives also say they are open to further studies to clarify what, if anything, is happening.

“They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”

In a show of concern, the Environmental Protection Agency recently sent its acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and two top chemical experts here, to the San Joaquin Valley of California, for discussions.

In the valley, where 1.6 million hives of bees just finished pollinating an endless expanse of almond groves, commercial beekeepers who only recently were losing a third of their bees to the disorder say the past year has brought far greater losses.

The federal Agriculture Department is to issue its own assessment in May. But in an interview, the research leader at its Beltsville, Md., bee research laboratory, Jeff Pettis, said he was confident that the death rate would be “much higher than it’s ever been.”