Archives for September 2016

Sectarian fighters mass for battle to capture east Aleppo

The Guardian reports: As the most intensive air bombardment of the war has rained down on opposition-held east Aleppo this week, an army of some 6,000 pro-government fighters has gathered on its outskirts for what they plan will be an imminent, decisive advance.

Among those poised to attack are hundreds of Syrian troops who have eyed the city from distant fixed positions since it was seized by Syrian rebels in mid-2012.

But in far greater numbers are an estimated 5,000 foreign fighters who will play a defining role in the battle – and take a lead stake in what emerges from the ruins.

The coming showdown for Aleppo is a culmination of plans made far from the warrooms of Damascus. Shia Islamic fighters have converged on the area from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan to prepare for a clash that they see as a pre-ordained holy war that will determine the future of the region. [Continue reading…]

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Besieged Aleppo has descended into a ‘merciless abyss,’ UN warns

The Associated Press reports: Syrian government forces continued their push into rebel-held districts of Aleppo on Thursday as international officials issued dire warnings of an ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria’s largest city.

The U.N.’s humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council that the conditions in eastern Aleppo, which is besieged and assaulted by all sides by government forces, had descended into the “merciless abyss of humanitarian catastrophe.”

Speaking to the Security Council via video link from Geneva, O’Brien painted a grim picture of the conditions in the war-wracked eastern part of the city, where at least 320 civilians including 100 children have been killed in the past week. An additional 765 have been wounded.

O’Brien’s report noted that the U.N. now calculates that 861,200 Syrians are trapped in sieges — a nearly 50 percent increase from the last estimate of 586,200. The new figure reflects the government’s protracted blockade around eastern Aleppo, where an estimated 250,000 people or more live. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian opposition coordinator: ‘U.S. policy is weak’

 

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GOP blocks probes into Trump-Russia ties

The Daily Beast reports: Suspicion is mounting about Donald Trump’s ties to Russian officials and business interests, as well as possible links between his campaign and the Russian hacking of U.S. political organizations. But GOP leaders have refused to support efforts by Democrats to investigate any possible Trump-Russia connections, which have been raised in news reports and closed-door intelligence briefings. And without their support, Democrats, as the minority in both chambers of Congress, cannot issue subpoenas to potential witnesses and have less leverage to probe Trump.

Privately, Republican congressional staff told The Daily Beast that Trump and his aides’ connections to Russian officials and businesses interests haven’t gone unnoticed and are concerning. And GOP lawmakers have reviewed Democrats’ written requests to the FBI that it investigate Trump before they were made public.

But the lawmakers in both chambers have declined to sign on to them. Republicans have no appetite to launch inquiries into their party’s presidential nominee, and they continue to believe the FBI flubbed its investigation into Clinton and her aides, who should have been charged with mishandling government secrets, the staffers said. [Continue reading…]

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Trump promotes debunked conspiracy theory that Google favors Clinton

Does Netflix want Donald Trump to become the next president? Is Google trying to tip the balance in Hillary Clinton’s favor?

The key to understanding the relationships between powerful corporations and governments is to remember that corporations hope to wield influence in their own favor whoever controls Washington.

As institutional entities, corporate boards and their executives commonly hold power for much longer than U.S. presidents. Indeed, still in power after 18 years, individuals such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin have more secure positions than most dictators.

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In 2012, when Robert Epstein discovered that Google was displaying a security warning blocking access to his website, instead of coming to the most obvious conclusion — that, as the warning indicated, his site was infected with malware — Epstein became convinced that he was a target of corporate malfeasance. The technology giant was supposedly out to crush the little guy. Why exactly Google would harbor “malice” against Epstein was unclear.

Maybe Epstein should have discussed the matter with a therapist to explore his paranoia. Just as importantly, he should have hired a security expert to fix his site. Instead, as a psychologist sadly lacking in self-awareness, Epstein embarked on a quixotic crusade against Google — he’s still fighting. His most recent ally in that fight is Donald Trump.

Were it not for the fact that Epstein has some credentials that sound more impressive than they really are — such as a PhD from Harvard and former editor in chief of Psychology Today — he could more easily be dismissed as just another conspiracy theorist. But when a “distinguished research psychologist” can point to his “peer-reviewed” “research study” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, he surely carries behind him the full weight of scientific authority, right? Not really.

Making a claim reminiscent of the plot in the Netflix version of House of Cards, Epstein says that Google is trying to rig the election to help Hillary Clinton win.

That’s a claim that dovetails perfectly into Russia’s disinformation campaign designed to undermine the credibility of democracy in America. It should thus come as no surprise that state-sponsored RT would gladly help promote Epstein’s claims and now Kremlin-backed Sputnik joins the effort.

Likewise, as a candidate blind to his own shortcomings, Donald Trump has happily jumped on the Epstein bandwagon.

As for the scientific basis of Epstein’s research findings, all one needs to understand is the data provides to his research subjects. When provided with search results that had been skewed in favor of one candidate over another, the subjects views shift in the same direction. But here’s the thing: Epstein hasn’t unearthed a secret Google bias algorithm. He simply constructs the skewed data himself by manually rearranging search results.

Then, having observed the effects of such manipulation, he concludes that if Google was to engineer similar manipulation, it could affect an election outcome. That’s probably true. But it’s one thing to describe what’s possible and quite another to analyze what’s actually happening.

Companies such as Google and Facebook are indeed fully immersed in efforts to manipulate the way people think and feel, but just like every other business they are driven by the simple goal of profit.

Unless a political force arises in Washington that poses an existential threat to Silicon Valley, I think it’s reasonable to assume that none of the technology giants will place their business interests in jeopardy by trying to rig elections.

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Claims of Saudi role in 9/11 appear headed for Manhattan court

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia paid millions of dollars to Washington lobbyists to keep it out of court. They have been unsuccessful. And now it is up to the kingdom’s lawyers to limit the damage.

With families of Sept. 11 victims now able to pursue legal claims against the Saudis, the fight over responsibility for the terrorist attacks 15 years ago is likely to shift to a courtroom in Lower Manhattan, not far from where the World Trade Center once stood.

The legal battle could last for years, and would be waged using thousands of pages of documents, deposition transcripts and official government investigations. It could end in millions — or billions — of dollars’ worth of Saudi assets being seized in a court settlement, or a judgment that largely vindicates the Saudi government, which for years has insisted it had no role in the deadly plot.

Lawyers for both sides were shaping a legal strategy on Thursday, the day after Congress overrode a veto of a law allowing the 9/11 suits to go forward. For more than a decade, they have been blunted by a sovereign immunity law protecting foreign governments from American lawsuits.

Now, lawyers say they expect that a federal judge will once again take up the cases originally filed in courtrooms across America, but that several years ago were consolidated into one suit in the Southern District of New York. [Continue reading…]

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The new star of Germany’s far right

Thomas Meaney writes: For decades, the German far right has been a limited force, with easily recognizable supporters—nicotine-stained ex-Nazis in the sixties and seventies, leather-clad skinheads in the eighties and nineties. [Alternative für Deutschland leader, Frauke] Petry is something different, a disarmingly wholesome figure — a former businesswoman with a Ph.D. in chemistry and four children from her marriage to a Lutheran pastor. During a month I spent with her this summer as she drove around Germany giving speeches, she drew connections between politics and laboratory science, sprinkled her speech with Latin phrases, and steered discussions about German culture toward the cantatas of Bach.

Petry is not a gifted orator. Her speeches tend to be dull, with ornate sentences and technocratic talking points, and she is more comfortable citing economic studies than discussing the lives of ordinary people. Her manner belies the extremism of the AfD’s views. At the start of this year, Petry said that, in the face of the recent influx of refugees (many of them fleeing the war in Syria), the police might have to shoot people crossing the border illegally. In April, the Party said that head scarves should be banned in schools and universities, and minarets prohibited. Party members called for a referendum on whether to leave the euro; for the expulsion of Allied troops, who have been stationed in Germany since 1945; and for school curriculums that focus more on “positive, identity-uplifting” episodes in German history and less on Nazi crimes. Most contentious of all was the declaration “Islam does not belong in Germany.”

By American standards, especially in the age of Donald Trump, contemporary German politics is decorous and understated. But although Petry’s crisp style is in many ways the opposite of Trump’s, her rise has similarities to his. She, too, has come late to politics and relishes her outsider status. Like him, she often works by insinuation, fanning right-wing conspiracy theories not merely to stir up grievances but to bind members together with a sense of shared beliefs. Like him, she has been accused of financial improprieties. Like him, she castigates the media for liberal bias but also thrives on media attention. Petry and her colleagues have mastered the art of dominating the news cycle, to the point where a visitor to Germany listening to the radio or reading the newspapers could be forgiven for thinking that the AfD is the party in power. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. urges India and Pakistan to refrain from making nuclear threats

Dawn reports: The United States reminded India and Pakistan on Thursday that nuclear capable states do not threaten to use atomic weapons in any conflict.

The US government also categorically said that it considered the Sept 18 attack on an Indian military facility in Uri a terrorist attack.

The warning to avoid a nuclear conflict followed reports in the international media that both Indian and Pakistani governments had intensified their rhetoric and hinted at the possibility of nuclear military actions against each other.

“Nuclear-capable states have the responsibility to exercise restraint regarding nuclear weapons and missile capabilities,” a spokesperson for the US State Department told Dawn when asked to comment on these reports. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military is building a $100 million drone base in Africa

Nick Turse reports: From high above, Agadez almost blends into the cocoa-colored wasteland that surrounds it. Only when you descend farther can you make out a city that curves around an airfield before fading into the desert. Once a nexus for camel caravans hauling tea and salt across the Sahara, Agadez is now a West African paradise for people smugglers and a way station for refugees and migrants intent on reaching Europe’s shores by any means necessary.

Africans fleeing unrest and poverty are not, however, the only foreigners making their way to this town in the center of Niger. U.S. military documents reveal new information about an American drone base under construction on the outskirts of the city. The long-planned project — considered the most important U.S. military construction effort in Africa, according to formerly secret files obtained by The Intercept through the Freedom of Information Act — is slated to cost $100 million, and is just one of a number of recent American military initiatives in the impoverished nation.

The base is the latest sign, experts say, of an ever-increasing emphasis on counterterror operations in the north and west of the continent. As the only country in the region willing to allow a U.S. base for MQ-9 Reapers — a newer, larger, and potentially more lethal model than the venerable Predator drone — Niger has positioned itself to be the key regional hub for U.S. military operations, with Agadez serving as the premier outpost for launching intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions against a plethora of terror groups. [Continue reading…]

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Scientists warn global temperatures are still likely to hit dangerous warming levels

The Associated Press reports: A team of top scientists is telling world leaders to stop congratulating themselves on the Paris agreement to fight climate change because if more isn’t done, global temperatures will likely hit dangerous warming levels in about 35 years.

Six scientists who were leaders in past international climate conferences joined with the Universal Ecological Fund in Argentina to release a brief report Thursday, saying that if even more cuts in heat-trapping gases aren’t agreed upon soon, the world will warm by another 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) by around 2050.

That 1.8 degree mark is key because in 2009 world leaders agreed that they wanted to avoid warming of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Temperatures have already risen about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), so that 2 degree goal is really about preventing a rise of another degree going forward. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Aurora Borealis over Iceland

 

Time reports: Streetlights across much of Iceland’s capital were switched off Wednesday night so its citizens could make the most of the otherworldly glow of the aurora borealis dancing in the sky above them — without the usual interference from light pollution.

Lights in central Reykjavik and several outlying districts went out for about an hour at 10 p.m. local time, and residents were encouraged to turn off lights at home, the Iceland Monitor reported.

While those in Iceland can expect to see the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, at any time from September to May, high solar-particle activity combined with clear skies on Wednesday created unusually perfect conditions. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Quentin Dujardin with Jalal El Allouli — ‘Memoire Aveugle’

 

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Administration officials wonder: Why won’t Obama stand up to Putin?

The Daily Beast reports: Russia and Syria appeared to attack two more hospitals and a bakery in the already besieged eastern city of Aleppo on Wednesday, in an aggressive push to seize and starve the city — home to as many as 100,000 children — back into regime control.

So how will the Obama administration respond to an increasingly provocative Russia? For now, it won’t.

There is an unspoken understanding within the administration that despite the many provocations Russia has carried out in Syria, there will be no major American response, a position that increasingly is drawing the ire of top national security officials, three U.S. officials told The Daily Beast.

Adding to these officials’ frustration is that Russia’s aggression isn’t just contained to Syria. There is mounting evidence that Russia has been behind a series of computer hacks that intelligence officials believe are designed to meddle with U.S. elections in November.

Officials said they feared that the White House’s inaction could devolve into acquiescence in Syria, in Ukraine, and in cyberspace. On Wednesday, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations reportedly laughed when asked about the hospital attack.

“Of course we are concerned about how far Russia will go,” one U.S. official explained to The Daily Beast. “And just as worrisome is what this is doing to U.S. credibility.”

Even members of the president’s party are speaking out on Capitol Hill about Russia’s seemingly unchecked aggression. [Continue reading…]

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Is the U.S. weighing a tougher response to Russia over Syria crisis?

Reuters reports: Obama administration officials have begun considering tougher responses to the Russian-backed Syrian government assault on Aleppo, including military options, as rising tensions with Moscow diminish hopes for diplomatic solutions from the Middle East to Ukraine and cyberspace, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

The new discussions were being held at “staff level,” and have yet to produce any recommendations to President Barack Obama, who has resisted ordering military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s multisided civil war.

But the deliberations coincide with Secretary of State John Kerry threatening to halt diplomacy with Russia on Syria and holding Moscow responsible for dropping incendiary bombs on rebel areas of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. It was the stiffest U.S. warning to the Russians since the Sept. 19 collapse of a truce they jointly brokered.

Even administration advocates of a more muscular U.S. response said on Wednesday that it was not clear what, if anything, the president would do, and that his options “begin at tougher talk,” as one official put it.

One official said that before any action could be taken, Washington would first have “follow through on Kerry’s threat and break off talks with the Russians” on Syria.

But the heavy use of Russian airpower in Syria has compounded U.S. distrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical intentions, not only in the 5-1/2 year civil war, but also in the Ukraine conflict and in what U.S. officials say are Russian-backed cyber attacks on U.S. political targets.

The U.S. officials said the failure of diplomacy in Syria has left the Obama administration no choice but to consider alternatives, most of which involve some use of force and have been examined before but held in abeyance. [Continue reading…]

The basis for this reporting appears to be an exchange in Tuesday’s State Department press briefing. The suggestion that the administration is now seriously considering its military options sounds like a bit of a stretch. Much more likely is that it is merely restating every administration’s fallback position as it struggles to craft policy: we are keeping all options on the table.

Even if Kerry or Obama was to say, diplomacy has failed, they remain doctrinally wedded to the view that there is no military solution to this conflict.

So, if diplomacy has indeed reached a dead end, I don’t expect to see a tougher response from Obama, but instead, no response at all. All he’s doing now is counting the days until his departure from the Oval Office.

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Russia’s brutal bombing of Aleppo may be calculated, and it may be working

Max Fisher writes: The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

The strategy, more about politics than advancing the battle lines, appears to be designed to pressure rebels to ally themselves with extremists, eroding the rebels’ legitimacy; give Russia veto power over any high-level diplomacy; and exhaust Syrian civilians who might otherwise support the opposition.

This approach could succeed even if pro-government forces never retake Aleppo. A yearlong siege of the city has not brought President Bashar al-Assad’s forces closer to victory. Too weak to win outright, they appear instead to be hedging, trying to weaken the rebels so that they cannot win either, and to ensure any final settlement would be more favorable for Moscow and its allies.

Though killing civilians often backfires in war, in this case it may be all too effective. [Continue reading…]

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Russian hackers harassed journalists who were investigating Malaysia Airlines plane crash

The Washington Post reports: Russian government hackers began targeting a British citizen journalist in February 2015, eight months after he began posting evidence documenting alleged Russian government involvement in the shoot-down of a Malaysian jetliner over Ukraine.

And then in February 2016, a group that researchers suspect is a propaganda mouthpiece of the Russian government — CyberBerkut — defaced the home page of Eliot Higgins’s citizen journalism website, Bellingcat.com.

That same month, CyberBerkut hacked the email, iCloud and social media account of a Bellingcat researcher in Moscow, then posted online personal pictures, a passport scan, his girlfriend’s name and other private details.

Russia’s information operations against Bellingcat are a taste of what may be in store for other media organizations whose reports anger the Kremlin, said a cyber-research firm that has extensively documented the effort. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s debating problems

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Charles M Blow writes: No one with an open mind and sound reason who witnessed the sniffing, sipping, scowling, raging, interrupting display of petulance and agitation that was Donald Trump’s debate performance on Monday could possibly argue that he won that debate or that he is the kind of person to whom we should entrust the presidency.

It appears that Trump thought it wise to wing it.

Katie Pavlich wrote Monday on the conservative site Townhall, “Trump didn’t take the conventional road of preparing for the debate and skipped mock debate practice altogether.”

Pavlich quoted the senior Trump campaign adviser Sarah Huckabee Sanders as saying:

“Donald Trump does what works best for him, and I think that is discussing the issues, studying the issues and frankly being himself. He’s not a poll-tested, scripted robot like Hillary Clinton. That’s a great contrast to have and one I think we are certainly excited to see tonight.”

Well, the robot won. And she did so because she had the discipline and forethought to properly prepare.

At one point during the debate, Trump said of Clinton:

“And I will tell you, you look at the inner cities — and I just left Detroit, and I just left Philadelphia, and I just — you know, you’ve seen me, I’ve been all over the place. You decided to stay home, and that’s O.K.”

But Clinton shot back:

“I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”

The crowd applauded.

It takes a tremendous ego and a healthy dose of hubris to believe that you can simply bluster your way through a presidential debate, but if anyone thinks that way, it’s no surprise it’s the uniquely underqualified and overblown king of bragging and whining: Donald J. Trump. [Continue reading…]

The fact that Trump chose to wing it might be interpreted as meaning that competent guidance was on offer — he simply didn’t make use of it. The picture painted by the New York Times, however, is one in which the candidate was being lots of conflicting guidance.

Mr. Trump’s debate preparation was unconventional. Aides have introduced a lectern and encouraged him to participate in mock debates, but he has not embraced them, focusing mostly on conversations and discussions with advisers.

During the primaries, the group briefing him for debates was small and closely held. By the weekend before the debate on Monday at Hofstra University, there were nearly a dozen people preparing Mr. Trump, including the retired Army generals Michael Flynn and Keith Kellogg, neither of whom has experience in presidential debates.

There were early efforts to run a more standard form of general election debate-prep camp, led by Roger Ailes, the ousted Fox News chief, at Mr. Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, N.J. But Mr. Trump found it hard to focus during those meetings, according to multiple people briefed on the process who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That left Mr. Ailes, who at the time was deeply distracted by his removal from Fox and the news media reports surrounding it, discussing his own problems as well as recounting political war stories, according to two people present for the sessions.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former New York City mayor and a friend of Mr. Trump’s who has been traveling with him extensively, took over much of the preparation efforts by the end. But with Mr. Trump receiving so much conflicting advice in those sessions, he absorbed little of it.

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Police brutality leads to thousands fewer calls to 911

The Atlantic reports: Black Americans are less likely to dial 911 immediately following, and for more than a year after the highly publicized assault or death of a black person at the hands of police. That’s the conclusion in “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community,” a study to be published in October’s American Sociological Review, the official publication of the American Sociological Association.

Three sociologists — Matthew Desmond at Harvard, Andrew Papachristos at Yale, and David Kirk at Oxford — screened and analyzed over 1.1 million 911 calls made to Milwaukee’s emergency dispatch between March 1, 2004 and December 31, 2010. They isolated and further analyzed some 883,000 calls in which a crime was reported within city limits in black, Latino, and white neighborhoods where at least 65 percent of residents fit the race category, per 2000 Census data. They chose those dates in order to study what, if any, impact the brutal beating of Frank Jude by several police officers might have had on residents dialing 911 for help. The effect they found was significant.

“Police misconduct can powerfully suppress one of the most basic forms of civic engagement: calling 911 for matters of personal and public safety,” the authors wrote in the study. The author’s conclusions may also shed some light on the controversial “Ferguson effect,” that is, the idea that a rise in crime follows a high-profile incident of police brutality. [Continue reading…]

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