U.N. docs expose Assad’s starvation campaign in Syria

Foreign Policy reports: Internal United Nations documents show modest improvements in the delivery of desperately needed food inside rebel-controlled areas of Syria. But the documents also point to a mass exodus of Syrians into areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in part because the dictator is the only reliable source of life-sustaining food.

The documents obtained by Foreign Policy track the success of the U.N.’s World Food Program in the two months since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Assad provide immediate access for relief workers. The new data shows that the years-old U.N. effort has made some recent progress, with food supplies reaching a total of almost 415,000 people in hard-to-reach areas since the resolution was approved in February. In the country as a whole, WFP was able to reach 4.1 million persons in need in March, up from 3.7 million in February. However, in a country where 9.3 million people are in need of steady humanitarian assistance, that means that many more remain outside the U.N.’s reach.

More distressingly, the documents show that Assad’s campaign to bring rebels to heel by cutting off food supplies in opposition-controlled areas is succeeding. [Continue reading...]

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The statues of Lenin and Stalin still stand, not only on Russia’s squares and plazas, but in the minds of its citizens

Vladimir Sorokin writes: In the course of three days in August 1991, during the failed putsch against Gorbachev, the decaying Soviet empire tottered and began to collapse. Some friends and I found ourselves on Lubianskaya Square, across from the headquarters of the fearsome, mighty KGB. A huge crowd was preparing to topple the symbol of that sinister institution — the statue of its founder, Dzerzhinsky, “Iron Felix” as his Bolshevik comrades-in-arms called him. A few daredevils had scaled the monument and wrapped cables around its neck, and a group was pulling on them to ever louder shouts and cries from the assembled throng.

Suddenly, a Yeltsin associate with a megaphone appeared out of the blue and directed everyone to hold off, because, he said, when the bronze statue fell, “its head might crash through the pavement and damage important underground communications.” The man said that a crane was already on its way to remove Dzerzhinsky from the pedestal without any damaging side effects. The revolutionary crowd waited for this crane a good two hours, keeping its spirits up with shouts of “Down with the KGB!”

Doubts about the success of the coming anti-Soviet revolution first stirred in me during those two hours. I tried to imagine the Parisian crowd, on May 16, 1871, waiting politely for an architect and workers to remove the Vendôme Column. And I laughed. The crane finally arrived; Dzerzhinsky was taken down, placed on a truck, and driven away. People ran alongside and spat on him. Since then he has been on view in the park of dismantled Soviet monuments next to the New Tretiakov Gallery. Not long ago, a member of the Duma presented a resolution to return the monument to its former location. Given events currently taking place in our country, it’s quite likely that this symbol of Bolshevik terror will return to Lubianskaya Square.

The swift dismantling of remaining Soviet monuments recently in Ukraine caused me to remember the Dzerzhinsky episode. Dozens of statues of Lenin fell in Ukrainian cities; no one in the opposition asked people to treat them “in a civilized manner,” because in this case a “polite” dismantling could mean only one thing — conserving a potent symbol of Soviet power. “Dzhugashvili [Stalin] is there, preserved in a jar,” as the poet Joseph Brodsky wrote in 1968. This jar is the people’s memory, its collective unconscious.

In 2014, Lenins were felled in Ukraine and were allowed to collapse. No one tried to preserve them. This “Leninfall” took place during the brutal confrontation on Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), when Viktor Yanukovych’s power also collapsed, demonstrating that a genuine anti-Soviet revolution had finally occurred in Ukraine. No real revolution has happened in Russia. Lenin, Stalin, and their bloody associates still repose on Red Square, and hundreds of statues still stand, not only on Russia’s squares and plazas, but in the minds of its citizens. [Continue reading...]

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Snowden, Putin, Wyden, and Clapper

Imagine the tension inside the studio on Russian state television when Vladamir Putin was confronted by Edward Snowden. How would Russia’s president handle a direct challenge from the world’s most famous whistleblower?

Was the most powerful man in the world going to cower like DNI James Clapper did a year ago and wipe sweat from his forehead as he nervously tried to evade pointed questions from his interrogator?

It turned out the Putin remained as calm as the Buddha.

I guess it’s hard having the same impact when you can’t ask any follow-up questions, the person being questioned has no fear of perjuring himself, and he enjoys the popular support of a 71% approval rating.

The Moscow Times reports:

Most of the more than 2.5 million questions that were sent via telephone, web and text message concerned social policy, housing and infrastructure. But most of the show was occupied by questions about the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea.

Since Snowden’s question was among the 81 questions that made the cut, it’s safe to say that Putin and his handlers recognized that it would serve their interests. In Putin’s posture of speaking “spy to spy” there was no hint of the merciless way he deals with defectors.

The investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, welcomed Snowden’s appearance:


Whether a debate of any consequence in Russia ensues, remains to be seen:


And while Snowden might want to applaud his own challenge to Putin, Soldatov reminded the American of an invitation he has yet to accept:


Speaking to the Washington Post, Soldatov explained why Putin’s denials on mass surveillance don’t stand up to scrutiny.

In fact, Soldatov says, Russia even has its own version of PRISM, the clandestine mass electronic surveillance program that Snowden uncovered. It’s called SORM, and has been around since 1995. During Putin’s 14 years in Russian leadership, the scope of SORM has been expanded numerous times.

Soldatov argues that there were three key points made by Putin, each of which was a half-truth or a lie. First, Soldatov says, Putin argued that the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet era’s KGB, needs to get a warrant from a court before surveillance can begin. This is true in theory, Soldatov admits, but in practice the warrants are not required to be shown: Telecoms agencies and Internet providers do not have the necessary security clearance to view the warrants, in any case.

Secondly, Putin seemed to suggest that the Russian legislature, the Duma, has oversight over the FSB. This is not true, Soldatov says, arguing that while the State Duma does have a Special Committee for Security, it has no actual oversight for secret services.

Finally, Putin argued that Russia doesn’t have the “hardware and money the United States has.” Soldatov says this is “not entirely correct.” The biggest limitation on FSB’s spying is that Russian communication systems – for example, the social network VKontakte – are rarely used abroad, unlike U.S. systems (for example, Google and Facebook). This gives the U.S. a clear advantage in international surveillance, but it is mostly irrelevant for the discussion of domestic mass surveillance, Soldatov argues.

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National Popular Vote: New York State climbs aboard

Hendrik Hertzberg writes: On Tuesday, the State of New York took a baby step — or maybe a giant leap! — toward making the United States of America something more closely resembling a modern democracy: Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill joining up the Empire State to the National Popular Vote (N.P.V.) interstate compact.

As I’ve explained many times (fifty-one, to be exact), N.P.V. is a way to elect our Presidents the way we elect our governors, our mayors, our senators and representatives, our state legislators, and everybody else: by totting up the voters’ votes — all of them — and awarding the job to whichever candidate gets the largest number. And it does this without changing a word of the Constitution.

Impossible, you say? No. Quite possible — even probable — and in time for 2020, if not for 2016.

Here’s how it works: Suppose you could get a bunch of states to pledge that once there are enough of them to possess at least two hundred and seventy electoral votes — a majority of the Electoral College — they will thenceforth cast all their electoral votes for whatever candidate gets the most popular votes in the entire country. As soon as that happens, presto change-o: the next time you go to the polls, you’ll be voting in a true national election. No more ten or so battleground states, no more forty or so spectator states, just the United States—all of them, and all of the voters who live in them.

Unless you’ve been following this pretty closely, it will surprise you to learn that, before this week, ten states (counting D.C.) had already signed on. Now it’s eleven, and between them they have a hundred and sixty-five electoral votes—sixty-one per cent of the total needed to bring the compact into effect. [Continue reading...]

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Diplomats reach deal on defusing Ukraine crisis

The Washington Post reports: Top diplomats on Thursday laid out a series of steps to tamp down violence and political unrest in Ukraine, even as Western officials publicly doubted Russia’s resolve to use its influence to help defuse the crisis in the former Soviet republic.

The potential diplomatic breakthrough, which the Russian foreign minister referred to as “a compromise, of sorts,” came after nearly seven hours of negotiations with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the Ukrainian foreign minister and the European Union’s foreign policy chief.

Under the agreement, all parties, including separatists and their Russian backers, would stop violent and provocative acts, and all illegal groups would be disarmed. A joint statement made no mention of the presence of what the United States has said are 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders. But Kerry said it made clear that Russia is “absolutely prepared to begin to respond with respect to troops,” provided the terms of the agreement are observed.

In Washington, President Obama said Russia’s stated commitments were only the beginning of a process.

“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days, but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that,” Obama said during a White House press conference. “We have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be, you know, efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.”

Obama threatened further economic sanctions and stressed American economic and diplomatic support for the Western-oriented government in Kiev. He ruled out a U.S. military response to help Ukraine fend off Russian incursions. [Continue reading...]

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The dilettantes Obama chose to guide U.S. foreign policy

James Bruno writes: Working the Afghanistan account at the State Department in the late 1980s, I occasionally met the Russian muckraking journalist Artyom Borovik. Before he joined the vanguard of those agitating for change during glasnost, he had served as a Soviet diplomat. The son of a Novosti journalist posted to New York, Borovik spoke nearly unaccented English and excellent Spanish. He was as comfortable in an Afghan tea house as he was at a Manhattan Starbucks. Borovik, in short, was the cream of the crop of Russian youth from which the Foreign Ministry traditionally recruits its diplomats: urbane, multilingual, with elite educations and the skills to deftly navigate foreign societies.

Borovik died in 2000 in a still-unsolved Moscow plane accident days after producing a scathing article about an ascendant Russian politician, Vladimir Putin, who was about to become president. Borovik quoted Putin in an article as saying, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.”

Whether or not Putin has expanded his tools of persuasion, he’s got good help in the influence department. In the lead-up to four-way talks over Ukraine and Secretary of State Kerry’s consultations with European leaders this week, Russian ambassadors are using their many close connections with continental elites to press Putin’s case, to seek to stifle or limit economic sanctions and to foster divisions between Washington and its allies. In most cases these Russian envoys have spent the bulk of their diplomatic careers dealing with the countries to which they are posted and have extensive decades-long contacts with whom they can speak, often in the latters’ native languages. This gives them a decided edge.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is fairly typical. A graduate of the prestigious Moscow Institute for International Relations (known by its Russian acronym, MGIMO) and 42-year Foreign Ministry veteran, Lavrov speaks fluent English as well as Sinhalese, Dhiveli and French. A former U.S. ambassador who had dealt with Lavrov at the United Nations described him to me as disciplined, witty and charming, a diplomat so skilled “he runs rings around us in the multilateral sphere.”

Russia has always taken diplomacy and its diplomats seriously. America, on the other hand, does not. Of this country’s 28 diplomatic missions in NATO capitals (of which 26 are either currently filled by an ambassador or have nominees waiting to be confirmed), 16 are, or will be, headed by political appointees; only one ambassador to a major NATO ally, Turkey, is a career diplomat. Fourteen ambassadors got their jobs in return for raising big money for President Obama’s election campaigns, or worked as his aides. A conservative estimate of personal and bundled donations by these fundraisers is $20 million (based on figures from the New York Times, Federal Election Commission and AllGov). The U.S. ambassador to Belgium, a former Microsoft executive, bundled more than $4.3 million. [Continue reading...]

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Putin has more admirers than the West might admit

Timothy Garton Ash writes: Tell me your Ukraine and I will tell you who you are. The Ukrainian crisis is a political Rorschach test, not just for individuals but also for states. What it reveals to us is not encouraging for the west. It turns out that Vladimir Putin has more admirers around the world than you might expect for someone using a neo-Soviet combination of violence and the big lie to dismember a neighbouring sovereign state. When I say admirers, I don’t just mean the governments of Venezuela and Syria, two of his most vocal supporters. Russia’s strongman garners tacit support, and even some quiet plaudits, from some of the world’s most important emerging powers, starting with China and India.

During a recent visit to China I was frequently asked what was going on in Ukraine, and I kept asking in return about the Chinese attitude to it. Didn’t a country which has so consistently defended the principle of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of existing states (be they the former Yugoslavia or Iraq), and which itself has a couple of prospective Crimeas (Tibet, Xinjiang), feel uneasy about Russia simply grabbing a chunk of a neighbouring country?

Well, came the reply, that was a slight concern, but Ukraine was a long way away – and, frankly speaking, the positives of the crisis outweighed the negatives for China. What’s more, the United States would have another strategic distraction (after al-Qaida, Afghanistan and Iraq) to hinder its “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, and divert its attention from China. And, cold-shouldered by the west, Russia would be more dependent on a good relationship with Beijing. As for Ukraine – which already sells China higher-grade military equipment than Russia has been willing to share with its great Asian ally – its new authorities had already quietly assured the Chinese authorities that Beijing’s failure to condemn the annexation of Crimea would not affect their future relations. What’s not to like in all that? [Continue reading...]

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Jimmy Carter urges Keystone XL rejection

The Associated Press reports: For the first time, a former U.S. president has come out against the Keystone XL pipeline.

The ex-president in question is Jimmy Carter.

The 39th president joined a group of Nobel laureates to sign a letter urging the current commander-in-chief to reject the pipeline from Canada.

The letter tells Barack Obama that he stands on the brink of making a choice that will define his legacy on one of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced — climate change.

“History will reflect on this moment and it will be clear to our children and grandchildren if you made the right choice…. We urge you to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline,” the letter reads.

It says his decision will either signal a “dangerous commitment” to the status quo, or “bold leadership” that will inspire millions counting on him to do the right thing for the climate. [Continue reading...]

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Collapsed health care system may be biggest threat to Syrians

Barbara Slavin writes: More Syrians have died from lack of adequate medical care than from actual combat as the war grinds on into its fourth year, according to Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response.

In an interview with Al-Monitor on April 11 in Washington, where she attended a coordination meeting at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with other groups struggling to keep up with the spreading humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis, Georgieva said that “over 200,000 people have died because treatment is not available anymore in the collapsed health system of Syria.”

While Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has consolidated control over a significant part of territory, the country’s economy has fallen apart, the European commissioner said, and nearly half the population — almost 10 million people — need assistance.

Increasingly, aid workers are reporting cases of malnutrition and starvation, which make weakened populations even more vulnerable to diseases such as measles, Georgieva said. She said she recently visited the northern Kurdish section of Iraq, which is now home to some 230,000 Syrian refugees.

“A large proportion of them flee not because of the fighting,” she said, “but because their children are starving and they cannot access very basic necessities.” [Continue reading...]

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British jihadists in Syria are playing into Assad’s hands

David Wearing writes: The results of new research reported by the Guardian this week on young westerners who have travelled to Syria to fight in the civil war provide some fascinating insights into their motivations, their interactions with pro-jihadi communities online, and the groups they join when they arrive in the war zone.

According to researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London, many of these young men are driven by what, in their minds, are humanitarian concerns for their co-religionists and the Syrian people. An article by George Monbiot comparing them to volunteers in the Spanish civil war was apparently very popular among these foreign fighters. But the fact that most volunteers (among whom the British are the largest contingent) appear to be joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), or Jabhat al-Nusra to a lesser extent, shows that far from helping the anti-Assad cause, they are probably helping him to stay in power, and imposing yet more suffering on the Syrian population. [Continue reading...]

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Did Snowden just make a visa-renewal application directly to Putin live on Russian TV?

Mashable reports: In what could be best described as a bizarre PR stunt, Edward Snowden made a surprise appearance on live TV to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin whether he spies on his citizens.

Snowden, who has received asylum in Russia, appeared during Putin’s annual call-in show on Russian TV on Thursday, during which Putin answered questions from the public. It’s unclear whether Snowden’s appearance was staged, but his question gave Putin a chance to poke at his favorite target: the United States.

“Does Russia store, intercept, or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals, and do you believe that simply increasing the effectiveness of intelligence or law enforcement investigations can justify a place in societies rather than subjects under surveillance?” Snowden asked Putin (see the full exchange in the video embedded below).

“Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy. I used to work for the intelligence service, we are going to talk one professional language,” Putin said, according to translation by state-run TV channel Russia Today. “We don’t have as much money as they have in the States and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by society and the law and regulated by the law.”

Russia clearly has means to “respond” to terrorists and criminals who use technology, Putin added, but doesn’t have “uncontrollable efforts like [in America].”

What Putin didn’t say, however, is that Russia actually boasts one of the most sophisticated surveillance systems in the world, described by some as “PRISM on steroids.” This system, known as SORM, practically gives the Federal Security Service (FSB) direct access to Internet servers and telecommunications providers, allowing the government to eavesdrop on all online and phone communications that go through their networks. [Continue reading...]

No doubt Edward Snowden’s most loyal supporters will find ways of putting a positive spin on his TV performance, but neither of two of the most obvious ways in which it can be interpreted cast him in a favorable light.

If Snowden thought that he was promoting political freedom inside Russia by giving Putin the opportunity to assert, unchallenged, his commitment to the protection of privacy, then Snowden’s naivety is staggering.

If on the other hand, Snowden was “invited” to ask his question with the understanding or expectation that this would result in some kind of quid pro quo — such as increasing the chance of him being offered permanent asylum — then he just demonstrated his willingness to function as a propaganda tool supporting Putin’s agenda.

Suppose the same question had been posed to Putin by the TV host. It would have merited no attention whatsoever. Of course Putin is going to cast his own security services as squeaky clean when the questioner has neither the opportunity, the means, or the motive to challenge the Russian president’s response.

There’s no question that Snowden’s appearance was a PR stunt. The question is: who instigated it?

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Ann Jones: Star-spangled baggage

In 2007, a new phenomenon reared its ugly head in Afghanistan.  With two attacks that year and two more the next, it was first dubbed “green-on-blue violence,” and later the simpler, blunter “insider attack.”  At one level, it couldn’t have been more straightforward.  Afghan soldiers or policemen (or in a small number of cases Taliban infiltrators) would suddenly turn their weapons on their American or NATO mentors or allies and gun them down.  Think of these “incidents” as early votes in the Afghan elections — not, as Lenin might once have had it, with their feet, but with their guns after spending time up close and personal with Americans or other Westerners.  It was a phenomenon that only intensified, reaching its height in 2012 with 46 attacks that killed 60 allied soldiers before slowly dying down as American combat troops began to leave the country and far stricter controls were put in place on relations between Afghan, U.S., and allied forces in the field.

It has not, however, died out.  Not quite.  Not yet.  In a uniquely grim version of an insider attack just two weeks ago, an Afghan police commander turned his gun on two western journalists, killing Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding AP reporter Kathy Gannon.  And even more recently, just after it was reported that a month had passed without an American death in a war zone for the first time since 2002, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez killed three fellow soldiers in an insider attack at Fort Hood, Texas.

With its hint of blowback, this is not, of course, a comparison anyone in the mainstream American media is likely to make.  On the whole, we prefer not to think of our wars coming home.  In reality, however, Lopez’s eight-minute shooting rampage with a pistol purchased at a local gun shop fits the definition of an “insider attack” quite well, as did the earlier Fort Hood massacre by an Army psychiatrist. Think of it as an unhinged form of American war coming home, and as a kind of blowback unique to our moment.

After all, name me another wartime period when, for whatever reason, two U.S. soldiers shot up the same base at different times, killing and wounding dozens of their fellow troops. There was, of course, the “fragging” of officers in Vietnam, but this is a new phenomenon, undoubtedly reflective of the disturbing path the U.S. has cut in the world, post-9/11.  Thrown into the mix is a homegrown American culture of massacre and the lifting of barriers to the easy purchase of ever more effective weaponry. (If, in fact, you think about it for a moment, most of the mass killings in this country, generally by young men, whether in schools, movie theatersshipyards, or elsewhere, are themselves a civilian version of “insider attacks.”)

Ironically, in 2011, the Obama administration launched a massive Insider Threat Program to train millions of government employees and contractors to look for signs in fellow workers of the urge to launch insider attacks.  Unfortunately, the only kind of insider attacks administration officials could imagine were those attributed to whistleblowers and leakers.  (Think: Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.)  So, despite much official talk about dealing with the mental health of military men, women, and veterans, the military itself remains open to yet more insider attacks.  After almost 13 years of failed wars in distant lands, think of us as living in Ameraqafghanica.

Today, TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, whose odyssey of a book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, captures the truly painful cost of these wars for America’s soldiers like no other, points out just what every commentator in this country has avoided writing about and every government and military official up to the president has avoided talking about, despite the massive coverage of the Fort Hood killings. Tom Engelhardt

How America’s wars came home with the troops
Up close, personal, and bloody
By Ann Jones

After an argument about a leave denied, Specialist Ivan Lopez pulled out a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and began a shooting spree at Fort Hood, America’s biggest stateside base, that left three soldiers dead and 16 wounded.  When he did so, he also pulled America’s fading wars out of the closet.  This time, a Fort Hood mass killing, the second in four and a half years, was committed by a man who was neither a religious nor a political “extremist.”  He seems to have been merely one of America’s injured and troubled veterans who now number in the hundreds of thousands.

Some 2.6 million men and women have been dispatched, often repeatedly, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and according to a recent survey of veterans of those wars conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly one-third say that their mental health is worse than it was before they left, and nearly half say the same of their physical condition.  Almost half say they give way to sudden outbursts of anger.  Only 12% of the surveyed veterans claim they are now “better” mentally or physically than they were before they went to war.

The media coverage that followed Lopez’s rampage was, of course, 24/7 and there was much discussion of PTSD, the all-purpose (if little understood) label now used to explain just about anything unpleasant that happens to or is caused by current or former military men and women. Amid the barrage of coverage, however, something was missing: evidence that has been in plain sight for years of how the violence of America’s distant wars comes back to haunt the “homeland” as the troops return.  In that context, Lopez’s killings, while on a scale not often matched, are one more marker on a bloody trail of death that leads from Iraq and Afghanistan into the American heartland, to bases and backyards nationwide.  It’s a story with a body count that should not be ignored.

[Read more...]

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The overwhelming power of money in American politics

Al Jazeera reports: It’s not just your imagination: The influence of money in politics has indeed drowned out the voices of American voters, a new analysis shows, with runaway corporate lobbying and a lack of campaign finance reform to blame for giving much more political weight to the wealthy.

Researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University compared the public’s influence on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, finding that more often than not, the interests of wealthy groups and individuals won out over the demands of the general public. For instance, when 80 percent of the public asked for a change of some sort, they got their way only about 43 percent of the time.

The study, its authors say, points to the overwhelming power of wealthy lobbying groups and individuals backing certain interests in American politics, and the marginalization of voters and public advocacy groups.

“I expected to find that ordinary Americans had a modest degree of influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups would serve to promote those interests,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

“What we found instead was that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups as a whole do not reliably side with the wishes of the average citizen.” [Continue reading...]

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Ukraine is not ready for the consequences of taking Russia’s military bait

Time reports: By sending its military to quell the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev may be setting itself up for a spectacular defeat, as neither its army nor its intelligence services are prepared for a confrontation with Russia

Like many of the leading men in Ukraine’s new military pecking order, Petr Mekhed wasn’t exactly ripe for the task of fending off a Russian invasion when he assumed the post of Deputy Defense Minister in February. His last tour of combat duty was about 30 years ago, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, after which he reached the rank of colonel in the Red Army. When revolution in Ukraine broke out this winter, his wartime experience made him better equipped than most at defending the barricades of the Maidan protest camp in the center of Kiev. But it was not as useful in preparing him to lead his country into war. “For some issues I’ve had to sit down with a book and study up,” he says.

His conclusion so far is an unsettling one for Ukraine’s political leaders. If they want to find a way out of their conflict with Russia, which edged closer on Tuesday to military confrontation in the eastern region of Donetsk, they have only one way to do it, Mekhed says, and that is to negotiate. “We’ll never get anywhere through the use of military force,” he tells TIME. It would be much more effective to undercut Russia’s support for the local separatists by meeting them halfway, Mekhed suggests, with an offer of more autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern regions. “Our chances of saving Donetsk are now in the hands of our politicians and their ability to sit down with the people there and talk to them.” [Continue reading...]

Reuters reports: There are important differences between Russia’s intervention in Crimea and the events unfolding this week in eastern Ukraine which suggest Moscow has adapted its Crimea playbook and may be pursuing a different outcome.

Unlike the Black Sea peninsula, where thousands of Russian troops were already based at ex-Soviet naval facilities leased from Ukraine, there is little clear evidence of Moscow deploying significant forces on the ground in the east of the country.

In eastern towns where armed, pro-Russian rebels have seized public buildings and raised the Russian flag, some gunmen identify themselves to journalists as “Russians” – but that says little about citizenship in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine.

They appear to be irregulars. If adept at barricading town halls, they lack the elite kit and well-drilled bearing of forces in Crimea – some of whom identified themselves to Ukrainian soldiers as Russian troops, despite Moscow’s denials.

Reuters also reports: Separatists flew the Russian flag on armored vehicles taken from the Ukrainian army on Wednesday, humiliating a Kiev government operation to recapture eastern towns controlled by pro-Moscow partisans.

Six armored personnel carriers were driven into the rebel-held town of Slaviansk to waves and shouts of “Russia! Russia!”. It was not immediately clear whether they had been captured by rebels or handed over to them by Ukrainian deserters.

Another 15 armored troop carriers full of paratroops were surrounded and halted by a pro-Russian crowd at a town near an airbase. They were allowed to retreat only after the soldiers handed the firing pins from their rifles to a rebel commander.

The military setback leaves Kiev looking weak on the eve of a peace conference on Thursday, when its foreign minister will meet his Russian, U.S. and European counterparts in Geneva.

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NYPD shuts down worthless unit that spied on Muslims

The New York Times reports: The New York Police Department has abandoned a secretive program that dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped, the department said.

The decision by the nation’s largest police force to shutter the controversial surveillance program represents the first sign that William J. Bratton, the department’s new commissioner, is backing away from some of the post-9/11 intelligence-gathering practices of his predecessor. The Police Department’s tactics, which are the subject of two federal lawsuits, drew criticism from civil rights groups and a senior official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who said they harmed national security by sowing mistrust for law enforcement in Muslim communities.

To many Muslims, the squad, known as the Demographics Unit, was a sign that the police viewed their every action with suspicion. The police mapped communities inside and outside the city, logging where customers in traditional Islamic clothes ate meals and documenting their lunch-counter conversations. [Continue reading...]

There aren’t too many occasions on which we can celebrate the effectiveness of the Fourth Estate in identifying and thereby curtailing the abuse of state power, but hats off to the Associated Press for running their Pulitzer Prize-winning probe into the NYPD’s Islamophobic intelligence operations.

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How Egypt’s Tamarod rebel movement helped pave the way for a Sisi presidency

Buzzfeed reports: On the night of July 3, 2013, Moheb Doss stood looking at his television set in disbelief as a statement was read in his name on national television.

The words coming out of the presenter’s mouth bore no resemblance to the carefully drafted statement that Doss, one of the five co-founders of the Tamarod, or Rebel, movement had helped draft hours earlier. It was a statement to mark the moment of Tamarod’s victory, as the protests the group launched on June 30 led to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government just five days later. It was a statement, Doss said, that the group hoped would have a stabilizing effect on the Egyptian public, as it called for a peaceful transition toward a democratic path.

Instead, the presenter quoted Tamarod as calling for the army to step in and protect the people from “brute aggression” by terrorists during potentially turbulent days. The statement supported the army’s forcible removal and arrest of Brotherhood leader and then-President Mohamed Morsi, and dismissed charges that what was happening was a coup.

“What we drafted was a revolutionary statement. It was about peace, and going forward on a democratic path,” Doss told BuzzFeed. “What was read was a statement that could have been written by the army.”

For five days, millions of Egyptians had taken to the streets and demanded an end to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their numbers surpassed even the wildest expectations of Tamarod, a then-largely unknown group that organized the protests. The five founders became instant celebrities, and on the night of July 3, the moment it appeared their victory was imminent, all of Egypt’s television stations had turned to them for a statement on what would happen next.

“What state TV read was as if it had been written by the army, it threatened the Brotherhood, told them they would use force if necessary,” Doss said. “I was shocked. I understood then that the movement had completely gotten away from us.”

It was, he realized later, the end of a process that began weeks earlier, in which the army and security officials slowly but steadily began exerting an influence over Tamarod, seizing upon the group’s reputation as a grassroots revolutionary movement to carry out their own schemes for Egypt. [Continue reading...]

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