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Afghanistan on Edge

What The 'Zero Option' Would Look Like In Afghanistan

October 28th 2013

Afgan Troops

What if the United States pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan?

The general assumption is that as Washington and Kabul work to hammer out a long-term security agreement, a way will be found to maintain a U.S. troop presence after 2014.

The two sides have reached a preliminary agreement on a deal. But a key U.S. demand -- that its troops be granted immunity from prosecution under Afghan law and be tried only in the United States -- remains a major sticking point.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has put the final decision on a deal to a Loya Jirga -- a traditional gathering of tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders -- that will meet and give its verdict next month. Washington has made clear that the "zero option" of pulling its forces out entirely -- as it did in Iraq after it failed to work out a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Baghdad -- is a very real option. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Shift on Syria Angers Saudi Arabia, Derails Obama’s Mideast Plans

October 27th 2013

King Abdullah and sword 2

Saudi Arabia’s ire at the United States risks complicating President Obama’s second-term agenda across the Middle East. Saudi officials over the past few days have decried U.S. policy in the region as “dithering” and refused to take a United Nations Security Council seat in protest.

The backlash risks setting the two peculiar allies on a collision course on a range of issues that involve Egypt, Syria and Iran. The Saudis’ change of strategy was precipitated by Obama’s decision last month to call off military strikes against Syria and instead throw in his lot behind a Russia-backed effort to have Syrian President Bashar Assad turn his chemical weapons over to the international community. The Saudis want Assad deposed, in large part because he is allied with their regional rival, Iran. In response to Obama’s move, Saudi Arabia took the highly unusual step of turning down a two-year stint on the U.N. Security Council, a decision the former director of Saudi intelligence said was “based on the ineffectual experience of that body.” Read more ..


Broken Government

Profits Complicate Defense Contractor's Case Against Sequester

October 27th 2013

night vision goggles

The largest defense contractors have shielded their bottom lines from the sequester.

Defense firms are boosting their profits despite the automatic spending cuts by laying off workers, cutting facilities, buying back stock and taking advantage of prior-year contracts.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing this week both notched double-digit upswings in their quarterly profits from last year. Revenues dipped at Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, but their profits were up.

Since sequestration took effect on March 1, Lockheed’s shares have increased 53 percent to $134, while Boeing’s stock has risen 73 percent to $131, partly on the strength of its commercial sales. The Dow Jones has increased 11 percent in the same time frame. Experts agree the cuts will have an increasingly large impact in the coming years; the sequester will take a $20 billion bite from the Pentagon in January.

But for now, the cuts aren't hitting contractors’ bottom lines, which makes their case for ending the sequester a tougher sell. “This divergence between sales and profits is typical of the final stage in a defense build-up,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute who consults with several defense firms. Read more ..


The US and Iran

US Nuclear Negotiator Calls for Pause in Iran Sanctions

October 25th 2013

Iran Nuclear Equipment centrifuges

The top U.S. nuclear negotiator is calling for a pause in U.S. congressional efforts to impose sanctions on Iran, weeks after accusing Iran of being deceptive about its nuclear program.

In an exclusive interview Friday  U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said any push for additional U.S. sanctions should be delayed to see if nuclear talks can "gain traction."

She said Obama administration officials have been speaking with Senate and House lawmakers on delaying the sanctions.

"Congress has its prerogatives," she said.  "We don’t get to control Congress, but we are having very serious discussions.  We work as partners with Congress.  They’ve been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation.  We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.”Congress has been seeking harsher sanctions on Iran over its questionable nuclear program. Iran says its program has peaceful aims. But the West and Israel believe Iran is developing nuclear weapon capability. Read more ..


Argentina on Edge

Kirchner Stifling News Media in Argentina

October 24th 2013

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

While visiting Argentina a few years ago, just as president Néstor Kirchner was defending the biggest default in history, I saw a televised government message that concluded with the phrase, “Argentina . . . A serious country” ( “Un país en serio”). At the time, I dismissed the ad as more farcical than Orwellian, thinking that a government more obsessed with its image than with reality is its own worst enemy. Unfortunately, such a regime finds enemies elsewhere — starting with any independent journalist or media outlet that refuses to toe the party line.

The Kirchner-controlled congress propagated a media law in 2009 aimed at silencing such critics. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (successor and, now, widow of Néstor) claimed that the measure served the public interest by breaking up powerful monopolies in the communications sector. By requiring the Clarín media conglomerate and others to divest themselves of lucrative cable television licenses, the government will achieve its real objective of muzzling independent newspaper, television and radio outlets. Read more ..


Afghanistan on Edge

Will The Next Afghan President Be A Pen, Radio, Or Bulldozer?

October 23rd 2013

Koran and prayer beads

A bulldozer. A radio. A pencil. A Koran. These are just a few of the candidates vying to win Afghanistan's upcoming presidential election.

For each of the 10 candidates expected to be on the ballot for the April 5 vote, there is a symbol. And those symbols will be printed on ballot papers alongside the name and photograph of each candidate to help voters choose their preferred candidate.

The idea is to make voting easier for the many eligible voters in the country who cannot read. Only 39 percent of Afghanistan's adult population is literate.

In keeping with elections dating back to 2004, the country's Independent Election Commission (IEC) initially assigned a symbol to each potential candidate assuming that there would be a high number of contenders to choose from. (This approach caused problems during general elections in neighboring Pakistan this spring, where some candidates took umbrage at the symbols they were assigned.) However, after the IEC eliminated 17 hopefuls from the running, only 10 remained from the list of vetted candidates announced on October 22. This freed up the IEC to allow candidates to choose their own symbols, pending approval. Read more ..


Afghanistan on Edge

Former Taliban Leader's Release Fails To Revive Peace Talks

October 22nd 2013

Taliban soldiers

Just weeks ago, his release was hailed by the Afghan government as the key to successful peace talks with the Taliban.

But Pakistan's decision to free Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's co-founder and former second-in-command, has failed to live up to Kabul's expectations.

No formal negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban have been scheduled. No location has been set. And it is unclear whether Baradar is actually free at all. Added together, it appears that Kabul's efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the 12-year conflict in Afghanistan have suffered yet another blow.

Even before his reported release in September, questions were raised about Baradar and the possible role he could play in the peace process. There were doubts about his clout with the current Taliban high command and whether he could convince the militant group to end its bloody insurgency. Read more ..


South Africa on Edge

Race in Spotlight Ahead of S. Africa 2014 Elections

October 21st 2013

Black farmers protest 2

The issue of race is rearing its head again as South Africa prepares for national elections next year.  One new political party has made a point of verbally attacking the white minority population who benefited under the apartheid system. At the same time, a small group of white South Africans say their race is threatened with “genocide.”  Analysts say that reckless racial sentiments are not productive and out of sync with today’s South Africa.

Nearly 20 years ago, South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, described his country as a “rainbow nation” at peace with itself. Mandela’s presidency ended the apartheid system in which non-whites were oppressed and treated as inferior to white South Africans. However, the legacy of racism is still a reality in today’s South Africa. And two political movements have recently used race as a rallying cry ahead of the 2014 vote. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

Netanyahu Warns US Not to Roll Back Iran Sanctions

October 20th 2013

Bibi Netanyahu with Glasses

The United States should not ease sanctions against Iran until it can prove that Iran has fully dismantled its nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday. The warning comes amid reports that the Obama administration is considering offering Iran a chance to recover frozen assets overseas in exchange for steps to scale back its nuclear program. “The question is not of hope,” Netanyahu said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “The question is of actual results.”

“I think the pressure has to be maintained on Iran, even increased on Iran, until it actually stops its nuclear program,” he added. “You don’t want to go through halfway measures.” Netanyahu compared Iran’s nuclear program to chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, which President Bashar Assad has pledged to eliminate. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Arab League and UN Hold Talks to Set a Date for More Talks

October 20th 2013

A truck bomb explosion in Syria's fourth largest city of Hama killed more than 30 people on October 20, as the special envoy of the United Nations and Arab League held talks in Cairo on fixing a date for a long-delayed peace conference.

Syrian state TV showed fire and rescue workers trying to douse a blaze from a powerful truck bomb explosion near a government checkpoint in Hama. Civilian vehicles lined up near the checkpoint were pulverized and set on fire, killing or wounding dozen of people.

Elsewhere, government artillery pounded rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus. Fighting engulfed several southern districts as well, including the Yarmouk refugee camp. Rebels also tried to take control of a main highway out of the capital from government forces.
Read more ..


Broken Government

Cruz: Blame Senate GOP for ObamaCare Defeat

October 19th 2013

Ted Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is blaming his fellow Senate Republicans for opposing a movement in the House to defund ObamaCare, which ultimately caused Republicans to win few concessions in the deal to reopen the government and raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

In an interview with the National Review posted on Saturday afternoon, the senator said that there would be “consequences” for supporting the funding bill.

“Unfortunately, rather than supporting House Republicans, a significant number of Senate Republicans actively, aggressively, and vocally led the effort to defeat House Republicans, to defeat the effort to defund Obamacare,” he told the conservative magazine. “Once Senate Republicans did that, it crippled the chances of this effort, and it caused the lousy deal.”

Late on Wednesday, the Senate voted 81-18 to restore government funding until Jan. 15 and raise the debt limit through Feb. 7.

All 18 votes against the legislation came from Republicans, while 27 members of the party voted to send the bill to the House. Among those backing the legislation was Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who is facing a primary challenge from a Tea Party-backed candidate, Matt Bevin. “From day one in office,” Cruz said, “I’ve urged the American people to hold every elected official accountable, and far too many elected officials are not listening to the American people.” Read more ..


Egypt on Edge

Egyptian 'Rebel' Group Backs Military

October 18th 2013

Anti-Morsi Protests June 2013

The Egyptian grassroots movement that boasts bringing down ex-President Mohamed Morsi is now seeking a spot in government. But even as Tamarod inspires similar movements abroad, the group remains dogged by the question - is it a player or a pawn?

While Egyptian leaders continue their crackdown on Islamist opponents, they are also trying to move forward on a roadmap for political change.

And one of their biggest backers in the overhaul, the Tamarod, or Rebellion, movement is moving along with them. The public face of outcry against Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, Tamarod says it will compete nationally in new elections for parliament.

Founding member Mohamed Heikal says Tamarod has changed its focus. He says Tamarod has “shifted from a protest movement to a movement of reconstruction and that there is a lot to rebuild." The nation is torn apart by the military's crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and what many Islamists and others see as the subversion of democracy. But Tamarod spokesman Hisham Goran defends the military's path. Read more ..


Pakistan on Edge

Pakistani Quake Victims Suffer As Government Denies International Aid

October 17th 2013

Turkey Earthquake

Residents of the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan are still struggling to dig out of the rubble left by two major earthquakes last month. The central government, meanwhile, is being accused of dragging its feet in allowing international aid to reach the disaster zone.

Islamabad has been involved in an intense struggle to crush the separatist aims of the province's Baluch population. This has heightened the complications of providing relief following the quakes that hit on September 24 and 28, killing nearly 700 people and leaving some 1,000 injured.

The central government has maintained tight control over the relief effort amid the continuing insurgency and, with their safety in mind, has denied the involvement of outside aid agencies. Local aid workers acknowledge that there have been some cases of insurgents attacking security forces following the disaster. But aid workers, they say, have not been targeted. Read more ..


Broken Government

US Fiscal Deal Leaves Major Budget Challenges Unaddressed

October 16th 2013

john boehner

The bipartisan agreement to reopen the U.S. government and avoid a debt default removes the immediate threat of financial calamity, but leaves America’s long-term fiscal challenges unaddressed. Lawmakers of both parties are acknowledging that major battles on spending, taxation, and government reforms lie ahead.

First the good news: the United States appears to have dodged a bullet to the nation’s economic heart. But the reprieve will be temporary. Democratic Senator Mark Warner noted Wednesday’s accord restarts federal funding and extends the nation’s credit limit for just a few months.

“We have got 90 days before the government runs out of money again. We have 113 days until the debt ceiling might have to be raised again," said Warner. Until then, a group from both houses of Congress will meet to hammer out a bipartisan budget agreement and attempt to address America’s long-term fiscal imbalances. Read more ..


Broken Government

House Republicans May Not Have Votes to Move their Debt Plan

October 15th 2013

House Republicans said they hoped to vote Tuesday on a new fiscal plan, but doubts immediately sprouted up over whether they can muster the votes to pass it.
The new House GOP plan would modify an emerging Senate fiscal deal that would end the government shutdown, fund the government through Jan. 15 and raise the debt ceiling until Feb. 7.

It would do so by delaying ObamaCare’s medical device tax for two years and scrapping the law's tax subsidies for members of Congress and top Cabinet officials, lawmakers and aides said.

Republican leaders presented the plan to House members with just two days to go before a Treasury Department deadline for lifting the nation’s borrowing limit and avoiding a potentially catastrophic default on the nation's debts. Senior House Republicans had hoped to jump out in front of the Senate plan, but a two-hour, closed-door Republican conference meeting that began with a collective rendition of “Amazing Grace” ended without consensus, and lawmakers said conservatives were demanding changes to the plan. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Possible Hope and Change for Iran's Nuclear Weaponization Program

October 15th 2013

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers are holding fresh talks in the long-running standoff over the country's nuclear program.

The meetings on October 14-15 in Geneva come amid what European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called "cautious optimism". These talks are the first since Iran elected a new president.

The United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany want Iran to allay concerns that it is developing nuclear weapons while Iran says its program is peaceful and seeks relief from international sanctions.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has promised to lead a diplomatic effort to get the sanctions eased, but officials from the so-called P5+1 nations have expressed the need for Iran to prove its sincerity through concrete steps before that will happen. Read more ..


Broken Government

US Government Shutdown Draws Array of Protests

October 14th 2013

Capitol Building at night

The partial U.S. government shutdown is forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers to stay home, restricting or shuttering government services, and sparking protests calling for lawmakers to end the budget impasse.

With no spending plan for the fiscal year that began October 1, national parks closed, most investigators who probe outbreaks of food-borne illnesses stopped going to work, and the government quit issuing reports on the state of the economy.

The shutdown is set to begin its third week on Tuesday, with Americans seeing a personal impact with delays on things like getting home loans and income tax refunds.

The effects have sparked protests in big cities and small towns, including Sunday in Washington where a few hundred people at a rally called by the conservative Tea Party movement tore down barricades erected at closed monuments and memorials on the National Mall.  They took some of the barricades to the White House along with signs critical of President Barack Obama. Some government critics, including Tea Party supporters, charge the Obama administration ordered popular public sites closed in an effort to maximize the effects of the government shutdown for political gain. Read more ..


Broken Government

GOP Fear: Shutdown Thwarted Exposure of ObamaCare Flaws

October 13th 2013

Obamacare

House Republicans, now seeking a way out of the current fiscal impasse, fear that the government shutdown robbed them of a chance to highlight the problems in ObamaCare's rollout.

Oct. 1 should have been a layup for Republican opponents of President Obama’s signature healthcare law, who watched as new insurance exchanges were beset by a slew of technical snafus.

But in a harsh bit of irony for the GOP, that was also the first day of a government shutdown driven largely by their own efforts to defund ObamaCare – a standstill that has dominated headlines all month.

To make matters worse, Republicans have taken a public relations hit for their strategy , a fact not lost on the lawmakers who — along with GOP leadership — opposed making government funding contingent on healthcare changes. Read more ..


Broken Government

GOP is Unrelenting on Budget Sequester

October 13th 2013

Click to select Image

Rolling back the automatic budget cuts known as the "sequester" has emerged as a critical sticking point in the negotiations to reopen the government and avoid default. Democrats don't want to lock in 2014 government funding at the reduced level required by the sequester, but Republicans refuse to increase spending and say Democrats are overplaying their hand. “The dispute has been how to undo the sequester,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on "Face the Nation" on CBS on Sunday, explaining that Democrats want a mix of entitlement reforms and revenue increases.

But Republican lawmakers on the Sunday talk shows vowed not to budge on the sequester budget cuts. The second round of those indiscriminate cuts is scheduled for January, 2014. "If you break the spending caps, you're not going to get any Republicans in the Senate," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) declared on "This Week" on ABC. Read more ..


Broken Government

U.S. Budget Impasse is Shutting Down Mexico

October 12th 2013

The partial shutdown of the U.S. government is unsettling the Mexican economy. As the crisis took shape last week, the Mexican peso dipped to 13.34 units per dollar, an amount which represented the second largest depreciation in 2013. The pending October 17 showdown over the U.S. debt limit is likewise contributing to the jitters, said Gabriela Siller, an analyst for Mexico-based Banco Base.

In the Mexico-U.S. border region, Mexican business leaders expressed worry that the political gridlock on the Potomac could deepen and trigger devastating consequences on the assembly-for-export, or maquiladora, industry. In Ciudad Juarez and other border cities, the foreign-owned maquiladora sector constitutes a dominant or major part of the economy.

Longer export times, reduced market demand and idled assembly lines are among the concerns voiced by Ciudad Juarez business representatives. Read more ..


Obama'a Second Term

Obama Shops Around as GOP Offers Multiple Debt-Hike Plans

October 11th 2013

Obama-Limo

President Obama seemed to go comparison-shopping on Friday as he met with Senate Republicans to discuss their proposals for ending the government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling.

Obama did most of the talking but also took questions from GOP senators who rode buses down Pennsylvania Avenue to meet on the president’s turf. 

The Republican senators used their time to try to eke out details of the bargaining that had happened the previous evening between Obama and House negotiators. GOP senators are pushing their own plans to open the government and raise the debt ceiling.

“We tried to find out what was said at the meeting with the House,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who did not characterize the meeting as a negotiation. “There were a lot of questions and comments, and it seems to me there is significant conversations about the framework of a deal, but I didn’t see anything that suggested a deal was imminent,” he added. Read more ..


Broken Government

Obama and Boehner Meet Again to Hash Out the Budget Impasse

October 11th 2013

Click to select Image

President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders are meeting on October 11 to continue talks regarding the federal budget in hopes of ending the partial government shutdown and preventing the country from defaulting on its debt.

The Friday talks come as the partial federal government shutdown enters its 11th day and with next week's deadline for raising the debt ceiling fast approaching.

Meanwhile, the political impact of the shutdown on the U.S. political landscape was illustrated by an October 10 article in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News that cited poll of 800 people. It indicated that 53 percent of respondents blame the shutdown on Republicans while 31 percent blame it on Democrats. Read more ..


Broken Government

"Patriot Act" Author Prepares to Rein In NSA with "Freedom Act"

October 10th 2013

Capitol Hill

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the original author of the USA Patriot Act, said Wednesday that he plans to introduce legislation in the "next few days" to restrict the National Security Agency's surveillance power. His bill, which is co-authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), will be titled the USA Freedom Act.

The legislation would end the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records, strengthen prohibitions against targeting the communications of Americans and require the government to more aggressively delete information accidentally collected on Americans. The bill would also create a special advocate's office tasked with arguing in favor of stronger privacy protections before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Read more ..


Broken Government

GOP Gets 28 Percent Gallup Approval Rating - Worst Ever Recorded

October 9th 2013

Congress-senate

Only 28 percent have a favorable view of the GOP, the worst rating Gallup has ever registered for a political party.
It's also a 10 percent plunge from Gallup's last poll in September, when 38 percent had a favorable view of Republicans. Opinions have dropped with the government shutdown and fight over raising the nation's debt ceiling.

A strong majority, 62 percent, have a negative view of the GOP, according to the survey. “The Republican Party is clearly taking a bigger political hit from Americans thus far in the unfolding saga,” Gallup analyst Andrew Dugan wrote. “The Republican Party's current strategy in the fiscal debates may not be paying dividends.”

Only 43 percent said they have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, but that’s 15-percentage points better than the GOP, and slightly better than the Democratic low mark of 41 percent in 2010. A plurality, 49 percent, said they have a negative view of the Democratic Party. Read more ..


Broken Elections

Justices Clash Over Campaign Finance Law

October 8th 2013

Supreme Court at the 2010 SOTU

A sharply divided Supreme Court clashed Tuesday over campaign finance law, as the court’s conservatives pressed aggressively to lift certain restrictions.

The court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a challenge to campaign finance laws that limit the total amount of money one individual can contribute in each election cycle. The Republican National Committee and one of its wealthy donors urged the court to strike down the restrictions, calling them a violation of the First Amendment.

Several of the court’s traditionally conservative members appeared to agree, waving off the Justice Department’s warnings about the risk of corruption. “What I see are wild hypotheticals,” Justice Samuel Alito said as the government argued that lifting contribution limits would lead to corruption. Read more ..


Broken Government

GOP Centerists Won't Force 'Clean' CR Vote

October 7th 2013

Congress-senate

House Republicans who have said they are open to supporting a “clean” government funding bill are not interested in forcing a vote on such a measure.

Democrats have launched a discharge petition aimed at forcing a vote on legislation that would end the government shutdown. Two hundred and eighteen signatures are required to compel a roll call, and that looks unlikely any time soon. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said a clean continuing resolution doesn’t have the votes to pass the House. President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday challenged Boehner to prove it by scheduling a vote.

On Monday more than two dozen House Republicans who publicly favor, or who have said they would consider voting for, a clean bill. Not one said they would join forces with the Democrats. A whip list that The Washington Post has compiled.
Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Lou Barletta (Pa.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Devin Nunes (Calif.), Mike Simpson (Idaho), Rob Wittman (Va.), Charlie Dent (Pa.), Peter King (N.Y.) and Tim Griffin (Ark.) clearly stated they would not sign the petition. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Kerry Says Al-Qaeda 'Can Run But Can't Hide' Following Covert Raids

October 6th 2013

Click to select Image

After separate raids by U.S. military forces in Libya and Somalia, Secretary of State John Kerry has repeated America’s commitment to pursuing wanted terrorists, saying they "can run, but can’t hide." In operations thousands of kilometers apart on the African continent, U.S. military forces sought to capture two wanted terrorists on October 5.

U.S. officials confirm that a top al-Qaida member was detained in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, while Navy SEALs withdrew under gunfire from a raid in the Somali town of Barawe.

Commenting on the operations during his visit to the APEC summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Kerry said the U.S. would continue efforts to bring known terrorists to justice.

“We hope this makes clear that the United States of America will never stop in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror," Kerry said. "Those members of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations literally can run but they can't hide. We will continue to try to bring people to justice in an appropriate way with hopes that ultimately these kinds of activities against everybody in the world will stop.'' Read more ..


Broken Healthcare

ObamaCare Site Under Scrutiny

October 5th 2013

Obamacare Protest

ObamaCare enrollment still faces technical challenges as the process enters its second week, raising the stakes for the administration as they seek to build momentum for the exchanges.

Visitors to healthcare.gov experienced prolonged waits as of late Friday, though the site was substantially faster and less error-ridden than earlier in the week. Federal health officials have blamed the problems on heavy traffic, estimating that 8.6 million people visited the ObamaCare site this week.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said its call center had fielded 406,000 calls and that there have been 225,000 requests for online chats. In a memo late Friday, HHS claimed "success" for week one and urged patience as technicians improve the system. "Experts are working around the clock to make the site better able to meet the volume created by consumers’ overwhelming interest in their new health coverage options," the department stated. Read more ..


The Edge of Climate Change

As North Pole Ice Melts, More Ships Take Arctic Shortcut

October 4th 2013

Polar Bear

For centuries, polar bears have enjoyed Arctic waters in isolation. But now, they are getting company in the summer. Last summer, China sent its first icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, over the top of Russia, from Shanghai to Iceland.

This summer, the Yong Sheng, a freighter operated by China's COSCO shipping company, became the first Chinese merchant vessel to take the shortcut. It sailed from Shanghai to Rotterdam, cutting two weeks off the usual route, through Egypt’s Suez Canal.

Satellite photos by the U.S. space agency, NASA, show that the white Arctic ice around the North Pole shrinks every summer. It is replaced by more and more open water, which appears black in the photos.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin agrees with the American scientists. "It is absolutely clear now that the climate is changing. Everyone is talking about this,” he told an Arctic Forum held here recently. “It is clear now that the northern latitudes can be open for shipping for 100 days or perhaps 150 days, and that new regions are opening up for economic activity." Read more ..


Japan After Fukushima

Radioactive Leaks from Fukushima into the Pacific

October 3rd 2013

Rad monitor Japan

A new leak of highly radioactive water is believed to be flowing into the Pacific Ocean from Japan's stricken nuclear plant after a storage tank overflowed. A Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) official said workers at Fukushima detected the toxic fluid dripping from the top of a tank when they were patrolling the site. Tepco estimates 430 litres of the water, which contains highly radioactive doses of strontium, has leaked outside a concrete barrier surrounding the tank. "(The contaminated water) went into the drain and we cannot deny the possibility of it having reached the ocean," Tepco official Masayuki Ono said.

It is the second time in as many months that radioactive water has leaked from storage tanks surrounding the plant, which was heavily damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. In August, toxic water was found to have leaked from another tank. Some of that contaminated water is also believed to have flowed into the Pacific Ocean. Massive amounts of water have been used to cool the reactors and fuel rods since the earthquake and tsunami caused some of Fukushima's reactors to melt down. Read more ..


Inside Politics

Congress’s Powerful Republican ‘Suicide Caucus’

October 2nd 2013

Ted Cruz

Their critics call them "anarchists" and accuse them of "political terrorism." Their supporters consider them principled and true to their word.

"They" are a group of around 80 hard-line Republican lawmakers in Congress, mostly the House of Representatives, whose conservative social and economic agenda has thrown sand in the gears of government and sparked open infighting within their party.

On September 30, this powerful bloc led House Republicans in refusing to pass a government funding bill that didn’t also weaken Obamacare, the 2010 law that requires all Americans to buy health insurance that most Republicans oppose. Senior Republican Senator John McCain called the shutdown "unnecessary," and so did President Barack Obama.

"At midnight last night, for the first time in 17 years, Republicans in Congress chose to shut down the federal government," Obama said. "Let me be more specific: One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government shut down major parts of the government -- all because they didn’t like one law."

William Galston, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution, describes what drives Congress’s "Tea Party Caucus," named for its members’ allegiance to the antigovernment grassroots Tea Party movement. Read more ..


Broken Government

The Shutdown Begins

October 1st 2013

Lincoln Headshot

The White House ordered federal agencies to shut down Monday night, with congressional negotiators unable to strike an agreement before the midnight deadline to keep the government open. Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Burwell directed agency and departmental heads to execute their plans for an "orderly shutdown" of the federal government in a memo released by the administration.

 The notice came shortly after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected a last-ditch Republican plan to appoint conferees to negotiate a short-term continuing resolution. The final gambit came after the Senate repeatedly rejected attempts by House Republicans to link the continued funding of government to rolling back ObamaCare.

Burwell said she was ordering the action because there was no "clear indication" that Congress would strike an agreement on a continuing resolution before the end of the day Tuesday. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Terrorists Kill 3 Policemen Egypt's Sinai

September 30th 2013

Egyptian Mil. Police Alexandria

Gunmen shot dead three policemen in the northern Sinai Peninsula on Monday, Reuters' Aswat Masriya reported. Security sources said unknown gunmen stormed a police station in the North Sinai city of Al-Arish and opened fire "intensely" at security personnel on duty, killing three. The assailants fled by car.

Other media reports said the policemen were ambushed while on their way to the police station.

The Egyptian army is carrying out a weeks-long air and ground assault in the sparsely populated peninsula, which borders Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, to uproot Islamist militants who have intensified their activities against the police and army amid a security vacuum following the overthrow of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Read more ..


Broken Government

House Republicans Say Dems Trying to Run Out the Clock

September 29th 2013

john boehner

House Republicans accused Democrats and President Obama of wanting to shut down the government for political gain Sunday afternoon. A handful of GOP lawmakers gathered outside an empty Capitol building to implore the Senate to come back immediately and consider the funding bill that the House passed late Saturday night to avoid a government shutdown.

Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) charged that his Democratic colleagues are playing politics with the government shutdown. Holding a football in his hand, Griffin equated the Senate’s decision not to return on Sunday to vote on the House-passed funding bill – which includes provisions to delay parts of Obamacare – with “running out the clock” at a football game. Read more ..


Broken Government

Senate Passes Funding Bill, Puts Pressure on House

September 28th 2013

Capitol Hill

In a high stakes budget battle, the U.S. Senate has passed a bill to keep funding the federal government, stripping out a provision pushed by House Republicans to cut off funds for President Obama's health care law.  The amdended bill now goes back to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, putting pressure on House Speaker John Boehner to take action before a midnight Monday deadline to avert a partial government shutdown.

As the Pentagon and other government agencies prepare for a possible shutdown Tuesday, the Senate has passed a funding bill that would keep the government running, without defunding the health care law.  The final vote approving the "clean" spending measure was 54 to 44. Read more ..


The Edge of Violence

Chicago Crime Gang Members Indicted on RICO Charges

September 27th 2013

Crime scene tape

As part of federal law enforcement's quest to help the crime-ridden city of Chicago take back the streets from prolific and deadly crime organizations, the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois on Thursday brought RICO charges against nine alleged members of a violent crime gang known on the streets of the Windy City as the Hobos.

The nine defendants allegedly directed or participated in committing murders, attempted murders, robberies, and narcotics offenses, according to U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro.

The five-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury accuses the nine defendants with five murders, solicitation of a sixth murder, four attempted murders, three robberies, and the operation of “drug spots” and “drug lines” on the city’s south side among a pattern of criminal activity between 2004 and 2009. Four of the defendants are charged with personally shooting to death five victims between 2006 and 2009, including one victim who was allegedly killed because he was cooperating with law enforcement, according to court documents. Read more ..


The Edge of Nature

Pakistani Quake Survivors Search Rubble For Food, Wait For Help

September 26th 2013

Turkey Earthquake

Miral, a local government employee in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province, was in his office when he felt his building riding the waves of a magnitude 7.7 earthquake as if it were a boat on a stormy sea.

Built from reinforced concrete for district administrators in Arawan, it is one of the stronger structures in the impoverished region and was able to withstand the September 24 quake.

Miral rushed outside after the temblor passed, looking anxiously across a flat stretch of desert toward his home in the nearby village of Balathi. Instead of the mud-brick houses that had been built there by his relatives and neighbors, he could see only rising clouds of dust and smoke. Running to his village, Miral found stunned survivors covered in dust and limping around in the rubble. Their village was one of many in the Awaran district that was almost completely leveled by the quake. Read more ..


The Iranian Threat

Iran State-Media Claims CNN ‘Fabricated’ Rouhani Holocaust Remarks

September 25th 2013

Rowhani

It was reported that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had delivered what his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, never could — recognition that the Holocaust took place — but according to the semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency significant parts of the report are inaccurate.

On CNN.com’s home page Wednesday morning, the main headline asserted that Rouhani, in an interview with network reporter Christiane Amanpour, said that the Holocaust happened: “Iran’s New President: Yes, the Holocaust Happened.”

Fars however, categorically denied the claim that Rouhani addressed the Holocaust by name, saying the network “fabricated” the story, adding the word ‘Holocaust,’ among other conciliatory phrases, to its translation. Read more ..


the US and China

US Investigation Spotlights China's Princelings

September 25th 2013

The East is Red

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating JP Morgan’s Hong Kong office for hiring the children of high-level Chinese officials.  Observers say the hiring of these so-called “princelings” is to open business opportunities in mainland China.  But could the practice, which dates back almost two decades, also be considered bribery?

The SEC has investigated at least seven cases of bribery of Chinese officials, involving major American firms, since 2010.

This SEC investigation is reportedly centered on two children of top Chinese officials who were hired by JP Morgan’s Hong Kong office.  The New York Times reports that in 2007, the bank hired Zhang Xixi, the daughter of Zhang Shuguang , a senior official at the China Railway Group who is now on trial in Beijing for allegedly accepting millions in bribes. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

African Union in Solidarity with Besieged Kenya

September 24th 2013

Click to select Image

The African Union (AU) is working with its international partners to assist Kenya following the weekend terrorist attack on the East African nation, says Erastus Mwencha, deputy chairman of the African Union Commission.

“We stand with the people of Kenya during this trying moment. We have sent our condolences to the families and we hailed the government of Kenya in the manner in which they’ve handled the crisis,” said Mwencha. “We’ve indicated our resolve to continue to fight terrorism in whatever form it exists. We are also aware that this is a global menace and we need to act together as the international community to fight the scourge.”

Mwencha says the AU is ready to assist Kenya following the attack that has left scores wounded and many dead.

“For now, we wait to see [if] the Kenya authorities give us [an] assessment of the extent of the needs, and the African Union will then respond accordingly,” said Mwencha. “But, we are also encouraged to see that a number of member states have already given their support and willing to assist Kenya.”

Heads of state and government plan to meet in an extraordinary summit in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on October 13. The leaders are expected to discuss pulling out support for the International Criminal Court (ICC) due to the trial of Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s trial is also scheduled to begin in November. The ICC has charged both leaders in playing a key role in Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence. Read more ..



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