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The Battle for Syria

As Syria's Assad Regime Crumbles, al-Qaeda Streams Across Border--Anticipates New Islamist State

July 21st 2012

Free Syrian Army

Officials with the United Nations Mission in Syria reported yesterday that the Assad regime may be close to defeat with the killing and destruction in Damascus reaching an almost apocalyptic level. At the same time, according to a former police trainer who served in Iraq, officials he spoke with said that members of al-Qaeda's terrorist groups (al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) have been pouring across the border into Syria hoping to turn Syria into an Islamist nation complete with a constitution based on Sharia law.

The source's information was later confirmed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari who said members of the al-Qaeda terrorism network have crossed the border into Syria "Yes indeed, we have solid information and intelligence that members of al-Qaeda terrorist network have gone in the other direction to Syria to help and to liaise to carry out terrorist attacks," Zebari told reporters at a news conference in Baghdad. The foreign minister told reporters that Iraq had warned the Syrian regime that extremist militants were crossing borders into Iraq, but now the terrorists are going back to fight in the Syrian conflict. "This is a fact that the extremist groups have an important role in the level of violence that is going on in Syria," Zebari added. Read more ..


The Geological Edge

X-rays Illuminate Origin of Volcanic Hotspots, Provide Evidence for Mantle Plume Hypothesis

July 21st 2012

Kīlauea eruption 1983
Kīlauea, 1983 (credit: J.D. Griggs, USGS)

Scientists have recreated the extreme conditions at the boundary between Earth’s core and its mantle, 2,900 km beneath the surface. Using the world’s most brilliant beam of X-rays, they probed speck-sized samples of rock at very high temperature and pressure to show for the first time that partially molten rock under these conditions is buoyant and should segregate towards the Earth’s surface. This observation is a strong evidence for the theory that volcanic hotspots like the Hawaiian Islands originate from mantle plumes generated at the Earth’s core-mantle boundary. The results were published in Nature on 19 July 2012.

The group of scientists was led by Denis Andrault from the Laboratoire Magmas et Volcans of University Blaise Pascal in Clermont, and included scientists from the CNRS in Clermont and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. Most volcanoes are situated where continental plates are pushed or pulled against each other. Here, the continental crust is weakened, and the magma can break through to the surface. The Pacific “Ring of Fire,” for example, exhibits such plate movements, resulting in powerful earthquakes and numerous active volcanoes. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

HSBC Admits Money Laundering Billions for Drug Lords and Terrorists

July 19th 2012

HSBC

Global private banking giant HSBC has admitted that lax vigilance made it vulnerable to money laundering by Mexican drug cartels, as well as transactions involving Iran that are banned under U.S. law. HSBC managers pledged to do better in testimony before a Senate investigative committee. 
U.S. law seeks to disrupt the cash flow of criminal organizations, from drug traffickers to terrorist groups. But for years, London-based HSBC seemingly turned a blind eye to illegal transactions originating in Mexico and elsewhere that used the bank’s U.S. affiliates as a gateway to America’s financial system. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said HSBC is a prime example of a widespread problem in international banking.

“Some international banks abuse their U.S. access. Some allow affiliates operating in countries with severe money laundering, drug trafficking, or terrorist financing threats to open up U.S. dollar accounts without establishing safeguards at their U.S. affiliate," said Levin. "The end result is that the U.S. affiliate can become a sinkhole of risk for an entire network of bank affiliates and their clients around the world playing fast and loose with U.S. rules. The U.S. bank can end up aiding and abetting transactions that fund terrorists, drug cartels, corrupt dictators, and tax cheats.” Read more ..


Jews and Christians

Malcolm Hoenlein Rocks Christian Conference

July 18th 2012

Malcolm Hoenlein

Malcolm Hoenlein rocked CUFI on Tuesday.

Christianson United for Israel held their annual policy conference July 16-18, 2012 in Washington's gargantuan Convention Center.

Hoenlein, the long-time executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, was one of the central keynotes for the Tuesday session of the conference. On fire, Hoenlein spoke of the historic ties Christians and Jews have to Israel and the persistent efforts by Arab and Palestinian apologists to erase, reinvent, and transmogrify that history. Citing the Bible, held sacred to both Christians and Jews, punctuated with the latest archeological findings that validate ancient Jewish presence, Hoenlein thundered down a checklist of recent attempts to rewrite the history of Israel and Palestine. Thousands of CUFI attendees repeatedly jumped to their feet to interrupt Hoenlein with cheers and ovations. Shofar blasts from across the grand hall punctuated his presentation.

Officials of the Palestinian Authority and various synchronous agencies of the United Nations have mounted a campaign to deny the historic connection between Jews and Christians. A simultaneous Palestinian campaign has been waged to undercut the Jewish and Christian Bibles as works of fiction. In this vein, a well-orchestrated boycott and delegitimization campaign has claimed the Jewish Temple never existed, that Jewish Holy sites are in fact mosques, and has even postulated that Jesus was a Palestinian martyr.

The Koran, in Chapter 4, verse 157, states that Jesus was never crucified, and that an imposter was employed. The verse reads: "And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. … And they did not kill him, for certain."

At one point, Hoenlein dramatically put it to the audience: If there there was no Jewish Temple, what was Jesus doing up there? Hoenlein added that the best way to steal the Jewish future was to erase the Jewish history. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Newly Discovered Exoplanet Neighbor Smaller than Earth

July 18th 2012

Exoplanet candidate UCF-1.01
Artist’s conception of small, hot exoplanet candidate UCF-1.01
(credit: NASA)

The University of Central Florida has detected what could be its first planet, only two-thirds the size of Earth and located right around the corner, cosmically speaking, at a mere 33 light-years away. The exoplanet candidate, called UCF 1.01, is close to its star—so close it goes around the star in 1.4 days. The planet’s surface likely reaches temperatures of more than 1,000° Fahrenheit. The discoverers believe that it has no atmosphere, is only two-thirds the gravity of Earth, and that its surface may be volcanic or molten.

“We have found strong evidence for a very small, very hot, and very close-by planet with the help of the Spitzer Space Telescope,” said Kevin Stevenson, a recent PhD graduate from the UCF and lead author of the paper, which is scheduled to appear online in The Astrophysical Journal. “This discovery is a significant accomplishment for UCF.”

Stevenson and his colleagues were studying a hot-Neptune exoplanet, designated GJ 436b, already known to exist around the red dwarf star GJ 436, when data revealed clues that led them to suspect there could be at least one new planet in that system, perhaps two. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Israeli Tourists Massacred in Bulgarian Bus Explosion

July 18th 2012

Bulgarian Bus Explosion 7-18-12

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is blaming Iran for an explosion on a bus in Bulgaria with Israeli tourists aboard that killed at least four people and wounded nearly 30 others. The blast occurred at the airport in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Burgas shortly after a plane from Tel Aviv had landed. Bulgaria is a popular destination for Israeli tourists.

Local police called the explosion a terrorist act but cautioned they could not confirm the nationalities of those killed and injured. Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said police were investigating two possible causes of the blast -- that an explosive device was put in the bus before the tourists boarded or that the explosives were in the tourists' luggage. Bulgaria's President Rosen Plevneliev interrupted his schedule to go to the scene of the explosion. In Israel, Netanyahu released a statement about the attack that said "all signs lead to Iran." Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Contingency Plans for Syria's Chemical Weapons

July 17th 2012

Syrian Missiles

Like blurred windows into another world, cell phone video footage and hastily written messages seep through the Internet from Syria, giving outsiders a glimpse of the civil war raging in multiple locations. The defense establishment in Israel has long ago concluded that there can be only one eventual conclusion to the 16-month struggle that has claimed up to 17,000 lives so far; The ejection of the minority Alawite dictator, Bashar al-Assad, from power at the hands of Sunni fighters.

In recent days, the battles have edged into Damascus, and are slowly making their way to the center of the Syrian capital. This, in all likelihood, marks the beginning of the end for the Assad regime. From Israel's perspective, the earthquake now shaking Syria has several consequences, some immediate.

The most pressing issue is the fate of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, which is the largest in the Middle East. Assad is in possession of deadly Sarin and mustard gas compounds, as well as nerve agents, some of which have been fixed onto Scud missiles as chemical warheads, and, according to some reports, placed in specialized artillery shells. Read more ..


The New Iraq

Billions Wasted in Iraq Aid, Inspectors Find

July 17th 2012

Revolutionary Guards

The official in charge of monitoring America’s $51 billion effort to reconstruct Iraq has estimated that $6 billion to $8 billion of that amount was lost to waste, fraud and abuse. Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) for the past eight years, gave that estimate in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity on Monday, shortly after releasing a new summary of his office’s many grim discoveries since it began work in in 2004.

In the report, Bowen said the exact funds lost to fraud and waste “can never be known,” largely because of poor record-keeping by the U.S. agencies involved in the effort. These include the Departments of State and Defense, along with the U.S. Agency for International Development. According to the report, auditors repeatedly found that the State Department and Defense Department failed to properly review invoices from government contractors, often approving billions of dollars in services without checking if costs were accurate or efficient. “I think the consistent theme throughout our eight years of oversight work has been the inconsistent availability of records and information on contracts and costs,” said Bowen, a former Texas lawyer.

Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syrian Rebels Reach Parts of Damascus

July 16th 2012

Syrian uprising

Syria moved armored vehicles into the capital Damascus as opposition fighters battled Syrian government forces in what residents described as the fiercest fighting yet inside the capital.

Activists said Monday the fighting had spread to several neighborhoods and in the center of the city. The spread of fighting came as U.N. peace mediator Kofi Annan was going to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has resisted Western calls to increase pressure on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday accused the West of using 'blackmail" to pressure Moscow into backing a stronger U.N. resolution against Syria.  Lavrov said that tying the threat of sanctions to a measure that would extend the U.N. observer mission in Syria is a "dangerous approach." He also rejected suggestions that Russia is protecting the Syrian president. "Of course you've heard the mantra many times that Moscow holds the key to the Syrian solution," Lavrov said. "When we ask them what they mean by that, they tell us, 'you should convince Assad to resign on his own will.'  But this is unrealistic, I've already said that." Read more ..


After the Holocaust

Nazi War Criminal Found in Hungary 64 Years after Death Sentence

July 16th 2012

Concentration Camp Survivor

One of the last surviving Nazi war criminals, a man who evaded a death sentence for 64 years, has been found living in Budapest, Hungary. A Hungarian national, László (or Ladislaus) Csizsik-Csatáry was placed in charge of the Jewish ghetto in Kassa (now located in Slovakia) during World War II. He was noted even at the time for the apparently sadistic pleasure he took in acts of cruelty and violence.

In the spring of 1944, he committed the crime that wrote his name into the history of infamy: he rounded up and deported almost 16,000 Jews to the Nazi death camps.

After the war, Csizsik-Csatáry's story became one of thwarted justice and bureaucratic malfeasance, as the murderer moved from country to country fleeing the inevitable punishment for his crimes.

He was first tried, in absentia, by Czechoslovakia, who sentenced him to death. Traveling under the false pretense of being a Yugoslavian citizen, Csizsik-Csatáry managed to find sanctuary in Canada. For decades, Csizsik-Csatáry must have believed he had escaped. Indeed, it was not until 1997 that his true identity was revealed, and his citizenship revoked. Somehow, he evaded justice again, disappearing from sight and prompting an international search by Nazi hunters. Read more ..


China on Edge

Is China's Economy Headed for Slowdown?

July 14th 2012

The East is Red

As the United States and Europe work to recover from their own economic crises, China has been one of the world's bright spots. But recent figures show that the country's fast economic growth is slowing. Days ago, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signaled that the country's top leadership is concerned about an impending economic slowdown. He urged the government to implement policies to offset the “huge downward pressure” on the Chinese economy. His comments foreshadowed China's second quarter growth figures for this year, which were announced Friday by National Bureau of Statistics spokesman Sheng Laiyun.

Sheng says China's economy grew by 7.8 percent for the first half of this year. Meanwhile, he says the economic growth rate for the second quarter of this year slowed from 8.1 percent in the first quarter to 7.6 percent. He acknowledges that this is the first time in three years that China's GDP growth rate has dipped below eight percent, but adds he does not think it is a bad thing. According to Sheng, people should not only focus on the numbers, but also take into account unspecified domestic and external factors. From this perspective, he says China's economy has maintained what he described as steady growth. Read more ..


The Edge of Crime

London Olympics Spark Intense Anti-gang Operations

July 13th 2012

British bus

Besides anti-terrorism operations by Scotland Yard and MI5 to make London safer for the anticipated throngs of 2012 Olympic Games athletes, staff and spectators, the Yard is also attempting to prevent the city from being overrun by street gangs, a federal law enforcement source stated today. This month scores of suspected gang members were targeted in a series of coordinated operations as part of a major crack down on by the Metropolitan Police Service, according to the Home Office this week. The operation was spearheaded by a newly formed Trident Gang Crime Command. It's seen as the beginning of a step change in how the MPS tackles gang crime in the capital and forms a key part of the Met Commissioner's total war on crime.

Hundreds of police officers took part in this month's operation, which saw suspected gang members being pursued for a series of crimes, including assault, robbery and drugs supply in a refreshed approach to help stop young people getting killed or seriously injured. One thousand officers are specifically dedicated to tackling gang crime in London with the creation of a central Trident Gang Crime Command as well as the introduction of local task forces across London. Read more ..


Faster and More Furiously

The Other Consequences of Fast and Furious

July 12th 2012

Guns for sale

On the night of Dec. 14, 2010, U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was shot and killed while on patrol in an Arizona canyon near the U.S.-Mexico border. Two guns found at the scene were linked to an investigation being run by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) called “Operation Fast and Furious,” sparking a congressional inquiry into the program and generating considerable criticism of the ATF and the Obama administration. Because of this criticism, in August 2011 ATF acting director Kenneth Melson was reassigned from his post and the U.S. attorney for Arizona was forced to resign.

Currently, the congressional inquiry is focused on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been accused of misleading Congress about what he knew about Fast and Furious and when he learned it. The Obama administration has invoked executive privilege to block the release of some of the Department of Justice emails and memos sought by Congress pertaining to the operation. The controversy escalated June 28 when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to hold Holder in contempt of Congress for ignoring its subpoenas. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Romney Booed at NAACP Convention for Vowing to Repeal ‘ObamaCare’

July 11th 2012

Ask Mitt

Mitt Romney was booed on Wednesday at the NAACP for vowing to repeal President Obama's signature healthcare law.

"I will reduce government spending," Romney told the civil rights group during an address at their national convention in Houston. "Our high level of debt slows GDP growth and that means fewer jobs. If our goal is jobs, we must, must stop spending over a trillion dollars more than we earn. To do this, I will eliminate expensive non-essential programs like ObamaCare."

The remark drew a chorus of "boos" from the crowd. He paused to acknowledge them, and then deviated from his prepared remarks to double down on his pledge to repeal the legislation. “I say again, if our priority is jobs, and that’s my priority, that’s something I’d change,” Romney said, referring to a study indicating that the legislation makes employers less likely to hire.  Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Astronomers Discover Vanishing Act

July 10th 2012

Planet-forming disk
Artist's conception of a planet-forming disk similar to the one around
TYC 8241 2652—which vanished. (Credit: NASA JPL/CalTech)

Astronomers report a baffling discovery never seen before: An extraordinary amount of dust around a nearby star has mysteriously disappeared.

“It’s like the classic magician’s trick—now you see it, now you don't,” said Carl Melis, a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Diego and lead author of the research. “Only in this case, we're talking about enough dust to fill an inner solar system, and it really is gone!”

“It's as if the rings around Saturn had disappeared,” said co-author Benjamin Zuckerman, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. “This is even more shocking because the dusty disc of rocky debris was bigger and much more massive than Saturn's rings. The disc around this star, if it were in our solar system, would have extended from the sun halfway out to Earth, near the orbit of Mercury.”

The research on this cosmic vanishing act, which occurred around a star some 450 light years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Centaurus, appeared in July the journal Nature. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Voters Say Obama has Changed Things for the Worse

July 9th 2012

Obama pensive with flag

Two-thirds of likely voters say President Obama has kept his 2008 campaign promise to change America — but it’s changed for the worse, according to a sizable majority.

A new poll for The Hill found 56 percent of likely voters believe Obama’s first term has transformed the nation in a negative way, compared to 35 percent who believe the country has changed for the better under his leadership.

The results signal broad voter unease with the direction the nation has taken under Obama’s leadership and present a major challenge for the incumbent Democrat as he seeks reelection this fall.

Conducted for The Hill by Pulse Opinion Research, the poll comes in the wake of last month’s Supreme Court decision that upheld the primary elements of Obama’s signature healthcare legislation. Read more ..


Afghanistan on Edge

Clinton Admits Tough Task Winning Aid for Afghanistan

July 7th 2012

Hillary Clinton 2

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Tokyo this weekend for a key conference with 70 countries, where the United States and its allies hope to nail down aid to Afghanistan for a decade to come.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has said he’s seeking international aid of $4 billion annually for Afghanistan after 2014, when NATO troops are set to hand off security control to the Afghan security forces.

That development aid, which would help with things like healthcare and education, would come in addition to the $4.1 billion in military aid pledged to Afghanistan’s army and police force after NATO troops withdraw in 2014.
The conference comes on the heels of Clinton’s unannounced visit to Kabul Saturday to announce the designation of Afghanistan a ‘major non-NATO ally.” But donor countries are growing increasingly wary about giving with corruption still rampant in the Afghanistan government. Analysts call corruption one of the biggest roadblocks to a successful transition in Afghanistan. In addition, some analysts argue that the pledges being collected in Japan won’t wind up being kept amid the uncertainty in Afghanistan, particularly with elections there set to occur in 2014. Read more ..


The Battle for Lebanon

Sunni Islamism Stirs In Lebanon

July 4th 2012

Lebanese Opposition

As the civil war in Syria grinds on and assumes an increasingly sectarian character, echoes of the strife are being heard across the border in Lebanon.

The main beneficiary of the Arab uprisings of the last year has been Sunni Islamism. In Syria, Sunnis are playing an increasingly important role in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad. In Lebanon, too, individuals and movements of this type are emerging to prominence and issuing a challenge to the dominant political force in the country – Hezbollah. Sunni northern Lebanon, in particular the town of Tripoli, is a center both of Sunni Islamism and of support for the Syrian rebellion. The town has become a gathering point for foreign jihadi fighters on their way to fight the Assad regime.

The fate of Lebanon has always been acutely influenced by events in its larger neighbor, to the sorrow of many Lebanese. Currently, too, the Assad regime and Hezbollah are members of the same Iran-led regional bloc. Read more ..


Broken Government

Compromise 2012 Farm Bill Plows Rift into House Dem Lawmakers

July 3rd 2012

wheat fields

Liberal Democrats are fuming over $16 billion in cuts to food stamp programs included in the House farm bill set for a markup on Wednesday.

Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, agreed to the cuts as a pragmatic way of moving forward with legislation important to rural lawmakers. He said much of the cuts would be restored in a conference with the Senate. Yet the move has led to anger on the left, while raising questions over whether the farm bill can pass the House given opposition among Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) issued a scathing statement after the bill’s release that called it immoral and inhumane. “This bill increases subsidies to millionaires. This is a bill that robs the poor to pay the rich,” she told the Hill Friday. “This bill is an outrage.” Read more ..


Israel and Lebanon

Ready for War

July 2nd 2012

IDF Soldiers

As violence escalates in Syria, the Israel Defense Forces are getting ready for the coming conflict with Lebanon, reports Haaretz.

“We understand that there is more than one factor, whether this is Lebanese, or whether it will come from somewhere else, that can ignite the border here,” Brigardier-General Hertzi Halevy told reporters on Thursday.

The fear that the collapse of the Assad regime might usher in a vacuum of power that jihadists will take advantage of, or the spillover of violence into Lebanon and then into Israel, drives the IDF to preparedness. The IDF reports that the border between the two Arab states is a veritable “lawless zone” and that in the six years since the Jewish state went to war with Lebanon, ten times more missiles – totaling 60,000 – are now ready for launch against Israel from home base of Hezbollah. Read more ..


Turkey and Syria

Syria and Turkey Mass Troops and Tanks Along Border

June 29th 2012

Turkish Military

Turkish troops were deployed to the border on Thursday as a precaution against the encroaching Syrian threat, the Jerusalem Post reports. The new rules of engagement, issued by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, come just days after Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet, flying over international airspace.

Erdogan was reported as issuing orders which would allow Turkish troops to react to any perceived threat by neighboring Syria. More then 33,000 refugees and rebels have crossed the border in recent months to escape the violent crackdown by the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Reuters published an unconfirmed report that Syria is following suit, amassing close to 200 tanks on its side of the border. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

In-Car Information Deluge Raises Concerns of Driver Distraction

June 29th 2012

HTC thunderbold droid phone

The ubiquitous presence of Smartphones has led to a demand for comparable functionalities to be present inside cars. Technologies such as touch screens and large displays have become a commodity in the automotive infotainment domain. As vehicles rely more and more on sophisticated forms of technology, the requirements for onboard information displays are becoming increasingly comprehensive and diverse. Driver distraction is becoming a challenge, concludes a study from Frost & Sullivan.

The study, titled "Strategic Analysis of European and North American Markets for Display and Instrument Clusters", finds that in Europe, the market size for central displays, touch screens and head up displays is estimated to reach 9.5 million, 2 million and 0.5 million units, respectively, by 2017. In North America, the market size for central displays, touch screens and head up displays is anticipated to reach 6 million, 3 million and 0.4 million units, respectively, by 2017. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

The Supremes Validate Obama's Healthcare Reform

June 28th 2012

US Supreme Court

The Supreme Court on June 28 upheld the insurance mandate in President Obama’s healthcare law, a stinging defeat for conservatives who had insisted the law is unconstitutional. The decision vindicates Obama and congressional Democrats, who maintained throughout the legal challenge that even this court, with its conservative majority, would have to break with decades of precedent to overturn the healthcare law.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the court in the 5-4 decision on the mandate, ruling that Congress has the authority to enforce the healthcare law’s individual mandate, which will require most U.S. taxpayers to buy insurance or pay a penalty.

Roberts said the mandate could survive as a tax. "Nothing in the Constitution guarantees that individuals may avoid taxation by inactivity," Roberts said from the bench. Roberts tacitly acknowledged the passionate opposition to the healthcare law, but he said policy decisions belong to the elected branches of government, not the court. "It is not our job to save the people from the consequences of their political decisions," he said.

The decision allows Roberts — whose legacy will depend in large part on this case — to avoid the severe repercussions that both sides of the case had feared. The court did not strike down the signature domestic achievement of a sitting president, nor did it give its approval to an expansion of Congress's powers to regulate commerce.

House Republicans, in reaction, announced they would vote on repealing the full law on July 11. Read more ..


Broken Government

Congressional Democrats Defecting over AG Holder's Contempt Vote

June 28th 2012

Eric Holder gesturing
Attorney General Eric Holder

Several Democrats on June 27 said they would vote to place Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, giving Republicans an opportunity to tout bipartisan support for the effort against President Obama’s attorney general. At least four Democrats in GOP-leaning districts said they’d side with Republicans and back the contempt measure in the wake of the National Rifle Association’s decision to score the vote.

The support from Reps. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and John Barrow (D-Ga.) is key for Republicans as they try to defend the legitimacy of the contempt measure to voters and parry counterattacks from Democrats stating that they are leading a “witch hunt.” The contempt measure is expected to pass mostly along partisan lines, but there is intense pressure on Democrats in conservative-leaning districts to side with the NRA against Obama’s chief law enforcement officer. Read more ..


Vatican on Edge

The Vatican Guards the Most Secret Bank in the World

June 27th 2012

Ettore Gotti Tedeschi - fmr Vatican banker
Former Vatican Bank president Ettore Gotti Tedeschi

Italian prosecutors have now detained the former head of the Vatican's bank after searching his home and former office for suspected criminal behavior. Catholics and followers of the Holy See will be disappointed to learn that the Vatican's bank appears to be embroiled in yet another financial scandal. After a number of very embarrassing episodes in recent years, the Pope pledged to comply with international standards on illicit finance and clean up the bank's image. The European Union has an important role to play in helping the Vatican mitigate risk and come into full compliance; the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), set up by the G-7 to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, has a responsibility as well.

The Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), commonly referred to as the Vatican Bank, is a privately held financial institution located inside Vatican City. Founded in 1942, the IOR's role is to safeguard and administer property intended for works of religion or charity. The bank accepts deposits only from top Church officials and entities, according to Italian legal scholar Settimio Caridi. It is run by a president but overseen by five cardinals who report directly to the Vatican and the Vatican's secretary of state. Because so little is known about the bank's daily operations and transactions, it has often been called "the most secret bank in the world." Read more ..


Russia on Edge

Putin's Visit to Israel seeks to Bolster Russia's Image as a Powerhouse

June 26th 2012

Putin in Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Israel on June 25 for his first state visit since retaking the presidency. The visit was arranged in mid-May, and so at least part of the agenda was set, given events in Syria and Egypt. The interesting thing about Israel and Russia is that while they seem to be operating in the same areas of interest and their agendas seem disconnected, their interests are not always opposed. It is easy to identify places they both care about but more difficult to identify ways in which they connect. It is therefore difficult to identify the significance of the visit beyond that it happened.

An example is Azerbaijan. Russia is still a major weapons provider for Azerbaijan, but the Israelis are now selling it large amounts of weapons and appear to be using it as a base from which to observe and, according to rumors, possibly attack Iran. Russia, which supports Armenia, a country Azerbaijan fought a war with in the late 1980s and early 1990s and technically still is at war with, ought to oppose Israel's action, particularly since it threatens Iran, which Russia does not want attacked. At the same time, Russia doesn't feel threatened by Israeli involvement in Azerbaijan, and Israel doesn't really care about Armenia. Both are there, both are involved and both think Azerbaijan is important, yet each operates in ways that ought to conflict but don't.

The same is true in the more immediate case of Syria, where its downing of a Turkish plane has created an unexpected dynamic for this visit. To think about this we need to consider Russian and Israeli strategy and its odd lack of intersection in Syria. Read more ..


The New Egypt

New Egyptian President Promises 'Death in the Name of Allah is our Goal'

June 26th 2012

Mohamed Morsi - Vivat Rex

The new president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, said in May 2012 – just a month before being confirmed in his office – reportedly said “The Koran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is our path and death in the name of Allah is our goal.” Morsi’s remarks were made in a May 13 election speech before Cairo University students. Never before, said Morsi, has Egypt been as close as it is now to the triumph of Islam at all the state levels. “Today we can establish Sharia law because our nation will acquire well-being only with Islam and Sharia. The Muslim Brothers and the Freedom and Justice Party will be the conductors of these goals,” he said.

Morsi leads the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has some 2 million members in Egypt and has been linked to Iran. Even while Morsi hinted in a televised speech on June 24 that his government would abide by international accords already signed by his predecessor, there remains doubt that he will adhere to the historic 1979 Camp David Accord that brought about 33 years of peace between Egypt and Israel. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Planetrise: Alien Planet Looms Large in its Neighbor’s Sky

June 26th 2012

Kepler 36-c from Kepler 36-b
Artist’s conception of Kepler-36c rising over Kepler-36b’s horizon
(credit: David A. Aguilar, CfA)

Few nighttime sights offer more drama than the full Moon rising over the horizon. Now imagine that instead of the Moon, a gas giant planet spanning three times more sky loomed over the molten landscape of a lava world. This alien vista exists in the newly discovered two-planet system of Kepler-36.

“These two worlds are having close encounters,” said Josh Carter, a Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “They are the closest to each other of any planetary system we've found,” added co-author Eric Agol of the University of Washington.

Carter, Agol, and their colleagues report their discovery in June in Science Express. They spotted the planets in data from NASA's Kepler satellite, which can detect a planet when it passes in front of, and briefly reduces the light coming from, its parent star.

The newly discovered system contains two planets circling a subgiant star much like the Sun except several billion years older. The inner world, Kepler-36b, is a rocky planet 1.5 times the size of Earth and weighing 4.5 times as much. It orbits about every 14 days at an average distance of less than 11 million miles. The outer world, Kepler-36c, is a gaseous planet 3.7 times the size of Earth and weighing 8 times as much. This “hot Neptune” orbits once each 16 days at a distance of 12 million miles. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Supreme Court Split Verdict Puts Immigration Center Stage in 2012

June 25th 2012

Justice

The Supreme Court scrapped much of Arizona’s immigration law Monday, intensifying the national debate on the issue and making it more likely to be a big factor in November’s presidential election.

With both parties vying for a larger piece of the Hispanic vote, President Obama quickly praised the ruling while his GOP rival Mitt Romney criticized it, saying he would have preferred that the court give more latitude to Arizona.

In a 5-3 ruling, the court rejected key provisions of the 2010 immigration law, but let stand a central provision allowing police to check the legal status of those stopped on suspicion of unrelated offenses. The split decision gave something for both sides to vaunt, though the advantage clearly tilted toward the White House.

In upholding the state's controversial “show-me-your-papers” authority, the court granted a win for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and other conservatives who have urged a tougher approach to illegal immigration. Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Supreme Court Rejects Montana's Election Spending Law

June 25th 2012

US Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision to allow unlimited corporate and union spending in federal elections, upheld Monday, also effectively wiped out similar prohibitions in 24 states.

Most states bowed to the original high court ruling, but Montana’s Supreme Court backed its own century-old law banning such expenditures in a 5-2 vote in December, thumbing its nose at the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Monday, the nation’s highest court hit back, reversing Montana’s law in a 5-4 vote, sending a clear message to the 23 other states that had similar bans in place at the time of the decision. “The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law. There can be no serious doubt that it does,” the court said in a brief opinion.

The 24 affected states have scrambled to address the fallout from the Citizens United decision. Nineteen have crafted new laws, some requiring disclosure of spending by outside groups, to address the formerly banned flow of corporate dollars, according to the Corporate Reform Coalition. Read more ..


Broken Government

Issa Confident House Will Vote to Place Eric Holder in Contempt

June 24th 2012

Darrell Issa and Eric Holder

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) predicted Sunday that Republicans and Democrats would vote to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress this week.

“I believe they will, both Republicans and Democrats will vote that,” Issa said on Fox News Sunday. “There are a number of Democrats, 31, who wrote to the administration asking them to be forthcoming. Many of them will stay with us now that the administration has not been.”

Issa has previously said as many as 31 Democrats could vote to place Holder in contempt, but no Democrats on his committee last week voted with Republicans. Issa said it was still possible for Holder to avoid a contempt charge. He said if President Obama and Holder “would simply start producing the documents they know they could produce to us that are not by any means going to be covered by executive privilege, this could be delayed or even eliminated.” Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

Iran Threatens to 'Collapse' Israel

June 23rd 2012

Iran holy missiles

On June 23, an Iranian general said that any military action by Israel on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program would lead to a collapse of the Jewish state, according to the Fars news agency. This followed the failure of multilateral talks in Moscow, in which Iran and interlocutors such as the U.S. and Russia failed to come to an agreement on the nuclear program.

Fears were thus heightened that Israel might take unilateral military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, which is feared to be bent on producing nuclear weapons. However, agreement was reached for a follow-up meeting of technical experts on July 3, saving the process from outright failure.

Iranian Brigadier-General Mostafa Izadi, who serves as Iran’s deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, said of Israel, "They cannot do the slightest harm to the (Iranian) revolution and the system," according to Fars. "If the Zionist regime takes any (military) actions against Iran, it would result in the end of its labors," he added. He also said, "If they act logically, such threats amount to a psychological war but if they want to act illogically, it is they who will be destroyed." Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Warplane May Have Crossed Syrian Border

June 23rd 2012

Abdullah Gul

Syria says it shot down a Turkish fighter jet because it trespassed on Syria's territorial waters. In Turkey, the government has reacted carefully and cautiously to this potentially explosive incident; the prime minister says Turkey will respond once all the facts are known. A search is still under way for the two pilots from the downed plane.

Syrian authorities said they downed the Turkish fighter jet in accordance with laws that govern such situations. They said Syria's defense systems shot a jet flying fast and low, close to the Syrian coast.

Turkish president Abdullah Gul says the incident cannot be ignored.  He says it is not possible to cover over a thing like this, and adds that whatever is necessary will no doubt be done,

Gul acknowledged that Turkey's warplane could have violated Syrian airspace. He says, jets flying fast often briefly cross into other countries' airspace. He adds that this is nothing unusual, and promises that a full investigation will be carried out, "with nothing hidden."

The president's measured approach follows that of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said Friday that Turkey will act once the full facts are known. Observers say this is a restrained approach, uncharacteristic for Erdoghan, who has in the past few months launched withering attacks on the violent tactics used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government in its assault on protesters. Relations between Syria and Turkey are extremely tense, since Ankara has given strong backing to anti-regime forces in Syria. But the air action on Friday has complicated the situation.

Opposition political figures in Turkey have questions about the downed plane's mission, and they are asking why the jet was flying so close to Syria or even entered Syrian airspace at such a tense time. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

Obama administration Admits Egyptian from Designated Terrorist Group for Washington D.C. Tour

June 22nd 2012

Omar abdel Rahman blind sheikh
Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman

Egyptian parliamentarian Hani Nour Eldin, a member of a Gamaa Islamiya (Egyptian Islamic Group) – U.S.-designated terrorist group – was invited to join a delegation of lawmaker to visit Washington D.C., according to a story originally reported by Eli Lake at the Daily Beast. The spiritual leader of Gamaa Islamiya, Omar Abdel-Rahman – who is known as ‘the blind sheik’ – is currently serving a life sentence in the U.S. for plotting terrorist attacks in New York City. Gamaa Islamiya was banned under the government of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, but is now a recognized Islamist political party in the North African country. Eldin is officially a member of the Building and Development party in the Egyptian parliament, which some have linked to Gamaa Islamiya, according to the Daily Beast article.

As a member of designated terrorist organization, Eldin would normally be barred from obtaining a visa for entry into the U.S. Nonetheless, Eldin said he was granted a visa from the State Department. A State Department spokesman said, “We have no information suggesting that he or anyone else in the delegation is a member of the Egyptian Islamic Group.” Senior Obama administration officials met with Eldin and other members of the parliamentary delegation, according to the Daily Beast article. Read more ..


Broken Banking

Moody's Downgrades 15 of the World's Biggest Banks

June 21st 2012

I Bailed Out a Bank

Moody's Investors Service issued downgrades to 15 of the world's biggest banks Thursday, saying that they all had "significant exposure" to volatility and risk inherent in their global trading activities.

Banks such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America were among the firms downgraded by the rating agency — a move that could require the banks to pony up billions in additional collateral to cover their derivatives transactions, and also make it more expensive for them to borrow.

"All of the banks affected by today’s actions have significant exposure to the volatility and risk of outsized losses inherent to capital markets activities", said Greg Bauer, the firm's global banking managing director. "However, they also engage in other, often market leading business activities that are central to Moody’s assessment of their credit profiles. These activities can provide important ‘shock absorbers’ that mitigate the potential volatility of capital markets operations, but they also present unique risks and challenges." Read more ..


The Edge of Space

A Close Look at the War and Peace Nebula

June 21st 2012

NGC 6537
VLT image of NGC 6537 (credit: ESO)

Deep in the Milky Way in the constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion) lies the War and Peace Nebula, or NGC 6357, a region of space where new stars are being born of chaotic clouds of gas and dust. The name, which has no link to Tolstoy's great novel, was given to this object by scientists working on the Midcourse Space Experiment. They noted that the bright, western part of the nebula resembled a dove, while the eastern part looked like a skull in their infrared images. Unfortunately, this effect cannot be seen in the visible-light image presented here.

NGC 6357, also occasionally nicknamed the Lobster Nebula, was first recorded visually by John Herschel in 1837, but he only recorded the brightest central parts. The full scale of this huge nebula was only seen in photographs much later, and the outer parts of this vast nebula have now been imaged by ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT). Read more ..


Islam's War Against Christianity

Islamists Launch Religious Cleansing of Northern Nigeria with Church Bombings

June 20th 2012

bomb in kaduna nigeria

A curfew has been imposed by Nigerian authorities in the city of Damaturu, following deadly clashes between Boko Haram islamist terrorists and the army in the northeastern state of Yobe. Violence swelled on June 18 and grew overnight in Damaturu. It is believed that at as many 52 deaths came about. Damaturu lies approximately 80 miles east of Maiduguri, a Boko Haram stronghold. Speaking in the name of Pope Benedict, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi condemned the attacks.

The surge in fatalities follows suicide bombing attacks on Sunday, June 17, on five Christian churches in Kaduna and Zaria in the state of Kaduna, central Nigeria. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the bombings. A statewide ban on movement has been reinstated there, while a 24-hour curfew is in effect for the city of Kaduna. The shattered and barely-recognizable remains of one of the bombers were found near the Shalom church in Kaduna.

The Christian Association of Nigeria said in a statement that the car bombings in Kaduna are a clear indication of “religious cleansing” perpetrated by the Boko Haram religious sect. According to the Christian group, Boko Haram "has declared war on Christians and Christianity in Nigeria." In a statement, the group said "The pattern of bombings and gun attacks suggests to us a systematic religious cleansing which reminds Christians of the genesis of a Jihad." It also criticized the federal government’s response, saying that it had “cast a hallmark of weakness” upon President Goodluck Jonathan’s leadership. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

Russian Ship Suspected of Carrying Arms to Syria Turns Back

June 19th 2012

Russian cargo ship

A cargo ship believed to be carrying Russian-made attack helicopters has been halted on its way to Syria after its insurance coverage was withdrawn.  Some analysts say the nature of the cargo was what kept the vessel from reaching its destination. The cargo ship, the MV Alaed, is said to have had its policy cancelled by insurers in London.

Britain says the vessel is now heading home. "I am pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has turned back apparently towards Russia," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons. A statement by the British-based ship insurance company Standard Club said it was told about the nature of the vessel's cargo and it consequently informed the ship's owners that their "insurance coverage ceased due to the nature of the journey." The Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported that the ship is thought to be carrying refurbished Russian Mi-25 attack helicopters as well as coast-based anti-ship missiles.  Read more ..


The 2012 Vote

Dems Say GOP Willing to Sacrifice the Country to Defeat Obama in '12

June 19th 2012

Barack Obama in Thought

House Democratic leaders this week are intensifying accusations that Republicans want to sink the economy simply to defeat President Obama in November.

The Democrats say House GOP leaders are sitting on a host of proposals – some of them with broad bipartisan support – that could create jobs immediately. Republicans are refusing to bring those bills to the floor, the Democrats charge, because an improved economy could play to Obama's advantage in the polls.

"We have enormous tasks in front of us and an obstructionist Congress that refuses to deal with these realities. This is creating a perfect storm for November," Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday. "Time and again they [Republicans] would rather see Obama fail than the country succeed." Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Democratic whip, piled on later in the morning. Read more ..


The Edge of Space

New Evidence Supports Theory of Extraterrestrial Impact

June 17th 2012

gaseous ring on star

An 18-member international team of researchers that includes James Kennett, professor of earth science at UC Santa Barbara, has discovered melt-glass material in a thin layer of sedimentary rock in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Syria. According to the researchers, the material –– which dates back nearly 13,000 years –– was formed at temperatures of 1,700 to 2,200 degrees Celsius (3,100 to 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit), and is the result of a cosmic body impacting Earth.

These new data are the latest to strongly support the controversial Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) hypothesis, which proposes that a cosmic impact occurred 12,900 years ago at the onset of an unusual cold climatic period called the Younger Dryas. This episode occurred at or close to the time of major extinction of the North American megafauna, including mammoths and giant ground sloths; and the disappearance of the prehistoric and widely distributed Clovis culture.

"These scientists have identified three contemporaneous levels more than 12,000 years ago, on two continents yielding siliceous scoria-like objects (SLO's)," said H. Richard Lane, program director of National Science Foundation's Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research. "SLO's are indicative of high-energy cosmic airbursts/impacts, bolstering the contention that these events induced the beginning of the Younger Dryas. That time was a major departure in biotic, human and climate history." Read more ..



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