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The Battle for Syria

Over 90 Killed in Syrian Government Shelling

May 26th 2012

Dead Syrians

Syrian opposition forces say more than 90 people, many of them children, have been killed in a coordinated assault on a village outside the city of Homs by government artillery and militiamen. Government officials do not deny the massacre but blame unidentified "terrorists" for one of the deadliest incidents since the start of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's administration more than a year ago.  As elsewhere in Syria, emotions in the cluster of towns that make up Houla are running high.

Witnesses say the killing began when government forces shelled the village of Teldau soon after Friday prayers. Opposition activists say some of the victims, many of whom are children, were killed in the shelling, while others were shot by pro-government militiamen known as “shabiha.”

A woman resident of Teldau claims on a video distributed by opposition forces that she and her daughters-in-law managed to escape the village after it came under attack from militiamen who destroyed part of her house. But she says several other relatives were slaughtered by security forces dressed in black, who killed them with knives.  Read more ..

Media on Edge

Propaganda Firm Owner Admits Smear Campaign Against Journalists

May 26th 2012

USA Today Hq

A co-owner of a pentagon propaganda contractor has admitted responsibility for a number of websites involved in a ‘mis-information’ campaign that sought to cast doubts over the character of two USA TODAY journalists. USA TODAY reported that Camille Chidiac, former president of Leonie Industries, claims he personally funded the websites he used to discredit Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker, who had reported on the Pentagon's "information operations" program, which came under fire for appropriating millions of dollars to marketing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that were said to be poorly monitored.

Using proxy services to conceal his identity, Chidiac, whose presidency of Leonie Industries ended in 2008, mounted what online reputation expert, Andy Beal, described as a “sophisticated reputation attack.” Twitter and Facebook accounts were registered in Tom Vanden Brook’s name before the stories were published and a Wikipedia entry and group postings included a misrepresentation of his report on the West Virginia Mine Disater. Stating that he made clear that the websites were “fan sites” of editor Ray Locker and reporter Vanden Brook, Chidiac admitted that comments “quickly degenerated from legitimate criticism to immature and irrelevant rhetoric by unknown users." Chidicac’s attorney stated that the entries on Wikipedia and Twitter came from someone with "absolutely no relationship or connection with Leonie Industries." Read more ..

Broken Elections

Real Estate Influence Group Spends 'Mind Boggling' Amount in California House race

May 26th 2012

Washington DC

It’s challenging enough to knock off an entrenched member of Congress in a primary contest. But California State Sen. Bob Dutton probably didn’t count on the fact that he would also be picking a fight with nearly a million Realtors.

The Rancho Cucamonga Republican is running against Rep. Gary Miller, a 14-year GOP incumbent in the June 5 open primary. The National Association of Realtors political action committee and a super PAC funded by the trade association have spent more than $709,000 on advertising and direct mail supporting Miller. "The amount of money being funneled into this primary from Washington, D.C., special interests on behalf of Miller is mind boggling,” said Clint Lorimore, Dutton’s campaign manager, in an email.

Actually, the super PAC is based in Chicago, as is the trade association. But the NAR has an office in the capital and plenty of money to spend on Washington politics. The association spent more than $22 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Viral Video calls on Catholics to Vote their Conscience in November

May 25th 2012

Produced by a Florida-based organization, a video calling on Catholics to vote against politicians favoring same-sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia is going viral on YouTube. With over 1.5 million hits, ‘Test of Fire’ depicts a blacksmith in a darkened workshop pounding out on a forge the words ‘jobs,’ ‘taxes,’ and ‘energy,’ as haunting vocals and symphonic music provide a background reminiscent of Carmina Burana.

The video tells viewers that some issues, such as the above, are negotiable even while others are not. “Many issues are at stake,” the video declare, “but some are not negotiable.” Among these are the defense of life, "From conception. Until natural death," says the video in a quote from Pope Benedict XVI. “This November,” the video says, “Catholics across the nation will be put to the test,” in reference to the current contest between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Governor Mitt Romney. In the video, a presumably Catholic woman is seen striding to a polling place to cast her ballot on Election Day.

Polling shows that while a majority of Catholics supported Obama’s election campaign, there is now a majority that rejects his administration’s mandate requiring Catholic hospitals and charitable institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception to employees, even against Catholic teachings. This has been considered a dealbreaker by much of the Catholic hierarchy. As a result, this week some 43 Catholic universities and institutions have filed suit in federal courts to challenge the mandate imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“In generations past, the church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. This generation of Catholics must do the same,” declares the video in an opening graphic. Saying that issues such as jobs and energy require work by America’s citizens, the video asks rhetorically “But what if we labor in vain?’ Referring to Scripture, the video provides an answer from the 127th Psalm “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Representatve King Points Fingers at Leaks in Bin Laden Informant's 30-year Sentencing

May 24th 2012

Rep Peter T. King

The Pakistani medical doctor who aided U.S. intelligence officers in locating terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was sentenced to 30 years in prison and fined $3,500 yesterday in retaliation for contributing to an operation that was unsanctioned by the Pakistani government, according to reports obtained by the National Association of Chiefs of Police.

Congressman Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Homeland Security Committee, told members of the news media on Wednesday about his suspicion that a  Obama administration official or officials leaked the identity of the Pakistani physician who helped CIA officers locate bin Laden. Shakil Afridi, a physician, was charged with treason and tried under the tribal justice system for running a fake vaccination program for America's bin Laden hunters. Osama bin Laden drew his last breath when he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad on May 1, 2011.

The killing of the al-Qaeda leader without the Pakistan officials' prior knowledge of the operation caused the Pakistanis to not only condemn the U.S. but also expel American forces out of Pakistan. When the Pakistani government discovered Dr. Afridi ran a vaccination program specifically for the CIA to collect DNA and verify bin Laden's presence at the compound in the town of Abbottabad, according to King. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Poor, Fake Antimalarial Drugs Threaten Efforts to Fight Disease

May 24th 2012

mosquito biting

 A new study has found that poor quality or counterfeit antimalarial drugs in Africa and Southeast Asia threaten the lives of those infected with the mosquito-borne illness, and sabotage critical efforts to combat the disease.

Researchers with the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health analyzed 27 studies dating back to 1999.  They found that more than one-third of the drugs used to treat malaria in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are fake, mislabeled or ineffective.  Malaria threatens 3 billion people around the world, and the parasitic disease kills as many as 1 million people each year, most of them infants and children in Africa. Data collected from 21 African countries found that 35 percent of almost 2,300 antimalarial drug samples failed a chemical analysis, 36 percent of 77 samples failed packaging tests and 20 percent of 389 samples were purposely falsified.

A similar analysis of studies from seven Southeast Asian countries found that 35 percent of more than 1,400 antimalarial drugs failed a chemical test, nearly half of 919 samples were improperly packaged and 36 percent of 1260 drug samples were classified as fake. "And that is an injustice," said Joel Breman. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Iran Rejects World Powers Stance in Nuclear Talks

May 24th 2012

Click to select Image

Iran rejected the stance of world powers in talks over its disputed nuclear program on May 24th. The two sides were meeting for a second day in Baghdad in an attempt to resolve international concerns about potential military dimensions to the Iranian nuclear program. At issue is Iran's enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity. Iran says its enrichment work is meant for medical research and generating electricity.

Western nations fear Iran could quickly upgrade its uranium to the 90 percent purity needed for nuclear weapons. Iran criticized the proposal from the six-nation group, saying it makes too many demands of Iran while offering too little in return. Western powers have rebuffed Tehran's call for an immediate easing of economic sanctions.

In turn, Iran accused world powers Thursday of creating a “difficult atmosphere” with its demands. The world powers group includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. Talks were scheduled through late afternoon. But Iran is signaling the impasse is significant and could derail further talks. The French news agency quoted an Iranian official as saying “the basis for another round of negotiations does not exist yet.” Read more ..

The Race for Solar

$109 Billion Solar Plan to Power a Third of Saudi Arabia

May 23rd 2012

Rub al Khali Saudi Empty Quarter

Saudi Arabia has finally noticed it has twenty centuries of solar reserves and has made plans to tap them. For its own use. The Kingdom has just announced a $109 billion plan to create a solar industry that generates a third of the nation’s electricity by 2032, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Maher al- Odan, a consultant at the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE) announced a plan to have 41 GW of solar capacity within two decades.

To put 41 GW in perspective, China is the world’s leader in wind power now, overtaking Germany and the U.S. with about 48 GW of wind. This is a very serious move by a country well able to afford this kind of investment, that till recently has lagged the rest of the MENA region in renewables trailing Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates. Read more ..

Palestine and Israel

Exactly How Many Palestinians Refugees are There?

May 23rd 2012

UNRWA Refugee Camp

A war is brewing on Capitol Hill. And while wars tend to create refugees, this one may result in fewer of them.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is trying to get a handle on the real number of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East -- a move that could result in a change of status for millions of Palestinians. His proposed language for the 2013 foreign appropriations bill would require the U.S. government to confirm just how many Palestinians currently served by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) -- the body tasked with providing assistance, protection, and advocacy for Palestinian refugees -- are actually refugees. The bill, slated for markup on May 22, would challenge the status of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Palestinian refugees -- a great many of whom claim to be refugees despite the fact that they were never personally displaced in the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars.

The aim of this proposed legislation, Kirk's office explains, is not to deprive Palestinians who live in poverty of essential services, but to tackle one of the thorniest issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: the "right of return." The dominant Palestinian narrative is that all of the refugees of the Israeli-Palestinian wars have a right to go back, and that this right is not negotiable. But here's the rub: By UNRWA's own count, the number of Palestinians who describe themselves as refugees has skyrocketed from 750,000 in 1950 to 5 million today. As a result, the refugee issue has been an immovable obstacle in round after round of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Read more ..

The Economic Edge

CBO Warns Recession in 2013 Unless Congress Acts on Fiscal Issues

May 22nd 2012

People lined up for jobs

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday that unless lawmakers act to prevent scheduled tax increases and spending cuts at the end of the year, a recession will likely result in early 2013. Early next year income taxes are set to go up when the Bush era tax rates expire. Automatic spending cuts triggered by last August’s debt ceiling deal to the tune of $109 billion are set to hit. Meanwhile, payments to physicians under Medicare will be slashed

CBO projects that these and other elements of the so-called “fiscal cliff” will cause the economy to contract as demand dries up. It projected in a Tuesday report that the gross domestic product (GDP) will contract by 1.3 percent in the first half of 2013 before growing 2.3 percent later in the year. Annualized, GDP would grow just 0.5 percent in 2013.

“Given the pattern of past recessions as identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research, such a contraction in output in the first half of 2013 would probably be judged to be a recession,” the report states. A recession is technically defined as two economic quarters of negative economic growth. If Congress and the White House turn off all the automatic cuts and tax increase, growth would rise to 4.4 percent, CBO predicted.  The CBO projections appear to go farther in stating the economic risks of lawmakers failing to act than other policymakers have gone. Read more ..

The Defense Edge

Former U.S. Nuclear Commander Proposes To Cut Weapons Arsenal 80 Percent

May 20th 2012

Misslle in Silo

The chairman of a House subcommittee that helps shape the nation’s nuclear arsenal, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), has been scathing about the Obama administration’s consideration of new cuts in the arsenal’s size. A shift in U.S. targeting policy, now under White House review, “could border on disarmament and significantly diminish U.S. strength,” Turner complained in March. “Clearly, any further reductions will undermine the deterrent that has kept this country safe.”

Turner’s view has strong currency with Republicans in the House, and among some senior military officers at the Pentagon. But it got some politically interesting pushback this week from a former senior military officer, retired Marine Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright.  As head of the U.S. Strategic Command under President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2007, he oversaw the nuclear targeting plan and thousands of warheads atop missiles and inside long-range bombers.

Cartwright, who solidified a reputation for original thinking when he became vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  from 2007 to Aug. 2011, startled his former uniformed colleagues again by urging in a new report  that the existing American arsenal of 5000 warheads be cut by 80 percent, in an effort meant to be matched by similar reductions in the Russian arsenal. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Most Americans Favor Military Action To Prevent Nuclear-Armed Iran

May 19th 2012

B-2 Bomber

A survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center says 63 percent of Americans would be in favor of taking military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Majorities of those surveyed in Western Europe also expressed support for military action to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The survey found widespread opposition to Iran obtaining nuclear weapons in 21 countries, including Russia, China, and Lebanon. According to the survey, released on May 18, in most countries there is majority support among opponents of a nuclear-armed Iran for international economic sanctions to try to stop Tehran's alleged weapons program. However, the Chinese and Russians who took part in the survey opposed tough sanctions on Iran and also military strikes.

Pew states: "Nine-in-ten people or more among the transatlantic E3+3 partners oppose Iran’s nuclear weapons aspiration. But just over half (54%) of Chinese agree. There are even greater differences among the negotiating partners over economic sanctions. Among those who oppose Tehran’s nuclear armaments program, about eight-in-ten Americans, Germans and British back sanctions, but only 38% of Chinese and 46% of Russians are in agreement. The military option is even more divisive among those who are against Iran’s nuclear weapons program. A solid majority (63%) of Americans would turn to military force to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Roughly half of Washington’s European allies would support such a move. And there is very little Chinese or Russian support for a military strike." Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Iran's Oil is Marooned aboard Tankers Seeking Buyers

May 18th 2012

Iranian oil port

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been playing coy with the world’s oil markets, having been routinely switching off satellite tracking systems on oil tankers for more than a month. Iran began using the tactic in April 2012, which affects about one quarter of its fleet, according to the International Energy Agency. Currently, only 1 tanker out of 38 is now complying with satellite tracking. While it violates international maritime law, the practice serves to cloak the positions of the huge ships as they seek ports and buyers willing to violate sanctions on Iran. Without the tracking, the efficacy of oil sanctions on Iran is difficult to determine. Currently, Iran is also hobbled by sanctions on its bank transactions.

Dependent on petroleum for the bulk of its export income and government spending, Iran is in an increasingly perilous situation as it faces tightening restrictions imposed by the West. With its revenues sagging, Iran now faces a glut of oil that is being stored in land-based depots, and on its vessels at sea.

Sanctions have cut off Iranian shippers’ access to maritime insurance, mostly underwritten in Europe, and making Iran ever more dependent on its own fleet of 39 tankers, including 25 super-tankers, according to the IEA. After being pressured by the United States, Lloyd’s Register said last month that it is closing its office in Iran and stop certifying the safety of Iranian ships. Their certification is needed by ships seeking entry at most of the world’s ports. This steps up the pressure on Iran, which was already facing the end of its relationship with Norway’s Det Norske Veritas, another ship classification organization. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

U.S. Forces Ready for Iran Military Strike--Diplomatic Report Claims

May 17th 2012

Israeli Jet Diving

Remarks made by Daniel Shapiro, the United States Ambassador to Israel, on Tuesday indicate that U.S. military forces have trained and are ready for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “It would be preferable to resolve this diplomatically, and through the use of pressure, than to use military force,” Shapiro said during a speech in Tel Aviv. “But that does not mean that option isn’t available. Not just available, it’s ready. The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it’s ready.”

The comments were not intended to become public but a newspaper reporter recorded them, according to Israel’s Channel 2.

Joint military exercises between the U.S. and Israel are scheduled to take place in the coming months, after being postponed earlier this year, and Channel 2 in Israel reported earlier this week that Israeli fighter jets will travel to the U.S. this summer to conduct joint exercises.  Israeli jets have not engaged in joint exercises in American airspace for several years, adding to the speculation that the two countries are coordinating a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Read more ..

Travel Safe

TSA Reports 25,000 Airport Security Breaches to Congress

May 17th 2012

Airport glove

The security breach at Newark Liberty International Airport reported on May 15, although troubling to many, was not the first serious lapse in aviation security and it probably won't be the last to occur in a multi-billion dollar government enterprise, according to security experts. They point to a government report that documents upwards of 25,000 breaches of airport security checkpoints since November 2001.

The Homeland Security Department had completed an initial study to validate the scientific basis of the Transportation Security Administration's Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program; however, additional work remains to fully validate the program, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office in July. The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations called a subsequent hearing to investigate airport security after reports showed there had been 25,000 breaches of security checkpoints since November 2001.

Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a frequent critic of the TSA, complained about the security breaches and called them "unacceptable." “We appreciate TSA in tracking and providing that data, but obviously, those are the ones we know about,” Rep. Chaffetz said at the start of the May 16 hearings. “The deep concern is, what about the ones we don't know about?” Chaffetz added that he was concerned that the TSA had not conducted threat-vulnerability assessments of most U.S. airports. Only about 20 of the more than 450 airports for which the TSA is responsible for security have been reviewed by the Homeland Security Department. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

A Deeper Look at Centaurus A

May 17th 2012

Centaurus A aka NGC 5128
NGC 5128 aka Centaurus A (credit: ESO)

Centaurus A, also known as NGC 5128, is a peculiar massive elliptical galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its heart. It lies about 12 million light-years away in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur) and has the distinction of being the most prominent radio galaxy in the sky. Astronomers think that the bright nucleus, strong radio emission, and jet features of Centaurus A are produced by a central black hole with a mass of about 100 million times that of the Sun. Matter from the dense central parts of the galaxy releases vast amounts of energy as it falls towards the black hole.

The galaxy was first documented by British astronomer James Dunlop at the Parramatta observatory in Australia on August 4, 1826, and is referred to as Centaurus A because it was the first major source of radio waves discovered in that constellation back in the 1950s.

This Wide Field Imager (WFI) picture allows us to appreciate the galaxy’s elliptical nature, which shows up as the elongated shape of the fainter outer parts. The glow that fills much of the picture comes from hundreds of billions of cooler and older stars. Unlike most elliptical galaxies, however, Centaurus A’s smooth shape is disturbed by a broad and patchy band of dark material that obscures the galaxy’s centre. Read more ..

The Enviornmental Edge

Ancient Tree-Ring Records Show Today’s Megafires Are Truly Unusual

May 16th 2012


Today’s mega forest fires of the southwestern U.S. are truly unusual and exceptional in the long-term record, suggests a new study that examined hundreds of years of ancient tree ring and fire data from two distinct climate periods.

Researchers constructed and analyzed a statistical model that encompassed 1,500 years of climate and fire patterns to test, in part, whether today’s dry, hot climate alone is causing the megafires that routinely destroy millions of acres of forest according to fire anthropologist Christopher I. Roos, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. The researchers found that even when ancient climates varied from each other—one hotter and drier and the other cooler and wetter—the frequencies of year-to-year weather patterns that drive fire activity were similar. The findings suggest that today’s megafires, at least in the southwestern U.S., are atypical. Furthermore, the findings implicate as the cause not only modern climate change, but also human activity over the last century. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Tensions Simmer Between Tehran, Kabul

May 15th 2012

Afghanistan US Army dustoff

Iran’s influence in Afghanistan is set in concrete: new roads crisscross the country, power grids supply remote cities with electricity, and planned railways form ties that bind. Tehran also leaves its mark in less obvious ways: its export of cultural and political views, strong media presence, and the funding of religious schools.

But even while welcoming the much-needed assistance, Kabul has always warily eyed Tehran’s advances. Now that caution has given way to tension, leading observers to warn that Tehran is poised to make Afghanistan an ideological battleground should Kabul not see things its way. The tipping point, says Najib Mahmoud, professor of political science at Kabul University, is the recent signing of a long-term strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the United States. “This agreement might make Iran feel like it is surrounded,” Mahmoud says. “Secondly, if the U.S. maintains control in Afghanistan, considering the state of relations between Iran and the U.S., Tehran will feel that Afghanistan could be a threat in the future. And this will create tension between the two countries.” Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Rethinking Our Approach to Iran's Search for the Bomb

May 14th 2012

Iran Long-Range Missile

We badly need to rethink our approach to Iran’s nuclear programs. We are putting far too much emphasis on Iran’s nuclear efforts without considering how these programs fit into Iran’s over military and strategic objectives. At the same time, we are placing too much emphasis on whether Iran has revived its formal nuclear program and the current shape of its nuclear facilities. The ironic result is to put too much emphasis on both the wrong form of arms control negotiations and preventive military strikes.

To begin, it is essential to understand that Iran has moved far beyond the point where it lacked the technology base to produce nuclear weapons, or where searching through the statements of senior Iranian officials provides any meaningful picture of its progress and intentions. Iran has pursued every major area of nuclear weapons development, has carried out programs that have already given it every component of a weapon except fissile material, and there is strong evidence that it has carried out programs to integrate a nuclear warhead on to its missiles. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Mystery Package from Yemen Leads to Worker Illness and Government Stonewalling

May 14th 2012

Mail Room

Paz Oquendo, a worker at the U.S. Postal Service’s Orlando sorting facility, smelled the noxious odor first. It was Feb. 4, 2011, and the foul stench was coming from one of the large mailbags hanging near the package-conveyor belts. She ran over to Jeffrey A. Lill, the 44-year-old shift supervisor who was monitoring the sorting from a platform, and reported the smell. “I can’t breathe,” Oquendo told Lill. 

Lill headed toward the center of the sorting floor—an area workers call “the belly”—to investigate the odor.

Then he smelled it—a strong chemical stench he couldn’t identify. It was coming from a bag wet with a brown viscous substance. Lill looked in the wet sack and saw a broken package with tubes and wires sticking out. He remembers reading the return address with surprise: Yemen. Four months earlier, two bombs from Yemen had been sent through FedEx and UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service had alerted everyone to be on the lookout for packages coming from the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Assad’s Russian Lifeline

May 13th 2012

Syria protests Apr 2011

The port of Oktyabrsk is situated on the left bank of the Bug River, 58 km. north of the entry to the Black Sea. Close to the city of Nikolayev, this anonymous Ukrainian port could not seem further from the strife-torn Middle East. Yet in the last year, Oktyabrsk has played a key role in the international structure that enables the survival of the Assad dictatorship in Syria. It is the main point from which ships bearing the Russian arms that underwrite the Assad regime’s survival set off undisturbed on their journey to the Syrian coast.

Chartered by the state-owned Russian arms corporation Rosoboronexport, the ships make their way from Oktyabrsk to the Black Sea. They cross the Bosphorous Straits to Limassol in Cyprus and continue to the Russian deep sea port in Tartous, Syria. These shipments form a vital node in Moscow’s tireless effort to prevent revolution in Syria. They have received insufficient international attention. If Syria constitutes, as some believe, the central linchpin to understanding events in the Middle East, then the signs are not positive. Read more ..

Earth on Edge

Reading the Ash from the Icelandic Volcano

May 13th 2012

Eyjafjallajökull eruption Apr 2010
Eyjafjallajökull eruption, Apr 2010 (© 2010/credit: Marco Fulle)

In May 2010, the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull reached the Iberian Peninsula and brought airports to a halt all over Europe. At the time, scientists followed its paths using satellites, laser detectors, sun photometers, and other instruments. Two years later they have now presented the results and models that will help to prevent the consequences of such natural phenomena.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in the south of Iceland began on 20 March 2010. On 14 April, it began to emit a cloud of ash that moved towards Northern and Central Europe, resulting in the closure of airspace. Hundreds of planes and millions of passengers were grounded. After a period of calm, volcanic activity intensified once again on 3 May. This time the winds transported the aerosols (a mixture of particles and gas) towards Spain and Portugal, where some airports had to close between 6 and 12 May. This was also a busy time for scientists, who took advantage of the situation to monitor the phenomenon. Read more ..

The Environmental Edge

An Ocean of Plastic Trash

May 13th 2012

Garbage in Ocean

A 100-fold upsurge in human-produced plastic garbage in the ocean is altering habitats in the marine environment, according to a new study led by a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. In 2009 an ambitious group of graduate students led the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) to the North Pacific Ocean Subtropical Gyre aboard the Scripps research vessel New Horizon. During the voyage the researchers, who concentrated their studies a thousand miles west of California, documented an alarming amount of human-generated trash, mostly broken down bits of plastic the size of a fingernail floating across thousands of miles of open ocean.

At the time the researchers didn't have a clear idea of how such trash might be impacting the ocean environment, but a new study reveals that plastic debris in the area popularly known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has increased by 100 times over in the past 40 years, leading to changes in the natural habitat of animals such as the marine insect Halobates sericeus. These "sea skaters" or "water striders"—relatives of pond water skaters—inhabit water surfaces and lay their eggs on flotsam (floating objects). Read more ..

Broken Wall Street

JPMorgan Mess Strengthens Democrat Efforts with Dodd-Frank

May 12th 2012

I Bailed Out a Bank

Democrats have been fighting a years-long uphill battle to protect the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. Now, thanks to JPMorgan Chase, they think they might have the edge back. When the banking titan announced Thursday evening that one of its traders’ moves had, in six weeks, lost the firm at least $2 billion, backers of the Wall Street overhaul could not have asked for a better example to make their case, or a better time. "It confirms our view that there needs to be regulation,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee. “It shows that if it can happen to them, it can happen to anybody.”

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said the gigantic loss should be a wake-up call, after banks have been bringing pressure to bear for softer rules. “How many times do we have to be hit in the head with a financial sledgehammer to wake up and realize we’ve got to take action?” he said. “The big banks have been fighting Dodd-Frank tooth and nail. … Regrettably, the banks have largely been successful.”

When Dodd-Frank was signed into law nearly two years ago in the wake of the financial crisis, it was sold as one of the most sweeping overhauls of the financial industry in history. Read more ..

Greece on Edge

Greek Electoral Talks Collapse

May 11th 2012

Golden Dawn - Greece

Greece's socialist leader, Evangelos Venizelos, says efforts to form a coalition government have failed. Venizelos, who was the last of three party leaders to try to reach an agreement, said he would hand the mandate back to President Carolos Papoulias on May 12. He made the comments after meeting with Alexis Tsipras, whose antiausterity Syriza party came second in last weekend's election. Tsipras said he would not join any government that intended to continue implementing the terms of Greece's international bailout agreement. The May 6 inconclusive elections have boosted the standing of antiausterity parties, which want to abolish Greece's bailout deal with the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Athens must pass new austerity measures worth 14.5 billion euros by June in order to qualify for the next installment of the bailout. New elections would have to be called in June. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

Moscow Activists Take A Walk On The Mild Side To Get Message Across

May 11th 2012

Moscow Rally 2011-12-24

Authorities might have hoped that Moscow's tenacious protest movement would die down after hundreds of demonstrators were summarily arrested at a May 6 rally ahead of Vladimir Putin's presidential inauguration. But rather than giving up, protesters are adapting their tactics. This week has seen activists in the Russian capital gathering in public places for group strolls, sit-ins, and playful performances they say do not constitute political protests -- but still get the message across. At a series of "people's walks" this week, hundreds of Muscovites -- many dressed in white or wearing white ribbons, the symbolic color of the protest movement -- gathered in loose groups in central Moscow, singing, playing games, and listening to music.

Political slogans and speechifying were kept to a minimum, with most messages scrawled unobtrusively on skin or scribbled on the ground in chalk. One participant who brazenly displayed a political banner earned a chorus of boos from a group of peaceful participants including talk-show darling Ksenia Sobchak. "This isn't a protest, this is a walk," she scolded him. Read more ..

Broken Healthcare

Thousands of Physicians Charging Rates Far Above Their Peers

May 10th 2012

Health and Human Services Washington D.C.
Health and Human Services Washington DC

Thousands of doctors across the country are billing Medicare for routine medical care at rates far above their peers, potentially costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in overcharges, according to a new government report. The audit released today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General stopped short of accusing the high-billing doctors of ripping off the government health plan for the elderly. But it stated that Medicare’s payment scales for doctors have been “vulnerable to fraud and abuse” in recent years.

The doctor payment scales are known as “Evaluation and Management” or E/M codes. Doctors choose from five escalating payment levels for treating patients based on the “amount of skill, effort, time responsibility and medical knowledge required for the service.” In 2010, almost 370 million E/M services were provided by about 442,000 doctors nationwide. The code the doctor chooses can make a big difference to the bottom line. For instance, the Medicare fee for treating a new patient in 2010 ranged from $36.62 to $190.56, depending on the level of service provided by the doctor, and the code chosen for billing. Read more ..

The Drug Wars

Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel Members Added to U.S. Sanctions List

May 9th 2012

Mexican Drug Police2

The United States Department of Treasury added four members of a notorious and deadly Mexican drug cartel to its sanctions list on Tuesday. The Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control ( OFAC) branded Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, including two sons of the group's drug lord Joaquin " Chapo" Guzman Loera, as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers, a move that bars U.S. citizens from doing business with them and freezes their assets under U.S. jurisdiction.

The men are identified as Loera's sons Ivan Archivaldo Guzman Salazar and Ovidio Guzman Lopez, Noel Salgueiro Nevarez and Ovidio Limon Sanchez, who, according to the Treasury, are four key operatives of Sinaloa.  Salazar was arrested in 2005 by Mexican authorities on money laundering charges but was later released, while Lopez plays a " significant" role in his father's drug trafficking activities, the Treasury said in a statement. Read more ..

Israel After the Coalition

Understanding the Changes in Israeli Policy after the Netanyahu-Mofaz Deal

May 9th 2012

Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz
Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz

Israel's new national unity government strengthens both Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, but it will ultimately be judged by whether it makes progress on its foreign and domestic policy agenda. In a stunning political shift, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected head of the leading opposition party Kadima, forged a national unity government in Israel late Monday night. The move adds 28 Kadima parliamentarians to the ruling coalition, increasing the current government's tally to 94 of the Knesset's 120 seats, the most ever. Mofaz will become vice prime minister, a member of the inner security cabinet, and a minister-without-portfolio. Various portfolios will be given to other Kadima members. The move was announced mere hours after the preliminary passage of a bill calling for early elections on September 4. The parties have now pushed those elections to October 2013, the end of the full four-and-a-half-year term -- a longevity few Israeli governments have achieved.


Edge of Terrorism

Africans to Intensify Campaign to Eliminate Murderous Joseph Kony and his LRA

May 8th 2012

Joseph Kony and pals
Joseph Kony (l) at peace talks.

Four Central African nations are preparing to ratchet up the hunt for the fugitive outlaw Joseph Kony and members of his rebel Lord's Resistance Army. Military leaders are organizing a coordinated campaign to put an end to nearly three decades of LRA terror.

The defense ministers and army chiefs of Uganda, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo Tuesday discussed the rules of engagement for an offensive to stamp out the LRA. South Sudan is also involved in the effort, but its officials were said to be busy elsewhere and could not attend.

Officials say the military chiefs will ask the African Union and the United Nations to endorse a robust mandate for their campaign. AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra says the goal is to neutralize not just the self-proclaimed prophet Kony, but his entire band of 150 to 200 followers. "Joseph Kony would be a good result of our concerted joint action but then you have to be sure you neutralize the whole organization," Lamamra said. Read more ..

The Bear is Back

Putin's Evolving Strategy for Russia and Beyond

May 8th 2012


This week, Vladimir Putin was sworn in for a third term as Russian president, and France's presidential election continued the trend of losses for incumbent European governments when French President Nicolas Sarkozy lost to socialist challenger Francois Hollande. Putin's return to the presidency was not unexpected; he was never really unseated as Russia's leader even during Dmitri Medvedev's presidency. Nevertheless, the changes in Europe exemplified by the French presidential election will require Russia to change its tactics in Europe.

Russia has been on the path to resurgence since Putin won the presidency in 1999. He inherited a broken, weak and chaotic Russia. As Stratfor has noted over the years, Putin did not seek to re-create the Soviet Union. He is a student of geopolitics, and he understands Russia's constraints and the overreaching that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin's mission was to return Russia to stability and security -- a massive undertaking for the leader of a country that not only is the world's largest but also is internally diverse and surrounded by potentially hostile powers.

During his first presidential term, Putin launched a comprehensive series of reforms that recentralized power over the Russian regions, cracked down on militancy in the Russian Caucasus, purged the oligarch class and centralized the economy and political system. Putin implemented an autocratic regime and used the military and Russia's security apparatus (including the Federal Security Service), following the example of previous leaders, from the czars to the Soviet rulers. Putin's maneuvers were the natural evolution of how a successful leader rules Russia.

With Russia strong and steady, Putin was able to focus on his country's near abroad. However, the countries surrounding Russia were hostile to the Kremlin's view, with NATO and the European Union pushing ever closer to Russia's borders and forming partnerships with numerous former Soviet states. The czars and Soviet rulers used two primary tactics to counter such a situation. Read more ..

The Edge of Space

Search for ET Centers Around Newly-discovered Earth-like Planets

May 7th 2012

ACTA at sunset

The recent discovery of Earth-like planets has changed the way scientists look for life on other planets, according to the scientist who inspired Jodie Foster’s character in  “Contact,” a 1997 film about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Astronomer Dr. Jill Tarter, director of the SETI Institute’s Center for SETI Research in California, has devoted her career to the  search for signs of intelligent beings elsewhere. There’s always been a fascination with the possibility intelligent life exists beyond our planet.  Last year’s discovery of a super-Earth planet some 600 light years away, which might support human-like life, added to that excitement.

Modern efforts in the search for extra-intelligence beyond Earth (SETI) can be traced back to the brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla who, in 1896, suggested that radio could be used to contact extraterrestrial life. Today, several scientific organizations, including the SETI institute, use sophisticated technology, such as powerful radio-telescopes, to search for intelligent forms of life somewhere out in the cosmos.

So, are we alone in the universe?

Inside France

France Elects First Socialist President in Nearly Two Decades

May 6th 2012

Click to select Image
Francois Hollande

Francois Hollande has been elected France's first Socialist president in nearly two decades, beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in a vote marked by anger over austerity measures, high unemployment and the country's lagging economy.  Initial official results of Sunday's vote show Hollande winning with 52 percent of the vote. Surveys predicted Francois Hollande would be the winner in the second-round runoff.  And the Socialist candidate and his supporters savored the victory.

Thousands of people gathered around the Socialist Party headquarters and the Place de la Bastille in Paris, a historic site of the French Revolution, to celebrate Hollande's victory.  Crowds also packed Hollande's political home base of Tulles in southwestern France, where the president-elect delivered his victory speech. Hollande said Europe is watching France and he predicted that his victory would be celebrated in other European countries.  He said it signified that economic austerity is not the final word and that his message is one of growth and prosperity. Read more ..

Broken Government

Where are the Missing Archive Boxes of Secret Documents?

May 5th 2012

National Archives Tour Hall

The Justice Department has been increasingly eager to prosecute officials for leaks of classified information, charging six individuals with disclosures that violate the Espionage Act just since the start of 2009. But at the same time, the government itself has lost track of hundreds of boxes filled with classified documents at its main records storage site, the Washington National Records Center .

According to a new report from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Office of Inspector General, more than 1,500 boxes of classified documents have gone missing at the site, located in Suitland, Maryland. While some are “still occasionally being located,” the Archives’ office of records services has stopped its internal searching, the report said, and the affected agencies have been notified.

Among the missing records are 81 boxes with documents labeled Top Secret, Secret, and Restricted Data, among the highest classification categories. They were from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Navy, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the Energy Department, and other agencies. Restricted Data is a special category for data pertinent to nuclear weapons. Each box contains between 2,000 and 2,500 pieces of paper, states the IG’s report, which was first disclosed by The Washington Times.

These records weren’t stolen in an act of espionage. The IG places the blame for the loss of the boxes squarely on mismanagement by the records center, which is controlled by the Archives, an issue described in the report as “systemic.” That conclusion seems beyond dispute. The new report, which is itself labeled “Official Use Only,” discloses that in two previous inventories there, in 1998 and 2004, boxes of classified materials were found missing. But the results were never written up in a report and “minimal corrective actions” were taken, it states. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

President's Reelection is Vintage Obama

May 5th 2012

Obama working a crowd

If there is ever a moment when President Obama needed to capture the vintage version of himself, it is Saturday’s campaign rallies in swing state Ohio and Virginia. On the heels of a lukewarm jobs report, the graying, 50-year-old president who has suffered, as he puts it, “dings in the fender” during his three years in office is aiming to generate the level of excitement that typified his 2008 campaign. Obama will launch his bid for reelection in appearances with the first lady before jam-packed, rocking arenas—the president’s favorite campaign setting—at Ohio State University and Virginia Commonwealth University.
His message, foreshadowed in a seven-minute campaign video released this week, is that change is in progress but it takes time.

It’s a sentiment that reflects reality for a battle-scarred president. The economy continues to struggle after the deepest recession in decades, which has left millions unemployed and a jobless rate above 8 percent. And the jobs report released on Friday reveals only 115,000 jobs were added in April. Read more ..

Inside America

US Motel Industry Tells Story of Indian-American Immigrants

May 4th 2012

motel  courtesy Roadsidepictures
Photo: Courtesy Roadsidepictures

Indian-Americans own roughly half of the motels in the United States, according to a new book about their dominance in a quintessentially American industry. Roadside motels are a quintessential feature of Americana dating back to the 1940s and '50s. Even today they are a staple of the American highway landscape. Their story, the subject of a new book, tells an equally American tale: The immigrant's life.

The U.S. motel industry, from small independent motels to large economy franchises, is now dominated by Indian-Americans, many of whom are gathering in Atlanta, Georgia this week for the annual convention of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. The convention has enough pull to draw big name speakers such as former President Bill Clinton, former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch and other well-known celebrities.
The phenomenon of Indian-American predominance in the motel industry is explored in the new book, Life Behind the Lobby: Indian American Motel Owners and the American Dream, by Pawan Dhingra, a sociology professor at Oberlin College. Read more ..

Broken Airlines

Hated Spirit Airlines Now Charges $100 for Carry-on Bags

May 4th 2012

spirit airlines

Spirit Airlines will begin charging $100 per bag for passengers who bring luggage for stowing in overhead bins. This is the first U.S. carrier to impose such fees for carry-on bags. Currently, the airline charges $45 when passengers show up at a gate with a carry-on bag. The rate hike is scheduled to go into effect on November 6, according to the airline’s website.

The change means that any passenger who comes to a boarding gate without having pre-paid for the privilege of stowing their carry-on will be charged at the new rate. Spirit offers a confusing menu of fees for baggage that are linked to the point during reservations when passengers ‘buy’ the option of taking a carry-on bag. Spirit offers to passengers "ultra low base fares" for airline tickets by paying fees only for "the extras they value," the website says. Read more ..

The Arab Winter in Libya

Moammar Gadhafi is Gone, but his Missiles Continue to Destabilize North Africa

May 3rd 2012

Tourag at Timbuktu

In March 2011, while many of the arms depots belonging to the government of Libya were being looted, analysts noted how the weapons taken from Libyan government stockpiles could end up being used to fuel violence in the region and beyond. Since then, Tuareg militants, who were previously employed by the regime of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, left Libya with sizable stockpiles of weapons in their possession and returned to their homes in northern Mali, where they have successfully wrested control of the region away from the Malian government.

These Tuareg militants were aided greatly in their battle against the government by the hundreds of light pickup trucks mounted with crew-served heavy weapons that they looted from Libyan depots. These vehicles, known as "technicals," permitted the Tuareg rebels to outmaneuver and at times outgun the Malian military. Moreover, we have recently received reports that Tuareg rebels also brought back a sizable quantity of SA-7b shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).

While we have not yet seen reports of the Tuaregs using these missiles, reports of close interaction between the Tuaregs in northern Mali and regional jihadist franchise al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) raise concern that AQIM could buy or somehow acquire them from the Tuaregs. We have seen unconfirmed reports of AQIM fighters possessing MANPADS, and Algerian authorities have seized MANPADS among the weapons being smuggled into the country from Libya. For example, in mid-February, Algerian authorities seized 15 SA-24 and 28 SA-7 Russian-made MANPADS at a location in the southern desert called In Amenas. Read more ..

Coke and Confiscation

Egyptian Jew Battles Goliath Coca-Cola Over anti-Jewish Land Seizure Coke Says is Legal

May 2nd 2012

Coke Poster

Dispossessed Egyptian-Jewish businessman Refael Bigio is embarking upon his 15th year battling a goliath corporate adversary, The Coca-Cola Company, which, he charges, is utilizing his family’s property just outside Cairo which was expropriated by Egyptian President Gamel Nasser during one of Nasser’s anti-Jewish purges. Over the course of a decade and a half, the Coca-Cola Company has, Bigios’ lawyers say, steadfastly refused to bargain in good faith or to negotiate fair compensation for the expropriated property although Coca-Cola has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from the operations of “Coca-Cola Egypt” that continues to utilize and exploit property which Coca-Cola has known since 1965 was seized unlawfully from Jewish owners by Nasser’s regime. 

The Bigio family filed today a petition for a rehearing by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ 13 active Circuit Judges seeking to restore their lawsuit against Coca-Cola and ensure that the family will have an opportunity to litigate their claims in a US court.  In March, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit dismissed the case on the ground that the Bigios’ complaint did not sufficiently allege that Coca-Cola’s headquarters in the U.S. controlled “Coca-Cola Egypt.”  In their petition for rehearing, the Bigios’ attorneys noted that the supposedly missing detailed facts regarding Coca-Cola’s internal operations could only be proved by evidence exclusively in Coca-Cola’s files.  The lawyers stressed that the panel dismissed the Bigios’ case “before Coca-Cola even answered the complaint and plaintiffs were given any opportunity for discovery.”  According to the petition for rehearing, the pleading standard applied by the Court of Appeals conflicts with the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court and followed by the First, Sixth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits. 

The Bigios allege that Coca-Cola has been making millions of dollars annually in profits by exploiting, through “Coca-Cola Egypt,” property that Coca-Cola had, before 1965, leased from the Bigio family.  The property was confiscated by the Egyptian government in Nasser’s anti-Jewish program of religious persecution, and it was used by a government-owned company called ENBC that purportedly leased it from a government-owned insurance company.  Coca-Cola took control of the property in 1994 – over the Bigio family’s objection – by purchasing a substantial interest in ENBC, which was promptly renamed “Coca-Cola Egypt.” Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iran is Rattled by U.S. Escalation in the Persian Gulf

May 2nd 2012

B2 Momber Kitty Hawk

While President Barack Obama was in Kabul overnight to meet with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai to ink a strategic arrangement between the two countries over the U.S. military drawdown, the Pentagon is weighing contingency plans for war with Iran.

Based in Florida, the U.S. Central Command is capable of destroying or significantly degrading Iran’s armed forces in just three weeks by using the air and maritime assets at its disposal. Even now, the U.S. is stepping up its presence in the Persian Gulf, maintaining two aircraft carriers in the region as well as increasing the number of mine-detection vessels and helicopters. By strewing the Strait of Hormuz and to the Arabian Sea, a strategic chokepoint through which petroleum-laden ships must pass on their way through the Gulf to the open sea, Iran would thereby seal off approximately one-fifth of the world’s oil supply and cause significant worldwide economic disruption.

Aviation Week has reported that the Air Force has sent in its first-line stealth strike fighter, the F-22 Raptor, to a base in the United Arab Emirates, less than 200 miles across the Gulf from Iran. Iran’s defense minister, Gen. Ahmed Vahdi, said on April 30 that the deployment of the Raptors to theatre “is a harmful action and damages regional security." Gen. Vahidi characterized the move as “psychological warfare," on the part of the U.S., while averring that American military presence in the region "...will bear no fruit except insecurity and complications." The Raptors, the United States’ most advanced warplanes, are equipped with rockets and laser-guided munitions that could unleash havoc in Iran by striking military installations, oil refineries and fuel depots, as well as transportation hubs, as did US Air Force and Navy Fighting Falcons and Hornets during the initial phase of the Second Iraq War. Read more ..

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