Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pariahs and Prophets

IN 1984, after serving three terms in the House of Representatives, Ron Paul was defeated by Phil Gramm in Texas’s Republican Senate primary. Paul left Congress, and a few years later he left the Republican Party entirely to run for president on the Libertarian line. In the 1988 election, after a campaign that Texas Monthly compared to something “out of Robert Altman’s movie ‘Nashville,’ ” he took home just 0.47 percent of the popular vote.

Thus marginalized by the public, the former congressman proceeded to marginalize himself. Through the various newsletters that bore his name — most notably the Ron Paul Political Report and the Ron Paul Survival Report — he spent the early 1990s as a peddler of far-right paranoia. In an exhaustive 2008 piece for Reason magazine, Dave Weigel and Julian Sanchez argued that the most abhorrent language in Paul’s eponymous newsletters — the claims that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “seduced under-age girls and boys,” that AIDS sufferers “enjoy the attention and pity,” and so on — weren’t actually written by the man himself. But the fact that they had Paul’s imprimatur suggests that the former congressman had grown comfortable way out on the xenophobic fringe.

That fringe is like the Hotel California: When public figures hang out there for a while, they usually find that it’s easier to check out than to leave. Yet in 1997, Paul was back in Congress, representing the same Republican Party that he’d previously abandoned. In 2008, after a decade as a marginal figure on the Hill, his long-shot campaign for the presidency suddenly gained him one of American politics’ most devoted followings. And now this following has grown large enough that a man whose Survival Report once counseled would-be militia members to “avoid the phone as much as possible” has a chance to win the Iowa caucuses.

There are two commonplace interpretations of Paul’s unusual trajectory. To his many sympathizers — libertarians, dissident conservatives and some left-wingers as well — the extremism in his past has nothing to do with the issues that he’s campaigning on today. The case for Paul, as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf put it, is that “he alone, among viable candidates, favors reforming certain atrocious policies” — scaling back America’s overseas commitments, ending a failed war on drugs, curbing a runaway public sector and reducing the powers of an imperial presidency. The newsletters may reflect badly on his past, but in the current political landscape he’s a voice of reason rather than of madness.

To his many critics, on the other hand, Paul’s present-day positions are connected to his past derangements, because they share the same essentially conspiratorial root. Then as now, Paul blames shadowy elites for the country’s ills; then as now, he flirts with narratives that are straight out of the fever swamp. For all its superficial idealism, the critics insist, his campaign is a conduit through which fundamentally poisonous ideas are entering the mainstream body politic, and thus he needs to be not only defeated but repudiated.

But consider a third possibility. There’s often a fine line between a madman and a prophet. Perhaps Paul has emerged as a teller of some important truths precisely because in many ways he’s still as far out there as ever.

The United States is living through an era of unprecedented elite failure, in which America’s public institutions are understandably distrusted and our leadership class is justifiably despised. Yet politicians of both parties are required, by the demands of partisanship, to embrace the convenient lie that our problem can be pinned exclusively on the other side’s elites — as though both liberals and conservatives hadn’t participated in the decisions that dug our current hole.

In this climate, it sometimes takes a fearless crank to expose realities that neither Republicans nor Democrats are particularly eager to acknowledge.

In both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Paul has been the only figure willing to point out the deep continuities in American politics — the way social spending grows and overseas commitments multiply no matter which party is in power, the revolving doors that connect K Street to Congress and Wall Street to the White House, the long list of dubious policies and programs that both sides tacitly support. In both election cycles, his honest extremism has sometimes cut closer to the heart of our national predicament than the calculating partisanship of his more grounded rivals. He sometimes rants, but he rarely spins — and he’s one of the few figures on the national stage who says “a plague on both your houses!” and actually means it.

Obviously it would be better for the country if this message weren’t freighted with Paul’s noxious baggage, and entangled with his many implausible ideas. But would it be better off without his presence entirely? I’m not so sure.

Neither prophets nor madmen should be elected to the presidency. But neither can they safely be ignored


U.S. Economist Dissents, Saying Recession Is Over

WASHINGTON — In a rare public dissent, a member of the committee that officially dates the turning points in the nation’s business cycles said on Monday that he thought that the recession ended last June and that the panel should have said so.

The committee, part of the National Bureau of Economic Research, announced on Monday that it could not yet ascertain a trough signifying the end of the contraction and the start of an expansion.

“I strongly disagree with the committee’s decision,” the member, Robert J. Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, said in a statement afterward.

The panel, known as the Business Cycle Dating Committee, was established in 1978 and has assigned the dates of peaks and troughs for every business cycle since 1854.

In a meeting on Thursday, the committee, which has seven active members, decided to make the unusual announcement that it had met but could not declare the recession over. Discussions over the details continued by e-mail through the weekend.

“Although most indicators have turned up, the committee decided that the determination of the trough date on the basis of current data would be premature,” the panel said.

“Many indicators are quite preliminary at this time and will be revised in coming months,” the panel added. “The committee acts only on the basis of actual indicators, and does not rely on forecasts.”

The committee also reaffirmed its earlier announcement that the recession began in December 2007.

If the recession did end in June, it would have lasted about 18 months, two months longer than any recession since the Great Depression.

Mr. Gordon said on Monday that he had been “the outvoted minority of one” on the panel.

“It is obvious that the recession is over,” Mr. Gordon said, adding that real gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic activity, had recovered strongly from a low point in the spring of 2009 and would soon reach, or nearly reach, its previous peak in late 2007.

Indicators of industrial production, manufacturing and other economic variables pointed to last June as the trough, he said.

Other members of the committee have expressed concern that the upturn in economic growth, as measured by gross domestic product, while real, could be followed by a so-called double-dip recession. Such a downturn could, depending on its timing and magnitude, potentially be considered part of the same recession that began in 2007.

Mr. Gordon said, “The committee thought that, even if that probability was extremely small, it would be very costly to the committee to be proved wrong after the fact,” if it prematurely declared the recession over.

He said that there were “no plausible shocks” that could drive the economy below its last trough. Rather, if another cyclical downturn were to occur in the next year or two, Mr. Gordon argued, it would be considered a new recession, just as the 1981-82 recession was considered separate from the downturn of January to July 1980.


Deep Gulf drilling thrives 18 mos. after BP spill

ALAMINOS CANYON BLOCK 857, GULF OF MEXICO (AP) - Two hundred miles off the coast of Texas, ribbons of pipe are reaching for oil and natural gas deeper below the ocean's surface than ever before.

These pipes, which run nearly two miles deep, are connected to a floating platform that is so remote Shell named it Perdido, which means "lost" in Spanish. What attracted Shell to this location is a geologic formation found throughout the Gulf of Mexico that may contain enough oil to satisfy U.S. demand for two years.

While Perdido is isolated, it isn't alone. Across the Gulf, energy companies are probing dozens of new deepwater fields thanks to high oil prices and technological advances that finally make it possible to tap them.

The newfound oil will not do much to lower global oil prices. But together with increased production from onshore U.S. fields and slowing domestic demand for gasoline, it could help reduce U.S. oil imports by more than half over the next decade.

Eighteen months ago, such a flurry of activity in the Gulf seemed unlikely. The Obama administration halted drilling and stopped issuing new permits after the explosion of a BP well killed 11 workers and caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

But the drilling moratorium was eventually lifted and the Obama administration issued the first new drilling permit in March. Now the Gulf is humming again and oil executives describe it as the world's best place to drill.

"In the short term and the medium term, it's clearly the Gulf of Mexico," says Matthais Bichsel, a Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDS.B) board member who is in charge of all of the company's new projects and technology.

By early 2012 there will be more rigs in the Gulf designed to drill in its "deep water" - defined as 2,000 feet or deeper - than before the spill.

In November, Perdido began pumping oil from a field called Tobago; the well begins 9,627 feet below the surface of the Gulf. No other well on the globe produces oil in deeper water and that's about as deep as the Gulf gets. For drillers, that means the entire Gulf is now within reach.

"We are at the point where ... depth is not the primary issue anymore," says Marvin Odum, the head of Royal Dutch Shell's drilling unit in the Americas. "I do not worry that there is something in the Gulf that we cannot develop ... if we can find it."

From a distance, Perdido looks like an erector set perched on an aluminum can. This can, or "spar," is a 500-foot-tall steel cylinder that sits mostly underwater, serving as a base for the equipment and living quarters above. It is stuffed with iron ore to lower its center of gravity, keeping the whole operation from bobbing in the water like a cork. The spar is tethered to the sea floor 8,000 feet below with ropes and chains.

Oil and natural gas are pumped to Perdido from nearby wells drilled by an onboard rig and from faraway wells drilled by satellite rigs. Water and other impurities are then removed from the oil and gas, which gets sent hundreds of miles through an undersea pipeline to terminals and refineries along the Gulf coast.

Perdido, which pumps the equivalent of 60,000 barrels of oil and natural gas a day, will eventually yield 100,000 barrels per day from 35 wells in a 30-mile radius, according to Shell. It will likely produce oil for decades - in all, as much as 360 million barrels of oil and 750 billion cubic feet of natural gas, according to Wood Mackenzie.

As global oil demand climbs past 89 million barrels a day and traditional onshore and shallow water fields are depleted, the deep waters of the Gulf and off the coasts of South America, West Africa and Australia are playing an increasingly important role.

In 2000, 1.5 million barrels of oil per day were produced from deepwater fields around the globe, or 2 percent of global production. In 2011, that number grew to 5.5 million barrels, or 6 percent of global production. By 2020, deepwater oil will account for 9 percent, according to IHS CERA.

The Gulf is attractive for many reasons. Its oil fields are enormous; it straddles the world's biggest consumer of oil; it's in a politically stable part of the world; and drillers can easily tap into a vast network of pipelines and refineries. Also, despite industry complaints, the cost of royalties, taxes and regulation in the U.S. are among the lowest in the world.

"Everybody wants to be there," says Mohammad Rahman, the lead Gulf analyst for Wood Mackenzie.

By early 2012, there will be 40 deepwater rigs in the Gulf, up from 37 before the BP spill, according to Cinnamon Odell of ODS-Petrodata. BP received its first permit to drill in late October.

The Gulf produces an average of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, according to Wood Mackenzie. That's 27 percent of U.S. output and 8 percent of U.S. demand.

Thanks to more accurate imaging technologies, drillers are able to see under geologic formations that used to confound geologists. In June, ExxonMobil Corp. said it found 700 million barrels of oil - one of the biggest discoveries in the Gulf in last decade. In September, Chevron and BP also announced major finds, thought to be in the hundreds of millions of barrels of oil.

Many of the Gulf's recent discoveries are in a geologic formation known as the Lower Tertiary, formed between 23 million and 65 million years ago. Perdido, which is operated by Shell and owned jointly by Shell, Chevron and BP, is the first to produce oil from this formation. Analysts say it could hold 15 billion barrels of oil.

As the BP disaster made clear, drilling in deep water presents difficulties and dangers. Last month a Chevron well in the deep waters off of Brazil ruptured and spilled 2,400 barrels of oil into the Atlantic after Chevron underestimated the pressure of the oil field it was tapping.

Perdido only recently reached its monthly production target after a year of operation because of difficulties getting oil and gas from the seabed to the platform. New devices designed to separate oil and gas on the sea floor have not performed as well as Shell hoped. It has taken months of adjustments made by underwater robots and other equipment on the platform to fix the problems.

Challenges like this have helped push the average cost of producing oil in the deepwater Gulf to $60 a barrel, according to IHS CERA, near the highest level ever. But with oil close to $100 a barrel, the expense is well worth it.

After all 35 wells are drilled for Perdido, its owners will likely have spent $6.2 billion on the project, according to Wood Mackenzie. But along with the risks, the Gulf offers great rewards: Perdido could ultimately generate $39 billion in revenue and $16 billion in profits.


In 2012, Obama to press ahead without Congress

HONOLULU (AP) - Leaving behind a year of bruising legislative battles, President Barack Obama enters his fourth year in office having calculated that he no longer needs Congress to promote his agenda and may even benefit in his re-election campaign if lawmakers accomplish little in 2012.

Absent any major policy pushes, much of the year will focus on winning a second term. The president will keep up a robust domestic travel schedule and aggressive campaign fundraising and use executive action to try to boost the economy.

Partisan, down-to-the-wire fights over allowing the nation to take on more debt and sharply reducing government spending defined 2011. In the new year, there are almost no must-do pieces of legislation facing the president and Congress.

The one exception is the looming debate on a full-year extension of a cut in the Social Security payroll tax rate from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. Democrats and Republicans are divided over how to put in place that extension.

The White House believes GOP lawmakers boxed themselves in during the pre-Christmas debate on the tax break and will be hard-pressed to back off their own assertions that it should continue through the end of 2012.

Once that debate is over, the White House says, Obama's political fate will no longer be tied to Washington.

"Now that he's sort of free from having to put out these fires, the president will have a larger playing field. If that includes Congress, all the better," said Josh Earnest, White House deputy press secretary. But, he added, "that's no longer a requirement."

Aides say the president will not turn his back on Congress completely in the new year. He is expected to once again push lawmakers to pass elements of his jobs bill that were blocked by Republicans last fall.

If those efforts fail, the White House says, Obama's re-election year will focus almost exclusively on executive action.

Earnest said Obama will come out with at least two or three directives per week, continuing the "We Can't Wait" campaign the administration began this fall, and try to define Republicans in Congress as gridlocked and dysfunctional.

Obama's election year retreat from legislative fights means this term will end without significant progress on two of his 2008 campaign promises, an immigration overhaul and closing the military prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Presidential directives probably won't make a big dent in the nation's 8.6 percent unemployment rate or lead to significant improvements in the economy. That's the chief concern for many voters and the issue on which Republican candidates are most likely to criticize Obama.

In focusing on executive actions rather than ambitious legislation, the president risks appearing to be putting election-year strategy ahead of economic action at a time when millions of Americans are still out of work.

"Americans expect their elected leaders to work together to boost job creation, even in an election year," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Still, Obama and his advisers are beginning 2012 with a renewed sense of confidence, buoyed by a series of polls that show the president's approval rating climbing as Congress becomes increasingly unpopular.

They believe his victory over Republicans in the payroll tax debate has boosted his credentials as a fighter for the middle class, a theme he will look to seize on in his Jan. 24 State of the Union address.

Obama's campaign-driven, domestic-travel schedule starts in Cleveland on Wednesday, the day after GOP presidential hopefuls square off in the Iowa caucuses. He will also keep up an aggressive re-election fundraising schedule, with events already lined up in Chicago on Jan. 11.

Campaign officials say Obama will fully engage in the re-election campaign once the Republicans pick their nominee. He will focus almost exclusively on campaigning after the late summer Democratic National Convention, barring unexpected developments at home or abroad.

Among the issues that could disrupt Obama's re-election plans: further economic turmoil in Europe, instability in North Korea following its leadership transition and threats from Iran.

The president's signature legislative accomplishment will also come under greater scrutiny in the new year, when a critical part of his health care overhaul is debated before the Supreme Court.

Obama's foreign travel next year will be limited mainly to the summits and international gatherings every U.S. president traditionally attends. He's expected to travel to South Korea in March for a nuclear security summit and to Colombia in April for the Summit of the Americas. He's also likely to visit Mexico in June for the G-20 economic summit.

Two other major international gatherings - the NATO summit and the G-8 economic meeting - will be held in Chicago, on home turf.


Consider yourself warned

Egypt's democracy activists fear wider clampdown

CAIRO (AP) - It was an unusually intense raid on pro-democracy groups backed by some of Egypt's closest allies, including the United States: Special commandos in full gear sealed office doors shut with wax, demanded computer passwords, carted away boxes of documents and searched the bathrooms.

Rights groups on Friday denounced the startling show of force in the raids on 10 organizations a day earlier and accused Egypt's ruling generals of trying to silence critics as the country approaches the first anniversary of the revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

Less than two weeks after the military violently crushed street protests leaving dozens killed and hundreds injured, some warned Thursday's raids were a sign of a fiercer crackdown ahead of new protests planned for Jan. 25, the anniversary of the start of the 18-day mass uprising.

The sweep was also a dramatic escalation in the military's campaign to portray the protests against its rule as a plot by "foreign hands" against Egypt.

The choice of targets was significant: The raided groups are not youth activists known for protests but ostensibly neutral groups working to promote democratic institutions, such as an independent judiciary, election monitoring and election campaign training.

Notably, three of them were American organizations funded in part by the State Department - an indication Egypt's military, which receives some $1 billion a year from Washington, was willing to strain ties with a longtime ally in going after them. Raided were the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, which have helped to train political parties how to run campaigns and encourage political involvement of women and young people.

Military and judiciary officials said the groups were suspected of funneling foreign funds to foment protests and instability and "influence public opinion in non-peaceful ways." The groups and other rights organizations dismissed the accusations as an attempt to taint the broader revolution.

"The bottom line here is that the state unleashed its dogs in the media and in the government to tarnish our reputation so when we stand up against the military generals, we would be stripped of our credibility in front of public opinion," said Negad el-Borai, a rights advocate and a lawyer.

Government officials and media have been warning for months of action against groups receiving foreign funds.

Activists noted a government fact-finding panel's report that Islamic groups were also receiving funds from Gulf countries, including Qatar and Kuwait, but said those groups were not targeted.

That, they said, indicated the regime is going after causes linked to the secular, liberal protesters who have been denouncing the military's rule.

Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank with links to Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, was raided, as were at least two Egyptian non-governmental groups - one aiming to strengthen an independent judiciary and another that monitors government budgets. The other organizations were not identified.

The U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, spoke Friday with members of the ruling military council and "received assurances that the raids will cease and property will be returned immediately," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Patterson made clear that non-governmental organizations should be allowed to return to operation "in support of the democratic transition under way in Egypt," Nuland added.

The heavy hand of the raids startled even the Americans.

Another U.S. official said Washington had provided the Egyptian government with details on how the groups operate and use their money, and thought its concerns were resolved.

"It caught us all by surprise when they raided the offices because we didn't think that was the way this was going," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the raids.

In the sweep, teams of special commandos with weapons and military police, accompanied by investigative judges, stormed 17 offices around the country, including Cairo, the northern coastal city of Alexandria and the southern city of Assiut.

Nasser Amin, a veteran rights lawyer who chairs the Arab Center for the Independence of Judiciary, said commandos sealed off the main street leading to the building, then searched the center's 11th-floor office thoroughly for four hours. They sealed office doors with red wax and barred employees from leaving while they confiscated 18 computers and boxes of documents, he said.

"It's a fear-mongering campaign," said Amin, who has been critical of the military's handing of trials of former members of Mubarak's regime. His center receives funds from Europe.

"What is very dangerous here is that in the middle of this, they can just slip any fake document in the middle of all the papers and we find ourselves in grave danger."

A staffer at the National Democratic Institute, Hana El-Hattab, tweeted during the hourslong raid on the group's Cairo office, "they're literally checking the bathrooms before they allow anyone to use it."

She said they took history books from staffers' bags and personal laptops and refused to allow staffers to leave until they revealed the password of the center's server.

"Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt's historic transition sends a disturbing signal," institute president Kenneth Wollack in a statement.

Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid accused around 300 nonprofit groups of receiving unauthorized foreign funding and using the money to fund protests. An inspection team official alleged investigations had found the groups had received up to $100 million from abroad, then deposited the money in Egyptian banks under the names of illliterate Egyptians without their knowledge.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, did not elaborate.

Another official from the Interior Ministry said the military on Thursday found 70,000 Egyptian pounds ($11,600) in the office of one unidentified group, and seized half a million Egyptian pounds ($83,000) from the National Democratic Institute.

The groups are also accused of failing to register for licenses from Egyptian authorities, as required under law for non-governmental organizations.

Under Mubarak, the government rarely licensed pro-democracy and rights organizations, forcing them to work in a legal limbo. Despite the hopes of many NGOs, the situation has not improved since Mubarak's fall.

Activists have noted that the campaign against foreign funding has been led by International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga, a stalwart of the Mubarak regime who retained her ministry post through successive Cabinet reshuffles this year.

Recently, a list of groups alleged to lack proper licensing or receiving funds outside government oversight was leaked from the Justice Ministry investigation to the press. Among them was the al-Sunna al-Muhammadiya association, connected to the ultraconservative Islamic Salafi movement that has been doing strongly in ongoing parliament elections. It was said to have received more than $50 million from Qatar and Kuwait, but was not targeted in raids.

Israa Abdel-Fattah, a female activist, said she applied in March for a license for her newly created Egyptian Democratic Institute in March and has still not received an answer.

Her group, which aims to promote political participation, was cited as among those receiving foreign funds. While it wasn't raided Thursday, she fears she could be next.

"This is very dangerous message to all of us," she said. "If you speak, you will be smashed."


France's future hangs in balance in 2012: Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned on Saturday that the country's future hung in the balance in 2012 amid the eurozone debt crisis but said ratings agencies would not decide French policy.
"France's destiny could once again be tipped" in 2012, Sarkozy said in a televised New Year's address. "Emerging from the crisis, building a new model for growth, giving birth to a new Europe -- these are some of the challenges that await us."

"This crisis... probably the most serious since World War II, this crisis is not over," Sarkozy said.

"Yet there are reasons for hope... We must, we can keep confidence in the future," he said.

The speech was Sarkozy's last New Year's address before France heads to the polls for the first round of a presidential election in April.

"What is happening in the world announces that 2012 will be a year full of risks but also full of possibilities. Full of hope, if we know how to face the challenges. Full of dangers, if we stand still," Sarkozy said.

Touching on fears that France could lose its cherished triple-A credit rating, Sarkozy said: "I do not underestimate the consequences that the ratings agencies and runaway markets can have on our economy... but I say this for everyone to hear -- neither the markets nor the agencies will decide French policies."

Sarkozy also excluded that France would impose a new austerity package on government finances, following the announcement of two deficit-cutting programmes since August.

Keen to maintain its triple-A rating, the French government in November announced 65 billion euros ($84 billion) in savings by 2016, on top of a 12-billion-euro deficit-cutting package announced in August.

The government has said it needs to make 100 billion euros in savings to balance the budget by 2016.

Sarkozy is facing a tough battle for re-election against Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande, with the economy expected to take centre stage.

Opinion polls have consistently shown Hollande leading over Sarkozy in the race.

France will vote in the first round of the presidential election in April and potentially a second round in May, followed by parliamentary elections in June.


Italian president urges sacrifices to save economy

President Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday called on Italians to make sacrifices to prevent the "financial collapse of Italy".
"Sacrifices are necessary to ensure the future of young people, it's our objective and a commitment we cannot avoid," he said in a New Year's speech to the nation.

The eurozone's third largest economy, Italy sparked fears in 2011 that its toxic mix of low growth, high debt and spiralling borrowing costs could force it to seek a bailout like fellow eurozone members Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

"No-one, no social group, can today avoid the commitment to contribute to the clean up of public finances in order to prevent the financial collapse of Italy," he said.

"The sacrifices will not be in vain," he added, "especially if the economy begins to grow again."

Silvio Berlusconi's replacement by Mario Monti as prime minister in November has helped ease fears of an imminent debt implosion as the former European Union commissioner quickly put in place a tough plan of austerity measures.

But there is still concern over the plan's impact on an economy that is moving into recession after shrinking by 0.2 percent in the third quarter.

And Italy's ability to borrow on the debt markets is being closely watched as a bellwether of current confidence in the eurozone.


Man found with explosives at Midland International Airport

One man was being held in FBI custody Saturday afternoon after security at Midland International Airport found explosives in his carry-on bag and the terminal was shut down for an hour.

The suspect is active military and the explosives were found in his carry-on bag by Transportation Security Administration officers while going through the X-ray machine, Midland police said. The incident happened at 9:26 a.m. Saturday.

The man had been in town visiting family and was traveling back to North Carolina, confirmed MPD Sgt. Brian Rackow.

The explosives were in military-grade wrapping but police said they won’t know what grade until they are sent out for testing.

The items were in MPD possession Saturday afternoon, according to public information officer Tasa Watts.

A bomb-sniffing dog was brought in from the Lubbock Regional Response team Saturday afternoon to assist with the investigation, authorities said.

TSA officials notified law enforncement who evacuated the terminal and closed the checkpoint for one hour while the item was removed and the area was investigated.

The incident remains under investigation, said Lisa Farbstein with the TSA.

A spokesperson for the FBI would not release the man’s name but said he was being detained by officials.


Defense bolstered with $29.4bn arms deal with America

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia has boosted its defense capabilities with a $29.4 billion arms deal with the United States.

The Kingdom confirmed on Friday that it has signed the deal to purchase 84 F-15SA fighter jets.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said the deal includes 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 Black Hawk helicopters, 36 AH-6i helicopters and 12 MD-530F helicopters as well as upgrading of 70 existing F15 jets.

“The agreement also includes munitions, spare parts, training, maintenance and logistics for several years to ensure high level of defense capabilities for the Kingdom to safeguard its people and land,” the Saudi Press Agency quoted the spokesman as saying.

He said the deal came in line with the desire of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, supreme commander of the armed forces, to strengthen the defense capabilities of Saudi forces.

In a previous statement, Defense Minister Prince Salman emphasized the need to modernize the Kingdom’s armed forces and bolster its defense capabilities in the face of growing challenges and threats.

In a similar statement, Chief of Staff Gen. Hussein Al-Qubail warned against the dangerous developments surrounding the Kingdom and had called for quick action to modernize the armed forces.

The defense spokesman did not say how much the deal would cost but the US said it is worth $29.4 billion and would support more than 50,000 US jobs and give the American economy a $3.5 billion annual boost.

The announcement came with tensions between Iran and the US on the rise after Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers if Washington imposes a new raft of sanctions over its nuclear program.

“This agreement reinforces the strong and enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and demonstrates the US commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday in Honolulu.

According to one report, the Saudi-US deal — the single priciest US arms sale to a foreign country — was signed on Saturday in Riyadh. It was first unveiled in October 2010 as part of a $60 billion US arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The delivery of the whole package will unfold over 15 to 20 years, US officials said.

First deliveries of the aircraft will be made in early 2015, while the modernization of existing planes will start in 2014 and the first payments for the deal are expected in the coming weeks and months. Administration officials described the sale of advanced F-15s as designed to bolster overall Saudi defenses in an uncertain region. “In the Middle East right now, there's a number of threats," said Andrew Shapiro, assistant US secretary of state for political-military affairs.

“Clearly one of the threats that they face, as well as other countries in the region, is Iran,” he said. But the sale was "not solely directed" toward Iran, Shapiro said. “This is directed toward meeting our partner Saudi Arabia's defense needs,” he said.

The Obama administration in October 2010 notified Congress of the proposed F-15 sale as part of a potential package valued at up to $60 billion over 10 to 15 years, including the 84 advanced Boeing F-15SA fighters with cutting-edge Raytheon Co radar equipment and digital electronic warfare systems for which BAE Systems Plc is the key supplier.

The head of Boeing's military business, Dennis Muilenburg, told Reuters the deliveries would take about five years to complete, extending the F-15 production line toward the end of this decade.

Senior Pentagon official James Miller said the new F-15s "will be the most capable and versatile aircraft in the Royal Saudi Fighter inventory." He added: "The F-15SA will have the latest generation of computing power, radar technology, infrared sensors and electronic warfare systems."

Saudi Arabia was the biggest buyer of US arms from Jan. 1, 2007 through the end of 2010, with signed agreements totaling $13.8 billion, followed by the United Arab Emirates, with $10.4 billion, according to a Dec. 15 Congressional Research Service report.

Arab News

At Least 32 Dead as Hundreds of Thousands Flood Syria Streets

Syrian forces were accused of firing nail bombs Friday to disperse protesters as hundreds of thousands of people flooded streets across the country to make their voices heard to Arab monitors.

Protesters called for the ouster and prosecution of President Bashar al-Assad, whose autocratic regime has been blamed for the deaths of more than 5,000 people since pro-reform protests erupted in March.

Activists urged monitors, who started this week a mission to implement an Arab League peace plan, to protect civilians from the regime's wrath.

"We urge you to make a clear distinction between the assassin and the victim," activists of the Syrian Revolution 2011 said in a statement posted on their Facebook page.

"Our revolution which was launched nine months ago is peaceful," they said.

The death toll rose again Friday, with at least 32 civilians killed by gunfire as Syrian forces dispersed crowds of protesters around the country, while four people died in an ambush by government troops, activists and a rights watchdog said.

The Local Coordination Committees, the main activist group spurring protests on the ground, said nine people were killed in the flashpoint central province of Homs, nine in the restive central province of Hama, two in the countryside around Damascus, six in the northwestern province of Idlib, and six in the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the pro-democracy protests.

Huge demonstrations rocked northwestern Idlib province and Douma, a Damascus suburb where protesters clashed with security forces who fired "nail bombs" to disperse them, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At least 24 protesters were hurt when security forces fired "nail bombs to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators in Douma," the watchdog said, adding that the protesters "hurled stones" in retaliation.

"An activist in the city told the Observatory that he was hurt by shrapnel from those bombs," the Britain-based group said in a statement received by Agence France Presse.

In Douma, security forces also fired "stun grenades and tear gas" at protesters as 60,000-70,000 demonstrators headed to city hall, where Arab League observers visited the previous day.

It was the "biggest ever demonstration" in the restive suburb since March, it added.

Further north in Idlib province, which borders Turkey, more than 250,000 protesters took the streets in various locations, the Observatory reported.

Meanwhile, Anwar Omran, member of the so-called Revolution Council of Hama, told Al-Jazeera television that “Hama witnessed today massive demonstrations, with protesters numbering around 300,000.”

In the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the pro-democracy protests, five civilians were shot dead when security forces opened fire on crowds of protesters, the Observatory said.

Several people were shot and wounded in the Daraa town of Inkhil where, bracing for protests, authorities deployed security forces and posted snipers on high grounds from early in the morning, it said.

Protests also took place in Homs, which activists have dubbed the "martyr" city as hundreds have died there in a government crackdown on dissent over the past few months.

In the Damascus neighborhood of al-Qadam, security forces fired live rounds of ammunition at worshippers who emerged from midday prayers apparently to prevent them from joining the protests, said the Observatory.

Protests in Aleppo, Syria's second city in the north and economic hub, were "brutally" crushed by regime loyalists, it added.

Two civilians and two mutinous soldiers were also killed Friday in the Homs province town of Tal Kalakh in an ambush by regular army troops, said the watchdog.

Internet activists had urged Syrians to "march to the squares of freedom, bare-chested" on Friday, saying they were ready to confront the regime's "artillery and machinegun fire."

The Observatory's Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP activists are determined to make their voices heard to the monitors despite the bloody crackdown which activists say has killed more than 100 people since monitors arrived Monday.

"The Arab League's initiative is the only ray of light that we now see," said Abdul Rahman.

The mission has been tainted by some controversy, with some opposition members unhappy with the head of the observers General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi -- a veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer.

Dabi this week ruffled feathers by saying Syrian authorities were so far cooperating with the mission and by describing his visit to Homs as "good."

For some, Dabi is a controversial figure because he served under Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur region.

"The observers must remain in the cities they visit to protect civilians," said prominent human rights lawyer Haytham Maleh who is also a member of the main opposition Syrian National Council.

Speaking to Arab news channels, Maleh said the Arab League must increase the number of monitors to ensure they can verify Assad's regime is implementing all the terms of the plan to end the violence.

Around 66 monitors are currently in Syria but there are plans to deploy between 150 and 200 observers.

"The presence of the observers in Homs broke the barrier of fear," Abdul Rahman said in reference to some 70,000 demonstrators who flooded the streets of the central city Tuesday when the monitors kicked off their mission.

Western powers have urged Syrian to give them full access and Britain's minister for the Middle East and North Africa Alistair Burt echoed those concern on Thursday.

Damascus must "meet fully its obligations to the Arab League," including withdrawing security forces from cities, he said.

But Syria's key ally Russia -- which has resisted Western efforts to push through the U.N. Security Council tough resolutions against Damascus -- said Friday it was happy with the mission so far.

Syria's state SANA news agency reported that massive crowds rallied on Friday in several cities, including Damascus, to support Assad and reject the foreign-orchestrated "plot" that is "targeting Syria's stability and security."


The Iranian revenge: French scientist assassinated in central Tel Aviv

The spy war between Tehran and Tel Aviv escalated after an pro-Iranian group claimed responsibility for the killing of a 70 year old French (maybe Israeli too) Professor who was stabbed to death, and then burnt in his house on one of the city's most important streets (named after its first mayor, Meir Dizengoff).
The previously unknown group announced that it carried out an assassination of the "Zionist Chemistry Expert" Dr. Eli Laluz who is a French citizen and a graduate of the Weizmann Institute of Science (rehovot), in retaliation to a Mossad assassination of General Hassan Tehrani, the Architect of the Iranian missile program. But it is unclear that Laluz is an Israeli, the Israeli press refer to him as a foreigner, but declined to further report it as the Israeli authorities issued a "gag order" to maintain secrecy. Apparently, Laluz was a friend of Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav.

The group that called itself "the Brigades of the martyr general Hassan Tahrani Mokadem" said that it killed Laluz (spelled it lolaz in the Arabic statement) on last Monday, the 26th of December. "One of our operatives entered the home of a Professor in Dizengoff street in Tel Aviv, and killed him with a knife. then he burnt the house in a complex way. The mujahideen returned to their bases in peace". The statement also mentioned that "the operation comes as a first response to the assassination of Marty Hassan Tahrani Mokadem, who is an Iranian Brigadier killed in a Mossad bombing in Tehran". Mokadem was the architect of the Iranian Missile program (photo below).

The Jerusalem Post had reported the following on the incident:

Firefighters responding to a call in Tel Aviv discovered the body of a 70-year-old foreign national in a burned-out apartment on Tuesday. Police investigators arrived at the scene on Dizengoff Street, and suspect the man was murdered. While this was not immediately clear, a pathologist’s report later led to suspicions that he was stabbed. Although the circumstances of the incident are not yet clear, homicide detectives believe the murderer(s) set fire to the home to cover up evidence of the crime. Police are still attempting to ascertain the man’s origins, and have so far been unable to find identifying documents in the home. He may have come from France or Switzerland, they said. (they had a follow up report here)

This assassination comes amid heightened tensions between the CIA and Hezbollah after the exposure of American agents stationed in Lebanon, where they were passing information to the Israelis. (Check the Arab Digest's No Nonsense Guide to the CIA in Lebanon part I, part II & part III for the full story on the agency's operations in Beirut).

The Arab Digest

Air Force buys an Avenger, its biggest and fastest armed drone

The Air Force has bought a new hunter-killer aircraft that is the fastest and largest armed drone in its fleet.

The Avenger, which cost the military $15 million, is the latest version of the Predator drones made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., a San Diego-area company that also builds the robotic MQ-9 Reapers for the Air Force and CIA.

The new radar-evading aircraft, also known as the Predator C, is General Atomics' third version of these drones. The Air Force picked up only one of them, strictly for testing purposes.

"There is no intention to deploy the aircraft in the war in Afghanistan at this time," said Pentagon spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy.

The Avenger represents a major technological advance over the other Predator and Reaper drones that the Obama administration has increasingly relied on to hunt and destroy targets in Central Asia and the Middle East, defense industry analysts said. It may be several months — even years — away from active duty, but the Avenger represents the wave of the future, said Phil Finnegan, an aerospace expert with the Teal Group, a research firm.

"As the U.S. looks at threats beyond Iraq and Afghanistan — where it has complete air dominance — it needs aircraft that are going to be stealthier and faster so they won't be shot down by enemy air defense," Finnegan said.

With a length of 44 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 15,800 pounds, the Avenger can carry more weaponry than its predecessors.

The Reaper, for example, is 36 feet long and has a maximum takeoff weight of 10,500 pounds. The largest bombs it carries weigh 500 pounds and hang from its wings.

The Avenger, on the other hand, has an internal bomb bay like other modern fighter and bomber jets. It was designed to carry 2,000-pound bombs, as well as missiles, cameras and sensor packages.

Both the Reaper and Avenger have 66-foot wingspans and can reach a maximum altitude of about 50,000 feet.

The Reaper can stay aloft for 30 hours at a time –- 10 hours longer than the Avenger. But with the power of a turbofan engine, the Avenger's top speed is about 460 mph, much faster than the propeller-driven Reaper's 276 mph.

The Avenger is considered one of the contenders to replace older Predators and Reapers. It's also likely to be in the running for the Navy's upcoming carrier-launched drone program.

General Atomics builds its drones in 10 buildings in Poway. The sprawling complex harks back to an era when Southland aerospace pioneers such as Lockheed Aircraft Co., Douglas Aircraft Co. and North American Aviation built aircraft from start to finish, manufacturing nearly all of the components in-house.

The company first flew the Avenger in April 2009 at the company's Gray Butte Flight Operations Facility in Palmdale. David A. Deptula, a retired three-star general who focused on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance during his career in the Air Force, said the military would check out how detectable the Avenger is when faced with radar. The military will also test the aircraft's weapon delivery system and its overall performance in a simulated battle environment.

"They're going to test out all of its capabilities before they make a commitment to buy more," he said.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Russia: Nuclear submarine fire finally out

MOSCOW (AP) - Firefighters extinguished a massive fire aboard a docked Russian nuclear submarine Friday as some crew members remained inside, officials said, giving assurances that there was no radiation leak and the vessel's nuclear-tipped missiles were not on board.

Military prosecutors have launched an investigation into whether safety regulations were breached. President Dmitry Medvedev summoned top Cabinet officials to report on the situation and demanded punishment for anyone found responsible.

The fire broke out Thursday at an Arctic shipyard outside the northwestern Russian city of Murmansk where the submarine Yekaterinburg was in dry-dock. The blaze, which shot orange flames high into the air through the night, was put out Friday afternoon and firefighters continued to spray the vessel with water to cool it down, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Russian state television earlier showed the rubber-coated hull of the submarine still smoldering, with firefighters gathering around it and some standing on top to douse it with water. Most modern submarines' outer hulls are covered with rubber to make them less noisy and more difficult for an enemy to detect.

Seven members of the submarine crew were hospitalized after inhaling poisonous carbon monoxide fumes from the fire, Shoigu said.

An unspecified number of crew remained inside the submarine during the fire, Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. He insisted there never was any danger of it spreading inside the sub and said the crew reported that conditions on board remained normal.

Konashenkov's statement left it unclear whether the crew were trapped there or ordered to stay inside.

There has been no radiation leak from the fire, the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry said, and Norway's Radiation Protection Authority across the border reported it has not measured any increased radioactivity.

The governor in Finnmark, Norway's northeastern province that borders Russia, and the radiation agency complained about the Russian response.

"There have been problems to get clear information from the Russian side," Gunnar Kjoennoey told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. "We have an agreement to exchange information in such cases, but there has been no information from the Russian side so far."

Russia's military says the blaze started on wooden scaffolding and then engulfed the sub's outer hull. The vessel's nuclear reactor had been shut down and its nuclear-tipped missiles and other weapons had been unloaded before dry-dock repairs, it said.

Toxic fumes from the blaze had spread to the town of Roslyakovo where the shipyard is located, but officials said there was no need to evacuate local residents.

The Interfax new agency quoted the former director of the biggest shipyard in the area as saying the fire was probably caused by the failure to take proper safety precautions, such as coating the scaffolding with special sprays to make it fire-resistant.

"It was either lack of professionalism or an attempt to save money that has turned into huge losses," Nikolai Kalistratov said.

The Yekaterinburg is a Delta-IV-class nuclear-powered submarine that normally carries 16 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. The 166-meter (548-feet) vessel has a displacement of 18,200 tons when submerged.

The chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, led a team of senior military officials to Roslyakovo to oversee the emergency response.

The damage from the fire could be so massive that the submarine would need to be scrapped, the Interfax news agency reported Friday. But Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of the nation's military industries, said that the submarine will rejoin the navy after repairs.

The Russian navy suffered its worst accident in August 2000, when the Kursk nuclear submarine exploded and sank during naval maneuvers, killing all 118 crew members aboard.

A 2008 accident at the Nerpa nuclear-powered submarine killed 20 Russian seamen and injured 21 others when its fire-extinguishing system activated in error and spewed suffocating Freon gas.


Emboldened by monitors, Syrians hold huge protests

BEIRUT (AP) - In the largest protests Syria has seen in months, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Friday in a display of defiance to show an Arab League observer mission the strength of the opposition movement.

Despite the monitors' presence in the country, activists said Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad killed at least 22 people, most of them shot during the anti-government demonstrations.

In a further attempt to appeal to the monitors, dissident troops who have broken away from the Syrian army said they have halted attacks on regime forces to reinforce the activists' contention that the uprising against Assad is a peaceful movement.

While opposition activists are deeply skeptical of the observer mission, the outpouring of demonstrators across Syria underscores their wish to make their case to the foreign monitors and take advantage of the small measure of safety they feel they brought with them.

The nearly 100 Arab League monitors are the first that Syria has allowed into the country during the uprising, which began in March. They are supposed to ensure the regime complies with terms of the League's plan to end Assad's crackdown on dissent. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have died as the government has sought to crush the revolt.

Friday's crowds were largest in Idlib and Hama provinces, with about 250,000 people turning out in each area, according to an activist and eyewitness who asked to be identified only as Manhal because he feared government reprisal. Other big rallies were held in Homs and Daraa provinces and the Damascus suburb of Douma, according to Rami Abdul-Raham, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The crowd estimates could not be independently confirmed because Syria has banned most foreign journalists from the country and tightly restricts the local media.

Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident and human rights defender, said the observers' presence has emboldened protesters to take to the streets in huge numbers.

"Whether we like it or not, the presence of observers has had a positive psychological effect, encouraging people to stage peaceful protests - a basic condition of the Arab League peace plan," he told The Associated Press.

The observers began their mission Tuesday in Homs, often referred to by many Syrians as the "Capital of the Revolution." Since then, they have fanned out in small groups across Syrian provinces, including the restive Idlib province in the north, Hama in the center and the southern province of Daraa, where the revolt began.

The orange-jacketed observers have been seen taking pictures of the destruction, visiting families of victims of the crackdown, and taking notes.

On Friday, they were within "hearing distance" from where troops opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activist Salim al-Omar said. They later visited the wounded in hospital, he added.

Despite questions about the human rights record of the man leading the monitors, tens of thousands have turned out this week in cities and neighborhoods where they were expected to visit.

The huge rallies have been met by lethal gunfire from security forces, apparently worried about multiple mass sit-ins modeled after Cairo's Tahrir Square. In general, activists say, security forces have launched attacks when observers were not present. But there have been some reports of firing on protesters while monitors were nearby.

Omar Shaker, an activist and resident of the battered neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs, said the observers were "laughable," often walking around with outdated cameras and without pens.

"Still, the bombardment and killings have decreased here in their presence. We see them as a kind of human shields, that's all," he said.

Shaker said around 7,000 protested Friday in Baba Amr - the first demonstration in the besieged district in more than a week.

"People are feeling optimistic," he said. "We've been protesting and dying for 10 months. We have the feeling that the worst is over and the end is near," he added.

In Douma, up to 100,000 people protested Friday. Amateur videos posted on the Internet by activists showed demonstrators carrying away a bleeding comrade after being hit by a gas canister.

"Look, Arab League, look!" the cameraman is heard shouting. The British-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the regime used nail bombs against protesters in Douma. The report was confirmed by Douma activist al-Omar.

In another video, a huge crowd packed a main street in Homs, singing anti-Assad songs and dancing in unison. The crowd sang, "We will die in freedom," to the festive beat of a drum, as the unidentified cameraman proclaimed, "For months we didn't hear anything on Friday" because of the crackdown. "But because of the observer committee, they didn't fire a single bullet."

"Victory is close, god willing," he said.

Thousands turned out in the city of Idlib to welcome the observers, filling a large square, waving olive branches and flags, and chanting, "The people want the fall of Bashar."

But the ongoing violence in Syria, and questions about the human rights record of the head of the Arab League monitors, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, are reinforcing the opposition's view that Syria's limited cooperation with the observers is merely a ploy by Assad to buy time and forestall more international condemnation and sanctions.

One of Assad's few remaining allies, Russia, voiced its approval of the observer mission so far, calling the situation "reassuring."

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist coalition, said at least 130 people, including six children, have been killed in Syria since the Arab League observers began their one-month mission.

On Friday, activists said security forces fired on protesters in Daraa, Hama, Idlib and Douma. In the central city of Homs, six people who were reported missing a day earlier were confirmed dead.

The Observatory reported 22 people were killed nationwide, most of them shot while protesting. The Local Coordination Committees activist network reported 32 were killed. The differing death tolls could not be immediately reconciled.

The Arab League plan, which Syria agreed to Dec. 19, demands that the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from cities, start talks with the opposition and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. It also calls for the release of all political prisoners.

Pro-Assad groups turned out for rallies in Damascus and several other cities, waving portraits of the president, in an apparent bid to show that the regime has popular support.

Also Friday, the rebel Free Syrian Army said it has stopped its offensive against government targets since the observers arrived, in a bid to avoid fueling government claims that it is facing armed "terrorists" rather than peaceful protesters.

"We stopped to show respect to Arab brothers, to prove that there are no armed gangs in Syria, and for the monitors to be able to go wherever they want," breakaway air force Col. Riad al-Asaad, leader of the FSA, told the AP by telephone from his base in Turkey.

"We only defend ourselves now. This is our right and the right of every human being," he said, adding that his group will resume attacks after the observers leave.

The Free Syrian Army says it has about 15,000 army defectors. The group has claimed responsibility for attacks on government installations that have killed scores of soldiers and members of the security forces.


'Stuxnet virus used on Iran was 1 of 5 cyberbombs'

The Stuxnet virus that last year damaged Iran's nuclear program was likely one of at least five cyber weapons developed on a single platform whose roots trace back to 2007, according to new research from Russian computer security firm Kaspersky Lab.

Security experts widely believe that the United States and Israel were behind Stuxnet, though the two nations have officially declined to comment on the matter.

A Pentagon spokesman on Wednesday declined comment on Kaspersky's research, which did not address who was behind Stuxnet.

Stuxnet has already been linked to another virus, the Duqu data-stealing trojan, but Kaspersky's research suggests the cyber weapons program that targeted Iran may be far more sophisticated than previously known.

Kaspersky's director of global research & analysis, Costin Raiu, told Reuters on Wednesday that his team has gathered evidence that shows the same platform that was used to build Stuxnet and Duqu was also used to create at least three other pieces of malware.

Raiu said the platform is comprised of a group of compatible software modules designed to fit together, each with different functions. Its developers can build new cyber weapons by simply adding and removing modules.

"It's like a Lego set. You can assemble the components into anything: a robot or a house or a tank," he said.

Kaspersky named the platform "Tilded" because many of the files in Duqu and Stuxnet have names beginning with the tilde symbol "~" and the letter "d."

'Fairly certain' that malware existed

Researchers with Kaspersky have not found any new types of malware built on the Tilded platform, Raiu said, but they are fairly certain that they exist because shared components of Stuxnet and Duqu appear to be searching for their kin.

When a machine becomes infected with Duqu or Stuxnet, the shared components on the platform search for two unique registry keys on the PC linked to Duqu and Stuxnet that are then used to load the main piece of malware onto the computer, he said.

Kaspersky recently discovered new shared components that search for at least three other unique registry keys, which suggests that the developers of Stuxnet and Duqu also built at least three other pieces of malware using the same platform, he added.

Those modules handle tasks including delivering the malware to a PC, installing it, communicating with its operators, stealing data and replicating itself.

Makers of anti-virus software including Kaspersky, US firm Symantec Corp and Japan's Trend Micro Inc have already incorporated technology into their products to protect computers from getting infected with Stuxnet and Duqu.

Yet it would be relatively easy for the developers of those highly sophisticated viruses to create other weapons that can evade detection by those anti-virus programs by the modules in the Tilded platform, he said.

Kaspersky believes that Tilded traces back to at least 2007 because specific code installed by Duqu was compiled from a device running a Windows operating system on August 31, 2007.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Russian officials rattled by breach at rocket plant

MOSCOW — Russia's deputy prime minister vowed Thursday to punish "sleepy" security officials after bloggers posted dozens of photos of an apparently unguarded strategic military rocket motor factory near Moscow.

Blogger Lana Sator said she and friends met not a soul, much less any security guards, as they roamed around state rocket-maker Energomash's plant, snapping pictures, on five separate night-time excursions in recent months.

She posted almost 100 pictures of decrepit-looking hardware from inside a rusted engine-fuel testing tower, the plant's control room and even its roof at

Russian media cited a senior space agency official, speaking anonymously, who described the breach as a shock of the same scale as German pilot Mathias Rust's brazen Cessna flight under Soviet radar to land on Red Square in 1987.

"It showed a complete inability to protect anything whatsoever," the official told Izvestia. Space agency Roskosmos declined comment on the incident when reached by Reuters.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the security failure was "unacceptable," warning in a televised meeting with Roskosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin that "sleepy cats" who failed to maintain security at strategic defense sites face punishment.

Rogozin, Moscow's former NATO envoy appointed to oversee the defense and space sectors this month, also criticised Roskosmos for a string of recent botched launches.

"We must take urgent steps to restore order in this sphere," he said, ordering Roskosmos to present a report explaining the underlining causes of the failures by the end of January.

Last week, a Russian communications satellite crashed, adding to a string of humiliating launch failures that marred this year's celebrations of 50 years since Yuri Gagarin's first human space flight.

What was to be post-Soviet Russia's debut interplanetary mission to Mars's moon last month was stuck in orbit.

In August, the crash of an unmanned cargo craft cast doubt over Moscow's ability to guarantee International Space Station operations, while the loss of a $265-million communication satellite hurt its commercial launch record.

Monday, Russia also delayed by 25 days a launch for European satellite giant SES, citing technical glitches.


Fire crews contain blaze on nuclear submarine in northern Russia

A fire onboard a strategic nuclear submarine has been brought under control by emergency workers. The blaze started when a fire broke out in a dockyard in northern Russia. Eleven fire crews, a helicopter and a boat managed to put the fire out.

Authorities say that the wooden scaffold around the submarine caught fire, which then spread to the outer skin of the vessel. However they have ruled out the possibility of the fire getting inside the submarine.

Russia’s Emergency Ministry confirmed that the scaffold caught fire as a result of procedural violations during repair works. They also say that radiation levels are normal at the moment and there is no threat of radioactive contamination in the area.

“Ahead of putting the submarine in for scheduled repairs, the reactor was shut down, and right now is in a secure condition,” a spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Defense said.

No casualties have been reported. A crew of military prosecutors is working at the scene investigating the cause of the fire.

The nuclear submarine “Yekaterinburg,” built in 1984, was undergoing repairs at a dock in Murmansk Region and was raised from the water in a dry dock at the moment that the fire broke out.


Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington

Issue: Whether the Fourth Amendment permits a jail to conduct a suspicionless strip search whenever an individual is arrested, including for minor offenses.

Plain English Issue: Does the Constitution permit the government to strip search every person admitted to a jail, even if there is no reasonable basis to suspect that the person has hidden weapons or contraband?

I wonder if how this comes down will have any effect on the TSA. I mean if the court grants 4th amendment rights to people processed into a jail, how could they fail to extend those same rights to people getting on planes?

Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing

The Obama administration’s counterterrorism accomplishments are most apparent in what it has been able to dismantle, including CIA prisons and entire tiers of al-Qaeda’s leadership. But what the administration has assembled, hidden from public view, may be equally consequential.

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force­ ­cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.

Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.

The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.

In Yemen, for instance, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command pursue the same adversary with nearly identical aircraft. But they alternate taking the lead on strikes to exploit their separate authorities, and they maintain separate kill lists that overlap but don’t match. CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives.

The convergence of military and intelligence resources has created blind spots in congressional oversight. Intelligence committees are briefed on CIA operations, and JSOC reports to armed services panels. As a result, no committee has a complete, unobstructed view.

With a year to go in President Obama’s first term, his administration can point to undeniable results: Osama bin Laden is dead, the core al-Qaeda network is near defeat, and members of its regional affiliates scan the sky for metallic glints.

Those results, delivered with unprecedented precision from aircraft that put no American pilots at risk, may help explain why the drone campaign has never attracted as much scrutiny as the detention or interrogation programs of the George W. Bush era. Although human rights advocates and others are increasingly critical of the drone program, the level of public debate remains muted.

Senior Democrats barely blink at the idea that a president from their party has assembled such a highly efficient machine for the targeted killing of suspected terrorists. It is a measure of the extent to which the drone campaign has become an awkward open secret in Washington that even those inclined to express misgivings can only allude to a program that, officially, they are not allowed to discuss.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, described the program with a mixture of awe and concern. Its expansion under Obama was almost inevitable, she said, because of the technology’s growing sophistication. But the pace of its development, she said, makes it hard to predict how it might come to be used.

“What this does is it takes a lot of Americans out of harm’s way . . . without having to send in a special ops team or drop a 500-pound bomb,” Feinstein said in an interview in which she was careful to avoid explicit confirmation that the programs exist. “But I worry about how this develops. I’m worried because of what increased technology will make it capable of doing.”

Another reason for the lack of extensive debate is secrecy. The White House has refused to divulge details about the structure of the drone program or, with rare exceptions, who has been killed. White House and CIA officials declined to speak for attribution for this article.

Drone war’s evolution

Inside the White House, according to officials who would discuss the drone program only on the condition of anonymity, the drone is seen as a critical tool whose evolution was accelerating even before Obama was elected. Senior administration officials said the escalating number of strikes has created a perception that the drone is driving counterterrorism policy, when the reverse is true.

“People think we start with the drone and go from there, but that’s not it at all,” said a senior administration official involved with the program. “We’re not constructing a campaign around the drone. We’re not seeking to create some worldwide basing network so we have drone capabilities in every corner of the globe.”

Nevertheless, for a president who campaigned against the alleged counterterrorism excesses of his predecessor, Obama has emphatically embraced the post-Sept. 11 era’s signature counterterrorism tool.

When Obama was sworn into office in 2009, the nation’s clandestine drone war was confined to a single country, Pakistan, where 44 strikes over five years had left about 400 people dead, according to the New America Foundation. The number of strikes has since soared to nearly 240, and the number of those killed, according to conservative estimates, has more than quadrupled.

The number of strikes in Pakistan has declined this year, partly because the CIA has occasionally suspended them to ease tensions at moments of crisis. One lull followed the arrest of an American agency contractor who killed two Pakistani men; another came after the U.S. commando raid that killed bin Laden. The CIA’s most recent period of restraint followed U.S. military airstrikes last month that inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border. At the same time, U.S. officials have said that the number of “high-value” al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan has dwindled to two.

Administration officials said the expansion of the program under Obama has largely been driven by the timeline of the drone’s development. Remotely piloted aircraft were used during the Clinton and Bush administrations, but only in recent years have they become advanced and abundant enough to be deployed on such a large scale.

The number of drone aircraft has exploded in the past three years. A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office counted 775 Predators, Reapers and other medium- and long-range drones in the U.S. inventory, with hundreds more in the pipeline.

About 30 of those aircraft have been allocated to the CIA, officials said. But the agency has a separate category that doesn’t show up in any public accounting, a fleet of stealth drones that were developed and acquired under a highly compartmentalized CIA program created after the Sept. 11 attacks. The RQ-170 model that recently crashed in Iran exposed the agency’s use of stealth drones to spy on that country’s nuclear program, but the planes have also been used in other countries.

The escalation of the lethal drone campaign under Obama was driven to an extent by early counterterrorism decisions. Shuttering the CIA’s detention program and halting transfers to Guantanamo Bay left few options beyond drone strikes or detention by often unreliable allies.

Key members of Obama’s national security team came into office more inclined to endorse drone strikes than were their counterparts under Bush, current and former officials said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former CIA director and current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan seemed always ready to step on the accelerator, said a former official who served in both administrations and was supportive of the program. Current administration officials did not dispute the former official’s characterization of the internal dynamics.

The only member of Obama’s team known to have formally raised objections to the expanding drone campaign is Dennis Blair, who served as director of national intelligence.

During a National Security Council meeting in November 2009, Blair sought to override the agenda and force a debate on the use of drones, according to two participants.

Blair has since articulated his concerns publicly, calling for a suspension of unilateral drone strikes in Pakistan, which he argues damage relations with that country and kill mainly mid-level militants. But he now speaks as a private citizen. His opinion contributed to his isolation from Obama’s inner circle, and he was fired last year.

Obama himself was “oddly passive in this world,” the former official said, tending to defer on drone policy to senior aides whose instincts often dovetailed with the institutional agendas of the CIA and JSOC.

The senior administration official disputed that characterization, saying that Obama doesn’t weigh in on every operation but has been deeply involved in setting the criteria for strikes and emphasizing the need to minimize collateral damage.

“Everything about our counterterrorism operations is about carrying out the guidance that he’s given,” the official said. “I don’t think you could have the president any more involved.”

Yemen convergence

Yemen has emerged as a crucible of convergence, the only country where both the CIA and JSOC are known to fly armed drones and carry out strikes. The attacks are aimed at al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based affiliate that has eclipsed the terrorist network’s core as the most worrisome security threat.

From separate “ops centers” at Langley and Fort Bragg, N.C., the agency and JSOC share intelligence and coordinate attacks, even as operations unfold. U.S. officials said the CIA recently intervened in a planned JSOC strike in Yemen, urging its military counterpart to hold its fire because the intended target was not where the missile was aimed. Subsequent intelligence confirmed the agency’s concerns, officials said.

But seams in the collaboration still show.

After locating Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen this fall, the CIA quickly assembled a fleet of armed drones to track the alleged al-Qaeda leader until it could take a shot.

The agency moved armed Predators from Pakistan to Yemen temporarily, and assumed control of others from JSOC’s arsenal, to expand surveillance of Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric connected to terrorism plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

The choreography of the strike, which involved four drones, was intricate. Two Predators pointed lasers at Awlaki’s vehicle, and a third circled to make sure that no civilians wandered into the cross hairs. Reaper drones, which are larger than Predators and can carry more missiles, have become the main shooters in most strikes.

On Sept. 30, Awlaki was killed in a missile strike carried out by the CIA under Title 50 authorities — which govern covert intelligence operations — even though officials said it was initially unclear whether an agency or JSOC drone had delivered the fatal blow. A second U.S. citizen, an al-Qaeda propagandist who had lived in North Carolina, was among those killed.

The execution was nearly flawless, officials said. Nevertheless, when a similar strike was conducted just two weeks later, the entire protocol had changed. The second attack, which killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, was carried out by JSOC under Title 10 authorities that apply to the use of military force.

When pressed on why the CIA had not pulled the trigger, U.S. officials said it was because the main target of the Oct. 14 attack, an Egyptian named Ibrahim al-Banna, was not on the agency’s kill list. The Awlaki teenager, a U.S. citizen with no history of involvement with al-Qaeda, was an unintended casualty.

In interviews, senior U.S. officials acknowledged that the two kill lists don’t match, but offered conflicting explanations as to why.

Three senior U.S. officials said the lists vary because of the divergent legal authorities. JSOC’s list is longer, the officials said, because the post-Sept. 11, 2001, Authorization for Use of Military Force, as well as a separate executive order, gave JSOC latitude to hunt broadly defined groups of al-Qaeda fighters, even outside conventional war zones. The CIA’s lethal-action authorities, based in a presidential “finding” that has been modified since Sept. 11, were described as more narrow.

But others directly involved in the drone campaign offered a simpler explanation: Because the CIA had only recently resumed armed drone flights over Yemen, the agency hadn’t had as much time as JSOC to compile its kill list. Over time, officials said, the agency would catch up.

The administration official who discussed the drone program declined to address the discrepancies in the kill lists, except to say: “We are aiming and striving for alignment. That is an ideal to be achieved.”

Divided oversight

Such disparities often elude Congress, where the structure of oversight committees has failed to keep pace with the way military and intelligence operations have converged.

Within 24 hours of every CIA drone strike, a classified fax machine lights up in the secure spaces of the Senate intelligence committee, spitting out a report on the location, target and result.

The outdated procedure reflects the agency’s effort to comply with Title 50 requirements that Congress be provided with timely, written notification of covert action overseas. There is no comparable requirement in Title 10, and the Senate Armed Services Committee can go days before learning the details of JSOC strikes.

Neither panel is in a position to compare the CIA and JSOC kill lists or even arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the rules by which each is assembled.

The senior administration official said the gap is inadvertent. “It’s certainly not something where the goal is to evade oversight,” the official said. A senior Senate aide involved in reviewing military drone strikes said that the blind spot reflects a failure by Congress to adapt but that “we will eventually catch up.”

The disclosure of these operations is generally limited to relevant committees in the House and Senate and sometimes only to their leaders. Those briefed must abide by restrictions that prevent them from discussing what they have learned with those who lack the requisite security clearances. The vast majority of lawmakers receive scant information about the administration’s drone program.

The Senate intelligence committee, which is wrapping up a years-long investigation of the Bush-era interrogation program, has not initiated such an examination of armed drones. But officials said their oversight of the program has been augmented significantly in the past couple of years, with senior staff members now making frequent and sometimes unannounced visits to the CIA “ops center,” reviewing the intelligence involved in errant strikes, and visiting counterterrorism operations sites overseas.

Feinstein acknowledged concern with emerging blind spots.

“Whenever this is used, particularly in a lethal manner, there ought to be careful oversight, and that ought to be by civilians,” Feinstein said. “What we have is a very unique battlefield weapon. You can’t stop the technology from improving, so you better start thinking about how you monitor it.”

Increasing reach

The return of armed CIA Predators to Yemen — after carrying out a single strike there in 2002 — was part of a significant expansion of the drones’ geographic reach.

Over the past year, the agency has erected a secret drone base on the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. military began flying Predators and Reapers from bases in Seychelles and Ethi­o­pia, in addition to JSOC’s long-standing drone base in Djibouti.

Senior administration officials said the sprawling program comprises distinct campaigns, each calibrated according to where and against whom the aircraft and other counterterrorism weapons are used.

In Pakistan, the CIA has carried out 239 strikes since Obama was sworn in, and the agency continues to have wide latitude to launch attacks.

In Yemen, there have been about 15 strikes since Obama took office, although it is not clear how many were carried out by drones because the U.S. military has also used conventional aircraft and cruise missiles.

Somalia, where the militant group al-Shabab is based, is surrounded by American drone installations. And officials said that JSOC has repeatedly lobbied for authority to strike al-Shabab training camps that have attracted some Somali Americans.

But the administration has allowed only a handful of strikes, out of concern that a broader campaign could turn al-Shabab from a regional menace into an adversary determined to carry out attacks on U.S. soil.

The plans are constantly being adjusted, officials said, with the White House holding strategy sessions on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia two or three times a month. Administration officials point to the varied approach as evidence of its restraint.

“Somalia would be the easiest place to go in in an undiscriminating way and do drone strikes because there’s no host government to get” angry, the senior administration official said. “But that’s certainly not the way we’re approaching it.”

Drone strikes could resume, however, if factions of al-Shabab’s leadership succeed in expanding the group’s agenda.

“That’s an ongoing calculation because there’s an ongoing debate inside the senior leadership of al-Shabab,” the senior administration official said. “It certainly would not bother us if potential terrorists took note of the fact that we tend to go after those who go after us.”


EU to Pursue Iran Sanctions Despite Threat of Strait Closure

The European Union is pressing ahead with plans to impose new sanctions on Iran, an EU spokesman said Wednesday after Tehran threatened to close a vital oil transit channel in response to Western measures.

"The European Union is considering another set of sanctions against Iran and we continue to do that," Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign affairs Chief Catherine Ashton, told Agence France Presse.

"We expect the decision will be taken in time for the foreign affairs council on January 30," he said, referring to the next meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned on Tuesday that "not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz" if the West broadened sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

The United States and the 27-nation EU are considering new sanctions aimed at Iran's oil and financial sectors. But EU governments have been divided over whether to impose an embargo on Iranian crude.

Oil from Iran in 2010 amounted to 5.8 percent of total EU imports, making Tehran the bloc's fifth-largest supplier after Russia, Norway, Libya and Saudi Arabia.

Spain represents 14.6 percent of Iranian oil imports to Europe, Greece 14.0 and Italy 13.1 percent.

More than a third of the world's tanker-borne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, linking the Gulf -- and its petroleum-exporting states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- to the Indian Ocean.

The United States maintains a navy presence in the Gulf in large part to ensure that passage for oil remains free.

NATO officials declined to comment on the Iranian threat.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

China Clamps Down on Gold Trading Frenzy

Gold exchanges in China outside of two in Shanghai are to be banned, authorities said in a statement released on Tuesday.

Gold exchanges have mushroomed across China, from the northern port city of Tianjin to Guangxi bordering Vietnam, as spot prices in the precious metal [XAU= 1555.59 0.40 (+0.03%) ] have soared to record highs and speculation has boomed.

"No local authority, institution or individual is allowed to set up gold exchanges," said the notice dated December 20 and jointly issued by the People's Bank of China, the Ministry of Public Security and other regulators.

The notice — published on the central bank website ( — said the Shanghai Gold Exchange and the Shanghai Futures Exchange are enough to meet domestic investor demand for spot gold and futures trading.

Existing exchanges or "platforms" were told to stop offering new services.

The PBOC cited lax management, irregular activities and evidence of illegality which were causing risks to emerge, as the reasons for taking the decision.

The central bank said it would lead a team to clear up the mess — gold exchanges will be altered or closed, banks will stop providing clearing services to them; and some people will be put under police investigation, PBOC said.

An official at the Beijing Gold Exchange Center, who declined to be identified, told Reuters over the phone that the exchange has not received any detailed instructions.

"But the talk of a crackdown has been going on for a while," he said. "Of course, this affects our business."


Closing exchanges might be the first step in confiscation..

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who's watching the Watchmen

The Salafist party's plan for the Pyramids? Cover them in wax

The pyramids at Giza are the most stunning sight I have ever seen.

True, their lonely eminence is threatened by Cairo's unlicensed building sprawl, with half completed houses inching their way towards them.

Surveying them at night as the calls to prayer multiplied into a thunder of sound from central Cairo already told me a few years back what was coming.

For now members of the Nour (The Light) Salafist party, which won 20 per cent of the vote in recent elections, are talking about putting an end to the 'idolatry' represented by the pyramids.

This means destruction - along the lines essayed by the Afghan Taliban who blew up the Banyam Buddhas - or 'concealment' by covering them with wax. Tourists would presumably see great blobs rather than the perfectly carved steps.

This last suggestion was made by Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, a Nour candidate for parliament. Apart from wanting to do away with this 'rotten culture', this gentleman also wants to ban the Nobel prize winning novels of Naguib Mahfouz, one of many great Egyptian writers.

I suppose they could call in the great Bulgarian artist Christo, who specialises in putting curtains across the Grand Canyon or surrounding Pacific atolls in fetching pink cloth? But I doubt they have heard of him.

Salafism means reverting to the mores of the founding generation of Islam, for the close companions of the Prophet were called Salafi meaning 'pious founders'. Since the last adherent of ancient Egyptian religion allegedly converted (to Christianity) in the fourth century AD, the original Salafists had little to worry about the pyramids and left them alone.

But not their 21st century successors, who also want what they call 'halal' tourism, with women told to dress decorously and no alcohol, something pretty general already in conservative Egypt. The Salafists want segregated beaches, which will not go down well with visitors to Sharm el Sheikh.

Tourism accounts for 11 per cent of Egypt's $218billion GDP. Right now, hotels and resorts report falls in occupancy from 90 to 15 per cent.

This is bad news for the 3million Egyptians who depend on the 14million tourists who visit Egypt each year. The people affected are not simply waiters and chambermaids, but taxi drivers, camel and horse ride touts, shop and stall owners and ordinary villagers who make a bit on the side providing tea and snacks for Nile cruises.

One of the great tragedies of what is afoot in the Middle East is the extinction of the last vestiges of a vibrant, cosmopolitan culture, as represented by another great Egyptian novelist, the Cairo dentist, Alaa Al Aswany, author of the remarkable Yacoubian Building.

It is becoming hard to recall that in the 1950s - under King Farouk - Egypt had a thriving film industry, producing 300 movies a year, and that its national chanteuse, Umm Kulthum, was worshipped throughout the Middle East.

But now the fanatics are in the saddle, so its good bye to all that. We'll have to wait for fundamentalism to fail, as Nasserite 'national socialism' did before it. For Nour and the like surely have no answers to the problems of contemporary Egypt.


More than 40 Dead in Syria as Besieged Homs Heavily Shelled

Heavy gunfire killed more than 30 people in Syria's besieged city of Homs on Monday as newly arriving Arab League observers were urged to head immediately to one of the country's most serious hot spots.

Media reports said an initial group of 50 observers arrived in Syria Monday evening to oversee a deal aimed at ending a bloody crackdown on anti-regime dissent, while other reports said the monitors' arrival was yet to be confirmed.

Meanwhile, a man identifying himself as Mustashar Mahjoub and claiming to be a member of an advance team of Arab observers appeared on Al-Arabiya TV and described the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on dissent as "genocide."

The regime is “taking revenge on its people,” the man said, adding that the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amro was being "shelled by heavy artillery."

Earlier on Monday, the Local Coordination Committees, the main activist group spurring protests on the ground, reported that security forces shot and wounded a member of the Arab team of observers, without mentioning his name or the site of the shooting.

However, the Arab League later denied the report, saying that “after contacting the head of the team of observers in Damascus, General Mohammed al-Dabi, it appeared that the report was untrue and that all the members of the team of observers were safe.”

On the ground, more than 40 people were shot dead at the hands of security forces across Syria, most of them in Homs which was "heavily bombarded" throughout the day, according to the LCC.

In a statement received by Agence France Presse, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "rocket fire and heavy machineguns in the Baba Amro quarter killed at least 15 people and wounded dozens."

"The situation is frightening and the shelling is the most intense of the past three days," it said.

Six civilians died in other parts of the central Syrian city, while another three, including a 14-year-old boy, were shot dead when security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Khattab in neighboring Hama province.

On Sunday, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said Homs was under siege and facing an "invasion" from some 4,000 troops deployed near the city that has become a focal point of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

"The observers must head immediately to the martyrs' district of Baba Amro to stop the assassinations and meet with the Syrian people so that they witness the crimes being perpetrated by the Syrian regime," the Observatory said on Monday.

That demand was echoed by France.

"The Damascus authorities must imperatively, in accordance with the Arab League plan, allow observers access this afternoon to the city of Homs, where the violence is particularly bloody," foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said the observer "mission has freedom of movement in line with the protocol" Syria signed with the Arab League last week.

Under that deal, the observers are to be banned only from sensitive military installations.

Ironically, the Observatory said the authorities had changed road signs in another hot spot, Idlib province, to confuse the observers, and urged them to make contact with human rights activists on the ground.

An advance team of Arab monitors arrived on Thursday to pave the way for the observer mission to oversee the deal aimed at ending the crackdown, which the U.N. estimates has killed more than 5,000 people since March.

Opposition groups have said the observers must stop their work if they are blocked by the authorities from traveling to places like Homs.

"We hold the Arab League and the international community accountable for the massacres and bloodshed committed by the regime in Syria," the SNC said.

General al-Dabi, a veteran Sudanese military intelligence officer who is heading the observer mission, arrived in Damascus on Sunday evening, a source told AFP.

In a meeting with AFP in Khartoum last week, the 63-year-old Dabi distributed a curriculum vitae that outlined a hardcore military background, including three years as chief of military operations against the insurgency in what is now South Sudan.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said he expects the observers to vindicate his government's contention that the violence is the work of "armed terrorists."

Western governments and rights watchdogs blame Assad's regime for the bloodshed.

Opposition leaders charge that Syria agreed to the mission after weeks of prevarication in a "ploy" to head off a threat by the 22-member League to go to the U.N. Security Council over the crackdown.

Muallem met the advance team of Arab League officials on Saturday, in talks his spokesman called "positive."

The observers will eventually number between 150 and 200, Arab League officials say.

The mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria on November 2 that calls for the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.

But since signing the agreement, the Assad regime has been accused of intensifying its crackdown.

The SNC and rights activists have charged that the government was behind twin suicide bombings in Damascus on Friday that killed 44 people.

Assad's regime blamed the attacks on "terrorist organizations," including al-Qaida, although it has not said how it reached the conclusion.

The SNC said "the Syrian regime, alone, bears all the direct responsibility for the two terrorist explosions."

It said the government was trying to create the impression "that it faces danger coming from abroad and not a popular revolution demanding freedom and dignity."

Violence continued through the weekend, with security forces pounding Baba Amro with mortar and heavy machinegun fire on Sunday, killing an undetermined number of people and wounding 124, the Observatory said.

The plight of Syrians was a focus of Pope Benedict XVI's Christmas Day prayers.

"May the Lord come to the aid of our world torn by so many conflicts ... May he bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed," the pontiff told pilgrims in Vatican City.