Tuesday, January 31, 2012

CBO: Taxes Will ‘Shoot Up by More Than 30 Percent’ Over Next 2 Years

(CNSNews.com) - The amount of money the federal government takes out of the U.S. economy in taxes will increase by more than 30 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to the Budget and Economic Outlook published today by the CBO.

At the same time, according to CBO, the economy will remain sluggish, partly because of higher taxes.

“In particular, between 2012 and 2014, revenues in CBO’s baseline shoot up by more than 30 percent,” said CBO, “mostly because of the recent or scheduled expirations of tax provisions, such as those that lower income tax rates and limit the reach of the alternative minimum tax (AMT), and the imposition of new taxes, fees, and penalties that are scheduled to go into effect.”

The U.S. economy, CBO projects, will perform “below its potential” for another six years and unemployment will remain above 7 percent for another three.

“The pace of the economic recovery has been slow since the recession ended in June 2009, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects that, under current laws governing taxes and spending, the economy will continue to grow at a sluggish pace over the next two years,” said CBO. “That pace of growth partly reflects the dampening effect on economic activity from the higher tax rates and curbs on spending scheduled to occur this year and especially next. Although CBO projects that growth will pick up after 2013, the agency expects that the economy’s output will remain below its potential until 2018 and that the unemployment rate will remain above 7 percent until 2015.”

According to the CBO report, federal tax revenues equaled $2.302 trillion in fiscal 2011, and will increase to $2,523 trillion in fiscal 2012, $2,988 trillion in fiscal in 2013, and $3,313 trillion in 2014.

As a percentage of GDP, according to CBO, federal tax revenues were 15.4 percent in fiscal 2011, and will be 16.3 percent in 2012, 18.8 percent in 2013, and 20.0 percent in fiscal 2014.

In dollar terms, the anticipated increase in federal tax revenue from fiscal 2011 ($2.302 trillion) to fiscal 2014 ($3.313 trillion) is $1.011 trillion. That is an increase of 43.9 percent.

From just 2012 to 2014, the increase in federal tax revenues from $2.523 trillion to $3.313 trillion equals $790 billion—or 31.3 percent.

The anticipated percentage increase in federal tax revenue is not only large when calculated in dollar terms but also when calculated as a share of GDP. The jump from 15.4 percent of GDP in fiscal 2011 to 20.0 percent of GDP in fiscal 2014 equals an increase of 29.8 percent. The jump from 16.3 percent in fiscal 2012 to 20.0 percent in fiscal 2014 equals an increase over two years of 22.7 percent.

Federal tax revenues have averaged “about 18 percent of GDP for the past 40 years,” according to CBO. So, in the next two years federal tax revenues will rise from a level that is below the modern historical average to a level that is above it.


Home prices drop, consumers turn gloomier

(Reuters) - Home prices fell more steeply than expected in November, and consumers turned less optimistic in January, highlighting the hurdles still facing the bumpy economic recovery.
After accelerating at its fastest pace in 1-1/2 years at the end of 2011, the U.S. economy is expected slow in early 2012.

The S&P/Case-Shiller composite index of single-family home prices in 20 metropolitan areas, released on Tuesday, declined 0.7 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis, a bigger drop than the 0.5 percent economists expected.

The decrease added on to the 0.7 percent decline in October from September.

Separately, an index of consumer attitudes fell to 61.1 in January from 64.8 the month before, as Americans turned gloomy about the job market and income prospects, said the Conference Board, representing private companies.

The data frustrated expectations for an increase after sharp gains in consumer confidence in November and December.

"We are braced for a more bumpy picture over the next few months. A lot of expectations probably ran away or got a little too lofty coming into the end of the year," said Sean Incremona, economist at 4Cast Ltd in New York.

"We are still in a very modest recovery, and we do see consumption slowing this quarter, and data like this supports that picture."

Some improving housing data in late 2011 had raised hopes the recovery was finding its footing. But weaker numbers this month have underscored how lengthy the healing process will be.

"I'm absolutely of the opinion we've bottomed out. The debate now is whether the recovery begins, and I'm not sure that recovery is earnestly underway," said Eric Lascelles, chief economist at RBC Global Asset Management in Toronto.

"The reality is the housing market is so far from normal that it will take years to get back to its normal state. Similarly it will take a while before it really is contributing properly to economic growth."

U.S. housing prices have plunged by about a third from their peak before the financial crisis, and a combination of high unemployment, tight mortgage lending conditions and more foreclosures in the pipeline are holding back a recovery.

Would-be homeowners have also shied away and data from the Commerce Department on Tuesday showed the homeownership rate dipped in the fourth quarter to 66.0 percent from 66.3 percent.

Aside from the second quarter of 2011 when the rate was at 65.9 percent, homeownership is at its lowest level since the second quarter of 1998.

The day's disappointing data took Wall Street lower, undermining earlier optimism over a possible Greek debt deal.

Also weighing on the market was a report that showed business activity in the U.S. Midwest grew more slowly than expected in January - the index fell to 60.2 compared with a forecast of 63 - hurt by a weaker labor market.

A wider reading of the U.S. factory sector is due on Wednesday with the release of the Institute for Supply Management national manufacturing survey.

Last week, the Federal Reserve showed the extent of its concern about the uncertain U.S. economic recovery by signaling it would keep interest rates near zero for nearly three more years. That gloomy assessment was echoed on Tuesday by a Congressional Budget Office report that saw U.S. unemployment above 8 percent this year and in 2013.

Companies are feeling the pinch too. Growth expectations for

first-quarter earnings are declining sharply, due to worries about slowing growth and weak revenue trends at major U.S. firms, according to Thomson Reuters data.

A report released on Monday showed spending was flat in December as Americans focused more on saving.

Once a key pillar of the U.S. economy, Americans have taken a more frugal tack as many struggle with hefty debt burdens.

"With the global economy slowing and domestic fiscal policy a drag on growth, the wellbeing of the U.S. consumer is crucial to the recovery," Alistair Bentley, economist at TD Bank Group, wrote in a note.

"Today's number, coupled with yesterday's disappointing personal spending data, offers a reminder that underlying demand is still too soft to absorb the economy's excess slack."

On a seasonally adjusted basis, 17 of 20 cities racked up monthly home price declines, and average national prices were around levels seen in mid-2003, according to S&P/Case-Shiller.

Prices in the 20 cities also steepened their year-over-year decline, falling 3.7 percent compared to a 3.4 percent decline in October.

Last week, the Obama administration took steps to head off a new foreclosure crisis but critics and even some supporters said it was unlikely to prove much more successful than other government programs to date.

Some Federal Reserve officials have said the central bank should consider buying more mortgage-backed securities to help boost the struggling sector, though some economists question how effective that would be with borrowing costs already so low.


U.S. military developed self-guided bullet can travel over a mile and change direction before it snags its target

With the ongoing advancements in modern technology it should come as no surprise that military agencies, in this case the United States military, are seeking to apply new technologies to the battlefield. Since a warzone can be a hellish place where one mistake can mean jeopardizing the life of a fellow soldier or even your own, soldiers learn quickly that they must always be alert and on guard.

Often placed under extreme conditions, soldiers must rely on unbridled discipline, a great degree of patience, and of course a skilled level of marksmanship. But thanks to new government research by Sandia National Laboratories, American troops might be getting some much appreciated help in the form of self-guided bullets.

Sandia National Laboratories has long been at work with the United States military developing the ultimate “smart bullet.” It announced today that a successful prototype of the bullet was created and tested at distances of over a mile (about 2,000 meters).

“We have a very promising technology to guide small projectiles that could be fully developed inexpensively and rapidly,” said Sandia researcher Red Jones. Sandia’s new technology features a dart-like “smart bullet” that allows for unprecedented movement while in flight.

Working in tandem with laser designators, each bullet measures around four inches in length. An optical sensor can be seen at the tip of the round, which can detect a laser beam that would be used to “paint” a target. Inside, the bullets are able to communicate with the different sensors that are gathered via sensors which also communicate with the bullet allowing it to steer and maneuver to its destination.

Chief among the new “smart bullets” abilities is the way in which the guided rounds can actually “self correct” its navigational path 30 times a second and at the same time traveling at the speed of sound.

Given that bullets, by nature, have been engineered to travel in as straight a line as possible, the entire design of Sandia’s bullets needed to be re-engineered. For example, you may notice that when you throw a football the spin achieved after the ball is properly thrown allows for it to travel farther and faster. The concept is similar here, only in order to allow the bullet to change course, the researchers needed to eliminate that spin, and instead utilized tiny fins similar to that of a dart.

“Most bullets shot from rifles, which have grooves, or rifling, that cause them to spin so they fly straight, like a long football pass,” Jones explains. “To enable a bullet to turn in flight toward a target and to simplify the design, the spin had to go.”

According to Sandia, which conducted computer aerodynamic modeling tests, unguided bullets under real-world conditions could miss a target more than a half mile away (1,000) meters by 9.8 yards (9 meters), but a guided bullet would get within eight inches (0.2 meters).

It’s no secret that the desire for self-guided bullets is something the U.S. military has been pursuing for some time. In fact, back in 2008 Lockheed Martin, who fully owns Sandia National Laboratories, was awarded a lucrative contract worth $12.3 million as part of Darpa’s “Exacto” program, which sought out to develop and produce sniper rifles with guided bullets. It would appear that the investment is paying off. However, Sandia’s research regarding its self-guided bullet could possibly allow for a much wider application than originally intended.

While the innovative smart round was initially planned for larger caliber guns the technology could also permit the company to implement it not only in sniper riflles, but small-caliber firearms as well. Additionally, Sandia’s new technology could be supplied to not only the military, but law enforcement agencies and perhaps even commercially to recreational shooters such as hunters.


Monday, January 30, 2012

99 Killed Sunday as Syria Rebels Say Clashes Inching Closer to Capital

Fierce clashes approached the Syrian capital on Sunday as fresh violence across the country killed at least 59 civilians, 31 regime troops and nine army deserters, according to activists.

Regime forces fired heavy artillery and mortar rounds against the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Saqba, Irbin and Hamouriyeh and were locked in close battle with rebel fighters emboldened by a fresh wave of desertions, activists said.

Meanwhile, the Local Coordination Committees, the main activist group spurring protests on the ground, said security forces killed 17 people in Damascus and its suburbs Kfarbatna, Saqba, Hamouriyeh, Rankous, Zabadani and Harasta.

Regime troops also shot dead 19 people in the central opposition bastion Homs, four people in the flashpoint central province of Hama, six in the restive northwestern province of Idlib, four in the southern province of Daraa, the cradle of the revolt, and one in the eastern oil hub of Deir al-Zour, the LCC said.

For its part, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 26 regime soldiers, five other members of the security forces and nine army deserters were also among those killed as the regime cracked down on protesters and rebels.

The watchdog said the regime soldiers were killed in three separate attacks in the Idlib and Damascus regions.

The Observatory said earlier that 10 members of the military were killed when their convoy was attacked in Jebel al-Zuwiya in the northwest, and the official SANA news agency said "an armed terrorist group" killed six others near Damascus.

"The more the regime uses the army, the more soldiers defect," Ahmed al-Khatib, a local rebel council member on the Damascus outskirts, told Agence France Presse.

A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, which boasts 40,000 men and whose leadership is in Turkey, said that the fighting came a day after "a large wave of defections," with 50 officers and soldiers turning their back on Assad.

In a "steady progression of fighting towards the capital," spokesman Maher Nueimi said deserters were clashing with army regulars only eight kilometers from Damascus.

The regime, in turn, has launched "an unprecedented offensive in the past 24 hours, using heavy artillery" against villages in Damascus and Hama province of central Syria, Nueimi said.

Other rebel spokesmen reported heavy fighting in Rankous, 45 kilometers from Damascus, and of heightened tension in Hama, further to the north.

Rankous was "besieged for the past five days and is being randomly shelled since dawn by tanks and artillery rounds," rebel Abu Ali al-Rankousi told AFP by telephone.

In Hama, pro-regime snipers were deployed on the rooftops, according to activists, with security forces leaving "bodies of dead people with their hands tied behind their backs" on the streets across several neighborhoods.

It was this latest surge in violence that pushed the Arab League to suspend its mission to Syria in a surprise move on Saturday.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must end the killings.

"First and foremost, he must stop immediately the bloodshed," Ban told reporters. "The Syrian leadership should take a decisive action at this time to stop this violence. All the violence must stop."

But Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar said the authorities were determined to "cleanse" the country and restore order.

"The security forces are determined to carry on the struggle to cleanse Syria of renegades and outlaws ... to restore safety and security," SANA quoted Shaar as saying.

At least 5,400 people have been killed in the regime’s crackdown on dissent since March, according to the United Nations.

The regime does not recognize the scale of the protest movement that erupted in mid-March, insisting it is fighting "terrorist groups" seeking to sow chaos as part of a foreign-hatched conspiracy.


Investors face more than 70 pct loss in Greek deal

BRUSSELS (AP) - Investors participating in a deal to slash Greece's massive debt would face an overall loss on their bond holdings of more than 70 percent, a person involved in with the negotiations said early Tuesday.
European leaders at a summit in Brussels said a final debt deal could be signed off in the coming days, together with a second multibillion-euro bailout package designed to save the country from a potentially disastrous bankruptcy.

Athens and representatives of investors holding Greek government bonds over the weekend came close to a final agreement designed to bring Greece's debt down to a more manageable level. Without a restructuring, those debts would swell to around double the country's economic output by the end of the year.

If the agreement works as planned, it will help Greece remain solvent and help Europe avoid a blow to its already weakened financial system, even though banks and other bond investors will have to accept big losses.

The person involved in the talks said Monday that the more-than 70 percent loss was the result of cutting the bonds' face value in half, reducing the average interest rate to between 3.5 per cent and 4 percent and pushing repayment of the bonds 30 years into the future. A second person briefed on the talks confirmed that the loss on the so-called net present value of the bonds would be around 70 percent.

Both people spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential.

The deal, which would reduce the country's debt by about euro100 billion ($131.1 billion) and save it billions of euros in interest payments, needs to be completed quickly. Greece runs the risk of a disorderly default on March 20, when it faces a euro14.5 billion bond repayment it cannot afford without additional help.

Many investors—banks, insurance companies and hedge funds—who hold Greek bonds also hold debt from other countries that use the euro, which could lose value if there is a fully fledged Greek default. This is the scenario the eurozone fears most and why the currency union hopes investors will voluntarily accept a partial loss on their Greek bonds.

The agreement taking shape is a key step before Greece can get a second, euro130 billion bailout. The country has been surviving since May 2010 on an initial euro110 billion ($144.21 billion) package of rescue loans from other countries using the euro and the International Monetary Fund.

Even a deal is inked, there is no guarantee that Greece won't need more help.

"It's too early now to say whether we will need some extra public funding," Greek prime minister Lucas Papademos said after a meeting with other top European officials in Brussels early Tuesday. "Our goal is to avert such an alternative."

More public sector support could either mean more bailout loans—something that the eurozone is reluctant to commit to—or a deal with the European Central Bank to also give Greece a break on its debt.

The ECB holds some euro55 billion in Greek government bonds, which it purchased at around euro40 billion in the early days of the debt crisis, according to analyst estimates. One option would be to allow Greece to buy back those bonds at the price the ECB paid to buy them, slicing another euro15 billion or so off what the country owes. However, so far the ECB has ruled out participating in any debt restructuring.

On top of restructuring its debt with private investors, Greece must also take other steps to secure further aid. It must cut its deficit and boost the competitiveness of its economy through layoffs of public sector workers and the sale of several state companies, among other moves.

Papademos said the so-called troika of debt inspectors—the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF—were calling for further spending cuts to meet budget targets and agreements to lower labor costs.

But Greece's partners in the eurozone have grown frustrated with the country's slow implementation of austerity measures and economic reforms promised almost two years ago. In recent days, they have discussed ways of monitoring Athens' efforts even more closely, including giving the European Commission, the power to block spending decisions that threaten the country's ability to repay its debts.

Earlier Monday, Greek lenders Eurobank and Alpha Bank said a planned merger to create the country's largest bank by assets could be put on hold because of the negotiations over the bond swap.

The banks said that "an accurate timeline cannot be given" to complete the deal announced last August because of the negotiations.

Greece's finance ministry expressed surprise at the announcement, arguing that the negotiations had produced "nothing new or different" to factors already taken into account by both banks.


Why Are the Chinese Buying Record Quantities of Gold?

This month, the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department reported that China imported 102,779 kilograms of gold from Hong Kong in November, an increase from October’s 86,299 kilograms. Beijing does not release gold trade figures, so for this and other reasons the Hong Kong numbers are considered the best indication of China’s gold imports.

Analysts believe China bought as much as 490 tons of gold in 2011, double the estimated 245 tons in 2010. “The thing that’s caught people’s minds is the massive increase in Chinese buying,” remarked Ross Norman of Sharps Pixley, a London gold brokerage, this month.

So who in China is buying all this gold?

The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, has been hinting that it is purchasing. “No asset is safe now,” said the PBOC’s Zhang Jianhua at the end of last month. “The only choice to hedge risks is to hold hard currency—gold.” He also said it was smart strategy to buy on market dips. Analysts naturally jumped on his comment as proof that China, the world’s fifth-largest holder of the metal, is in the market for more.

There are a few problems with this conclusion. First, the Chinese government rarely benefits others—and hurts itself—by telegraphing its short-term investment strategies.

Second, the central bank has less purchasing power these days. China’s foreign reserves declined in Q4 2011, falling $20.6 billion from Q3. The first quarterly outflow since 1998 was not large, but the trend was troubling. The reserves declined a stunning $92.7 billion in November and December.

Third, the purchase of gold would be especially risky for the central bank, which is already insolvent from a balance sheet point of view. The PBOC needs income-producing assets in order to meet its obligations on the debt incurred to buy foreign exchange, so the holding of gold only complicates its funding operations. This is not to say the bank never buys gold—it obviously does—but there are real constraints on its ability to purchase assets that do not provide current income.

Apart from China’s central bank, there is not much demand from the country’s institutional investors for gold. There are industrial users, of course, but their demand is filled from domestic production—China is the world’s largest gold producer. Most of China’s gold demand from foreign sources, therefore, is from individuals.

So why are individuals now buying gold? The easy answer is that the demand is only seasonal, as Jeff Wright of Global Hunter Securities believes. The Chinese traditionally buy gold presents in the run-up to the Lunar New Year, which started a week ago. Yet gift-giving does not begin to explain the surge in gold purchases that started as far back as July. November was the fifth-consecutive month of China’s record gold purchases from Hong Kong.

A better explanation for the gold-buying binge of Chinese citizens is that they are using the shiny commodity as an inflation hedge, as the Financial Times recently suggested. Yet the buying of gold has increased while inflation has eased. And that means there must be another explanation. The best explanation is that individuals in China are using gold as a substitute for capital flight.

Although indicators showed the Chinese economy faltered only at the end of September, there had been a growing sense of pessimism inside the country for months before then. Beijing, after all, could build only so many “ghost cities” before citizens began to notice. As Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal Asia said on the John Batchelor Show last Wednesday, “people inside China seem to be losing faith in the Chinese growth story that we’ve been hearing so much about for the past few years.” Estimates of capital flight are sketchy, but it appears there was $34 billion of it in the third quarter of last year and a $100 billion in the fourth.

Not every Chinese citizen is in the position to export cash, so the next best tactic for the nervous is to buy gold, a refuge from plunging property prices and declining stock markets as well as an anticipated depreciation of their currency. “Within China,” notes Michael Pettis of Peking University, “many are going to argue that the rapid decline in the trade surplus, coupled with unmistakable evidence of flight capital, means that the PBOC should devalue the RMB.” And the fact that China’s leaders in public are talking about the adverse impact of the European crisis on China weighs heavily on sentiment.

The worst thing about capital flight and gold purchases is that they drain liquidity out of the Chinese economy just when it is needed most. Beijing can continue to work its magic as long as strict capital controls keep money inside the country. Once they fail to do so, however, all bets are off. The purchasing of gold, of course, results in the exporting of cash.

Chinese asset values have not yet crashed across the board, but the buying of gold—a leading indicator of panic—is an especially troubling sign that they will. Therefore, it is not surprising that gold purchases by Chinese citizens and investors are frightening Beijing’s technocrats. At the end of last month, they shut all of the countries gold exchanges other than two of them in Shanghai.



Ill. nuclear reactor loses power, venting steam

BYRON, Ill. (AP) -- A nuclear reactor at a northern Illinois plant shut down Monday after losing power, and steam was being vented to reduce pressure, according to officials from Exelon Nuclear and federal regulators.

Unit 2 at Byron Generating Station, about 95 miles northwest of Chicago, shut down at 10:18 a.m., after losing power, Exelon officials said. Diesel generators began supplying power to the plant, and operators began releasing steam to cool the reactor from the part of the plant where turbines are producing electricity, not from within the nuclear reactor itself, officials said.

The steam contains low levels of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, but federal and plant officials insisted the levels were safe for workers and the public.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission declared the incident an "unusual event," the lowest of four levels of emergency. Commission officials also said the release of tritium was expected.

Exelon Nuclear officials believe a failed piece of equipment at a switchyard caused the shutdown. The switchyard is similar to a large substation that delivers power to the plant from the electrical grid and that takes power from the plant to the electrical grid. Officials were still investigating the equipment failure.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng said officials can't yet calculate how much tritium is being released. They know the amounts of tritium are small because monitors around the plant aren't showing increased levels of radiation, she said.

Tritium molecules are so small that tiny amounts are able to pass from radioactive steam from the reactor into the water used to cool the turbines and other equipment outside the reactor. The steam that was being released was coming from the turbine side.

The amount of releasing steam helps "take away some of that energy still being produced by nuclear reaction but that doesn't have anywhere to go now." Even though the turbine is not turning to produce electricity, she said, "you still need to cool the equipment."

Tritium is relatively short-lived and penetrates the body weakly through the air compared to other radioactive contaminants.

Candace Humphrey, Ogle County's emergency management coordinator, said county officials were notified of the incident as soon as it happened and that public safety was never in danger.

"It was standard procedure that they would notify county officials," she said. "There is always concern. But, it never crossed my mind that there was any danger to the people of Ogle County."

Unit 1 was operating normally while engineers investigate why Unit 2 lost power, which comes into the plant from the outside power grid, Mitlyng said. Smoke was seen from an onsite station transformer, she said, but no evidence of a fire was found when the plant's fire brigade responded.

Mitlyng said Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors were in the control room at Byron and in constant contact with the agency's incident response center in Lisle, Ill.

In March 2008, federal officials said they were investigating a problem with electrical transformers at the plant after outside power to a unit was interrupted.

In an unrelated issue last April, the commission said it was conducting special inspections of backup water pumps at the Byron and Braidwood generating stations after the agency's inspectors raised concerns about whether the pumps would be able to cool the reactors if the normal system wasn't working. The plants' operator, Exelon Corp., initially said the pumps would work but later concluded they wouldn't.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

U.S. Drones Patrolling Its Skies Provoke Outrage in Iraq

BAGHDAD — A month after the last American troops left Iraq, the State Department is operating a small fleet of surveillance drones here to help protect the United States Embassy and consulates, as well as American personnel. Some senior Iraqi officials expressed outrage at the program, saying the unarmed aircraft are an affront to Iraqi sovereignty.

The program was described by the department’s diplomatic security branch in a little-noticed section of its most recent annual report and outlined in broad terms in a two-page online prospectus for companies that might bid on a contract to manage the program. It foreshadows a possible expansion of unmanned drone operations into the diplomatic arm of the American government; until now they have been mainly the province of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.

American contractors say they have been told that the State Department is considering to field unarmed surveillance drones in the future in a handful of other potentially “high-threat” countries, including Indonesia and Pakistan, and in Afghanistan after the bulk of American troops leave in the next two years. State Department officials say that no decisions have been made beyond the drone operations in Iraq.

The drones are the latest example of the State Department’s efforts to take over functions in Iraq that the military used to perform. Some 5,000 private security contractors now protect the embassy’s 11,000-person staff, for example, and typically drive around in heavily armored military vehicles.

When embassy personnel move throughout the country, small helicopters buzz over the convoys to provide support in case of an attack. Often, two contractors armed with machine guns are tethered to the outside of the helicopters. The State Department began operating some drones in Iraq last year on a trial basis, and stepped up their use after the last American troops left Iraq in December, taking the military drones with them.

The United States, which will soon begin taking bids to manage drone operations in Iraq over the next five years, needs formal approval from the Iraqi government to use such aircraft here, Iraqi officials said. Such approval may be untenable given the political tensions between the two countries. Now that the troops are gone, Iraqi politicians often denounce the United States in an effort to rally support from their followers.

A senior American official said that negotiations were under way to obtain authorization for the current drone operations, but Ali al-Mosawi, a top adviser to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; Iraq’s national security adviser, Falih al-Fayadh; and the acting minister of interior, Adnan al-Asadi, all said in interviews that they had not been consulted by the Americans.

Mr. Asadi said that he opposed the drone program: “Our sky is our sky, not the U.S.A.’s sky.”

The Pentagon and C.I.A. have been stepping up their use of armed Predator and Reaper drones to conduct strikes against militants in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. More recently, the United States has expanded drone bases in Ethiopia, the Seychelles and a secret location in the Arabian Peninsula.

The State Department drones, by contrast, carry no weapons and are meant to provide data and images of possible hazards, like public protests or roadblocks, to security personnel on the ground, American officials said. They are much smaller than armed drones, with wingspans as short as 18 inches, compared with 55 feet for the Predators.

The State Department has about two dozen drones in Iraq, but many are used only for spare parts, the officials said.

The United States Embassy in Baghdad referred all questions about the drones to the State Department in Washington.

The State Department confirmed the existence of the program, calling the devices unmanned aerial vehicles, but it declined to provide details. “The department does have a U.A.V. program,” it said in a statement without referring specifically to Iraq. “The U.A.V.’s being utilized by the State Department are not armed, nor are they capable of being armed.”

When the American military was still in Iraq, white blimps equipped with sensors hovered over many cities, providing the Americans with surveillance abilities beyond the dozens of armed and unarmed drones used by the military. But the blimps came down at the end of last year as the military completed its withdrawal. Anticipating this, the State Department began developing its own drone operations.

According to the most recent annual report of the department’s diplomatic security branch, issued last June, the branch worked with the Pentagon and other agencies in 2010 to research the use of low-altitude, long-endurance unmanned drones “in high-threat locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The document said that the program was tested in Iraq in December 2010. “The program will watch over State Department facilities and personnel and assist regional security officers with high-threat mission planning and execution,” the document said.

In the online prospectus, called a “presolicitation notice,” the State Department last September outlined a broad requirement to provide “worldwide Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (U.A.V.) support services.” American officials said this was to formalize the initial program.

The program’s goal is “to provide real-time surveillance of fixed installations, proposed movement routes and movement operations,” referring to American convoy movements. In addition, the program’s mission is “improving security in high-threat or potentially high-threat environments.”

The document does not identify specific countries, but contracting specialists familiar with the program say that it focuses initially on operations in Iraq. That is “where the need is greatest,” said one contracting official who spoke on condition of anonymity, because the contract is still in its early phase.

In the next few weeks, the department is expected to issue a more detailed proposal, requesting bids from private contractors to operate the drones. That document, the department said Friday, will describe the scope of the program, including the overall cost and other specifics.

While the preliminary proposal has drawn interest from more than a dozen companies, some independent specialists who are familiar with drone operations expressed skepticism about the State Department’s ability to manage such a complicated and potentially risky enterprise.

“The State Department needs to get through its head that it is not an agency adept at running military-style operations,” said Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Wired for War,” a book about military robotics.

The American plans to use drones in the air over Iraq have also created yet another tricky issue for the two countries, as Iraq continues to assert its sovereignty after the nearly nine-year occupation. Many Iraqis remain deeply skeptical of the United States, feelings that were reinforced last week when the Marine who was the so-called ringleader of the 2005 massacre of 24 Iraqis in the village of Haditha avoided prison time and was sentenced to a reduction in rank.

“If they are afraid about their diplomats being attacked in Iraq, then they can take them out of the country,” said Mohammed Ghaleb Nasser, 57, an engineer from the northern city of Mosul.

Hisham Mohammed Salah, 37, an Internet cafe owner in Mosul, said he did not differentiate between surveillance drones and the ones that fire missiles. “We hear from time to time that drone aircraft have killed half a village in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the pretext of pursuing terrorists,” Mr. Salah said. “Our fear is that will happen in Iraq under a different pretext.”

Still, Ghanem Owaid Nizar Qaisi, 45, a teacher from Diyala, said that he doubted that the Iraqi government would stop the United States from using the drones. “I believe that Iraqi politicians will accept it, because they are weak,” he said.


'Assad's family attempts to escape Syria'

Syrian security forces attempted to smuggle Syrian President Bashar Assad's family out of the country, sources from the Syrian opposition told Al-Masry-Al-Youm Sunday evening, according to a report published by the Egyptian daily.

According to the report, security forces tried to aid the president's wife Asma Assad, to escape via Damascus, along with his children, mother and cousin.

The sources told Al-Masry-Al-Youm that "a convoy of official vehicles was seen heading to the airport in Damascus," before they were intercepted by brigades of army defectors.

According to the source, there was a heavy exchange of fire between the security forces and the Free Syrian Army forces; the family were prevented from escaping and returned to the presidential palace.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a total of 41 civilian deaths across Syria on Sunday, including 14 in Homs province and 12 in the city of Hama. Thirty-one soldiers and members of the security forces were also killed, most of them in two attacks by army deserters in the northern province of Idlib, it said.

Activists said that Syrian soldiers killed 19 people in fighting to retake Damascus suburbs from rebels on Sunday. A day earlier, the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission because of mounting violence.


The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan

General Stanley McChrystal, the innovative, forward-thinking commanding general of international and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was living large. He was better known to some as Big Stan, M4, Stan, and his loyal staff liked to call him a "rock star." During a spring 2010 trip across Europe to garner additional allied help for the war effort, McChrystal was accompanied by journalist Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone. For days, Hastings looked on as McChrystal and his staff let off steam, partying and openly bashing the Obama administration for what they saw as a lack of leadership. When Hastings's piece appeared a few months later, it set off a political firestorm: McChrystal was ordered to Washington, where he was fired unceremoniously.

In The Operators, Hastings picks up where his Rolling Stone coup ended. He gives us a shocking behind-the-scenes portrait of our military commanders, their high-stakes maneuvers and often bitter bureaucratic infighting. Hastings takes us on patrol missions in the Afghan hinterlands, to late-night bull sessions of senior military advisors, to hotel bars where spies and expensive hookers participate in nation-building gone awry. And as he weighs the merits and failings of old-school generals and the so-called COINdinistas-the counterintelligence experts-Hastings draws back the curtain on a hellish complexity and, he fears, an unwinnable war


Syrian troops storm areas near capital of Damascus

BEIRUT — In dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, Syrian troops stormed rebellious areas near the capital Sunday, shelling neighborhoods that have fallen under the control of army dissidents and clashing with fighters. At least 62 people were killed in violence nationwide, activists and residents said.

The widescale offensive near the capital suggested the regime is worried that military defectors could close in on Damascus, which has remained relatively quiet while most other Syrian cities descended into chaos after the uprising began in March.

The rising bloodshed added urgency to Arab and Western diplomatic efforts to end the 10-month conflict.

The violence has gradually approached the capital. In the past two weeks, army dissidents have become more visible, seizing several suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus and setting up checkpoints where masked men wearing military attire and wielding assault rifles stop motorists and protect anti-regime protests.

Their presence so close to the capital is astonishing in tightly controlled Syria and suggests the Assad regime may either be losing control or setting up a trap for the fighters before going on the offensive.

Residents of Damascus reported hearing clashes in the nearby suburbs, particularly at night, shattering the city's calm.

"The current battles taking place in and around Damascus may not yet lead to the unraveling of the regime, but the illusion of normalcy that the Assads have sought hard to maintain in the capital since the beginning of the revolution has surely unraveled," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a U.S.-based Syrian dissident.

"Once illusions unravel, reality soon follows," he wrote in his blog Sunday.

Soldiers riding some 50 tanks and dozens of armored vehicles stormed a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus known as al-Ghouta Sunday, a predominantly Sunni Muslim agricultural area where large anti-regime protests have been held.

Some of the fighting on Sunday was less than three miles (four kilometers) from Damascus, in Ein Tarma, making it the closest yet to the capital.

"There are heavy clashes going on in all of the Damascus suburbs," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who relies on a network of activists on the ground. "Troops were able to enter some areas but are still facing stiff resistance in others."

The fighting using mortars and machine guns sent entire families fleeing, some of them on foot carrying bags of belongings, to the capital.

"The shelling and bullets have not stopped since yesterday," said a man who left his home in Ein Tarma with his family Sunday. "It's terrifying, there's no electricity or water, it's a real war," he said by telephone on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals.

The uprising against Assad, which began with largely peaceful demonstrations, has grown increasingly militarized recently as more frustrated protesters and army defectors have taken up arms.

In a bid to stamp out resistance in the capital's outskirts, the military has responded with a withering assault on a string of suburbs, leading to a spike in violence that has killed at least 150 people since Thursday.

BEIRUT — The United Nations says at least 5,400 people have been killed in the 10 months of violence.

The U.N. is holding talks on a new resolution on Syria and next week will discuss an Arab League peace plan aimed at ending the crisis. But the initiatives face two major obstacles: Damascus' rejection of an Arab plan that it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia's willingness to use its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters Sunday in Egypt that contacts were under way with China and Russia.

"I hope that their stand will be adjusted in line with the final drafting of the draft resolution," he told reporters before leaving for New York with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim.

The two will seek U.N. support for the latest Arab plan to end Syria's crisis. The plan calls for a two-month transition to a unity government, with Assad giving his vice president full powers to work with the proposed government.

Because of the escalating violence, the Arab League on Saturday halted the work of its observer mission in Syria at least until the League's council can meet. Arab foreign ministers were to meet Sunday in Cairo to discuss the Syrian crisis in light of the suspension of the observers' work and Damascus' refusal to agree to the transition timetable, the League said.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he was "concerned" about the League's decision to suspend its monitoring mission and called on Assad to "immediately stop the bloodshed." He spoke Sunday at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

While the international community scrambles to find a resolution to the crisis, the violence on the ground in Syria has continued unabated.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 27 civilians were killed Sunday in Syria, most of them in fighting in the Damascus suburbs and in the central city of Homs, a hotbed of anti-regime protests. Twenty-six soldiers and nine defectors were also killed, it said. The soldiers were killed in ambushes that targeted military vehicles near the capital and in the northern province of Idlib.

The Local Coordination Committees' activist network said 50 people were killed Sunday, including 13 who were killed in the suburbs of the capital and two defectors. That count excluded soldiers killed Sunday.

The differing counts could not be reconciled, and the reports could not be independently confirmed. Syrian authorities keep tight control on the media and have banned many foreign journalists from entering the country.

Syria's state-run news agency said "terrorists" detonated a roadside bomb by remote control near a bus carrying soldiers in the Damascus suburb of Sahnaya, killing six soldiers and wounding six others. Among those killed in the attack some 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of the capital were two first lieutenants, SANA said.

In Irbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq, about 200 members of Syria's Kurdish parties were holding two days of meetings to explore ways of supporting efforts to topple Assad.

Abdul-Baqi Youssef, a member of the Syrian Kurdish Union Party, said representatives of 11 Kurdish parties formed the Syrian Kurdish National Council that will coordinate anti-government activities with Syria's opposition.

Kurds make up 15 percent of Syria's 23 million people and have long complained of discrimination.

UT San Diego

Brussels takes control of taxation and spending in eurozone countries

The European Union is to gain dramatic powers to control tax and spending in crisis-hit eurozone countries under a deal to save the currency.
The EU will have to agree the national budgets of heavily indebted countries under a deal to be signed tomorrow at a summit in Brussels attended by David Cameron.

The move will mean Greece losing control over its own budget, after Germany and the International Monetary Fund laid down increasingly harsh conditions for the indebted nation to receive its second £100 billion eurozone bail-out.

With the country on the brink of default, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, yesterday revealed that a “fiscal compact” was set to be signed by European Union leaders at their summit tomorrow.

The move to closer integration between the eurozone economies comes just days before Tory Euro-sceptics launch a campaign to repatriate powers over policing and justice already handed to the European Union.

Conservative MPs will put pressure on the Prime Minister to harness a “block opt-out” that will allow Britain simultaneously to withdraw from European Arrest Warrants, compulsory sharing of data with other police forces, and more than 100 other laws handed to Brussels.

They will be angered by the EU’s new powers over eurozone countries, which will see institutions paid for by all of Europe’s taxpayers concentrating more of their staff and resources on members within the zone.

Euro-sceptics also strongly oppose harmonisation of taxes. But global leaders see closer integration of the eurozone economies as the only answer to the ongoing debt crisis.

Mrs Lagarde, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said: “In addition to having a monetary zone, the eurozone needs to develop this fiscal consolidation compact that is currently under work and that we hope will be validated on Monday at the leaders summit.”

Last night, George Osborne, the Chancellor, said Britain may give more money to the IMF – a move opposed by Euro-sceptics – and that he would have to think very hard about turning down a request from the fund if other countries believed there was “a credible case” for ploughing more money in.

“We are not in the euro, we don’t want to be in the euro, but do we want to be in the IMF? The answer to that question in my mind is yes,” he said.

A leaked EU document revealed German plans for Greece to agree all its spending plans with a eurozone “budget commissioner”, who would have the power to veto tax and spending plans.

The scheme caused anger in Athens yesterday. Anna Diamantopoulou, the education minister and a former EU commissioner, described the idea as “the product of a sick imagination”.

Tomorrow’s meeting will also see European leaders discuss ways to help their economies grow amid fears that the Continent may slide back into recession this year.

While Germany is calling for budget cuts and greater fiscal discipline, the IMF and others warn that such austerity could “strangle” growth.

Tim Geithner, the US treasury secretary, has also warned of the risk that austerity leads to a recessionary “cycle”.

As Europe’s leaders plan to bind Europe’s economies closer together, Tory Euro-sceptics are to put pressure on their leader to harness a unique “block opt-out” that will allow the UK to withdraw simultaneously from a raft of EU laws.

The mechanism would let Britain free itself from initiatives such as the European Arrest Warrants (EAWs) and greater sharing of DNA data of British nationals with foreign police forces.

It would also thwart plans to give the European Court of Justice greater jurisdiction over British courts and head off plans to create an independent EU prosecutor that could launch investigations into British companies and citizens.

Britain has until June 2014 to decide whether to use the block opt-out, but Tory Euro-sceptics are calling for Britain to do so as quickly as possible because delaying the decision reduces the number of laws that can be repatriated.

EAWs allow UK nationals to be deported to other member states. There has been a sharp rise in such requests in recent years, with some issued by EU states for minor offences, such as the theft of two car tyres and a stolen piglet. The Sunday Telegraph has campaigned for these warrants to be reformed.

The block opt-out, made possible under the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, would no longer make it mandatory for Britain to share its DNA database. Critics say that equivalent databases in Europe are less secure.

Open Europe, a think-tank, says at least 100 MPs could join the campaign to exercise the block opt-out. The group will argue in a report tomorrow that if Britain decides to do so it can still “cherry pick” the police and justice laws it wants to sign up on a case-by-case basis.

Open Europe’s report will be discussed by an all-party group of MPs this week.

If the Prime Minister does agree to an opt-out on justice laws, he risks a damaging row with the Liberal Democrats, who favour closer integration with Europe on crime and justice matters.

A spokesman for the Home Office declined to comment on whether the Government would seek to use the block opt-out. A Downing Street spokesman also declined to comment.


Russia backs Assad, last friend in Arab world

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia's defiance of international efforts to end Syrian President Bashar Assad's crackdown on protests is rooted in a calculation that it can keep a Mideast presence by propping up its last remaining ally in the region - and has nothing to lose if it fails.

The Kremlin has put itself in conflict with the West as it shields Assad's regime from United Nations sanctions and continues to provide it with weapons even as others impose arms embargoes.

But Moscow's relations with Washington are already strained amid controversy over U.S. missile defense plans and other disputes. And Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seems eager to defy the U.S. as he campaigns to reclaim the presidency in March elections.

"It would make no sense for Russia to drop its support for Assad," said Ruslan Pukhov, head of the independent Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. "He is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East, allowing it to preserve some influence in the region."

Moscow may also hope that Assad can hang on to power with its help and repay Moscow with more weapons contracts and other lucrative deals.

And observers note that even as it has nothing to lose from backing Assad, it has nothing to gain from switching course and supporting the opposition.

"Russia has crossed the Rubicon," said Igor Korotchenko, head of the Center for Analysis of Global Weapons Trade.

He said Russia will always be marked as the patron of the Assad regime regardless of the conflict's outcome, so there's little incentive to build bridges with the protesters. The U.N. estimates that more than 5,400 people have been killed since the uprising began in March.

"Russia will be seen as the dictator's ally. If Assad's regime is driven from power, it will mean an end to Russia's presence," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs.

Syria has been Moscow's top ally in the Middle East since Soviet times, when it was led by the incumbent's father, Hafez Assad. The Kremlin saw it as a bulwark for countering U.S. influence in the region and heavily armed Syria against Israel.

While Russia's relations with Israel have improved greatly since the Soviet collapse, ties with Damascus helped Russia retain its clout as a member of the Quartet of international mediators trying to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

After Bashar Assad succeeded his father in 2000, Russia sought to boost ties by agreeing to annul 73 percent of Syria's Soviet-era debt. In the mid-2000s, Putin said Russia would re-establish its place in the Mideast via "the Syria route."

Syria's port of Tartus is now the only naval base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union. A Russian navy squadron made a call there this month in what was seen by many as a show of support for Assad.

For decades, Syria has been a major customer for the Russian arms industries, buying billions of dollars' worth of combat jets, missiles, tanks and other heavy weapons. And unlike some other nations, such as Venezuela, which obtained Russian weapons on Kremlin loans, Assad's regime paid cash.

The respected newspaper Kommersant reported this week that Syria has ordered 36 Yak-130 combat jets worth $550 million. The deal, which officials wouldn't confirm or deny, may signal preparations for even bigger purchases of combat planes.

Korotchenko said Syria needs the jets to train its pilots to fly the advanced MiG-29M or MiG-35 fighter jets it wants to purchase: "It's a precursor of future deals."

Korotchenko said Syria's importance as a leading importer of Russian weapons in the region grew after the loss of the lucrative Iraqi and Libyan markets.

Russia, whose abstention in a U.N. vote cleared the way for military intervention in Libya, later voiced frustration with what it described as a disproportional use of force by NATO.

The Kremlin has vowed not to allow a replay of the Libyan strategy in Syria, warning that it would block any U.N. resolution on Syria lacking a clear ban on any foreign military interference.

Moscow accuses the West of turning a blind eye to shipments of weapons to the Syrian opposition and warns it won't be bound by Western sanctions.

Earlier this month, a Syria-bound Russian ship allegedly carrying tons of munitions was stopped by officials in Cyprus, an EU member, who said it was violating an EU arms embargo. The ship's captain promised to head to Turkey but then made a dash to Syria.

Asked about the ship, Russia's foreign minister bluntly responded that Moscow owes neither explanation nor apology to anyone because it has broken no international rules.

Nonetheless, Moscow has shown restraint in its arms trade with Damascus, avoiding the sales of weapons that could significantly tilt the military balance in the region.

In one example, the Kremlin has turned down Damascus' requests for truck-mounted Iskander missiles that can hit ground targets 280 kilometers (175 miles) away with deadly precision. While the sale of such missiles wouldn't be banned under any international agreements, Moscow has apparently heeded strong U.S. and Israeli objections to such a deal.

Moscow also has stonewalled Damascus' request for the advanced S-300 air defense missile system, only agreeing to sell short-range ground-to-air missiles.

"Russia has taken a very careful and cautious stance on contracts with Syria," Korotchenko said.

The most powerful Russian weapon reportedly delivered to Syria is the Bastion anti-ship missile complex intended to protect its coast. The Bastion is armed with supersonic Yakhont cruise missiles that can sink any warship at a range of 300 kilometers (186 miles) and are extremely difficult to intercept, providing a strong deterrent against any attack from the sea.

Observers in Moscow said that Russia can do little else to help Assad. The chief of the Russian upper house's foreign affairs committee, Mikhail Margelov, openly acknowledged that this week, saying that Russia has "exhausted its arsenal" of means to support Syria by protecting it from the U.N. sanctions.

Lukyanov said Russia has made it clear it would block any attempts to give U.N. cover to any foreign military intervention in Syria, but wouldn't be able to prevent Syria's neighbors from mounting such action.

"Russia realizes that it has limited opportunities and can't play a decisive role," he said.

Pukhov also predicted that Russia wouldn't take any stronger moves in support for Damascus.

"Going further would mean an open confrontation with the West, and Russia doesn't need that," he said.


Acute Anti-Americanism Is Now Official Policy in Moscow

As the new American ambassador – Michael McFaul – arrived in Moscow, the policy of improving Russo-US relations, known as “reset,” began to unravel. McFaul, as director for Russia and Eurasia on the US National Security Council, was considered the designer of the reset policy. It is a terrible irony the Russian authorities used his arrival as a pretext to launch a massive anti-American PR assault. This week, speaking in parliament (the Duma), the flamboyant leader of the populist and nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) Vladimir Zhirinovsky condemned deputies from the Just Russia (JR) fraction Ilia Ponomarev and Oksana Dmitryeva and Communist Leonid Kalashnikov, who together with the organizers of pro-democracy rallies attended a meeting at the US embassy with McFaul and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on January 17. “What are deputies doing in an embassy of a nation that is plotting a war against Russia when a presidential election campaign is in full swing? They are traitors,” roared Zhirinovsky from the Duma podium and demanded the guilty must be kicked out of the Duma or be permanently denied the right to address the house till December 2016 by the Duma ethics committee (RIA Novosti, January 24).

LDPR has been represented in the Duma since 1993, and Zhirinovsky is known to have always closely coordinated his political actions with the Kremlin. This week, the ruling United Russia (UR) without hesitation joined the fray: one of its leaders Andrei Isayev accused McFaul of being a “specialist in Orange revolutions” and supported deferring the case to the ethics committee. “Why are you deputies meeting the US ambassador behind closed doors? What are you hiding from the Russian citizens?” Isayev exclaimed and accused the JR leader Sergei Mironov, a candidate in the March 4 presidential elections, of “running to become a US resident.” Isayev alleged that the white ribbon, which has become a popular symbol of the mass pro-democracy movement “for just elections,” was invented by unnamed “US propaganda warfare specialists.” Isayev concluded: “The LDPR is an opposition party, but unlike JR, it is statist and patriotic, while JR is known more and more as a party of national treason” (RIA Novosti, January 24).

For more than 20 years, since communist rule began to crumble at the end of the 1980s, authorities in Moscow have refrained from calling “treason” a visit to a foreign embassy without an official vetting. In recent months, the Russian police has been screening Russians who attend any receptions or meetings in embassies. Foreign embassies have their own security services that screen each visitor to establish whether or not that person was legitimately invited. The Russian police at the entries to foreign institutions in Moscow has been acting independently, demanding from Russians an ID “to register them,” as the policemen explain, in a centralized computer database. This practice has often created ugly human jams at foreign embassies during large receptions, but now it is clear why the effort and inconvenience – the Russian authorities have a full roster of all Russians who have contacts with the enemies that are “contriving a war against Russia.”

The Duma ethics committee announced it is ready to look into the matter. Mironov’s defense of Dmitrieva, who is the number two in JR and Ponomarev was halfhearted, deferring any personal blame by telling reporters the offenders did not report or ask for approval in advance. The Communist leader Gennady Zuganov defended Kalashnikov’s attendance of the meeting in the US embassy by telling journalists “he was sent by the party to tell the Americans we will fight to the hilt the ‘orange plague’ the US is spreading” (Interfax, January 24).

When Ponomarev, Dmitryeva and Kalashnikov, together with other opposition leaders, arrived at the US embassy on January 17, they were harassed by pro-government Nashi youth movement activists. The same day during the evening prime time “Vremya” news broadcast on state TV, prominent commentator Mikhail Leontyev accused McFaul of being an old time enemy of Vladimir Putin, who came to Moscow to organize a revolution. The footage showed the opposition figures arriving at the US mission, fending off the Nashi activists (Channel One, January 17).

McFaul went into damage control and gave a large interview to Kommersant, stressing the entire fracas was a misunderstanding, that Barack Obama sent him to Moscow to enhance “reset,” that the meeting was between the opposition activists and Burns, while the ambassador was obliged to participate, that Nashi were also welcome at the US mission and that the Foreign Ministry received him cordially. McFaul implied the PR assault was not official Russian policy, since the reset was mutually beneficial (Kommersant, January 25). The reset with Russia seems to be Obama’s only foreign policy success in office and it would be unpleasant, if it is proven to be a failure in an election year. Of course, McFaul’s interview explaining in detail that Russo-US relations are much better than they seem was given before the Duma fracas lead by Zhirinovsky and Isayev exposed it as wishful thinking.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated Moscow will defend the Syrian and Iranian regimes against alleged US-lead encroachments and categorically refused to support any sanctions. Lavrov stated: “We will not apologize or give explanations why we sell arms and ammunition to Syria” (www.mid.ru, January 18). The time of reset niceties is clearly over, but aggressive anti-Americanism has been previously used during electioneering by Russia’s rulers and might be scaled down after the March 4 elections, or it may not.

The chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court, Judge Valery Zhorkin (a man seemingly having little in common with Zhirinovsky), published this week an essay in a government newspaper explaining that NATO destroyed Libya by illegally killing Moammar Gaddafi and toppling the regime that was falsely declared “illegitimate.” Today, argues Zhorkin, a tiny, but vocal minority is staging rallies in Russia, aiming to destroy the regime by declaring elections rigged and the Duma and Putin as third term president – illegitimate. The minority protesters are, according to Zhorkin, vocally supported by the US, while NATO bombers and Special Forces will come into Russia later, like into Libya (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 26). While mass pro-democracy protests continue, relations with the US will go from bad to worse. The threatened and frightened rulers of Russia will not believe McFaul’s or any other’s words or deeds.


Amnesty: Iraq VP's Staffers Detained

Two women employed by the office of Iraq's fugitive vice president Tareq al-Hashemi have been detained by security forces and may be at risk of torture, rights group Amnesty International said.

Hashemi, a Sunni, has been accused of running a death squad, a charge he denies. He is holed up in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, which has so far declined to hand him over to the central government.

"One of the employees, Rasha Nameer Jaafer al-Hussein, was arrested from her parents’ house in Baghdad’s Zayouna district on 1 January without a warrant," Amnesty said in an online statement on Friday.

"The other employee, Bassima Saleem Kiryakos, was arrested on the same day after her house in the Green Zone in Baghdad was raided by over 15 armed security men wearing military uniform. The officers did not have an arrest warrant," it said.

Kiryakos had already been arrested, beaten and released after three days shortly before her current detention, according to Amnesty.

"Amnesty International fears both women may be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment. It is believed their arrest is in connection with an arrest warrant against... Hashemi," it said.


Israel's most advanced drone crashes in test flight

The Heron TP, Israel's most advanced unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) crashed Sunday morning during a test flight near the Tel Nof Air Force Base in central Israel.

No injuries were reported in the incident.

The Israel Air Force launched a probe to determine the cause of the crash and was looking into the whether it was caused by human error or was the result of a technical malfunction.

The Heron TP is the largest UAV in the IAF. It has a 26 - meter-long wingspan – the size of a Boeing 737 – and can stay airborne for up to 45 hours. It can carry 1,000 kg. in payloads, making it capable of conducting a wide variety of missions.

The flight during which the crash occurred was a joint operation of the IAF and the Heron TP's developer, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

In July, France announced its decision to purchase the Heron TP in the first export deal for the UAV. The deal is estimated to reach close to $500 million over a number of years and could lead to additional contracts for IAI as other countries, such as Germany, seek to upgrade their UAV capabilities.

The Heron TP was declared on schedule to be operational by the end of the year.

According to foreign reports, it has the ability to also launch missiles, and in Israel it is often referred to as the UAV “that can reach Iran.”


Saturday, January 28, 2012

General David Richards: Afghan campaign was woeful

Gen Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, is also highly critical of Nato’s command structure in Afghanistan, describing it in a new book as “disorganised and unhelpful”.

His remarks highlight the infighting and political turmoil that surrounded Britain’s military deployment to Afghanistan in the summer of 2006. Whitehall was caught off guard by the seriousness of the situation in Helmand province, where British troops were deployed in Nato’s reconstruction programme.

Most Labour ministers supported the view of John Reid, the defence secretary at the time, that “we would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot because our mission is to protect the reconstruction”.

Intelligence assessments conducted in southern Afghanistan concluded that they would receive a hostile reception.

“It was the equivalent of moving another gang into the East End of London,” one officer reported to London. “They [the Taliban] weren’t going to like it.” A detailed account of the military and political infighting during the deployment is in a new book by Sandy Gall, the ITN presenter who also runs a charity to provide Afghan victims of roadside bombs with artificial limbs.

In Gall’s book, War Against the Taliban, Sir David says that the British military establishment was ill-prepared for the deployment of forces, despite its leading role in the overthrow of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein three years previously.

He criticises the Ministry of Defence for not providing “sufficient troops to dominate the physical and human terrain” and the failure of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development to provide adequate resources for reconstruction. He also describes attempts by London and Washington to get the Taliban to engage in political reconciliation as “woeful”. Sir David also criticises the military establishment for being ill-prepared and with a “rather amateurish approach to high-level military operations verging on the complacent.” He also tempers his remarks by arguing that the war in Afghanistan can still be won and expresses his “clear faith” that “the British Armed Forces are now handsomely proving that they have the ability to reform and adapt”.

In 2006, Sir David had a major row with Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the then head of the Armed Forces, over the failure of British officers to co-operate fully with Nato’s command structure.

“I am not prepared to accept these command and control arrangements,” Sir David bluntly informed Sir Jock. “I am not having anything to do with it.” The dispute was resolved only when Sir Jock complied with his demands.

Sir David accuses the Government of not understanding “the practicalities of high command” by refusing to provide him with a helicopter, meaning he was unable to visit the troops under his command.

Sir David also recounts a heated argument between Brigadier Ed Butler, the first British commander in Helmand, and an US general who took exception to him. “I nearly punched that damn Limey’s [Butler’s] lights out, he was so arrogant,” the US general said.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Twitter's new censorship plan rouses global furor

NEW YORK (AP) -- Twitter, a tool of choice for dissidents and activists around the world, found itself the target of global outrage Friday after unveiling plans to allow country-specific censorship of tweets that might break local laws.

It was a stunning role reversal for a youthful company that prides itself in promoting unfettered expression, 140 characters at a time. Twitter insisted its commitment to free speech remains firm, and sought to explain the nuances of its policy, while critics - in a barrage of tweets - proposed a Twitter boycott and demanded that the censorship initiative be scrapped.

"This is very bad news," tweeted Egyptian activist Mahmoud Salem, who operates under the name Sandmonkey. Later, he wrote, "Is it safe to say that (hash)Twitter is selling us out?"

In China, where activists have embraced Twitter even though it's blocked inside the country, artist and activist Ai Weiwei tweeted in response to the news: "If Twitter censors, I'll stop tweeting."

One often-relayed tweet bore the headline of a Forbes magazine technology blog item: "Twitter Commits Social Suicide"

San Francisco-based Twitter, founded in 2006, depicted the new system as a step forward. Previously, when Twitter erased a tweet, it vanished throughout the world. Under the new policy, a tweet breaking a law in one country can be taken down there and still be seen elsewhere.

Twitter said it will post a censorship notice whenever a tweet is removed and will post the removal requests it receives from governments, companies and individuals at the website chillingeffects.org.

The critics are jumping to the wrong conclusions, said Alexander Macgilliviray, Twitter's general counsel.

"This is a good thing for freedom of expression, transparency and accountability," he said. "This launch is about us keeping content up whenever we can and to be extremely transparent with the world when we don't. I would hope people realize our philosophy hasn't changed."

Some defenders of Internet free expression came to Twitter's defense.

"Twitter is being pilloried for being honest about something that all Internet platforms have to wrestle with," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "As long as this censorship happens in a secret way, we're all losers."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland credited Twitter with being upfront about the potential for censorship and said some other companies are not as forthright.

As for whether the new policy would be harmful, Nuland said that wouldn't be known until after it's implemented.

Reporters Without Borders, which advocates globally for press freedom, sent a letter to Twitter's executive chairman, Jack Dorsey, urging that the censorship policy be ditched immediately.

"By finally choosing to align itself with the censors, Twitter is depriving cyberdissidents in repressive countries of a crucial tool for information and organization," the letter said. "Twitter's position that freedom of expression is interpreted differently from country to country is unacceptable."

Reporters Without Borders noted that Twitter was earning praise from free-speech advocates a year ago for enabling Egyptian dissidents to continue tweeting after the Internet was disconnected.

"We are very disappointed by this U-turn now," it said.

Twitter said it has no plans to remove tweets unless it receives a request from government officials, companies or another outside party that believes the message is illegal. No message will be removed until an internal review determines there is a legal problem, according to Macgilliviray.

"It's a thing of last resort," he said. "The first thing we do is we try to make sure content doesn't get withheld anywhere. But if we feel like we have to withhold it, then we are transparent and we will withhold it narrowly."

Macgilliviray said the new policy has nothing to do with a recent $300 million investment by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Mac or any other financial contribution.

In its brief existence, Twitter has established itself as one of the world's most powerful megaphones. Streams of tweets have played pivotal roles in political protests throughout the world, including the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States and the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia and Syria.

Indeed, many of the tweets calling for a boycott of Twitter on Saturday - using the hashtag (hash)TwitterBlackout - came from the Middle East.

"This decision is really worrying," said Larbi Hilali, a pro-democracy blogger and tweeter from Morocco. "If it is applied, there will be a Twitter for democratic countries and a Twitter for the others."

In Cuba, opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez said she would protest Saturday with a one-day personal boycott of Twitter.

"Twitter will remove messages at the request of governments," she tweeted. "It is we citizens who will end up losing with these new rules ... ."

In the wake of the announcement, cyberspace was abuzz with suggestions for how any future country-specific censorship could be circumvented. Some Twitter users said this could be done by employing tips from Twitter's own help center to alter one's "Country" setting. Other Twitter users were skeptical that this would work.

While Twitter has embraced its role as a catalyst for free speech, it also wants to expand its audience from about 100 million active users now to more than 1 billion. Doing so may require it to engage with more governments and possibly to face more pressure to censor tweets; if it defies a law in a country where it has employees, those people could be arrested.

Theoretically, such arrests could occur even in democracies - for example, if a tweet violated Britain's strict libel laws or the prohibitions in France and Germany against certain pro-Nazi expressions.

"It's a tough problem that a company faces once they branch out beyond one set of offices in California into that big bad world out there," said Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices Online, an international network of bloggers and citizen journalists. "We'll have to see how it plays out - how it is and isn't used."

MacKinnon said some other major social networks already employ geo-filtering along the lines of Twitter's new policy - blocking content in a specific jurisdiction for legal reasons while making it available elsewhere.

Many of the critics assailing the new policy suggested that it was devised as part of a long-term plan for Twitter to enter China, where its service is currently blocked.

China's Communist Party remains highly sensitive to any organized challenge to its rule and responded sharply to the Arab Spring, cracking down last year after calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China. Many Chinese nonetheless find ways around the so-called Great Firewall that has blocked social networking sites such as Facebook.

Google for several years agreed to censor its search results in China to gain better access to the country's vast population, but stopped that practice two years after engaging in a high-profile showdown with Chain's government. Google now routes its Chinese search results through Hong Kong, where the censorship rules are less restrictive.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt declined to comment on Twitter's action and instead limited his comments to his own company.

"I can assure you we will apply our universally tough principles against censorship on all Google products," he told reporters in Davos, Switzerland.

Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, said it was a matter of trying to adhere to different local laws.

"I think what they (Twitter officials) are wrestling with is what all of us wrestle with - and everyone wants to focus on China, but it is actually a global issue - which is laws in these different countries vary," Drummond said.

"Americans tend to think copyright is a real bad problem, so we have to regulate that on the Internet. In France and Germany, they care about Nazis' issues and so forth," he added. "In China, there are other issues that we call censorship. And so how you respect all the laws or follow all the laws to the extent you think they should be followed while still allowing people to get the content elsewhere?"

Craig Newman, a New York lawyer and former journalist who has advised Internet companies on censorship issues, said Twitter's new policy and the subsequent backlash are both understandable, given the difficult ethical issues at stake.

On one hand, he said, Twitter could put its employees in peril if it was deemed to be breaking local laws.

"On the other hand, Twitter has become this huge social force and people view it as some sort of digital town square, where people can say whatever they want," he said. "Twitter could have taken a stand and refused to enter any countries with the most restrictive laws against free speech."


Thursday, January 26, 2012

AP Interview: Saudi warns of Mideast nuclear race

DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) - An influential member of the Saudi royal family warned Wednesday that unless the Middle East becomes a nuclear weapon-free zone, a nuclear arms race is inevitable and could include his own country, Iraq, Egypt and even Turkey.

Prince Turki Al Faisal said the five permanent U.N. Security Council members should guarantee a nuclear security umbrella for Mideast countries that join a nuclear-free zone - and impose "military sanctions" against countries seen to be developing nuclear weapons.

"I think that's a better way of going at this issue of nuclear enrichment of uranium, or preventing Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction," the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the U.S. and Britain said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If it goes that route, I think it's a much more equitable procedure than what has been happening in the last 10 years or so."

Turki said establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone "deserves everybody's attention and energy, more so than other activities which we see unfolding, whether it is redeployment of fleets in the area, whether Iranian or American or British or French, whether it is the sanctions efforts against Iran."

The Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran, mainly targeting its defense and nuclear establishment, but Tehran has refused to suspend uranium enrichment and enter negotiations on its nuclear activities. It maintains its nuclear program is peaceful, aimed solely at producing nuclear energy, but the U.S. and many European nations believe Iran's goal is to produce nuclear weapons.

Turki's proposal could impose sanctions against Iran if there is evidence it is pursuing weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons. But it could also put Israel under sanctions if it doesn't come clean on its suspected nuclear arsenal.

Israel is widely believed to have an arsenal of hundreds of nuclear weapons but has avoided confirming or denying their existence.

An Arab proposal for a weapons of mass destruction-free zone was initially endorsed by the 1995 conference reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but never acted on.

In May 2010, the 189 member nations that are party to the NPT called for convening a conference in 2012. Last October, the U.N., U.S., Russia and Britain announced that Finland will host the conference this year.

Israel is not a party to the NPT and has long said a full Arab-Israeli peace must precede such weapons bans. But at the 2010 NPT review conference, the United States, Israel's most important ally, said it welcomed "practical measures" leading toward the goal of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

It remains unclear, however, whether the U.S. or veteran Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, who is serving as "facilitator" of this year's conference, can persuade Israel to attend.

Turki said his answer to American and British diplomats who say Israel won't accept a nuclear weapons-free zone is "So what?"

He said the five permanent members should make an announcement on the establishment of a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, at this year's conference in Finland.

Turki cautioned, however, that actually establishing a WMD-free zone will take negotiations in which all the underlying issues in the region, from the establishment of a Palestinian state to the future of the Golan Heights, "will have to be dealt with to make the zone workable."

"So there are incentives there for everybody to be serious about establishing an overall peace so the zone can be put in place," he said.

Turki warned that if there is no WMD-free zone in the Mideast, "inevitably" there is going to be a nuclear arms race "and that's not going to be in the favor of anybody."

The Gulf states are committed not to acquire WMD, he said. "But we're not the only players in town. You have Turkey. You have Iraq which has a track record of wanting to go nuclear. You have Egypt. They had a very vibrant nuclear energy program from the 1960s. You have Syria. You have other players in the area that could open Pandora's box."

Asked whether Saudi Arabia would maintain its commitment against acquiring WMD, Turki said: "What I suggest for Saudi Arabia and for the other Gulf states ... is that we must study carefully all the options, including the option of acquiring weapons of mass destruction. We can't simply leave it for somebody else to decide for us."


Egypt bars son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, NGO colleagues from leaving

Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the head of the International Republican Institute's (IRI) Cairo office, was blocked from departing Egypt earlier this week. He, along with a dozen other colleagues from American non-government organizations (NGO), have been placed on an Egyptian "no-fly" list, officials with IRI told Yahoo News Thursday.
The younger LaHood was blocked at passport control when he went to the Cairo airport Saturday, Lorne Craner, the head of the IRI, a Washington-based pro-democracy non-government organization, told Yahoo News.

The organization is raising awareness of the situation now because, despite calls from several high ranking American officials to Egyptian leaders to discuss the case, the situation does not appear closer to being resolved.

President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of IRI, "have all been calling, they have all had very honest conversations with Egyptian leaders," Craner said. "And not only is nothing getting better, things are getting worse."

"We are all scratching our heads over here," Craner continued. "I did two tours at State and one at the NSC. If the president called someone, something gets worked out."

The White House and State Department acknowledged ongoing efforts to try to resolve the matter.

"Yes, we have raised the issue of several U.S. citizens not being allowed to depart [the country] with the Egyptian government, along with the broader issue of NGOs," an administration official told Yahoo News Thursday.

"Several US citizens have been questioned by judges in connection with the Egyptian government's investigation of NGOs and are currently restricted from leaving Egypt," a State Department official told Yahoo News Thursday. "We are working with the Government of Egypt to lift the travel restrictions and allow these individuals to come home as quickly as possible."

Last month, Egyptian police raided the Cairo offices of IRI and several other NGOs, including the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, confiscating records and computers. The raids were ordered by the Egyptian prosecutors' office, which is purportedly investigating alleged foreign funding of NGOs operating in the country.

Craner said the younger LaHood's name began appearing in Egyptian newspapers a couple days after those raids--in reports that noted his familial connection to the US transportation secretary. The reports prompted Craner to start "nagging" the younger LaHood to leave the country.

Ray LaHood, a former Republican lawmaker from Illinois, is the only Arab-American member of Obama's cabinet. But Craner believed LaHood is not being targeted because of that, but because he makes a high profile "target of opportunity."

"Suddenly Sam's name turned up in newspaper in Egypt,....a few days after police show up armed" at their office, Craner said. "He was the first one on the no-fly list who happened to go out to the airport. I had been nagging him to leave."

LaHood is among the employees of the raided organizations who have been asked to come in for long interrogation sessions with the Egyptian's prosecutor office, Craner said. The employees on the no-fly list are a "subset" of those who have been questioned.

Middle East analysts note the irony of Egyptian prosecutors investigating whether the NGOs receive foreign funding, given the fact the U.S. government gives billions of dollars in military aid to Egypt. Other NGO officials suggested the problem is that the groups were not properly registered in Egypt, though IRI had been officially invited to send international monitors to observe Egypt's recent parliament elections.

"Egypt's military council accuses NGOs of foreign funding even though at least 20% of its budget - $1.3 billion - is foreign funded," noted Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, at the time of those raids.

But even before the latest incident, Congress had imposed several additional conditions before approving the next tranche of aid.

"All the signs on this NGO issue are in the wrong direction," said Michele Dunne, a Middle East expert with the Atlantic Council, who observed Egypt's recent parliamentary polls with IRI. Beyond the refusal to allow some NGO workers to leave the country, she said, a "new draft NGO law is as bad as or worse than the old one," on the books under the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last year.

"This behavior is shameful and hurtful to Egyptians and the U.S.-Egypt relationship," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, in a press statement. "It should never have happened and [Egypt's ruling military council] SCAF should take steps to remedy the situation immediately."


Documents show US has arrested Iranian scientist

WASHINGTON — The United States has arrested and charged an Iranian semiconductor scientist with violating U.S. export laws by buying high-tech U.S. lab equipment, a development likely to further worsen Iranian-U.S. tensions.

Prison records show the U.S. is holding Seyed Mojtaba Atarodi, 54, a microchip expert and assistant professor at Tehran's prestigious Sharif University of Technology, in a federal facility in Dublin, Calif., outside San Francisco. The Iranian interest section in the Pakistani embassy in Washington said it was aware of the arrest.

Atarodi arrived at a bond hearing in federal district court in San Francisco Thursday wearing a green jump suit and bowed to his attorney. Before the hearing began, the judge closed the courtroom except to attorneys and members of the family. According to friends, Atarodi was detained Dec. 7 after stepping off a plane in Los Angeles.

Dr. Fredun Hojabri, a former vice chancellor of Sharif University who now lives in the U.S., said he was aware of the case and noted that friction between the U.S. and Iran has long posed problems for Iranian researchers.

U.S. law enforcement officials have declined to discuss any aspect of Atarodi's case, and records indicate the charges have been sealed.

But a Sharif University spokesman said he has been charged with buying instruments from the United States. The university official spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the potential repercussions of the case.

The arrest comes as the U.S., Israel and their allies are using diplomacy, sanctions and intelligence efforts to try to cripple what they suspect is Iran's drive to lay the foundations of a nuclear weapons program.

Atarodi is listed as the author or coauthor of dozens of scientific papers dealing with microchip technology, though none appears to be explicitly related to military work. U.S. officials in the past have targeted suspected export control violators dealing in so-called dual-use technology, which can have both civilian and military applications.

The Sharif University spokesman said Atarodi was engaged only in civilian research. "The fact of the matter is that he was just a professor, and he was trying to buy some equipment for his lab, and the equipment was very, very simple, ridiculously simple stuff that anybody can buy," the spokesman said.

The arrest of an Iranian scientist in a U.S. embargo case is rare, with most cases focusing on low-level middlemen living in the U.S. recruited to act as fronts for purchasers in Iran. But Iranian researchers in recent years have become central figures in the struggle between Tehran and the West over the country's extensive nuclear programs, which the International Atomic Energy Agency says has included arms-related research.

At least four Iranian scientists have died under mysterious circumstances over about the past two years, and Israel is suspected of playing a role in the attacks.

In the most recent incident, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist and official at Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment plant, was killed by a car bomb Jan. 11, reportedly while on his way to a memorial service for a scientist slain a year earlier.

For years, Iran has insisted it is only interested in the peaceful uses of atomic energy and has resisted United Nation demands that it abandon its extensive uranium enrichment efforts. Enrichment technology can be used to make fuel for nuclear reactors or fissile material for bombs.

The U.S. and Israel, meanwhile, are believed to have recruited Iranian scientists as agents or encouraged them to defect.

A friend of Dr. Atarodi's, John Choma, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, said he learned of the arrest from Atarodi's brother, who lives in the Los Angeles area. The brother did not respond to requests for an interview.

Hojabri cited an incident in 2006 when more than 50 Iranian scientists, executives and engineers headed for a forum on disaster management in Santa Clara, Calif., were detained and expelled after their arrival because their visas were revoked. The event was organized by a Sharif University alumni group.

UT San Diego