Thursday, March 28, 2013

Computer Fraud And Abuse Act 2013: New CFAA Draft Aims To Expand, Not Reform, The ‘Worst Law In Technology’

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was passed in 1984 to combat the cracking of huge computer systems owned by financial institutions and the government. Nearly 30 years and seven amendments later, the law is regarded by many lawyers and academics as overly “expansive” and “sweeping,” as it lets the government incarcerate “any Internet user they want,” according to former federal prosecutor Orin Kerr.

“The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is the most outrageous criminal law you’ve never heard of,” Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor and pioneer of network neutrality, wrote in the New Yorker. “It bans ‘unauthorized access’ of computers, but no one really knows what those words mean.”

Despite the enormous reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as it currently stands – it was the same law used by prosecutors to torment late Internet activist Aaron Swartz prior to his suicide on Jan. 11 -- the House Judiciary Committee has actually proposed a number of expansions to the law in a new draft, which Tech Dirt says will be “rushed” to Congress during its “cyber week” in the middle of April.

You can read the proposed Computer Fraud and Abuse Act draft in its entirety here.

Among many additions, the new CFAA draft expands the number of ways a person could be prosecuted by punishing anyone who “conspires to commit” violations just like those that have already “completed” the offense. It also adds computer crimes as a form of “racketeering activity,” to allow the Department of Justice to hit computer criminals with further charges in court. And if you’re found guilty, the new CFAA endorses more severe punishments for any offenders by raising the maximum sentences available for certain violations.

Here’s an example of the extreme nature of these recommended punishments: Aaron Swartz, who illegally tapped into and downloaded millions of scholarly papers from the digital journal archive JSTOR while visiting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faced four charges under section (a)(4) of the CFAA, with a maximum sentences of five years per charge, for a possible total of 20 years in prison. While many lawyers and experts have recommended reducing these penalties or removing them entirely, the new draft actually increases the maximum for each charge under (a)(4) to 20 years, which means Swartz could have gotten 80 years. NYU law professor James Grimmelman on Monday called this notion “simply obscene.”

But what’s perhaps most troubling to Internet freedom advocates is how the new CFAA even expands the law to include accessing information for an “impermissible purpose,” which means even if you have the right to access the information in the first place, it’s still considered a crime if someone deems you are misusing your access in some way.

According to Kerr, a computer law expert, the language in the new CFAA would make it a felony to “lie about your age on an online dating profile if you intended to contact someone online and ask them personal questions,” or if you violate the terms of service on a government website.

“In short, this is a step backward, not a step forward,” Kerr said. “This is a proposal to give DOJ what it wants, not to amend the CFAA in a way that would narrow it.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is tackling the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with its own alternative proposals, which include eliminating duplicative penalties and reducing computer crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and the organization also offers ways to contact your congressman about fixing the CFAA.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Multi-Purpose Wonder Can Generate Hydrogen, Produce Clean Water and Even Provide Energy

Mar. 23, 2013 — A new wonder material can generate hydrogen, produce clean water and even create energy.

Science fiction? Hardly, and there's more -- It can also desalinate water, be used as flexible water filtration membranes, help recover energy from desalination waste brine, be made into flexible solar cells and can also double the lifespan of lithium ion batteries. With its superior bacteria-killing capabilities, it can also be used to develop a new type of antibacterial bandage.

Scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, led by Associate Professor Darren Sun have succeeded in developing a single, revolutionary nanomaterial that can do all the above and at very low cost compared to existing technology.

This breakthrough which has taken Prof Sun five years to develop is dubbed the Multi-use Titanium Dioxide (TiO2). It is formed by turning titanium dioxide crystals into patented nanofibres, which can then be easily fabricated into patented flexible filter membranes which include a combination of carbon, copper, zinc or tin, depending on the specific end product needed.

Titanium dioxide is a cheap and abundant material, which has been scientifically proven to have the ability to accelerate a chemical reaction (photocatalytic) and is also able to bond easily with water (hydrophilic).

More than 70 scientific papers on Prof Sun's work in titanium dioxide has been published in the last five years, the latest being papers published in Water Research, Energy and Environmental Science, and Journal of Materials Chemistry.

Prof Sun, 52, from NTU's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said such a low-cost and easily produced nanomaterialis expected to have immense potential to help tackle ongoing global challenges in energy and environmental issues.

With the world's population expected to hit 8.3 billion by 2030, there will be a massive increase in the global demand for energy and food by 50 per cent and 30 per cent for drinking water (Population Institute report, titled 2030: The "Perfect Storm" Scenario).

"While there is no single silver bullet to solving two of the world's biggest challenges: cheap renewable energy and an abundant supply of clean water; our single multi-use membrane comes close, with its titanium dioxide nanoparticles being a key catalyst in discovering such solutions," Prof Sun said. "With our unique nanomaterial, we hope to be able to help convert today's waste into tomorrow's resources, such as clean water and energy."

Prof Sun's multi-use titanium dioxide can:

  1. concurrently produce both hydrogen and clean water when exposed to sunlight
  2. be made into a low-cost flexible filtration membrane that is anti-fouling
  3. desalinate water as a high flux forward osmosis membrane
  4. recover energy from waste desalination brine and wastewater
  5. be made into a low-cost flexible solar cell to generate electricity
  6. doubles battery life when used as anode in lithium ion battery
  7. kill harmful microbial, leading to new antibacterial bandages

How the wonder material was found

Prof Sun had initially used titanium dioxide with iron oxide to make anti-bacterial water filtration membranes to solve biofouling -- bacterial growth which clogs up the pores of membranes, obstructing water flow.

While developing the membrane, Prof Sun's team also discovered that it could act as a photocatalyst, turning wastewater into hydrogen and oxygen under sunlight while still producing clean water. Such a water-splitting effect is usually caused by Platinum, a precious metal that is both expensive and rare.

"With such a discovery, it is possible to concurrently treat wastewater and yet have a much cheaper option of storing solar energy in the form of hydrogen so that it can be available any time, day or night, regardless of whether the sun is shining or not, which makes it truly a source of clean fuel," said Prof Sun.

"As of now, we are achieving a very high efficiency of about three times more than if we had used platinum, but at a much lower cost, allowing for cheap hydrogen production. In addition, we can concurrently produce clean water for close-to-zero energy cost, which may change our current water reclamation system over the world for future liveable cities."

Hydrogen is a clean fuel which can be used for automotive fuel-cells or in power plants to generate electricity.

Producing hydrogen and clean water

This discovery, which was published recently in the academic journal, Water Research, showed that a small amount of nanomaterial (0.5 grams of titanium dioxide nanofibres treated with copper oxide), can generate 1.53 millilitre of hydrogen in an hour when immersed in one litre of wastewater. This amount of hydrogen produced is three times more than when Platinum is used in the same situation.

Depending on the type of wastewater, the amount of hydrogen generated can be as much as 200 millilitres in an hour. Also to increase hydrogen production, more nanomaterial can be used in larger amounts of wastewater.

Producing low-cost flexible forward osmosis membranes

Not only can titanium dioxide particles help split water, it can also make water filter membranes hydrophilic -- allowing water to flow through it easily, while rejecting foreign contaminants, including those of salt, making it perfect for desalinating water using forward osmosis. Thus a new super high flux (flow rate) forward osmosis membrane is developed.

This discovery was published recently in last month's journal of Energy and Environmental Science. This is the first such report of TiO2 nanofibres and particles used in forward osmosis membrane system for clean water production and energy generation.

Producing new antibacterial bandages

With its anti-microbial properties and low cost, the membrane can also be used to make breathable anti-bacterial bandages, which would not only prevent infections and tackle infection at open wounds, but also promote healing by allowing oxygen to permeate through the plaster.

The membrane's material properties are also similar to polymers used to make plastic bandages currently sold on the market.

Producing low-cost flexible solar cells

Prof Sun's research projects have shown out that when treated with other materials or made into another form such as crystals, titanium dioxide can have other uses, such as in solar cells.

By making a black titanium dioxide polycrystalline sheet, Prof Sun's team was able to make a flexible solar-cell which can generate electricity from the sun's rays.

Producing longer lasting lithium ion batteries

Concurrently, Prof Sun has another team working on developing the black titanium dioxide nanomaterial to be used in Lithium ion batteries commonly used in electronic devices.

Preliminary results from thin coin-like lithium ion batteries, have shown that when titanium dioxide sphere-like nanoparticles modified with carbon are used as the anode (negative pole), it can double the capacity of the battery. This gives such batteries a much longer lifespan before it is fully drained. The results were featured in the Journal of Materials Chemistry on its cover page last year.

Next step -- commercialisation

Prof Sun and his team of 20, which includes 6 undergraduates, 10 PhD students and 4 researchers, are now working to further develop the material while concurrently spinning off a start-up company to commercialise the product.

They are also looking to collaborate with commercial partners to speed up the commercialisation process.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Arab Report: Assad assassinated

Arab media reported the assassination of Syrian President Bashar Assad. On - reportedly not yet been validated and have not yet received echo Western media, Assad fired one of his bodyguards. This is an Iranian officer named Mehdi Jacoby, who was attached to Assad on - by allies of the Syrian president in Tehran. Various reports published that Assad al-Shami was rushed to the hospital and in serious condition. Also reported the big fuss that has developed around the hospital and that all roads leading to the hospital were blocked - by the Syrian army. Also reported large military forces are in the hospital. Syrian television broadcasts were discontinued. Syria apparently inhibits the official report on the assassination until it became clear whether the president would live or die.

McCain emerges as key senator in expanding background checks

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has emerged as a key player if Senate Democrats are to have any chance of passing legislation to expand background checks for private sales of firearms.

McCain and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) are at the top of a list of Republicans considered most likely to sign on to legislation expanding background checks after talks with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) stalled earlier this month.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has signaled he will likely support the yet-to-be-finalized proposal he negotiated with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to expand background checks to cover private gun sales, according to Senate sources.

The proposal includes modifications to attract Republican support. One would let rural gun owners conduct background checks from their home computers. Another would give military veterans who have been declared mentally unfit to own a gun a process for appealing that finding.

Expanding background checks is the centerpiece of President Obama’s proposal to change the nation’s gun laws in response to the mass shooting that killed 20 children in Newtown, Ct., last December.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has announced he will include background-checks legislation in a gun-violence package scheduled for the Senate floor in April, even though it’s uncertain whether it could gather the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

McCain could provide crucial Republican support because he has a "B-plus" rating from the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful interest groups in Washington. His endorsement could bring along Heller, who has an "A" rating from the NRA.

Collins and Kirk have weaker credentials on gun issues within Republican circles. Collins has a "C-plus" rating from the NRA and Kirk has an "F."

Manchin, who has an "A" rating from the NRA, has taken the lead in shopping the background-checks proposal to Republican lawmakers, said a Senate aide.

Manchin said he is shopping the proposal widely, but declined Friday to reveal his lobbying list.

“Anybody and every one of them. I’m talking to everybody,” he said when asked to identify targeted Republican senators.

McCain said he has discussed extended background checks, but declined to reveal any details from those talks.

“We’ve had discussions about the issue,” said McCain. “I never describe my discussions with other senators.”

A Senate aide said Collins has had conversations with Manchin over the past several weeks. Another Senate source said she has been approached about background checks.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he has also been approached by Manchin. He is open-minded about expanding background checks, but shares the concerns Coburn had over requiring private sellers to maintain records.

Heller said he wants to make sure felons and people suffering from mental illness do not have access to guns but is unsure about how to implement expanded background checks.

“We’ve had a couple of conversations. We’ve had a couple of conversations,” he said.

Heller wants to make sure that expanding background checks does not lead to a national registry of gun owners.

“Coburn and I share that concern only because you have to keep those records from 15 to 20 years and even proponents of the legislation say they would subject law-abiding citizens to stings by the ATF,” he said in reference to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

But Heller said the record-keeping requirement for expanded background checks, which Schumer has insisted on, is a deal breaker.

“I wouldn’t say anything at this point is a deal breaker,” he said.

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) is seen as another Republican who might support a bipartisan proposal to expand background checks. Coats has a "C-plus" NRA rating, which makes him an attractive target. But Coats on Friday denied that he has been approached by colleagues to back the Schumer-Manchin-Kirk proposal.

“I don’t know if I’m the shopping list or not. No one has approached me,” said Coats.

Coats said he wants to see the details of legislation on background checks before making a decision. He said he would oppose Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) proposal to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons.
"Sen. Kirk remains largely supportive of the background check proposal so far negotiated between he and Sens. Manchin and Schumer, and he will continue negotiating for language to protect veterans' Second Amendment rights," said Lance Trover, Kirk's spokesman.
Gun-control advocates on Friday praised Reid’s decision to include a background-checks measure in the base gun-violence bill he will bring to the Senate floor.

“I applaud Senator Reid for sending a bill to the Senate floor that includes comprehensive, enforceable background checks— and for emphasizing that to be effective, any bill that passes the Senate must include background checks,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal guns. “This sensible reform — with overwhelming support from Americans, including gun owners — will save lives and keep our communities safer.”

Reid on Tuesday raised the possibility that he would leave it out of the base bill because of concern that Republicans might block the legislation if it included objectionable language on background checks.

On Thursday, Reid said he would include the background-checks legislation approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on a party-line vote. That provision will likely not garner 60 votes, but Schumer and other gun-control advocates hope Republicans can be found in the next few weeks to support a bipartisan alternative to expand background checks.
The Hill

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

N.J. family: Facebook photo of boy holding gun brought social workers to home

The ruddy-cheeked, camouflage-clad boy in the photo smiles out from behind a pair of glasses, proudly holding a gun his father gave him as a present for his upcoming 11th birthday.

The weapon in the photo, posted by his dad on Facebook, resembles a military-style assault rifle but, his father says, is actually just a .22-caliber copy. And that, the family believes, is why child welfare case workers and police officers visited the home in Carneys Point last Friday and asked to see his guns.

New Jersey's Department of Children and Families declined to comment specifically on the case but says it often follows up on tips. The family and an attorney say father Shawn Moore's Second Amendment rights to bear arms were threatened in a state that already has some of the nation's strictest gun laws and is considering strengthening them after December's schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut.

In this case, the family believes someone called New Jersey's anonymous child abuse hot line.

Shawn Moore said he gave his son Josh the gun as a present to use on hunting trips. The elder Moore was at a friend's house when his wife called, saying state child welfare investigators, along with four local police officers, were at the house, asking to inspect the family's guns.

Moore said he called his lawyer Evan Nappen, who specializes in Second Amendment cases, and had him on speaker phone as he arrived at his house in Carneys Point, just across the Delaware River from Wilmington, Del.

"They said they wanted to see into my safe and see if my guns were registered," Moore said. "I said no; in New Jersey, your guns don't have to be registered with the state; it's voluntary. I knew once I opened that safe, there was no going back."

With the lawyer listening in on the phone, Moore said he asked the investigators and police officers whether they had a warrant to search his home. When they said no, he asked them to leave. One of the child welfare officials would not identify herself when Moore asked for her name, he said.

The agents and the police officers left, and nothing has happened since, he said.

"I don't like what happened," he said. "You're not even safe in your own house. If they can just show up at any time and make you open safes and go through your house, that's not freedom; it's like tyranny."

State child welfare spokeswoman Kristine Brown said that when it receives a report of suspected abuse of neglect, it assigns a caseworker to follow up. She said law enforcement officers are asked to accompany caseworkers only if the caseworkers feel their safety could be compromised.

"It's the caseworker's call," she said. "It is important to note the way an investigation begins is through the child abuse hotline. Someone has to call to let us know there is a concern."

Carneys Point Police Chief Robert DiGregorio did not answer a call late today to his office, which said only he would be able to comment.

Kid don't look abused to me, seems to me to be holding the rifle correctly, fingers not even on the trigger, where's the abuse?

It's the Rubio and Rand Party, now

Want to know if Republicans finally back immigration reform, stand a chance of picking up Senate seats in the midterms, or get their act together by 2016? Instead of the GOP, watch the Rubio-Paul Party.

Forget John Boehner. Ignore Karl Rove. The real action in the GOP is coming from the newest wing of the party, the one born in the spring of 2009 - the offspring of Tea Party activists that almost single-handedly propelled Republicans to control of the House.
This new movement brought Marco Rubio and Rand Paul to Washington – and made them the two most potent forces in GOP politics today. It also brought Chris Christie to New Jersey and Scott Walker to Wisconsin – and made them two of the most potent forces for 2016.

Right now, it’s Rubio and Paul dominating the show. This wing of the party has its own version of the Republican National Committee: the Heritage Foundation, now run by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a godfather of the new crusade; the aggressive, wealthy Koch brothers; and the Club for Growth, which chafes the Washington establishment by backing firebrands in GOP primaries (including one Marco Rubio).

Together, these groups hold the cards when it comes to the most important political issues facing the party. With their consent, there will be immigration reform, more electable candidates for the 2014 Senate races, and a transformed party for the next presidential race. Without their consent, there’s little chance of success.

“I don’t know when the excitement in the Republican Party has been in Washington,” Rubio told us. “The great reforms … have always come from outside the building. We have allowed conservatism to be hijacked by crony capitalism, by corporate welfare, by things that are not conservatism. We’ve also allowed conservatism, by our opponents, to be defined to indifference to the plight of others.”

By no means is the establishment dead. The RNC still sets the rules and raises money, Rove-backed groups provide the back-up and party leaders set the votes and agenda. The establishment is simply less relevant.

Nothing illustrates this better than the immigration debate.

The only chance Republican leaders have for getting a comprehensive immigration deal this Congress is if Rubio and Paul officially bless a pathway to citizenship. Both men have basically – not unequivocally - dropped their opposition to citizenship and made plain their intentions to do it more emphatically in the future. If they do, it’s safe – but not certain – the rest of the party will follow.

If they don’t, party leaders know the whole deal will undoubtedly collapse and Republicans will be left to blame for killing immigration reform once again. Most GOP leaders now think if they kill immigration today, they will seal certain defeat in 2016. A top conservative House member called the current GOP mood one of “Hispanic panic.”

This is a big reason that the autopsy unveiled this week by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called generically for comprehensive immigration reform. But the truth is that most Republicans elected after the spring of 2009 don’t give a hoot about RNC dictates. “What Rand Paul says matters more to me than what the [Republican National Committee] says,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, told POLITICO this week.

An influential conservative House member said the entire party leadership won’t win over a lot members like him – but will probably get enough to win passage of a bipartisan bill.

So immigration could get done, but it’s not nearly as certain as many think. The big reason: this post-2009 wing of the party is deeply divided.

The Heritage Foundation’s DeMint, who talks often with Rubio and Paul, hardly sounds like a believer in citizenship for people who broke the law. “The idea that we can pass an immigration bill that gives citizenship and somehow that’s going to win elections for Republicans, it ain’t going to happen,” DeMint told us. “If citizenship solved our problem, then maybe we need to sit down and discuss it. But we’ve been there and we’ve tried that. … It didn’t solve any problem.”

Just wait until conservative groups start running ads charging that Republicans are rewarding lawbreakers, and willingly creating 10 million new Democratic voters by granting them amnesty. One Rubio confidant told us this pressure could ultimately convince the Florida freshman to back off his support. Same goes for Paul, who danced around his specific position this week before finally saying he does support some form of earned citizenship.

Rubio said he knows it’s going to be a big job to explain his position. “We’re not done with that process,” he said. “My hope is that when we’re done informing people why we’re doing this and what it really is, we’ll have more support than opposition. I can’t guarantee it. But that’s my job.”

The fate of immigration won’t be a fight between Rubio, Paul and party leaders. It will be a fight between Rubio, Paul and members of the post-2009 generation who, like DeMint, are not buying into the life-or-death political warnings about earned citizenship. Keep a close eye on Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in particular. Cruz is no fan of the bipartisan deal getting cooked up by Rubio and others and could easily lead a spirited charge against it, one that might resonate with the conservative voters who dominate the midterm elections.

Already, top Senate GOP leaders are looking to Rubio and Paul to help recruit Republicans who are both conservative and electable for races in 2014. Again, the simple blessing of Rubio and Paul can buy party leaders credibility with conservatives than establishment figures simply cannot supply.

That was on full display at CPAC, where Paul won the straw poll with 25 percent, two points ahead of Rubio.

From across the Potomac River, the Rubio-Paul Party was reminding the establishment who’s boss.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

US faces new pressure to act amid charges of chemical attacks in Syria

The Assad regime and Syrian rebels traded accusations Tuesday of launching a chemical attack -- in an escalation that, if confirmed, would mark the first known use of chemical weapons in the civil war and could pressure the U.S. to consider military action after two years on the sidelines.

President Obama has long said the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" for his administration. However, the warning has always been directed at the Assad regime -- it's unclear whether the administration would feel compelled to intervene if the opposition used chemical weapons. U.S. officials downplayed the allegations Tuesday and said they could find no evidence of chemical weapons, as they uniformly voiced skepticism at the Assad regime's claims.

"We are deeply skeptical of a regime that has lost all credibility," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.

The regime, whose allegation was backed by ally Russia, said 31 people were killed, including 21 civilians and 10 soldiers, in the attack. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi called it the "first act" of the newly announced opposition interim government.

Rebels quickly denied the report and accused regime forces of firing the chemical weapon.

The head of Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said the group was still investigating the alleged chemical attack near Aleppo.

"Everyone who used it, we are against him, whatever he is," Mouaz al-Khatib told reporters in English in Istanbul. "We are against killing civilians using chemical weapons, but let us wait some time to have accurate information."

The reports could not be independently verified because of tight media restrictions, particularly in government-controlled areas that are virtually shut to all foreign media and outside observers.

But if either version of events is true, it would mark a serious escalation in the two-year conflict. Obama administration officials were pressed repeatedly Tuesday on whether the use of chemical weapons by either side would compel any action by the U.S., which has kept its distance from the civil war.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., seized on the reports to challenge the administration on whether it would follow through on prior warnings.

"If today's reports are substantiated, the President's red line has been crossed, and we would urge him to take immediate action to impose the consequences he has promised," they said in a statement. "That should include the provision of arms to vetted Syrian opposition groups, targeted strikes against Assad's aircraft and SCUD missile batteries on the ground, and the establishment of safe zones inside Syria to protect civilians and opposition groups."

Their Democratic colleague, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, also spoke of "ratcheting up of military effort" in response to a potential chemical attack.

"That would include going after some of Syria's air defenses," Levin told Foreign Policy's The Cable, adding that establishing a no-fly zone "would put additional pressure on Assad and also create a zone where Syrian people who are looking for protection and safety could come without crossing the border and becoming refugees."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated that the use of chemical weapons would "constitute a red line for the United States," though she made that remark in reference to the Assad regime.

She and Carney, as well as the Pentagon, said they could not confirm the allegations.

"We've seen reports from the Assad regime alleging that the opposition has been responsible for use. Let me just say that we have no reason to believe these allegations represent anything more than the regime's continued attempts to discredit the legitimate opposition and distract from its own atrocities committed against the Syrian people," Nuland said.

"We don't have any evidence to substantiate the regime's charge that the opposition even has CW (chemical weapons) capability," she added.

Carney suggested that the Assad regime could be using the charges to cover up its own use of chemical weapons.

"It is important as fighting in Syria intensifies and the regime becomes more desperate, that the United States and the international community make absolutely clear to Assad that the use of chemical weapons would be totally unacceptable," Carney said. "The president was clear when he said that if Assad and those under his command make the mistake of using chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them, then there will be consequences and they will be held accountable."

Amid questions about whether the "red line" had indeed been crossed, the top U.S. military commander in Europe said Tuesday that NATO is conducting contingency planning for possible military involvement in Syria and American forces would be prepared if called upon by the United Nations and member countries.

Adm. James Stavridis, commander of U.S. European Command, told a Senate panel that the United States is "looking at a variety of operations."

"We are prepared if called upon to be engaged," Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said a rocket attack on Khan al-Assal killed at least 26 people but its director, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said he had no information on chemical weapons being involved in the attack.

He said the rocket landed near a military installation in the village.

Syria's policy has been not to confirm or deny if it has chemical weapons. But in July, then-Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a news conference that Syria would only use chemical or biological weapons in case of foreign attack, not against its own people.

We should blame the Russians...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Matt Ridley on How Fossil Fuels are Greening the Planet

Federal Judge Finds National Security Letters Unconstitutional, Bans Them

Ultra-secret national security letters that come with a gag order on the recipient are an unconstitutional impingement on free speech, a federal judge in California ruled in a decision released Friday.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ordered the government to stop issuing so-called NSLs across the board, in a stunning defeat for the Obama administration’s surveillance practices. She also ordered the government to cease enforcing the gag provision in any other cases. However, she stayed her order for 90 days to give the government a chance to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are very pleased that the Court recognized the fatal constitutional shortcomings of the NSL statute,” said Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed a challenge to NSLs on behalf of an unknown telecom that received an NSL in 2011. “The government’s gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools. Our client looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss its experience.”

The telecommunications company received the ultra-secret demand letter in 2011 from the FBI seeking information about a customer or customers. The company took the extraordinary and rare step of challenging the underlying authority of the National Security Letter, as well as the legitimacy of the gag order that came with it.

Both challenges are allowed under a federal law that governs NSLs, a power greatly expanded under the Patriot Act that allows the government to get detailed information on Americans’ finances and communications without oversight from a judge. The FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of NSLs over the years and has been reprimanded for abusing them — though almost none of the requests have been challenged by the recipients.

After the telecom challenged the NSL, the Justice Department took its own extraordinary measure and sued the company, arguing in court documents that the company was violating the law by challenging its authority.

The move stunned EFF at the time.

“It’s a huge deal to say you are in violation of federal law having to do with a national security investigation,” Zimmerman told Wired last year. “That is extraordinarily aggressive from my standpoint. They’re saying you are violating the law by challenging our authority here.”

The case is a significant challenge to the government and its efforts to obtain documents in a manner that the EFF says violates the First Amendment rights of free speech and association.

In her ruling, Judge Illston agreed with EFF, saying that the NSL nondisclosure provisions “significantly infringe on speech regarding controversial government powers.”

She noted that the telecom had been “adamant about its desire to speak publicly about the fact that it received the NSL at issue to further inform the ongoing public debate” on the government’s use of the letters.

She also said that the review process for challenging an order violated the separation of powers. Because the gag order provisions cannot be separated from the rest of the statute, Illston ruled that the entire statute was unconstitutional.

Illston found that although the government made a strong argument for prohibiting the recipients of NSLs from disclosing to the target of an investigation or the public the specific information being sought by an NSL, the government did not provide compelling argument that the mere fact of disclosing that an NSL was received harmed national security interests.

A blanket prohibition on disclosure, she found, was overly broad and “creates too large a danger that speech is being unnecessarily restricted.” She noted that 97 percent of the more than 200,000 NSLs that have been issued by the government were issued with nondisclosure orders.

Number of NSLs Issued by FBI

2003 39,346
2004 56,507
2005 47,221
2006 49,425
2007 16,804
2008 24,744
2009 14,788
2010 24,287
2011 16,511

(Source: DoJ reports)

She also noted that since the gag order on NSL’s is indefinite — unless a recipient files a petition with the court asking it to modify or set aside the nondisclosure order — it amount to a “permanent ban on speech absent the rare recipient who has the resources and motivation to hire counsel and affirmatively seek review by a district court.”

It’s only the second time that such a serious and fundamental challenge to NSLs has arisen. The first occurred around an NSL that was sent in 2005 to Library Connection, a consolidated back office system for several libraries in Connecticut. The gag order was challenged and found to be unconstitutional because it was a blanket order and was automatic. As a result of that case, the government revised the statute to allow recipients to challenge the gag order. Illston found that unconstitutional as well in her ruling this week because of restrictions around how they could challenge the NSL.

In 2004, another case also challenged a separate aspect of the NSL. This one involved a small ISP owner named Nicholas Merrill, who challenged an NSL seeking info on an organization that was using his network. He asserted that customer records were constitutionally protected information.

But that issue never got a chance to play out in court before the government dropped its demand for documents.

With this new case, civil libertarians are getting a second opportunity to fight NSLs head-on in court.

NSLs are written demands from the FBI that compel internet service providers, credit companies, financial institutions and others to hand over confidential records about their customers, such as subscriber information, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, websites visited and more.

NSLs are a powerful tool because they do not require court approval, and they come with a built-in gag order, preventing recipients from disclosing to anyone that they have even received an NSL. An FBI agent looking into a possible anti-terrorism case can self-issue an NSL to a credit bureau, ISP or phone company with only the sign-off of the Special Agent in Charge of their office. The FBI has to merely assert that the information is “relevant” to an investigation into international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.

The lack of court oversight raises the possibility for extensive abuse of NSLs under the cover of secrecy, which the gag order only exacerbates. In 2007 a Justice Department Inspector General audit found that the FBI had indeed abused its authority and misused NSLs on many occasions. After 9/11, for example, the FBI paid multimillion-dollar contracts to AT&T and Verizon requiring the companies to station employees inside the FBI and to give these employees access to the telecom databases so they could immediately service FBI requests for telephone records. The IG found that the employees let FBI agents illegally look at customer records without paperwork and even wrote NSLs for the FBI.

Before Merrill filed his challenge to NSLs in 2004, ISPs and other companies that wanted to challenge NSLs had to file suit in secret in court – a burden that many were unwilling or unable to assume. But after he challenged the one he received, a court found that the never-ending, hard-to-challenge gag orders were unconstitutional, leading Congress to amend the law to allow recipients to challenge NSLs more easily as well as gag orders.

Now companies can simply notify the FBI in writing that they oppose the gag order, leaving the burden on the FBI to prove in court that disclosure of an NSL would harm a national security case. The case also led to changes in Justice Department procedures. Since Feb. 2009, NSLs must include express notification to recipients that they have a right to challenge the built-in gag order that prevents them from disclosing to anyone that the government is seeking customer records.

Few recipients, however, have ever used this right to challenge the letters or gag orders.

The FBI has sent out nearly 300,000 NSLs since 2000, about 50,000 of which have been sent out since the new policy for challenging NSL gag orders went into effect. Last year alone, the FBI sent out 16,511 NSLs requesting information pertaining to 7,201 U.S. persons, a technical term that includes citizens and legal aliens.

But in a 2010 letter (.pdf) from Attorney General Eric Holder to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Holder said that there had “been only four challenges,” and those involved challenges to the gag order, not to the fundamental legality of NSLs. At least one other challenge was filed earlier this year in a secret case revealed by Wired. But the party in that case challenged only the gag order, not the underlying authority of the NSL.

When recipients have challenged NSLs, the proceedings have occurred mostly in secret, with court documents either sealed or redacted heavily to cover the name of the recipient and other identifying details about the case.

The latest case is remarkable then for a number of reasons, among them the fact that a telecom challenged the NSL in the first place, and that EFF got the government to agree to release some of the documents to the public, though the telecom was not identified in them. The Wall Street Journal, however, used details left in the court records, and narrowed the likely plaintiffs down to one, a small San-Francisco-based telecom named Credo. The company’s CEO, Michael Kieschnick, didn’t confirm or deny that his company is the unidentified recipient of the NSL, but did release a statement following Illston’s ruling.

“This ruling is the most significant court victory for our constitutional rights since the dark day when George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act,” Kieschnick said. “This decision is notable for its clarity and depth. From this day forward, the U.S. government’s unconstitutional practice of using National Security Letters to obtain private information without court oversight and its denial of the First Amendment rights of National Security Letter recipients have finally been stopped by our courts.”

The case began sometime in 2011, when Credo or another telecom received the NSL from the FBI.

EFF filed a challenge on behalf of the telecom (.pdf) in May that year on First Amendment grounds, asserting first that the gag order amounted to unconstitutional prior restraint and, second, that the NSL statute itself “violates the anonymous speech and associational rights of Americans” by forcing companies to hand over data about their customers.

Instead of responding directly to that challenge and filing a motion to compel compliance in the way the Justice Department has responded to past challenges, government attorneys instead filed a lawsuit against the telecom, arguing that by refusing to comply with the NSL and hand over the information it was requesting, the telecom was violating the law, since it was “interfer[ing] with the United States’ vindication of its sovereign interests in law enforcement, counterintelligence, and protecting national security.”

They did this, even though courts have allowed recipients who challenge an NSL to withhold government-requested data until the court compels them to hand it over. The Justice Department argued in its lawsuit that recipients cannot use their legal right to challenge an individual NSL to contest the fundamental NSL law itself.

After heated negotiations with EFF, the Justice Department agreed to stay the civil suit and let the telecom’s challenge play out in court. The Justice Department subsequently filed a motion to compel in the challenge case, but has never dropped the civil suit.

The redacted documents don’t indicate the exact information the government was seeking from the telecom, and EFF won’t disclose the details. But by way of general explanation, Zimmerman said that the NSL statute allows the government to compel an ISP or web site to hand over information about someone who posted anonymously to a message board or to compel a phone company to hand over “calling circle” information, that is, information about who has communicated with someone by phone.

An FBI agent could give a telecom a name or a phone number, for example, and ask for the numbers and identities of anyone who has communicated with that person. “They’re asking for association information – who do you hang out with, who do you communicate with, [in order] to get information about previously unknown people.

“That’s the fatal flaw with this [law],” Zimmerman told Wired last year. “Once the FBI is able to do this snooping, to find out who Americans are communicating with and associating with, there’s no remedy that makes them whole after the fact. So there needs to be some process in place so the court has the ability ahead of time to step in [on behalf of Americans].”

Bill Maher complains that his taxes are too high

First we had top Democrat consultant Donna Brazile scratching her head and wondering why her health insurance premiums were going up. Now we have painfully unfunny HBO comedian Bill Maher discovering the unfairness of confiscatory taxation, courtesy of NewsBusters:

The whole exchange began with the high-octane stupidity of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow whining that House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget “is a document that says the big problems in America right now are that rich people do not have enough money… They need relief from confiscatory tax rates.”

Because all money is the rightful property of the State, you see. Anything the geniuses in Washington decide to let you keep – rather than seizing and giving to their favorite constituents, or “investing” in debacles like Solyndra – is an “expense.” So is the United States military, the one government program Maddow wants to cut to the bone.

We’ll get back to that business of government “investment” in a moment, but first, savor the irony of hyper-liberal Bill Maher deciding he’s not quite ready to follow Maddow down this particular fork in the Road to Serfdom:

Pointing at Virginia’s former Republican Congressman Tom Davis, Maher said, “You know what? Rich people – I’m sure you’d agree with this – actually do pay the freight in this country.”
“I just saw these statistics,” he continued, “I mean, something like 70 percent. And here in California, I just want to say liberals – you could actually lose me. It’s outrageous what we’re paying – over 50 percent. I’m willing to pay my share, but yeah, it’s ridiculous.”

Noel Sheppard at NewsBusters graciously stepped in to help Maher out by appending the actual California tax burden for millionaires, which could actually exceed 60 percent if federal income, state income, payroll, local, and property taxes are added together. And that doesn’t even include the many hidden taxes rich people pony up, just like the rest of us, particularly the taxes liberals love to pretend that evil businesses “pay,” instead of passing them along to customers.

But Maher has the broad outlines of the situation right: a small group of people fork over a dramatically higher percentage of their income, carrying a share of the tax burden wildly disproportionate to their share of earned income… and it’s still not good enough for the shrieking Jacobins of the Rachel Maddow Left, who reserve the right to constantly re-define “fairness” as “whatever the ruling left-wing Party thinks it needs.”

I hate to shatter Maddow’s fragile information bubble, but Barack Obama also thinks certain rich people don’t have nearly enough money, and he wants to take it away from others to line their pockets. Tim Carney at the Washington Examiner notes that Obama and his devout followers seem awfully keen on their own version of “trickle-down economics:”

Democrats love attacking the GOP for practicing “trickle-down economics,” but their latest congressional budget makes Republicans look like pikers. The spending priorities and “investments” Senate Democrats propose to help the middle class mostly involve handing money to big corporations.
“The Senate Budget takes the position that trickle-down economics has failed as an economic policy,” the document’s introduction reads, “and that true national prosperity comes from the middle out, not the top down.” By “trickle-down economics,” the Democrats are referring to tax cuts and deregulation — what a conservative might call “leaving people and businesses alone.”
But in the next paragraph, the Democratic budget celebrates “the policies President Barack Obama and Congress put in place in response to the Great Recession.” Those policies are Obama’s implementation of the Wall Street bailout, the government-funded rescue of Chrysler and General Motors, and a stimulus bill that threw money at the likes of General Electric and Bechtel, on the theory that the money would trickle down to American workers.
In their new budget, Senate Democrats don’t merely applaud this sort of trickle-down Obamanomics — they propose more of it.

The liberal caricature of supply-side economics attacks the notion of allowing the people who earn money to keep it, and re-invest it. Obamanomics is far more accurately described as “trickle-down,” but it’s okay because our wise ruling class seizes the money by force and redistributes it, instead of allowing the people who earned that money to keep it?

What a sick and twisted ideology! Besides the immorality of using force to confiscate wealth, and the death spiral of allowing greedy politicians to endlessly re-calibrate what everyone else’s “fair share” works out to, it’s insanely inefficient. Value is boiled away from that money as it pushes through the hot pipes of bureaucracy. The information value of investment success and failure is erased by blind ideology. Our government “investment” gurus are very noticeably less concerned about their fiduciary duty to the “clients” who provide their money than any private capital firm. It’s not as if we can sue Washington for fraud, or take our investment capital elsewhere, is it?

The big problem in America right now is that the government has too much money, spends even more than it has, and exercises vast regulatory and unfunded-mandate powers beyond even the titanic amounts it spends. Maher is correct, but very late to the party, in noting that people who must surrender over half of their income to government at every level are less than half free. Add the true burden of hidden taxes and regulatory cost to the amount directly confiscated in taxes, and I wonder if certain citizens of certain states are still even one-quarter free. Is that supposed to be irrelevant, as long as the people in question can still afford gilded cages to dwell in? And when will those who carry less of this absurdly unfair burden realize they’re paying a lot more than they think they are?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The great EU bank robbery: British taxpayers to bail out victims of outrageous raid

UK taxpayers will have to compensate thousands of Britons hit by a shock raid on bank accounts in Cyprus.

The debt-stricken island, which is home to around 3,000 British military personnel and civil servants, is being given an £8.7billion EU rescue package.

But – in a move condemned as ‘robbery’ – Germany says it will not fund the emergency deal unless every saver with a deposit account contributes via a bank tax.

Account holders will lose 9.9 per cent of all deposits over 100,000 euros (£85,000), with a 6.75 per cent levy on smaller amounts.

George Osborne said last night the Treasury will help out military staff and officials. But it is thought 60,000 other Britons, including holiday homeowners and expats, will lose out.

They are thought to have about £1.7billion in Cyprus’s banks – exposing them to a potential levy of at least £115million – or an average of £1,900 each. In yet another eurozone crisis:

Cypriot banks banned online transfers and emptied cashpoints to stop withdrawals; The levy could be automatically taken from accounts as early as Wednesday; British tourists were told to ensure they had multiple sources of money; The chief minister of the euro area refused to rule out similar levies elsewhere; Analysts said the raid could fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights; Traders are braced for turbulence on international stock markets today.

In response to cries of outrage, Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades was last night trying to amend the bailout tax to limit the pain for small depositors.

But Angela Merkel insisted it was right that all depositors in Cypriot banks should share the responsibility of bailing out the state.

Addressing an election rally, the German chancellor insisted: ‘Anyone having their money in Cypriot banks must contribute in the Cypriot bailout. That way those responsible will contribute in it, not only the taxpayers of other countries, and that is what’s right.’

But economists warned the move would fatally undermine confidence in the safety of money being held in banks in other countries, risking bank runs across the eurozone.

And there was uproar in Cyprus, where furious residents attempted to smash into banks closed for a long bank holiday weekend using JCBs.

Fiona Mullen, a British economist living on Cyprus, said: ‘We knew there was a possibility they would take the deposits above the insured threshold – so above 100,000 euros – but nobody thought they would take it down to someone with five euros in the bank.

‘I was trying to take money out of the ATM but I couldn’t.’

David Symonds, another expat, predicted violence when banks reopened: ‘Tempers could get frayed. Those frayed tempers could well lead to violence.’

Amid mounting chaos, the Cypriot parliament postponed a vote approving the deal and was reported to have announced a further bank holiday on Tuesday – and possibly another on Wednesday – to keep banks closed.

Mr Anastasiades needs to get the legislation ratifying the deal through parliament before banks reopen or face a run on accounts.

But the scale of revolt against among MPs has thrown his efforts into disarray. If the government cannot win support for the package, the country is expected to crash out of the single currency.

Archbishop Chrysostomos, the country’s religious leader and a former government supporter, was reported to have called for calm, but insisted Cypriots would never forget Europe’s behaviour. In his Sunday sermon, he thundered: ‘This is a villainy of Europeans. Cyprus must as soon as possible leave the eurozone.’

Mr Osborne said that because David Cameron had extracted Britain from an EU fund agreed by Labour, British taxpayers would be spared a huge bill.

But the Chancellor said the UK Treasury would reimburse military and government personnel with money in Cyprus banks.

Britain has military bases on the island with a sizeable presence, and the bill to taxpayers will run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

‘Anyone doing their duty for our country in Cyprus will be protected from this bank tax,’ Mr Osborne said.

But the rest of the 60,000 British citizens with money there will lose out.

‘That is an example in Cyprus of what happens if you don’t show the world that you can pay your way.

'That is why in Britain we’ve got to retain the confidence of world markets,’ the Chancellor said.

‘It is an extraordinary situation, but frankly – and I remember talking about Greece – and since then we had Ireland and Portugal, problems in Spain, problems in Italy, now in Cyprus.

‘Anyone who thinks that Britain is alone in having these challenges should look on their TV screens, look at tonight’s news, realise that it’s a very tough economic situation out there.

‘And unless we in Britain front up to our own problems – the problems in our banking system, the problems that we’re borrowing so much money, the problems that actually our businesses need more help to create jobs - if we don’t do those things then the difficult economic situation in Britain will get very much worse.’

UKIP leader Nigel Farage said British taxpayers were being asked to pay for a ‘disgraceful euro-larceny’. ‘Outrage is a word overused in political debate, but hardly covers this,’ he added.

Low corporate tax rates and lax financial regulation in Cyprus have led to big influxes of foreign cash, particularly from Russia, and suspicions of money laundering and tax evasion.

But economist Eamonn Fingleton said the bank raid could be ‘worse than Lehman Brothers’ – a reference to the botched response to the collapse of the US bank in 2009.

They have opted for a ‘solution’ that amounts to probably ‘the single most inexplicably irresponsible decision in banking supervision in the advanced world since the 1930s’, he said.

‘They have weakened – perhaps catastrophically – the principal pillar sustaining modern banking.

This pillar is deposit insurance. This raises questions about deposit insurance throughout the EU and invites runs on banks not only in the most financially-challenged nations such as Greece and Spain but even in Italy and France.’

Sebastien Galy, of the bank SocGen, agreed the move could be the ‘trigger’ for a new eurozone crisis: ‘It breaks a cardinal rule – namely, public trust on which money relies.’ Britons who are paying a heavy price

Chris Drake: The former BBC Middle East correspondent, who retired to Cyprus, stands to lose several thousand euros because of the raid.

Mr Drake, 70, said that as a result, no one would trust that their money was safe in a Cypriot bank ever again.

‘I’m furious with myself,’ he said. ‘I had so many opportunities to move my money abroad but was taken in by all the promises that any attempt to raid my savings was a red line not to be crossed.

‘Experts said it was against the law. Now, I’ve lost several thousand euros. As someone who is retired, the money in my account is all I have to live on for the rest of my life.

‘What’s really upset people is that they’ve been lied to. They were told that their money was safe and that they shouldn’t move it and then they announce this.

‘Everyone’s accounts are frozen and the ATMs have no money. Some people are struggling to get enough cash together to buy food and water.

‘Had people been told that the money was essential for bailing out the country, they may have seen things differently. Instead, they just feel that they’ve been robbed by the Government.’

Mr Drake, a bachelor, who retired to Limassol, said that he thought people in Cyprus would be very reluctant to trust banks as a result of the crash and would invest elsewhere.

He added: ‘But there are plenty of other people with hard luck stories worse than mine.

‘I have a London Cypriot friend who just sold his house and after paying off all his debts put the remaining 350,000 euro into a bank here while he decided what to do with it.

‘In the meantime he treated himself to a holiday in Thailand and is still there. He’ll have the shock of his life when he hears the bad news.’

Stella Steward: She stands to lose around £2,000 of her life savings to the ‘disgusting’ levy.

Mrs Steward, 66, a partner in a wedding planning business, moved to the Mediterranean island from St Albans, Hertfordshire, nine years ago.

‘There was no warning that this was about to happen and we are all in shock,’ she said.

‘What irritates the ex-pat community is that there are quite a few islanders who keep their money “under the mattress” and don’t pay the normal taxes.

‘Perhaps if they had played by the same rules as the rest of us the country might not be in the mess it is’.

Mrs Steward, who lives in Paralimni, a town in the south east of the island, spoke to the Daily Mail before joining the annual bank holiday town carnival.

She and her friends were armed with banners to protest at the levy.

One banner proclaimed: ‘Dick Turpin and the Cyprus government have a lot in common’, while a second banner stated: ‘Cyprus government is making clowns of us’.

‘What’s really upset people is that they’ve been lied to.

'They were told that their money was safe and that they shouldn’t move it and then they announce this.

Dee Mannerings: The 64-year-old moved to Cyprus with husband Mick, 65, from Rainham, Kent, in 2002.

Mrs Mannerings, who runs a wedding planning business in Cyprus for Britons with Mrs Steward (see above), said the levy was akin to stealing.

She said: ‘Who gave them the right to take our money?

‘Both of my parents were born in Cyprus. I love the country but I don’t like what’s going on at the moment.

‘A lot of the ex-pats have gone back to Britain because they cannot afford to stay here any longer. They have just left their properties for the banks to repossess.

‘Something needs to be done. Why should the government be allowed to take money out of people’s savings?’

The couple, who live in a three-bedroom villa with a swimming pool at Sotira, near Ayia Napa, said they had tens of thousands of pounds at risk of being seized under the plan.
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Saturday, March 16, 2013

VIDEO: Feds Swarm Metra Train After Detecting Nuclear Risk

(CBS) — It was stunning for those who watched Thursday night as federal agents investigated a possible nuclear threat at Chicago’s Ogilvie Transportation Center.

CBS 2′s photojournalist Lana Hinshaw-Klann happened to be at the scene and used a cell-phone camera to record agents in action. Reporter Dave Savini looks into what agents were looking for and what they found.

Sources say the agents were members of the elite TSA VIPR team on the 5:04pm Union Pacific West line. They were carrying hand-held nuclear-detection devices that picked up a reading.

VIPR teams were created after the 2004 bombing of a train in Madrid, Spain, to protect U.S. transportation.

At the Ogilvie station, officers held the train and searched for a person or bag that posed a potential nuclear threat.

Jerry Jones, a Chicago lawyer, was heading home on that train. He says the federal officers narrowed the trouble to the area where he was sitting.

“I had no idea I was the center of the activity,” he says.

The special security team must have picked up on him as he entered the station and walked up the stairs, Jones says. Little did he know a nuclear stress test he had at a hospital earlier in the day had set off silent alarms and sent security scurrying.

The TSA team passed by him several times before ending up on his train car. Finally, he got a clue when an agent questioned the man right next to him and asked, ‘Sir, do you have an explanation as to why I am getting a high isotope reading on your bag?’”

“The fellow’s jaw dropped,” Jones said.

Once the agent said the word “isotope,” Jones says he realized he was the one they were looking for. He raised his hand to say he had a nuclear stress test.

The tests can leave patients emitting radiation for some time. After showing identification and proof of the nuclear test, Jones and the other passengers were allowed to go on their way.

He says he’s satisfied with the way authorities acted, “knowing there are people on the lookout for this type of thing,” and was pleased with the way officers and passengers behaved.

Patients undergoing nuclear testing can request a card they can give to security if they travel afterward. Doctors have done this for air travelers.


I feel safer already

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

several big black, and I mean black, blacker than the night sky black helicopters flying low around the lights no nothing...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

For Detroit, a Crisis of Bad Decisions and Crossed Fingers

DETROIT — This city was already sinking under hundreds of millions of dollars in bills that it could not pay when a municipal auditor brought in a veteran financial consultant to dig through the books. A seasoned turnaround man and former actuary with Ford Motor Co., he was stunned by what he found: an additional $7.2 billion in retiree health costs that had never been reported, or even tallied up.

“The city must take some drastic steps,” the consultant, John Boyle, warned the City Council in delivering his report at a public meeting in 2005. Among the options he suggested was filing for bankruptcy.

“I thought all hell would break loose — I thought the flag would finally be raised,” Mr. Boyle recalled in an interview last week. But his warning drew little notice. “It was utterly astounding,” he said.

The financial crisis that has made Detroit one of the largest cities ever to face mandatory state oversight was decades in the making, a trail of missteps, of trimming too little, too late, of hoping that deep-rooted structural problems would turn out to be cyclical downturns that might melt away as the economy picked up.

Some factors were out of the city’s control. As auto industry jobs moved elsewhere over the decades, for example, Detroit lost much of its affluent tax base. Lower than expected state revenue sharing did not help, nor did corruption allegations in the administration of Kwame M. Kilpatrick, a mayor who resigned in 2008 and was convicted on Monday of racketeering and other federal charges.

But recent findings from a state-appointed review team and interviews with past and present city officials also suggest a city that over the years was remarkably badly run.

The state review team found in recent months that the city’s main courthouse had $280 million worth of uncollected fines and fees. No one could tell the team how many police officers were patrolling the streets, even though public safety accounted for a little more than half the budget. The city was borrowing from restricted funds and keeping unclaimed property that it was required to turn over to the state. In some city departments, records were “basically stuff written on index cards,” as one City Council member put it.

“This was bad decisions piled on top of each other,” Gary Brown, the Detroit City Council president pro tem, said the other day. “It has all been a strategy of hope. You keep borrowing where every piece of collateral is already leveraged. You have no bonding capacity — you’re at junk status. You’re overestimating revenues and not managing the resources. Now the chickens have come home to roost.”

Once the nation’s fourth-largest city, Detroit had grown up around the auto industry, booming right along with it in the 1950s. City workers gained ground with pay increases intended to keep pace with those the United Auto Workers won for its members, analysts said.

“It was easy to do so back in the 1950s,” said Joseph L. Harris, Detroit’s former auditor general. “The city had 1.8 million residents then.”

But as auto jobs moved elsewhere and the region aged, Detroit’s labor costs — retiree health care costs, especially — ballooned.

At the same time, officials papered over growing deficits with more borrowing. Finally Detroit’s legal debt limit, which is linked to the total value of real estate in the city, fell when the mortgage bubble burst and property values plunged. Today the city says its debt limit is $1 billion, and it has effectively lost its ability to issue debt in the name of its taxpayers.

When a city cannot borrow, it cannot function; New York City showed that in 1975, Cleveland in 1978. But even as Detroit has approached the critical limit, some city leaders have seemed unaware, quarreling over smaller, symbolic issues like whether to lease a city-owned park to the state.

“It is peeling an onion,” Mayor Dave Bing said of his growing understanding after he took office in 2009 of the depths of the city’s financial woes. “You dig and you dig and you dig, and you really start to find out how bad the problem was. “

Mr. Bing knew plenty about the city’s struggles before taking office and ran on a platform of reversing the spiraling finances. Still, within his first six months in office, the city came close to not making payroll.

“That’s a scary moment,” he recalled in an interview. “You’ve got people living from paycheck to paycheck, week to week, and you’re about to run out of cash. You can only imagine what kind of impact that that’s going to have just on the life of the average person.”

The big structural imbalance was hard to see building up, because until 2008, when a new accounting rule took effect, cities like Detroit were not required to keep track of their workers’ lifelong health care bills. That is why Mr. Boyle found a $7.2 billion promise that no one knew about. Detroit’s general-obligation debt to its bondholders, by contrast, was a little less than $1 billion that year, safely within the city’s legal debt limit, then $1.4 billion.

But while the numbers are particularly grim here, the basic story line is hardly unique. The same path, long and slow, can be found from Providence, R.I., to Stockton, Calif.

To preserve cash, the city resorted to increasing its workers’ future pensions at contract time, instead of raising their pay. That helped balance the immediate budgets, but set up a time bomb sure to explode as more workers retired.

The cost of the retirees’ pensions also grew because of an inflation-protection feature that compounds every year. Detroit cannot renege on paying the benefits, at least outside of bankruptcy, because the State Constitution makes it unlawful to reduce pensions after public workers earn them.

By the 2000s, Detroit was borrowing to solve budget shortfalls. Meanwhile, property tax revenues fell, not just because of departing residents, but also as values fell and some people quit paying. The city has reported collecting 84 percent of property tax levied, but a Detroit News analysis suggests a collection rate closer to half of property owners.

In recent years, city officials have made deep cuts in staff and operations, leaving residents complaining of darkened streetlights, slow police response times and bus delays. But while cutting workers can help reduce the current year’s costs, it moves many of those people into the ranks of retirees, putting heavy long-term pressure on Detroit’s two public pension funds.

By late 2011, a sense of crisis descended on Detroit. In November, Mayor Bing, a Democrat, addressed the city on live television, warning that Detroit would run out of money without concessions from unions, layoffs and privatization. A month later, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, called for a review of Detroit’s finances, a first step in cases where the state is preparing to send an emergency financial manager.

City officials held off further intervention by committing to a legal agreement with the state in 2012 that laid out measures to save money. By fall, a board overseeing the agreement said progress was moving too slowly. While City Council members are contesting the matter during a hearing in Lansing on Tuesday, Mr. Snyder’s administration is preparing to name an emergency manager within days. Mr. Bing says his administration has drawn up a plan to spare the city, though he acknowledges that it has yet to be fully put into effect.

Under Michigan law, the emergency manager would ultimately have the authority to remove local elected officials from most financial decision making, change labor contracts, close or privatize departments, and even recommend that Detroit enter bankruptcy proceedings, a possibility that experts say raises the prospect of the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history, at $14 billion worth of long-term obligations.

None of the decisions, experts here say, will be simple, and some wonder whether Detroit can be saved at all. Some 700,000 residents now live in this vast 139-square-mile city that once was home to nearly two million people. That number may fall to close to 600,000 by 2030 before the population begins to rise again, one regional planning group projects. By pushing costs into the future while its population is shrinking, Detroit has left the people least able to pay with the biggest share of its bills.

“Detroit is a microcosm of what’s going on in America, except America can still print money and borrow,” Mr. Boyle said.

California Seizes Guns as Owners Lose Right to Keep Arms

Wearing bulletproof vests and carrying 40-caliber Glock pistols, nine California Justice Department agents assembled outside a ranch-style house in a suburb east of Los Angeles. They were looking for a gun owner who’d recently spent two days in a mental hospital.

They knocked on the door and asked to come in. About 45 minutes later, they came away peacefully with three firearms.

California is the only state that tracks and disarms people with legally registered guns who have lost the right to own them, according to Attorney General Kamala Harris. Almost 20,000 gun owners in the state are prohibited from possessing firearms, including convicted felons, those under a domestic violence restraining order or deemed mentally unstable.

“What do we do about the guns that are already in the hands of persons who, by law, are considered too dangerous to possess them?” Harris said in a letter to Vice President Joe Biden after a Connecticut school shooting in December left 26 dead. She recommended that Biden, heading a White House review of gun policy, consider California as a national model.

As many as 200,000 people nationwide may no longer be qualified to own firearms, according to Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. Other states may lack confiscation programs because they don’t track purchases as closely as California, which requires most weapons sales go through a licensed dealer and be reported.

“Very, very few states have an archive of firearm owners like we have,” said Wintemute, who helped set up the program.

Funding Increase

Harris, a 48-year-old Democrat, has asked California lawmakers to more than double the number of agents from the current 33. They seized about 2,000 weapons last year. Agents also took 117,000 rounds of ammunition and 11,000 high-capacity magazines, according to state data.

“We’re not contacting anybody who can legally own a gun,” said John Marsh, a supervising agent who coordinates the sometimes-contentious seizures. “I got called the Antichrist the other day. Every conspiracy theory you’ve heard of, take that times 10.”

The no-gun list is compiled by cross-referencing files on almost 1 million handgun and assault-weapon owners with databases of new criminal records and involuntary mental-health commitments. About 15 to 20 names are added each day, according to the attorney general’s office.

Probable Cause

Merely being in a database of registered gun owners and having a “disqualifying event,” such as a felony conviction or restraining order, isn’t sufficient evidence for a search warrant, Marsh said March 5 during raids in San Bernardino County. So the agents often must talk their way into a residence to look for weapons, he said.

At a house in Fontana, agents were looking for a gun owner with a criminal history of a sex offense, pimping, according to the attorney general’s office. Marsh said that while the woman appeared to be home, they got no answer at the door. Without a warrant, the agents couldn’t enter and had to leave empty- handed.

They had better luck in nearby Upland, where they seized three guns from the home of Lynette Phillips, 48, who’d been hospitalized for mental illness, and her husband, David. One gun was registered to her, two to him.

“The prohibited person can’t have access to a firearm,” regardless of who the registered owner is, said Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.

Involuntarily Held

In an interview as agents inventoried the guns, Lynette Phillips said that while she’d been held involuntarily in a mental hospital in December, the nurse who admitted her had exaggerated the magnitude of her condition.

Todd Smith, chief executive officer of Aurora Charter Oak Hospital in Covina, where documents provided by Phillips show she was treated, didn’t respond to telephone and e-mail requests for comment on the circumstances of the treatment.

Phillips said her husband used the guns for recreation. She didn’t blame the attorney general’s agents for taking the guns based on the information they had, she said.

“I do feel I have every right to purchase a gun,” Phillips said. “I’m not a threat. We’re law-abiding citizens.”

No one was arrested. Most seized weapons are destroyed, Gregory said.

“It’s not unusual to not arrest a mental-health person because every county in the state handles those particular cases differently,” Gregory said by e-mail. “Unless there’s an extenuating need to arrest them on the spot, we refer the case” to the local district attorney’s office, she said.

Convicted Felons

Agents more often arrest convicted felons who are prohibited from buying, receiving, owning or possessing a firearm, Gregory said. Violation of the ban is itself a felony.

The state Senate agreed March 7 to expand the seizure program using $24 million in surplus funds from fees that gun dealers charge buyers for background checks.

Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, a gun lobby based in Fairfax, Virginia, that says it has more than 4 million individuals as members, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the program.

Sam Paredes, executive director of the Folsom-based advocacy group Gun Owners of California, praised the program, though not how it is funded.

“We think that crime control instead of gun control is absolutely the way to go,” he said. “The issue we have is funding this program only from resources from law-abiding gun purchasers. This program has a benefit to the entire public and therefore the entire public should be paying through general- fund expenditures, and not just legal gun owners.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

Afghan Policeman Kills US, Afghan Special Forces in Wardak

An Afghan police officer has opened fire on US and Afghan special forces in central Maidan Wardak province, killing at least two US and three Afghan commandos, several sources told TOLOnews Monday.

It was initially reported that around eight police officers had fired on the joint commando task force at a military training centre in the Jalryz district who were present for a morning meeting.

The number of shooters has now been reduced to one police officer ,who was killed in return fire.

As many as 12 more US and Afghan troops and police were injured in the shooting. Earlier reports had said the number might be as high as 23 injured, but this is yet to be confirmed.

Isaf confirmed an "insider attack" happened at a base in Wardak's Jalryz district in a released statement.

"Two US Forces-Afghanistan service members died in eastern Afghanistan today when an individual wearing an Afghan National Security Forces uniform turned a weapon on US and Afghan forces," Isaf said.

"A policy to defer casualty identification procedures to the US Department of Defense, who will release the names once next of kin have been notified," it added.

Meanwhile, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior Sediq Sediqi also confirmed in the attack, but did not provide details about the exact number of the casualties.

"Unfortunately an incident has taken place in which one was involved in the attack and wearing the Afghan police uniform. A delegation has been send to Wardak for the investigations for the further details," Sediqi told TOLOnews.

"We cannot share more details now until the investigations are complete," he added.

The attack happened on the same day that was the deadline for US special forces to leave the Wardak province as decreed by President Hamid Karzai two weeks ago.

Karzai's deadline was given after reports of Afghan forces subordinate to the US army were abusing civilians in the province.

Six months later, where are the Benghazi survivors?

Today marks six months since the September 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya in which four Americans were killed, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Some watchdog groups, members of the media and Republican members of Congress are asking: Where are the more than two dozen U.S. personnel who survived the attack but haven't been seen nor heard from in public since? There were also an undisclosed number of witnesses at the U.S. compounds in Tripoli but they also have not spoken publicly.

In a recent press report, Secretary of State John Kerry said he visited one survivor at "Bethesda hospital," and referred to him a "remarkably courageous person who is doing very, very well." Kerry added, "I've called his wife and talked to her." But the identities, condition and testimony of the survivors and witnesses have been closely held from the public.

Republicans demanded more information about Benghazi in recent weeks before they would agree to allow Obama Administration nominees to move forward in the Senate. A source familiar with material turned over to the Senate Intelligence Committee by the Obama Administration in response tells CBS News that long sought-after FBI transcripts of some survivors were included but had been "blacked out" or redacted. Three Senate Republicans including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., say they want the survivors to be made available for interviews about what happened the night of the attacks.

Meanwhile, a State Department review board found that despite requests from Stevens for more security prior to the attack, there were no military resources in place close enough to come to the rescue of Americans during the attack. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey testified that troops have been placed on a higher state of alert since then.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified in January she was unaware of Stevens' unmet security requests. She said the highest ranking official who received them at the State Department was undersecretary Patrick Kennedy. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Dempsey said they were aware of Stevens' requests and concerns.

At a press conference on November 14, 2012, President Obama stated that his administration has provided all information regarding "what happened in Benghazi." Yet, when CBS News asked for White House photos from the night of the attacks, surveillance video that was promised last November, and answers to outstanding questions, a White House official told us that there would be no further comment.

CBS News has filed multiple Freedom of Information requests for Benghazi-related material, but none has been provided. Judicial Watch, a watchdog group, is suing the U.S. government in an attempt to receive some of the denied information.

Female senator tweets about 'very uncomfortable' screening by TSA

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) complained Monday she was subject to a very uncomfortable screening by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

McCaskill tweeted about the experience before boarding a flight on Monday.

The senator, who has complained about the TSA's security techniques in the past, tweeted that she was selected for a pat-down and that the experience was not a pleasant one.

"‪Today in my airport screening, test on my hands was positive," McCaskill wrote to her 89,100 followers. "Got private, more aggressive pat down. OMG. #veryuncomfortable‬."
In 2011, McCaskill referred to TSA pat-downs as "love pats" that she said made her not look forward to flying.

"I try to avoid a pat-down at all costs," McCaskill told TSA Administrator John Pistole during a Senate hearing that year. "There are many times women put their hands on me in a way that if it was your daughter or your sister or your wife, you would be upset."

TSA has come under fire for its security procedures from other lawmakers in the past. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he was "

detained" by TSA for refusing a pat-down last year.

Additionally, former Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco (R-Texas) accused the agency of targeting him for additional pat-downs after a run-in at the San Antonio airport.
The Hill