War in Europe? Ukraine and the Threat of Wildfire


Following the apparent failure of the Geneva agreements, the inconceivable suddenly seems possible: the invasion of eastern Ukraine by the Russian army. Fears are growing in the West of the breakout of a new war in Europe.

These days, Heinz Otto Fausten, a 94-year-old retired high school principal from Sinzig, Germany, can't bear to watch the news about Ukraine. Whenever he sees images of tanks on TV, he grabs the remote and switches channels. "I don't want to be subjected to these images," he says. "I can't bear it."

When he was deployed as a soldier in the Ukraine, in 1943, Fausten was struck by grenade shrapnel in the hollow of his knee, just outside Kiev, and lost his right leg. The German presence in Ukraine at the time was, of course, part of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But, even so, Fausten didn't think he would ever again witness scenes from Ukraine hinting at the potential outbreak of war. 

For anyone watching the news, these recent images, and the links between them, are hard to ignore. In eastern Ukraine, government troops could be seen battling separatists; burning barricades gave the impression of an impending civil war. On Wednesday, Russian long-range bombers entered into Dutch airspace -- it wasn't the first time something like that had happened, but now it felt like a warning to the West. Don't be so sure of yourselves, the message seemed to be, conjuring up the possibility of a larger war.

'A Phase of Escalation'
Many Europeans are currently rattled by that very possibility -- the frightening chance that a civil war in Ukraine could expand like brushfire into a war between Russia and NATO. Hopes that Russian President Vladimir Putin would limit his actions to the Crimean peninsula have proved to be illusory -- he is now grasping at eastern Ukraine and continues to make the West look foolish. Efforts at diplomacy have so far failed and Putin appears to have no fear of the economic losses that Western sanctions could bring. As of last week, the lunacy of a war is no longer inconceivable.

On Friday, leading Western politicians joined up in a rare configuration, the so-called Quint. The leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Italy and the United States linked up via conference call, an event that hasn't happened since the run-up to the air strikes in Libya in 2011 and the peak of the euro crisis in 2012 -- both serious crises.

Germany's assessment of the situation has changed dramatically over the course of just seven days. Only a week ago, the German government had been confident that the agreements reached in Geneva to defuse the crisis would bear fruit and that de-escalation had already begun. Now government sources in Berlin -- who make increasing use of alarming vocabulary -- warn that we have returned to a "phase of escalation."

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk spoke of a "worst-case scenario" that now appears possible, including civil war and waves of refugees. Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has even gone so far as to claim that "Russia wants to start a Third World War." (Though, of course, Yatsenyuk also wants to instill a sense of panic in the West so it will come to the aid of his country.)

There may not be reason to panic, but there are certainly reasons for alarm. After 20 years in which it was almost unimaginable, it seems like a major war in Europe, with shots potentially being fired between Russia and NATO, is once again a possibility.

"If the wrong decisions are made now, they could nullify decades of work furthering the freedom and security of Europe," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) told SPIEGEL in an interview. Norbert Röttgen, a member of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, said, "The situation is getting increasingly threatening." His counterpart in the European Parliament, Elmar Brok of the CDU, also warned, "There is a danger of war, and that's why we now need to get very serious about working on a diplomatic solution."

'Against the Law and without Justification'
Friday's events demonstrated just how quickly a country can be pulled into this conflict. That's when pro-Russian separatists seized control of a bus carrying military observers with the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and detained the officials. As of Tuesday, seven observers were still in detention, including four Germans -- three members of the Bundeswehr armed forces and one interpreter.

The same day, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the de facto mayor of Slavyansk, told the Interfax news agency that no talks would be held on the detained observers, whom he has referred to as "prisoners of war," if sanctions against rebel leaders remain in place. On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, condemned the detentions, describing them as "against the law and without justification." He called for the detainees to be released, "immediately, unconditionally and unharmed." German officials have also asked the Russian government "to act publicly and internally for their release."

The irony that these developments and this new threat of war comes in 2014 -- the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and the 75th of the start of World War II -- has not been lost on anyone. For years, a thinking had prevailed on the Continent that Europe had liberated itself from the burdens of its history and that it had become a global role model with its politics of reconciliation. But the Ukraine crisis demonstrates that this is no longer the case.

'All Signs Point to an Armed Conflict'
The question now becomes: How far will events in Ukraine go? Fausten, the retired school principal, says he doesn't believe they will lead to war. "The Ukrainians and Russians are still grappling with the aftermath of the world wars," he says. "I can't imagine that the Russians will allow this to come to that."

Others in Germany are beginning to fear the worst. Pastor Heribert Dölle, 57, of the Catholic Church parish in Düsseldorf's Derendorf and Pempelfort districts, has been gathering other impressions. One of the churches in the parish is shared by Düsseldorf's Catholics and Ukrainian Christians. "It feels almost as if we are experiencing the conflict right at our front doors," Dölle says. "We know each other and fears about what is happening right now in Russia and Ukraine are rising."

In Berlin, Christian Mengel is just one of the droves of tourists who continued to make their way to the capital city's dramatic Soviet War Memorial. "All signs point to an armed conflict, but I do not believe that NATO will intervene and I certainly hope they do not," he says. Visitor Hans Pflanz echoes his sentiment. "I'm afraid that this conflict could expand into an international crisis," he says. "I think our politicians don't understand the Russians' intentions and motives." He says he would prefer the West to remain acquiescent to Russia-- an opinion shared by the majority of Germans, according to pollsters.

Germany Harbors Unique Fear of War
Since 1945, Germany has been been particularly afflicted by worries about wars. As in other countries, millions of Germans died on the fronts and in the cities during the two world wars, but here, an additional factor has weighed heavily: guilt. Even today, Germans remain uncertain whether the Prussian militarism and unconscionable obedience that influenced the country during those wars has been banished entirely or whether it might rear its ugly head again in a time of crisis. Postwar Germans have and continue to long for peace, partly to remain so with themselves.

Germany's fear of war has provided the country with a fertile soil for pacifism. Over the past decades, the German peace movement has fought against the arming of the German Air Force with nuclear weapons as well as plans for the stationing of middle-range missiles by NATO in the 1980s.

The protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s and again during the first Iraq War in 1991 were always infused with some anti-American sentiment. The peace movement's fear of war led it to consistently demand peace from NATO and the West, but when it came to the Soviet Union, its efforts tended to range from friendly to indifferent.

Since the 1970s, peace marches have taken place during the Easter Holiday in Germany and other parts of Europe. It's an important annual event for pacifists, but this year only a few thousand people turned out for them in Germany: Neither Putin's aggressions nor NATO's reactions to them seem to have done much to awaken the slumbering peace movement. Nevertheless, the pacifist mentality is still alive and well. "War is crap. I'd rather stuff flowers into rifle barrels," German film and theater director Leander Haussmann says of the current crisis.

Three-Quarters of Germans Oppose NATO Intervention
Three-quarters of all Germans oppose a military intervention by NATO in the Ukraine crisis and one-third say they can sympathize with Putin's decision to annex Crimea. These sentiments, it seems, stem at least in part from Germans' latent fear of war.

Prominent German political scientist Herfried Münkler uses his theories of "heroic" and "postheroic" societies to describe the phenomenon. At the recent Petersburg Dialogue in Leipzig -- an important forum between Germany and Russia that has brought together representatives of the worlds of politics, culture and business since 2001 -- Münkler said this "postheroism" is essentially an expression of prosperity, the German daily Die Tageszeitung reported. Those who have it good don't want to jeopardize their good fortune. Münkler argues that, as a rule of thumb, there's an ideal of "heroism of masculinity" in poorer and less developed counties in which notions of war and defense of the homeland are idealized. In "postheroic" societies, however, which tend to be well-developed and prosperous, war is deemed to be aberrant. According to the newspaper, he argued that Eastern Europe isn't prosperous enough to discourage young men from this idea of heroism. Indeed, politicians can often profit if they are able to tap these emotions. When it comes to Putin's policies, he argues, this heroism aspect makes the situation unpredictable. "Dynamics are being toyed with that, at some point, will no longer be controllable," he said.

That sense of heroism was recently on display on Maidan Square in Kiev, where, five months ago. the current crisis began. There, three men stood in front of a barrel on a sunny spring day and used their powerful voices to sing an impassioned song about the "Cossacks' blood-bought glory" and the "Moskaly," a pejorative for Russians. "When the Moskaly cross the border, we'll finish them off," says Dmytro, a 30-year-old whose head has been shaved clean, save for a small tail. He says an invasion by the Russians is only a matter of time, but that his people will be undefeatable if it comes to war. "A Ukrainian with a tail on his head like mine and a weapon in his hand will sit behind every bush," he says.

Part 2: Germany's Allies Less Timid than Berlin

Although most people would argue it's a good thing that postwar Germany has overcome this kind of "masculine" thinking, some might argue that the country has swung too far toward the opposite end of the spectrum. Germany still plays a major role in global politics, including with the Ukrainians and the Russians, but it is far more timid than some of its most important Western allies.

The French are less anxious about military conflict than the Germans, largely because they have often deployed their military in Africa and thus gotten used to war. The French, just like the British, also feel they are in a good position to defend themselves because they possess nuclear weapons. The Germans, on the other hand, are reliant on others' such weapons, which further feeds domestic sensitivities. They have a particularly tough time lending their full trust to the Americans, whom they have repeatedly perceived to be acting imperialistically -- as a result, many Germans worry the US might drag them into its dirty business.

So far, much of the escalation in this crisis has happened in the diplomatic sphere, with cancelled meetings and threats of sanctions, but there have also been military movements. Last week, the US said it would deploy 600 soldiers to Poland and the Baltic states for exercises, a move it made without NATO's preemptive approval, and the Russians are now conducting maneuvers right on the other side of the Ukrainian border. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned last week, "An attack against Russians is an attack against Russia." Those are the kinds of comments that could later be used to justify an intervention. They also subtly demonstrate how the threat of war is growing.

'Security Is Threatened'
These days, Germany is in a much better position than during the Cold War. Back then, the two German nations were frontline states and had the potential to become the site of the first battles if a conventional war broke out. Today, that role would most likely fall to the Ukrainians, the Poles and the Baltic states.

It's a role that pleases few in the East. "Basically, there is a feeling in Poland that, for the first time since 1989, our security is threatened," says Polish diplomat Janusz Reiter, who served as ambassador to Germany from 1990 to 1995. Reiter says it's not so much a fear of being "affected by an imminent military threat," as the return of a feeling that Poland is living in the shadow of its giant neighbor -- one that is prepared to use force to alter Europe's borders or plunge a country like Ukraine into a civil war.

Countries in the region have plenty of unpleasant memories of when Russia was part of the Soviet Union. Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians experienced the Soviet Union as an occupying force during World War II. In 1956, Soviet troops crushed the Hungarian uprising. Again in 1968, it was the Soviet Union's tanks that quashed the Prague Spring. Given that history, these countries have considerable difficulty overcoming the suspicion that Moscow is seeking to reclaim its former greatness.

The Baltic states are also home to sizeable populations of ethnic Russians. Six percent of the population of Lithuania is Russian; in Latvia and Estonia, the minority represents more than a quarter of the total population. So far, the Baltic Russians have remained loyal to their countries -- there aren't any splinter parties calling for annexation by Russia.
Nevertheless, governments in the region worry that their Russian populations could allow themselves to get pulled into the conflict. The governments of Latvia and Lithuania have shut down transmitting stations for the Russian-language broadcaster Russia RTR because it is sponsored by Moscow. Plans are afoot now to establish an independent Russian-language station for the region.

Parallels to Conflicts in Former Yugoslavia?
Czech President Milos Zeman said last week that he sees a bloody scenario brewing in Ukraine similar to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia assume that thousands of refugees will flee if the violence escalates.
As terrible as the Yugoslav wars were, they at least remained regional in scope, partly because the Russians refrained from intervening militarily and because the Americans also force to ensure that the fighting ended. This time the situation is more complicated. The Russians are engaged militarily, and if the Americans attacked, it would become a war between the superpower and a major power.

At the same time, it's unlikely the Americans will intervene. After 10 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has become weary of war. Many Americans are also only marginally interested in Ukraine and -- despite warnings from members of the Republican Party who are busy conjuring up the return of the Cold War -- have lost the sense that Russia poses any kind of immediate threat. In the American media, the Ukraine crisis is just one story among many. CNN recently gave heavier play to the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

Despite lukewarm interest on the part of most Americans, the Ukraine crisis represents a true political dilemma for President Obama. He views his own country as unprepared to make sacrifices for Ukraine, but with a desire for a strong president who can be tough in global flare-ups.

Among those demanding a firmer approach is former Republican presidential candidate John McCain. He bemoans that Obama is gambling away the United States' reputation as the world's last superpower. "This administration, I have never seen anything like it in my life," McCain said in an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal. "It's passive," he criticized. "Vladimir Putin understands peace through strength and nothing else. And so far we've made a lot of threats and done almost nothing."

The most likely scenario is a maintenance of the status quo -- in which Ukraine slips into a state of civil war that fuels Russia, leading the West to respond with economic sanctions, but little, if anything, more.

That scenario might be more palatable for many in the West, since it would spare them from going to war. But it wouldn't spare them moral culpability if bloodshed occurred on European soil.

Memories of World War I
Perhaps the most reasonable words at the moment are those coming from Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives. "We should stick to our double strategy," he says. "We should continue to maintain diplomatic contacts with Russia, but we should also be prepared for another round of sanctions if necessary."

The prospect of civil war in Ukraine is also fraught with the danger that the conflict could explode and spill across the borders of its Western neighbors. Then Article 5 of the NATO charter would have to be invoked, requiring all members to come to the defense of a member under attack. By then, at the very latest, Germany would also be pulled in to the conflict.

The head of Germany's Protestant Church even offers words addressing such extreme scenarios. "With threats of war, flexing of military muscles and increasingly aggressive rhetoric, Christians around the world are viewing this conflict with the deepest concern," says Nikolaus Schneider, chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKG).
"As the Protestant Church in Germany, in 2014," he says, "we are thinking very intensely back to 1914" -- the year World War I broke out.

Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey



Kerry: Israel risks becoming apartheid state

Secretary of state says Israel risks becoming an "apartheid state" if two-state solution fails, US website reports.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Daily beast 

US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Israel risks becoming "an apartheid state" if there is no two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kerry's comments were published on Sunday by The Daily Beast news website, which obtained a recording of his remarks on Friday to the Trilateral Commission, a non-governmental organisation which includes senior officials and experts from the US, Western Europe, Russia and Japan.

"A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens - or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state," said Kerry.

"Once you put that frame in your mind, that reality, which is the bottom line, you understand how imperative it is to get to the two-state solution, which both leaders, even yesterday, said they remain deeply committed to."

The US-based The Daily Beast reported that senior US officials have rarely used the term in reference to Israel.

Jen Psaki, the spokesperson for the US State Department, said: "Secretary Kerry, like Justice Minister Livni, and previous Israeli Prime Ministers Olmert and Barak, was reiterating why there's no such thing as a one state solution if you believe, as he does, in the principle of a Jewish State."

"[Kerry] was talking about the kind of future Israel wants and the kind of future both Israelis and Palestinians would want to envision. The only way to have two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two state solution. And without a two state solution, the level of prosperity and security the Israeli and Palestinian people deserve isn't possible," she added.

Kerry has been conducting more than a year of intensive shuttle diplomacy trying to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Earlier in April, he urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to prevent the negotiations from collapsing, saying it was regrettable that both sides have taken steps recently that are not helpful in promoting peace and ending the decades-long conflict between the two sides.

The "crime of apartheid" include "inhumane acts… committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime," according to the 1998 Rome Statute.

Apartheid was insitutionalised from 1948 to 1994 in South Africa, and was a means of racial classification and segregration.


President Barack Obama Weekly Address April 26, 2014 (Video/Trascript )

President Barack Obama
Weekly Address
The White House
April 26, 2014
Hi, everybody.  In my State of the Union Address, I talked about pizza.  More specifically, I talked about a pizza chain in Minneapolis – Punch Pizza – whose owner, John Soranno, made the business decision to give his employees a raise to ten bucks an hour.
A couple weeks ago, I got a letter from a small business owner who watched that night.  Yasmin Ibrahim is an immigrant who owns her own restaurant – Desi Shack – and plans to open another this summer. 

Here’s what she wrote.  “I was moved by John Soranno’s story.  It got me thinking about my … full-time employees and their ability to survive on $8 an hour in New York City.”  So a few weeks ago, Yasmin put in place a plan to lift wages for her employees at both her restaurants to at least $10 an hour by the end of this year. 

But here’s the thing – Yasmin isn’t just raising her employees’ wages because it’s the right thing to do.  She’s doing it for the same reason John Soranno did. It makes good business sense. 

Yasmin wrote, “It will allow us to attract and retain better talent – improving customer experience, reducing employee churn and training costs.  We believe doing so makes good business sense while at the same time having a positive impact on the community.”
Yasmin's right.  That’s why, two months ago, I issued an Executive Order requiring workers on new federal contracts to be paid a fair wage of at least ten dollars and ten cents an hour.

But in order to make a difference for every American, Congress needs to do something.  And America knows it.  Right now, there’s a bill that would boost America’s minimum wage to ten dollars and ten cents an hour.  That would lift wages for nearly 28 million Americans across the country.  28 million.  And we’re not just talking about young people on their first job.  The average minimum wage worker is 35 years old.  They work hard, often in physically demanding jobs. 

And while not all of us always see eye to eye politically, one thing we overwhelmingly agree on is that nobody who works full-time should ever have to live in poverty.  That’s why nearly three in four Americans support raising the minimum wage.  The problem is, Republicans in Congress don’t support raising the minimum wage.  Some even want to get rid of it entirely.  In Oklahoma, for example, the Republican governor just signed a law prohibiting cities from establishing their own minimum wage. 

That’s why this fight is so important.  That’s why people like John and Yasmin are giving their workers a raise.  That’s why several states, counties, and cities are going around Congress to raise their workers’ wages.  That’s why I’ll keep up this fight.  Because we know that our economy works best when it works for all of us – not just a fortunate few.  We believe we do better when everyone who works hard has a chance to get ahead.  That’s what opportunity is all about.

And if you agree with us, we could use your help.  Republicans have voted more than 50 times to undermine or repeal health care for millions of Americans.  They should vote at least once to raise the minimum wage for millions of working families.  If a Republican in Congress represents you, tell him or her it’s time to give the politics a rest for a while and do something to help working Americans.  It’s time for “ten-ten.”  It’s time to give America a raise. 

Thanks, and have a great weekend.


Bulgaria: Wrestled to the ground

People & Power investigates why Bulgarians have been protesting against corruption in the heart of government.
Source: Al Jazeera 
For over a year now Bulgaria, a modern EU member state, has been struggling with its troubled history and torn over where to go next. But what lies behind these divisions, and can they ever be reconciled? Are they really, as many Bulgarians seem to think, the consequence of a toxic legacy from its communist years?

People & Power  sent filmmaker Glenn Ellis to investigate repeated claims of corruption in high places, and the reason for months of sporadic demonstrations.

Filmmaker's view 
By Glenn Ellis

I flew into Sofia at night. The short drive from the airport through well-lit boulevards to a picturesque centre gave the impression of an affluent city.

I’d been sent to Bulgaria to look into a story that sounded, on the face of it, somewhat improbable: that even now, 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, power in this farthest outpost of the European Union was still largely in the hands of former communist secret service agents. Was this really possible, and could this be the key subtext to more than a year of anti-government protests, which still sporadically rock the country today?

A steady stream of compromising revelations flow from the Commission for Declassification of Communist Intelligence Records, a body set up when Bulgaria joined the EU. It transpires that many of those who have risen to prominence in the years since the Cold War share a past – their previous roles as spies and informers for the hardline and murderous Soviet-era dictator, Todor Zhivkov. Former collaborators include prime ministers, presidents, bishops, businessmen and top journalists.

In the morning, I got my first look at the wintry capital. A dilapidated splendour pervades Sofia: A beautiful Russian church, the 16 th -century Banya Bashi Mosque, the magnificent Nevsky Cathedral, and all an easy walk from an equally delightful parliament building that looked more like a provincial opera house than a seat of power. Even the solid Socialist Realist housing blocks a little farther out seemed easier on the eye than their brutal counterparts in Berlin or Bucharest -- and all of it under the shadow of snow-capped Mount Vitosha. It was hard not to be charmed by Sofia and its beauty but I wasn’t here to sightsee – there was work to be done.

'A good driver looks ahead' 

One of the people I was most curious to meet was Bulgaria’s once-exiled King Simeon II, and I’d arranged to interview him at Vrana palace on the outskirts of the city.  A solitary sentry opened tall, wrought-iron gates, bearing the Saxe Coburg Gotha family crest, and waved us through. We drove through wooded parkland towards the main building, an extensive pile of Balkan battlements and towers.

"I suddenly realised that my father was no longer with us because of the way they addressed me," the king told me with a sigh. "Instead of ‘your highness’ it was 'your majesty' - then I thought, my god, now I’m the King."   
As the war neared its bloody conclusion the Soviet Red Army marched into Bulgaria, seized power and executed the three regents along with many others. The boy king and his mother were put on a train, given $200, and sent into exile. They were lucky to escape with their lives. It was 50 years before Simeon was able to return.   
Given this history I was taken aback by his attitude towards the former communist spies who had recently been unmasked:

“A good driver looks ahead - only occasionally in the mirror - you can’t spend your whole life looking in the rear view mirror and seeing whose done wrong to you because then you never finish.”

It was a surprisingly conciliatory response, but then the king is also a politician, in fact he’s probably the only monarch ever to be elected prime minister – a post he held some 15 years ago.

I wanted to know what he felt about the periodic protests which have engulfed his country over the last year, demanding the resignation of the government.

"My own innermost law is that it’s by voting that you change things not by political tricks or demonstrations or riots. Unfortunately voting is not so active here. I’ve always been disappointed because I felt that after 50 years, when our people were not allowed to vote, they would go for each opportunity to vote with both hands. Instead for some reason or another there’s a sort of almost disbelief - or saying, well one vote won’t change anything so I might as well stay home and not vote."

Made of champions 

Back at my hotel, a giant 4x4 car with blacked-out windows was waiting for us. It had been sent by one of Bulgaria’s leading oligarchs, Slavi Binev, who had generously insisted on buying me dinner at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant. The car took me out of the city and up the slopes of Mount Vitosha towards one of his favourite eateries.

"The only possibility to go abroad in the communist time was to be a celebrity in some socialist way "
Slavi Binev, member of European Parliament

As we entered the restaurant dozens of well-heeled diners were being serenaded by a Balkan bagpipe ensemble. Binev arrived about an hour later, making a showman’s entrance with a throng of costumed waiters hanging on his every word. Over numerous glasses of rakia he told me ominous stories of how other politicians, mostly his enemies, had resorted to liquidating their opponents. Were it not for Bulgaria’s well-documented tradition of assassinations, it would have been hard to take him seriously.

But Binev is also, curiously enough, a member of the European Parliament and was about to hit the campaign trail for the forthcoming Euro elections. So I was keen to ask him if there was any truth in a US intelligence cable released by WikiLeaks, which listed his company’s allegedly criminal activities as "prostitution, narcotics, and trafficking stolen automobiles." He assured me that Julian Assange had admitted to a colleague of his that there was no substance in the report.

Next morning as we prepared for the interview at one of Binev’s houses, the oligarch showed me a Picasso, one of a number of artworks in a collection that also includes works by Salvador Dali.

I asked him to explain his political agenda.

"For me, democracy is the dictatorship of the law, not of somebody who wants to introduce his ideas -- no there should be a dictatorship of the law; and the law should not be two levels, it should be one law for everybody -- not a step-mother for one and a very caring mother for the other."

I changed tack and asked about his sporting background, for like many of Bulgaria’s leading political and corporate figures, Binev had been a sportsman during the communist period, in his case a taekwondo champion.

"The only possibility to go abroad in the communist time was to be a celebrity in some socialist way," he tells me, "That is, to be an artist, a high level professor or a sportsman, there was no other chance to live like a normal man: to go abroad, to be in the media or something like this, that life was reserved for people from the Communist party."

And so was this sporting background a good preparation for politics?

“Sport has given me a lot: discipline, a social network; to sacrifice everything for one, to know what the target is, and to run for the target and don’t think for nothing else. I think I learned much from sport. Confucius said you’re not a son of your father, you’re the son of your time -- I was a son of the time of the sport.”

'Bulgaria: Wrestled to the ground' 

My next appointment was with Philip Gounev, a senior analyst, at Bulgaria’s Centre for the Study of Democracy.

"In Bulgaria the major crime syndicates were run by former secret service agents and former law enforcement officials. The front men for some of these criminal groups were athletes. Athletes clubs were part of law enforcement structures; the police and the army had sports clubs associated with them and so the foot soldiers of organised crime came from these athletes’ clubs.

"In Bulgaria, just like in Russia, we had special athlete high schools. These were high schools where martial arts, weight lifting and wrestling students became close friends -- they often became the seed of organised crime groups."
I couldn’t help wondering what impact all this had had on a country which many fear has become the most corrupt in the EU. Gounev was reading my thoughts:

"In the 90s our economic elite at the national and international level was being run by such individuals,” he told me, "and because money laundering has never really been investigated this has allowed for all these criminal syndicates to create legitimate business empires -- which partially explains why we have the problem of corruption. It makes it very difficult to counter organised crime when the same people are part of economic elites and are the major supporters of political parties."

If that’s the case, then it’s hard to imagine how Bulgarians, despairing of ridding their country of corruption, will ever see the total severance of links between the criminal and political classes.

'A bitter pill to swallow' 

Next day was Sunday; we rose early and headed for the cathedral. It was the first anniversary of the accession of the patriarch, the supreme authority of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and there he was surrounded by bishops and acolytes in all their glittering finery. It was an astonishing spectacle, like walking into a Rembrandt. I had to remind myself that out of the 15 current bishops in Bulgaria, 11 of them - including the patriarch - had been revealed to have once been communist agents and informers, telling tales on their flock and helping to blight the lives of any who did not toe the party line. I couldn’t help feeling that there was something absurdly hypocritical in the display of piety and pageantry in front of me, given the misery caused to so many by the regime that used to run this country.    

"That former supporters of the regime and members of its oppressive security apparatus went on to accrue great personal wealth and power is an even bitterer pill to swallow."

Glenn Ellis,  filmmaker 

One of those was Nikoli Dafinov. Now in his mid-70s, he had been sent to the Lovech Concentration Camp as an undergraduate – his crime: speaking with a French student who was on an exchange trip to Sofia – an absurd charge given that Dafinov was studying languages at the University. It was the early 1960s, and people were sent to camps like Lovech to “disappear”, to die from being worked to death.

Dafinov, like the other prisoners, carried endless heaps of rubble with his bare hands from the quarry to the railway line half a mile away while guards stood over them with whips, knives and rifles – many died from exhaustion, many more from beatings - but this was the whole idea. “They died here in the quarry and in the evening we brought them to the place where we slept, and these dead bodies, they stayed for about four or five days in an open toilet, and after that in the night, some truck came and they take them 60km to Belene, where they put it to the pigs to eat them.” I have to double-check I’m hearing him right – "You mean the pigs ate the dead bodies?" I ask him. "Yes!" he replies emphatically.

Of course, this particular kind of barbarism was swept away with Communism years ago, but it still rankles here that no-one has ever been tried and convicted for the crimes and human rights abuses of that era.

That former supporters of the regime and members of its oppressive security apparatus went on to accrue great personal wealth and power is an even bitterer pill to swallow.
Many believe that the protests that have been such a feature of Bulgaria for most of the last year were ignited by one man who had simply had enough.
'The right price' 

In an act akin to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street trader in Tunisia who sparked the Arab Spring, Plamen Goranov, a 36-year-old campaigner walked calmly up to the County Hall in the Black Sea resort of Varna, carrying a banner which called for the mayor, Kiril Yordanov, to resign.

Goranov then poured petrol over his body and set fire to himself.
His complaint was that during the mayor’s 14-year tenure in Varna, more and more municipal assets were signed over to a company which now accounts for five percent of the Bulgarian economy. That company is a conglomerate set up by special service officers after the fall of the communist dictatorship.

For years Goranov had campaigned against the growing power that this enterprise wielded in Varna, but its malign influence has so far proved unstoppable.  
I had asked Gounev about the company.

“Just like any other oligarchic structure they’ve been using corruption and it’s most visible on the local level,” he told me.

“The local mayor who has been supported by them remained unchanged for many years regardless which party came to power - he would switch sides in order to get the votes - he would always remain in power. And I think the state of Varna deteriorated so badly over the past decade that local citizens became outraged.”

Nick Todorov, a friend of Goranov’s agreed to meet me outside the County Hall. He takes me to see a makeshift memorial marking the spot where Govanov took his own life, a shrine where people now leave flowers in memory of the martyr. His sacrifice coincided with the mass resignation of the centre-right government of Boiko Borisov. Since then daily protests have become a feature in the country.

If anything, Borisov’s successor, Plamen Oresharski, is even less popular. The belief for many is that corruption is now so rampant in Bulgaria that anyone or anything can be bought for the right price. Ordinary people are desperate for change. 


US seizes $458m in corrupt funds - but what now?

By Leslie Wayne
Source:The Center for Public Integrity

With much fanfare, the U.S. Department of Justice recently announced it had frozen more than $458 million in corrupt assets that the former Nigerian dictator, Sani Abacha, and his friends had hidden in bank accounts around the world. This was hailed as the largest forfeiture action bought as part of Justices’ Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, two-year old effort to identify the proceeds of corrupt officials and return them to those who were harmed.

In the case of Nigeria, that money was allegedly embezzled from the country’s central bank, extorted from local businesses and sent through a maze of bank accounts controlled by Abacha and his associates for their own benefit.  When the Abacha asset seizure was announced, Justice officials pulled out all the rhetorical flourishes:  “Today’s action sends a clear message: We are determined and equipped to confiscate the ill-gotten riches of corrupt leaders who drain the resources of their countries,’’ said Mythili Raman, Acting Assistant Attorney General in a statement in March.

Now comes the hard part – what to do with that $458 million?

Justice has said it wants to return any seized assets back to their country of origin, whenever possible.  The goal of the Kleptocracy Initiative, said Lanny Breuer, the former Assistant Attorney General who once headed the program, is “to identify the proceeds of foreign official corruption, forfeit them, and repatriate the recouped funds for the benefit of the people.”

Even President Obama has struck the same theme of returning stolen assets to the people.  In a major speech in 2011 on the Middle East and Africa, Mr. Obama said “We will help newly democratic governments recover assets that were stolen.”

Rhetoric aside, returning the fruits of corruption may be easier said than done.  In far too many cases, one corrupt ruling elite is only replaced by another, making it impossible to return assets directly to a new government.  And, in some cases, the corrupt officials are still in power.

In the case of Abacha and Nigeria, Peter Carr, a spokesman for Justice told ICIJ that “What happens in each individual case is determined by court order, which will happen at a later date with the funds identified in the Abacha order.”
For several years, some have been advocating for more creative uses of the money and the Abacha case has stirred them to action. One advocate is Alexander Sierck, counsel to an organization called the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a non-governmental organization seeking to hold the Nigerian government accountable. In a letter to the Justice Department last month, Mr. Sierck asked that the $458 million “be conveyed to a reliable U.S. or Nigerian charitable organization to be spent on health care, for example, subject to anti-corruption safeguards.”

There is precedent for this approach.  In 2007, Justice took $84 million that had been seized as part of a bribery scheme involving officials in Kazakhstan and used the entire amount to create the BOTA Foundation, a non-governmental organization that supports education, health and social welfare in that country.  By all accounts it is working.  The BOTA Foundation has anti-corruption guidelines in place, has a solid track record of using the money wisely and the money has remained out of the hands of corrupt government officials.

In a 2009 speech, Attorney General Eric Holder cited several cases of repatriated assets, without giving any details.  These include $20 million returned to Peru, $100 million to Italy and several million to Nicaragua.  Mr. Carr, the Justice spokesman, said he did not have further information on these arrangements.

Mr. Sierck, a former Justice Department official and expert on white collar crime, has his own ideas – not just for the Abacha money but for all seizure cases.  He would like to see a general process set up to determine the fate of seized money, setting out rules and criteria for handling these windfalls. Once this process was in place, Justice could then decide whether it would keep the money and give it to the U.S. Treasury, return it to any new government that might replace a corrupt regime or give to a NGO for special projects, or anything else under the guidelines.

“What we are proposing is that Justice set up a process for handling this,’’ said Mr. Sierck, in an interview with ICIJ.  That, too, he acknowledges might be tough, given his own experience in government. There’s bureaucratic inertia, a resistance within the government to set up new mechanisms, and always the issue of turf, since any such program would also involve the departments of State and Treasury, he said.

So far, no one at Justice has answered Mr. Sierck’s letter, not even to acknowledge its receipt. And given how difficult it might be to enact the process he describes: “I’m not surprised I’ve not heard back.’’

Noam Chomsky (2014) "How to Ruin an Economy; Some Simple Ways" (Video-Link)

Watch Noam Chomsky (2014) Video "How to Ruin an Economy; Some Simple Ways"

Filmed and edited by Leigha Cohen

Noam Chomsky spoke at Third Boston Symposium on Economics on February 10th 2014, sponsored by the Northeastern University Economics Society in Boston, MA.

Chomsky argued that certain factors, among them cutting federal funding for research and development and the growing gap between the richest 1 percent and everybody else, have led to the country's current economic climate.

"The system is so dysfunctional that it cannot put eager hands to needed work using the resources that would be available if the economy were designed for human needs," Chomsky said. "These things didn't just happen like a tornado, they are the results of deliberate policies over roughly the past generation."

Chomsky focuses on what economic actions that government, the super rich and corporations are doing that insures the US and other economies fail for the overwhelming majority of people. We're a nation whose leaders are pursuing policies that amount to economic suicide.

This video also includes an extended 14 minute question and answer period with Dr. Chomsky..

Unless otherwise indicated, all materials on in this video are copyrighted to Leigha Cohen Video, All rights reserved. No part of this video may be used for any purpose other than educational use and any monetary gain from this video is prohibited without prior permission from me. Therefore, reproduction, modification, storage in a retrieval system is prohibited. Standard linking of this video is allowed and encouraged

Sonia Sotomayor: Court’s right wing ‘out of touch with reality’

Simmering tensions over the high court’s approach to race burst into the open Tuesday morning when Justice Sonia Sotomayor, reading from her dissent in an affirmative action case, mounted a full-scale assault on the right wing of the court, calling her conservative colleagues “out of touch with reality.”

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination,” Sotomayor wrote. “[W]e ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter.”

Sotomayor’s dissent was the most direct attack on a doctrine of “colorblindness” that has guided the conservative wing of the court’s attack on civil rights era laws designed to remedy the effects of racial discrimination. In a 2007 decision striking down a school desegregation program, Chief Justice John Roberts penned the battle cry of the movement when he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” 

For Roberts and his conservative colleagues, government intervention to remedy the effects of centuries of racism are morally tantamount to racism.

“The right side of the court all seems to believe that race consciousness is the problem, and that focusing on race exacerbates racism,” said Guy Uriel-Charles, a professor at the Duke University School of Law. “The core of Sotomayor’s opinion is that you can’t simply say that racism is a product of race-consciousness, racism is a product of racial history that is persistent with us today. You can’t get beyond racism by not paying attention to race.”

Sotomayor’s formulation turns Roberts’s dicta on itself, and attacks the the conservative justices’ adherence to a doctrine of “colorblindness” on historical terms. 

Although other Justices have penned eloquent criticisms of their conservative colleagues’ approach to racism, the left wing of the court has not had a Justice who could speak with the authority that comes with direct, personal experience with discrimination since Thurgood Marshall died in 1993. Since then, the only person of color on the high court, Justice Clarence Thomas, has lent the authority of his personal experience growing up in the segregated South to the conservative movement’s effort to gut or strike down landmark civil rights laws. Sotomayor, who was raised by a single mom in a housing project in the Bronx and became the first Latina Justice, has forcefully defended government efforts to fight discrimination.

Though the outcome of this battle hinges more on which party gets the opportunity to fill vacancies on the high court than the eloquence of the individual justices, Sotomayor’s dissent was nonetheless notable.

“It’s a really strong dissent, it probably is the most significant opinion Justice Sotomayor has written since she’s been on the court,” said Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at Michigan Law and former official in the civil rights division of the Justice Department. “I thought it was a very powerful response, it was important to have someone who clearly is coming from the perspective of having experienced discrimination on the basis of race talk about the reality of the situation.”

Sotomayor engaged the conservative wing of the court despite Justice Anthony Kennedy’s insistence that the case itself was not about race. In 2006, the state of Michigan voted to amend its state constitution to ban affirmative action in college admissions. The court ruled 6-2, with Justice Elena Kagan abstaining and Clinton appointee Stephen Breyer siding in part with the majority, that it was constitutional for Michigan to do so.

Sotomayor argued that by amending the state constitution just to bar race-conscious admissions would allow “a white graduate of a public Michigan university who wishes to pass his historical privilege on to his children” to “freely lobby the board of that university in favor of an expanded legacy admissions policy,” while preventing “a black Michigander who was denied the opportunity to attend that very university from being able to “lobby the board in favor of a policy that might give his children a chance that he never had and that they might never have.” In doing so, Sotomayor wrote, the state had unconstitutionally barred racial minorities from fully participating in the political process.
Roberts’s “colorblindness” bears only a superficial resemblance to the concept as understood by past champions of equal rights, since as applied by the conservative majority on the court the approach has had dire consequences for racial minorities. 

Since Roberts became chief justice, the high court has struck down school desegregation plans, narrowed affirmative action, crippled the Voting Rights Act, limited the circumstances under which Americans can sue for racial discrimination, and enabled the denial of health insurance to millions of financially struggling people of color. Though the opportunity has not yet presented itself, the conservative movement from which Roberts sprung would see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 destroyed as well.

“In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination,” Sotomayor wrote. “This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable.”

Sotomayor attacked that “colorblind” approach as one that chooses to see no evil. The dissent runs through a litany of historical examples of practices that are superficially “colorblind,” but were intended or had the effect of harming minorities, such as “literacy tests, good character requirements, poll taxes and gerrymandering,” methods used in the Jim Crow South to circumvent the Constitution by not explicitly mentioning race.

“My colleagues are of the view that we should leave race out of the picture entirely and let the voters sort it out,” Sotomayor wrote. “It is a sentiment out of touch with reality, one not required by our Constitution, and one that has properly been rejected as “not sufficient” to resolve cases of this nature.”
In one notable passage, Sotomayor writes:
“Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from?”, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”
It was to this passage that Roberts felt compelled to respond. In a short concurrence, Roberts ignores Sotomayor’s larger argument to defend himself personally and argue that affirmative action, not racism, is the reason minorities would feel excluded from society.
“It is not “out of touch with reality” to conclude that racial preferences may themselves have the debilitating effect of reinforcing precisely that doubt, and—if so—that the preferences do more harm than good,” Roberts wrote in response. “People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate.”
Roberts’s argument that affirmative action, rather than racism, reinforces those “crippling thoughts” is all the more remarkable given that Sotomayor sits on the court with a fellow Justice who once belonged to a group that would have barred her from attending Princeton

Sotomayor wasn’t questioning Roberts’s candor or openness as much as judgement. The results, from the Voting Rights Act to the Medicaid expansion, speak for themselves, at least for those who choose to listen. 


Investigating Surveillance: German Parliament Divided over Snowden Subpoena


Berlin has insisted it wants to scrutinize NSA spying in Germany. But actually inviting Edward Snowden to testify before a paraliamentary investigation is proving delicate. Some in Chancellor Merkel's party are now casting doubt on Snowden's suitability as a witness. 

It was, of course, purely coincidental that Glenn Greenwald found himself in Berlin last week, just as the debate in Germany was swelling over whether Edward Snowden should be invited to testify before the NSA investigative committee in the Bundestag, the federal parliament.

Greenwald had flown in from Brazil, where he lives, to speak at the presentation of the Liberty Award, a prize honoring foreign correspondents from Germany. And he didn't pass up the opportunity to pay tribute to Snowden, the man whose source material he has relied on in helping to shed light on the global surveillance system maintained by the United States and Britain. "Every country," said Greenwald, 47, has a moral obligation to help Snowden. That, he added, is particularly true for Germany. Top politicians in Berlin were targeted by the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ, and Germany would have been none the wiser but for Snowden. Meanwhile, Snowden's visa for political asylum in Russia, where he now lives, is set to expire this summer.

Just a few hours prior to Greenwald's speech, and not even two kilometers away, politicians belonging to Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition made clear that help would not soon be forthcoming. The Greens and the Left Party, both in the opposition, had moved to invite Snowden to testify before the parliament's NSA committee, but conservative and Social Democratic members of the committee are in no hurry and it remains unclear when they might reach a decision. Opposition politicians are furious.

The squabbling within the committee -- which led to the resignation of Chairman Clemens Binninger of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- is more than just the standard Berlin bickering. Ten months after the NSA spying affair began, the parliamentary investigation has presented Merkel's government with the perfect opportunity to finally demonstrate its resolve in getting to the bottom of US and UK spying activities in Germany. Berlin has frequently insisted it is committed to probing the depths of the scandal, with Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (of the CDU) even claiming that "boundless" American surveillance would be addressed. But if the handling of Snowden provides any indication, the government's resolve is to be doubted.

Lasting Damage
It is perhaps not surprising that Berlin would seem to have gotten cold feet. Snowden's presence in Germany would be delicate in the extreme from a foreign policy perspective. And trans-Atlanticists in the Merkel government have for months been uncomfortable with the fact that many of Snowden's closest supporters have chosen the German capital as their base of operations. Should Snowden, 30, be allowed to join them, many in Berlin fear that US-German cooperation could suffer lasting damage, particularly on intelligence issues.

Were Snowden to testify before the Bundestag investigative committee, says Heather Conley, a former US diplomat who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, it would be a "major irritant in the US-German bilateral relationship." His testimony, she continues, "will continue to deepen anti-American sentiment in Germany and elsewhere in Europe" -- just at a time when the Ukraine crisis is demonstrating just how important trans-Atlantic ties are.

Partly for that reason, Merkel decided early on not to grant Snowden asylum in Germany. Her fear of a clash with the US is just as great as her concern over a potentially divisive domestic political debate. Government sources say it could lead to a grave fissure in her governing coalition, which pairs her conservatives with the center-left SPD. The final say over visa issues lays with the Interior Ministry, under the control of de Maizière, one of Merkel's closest allies.

There is, however, an exception: Were a parliamentary investigative committee to subpoena a witness from abroad, the Interior Minister's discretion "could be reduced to nil," according to an expert opinion provided by the Bundestag's research service. On the contrary, he would then be required to do everything within his power to prepare such a visit, unless, the expert opinion notes, the welfare of the state is at risk. That, though, is a "question that can only be answered on an individual basis" -- and parliament has a significant say in the answer.

Both the Greens and the Left Party have been adamant that Snowden should be allowed to come to Germany and the expert opinion produced by the Bundestag's research service has made it clear that the investigative committee provides the best tool to reach that goal. Once Snowden is here, both opposition parties would like to see him stay.

That, though, is an impossibility from the perspective of Merkel's conservatives. "Were Snowden to come to Germany," says conservative domestic policy spokesman Stephan Mayer, "then the government, in my opinion, would be required to accede to the legally unobjectionable extradition request from the US." A final decision in this hypothetical could ultimately lie with the judiciary.

'A Dead-End'
Senior Green party figure Hans-Christian Ströbele says that it is paramount for the investigative committee to learn as much about American surveillance practices as possible. But, he notes, "there is a second important aspect for me: We have to make it possible for a man, whom we have so much to thank for, to live a normal life in a country based on the rule of law." And there isn't much time to achieve that goal, he adds. Snowden's asylum visa in Russia expires in August and nobody knows how long Russian President Vladimir Putin might continue to allow his presence.

The Left Party and the Greens sought to petition for a Snowden subpoena in the very first session of the investigative committee, but conservatives rejected the move. Indeed, the committee chairman, Clemens Binninger, unexpectedly resigned in response last Wednesday, saying that he stepped down to protest opposition efforts to turn the committee into a Snowden circus. In his statement, Binninger said that Snowden was not of particular interest as a witness. "Focusing only on him would lead the committee into a dead-end," he said.

The Greens immediately became suspicious and claimed, with no evidence whatsoever, that Binninger had been pressured into resignation by the Chancellery. Merkel, according to the Greens, didn't want to have a potential Snowden subpoena hanging over her during her trip to Washington at the beginning of next month. Binninger was quick to deny the accusations. "During the entire preparations for the committee, there were no discussions with the Chancellery -- formal or otherwise -- regarding how to approach the witness Snowden," he said, adding that his decision was his alone. Ströbele is not convinced and is now considering subpoenaing witnesses from the Chancellery.

But the Chancellery too was caught off guard by Binninger's sudden resignation. Chancellery sources note that Binninger was apparently unprepared for the political nature of most parliamentary investigative committees. To be sure, Merkel's staff has also denied accusations that it sought to influence the investigation, but sources also admit that Merkel is eager to avoid travelling to the US under the shadow of an impending Snowden visit to Berlin.

During the investigative committee's second session last Thursday -- now under the leadership of Patrick Sensburg -- coalition politicians listed a number of concerns related to the potential Snowden subpoena. Myriad questions pertaining to such a visit would have to be resolved, including organizational issues and Russia's potential stance.

The When and the How
When the Left Party and the Greens refused to back down, coalition lawmakers resorted to a procedural trick. Although the opposition can make as many motions to collect evidence as they like, the majority decides on when and how such motions are addressed.
The majority decided to delay the vote on whether to subpoena Snowden until its next meeting. By then, the government is to determine if and how such a visit could be arranged. Whether coincidence or not, the government has been asked to provide that information by May 2, precisely the date on which Chancellor Merkel embarks on her next trip to the United States to meete with President Barack Obama.

Committee Chairman Sensburg believes this is sensible, saying that it must be determined in advance whether Snowden has "anything relevant" to say. "Only then can we consider the question of when, where and how" it can take place, he said. The politician also said that the questioning didn't necessarily have to take place in Germany. The SPD's senior official on the committee holds a similar view. "I admonish all members of the committee not to use the Snowden issue to create media attention," he said. "That would be cheap and inappropriate."

Green Party politician Konstantin von Notz, on the other hand, is annoyed. "The Christian Democrats and the SPD are defending the government's interests," he said. "If that continues, then the next four years are going to be terrible." He says his faction is considering challenging the procedural tricks now being used by the majority at Germany's Federal Court of Justice. Notz said he finds it absurd that there has been a debate for weeks now on whether or not Snowden would make an important witness. "He is one of the most important ones," he said.

One man suspected early on that people would seek to discredit the whistleblower: Snowden himself. Even as he began his flight, he said that the American government would seek to impose long-term damage to his credibility as a witness.

Snowden wasn't a senior employee at the NSA, but he was an unusually perceptive and critical one. He says he made the decision to turn against his employer when, while working as a systems administrator, he stumbled across a document from the NSA's general inspector dating from 2009. In it, an NSA lawyer at the agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, outlined the tectonic changes that had been made to America's security structures following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It described in detail how the NSA had been given wider leeway for its operations with significant support from former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Significant Value
That's the point at which Snowden came up with the idea of obtaining as many documents as he could. He had been planning his departure from the NSA for over a year. US officials claim that he then used a webcrawler to automatically detect and download data. Among other areas, they claim he used the software program to obtain reports from the powerful technical surveillance unit, which had a sort of online black board behind the firewall where reports were posted with information about various secret operations.

Information about that alone could be significantly valuable to the parliamentary committee. It would allow members of German parliament, who know little about the NSA's structures, to learn how the US intelligence service is organized, which data is stored, where it is stored and for how long, and the importance of certain types of documents. Even just the way he handled the material shows how deeply he dove into the NSA's inner workings. He sorted the data into categories that document the NSA's various secret programs -- the surveillance of other countries or Internet infrastructure, for example. He stored the some 50,000 documents from Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) separately. The papers include diverse clues that are also important for the investigation in Germany. They would spotlight, for example, the close cooperation between the NSA and the largest American telecommunications companies, like AT&T -- a cooperation which, documents show, sought to direct part of international data traffic through the United States to make it possible for the NSA to access it.

Of particular relevance to Germany is a program called "Tempora" which is operated jointly by the NSA and GCHQ. The program, operated out of Bude in Cornwall, is used by the intelligence services to tap parts of international data traffic in the large fiber optic cables that run across Europe. "Tempora is the first 'I save everything approach' ('full take') in the intelligence world," Snowden says. He claims "it sucks in all data, no matter what it is, and which rights are violated by it." Last week, Bloomberg reported that the NSA has been exploiting the Heartbleed bug in order to tap encrypted data. The US government has denied the allegation.

One of the parliamentary committee's key objectives is to determine the extent to which the NSA is surveilling the German people. Tempora would seem to be an important piece of this puzzle. Snowden spent a lot of time looking into Tempora and would likely be able to say a lot about the program.

'Think Twice'
Snowden's German lawyer, Wolfgang Kaleck, is convinced of this. Last Friday, he assured members of the committee in writing that Snowden occupied a "unique work status" in the US intelligence service structure. "He possesses expertise that for this reason alone is of crucial importance because he may be the only specialist of such rank who would also be willing to or is in a position to share his knowledge with the NSA investigative committee."

The decision on whether the former NSA employee testifies is a decision that Snowden himself must make. Diplomatic sources in Berlin suggest that Snowden would have to "think twice" about traveling to Germany. Even if he had hopes for applying for amnesty here, the risks for the 30-year-old in traveling from Moscow to Berlin would be considerable.

Memories in Berlin are still fresh of how vigorous efforts were in July 2013 to force a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales to land in Vienna. At the time, the Americans suspected that Edward Snowden was on board the aircraft.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey
President Barack Obama
Weekly Address
The White House
April 19, 2014
Hi, everybody.  For millions of Americans, this time of year holds great meaning.
Earlier this week, we hosted a Passover Seder at the White House, and joined Jewish families around the world in their retellings of the story of the Exodus and the victory of faith over oppression.

And this Sunday, Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and I will join our fellow Christians around the world in celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, the salvation he offered the world, and the hope that comes with the Easter season.

These holy days have their roots in miracles that took place long ago.  And yet, they still inspire us, guide us, and strengthen us today.  They remind us of our responsibilities to God and, as God’s children, our responsibilities to one another.

For me, and for countless other Christians, Holy Week and Easter are times for reflection and renewal.  We remember the grace of an awesome God, who loves us so deeply that He gave us his only Son, so that we might live through Him.  We recall all that Jesus endured for us – the scorn of the crowds, the agony of the cross – all so that we might be forgiven our sins and granted everlasting life.  And we recommit ourselves to following His example, to love and serve one another, particularly “the least of these” among us, just as He loves every one of us.

The common thread of humanity that connects us all – not just Christians and Jews, but Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs – is our shared commitment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  To remember, I am my brother’s keeper. I am my sister’s keeper.  Whatever your faith, believer or nonbeliever, there’s no better time to rededicate ourselves to that universal mission.

For me, Easter is a story of hope – a belief in a better day to come, just around the bend.
So to all Christians who are celebrating, from my family to yours, Happy Easter.  And to every American, have a joyful weekend.

Thanks, God bless you, and may God bless this country we love.


Gap between executive pay and worker wages continues to grow

New AFL-CIO report finds executive pay continues its upward trajectory as middle class wages remain stagnant
Al Jazeera America

In 2013 the average American CEO was paid 331 times what the average worker in the United States earned and 774 times what full-time minimum wage workers made, according to a new analysis released Tuesday by the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor union.

Chief executives took home on average a haul of about $11.7 million in 2013, while the average employee earned $35,293.

To calculate the CEOs’ earnings, the AFL-CIO relied on filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the website, which provides compensation figures for chief executives for 3,000 firms. Data about workers’ wages were drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The AFL-CIO's figures were in line with other analyses of executive pay. A survey of the CEOs of the 100 largest publicly traded companies by the firm Equilar for the New York Times found the median pay for top executives was $13.9 million in 2013 — an increase of 9 percent from the previous year.
The steadily increasing disparity between CEO and worker salaries means it takes minimum wage workers hundreds of hours to equal the pay of just one CEO hour.
Source: AFL-CIO

The rising levels of executive compensation have been a well-documented phenomenon since the late 1980s, when shareholders began to offer CEOs ever more generous compensation packages, including stock options. A separate analysis done by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute shows the explosive trajectory over time: In 1968 the top CEOs were paid only about 20 times what workers earned.

Critics, including the AFL-CIO, say that such plush salaries for the nation’s CEOs are helping widen an already yawning income and wealth gap in the United States. Moreover, many find the packages particularly galling, since many of the firms with the highest-paid CEOs operate with thousands of low-wage employees.

James Skinner, CEO of McDonald’s, for instance, made a total of $27.7 million in 2013, according to the data. Michael T. Duke of Walmart Stores Inc. hauled in $20 million in 2013, and Larry Merlo of the CVS Caremark Corp. had a salary of $31 million. Those figures are dwarfed by what Larry Ellison, the CEO of software company Oracle and the best-compensated executive in the country, made last year: $78 million.

To put those numbers in perspective, a minimum wage employee would have to work 1,372 hours to make what Duke earns in a single hour in his job at the helm of Walmart.

“In recent decades, corporate CEOs have been taking a greater share of the economic pie while wages have stagnated and unemployment remains high,” the AFL-CIO report stated. “Even as companies argue that they can’t afford to raise wages, the nation’s largest companies are earning higher profits per employee than they did five years ago.”

Defenders of the current system argue, however, that executive higher salaries allow firms to recruit the best candidates, who are then given incentives to produce the best results for the company. In the end, the performance of top-caliber CEOs benefits both shareholders and employees.

Another body of research disputes that thinking. A review of executive pay done by J. Scott Armstrong, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, and Philippe Jacquart, an assistant professor at L’École de Management de Lyon, found no correlation between pay and performance of top CEOs.

“Higher pay fails to promote better performance,” they wrote in their paper in Interfaces, a peer-reviewed journal on organizational research. “Instead, it undermines the intrinsic motivation of executives, inhibits their learning, leads them to ignore other stakeholders and discourages them from considering the long-term effects of their decisions on stakeholders.

Also, many chief executives do not suffer the consequences when they prove themselves poor stewards. For instance, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, earned a 74 percent pay raise in 2013, the same year that the company paid $20 billion in fines for regulatory wrongdoing and barely escaped criminal penalties.

Nell Minow, an expert on corporate governance and a longtime critic of compensation packages, said that although there was cause to be concerned about wealth further consolidating in the hands of the country’s richest executives, the bigger issue was that bloated pay packages do not produce better outcomes.

“That’s an important argument to make. Unfortunately, it feeds into the response from the other side — ‘It’s about populism and class warfare’ — which has nothing to do with it,” she said. “It has to do with the future of capitalism and whether we’re on a sustainable path.”


President Barack Obama Weekly Address April 12, 2014 (Video/Trascript )

President Barack Obama
Weekly Address
The White House
April 12, 2014
Hi, everybody.  Earlier this week was Equal Pay Day.  It marks the extra time the average woman has to work into a new year to earn what a man earned the year before.  You see, the average woman who works full-time in America earns less than a man – even when she’s in the same profession and has the same education. 

That's wrong.  In 2014, it’s an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work.
This is an economic issue that affects all of us.  Women make up about half our workforce.  And more and more, they’re our families’ main breadwinners.  So it’s good for everyone when women are paid fairly.  That’s why, this week, I took action to prohibit more businesses from punishing workers who discuss their salaries – because more pay transparency makes it easier to spot pay discrimination.  And I hope more business leaders will take up this cause.

But equal pay is just one part of an economic agenda for women.

Most lower-wage workers in America are women.  So I’ve taken executive action to require federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees at least ten dollars and ten cents an hour.  I ordered a review of our nation’s overtime rules, to give more workers the chance to earn the overtime pay they deserve.  Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, tens of millions of women are now guaranteed free preventive care like mammograms and contraceptive care, and the days when you could be charged more just for being a woman are over for good.  Across the country, we’re bringing Americans together to help us make sure that a woman can have a baby without sacrificing her job, or take a day off to care for a sick child or parent without hitting hardship.  It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode, and give every woman the opportunity she deserves.

Here’s the problem, though.  On issues that would benefit millions of women, Republicans in Congress have blocked progress at every turn. Just this week, Senate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, commonsense legislation that would help more women win equal pay for equal work.  House Republicans won’t vote to raise the minimum wage or extend unemployment insurance for women out of work through no fault of their own.  The budget they passed this week would force deep cuts to investments that overwhelmingly benefit women and children – like Medicaid, food stamps, and college grants.  And of course, they’re trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act for the fiftieth or so time, which would take away vital benefits and protections from millions of women.

I’m going to keep fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Because we do better when our economy grows for everybody, not just a few.  And when women succeed, America succeeds.  Thanks, and have a great weekend.


Paddy Ashdown: The global power shift (Transcript/Video)

Source: TED
There's a poem written by a very famous English poet at the end of the 19th century. It was said to echo in Churchill's brain in the 1930s. And the poem goes: "On the idle hill of summer, lazy with the flow of streams, hark I hear a distant drummer, drumming like a sound in dreams, far and near and low and louder on the roads of earth go by, dear to friend and food to powder, soldiers marching, soon to die." Those who are interested in poetry, the poem is "A Shropshire Lad" written by A.E. Housman.
 But what Housman understood, and you hear it in the symphonies of Nielsen too, was that the long, hot, silvan summers of stability of the 19th century were coming to a close, and that we were about to move into one of those terrifying periods of history when power changes. And these are always periods, ladies and gentlemen, accompanied by turbulence, and all too often by blood.
 And my message for you is that I believe we are condemned, if you like, to live at just one of those moments in history when the gimbals upon which the established order of power is beginning to change and the new look of the world, the new powers that exist in the world, are beginning to take form. And these are -- and we see it very clearly today -- nearly always highly turbulent times, highly difficult times, and all too often very bloody times. By the way, it happens about once every century.
 You might argue that the last time it happened -- and that's what Housman felt coming and what Churchill felt too -- was that when power passed from the old nations, the old powers of Europe, across the Atlantic to the new emerging power of the United States of America -- the beginning of the American century. And of course, into the vacuum where the too-old European powers used to be were played the two bloody catastrophes of the last century -- the one in the first part and the one in the second part: the two great World Wars. Mao Zedong used to refer to them as the European civil wars, and it's probably a more accurate way of describing them.
 Well, ladies and gentlemen, we live at one of those times. But for us, I want to talk about three factors today. And the first of these, the first two of these, is about a shift in power. And the second is about some new dimension which I want to refer to, which has never quite happened in the way it's happening now. But let's talk about the shifts of power that are occurring to the world. And what is happening today is, in one sense, frightening because it's never happened before. We have seen lateral shifts of power -- the power of Greece passed to Rome and the power shifts that occurred during the European civilizations -- but we are seeing something slightly different. For power is not just moving laterally from nation to nation. It's also moving vertically.
 What's happening today is that the power that was encased, held to accountability, held to the rule of law, within the institution of the nation state has now migrated in very large measure onto the global stage. The globalization of power -- we talk about the globalization of markets, but actually it's the globalization of real power. And where, at the nation state level that power is held to accountability subject to the rule of law, on the international stage it is not. The international stage and the global stage where power now resides: the power of the Internet, the power of the satellite broadcasters, the power of the money changers -- this vast money-go-round that circulates now 32 times the amount of money necessary for the trade it's supposed to be there to finance -- the money changers, if you like, the financial speculators that have brought us all to our knees quite recently, the power of the multinational corporations now developing budgets often bigger than medium-sized countries. These live in a global space which is largely unregulated, not subject to the rule of law, and in which people may act free of constraint.
 Now that suits the powerful up to a moment. It's always suitable for those who have the most power to operate in spaces without constraint, but the lesson of history is that, sooner or later, unregulated space -- space not subject to the rule of law -- becomes populated, not just by the things you wanted -- international trade, the Internet, etc. -- but also by the things you don't want -- international criminality, international terrorism. The revelation of 9/11 is that even if you are the most powerful nation on earth, nevertheless, those who inhabit that space can attack you even in your most iconic of cities one bright September morning. It's said that something like 60 percent of the four million dollars that was taken to fund 9/11 actually passed through the institutions of the Twin Towers which 9/11 destroyed. You see, our enemies also use this space -- the space of mass travel, the Internet, satellite broadcasters -- to be able to get around their poison, which is about destroying our systems and our ways.
 Sooner or later, sooner or later, the rule of history is that where power goes governance must follow. And if it is therefore the case, as I believe it is, that one of the phenomenon of our time is the globalization of power, then it follows that one of the challenges of our time is to bring governance to the global space. And I believe that the decades ahead of us now will be to a greater or lesser extent turbulent the more or less we are able to achieve that aim: to bring governance to the global space.
 Now notice, I'm not talking about government. I'm not talking about setting up some global democratic institution. My own view, by the way, ladies and gentlemen, is that this is unlikely to be done by spawning more U.N. institutions. If we didn't have the U.N., we'd have to invent it. The world needs an international forum. It needs a means by which you can legitimize international action. But when it comes to governance of the global space, my guess is this won't happen through the creation of more U.N. 
institutions. It will actually happen by the powerful coming together and making treaty-based systems, treaty-based agreements, to govern that global space.
And if you look, you can see them happening, already beginning to emerge. The World Trade Organization: treaty-based organization, entirely treaty-based, and yet, powerful enough to hold even the most powerful, the United States, to account if necessary. Kyoto: the beginnings of struggling to create a treaty-based organization. The G20: we know now that we have to put together an institution which is capable of bringing governance to that financial space for financial speculation. And that's what the G20 is, a treaty-based institution.
Now there's a problem there, and we'll come back to it in a minute, which is that if you bring the most powerful together to make the rules in treaty-based institutions, to fill that governance space, then what happens to the weak who are left out? And that's a big problem, and we'll return to it in just a second.
 So there's my first message, that if you are to pass through these turbulent times more or less turbulently, then our success in doing that will in large measure depend on our capacity to bring sensible governance to the global space. And watch that beginning to happen. My second point is, and I know I don't have to talk to an audience like this about such a thing, but power is not just shifting vertically, it's also shifting horizontally.
7:54 You might argue that the story, the history of civilizations, has been civilizations gathered around seas -- with the first ones around the Mediterranean, the more recent ones in the ascendents of Western power around the Atlantic. Well it seems to me that we're now seeing a fundamental shift of power, broadly speaking, away from nations gathered around the Atlantic [seaboard] to the nations gathered around the Pacific rim. Now that begins with economic power, but that's the way it always begins. You already begin to see the development of foreign policies, the augmentation of military budgets occurring in the other growing powers in the world. I think actually this is not so much a shift from the West to the East; something different is happening.
My guess is, for what it's worth, is that the United States will remain the most powerful nation on earth for the next 10 years, 15, but the context in which she holds her power has now radically altered; it has radically changed. We are coming out of 50 years, most unusual years, of history in which we have had a totally mono-polar world, in which every compass needle for or against has to be referenced by its position to Washington -- a world bestrode by a single colossus. But that's not a usual case in history. In fact, what's now emerging is the much more normal case of history. You're beginning to see the emergence of a multi-polar world.
9:18 Up until now, the United States has been the dominant feature of our world. They will remain the most powerful nation, but they will be the most powerful nation in an increasingly multi-polar world. And you begin to see the alternative centers of power building up -- in China, of course, though my own guess is that China's ascent to greatness is not smooth. It's going to be quite grumpy as China begins to democratize her society after liberalizing her economy. But that's a subject of a different discussion. You see India, you see Brazil. You see increasingly that the world now looks actually, for us Europeans, much more like Europe in the 19th century.
 Europe in the 19th century: a great British foreign secretary, Lord Canning, used to describe it as the "European concert of powers." There was a balance, a five-sided balance. Britain always played to the balance. If Paris got together with Berlin, Britain got together with Vienna and Rome to provide a counterbalance. Now notice, in a period which is dominated by a mono-polar world, you have fixed alliances -- NATO, the Warsaw Pact. A fixed polarity of power means fixed alliances. But a multiple polarity of power means shifting and changing alliances. And that's the world we're coming into, in which we will increasingly see that our alliances are not fixed. Canning, the great British foreign secretary once said, "Britain has a common interest, but no common allies." And we will see increasingly that even we in the West will reach out, have to reach out, beyond the cozy circle of the Atlantic powers to make alliances with others if we want to get things done in the world.
Note, that when we went into Libya, it was not good enough for the West to do it alone; we had to bring others in. We had to bring, in this case, the Arab League in. My guess is Iraq and Afghanistan are the last times when the West has tried to do it themselves, and we haven't succeeded. My guess is that we're reaching the beginning of the end of 400 years -- I say 400 years because it's the end of the Ottoman Empire -- of the hegemony of Western power, Western institutions and Western values. You know, up until now, if the West got its act together, it could propose and dispose in every corner of the world. But that's no longer true. Take the last financial crisis after the Second World War. The West got together -- the Bretton Woods Institution, World Bank, International Monetary Fund -- the problem solved. Now we have to call in others. Now we have to create the G20. Now we have to reach beyond the cozy circle of our Western friends.
Let me make a prediction for you, which is probably even more startling. I suspect we are now reaching the end of 400 years when Western power was enough. People say to me, "The Chinese, of course, they'll never get themselves involved in peace-making, multilateral peace-making around the world." Oh yes? Why not? How many Chinese troops are serving under the blue beret, serving under the blue flag, serving under the U.N. command in the world today? 3,700. How many Americans? 11. What is the largest naval contingent tackling the issue of Somali pirates? The Chinese naval contingent. Of course they are, they are a mercantilist nation. They want to keep the sea lanes open. Increasingly, we are going to have to do business with people with whom we do not share values, but with whom, for the moment, we share common interests. It's a whole new different way of looking at the world that is now emerging.
 And here's the third factor, which is totally different. Today in our modern world, because of the Internet, because of the kinds of things people have been talking about here, everything is connected to everything. We are now interdependent. We are now interlocked, as nations, as individuals, in a way which has never been the case before, never been the case before. The interrelationship of nations, well it's always existed. Diplomacy is about managing the interrelationship of nations. But now we are intimately locked together. You get swine flu in Mexico, it's a problem for Charles de Gaulle Airport 24 hours later. Lehman Brothers goes down, the whole lot collapses. There are fires in the steppes of Russia, food riots in Africa.
13:38 We are all now deeply, deeply, deeply interconnected. And what that means is the idea of a nation state acting alone, not connected with others, not working with others, is no longer a viable proposition. Because the actions of a nation state are neither confined to itself, nor is it sufficient for the nation state itself to control its own territory, because the effects outside the nation state are now beginning to affect what happens inside them.
I was a young soldier in the last of the small empire wars of Britain. At that time, the defense of my country was about one thing and one thing only: how strong was our army, how strong was our air force, how strong was our navy and how strong were our allies. That was when the enemy was outside the walls. Now the enemy is inside the walls. Now if I want to talk about the defense of my country, I have to speak to the Minister of Health because pandemic disease is a threat to my security, I have to speak to the Minister of Agriculture because food security is a threat to my security, I have to speak to the Minister of Industry because the fragility of our hi-tech infrastructure is now a point of attack for our enemies -- as we see from cyber warfare -- I have to speak to the Minister of Home Affairs because who has entered my country, who lives in that terraced house in that inner city has a direct effect on what happens in my country -- as we in London saw in the 7/7 bombings. It's no longer the case that the security of a country is simply a matter for its soldiers and its ministry of defense. It's its capacity to lock together its institutions.
And this tells you something very important. It tells you that, in fact, our governments, vertically constructed, constructed on the economic model of the Industrial Revolution -- vertical hierarchy, specialization of tasks, command structures -- have got the wrong structures completely. You in business know that the paradigm structure of our time, ladies and gentlemen, is the network. It's your capacity to network that matters, both within your governments and externally.
So here is Ashdown's third law. By the way, don't ask me about Ashdown's first law and second law because I haven't invented those yet; it always sounds better if there's a third law, doesn't it? Ashdown's third law is that in the modern age, where everything is connected to everything, the most important thing about what you can do is what you can do with others. The most important bit about your structure -- whether you're a government, whether you're an army regiment, whether you're a business -- is your docking points, your interconnectors, your capacity to network with others. You understand that in industry; governments don't.
 But now one final thing. If it is the case, ladies and gentlemen -- and it is -- that we are now locked together in a way that has never been quite the same before, then it's also the case that we share a destiny with each other. Suddenly and for the very first time, collective defense, the thing that has dominated us as the concept of securing our nations, is no longer enough. It used to be the case that if my tribe was more powerful than their tribe, I was safe; if my country was more powerful than their country, I was safe; my alliance, like NATO, was more powerful than their alliance, I was safe. It is no longer the case. The advent of the interconnectedness and of the weapons of mass destruction means that, increasingly, I share a destiny with my enemy.
Union in Geneva in the 1970s, we succeeded because we understood we shared a destiny with them. Collective security is not enough. Peace has come to Northern Ireland because both sides realized that the zero-sum game couldn't work. They shared a destiny with their enemies. One of the great barriers to peace in the Middle East is that both sides, both Israel and, I think, the Palestinians, do not understand that they share a collective destiny. And so suddenly, ladies and gentlemen, what has been the proposition of visionaries and poets down the ages becomes something we have to take seriously as a matter of public policy.

 I started with a poem, I'll end with one. The great poem of John Donne's. "Send not for whom the bell tolls." The poem is called "No Man is an Island." And it goes: "Every man's death affected me, for I am involved in mankind, send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." For John Donne, a recommendation of morality. For us, I think, part of the equation for our survival.

 Thank you very much.