Saturday, August 31, 2013

Obama will ask for immediate approval from Congress for strikes against Syria's WMD capability

President Obama has announced that he will seek immediate approval from Congress for air or missile strikes in Syria. He spoke from the Rose Garden moments ago.

There will be a classified briefing with some of the Senate Sunday September 1, Labor Day weekend.

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CNN seems to think the process could take until about September 9, when Congress is due to return.  The president said that the timing was open ended, much as it was before the Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991 against Saddam Hussein.

Presidents to act without Congressional approval, as Ronald Reagan did with Grenada.

Britain's prime minister Cameron tweeted that he supported Obama, despite the negative vote in the British Parliament.
Right now, “no boots on the ground”. 
The latest CNN story is here. Can the same scenarios evolve later with Iran and North Korea?
The president’s remarks were covered live on Syrian state television. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

CNN shows gruesome rogue footage of chemical attacks in Syria

Frederik Pleitgen of CNN narrates a recent account of apparent chemical attacks near Damascus.  The footage was obtained from an “I am Rogue” style filmmaker.  News media is not allowed at the site yet. 

Some people say that rebels could have staged the attack, but could rebels even have access to such weapons?  Secretary of State John Kerry says that the intelligence community has "high confidence" that Assad ordered these attacks. 

CNN also showed another video Friday afternoon (only an hour or so old) showing graphic images of victims with chemical burns. That didn't show up on YouTube yet, but it will soon.

CNN is providing discussions of international law. It is not completely clear that the administration can legally make air strikes without international support yet; administration lawyers are working on that question right now.  But it is understandable that the violation of “international norms” cannot go undeterred.  

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Obama's "going in" on Syria alone would be unwise, they say

Media are reporting that President Obama should not “go it alone” on ordering air strikes against chemical weapons sites in Syria without the consent of Congress, although he could do so legally.  Apparently, the vote by the British Parliament not to intervene militarily yet has thrown some sand in the eyes of administration plans to “go in”.
CNN has some analysis by Tom Cohen here.
The Syria situation is being reported as dangerous to homeland security, and likely to lead to more plots here, although that had been said about Saddam Hussein before and that wasn’t really true.  But Syria has already shown a willingness to launch cyber attacks.  Syria can also exacerbate tensions with not only Iran but Russia, which has thrown a bizarre stink to the U.S. with its anti-gay law and potential refusal to allow adoption of Russian children. 
CNBC has an analysis of the likely economic impacts of the Syrian crisis here.

Update:  Aug. 30

The Carter Center issued a statement that a strike by the US without international approval would violate international law, link.  

Monday, August 26, 2013

China demands that bloggers write for "the common good"

Deborah Kan and Brian Spegele in Biejing f the Wall Street Journal online report the detention of a blogger in China for “spreading rumors”, although the official reason was solicitation.

China tends to watch bloggers who can attract over several hundred thousand followers, but not necessarily those who are more “original” but attract fewer people. 

The Communist Party requires bloggers to act in the “public interest”, whatever that means.  There is this idea that the whole country needs a “consistent message”. 

Are people scrutinized for what they say publicly in western countries?  Certainly the Tea Party thinks so.  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Outgoing FBI director warns how Syrian situation is dangerous for US homeland security

The outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller is warning that some American Al Qaeda supporters are traveling to Syria with the intention of learning how to use chemical weapons or WMD’s, and smuggling them back home.

Official, however, the Obama administration has not confirmed that the Assad regime used chemical weapons (like sarin) on its own people. If it did, the scale of the attacks may well exceed those of Saddam Hussein in northern Iraq in the late 1980’s.
The ABC news story and video is here

In the previous decade, the Bush administration claimed that Saddam Hussein presented a direct and existential threat to homeland security in the US. A lot of us believed it.  I did.  Maybe he did after all.  Appearances make the situation in Syria look worse. 
I wonder, has Assad tried to use "local" flux EMP-type weapons against dissidents?  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

International team secures "loose plutonium" site in a former Soviet republic

Both the Washington Post and New York Times reported in detail Sunday about the enormous effort to secure “loose” plutonium from Degelen Mountain at the Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan.
The effort included plugging holes and entranceways, and in securing and removing some plutonium that had already been partially removed.  Apparently scavengers had been hiding in the area.
There would be concern that similar facilities elsewhere in the old Soviet Union need attention, as would facilities in countries trying to develop nuclear weapons, like North Korea and Iran.
If plutonium or HEU were to be acquired by terrorists, they could make small nuclear devices or could conceivably set off “radiation dispersion devices” or “dirty bombs” in populated areas, making them uninhabitable for years and making enormous numbers of people suddenly homeless, with worthless real estate.
Former Senator Sam Nunn has been active with the NTI, or Nuclear Threat Initiative, which in 2004 made a short feature film “The Last Best Chance” about the threat. 
In late 2002, while still living in Minneapolis,  I received a mysteriously map on a pdf attached to an email that appeared to show possible nuclear sites in Russia.  I forwarded it to law enforcement.
The Washington Post story by David E. Hoffman and Eben Harrell is called “Saving the World at Plutonium Mountain” and appears in the Outlook section Aug. 18, link.  Ellen Barry has a similar story in the NYTimes, p. 12, “A Secret Race for Abandoned Nuclear Materials”, link here.
The effort to secure this one site has taken seventeen years.  But there must be many others, too. The recent strain in relations between Russia and the US, over both the "anti-gay" law straining the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, and Russia's hiding of Edward Snowden, does not bode well for further cooperation in securing loose nuclear materials.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

UK authorities hold partner of journalist (Greenwald) thought to be involved in Snowden leaks; was the partner involved himself?

British authorities detained the life partner David Miranda of journalist Glenn Greenwald at Heathrow Airport.  The men live in Brazil.  Greenwald has reported heavily on leaks from Edward Snowden for the Guardian in the UK.
There was a story that Miranda had visited filmmaker Laura Poitras (“The Oath”, “Flag Wars”), but he himself does not work or function as a journalist.  But as an informal blogger, perhaps?
Poynter has the story by Andrew Beaujon here.
Glenn Greenwald has his own story (on “Security and Liberty”) in the Guardian, “Detaining my partner was a failed attempt at intimidation”, (website url) here. It’s not clear whether the detention could happen if the men were legally married.  
But there is definitely an outcry over authorities’ detaining associates or family of journalists or analysts authorities suspect of “leaks”. 

Greenwald was the first journalist to widely publish the Snowden leaks, and has threatened to publish even more in "retaliation".

Update Aug. 20 :

On AC360 tonight, Anderson Cooper interviewed both men (gay partners), and Jeffrey Toobin said that the British government thought that Miranda could be an unknowing mole carrying secrets linked to Greenwald. If this info could be useful to terrorists, under British law detention was legal.  This would only be the case if the info was classified.  We don't know whether there was any actual classified info on Miranda's electronics.  There was also a debate as to whether journalists who report on security matters become accomplices to terrorists.  That could come up with the steganography debate, mentioned often right after 9/11.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

American pastor sued for direct promotion of brutal anti-gay law in Uganda

Chris Johnson of the Washington Blade is reporting on a lawsuit against a pastor in Massachusetts under the Alien Tort Statute (link) and Massachusetts state law, essentially for encouraging Uganda for passing vehemently anti-gay legislation.  The link for the story is here.   The pastor is Christian Scott Lively of the Abiding Truth Ministries.
It is possible under these laws for people outside the country to sue parties in the US for human rights violations overseas if the defendants played a direct and material part in bringing about the violations.  Merely publishing anti-gay views would not, but traveling to the country and directly promoting the measures to politicians or warlords could.   Of course, the civil action calls attention to the idea that ideas published and circulated in the West can have effects overseas with disadvantaged populations and make them more vulnerable to dictators. 
Technically, a federal district court allowed the suit to go forward.   
The ministry has also encouraged anti-gay laws in Russia.  The pastors are obviously taking advantage of a culture that stresses procreation, and in Russia they can exploit the low birth rate as bad for society (not in Africa, though).   

Local Arlington VA church discusses mission, infrastructure work in Sudan; persecution of Christians during violence in Egypt

The summer early Sunday morning service at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington, VA today (Aug. 18) focuses on a couple of testing overseas issues. 

Indian-raised missionaries Jacob and Aliamma George presented their work in South Sudan, a new nation split off recently from the Sudan in 2005, with temporary capital of Juba.  The country has already experienced controversy over media freedom.  Darfur is not far away. 

Africa would present opportunities for faith-based development projects, such as clean water, but it would be very difficult for many civilians to go there, not only because of primitive conditions, but because of lawlessness and disregard for human rights in many governments.  For example, Uganda has a reputation for horrible anti-gay policies.  Likewise, it would be difficult for contractor employers to recruit suitable people who could go and lvie there.

But the George couple did focus mainly on the missionary aspect, of winning converts to Christianity.  I don’t recruit or convert people, and likewise I don’t like to be recruited!

At the service, the dire situation in Egypt was mentioned.  It was reported that nineteen Christian churches in Cairo had been burned, and that Christians are “scapegoated” for feuds among Muslims amounting to Civil War.  Somehow, that reminds me of the scapegoating of gays in Russia.  

Later today, I saw billboards from Avaaz (link) at the Metro this one about Syria.

Update: Aug. 21

There are stories in the Washington Post (such as front page Aug. 21) by Abigail Hauslohner about the burning of Christian churches in Egypt, over 60 of them, many in the Nile Valley, apparently by vigilantes or rogue groups as police look the other way.  Typical story here.

Update: Aug. 24

The Washington Post has an important editorial on the situation with Christians (especially Coptic) in Egypt here

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Anti-gay law in Russia could just loop us back to Cold War; the dangers of Western intellectualism

It’s getting dangerous out there. 

Russia is between a rock and hard place.  Assuming the Olympic Committee keeps the status quo (it probably will), there will surely be massive demonstrations against its “anti-gay-propaganda” law next winter at Sochi, tempting them into either backing down or making a spectacle.

The Olympic Committee could cancel the event and move it to another country for 2015, perhaps (unlikely).  That would only give the Russians more reason to scapegoat gays.  Worse, it would drive Russia back into being an “enemy” and reignite a new Cold War.

The anti-gay law in Russia could be the result of something more radical gay activists in the US and West warn about: when intellectuals question the “immutability” theory and spin various moral theories (even with politically libertarian intentions), authoritarian regimes in other countries (especially poorer ones) jump and find excuse for repression in these arguments.  In Uganda, the anti-gay movement seems to have been stoked by elements of the US religious right. 

On the other hand, Russia reportedly has been helping radical or rogue states, like Syria, under the table.
And Egypt breaks out into intractable violence, becoming a most unsafe place for journalists and “tourists”.  And in Syria, there are massive refugees and Aleppo is in ruins.

We’ve almost forgotten George Meek’s work on the West Bank issue.  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Israel aims to demand military conscription from ultra-Orthodox Haredim; recall controversy over US draft deferments in 1960's?

In a measure that recalls the moral controversy over student deferments from the military draft in the U.S. during the Vietnam war, Israel’s parliament seriously considers a plan, promised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to require ultra-Orthodox Haredim (or “Haredi” Jews) to become subject to the country’s military draft.  The front page story in the Washington Post by William Booth and Ruth Eglash appeared Saturday, August 10, link here
The Orthodox are dedicated scholars of the Talmud and Talmud (at a “yeshiva”), but are seen by regular Israeli citizens as “parasites” because their large about of subsidized unemployment as well as evasion of the risks of military service.

The proposal would take about four years to implement. 

The Haredim have high birth rates, adding possibly to debates on population demographics, too.
The article mentions the idea of “social contract” as a moral imperative, in a context somewhat forgotten in the U.S.
There is a similar story in the Jerusalem Post by Jeremy Sharon here

Some Haredi do enlist voluntarily now. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Apparent person-to-person transmission of H7N9 bird flu is reported in eastern China

The British Medical Journal is reporting possible transmission of the H7N9 bird flu virus person-to-person in China, in the eastern inland part of the country.  This occurred in March 2013 between a father (index case) and daughter who cared for him and then herself died.  The link for the story is here

It appears that other family members or neighbors were exposed and did not become ill; likewise, there haven’t been other incidents between March and April. Sanjay Gupta discussed the report on CNN Wednesday morning.
CBS news has a layman’s story and video report here
The suggestion so far is that repeated close contact can lead to person-to-person transmission of this form of bird flu.  Could it become a pandemic if an infected person flew on a commercial plane?

It seems imperative that vaccine work on H7N9 an H5N1 move as quickly as possible.  The public health measures (“social distancing”) can become quite disruptive indeed.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

China will change one-child policy; comparison with Russia shows irony

China is seriously considering making many incremental changes to its one-child per family policy, which used to its mechanism for population control.
Some of the ideas include allowing a second child when one parent is an only child, which often is allowed in rural areas already.  Atlantic wire has a story here. China may allow all couples to have two children by 2015.
It sees ironic to ponder China’s birth control policy in light of the concerns of many countries, such as Singapore, South Korea and Russia, as well as many European countries, about low birth rates among non-immigrant populations, which means an aging population (hard to support) and various political consequences.  In Russia, the low birth rate issue (and Putin’s “conception days”) seems to drive the recent law against “pro gay” speech out of fear it would encourage young men not to want to have children.
It stills seems interesting to us how authoritarian governments see morality in terms of molding individuals into serving common interests rather than just their own.  

Update:  Aug. 9

William Wan in the Washington Post reports on parents who lose their only children to accidents and are left without lineage, here. This seems to be a source of personal shame in rural China.

Furthermore, the Post is reporting that China's breastfeeding rate is among the lowest in the developed world.

Also, on "Millionaire" on ABC today, there was a question about what "National Day" in Singapore is about -- procreation!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Now South Korean government wants to counter low birth rate by matchmaking

Now South Korea is reported to be concerned about the low birth rates and an aging population, as in the story in the New York Times Monday by Su-Hyun Lee, “Mom wants you married? So does the state”, link here.
As in many Asian societies, courtship and marriage used to be a much more formal experience than it is today.  And the article notes an odd complaint that women, having become more self-sufficient, have become too “picky” about what kind of man makes the grade to be eligible to father her children.  But when I was of college age, I wondered about the same kinds of standards being applied to me, or to others who maybe “didn’t quite have it.”

It seems rather scary for a government to sponsor dating parties. 

South Korea, at least, has not taken the route of Russia, scapegoating gays for its falling birth rates (as I have covered recently on my GLBT blog).  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Embassy closings: Al Qaeda chatter most alarming since 2001

Intelligence chatter is the most specific and provocative since any time after 9/11,  and there are eerie parallels to the bizarre summer of 2001, some observers say, as in a Huffington Post story Sunday here
The chatter, although much of it seems related to one specific intercepted message, resulted in the indefinite closures of US embassies in at least twenty-one countries in Muslim portions of the world. And some of the most specific chatter comes from Yemen.

CNN says (story) it has agreed with the administration not to publish the most sensitive details it has learned.

However, ABC stations report that the chatter or intercepted messages express unusual "confidence" that an attack will occur, and there are some amazing references to surgical implants inside possible suicide bombers or moles.  

The crisis may seem politically motivated to calm the resentment of NSA surveillance given the attention to Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, and Snowden.  The specific intelligence seems foreign and completely unrelated to the ordinary communications among Americans.

It might presage the sort of attacks that occurred at embassies in Africa in 1998, or perhaps around the Mediterranean (the Cole), or an attack like that in Libya.  That could be the most likely.
At very worst, however, it could suggest the possibility of a major WMD incident in a western country, maybe even Britain or the US. (That wouldn't involve "surgery" however.)
This intelligence does suggest some sort of organized planning overseas, not a “home made” essentially lone wolf attack with instructions on the Internet by self-radicalized individuals such as in Boston. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

We're even more dependent on imported labor and unusual raw materials than we realzie

Apple has attracted attention lately by a move to make more different kinds of iPhones (including budget versions) and my “reshoring” some manufacturing  back in the US, but someone sent an email with this link showing how much of the labor and raw materials from our technology comes from overseas, here
One of the important concepts is “speed” as well as “cost”.  Another important factor is availability of unusual minerals (some are “rare earth” elements you learn about on the Periodic Table in Chemistry 101), some of which come from Inner Mongolia and China. Some manufacturing is easier if one near the natural resources.  But still a major issue is social: the ability in developing countries to get workers to live in quasi-military dorms and work for low pay.
The link suggests that in general it’s not as easy to get core manufacturing jobs back here as we would like.  And that leaves our economy very vulnerable to infrastructure shocks, as from storms or dangers to the power grid, as I discussed on the Issues blog today.  

Apple says it will do "assembly" of some phones in the US; that's not total manufacture.