Global News Blog
When the United States begins talks with Iran over the future of its nuclear program in November, the lead US negotiator will be Wendy Sherman, a former social worker and Democratic political activist profiled by Yochi Dreazen in Foreign Policy.
“Sherman faces the extraordinarily difficult task of determining whether the moderate tone of Iran’s new leader, Hasan Rouhani, means that Tehran is genuinely prepared to open its nuclear sites to international inspection and halt its enrichment of certain types of uranium or is simply trying to wring concessions from the West,” notes Mr. Dreazen.
To her role as undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Ms. Sherman brings experience from the 1990s negotiation with North Korea about limiting development and sale of its long-range missiles. That came after a stint running Maryland’s child welfare office and heading up Emily’s List, an organization that funds women running for office as pro-choice Democrats.
A ‘control freak’ administration
The Obama administration came to office proclaiming its commitment to transparency and accountability. But many journalists are alarmed by the White House’s efforts to curb the routine disclosure of information in the name of protecting national security, saying it hinders efforts to expose potential government misdeeds.
Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. studied the Obama administration’s relations with the press for the Committee to Protect Journalists and wrote about his findings in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post. Given the Obama administration’s use of the 1917 Espionage Act to identify and prosecute government officials who talk to reporters, “journalists who cover national security are facing vast and unprecedented challenges in their efforts to hold the government accountable to its citizens,” Mr. Downie writes. “This is the most closed, control-freak administration I have covered,” David Sanger, a 20-year veteran of The New York Times, told Downie.
Lessons from Reagan and O’Neill
The ugly process leading to a temporary deal in Congress to fund the government and raise the nation’s debt ceiling prompted Charlie Cook (no relation), a respected nonpartisan political analyst, to analyze in the National Journal what has changed in Washington since Republican Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill was speaker of the House.
“[T]here are some current members of the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle, who would have been a credit to any Congress … but that list is small and over the last 30 years is getting steadily smaller,” writes Mr. Cook. “Increasingly we are seeing more members … who seem to have little sense of customs, traditions, and responsibilities of the institutions that they have been given the honor or privilege to serve.”
Among the notable aspects of the Reagan-O’Neill relationship, Cook argues, were a respect for positions of authority, a preference to play by the rules, a respect for election results, and the ability to talk despite disagreements.
How Amazon became the everything store
In 18 years founder Jeff Bezos has built Amazon.com into a store that sells $75 billion worth of merchandise, rivals Apple with its Kindle e-readers, competes with IBM as a data service provider, sells both diapers and high-end art, and is expected to announce a set-top box for televisions. Along the way, Amazon turned Mr. Bezos into a billionaire.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Brad Stone reports that all of this was not accomplished solely by charm. Bezos, known for his uproarious laugh, nevertheless favors a notoriously confrontational management style and frequently flies into rages that staffers call “nutters.” Through it all he has remained singularly focused on customer satisfaction. Bezos is known for e-mailing customer complaints to managers with the addition of one character – a question mark. “When Amazon employees get a Bezos question mark email, they react as though they’ve discovered a ticking time bomb,” Mr. Stone writes.
A witness at JFK’s assassination
With the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, Americans will once again be exposed to the iconic pictures taken by Dallas garment factory co-owner Abraham Zapruder. He was an 8-mm movie enthusiast who happened to be filming when the president’s motorcade made its fateful trip.
Former Life magazine editor Richard Stolley recounts in Time magazine the mad scramble by journalists to acquire the rights to publish the sometimes gory but historic images and why Life magazine won that battle. Life was still in its heyday and could afford to bid $50,000 for print rights and later offer $100,000 more for TV rights. But other news organizations also were prepared to make big offers. Zapruder’s business partner told Stolley he prevailed because of his considerate treatment of Zapruder and his office assistant on a day when other reporters were being extremely aggressive. According to Zapruder’s partner, Life got the film, “because you were a gentleman.”
A few dozen Guatemalan children were cheering and waving blue EU balloons and flags upon our arrival at the village of Xecaquixcan, as if I was a member of their national soccer team that had just returned from a successful championship.
It was the first day of my visit to the Central American country, accompanying a delegation of the European Union, together with eleven other European journalists. The goal: to inspect the results of European development aid.
The scene at Xecaquixcan would be repeated by other Guatemalans in the following days. Children waved balloons and flags in the small town of Pamumus upon the arrival of the European Commissioner of Development and the country's vice-president. A group of coffee producers had traveled 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Huehuetenango to the capital Guatemala City to express their gratitude for the support that the European Union had given them.
“We have benefited from the solidarity of EU citizens. You are among people that appreciate and love you,” one of them said.
I felt increasingly awkward.
Not only because I, like most Europeans, am no longer used to experiencing the European Union as a popular institution – trust in the European Union by its citizens has slowly dropped to 31 percent, according to the most recent Eurobarometer poll.
But I also worry that “the solidarity of the EU citizens” that the Guatemalans are so thankful for might not be as large as they think.
Sure, verbal support for development aid is still very high: According to another poll, 85 percent of the surveyed said it is “important to help people in developing countries.” But that has gone down from 89 percent two years earlier – those who think it is not important went from 9 percent to 13 percent.
And more importantly, looking at the level of specific member states of the European Union, you can see that support for aid is under increasing pressure.
Around one in three citizens in Bulgaria, Greece, and Slovenia said that aid should be reduced because of the current economic situation. In my native country, The Netherlands, Mark Rutte's government, the second that the Liberal party leader has headed, has agreed to continue cutting funds for development contributions.
That Mr. Rutte's first coalition – which needed support from the party of populist Geert Wilders, a staunch opponent of development aid – had cut aid was not a surprise. But in the current coalition, announced a year ago this month, Rutte's sole coalition partner is the Social Democrats, traditionally a party of international solidarity. Nonetheless, they have accepted Rutte's push for more budget cuts to international aid.
After the tour in Guatemala, I sat down with the European commissioner for development, Andris Piebalgs, in a hotel in the capital.
“It's a pity,” he says of the languishing support for development aid. I ask him how he would increase solidarity in the European member states. “Basically, I don't know. I don't know. I just hope that....” He sighs. “Basically, I don't hope anything. What happens is: Whenever there are difficulties, countries are very inward-looking. The only answer I think, is if the economy recovers. Then solidarity will become stronger.”
For now though, the Guatemalans seem safe. During his visit, Mr. Piebalgs announced that between 2014 and 2020 the EU will provide 775 million euro ($1.1 billion) in bilateral assistance to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador – if the European Parliament and the European Council, the body of government leaders, approve.
When voters in the tiny country of Estonia, along the Baltic Sea, elected their local representatives on Sunday they made history in more than one way.
Almost 13 percent of voters – and 35 percent in Tallinn, the capital – cast their vote online this time. That’s more than ever before since the Baltic country pioneered e-voting – and e-government in general, in 2004.
But there was another breakthrough. In Tallinn, residents elected Abdul Turay, a black Briton, to sit on the city council, making him the first black person to hold an important political mandate in Estonia. Mr. Turay, a respected political columnist for Estonia’s bestselling daily, ran on the Social Democratic ticket.
“Something like him we've never had before,“ says Andrei Hvostov, a well-known Estonian novelist. “It's a sign that Estonia is opening itself.“
Estonia, under the iron grip of communism until 1990, is a largely white nation. There are very few black people or non-Christians. There is ethnic tension that comes from the mutual mistrust between ethnic Estonians and the Russian-speaking minority who settled in Estonia after what Estonians regard as a 50-year occupation by the Soviet Union. Russian-speakers make up a third of Estonia’s 1.3 million residents.
Lately signs of what some say is a latent racism have bubbled to the surface. Music groups PWA – Preserve White Aryans – and RMV – Racially Motivated Violence – perform for neo-Nazi skinheads and sympathizers. And there has been the emergence of the far-right Conservative People's Party with its slogan, “If you are black – go back."
During the campaign, Martin Helme of this new party told journalists that Turay was "just another argument against Estonia being a part of the EU, because in my eyes, Estonia is meant for Estonians and decisions about Estonia should be made by Estonians.”
Estonia’s sense of national identity is remarkably strong, linked to the country’s tiny size and its sense of vulnerability, most notably in regard to Russia, the dreaded neighbor. "It's a miracle that we exist at all,“ says Mr. Hvostov. He argues that this sense of nationalism has led to Estonian skepticism toward minorities.
Nevertheless, Turay’s victory holds huge symbolic significance.
"It is a sign of maturity, a sign that people do not accept the type of latent racism [that[ is here,” says Tallinn resident Maris Hellrand.
Ms. Hellrand explains that when Turay started to write as a columnist, people were not sure he actually existed. "When Abdul started writing in the daily and [there was] a picture of a black man, nobody believed that, that a black actually represented them."
Toomas Mattson, who works for Estonia's National Audit Office in Tallinn, gave Turay his vote because “It was very important to show ... that black people can be electable in the eyes of Estonian voters,” he says. “Estonia must be a country where people are regarded by their qualities, not by the color of their skin, or language they speak as a native one.”
Turay says he got involved in politics to help make Tallinn a better place for his son. "Writing about issues for the newspaper was not enough," he says.
Turay feels what he represents is European-ness, not blackness. He embodies the new Europe, an increasingly borderless continent.
"Precisely because there are no blacks here, I have no natural constituency, nobody to speak to as a black person, I cannot have a message that talks about black issues," he says. "So race literally doesn't matter."
Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party star whose fall from grace led to one of the biggest political scandals in recent Chinese memory, lost his court appeal today when a high court upheld his September conviction for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.
Less than an hour after the appeals hearing began, the People's High Court in Shangdong issued a ruling that it "rejected the appeal and upheld the first instance judgment of life imprisonment," according to Xinhua, China's state-run news agency.
The court's decision was largely seen by Mr. Bo and his allies as predetermined: "lawyers and people close to the Bo family [...] say the outcome was almost certainly decided by the party's top leadership after months of intense negotiations between his allies and opponents," reports the Wall Street Journal.
The chances of Bo successfully overturning the latest ruling are slim. As Hanna Beech at Time points out:
This final dishonoring of China’s most charismatic and controversial politician was never in any doubt. While appeals are technically part of the Chinese judicial system, they are almost never successful in high-profile cases. For more than a year, the Chinese Communist Party made it clear that Bo would fall — and Chinese courts are bound to follow the mandate of the ruling party.
Bo, the former mayor of Chongqing, a major city in southwestern China, was until 2012 a member of China's elite Politburo and a rising star seen as a likely choice for the Standing Committee, the Communist party's most powerful body.
But Bo's downfall began last year when his Chongqing police chief unsuccessfully tried to defect to the US by seeking political asylum at a US Consulate in Chengdu. The subsequent investigation revealed that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered British businessman Neil Haywood. Both Bo's wife and the police chief were convicted, and Bo was charged this summer with covering up their crimes and accepting $3.3 million in bribes.
During the trial, the biggest political spectacle in China in nearly 40 years, Bo defended himself vigorously, arguing that the charges against him were false and that his wife's testimony against him was unreliable. The Chinese public followed the oft-lurid details of the trial - including an alleged affair between Bo's wife and the police chief - to an unprecedented degree through an official court feed on the Chinese micro-blogging website Sino Weibo.
Despite the degree of transparency, the trial served as a public disowning of Bo by the ruling elite who have pledged to root out corruption among party leaders, rather than a trial by rule of law, some analysts say.
"Bo Xilai's [scandals] caused the Communist Party such embarrassment that it had no choice but to act," writes the BBC's John Sudworth. "The inclination though was almost certainly already there. Bo's rare charisma and unusually open ambition in a grey-suited world won him enemies and made him a threat."
When Bo's initial sentence was handed down in September, activist lawyer Yuan Yulai told The Christian Science Monitor that the trial was viewed as symbolic: "This was a political trial, not a trial by law. The point is that life imprisonment means the end of Bo’s political career.”
Chinese officials may have chosen to give Bo a life in prison over the death penalty – which was another option – in order to avoid making him a martyr, The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reported in September:
"Though Bo could have faced the death penalty, the authorities did not want to make a martyr of Bo, who still enjoys considerable support both among the public and in some quarters of the Communist party."
Bo may be eligible for medical parole in seven years, but he has effectively run out of options for now.
Yet Bo may be looking at the example of his father, former party leader Bo Yibo, who returned from a politically motivated prison sentence during the Cultural Revolution to become a beloved political leader.
"I will follow in his footsteps… I will wait quietly in prison," Bo wrote last month in a letter to his family published in The South China Morning Post.
Bo is expected to be held in Qincheng prison in Beijing, "a relatively comfortable high-security jail for high-profile offenders where, according to Chinese press reports, inmates do not have to wear prison uniform, live in spacious cells with en-suite toilets, and enjoy generous creature comforts," the Monitor reports.
Pope Francis II has pulled some surprises out of his bejewelled mitre during his first seven months as pope. Today's announcement that he suspended Germany's "Bishop of Bling," Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, has Germans wondering whether the bishop is being gently removed from his post, or tucked away just long enough for the media glare to fade.
The bishop was found to have laid out $42 million to expand and customize his diocesan residence in Limburg, Germany, overspending estimates by around $34 million and allegedly lying to conceal the costs.The Frankfurter Allgemeine reports that a Hamburg prosecutor has also charged him with signing a false affidavit about taking a first-class flight to India.
Pope Francis assured the public that he had been "comprehensively and objectively informed" of these charges. Last Friday a committee chaired by Archbishop Robert Zolltisch began an audit of the project's accounts, which could take several months.
"As we await the results of this audit and the confirmation of related responsibilities, the Holy See considers it advisable to grant [Tebartz van Elst] a period outside of the diocese," explained the Vatican.
But some members of the diocese are impatient to see him go. "This does not fully free our diocese," a member of the Limburg cathedral chapter told Der Spiegel.
And a senior member of the Catholic relief organization Caritas told the magazine, "The diocese has been driven entirely against Tebartz-van Elst. There's absolutely no future with him. Do they really know in Rome what happened here, or don't they want the truth?"
Der Speigel reports that Catholics in the Limburg Diocese are "disconcerted" by the pope's action, worrying that Tebartz-van Elst could be reinstated as early as Christmas.
But a columnist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine pointed out that suspending judgement is only fair, until the audit is complete. "A good employer does not fire his workers before that," writes Jörg Bremer.
Pope Francis has recalled Vicar General Wolfgang Rösch from a pilgrimage down the Santiago de Compostela trail to run the diocese in the interim. This choice, in particular, has made some question how definitive the suspension might be.
"Under normal circumstances, a vicar general serves as the right hand of a bishop, the second-in-command in a Catholic diocese," writes Berlin Morgenpost. "If he is now standing in for the boss, this is a similar arrangement to when a bishop is on sick leave, and will return to his post."
"Has the Vatican strengthened the controversial bishop or has it neutralized him?" asks the paper.
Suddeutsch Zeitung considers the bishop's ultimate removal inevitable. "It is hardly conceivable that Tebartz-van Elst will return to his heaven after this purgatory," writes the paper. "But the provisional decision has not snubbed him. It leaves space for a procedure in which the allegations against the bishop can be reviewed thoroughly. The papal decision doesn't endorse the bishop, his deceptions, nor his poor judgement. But it also does not kowtow to the critics who have been quick to declare a guilty verdict."
Meanwhile, the scandal has begun to chip away at Tebartz-van Elst's flock. "Last year, around 300 Catholics officially deregistered themselves in Limburg, while up to 30 a day have left in recent weeks" The Monitor reported yesterday.
German citizens pay a church tax when they register civilly as either Catholics or Protestants; as a result, the German Catholic Church is the wealthiest in Europe.
It was one of the biggest passenger ships to capsize, and it could require a vessel of equally epic proportions to remove the Costa Concordia from the rocky shores off the coast of Tuscany.
The 950 foot-long cruise liner ran into rocks and toppled over in shallow water off the island of Giglio in January 2012, killing 32 passengers. It was raised from its semi-submerged position last month in an ambitious feat of engineering involving a multinational team of 500 specialists.
Now engineers are looking at how to tow the battered, algae-covered cruise ship, which is twice the weight of the Titanic, away from Giglio, part of an archipelago and marine sanctuary.
One of the likely options is that it will be “piggy-backed” on top of the world's heaviest lifting ship, a giant vessel called the Vanguard. The semi-submersible vessel is owned by a Dutch marine salvage company, Royal Boskalis NV, which announced this month that it had won a $30 million contract for the operation.
The Vanguard, which is normally used for moving oil and gas drilling platforms, can carry up to 120,000 tons. The Concordia weighs 114,500 tons, although that has now increased after huge steel boxes were welded to its hull to help pull it into an upright position.
The idea is that the Vanguard would come alongside the Concordia, flood its ballast tanks with water and sink its deck beneath the water line. The Concordia would then be maneuvered to float above the Vanguard, which would be refloated with the cruise ship on its deck.
Having one of the world’s biggest cruise ships on top of the largest lifting vessel in existence would make for a eye-catching spectacle, and an engineer’s fantasy.
Costa Cruises, the Italian company which owns the Concordia, said that using the Vanguard was one of two options being studied.
The other, more traditional method would be to refloat the cruise ship with the aid of the steel compartments welded to its flanks and then tow it away with tugboats.
“The final decision will be taken after we have finished evaluating the damage done to the cruise ship. But at least we know the Vanguard is booked and available should we decide that is the way to go,” said Rosella Carrara, a Costa Cruises spokeswoman.
The successful raising of the Concordia was hailed as a much-needed boost to Italian national pride – despite the fact that the salvage teams came from nearly 20 nations. But the deliberations over where the Concordia will be taken to be cut up for scrap is becoming mired in a familiar mix of political meddling, bureaucratic ineptitude, and squabbling between different parts of Italy.
The nearest port is Piombino but its harbor isn’t deep enough to accommodate the ship and would need to undergo significant dredging and expansion. That work has not even started – even though the Concordia is expected to be removed from Giglio in the spring of 2014.
“They’ll never be able to do it in time,” says one British maritime engineer who was not authorized to talk to the media but who worked for months on the raising of the liner.
Another candidate is Palermo in Sicily, which has a bigger port but is much further away from Giglio.
With time ticking away and no decision yet made, Italy runs the risk of losing out on the contract altogether – the latest suggestion is that the Concordia could be taken all the way to Smyrna in Turkey or even to India to be dismantled.
The ship’s captain is currently on trial for manslaughter and other charges.
For the fifth day in a row Australia’s largest city has been choking from the smoke of the massive bushfires burning just a few miles from its outer suburbs. For any Sydney residents who might not be watching the blanket coverage of the crisis on the nightly news, the dirty gray skies and the blood-red sunsets are reminder enough of the infernos raging to the south and west of the city of 4.6 million.
The fires, which have been labeled the worst since the 1960s, prompted the premier of New South Wales to issue a state of emergency on Sunday, giving the authorities the power to evict residents and demolish fire-affected buildings. Strong winds and heat wave conditions forecast for the next two days have led to warnings that two large fires burning in the Blue Mountains National Park could merge and form an unstoppable mega-fire with a front hundreds of miles long.
The potential threat to the city’s outskirts if such a situation develops means that the fires are no longer an existential threat. A large number of Sydney-siders have weekend homes in the mountains and others have friends or family who have lost their properties or have had to evacuate.
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Already nearly a dozen villages have been isolated by the blazes, including Mount Wilson, which was used as one of the filming locations for Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby because of its beautiful gardens.
Of the 220 residents, 60 have decided to stay. Rosie Walsh who owns a bed-and-breakfast in the village said the tight-knit community had organized a roster to feed about 100 firefighters from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“Mount Wilson has the best bakers. We've made tons of blueberry muffins,” Ms. Walsh told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Elsewhere, firefighters received help of a different kind when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott turned up unannounced to help Rural Fire Service volunteers in Bilpin on the eastern edge of the mountains.
It was only after one of the firefighters posted a photograph of Mr. Abbott on Twitter did the news of the prime minister’s 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. weekend shift come out. A trained firefighting volunteer, Mr. Abbott vowed during his recent campaign that he would continue his community activities, which also involve working in remote Aboriginal communities, if elected prime minister.
Meanwhile, police have arrested a 15-year-old boy and charged him with deliberately starting a fire near Port Stephens on the New South Wales central coast. An investigation is also underway to determine whether army explosives training may have been responsible for igniting the worst of the fires near Lithgow.
For now, however, the priority is on saving lives and property.
“It’s remote, its rugged, its spectacular,” says NSW National Parks deputy incident controller, David Crust of the terrain the firefighters are up against. “But what is more challenging is that there’s very limited access and we’ve got settlements in pockets throughout the fire. It’s been a challenge to mange the fires around those communities.”
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As air pollution levels in Beijing hovered between “hazardous” and “very unhealthy” according to the US embassy’s monitoring device on Friday, the Beijing city government unveiled a new plan to try to get the capital’s air quality under control.
Cracking the whip, it promised that whenever the authorities foresee three consecutive days of what they call “serious” pollution they will ban half the city’s cars from the roads.
Car exhaust fumes, along with emissions from factories and coal-fired power plants, are a major cause of the heavy pollution that is becoming a serious health hazard for Beijing residents.
But the news of a crackdown is not as good as it looks. The Beijing municipal authorities have set the bar so high that only when pollution is at its choking, eye-watering worst will they limit traffic.
What China calls “serious” pollution, measuring over 300 on the Air Quality Index, would be called “hazardous” in the United States, where citizens would be warned to “avoid all outdoor activity.”
An AQI of 300 is 12 times higher than the level recommended as safe by the World Health Organization. The US Environmental Protection Agency says such a reading is “extremely rare” in the United States, occurring downwind of forest fires, for example.
So, only when meteorologists expect – for three days in a row – to see pollution so bad that Americans would be told to stay home will a “red alert” kick in here.
That happened only four times even last winter, when pollution reached the highest levels ever measured in Beijing, suggesting that the newly announced measures will only rarely be enforced.
When they are imposed, they will slap alternate-day driving rules on automobiles, ban trucks carrying dirt from the city’s streets, halt work at some factories and some construction sites, and – rather quaintly – prohibit the lighting of barbecues and the use of fireworks. Schools will also be closed.
The government has taken increasing measures in recent weeks to try to stave off a repeat of last winter’s “airpocalypse,” when air pollution reached hazardous levels on 20 days in January. That prompted widespread anger among the city’s residents.
Last month the state-run news agency Xinhua said that in November Beijing will reduce the number of car license plates it issues each month, so as to keep the total number of cars on the capital’s roads below six million by the end of 2017. There were 5.2 million vehicles registered in Beijing at the end of last year, up from three million five years ago.
At a meeting of provincial governments from the worst affected northern part of China in September, Beijing promised to cut its annual output of PM2.5, the smallest and most dangerous particulates, by 25 percent by 2017. But Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli warned at the meeting that the fight against pollution is a “long term, arduous and complicated task.”
Oct. 9 marked the first anniversary of the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai by Taliban extremists while she was sitting in her school bus. But instead of silencing her, the unsuccessful attack has made Malala a world-renowned spokeswoman for education, especially for girls and women. Recovered from her wound, she’s back in school in Birmingham, England.
“The voice of the girl whom the Taliban tried to silence a year ago has been amplified beyond what anyone could have thought possible,” writes Mishal Husain for BBC News Magazine.
“When I ask her what she thinks the militants achieved that day, she smiles. ‘I think they may be regretting that they shot Malala,’ she says. ‘Now she is heard in every corner of the world.’”
A real ‘Breaking Bad’ story
Ross William Ulbricht ran a stealthy website called Silk Road that trafficked in drugs and anything else people wanted to buy without the prying eyes of governments. He was so successful that he may have taken in $80 million in the 30 months the site was active.
But US federal agents finally caught up with Mr. Ulbricht while he was tapping away on his laptop at a library in San Francisco. How they managed to find him is the story told by Nate Anderson and Cyrus Farivar on the tech website Ars Technica.
Apparently, the writers say, Ulbricht felt his illegal operation was really a beacon of “freedom over tyranny,” not a criminal enterprise. The FBI disagreed.
“Ulbricht was actually making sloppy mistakes from the start,” write Mr. Anderson and Mr. Farivar. “And it didn’t take technical back doors to find him; it just took a lot of solid detective work, some subpoenas, and a search engine.”
Assad explains presidential ‘mistakes’
Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine offers an in-depth interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In an article by Dieter Bednarz and Klaus Brinkbäumer, Mr. Assad professes his love for his country and his willingness to consider stepping down from office next year (“If I no longer know that I have the will of the people behind me, then I will not run,” he says.)
The interviewers get him to admit, obliquely at least, to shortcomings. “There were personal mistakes made by individuals. We all make mistakes,” Assad says. “Even a president makes mistakes. But even if there were mistakes in the implementation, our decisions were still fundamentally the right ones.”
Pressed on the biggest question, he remains defiant. “We did not use chemical weapons” on unarmed civilians, including children, he says. “This is a misstatement.”
Keeper of the conservative flame
Love him or loathe him, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a continuing font of controversial opinions – “either a demigod on stilts or a menace to democracy, depending on which side of the aisle” the observer sits, writes Jennifer Senior prefacing her interview with Justice Scalia in New York magazine.
“Scalia is perhaps more responsible than any American alive for the mainstreaming of conservative ideas” about the law, she says.
But he doesn’t seem to mind drawing fire for his views. “I am something of a contrarian, I suppose. I feel less comfortable when everybody agrees with me,” he tells Ms. Senior. “I probably believe that the worst opinions in my court have been unanimous. Because there’s nobody on the other side pointing out all the flaws.”
The piece is laced with intriguing tidbits. Scalia gets most of his news, he says, not from newspapers or newscasts but from talk radio commentators. And he’s upset by the profanity he hears in movies and on TV.
Fifty years from now, Scalia may be known as “an old fogey” who was “on the losing side of everything,” he says. “And I don’t care.”
I’m sorry for your time, please read this
When in doubt, apologize. Even if it’s not your fault. If you do, people will trust you.
That’s the conclusion of a study reported by Tom Jacobs in the Pacific Standard. “In our minds, anyone who takes note of our misfortune, and expresses dismay over it, is impressively empathetic and thus worthy of our confidence,” writes Mr. Jacobs in explaining the research, which included an experiment in which people at a train station on a rainy day were asked if they would lend their cellphone to a stranger to make a call. If the stranger first said he was “so sorry about the rain!” the cellphone owner was much more likely to lend his phone – even though the rain was no one’s fault.
“By issuing a superfluous apology,” the researchers are quoted as saying, “the apologizer communicates that he has taken the victim’s perspective,
acknowledge[s] adversity, and expresses regret” – which increases the level of trust.
(If this column has displeased you, I apologize.)
Edward Snowden, the fugitive ex-National Security Agency contractor, has hit back at his critics in an interview with The New York Times in which he insists he couldn't have handed any US national security secrets to his Russian hosts because he didn't bring any with him on his flight to Moscow in June.
In the interview, which the Times says took place over several days this month, Mr. Snowden is quoted as saying that he gave all the NSA files he'd fled with to journalists, presumably the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, whom he met with in Hong Kong in June.
"It wouldn’t serve the public interest," to bring such documents to Russia, he said. "What would be the unique value of personally carrying another copy of the materials onward?"
"There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents," he added.
The first direct contact between Snowden and US journalists is yet another sign that he may be ready to step back into the spotlight after remaining virtually incommunicado at his secret retreat somewhere in Russia for more than two months, since walking out of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport with Russian refugee papers that are good for a year.
Last week his father, Lon Snowden, arrived in Moscow for a family visit, and returned to the US this week saying his son is "comfortable, he’s happy, and he’s absolutely committed to what he has done".
As an NSA contract analyst, Snowden covertly copied thousands of top secret documents and spirited them away to Hong Kong, where he turned them over to journalists. Those materials have fueled an ongoing wave of revelations published by newspapers that have been given access to them, including the Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Four US whistleblowers also visited Snowden last week to give him the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. The prize is named after a Vietnam-era CIA agent who tried to fight systematic under-estimations of enemy Viet Cong forces within the system, and later expressed regret that he didn't take his information to the public. A biographical review on the CIA's official website says of Sam Adams that, "in his 10-year career as a CIA analyst caused more trouble than any analyst before or since."
One of the US whistleblowers who met with Snowden last week, former Department of Justice ethics counselor Jesselyn Radack, detailed the visit in this week's The Nation. She says they found Snowden happy, healthy, in good spirits and concentrated on completing his mission to "restore the democracy he once knew" by reining in the surveillance state through public disclosure.
She said that Snowden follows the news media closely and "is pleased with reform-minded reactions to his revelations, both in America and abroad."
Snowden is also deeply worried about his own personal security, she added.
"The issue of his security is paramount.... As for who is providing for his security – WikiLeaks? FSB? – this question is borne not out of a concern for his safety, but rather a US desire to perpetuate a false narrative that Snowden is being controlled by the Russians. I can say with certainty: Edward Snowden is not being controlled by the Russians, or anyone for that matter," Ms. Radack writes.
In his own interview with the Times, Snowden disputes the main criticism of his actions offered by President Obama and other US officials, that he ought to have remained in the US and tried to correct the alleged abuses he had uncovered through internal channels.
He said the system of internal checks within the NSA "does not work.... You have to report wrongdoing to those most responsible for it." If he had tried to do that, he said, he would have been "discredited and ruined."
Snowden added that morale within the NSA is poor. "There’s a lot of dissent – palpable with some, even." People are kept silent through "fear and a false image of patriotism," which he called, "obedience to authority," according to the Times.
He added that he has never considered defecting, either to Russia or China, and insisted that he was not under Russian state control and was free to move around.