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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.
Any time Michelle Obama appears in a new dress, it sells out within days. But not all designers appreciate the free advertising they get when the political classes don their products.
In Belgium, a far-right party used the famed stilettos of a French shoe designer in one of their provocative, anti-Islam campaigns. And so the designer, Christian Louboutin, opened a case that rested on questions of whether legally purchased goods can be used as they want, even for a political purpose. A court this week sided with Mr. Louboutin, who claimed the campaign tarnished his image, according to the BBC.
The party, Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest, used a photo of the leg of Anke Van dermeersch, a former Miss Belgium who is now a senator of the party. She wears the iconic red-soled stiletto designed by Louboutin. And up the side of her leg is a list of words that starts on the bottom with “Sharia compatible” at the foot to “stoning” at the upper thigh.
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The group was ordered to take down the posters within 24 hours by a court in Antwerp this week. Ms. Van dermeersch, who reportedly showed up in court wearing Louboutin's shoes, called the ruling the equivalent of mandating a political dress code. She said, according to New York Magazine:
Are politicians still allowed to dress the way they want? It seems that not only Islam is intolerant … A legal judgment on a dress code for politicians would be a surreal precedent. Apart from the absurd argument concerning reputational damage, there is no legal basis for such a dress code.
Vlaams Belang quickly published a new advertisement on Twitter, with the same message and nearly identical stilettos – this time, however, with yellow soles.
One fashion website notes that Louboutin's motive to protect his red soles in imagery, as he has done before, is "undoubtedly a move to protect business in the Middle East – with luxury sales in the region projected at $7.69 billion, it’s the 10th biggest luxury market in the world and growing, according to Arabian Business."
But such provocations against Islam expand beyond the market, becoming potentially socially explosive. Remember the brutal murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam, after his controversial movie "Submission," which included an image of the words of the Quran written across the naked body of a Muslim woman.
The move comes as anti-immigrant parties on the fringes have gained increasing footholds across Europe. On Monday, French newspapers were dominated by the victory of the anti-immigrant National Front (FN) candidate in southern France. Last year the FN won 18 percent of votes in first-round presidential elections in France. Marine Le Pen, who heads the FN, said over the weekend the most recent local results show "a real desire for change by the French."
Ms. Le Pen and Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands are in talks to form an alliance ahead of European elections next May, though Vlaams Belang, which has been on the front-lines against the “Islamization” of Belgium, has reportedly rejected such an alliance, as have other far-right groups. (Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the election date.)
Louboutin is apparently not the only person miffed by the Belgian campaign. The Canadian artist whose works inspired the image that the court has ordered removed has started a Facebook campaign to rally "artists who have been ripped off everywhere."
According to the New Statesman, which ran a piece titled, "What happens when a piece of feminist artwork is turned into anti-Islamic propaganda?", the campaign was inspired by Rosea Lake, who as a feminist protest, had shown a bare leg with words ranging from “matronly” at the ankle to “whore” at the upper thigh.
[Rosea] Lake, who intended her original work to promote tolerance and discussion, says that she does not have the means to pursue legal action against Vlaams Belang or Anke Van dermeersch.
Copy editors the world over can empathize (and cringe) with this mistake.
The Vatican issued a recall this week because about 6,000 commemorative coins spelled the name "Jesus" as "Lesus."
The medallion celebrating Pope Francis includes a Latin phrase that reportedly once inspired the new pope to become a priest.
In English, the phrase reads: "Jesus therefore sees the tax collector, and since he sees by having mercy and by choosing, he says to him, follow me.”
The BBC reports that these medals are struck when every new pope is elected and they provide a useful source of income for the Vatican, which is undergoing a major spending review under the leadership of Pope Francis.
The bronze, silver, and gold coins were priced at $108, $135, and $203 respectively.
But as a coin dealer told The New York Times, the flawed coins could be highly sought after by collectors.
“Regardless of what the Vatican decides to do now, it’s an interesting purchase for a collector,” Francesco Santarossa, owner of a numismatic and philatelic shop near St. Peter’s Square in Rome, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think they ever made such a mistake in the 600-year-long history of papal medals.”
Of course, the Vatican copy editors aren't the first to miss a typo. There are many other famous mistakes throughout the history of Christian printing.
For example, the 1631 printing of the King James Version Bible has been dubbed the "Wicked Bible." As one peruses the 10 Commandments, one will notice that Exodus 20:14 reads "Thou shalt commit adultery."
England's King Charles 1 and the Archbishop of Canterbury were not amused. Most copies of that bible were burned. The printers were fined 300 pounds (a large sum at the time) and lost their printing license. Only 11 copies of the "Wicked Bible" are known to exist today. The New York Public Library and The British Library in London each have copies.
And there's the 1612 King James edition of the "Printer's Bible," which famously rewrites Psalm 119: 161 "Printers have persecuted me without a cause" rather than "Princes have persecuted me..." Speculation is that a typesetter, disgruntled with his publisher, introduced this error.
There are many more examples of "bible errata,"often amusing in retrospect but scandalous in the day. For example, A KJV printing in 1611 became known as the "Judas Bible." It replaced "Jesus" with "Judas" in the passage from Matthew 26:36 "Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder."
A newly discovered painting by Vincent van Gogh went on display last month. “Sunset at Montmajour,” painted in 1888, spent a century trapped in an attic. Now, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has embraced the work as genuine, turning what was long considered to be a fake into a potential multimillion-dollar find.
In the early 1900s, the painting changed hands from Van Gogh’s sister-in-law to a Paris art dealer and then on to Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad. Mustad “purchased it in 1908 as a young man in one of his first forays into art collecting, but was soon told by the French ambassador to Sweden that it was a fake,” writes Toby Sterling in a feature for The Associated Press. “Embarrassed, Mustad banished it to the attic.”
This year, the Van Gogh Museum confirmed its authenticity through a combination of chemical analysis and researching the letters of Van Gogh, who described both the painting and the landscape it depicts.
Saving endangered languages
The same technology that allows Apple’s Siri to recite movie times could also save dying languages. Of the 6,000 languages on earth, close to a third are in danger of disappearing.
“Some of them may only have a few hundred speakers – could be wiped out by a volcano, say, and that’s happened before,” says David Teeple in a video by The Verge. Mr. Teeple is a linguist for the text-to-speech software company Nuance.
The company hires voice actors to record lines that are then broken down into their phonetic parts and reassembled into any English word. Teeple says the same software could also record the speakers of endangered languages, digitally protecting their culture.
Nobody likes a snoop
This year, leaked classified documents revealed that the National Security Agency has secretly collected the online communications of foreigners. The PRISM program has gathered data from nine American tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. Setting aside the legal and moral arguments against such a program, Glenn Derene writes in Popular Mechanics that spying on foreigners could hurt the US economy.
“Collecting vast quantities of user data from American-based multinational companies could end up poisoning their reputations and harming their business,” he says. It forces foreign firms to question whether they want to work with American companies, and raises national security questions for other governments thinking about contracting US firms.
The irony here is that PRISM is effective because American companies dominate information technology. By snooping around in their servers, could the government have ruined the companies’ competitive edge – and its own?
From a floating tire to the Ivy League
“The first time he arrived in the United States, three-year-old Juan Cerda ... was on a truck tire floating across the Rio Grande river,” writes Yanan Wang in the Yale Daily News. “All in all, Cerda has spent just four years of his life in Mexico – three as a toddler, and one as a child waiting for his mother to receive cancer treatment. But for almost all of the 16 years he has lived in America, Cerda has had no permission to live in this country.”
Mr. Cerda now attends Yale University as part of the class of 2015. Ms. Wang’s article, titled “Undocumented but Unafraid,” tracks Cerda’s remarkable journey from that floating tire to the Ivy League, and where he wants to head next.
Our friend, the Google search engine
Google is not making us dumber – the truth is much stranger than that, says Clive Thompson in Slate. Mr. Thompson argues that humans have never been good at holding on to details. A study from 1990 – well before the Web supposedly rotted our brains – asked participants to read and recall several sentences. About an hour later, the subjects could pretty much recite the lines verbatim. When asked again four days later, however, most of them remembered the gist of each sentence, but could not recall the specific wording. There is one exception, though: When people are passionate about a subject, they retain far more details.
Now, research suggests that in order to compensate for our leaky brains, many people start creating networks of shared memory between spouses, colleagues, and friends. “They’re passionate about subject X; you’re passionate about subject Y,” writes Thompson. “So you each begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to the other, treating one’s partners like a notepad or encyclopedia, and they do the reverse.” You remember our bank account numbers and how to program the TiVo; I’ll remember our relatives’ birthdays and where we keep the spare light bulbs.
In other words, a search engine isn’t a modern crutch, he says. It’s a close friend that just happens to be passionate about everything.
On the 28th floor of Samsung’s headquarters here is a door marked “Restricted Access,” the warning emphasized by two slashing diagonal red lines.
It does not guard the company’s plans for a next-generation smart phone, however, nor any other commercial secrets. Instead, the shelves and filing cabinets behind the door are filled with North Korean government work reports, recent editions of the ruling party’s daily newspaper, and other publications from Pyongyang.
That is forbidden fruit to ordinary South Koreans, who are banned from reading them. Scholars at Samsung’s Economic Research Institute, which holds the small archive, need special clearance from South Korea’s intelligence agency to be able to consult the documents.
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“And every night, I have to lock this room up,” says Dong Yong-sueng, a researcher at the institute.
South Korea’s National Security Act, a draconian law passed in 1948 that outlaws anything that might praise or promote North Korea, is a striking illustration of just how nervous this country is about its mysterious and threatening northern neighbor.
Some recent events underline the fears. Three weeks ago, for example, South Korean soldiers shot dead a man in civilian clothes who was trying to enter North Korea from the south. It was not clear why the man was trying to make the unusual journey north across the Imjin river.
Earlier this year a Seoul court sentenced a man to two years’ imprisonment because 18 years ago he made an unauthorized trip via China to North Korea and during his visit was known to have bowed to a statue of the hermit-state’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
The man then lived in Germany until he returned home last December, whereupon he was arrested for having violated the National Security Act. An appeals court last week acquitted him, ruled that the bow did not constitute a threat to South Korea’s national security.
Another appeals court last August came to the rescue of Park Jeong-geun, who had been given a 10 month prison term for re-tweeting material from North Korea’s official Twitter account. The court accepted Mr. Park’s argument that he had been lampooning the North Korean authorities; a lower court had found that he had been “supporting and joining forces with an anti-state entity.”
The last South Korean government, under hard-line President Lee Myeung-bak, made liberal use of the National Security Act; new cases under the law rose from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011, according to official figures. By the end of 2011 the authorities had closed 178 websites for posting “pro-North Korean” material.
It is unclear whether the new government led by Park Geun-hye, who became president in February, will pursue this approach, which earned criticism earlier this year from UN special rapporteur on human rights Margaret Sekaggya as a “seriously problematic” challenge to freedom of expression.
Just last week, Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog, rated South Korea only “partly free” and 20th out of 60 countries in its Internet freedom report because of the way prosecutors have used the National Security Act to clamp down on online activities.
Security officials say Seoul has to keep its guard up against threats from the North, which is still technically at war with the South since the two have signed only a truce. Last month the police arrested a left wing member of parliament on charges he had plotted an armed rebellion to overthrow the South Korean government in the event of war with Pyongyang.
Young South Koreans scoff at the restrictions on their freedom of information, and laugh at suggestions that North Korea’s shrill propaganda would win anybody here over to its cause.
“These kinds of bans are the last thing that would keep South Korea safe from the North,” agrees Dr. Dong, who says the sort of newspapers and magazines he has to keep under lock and key are scarcely likely to foment Communist revolution in Seoul.
But he would be reluctant to see the law changed, he says. “The North Korea we are confronting is still stuck in a previous era,” he points out. “Times have changed, but perhaps we still need to defend ourselves in old fashioned ways because they are old fashioned.”
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The steady gaze and beatific smile are reminiscent of the world’s best known painting, the Mona Lisa.
Those clues, along with carbon dating and other scientific tests, have led Italian experts to claim that they have found the holy of holies of the art world: a previously unknown Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece.
Experts believe that the newly discovered painting is the full-blown, oil version of a pencil sketch drawn by Leonardo of a Renaissance noblewoman, Isabella d’Este, which now hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
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Leonardo completed the sketch when he was staying in the city of Mantua, in the northern Lombardy region, in 1499 or 1500.
Pleased with her portrait, the Marquesa d’Este then sent letters asking him to produce a new, more elaborate version in colored oils. According to historical records, she never received a reply.
Art historians speculated that the Renaissance master had moved on to grander, more lucrative commissions, including the Mona Lisa, which is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the young wife of a rich Florentine merchant.
Now, it appears, Leonardo did indeed paint the oil portrait, perhaps when he met d’Este, one of the most influential female figures of her day, in Rome in 1514.
The oil painting was discovered recently in a Swiss bank vault, part of a collection of 400 works owned by an Italian family who have asked not to be identified.
Measuring 24 inches by 18 inches, it bears a striking resemblance to the Leonardo sketch held by the Louvre – the woman’s posture, her hairstyle, her striped dress, and the way she holds her hands are almost identical.
“There are no doubts that the portrait is the work of Leonardo,” Carlo Pedretti, a professor emeritus of art history and an expert in Leonardo studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Corriere della Sera newspaper on Friday. “I can immediately recognize Da Vinci's handiwork, particularly in the woman's face."
Scientific tests have shown that the type of pigment in the portrait was the same as that used by Leonardo, as was the primer used to treat the canvas. Carbon dating, conducted by a mass spectrometry laboratory at the University of Arizona, has shown that the portrait was painted between 1460 and 1650.
Professor Pedretti, a recognized expert in authenticating disputed works by Da Vinci, said more analysis was required to determine whether certain elements of the portrait – notably a golden tiara on the noblewoman’s head and a palm leaf held in her hand like a scepter – were the work of Leonardo or one of his pupils.
But as with any new-Leonardo-da-Vinci-discovered story, doubts were expressed by some eminent experts.
Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Oxford University, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on da Vinci, said if the find was authenticated it would be worth “tens of millions of pounds” but raised doubts about whether the painting was really the work of Leonardo.
The portrait found in Switzerland is painted on canvas, whereas Leonardo favored wooden boards, he said.
And Leonardo gave away his original sketch to the marquesa, so he would not have been able to refer to it later in order to paint a full oil version.
It was more likely to have been produced by one of the many artists operating in northern Italy who copied Leonardo’s works. "They'd take a Madonna head from one work and then pick the figure of John the Baptist from another, and produce a sort of pastiche. It was a sort of early version of Photoshop," he says.
Only around 15 works have been reliably attributed to Leonardo, including the Mona Lisa, which is also hangs in the Louvre.
If these latest claims are backed up by other leading da Vinci experts, that number has just jumped to 16.
There is one thing that wildfire experts know for certain: Wildfires are unpredictable.
Fires have grown larger and more intense in the past 10 years, a result of a decades-long fire policy focused on extinguishing every forest fire as quickly as possible. This practice has created an overabundance of deadwood, turning “much of the American West into a tinderbox,” Paul Tullis writes in The New York Times Magazine.
Mr. Tullis gathered the latest research and methods fire experts have explored to solve the fire predictability conundrum. Researchers want to improve firefighters’ abilities to make better predictions in the field, especially when massive fires threaten lives and property. But even improved prediction models won’t prevent fires, he writes, arguing for a new fire policy that encourages managed burns in high-risk areas. “The way to make wildfires, and the people living near them, safer is by making peace with the idea that we need to let more of them burn longer,” he writes.
Preserving Haitian culture
Through her books, Edwidge Danticat invites readers into the homes of Haitian citizens and immigrants, giving vivid life to the struggles faced by generations in a country plagued by corruption and poverty. In an interview with Al Jazeera America, Ms. Danticat, who immigrated to the United States when she was 12 years old, explained how she also sees literature as key to preserving cultural identity and family heritage, especially in the wake of natural disasters such as Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.
“We need stories because when everything else is stripped away, that’s all we have left,” she said. “When the flood has come through and you lose all your belongings, when you have to leave your country at 24 hours’ notice, stories are all you have.... When I left Haiti, I don’t remember what was in my suitcase, I don’t remember what I brought with me. I do remember the stories I was told. I remember the life I had. That’s what I came with.”
Police track gangs on social media
Patrolling social media feeds has become a new beat for Chicago police officers as feuds between the city’s hundreds of gangs increasingly begin online before turning into violence in the streets.
For Wired magazine, Ben Austen visited the Chicago Police Department and some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods to see how YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have changed the way gangs operate and communicate. “We naturally associate criminal activity with secrecy, with conspiracies hatched in alleyways or back rooms,” Mr. Austen writes. “Today, though, foolish as it may be in practice, street gangs have adopted a level of transparency that might impress even the most fervent Silicon Valley futurist.”
The growth in online engagement among gang members presents new avenues for police work in Chicago and other large cities. Police catalog data about gang sets, members, locations, and event dates, so when they track real-time inflammatory comments, officers can step in before quarrels turn violent. “Give people social media and they’ll tell you what they’re about to do,” Austen writes.
Smart phones and violence in Congo
The rate and state of poverty in Congo is staggering, especially considering the country’s abundance of raw materials and its potential to become one of the continent’s wealthiest nations. But the mere existence of its mineral wealth has fueled a decades-long bitter conflict, creating a debilitating effect on the Congolese.
“It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand that militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos,” writes Jeffrey Gettleman in National Geographic. “Turns out your laptop – or camera or gaming system or gold necklace – may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.”
Mr. Gettleman traced the source of Congo’s resource conflict to the days of King Leopold II of Belgium, who colonized Congo for ivory and rubber, and outlines the present-day melee of government, military, and rebel groups vying for control of the nation’s vast mineral deposits. Despite efforts by governments – and even many large technology companies – to guarantee conflict-free minerals in electronics, only 10 percent of Congo’s mines in its eastern provinces are “conflict free.”
Economic growth may save the planet
In a special report on biodiversity, The Economist links the salvation of endangered species to economic growth, particularly in developing nations where habitats are being cleared to make room for farmland. As people reach middle-class status, they can turn their attention, and resources, from meeting daily needs to other causes – such as environmentalism.
The article says that “thanks to a combination of environmental activism and economic growth the outlook for [endangered] species has improved, and that if growth continues, governments do more to regulate it and [environmentalists] embrace technological progress, there is a decent chance of man undoing the damage he has done during his short and bloody stay on the planet.”
Some Australians watching the US federal government shutdown unfold will be feeling a sense of deja vu – that is, those old enough to have lived through the supply crisis of November 1975, when the Australian government also shut down.
At the time, the blocking of the government’s supply bills by the opposition-dominated Senate here triggered a chain of events that led to greatest crisis in Australia’s political history – the dismissal of Parliament by the Queen’s representative.
Late on the morning of Nov. 11, 1975, Australia's Governor General John Kerr, unelected and answerable only to the Crown, fired then- Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, whose government had deferred the passing of two appropriation bills, which effectively left the government out of pocket by about $4 billion a month in adjusted US dollars.
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Mr. Kerr then appointed an opposition leader, willing to pass the bills, as prime minister. But when Mr. Whitlam's members revolted and passed a no-confidence motion in the new prime minister, Kerr wielded the "nuclear option": He dismissed both the Senate and the House of Representatives, triggering a double dissolution election. It all happened in just a few hours. And there has never been a government shutdown in Australia since.
The controversy over whether the unelected Kerr should have counseled Whitlam before sacking him remains the single most debated political event in Australia.
Elected in a landslide just three years earlier, Whitlam believed he would have the public on his side with a radical solution to replace government expenditure with bank credit. To keep things running, employees and suppliers of government goods were to be given IOUs guaranteed by banks.
Although there are similarities between Canberra in 1975 and the crisis unfolding Washington in 2013, there are significant differences as well.
The most important of these, says David Smith, lecturer in American politics and foreign policy at the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University in Darlington, Australia, is the ability of Australia’s prime minister to resolve deadlocks between the Senate and House of Representatives by calling on the governor general to dissolve both houses of Parliament. Unlike in a normal election, a double dissolution, or the “nuclear option” as Dr. Smith calls it, means that the entire Senate is re-contested rather than just half the seats.
"If there was a mechanism like double dissolution in Australia this budget crisis would be resolved a lot more quickly because there would be this 'nuclear option'. If the president could dissolve the legislature and go to an election that’s exactly would Obama would be threatening to do at this point," says Smith.
Smith acknowledges that many political systems function perfectly well without an upper house. But he argues that in Australia’s case, the Senate ensures that a majority in the House of Representatives does not become an elected dictatorship.
"Australians look back at November 1975 as a very traumatic period in Australia's history. But it is actually an example of the system working. There was a crisis and it was resolved pretty quickly," he says.
With the US having the most rigid fixed-term system in the democratic world, Americans, he says, don’t have that luxury.
"In the United States we’ve seen four of these standoffs in the last three years. We now have the very serious possibility that the United States will default. It seems like this will drag on as long as Barack Obama is president and as long as there is a Republican majority in the House of Representatives."
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The dark recesses of Moscow's cavernous Sheremetyevo airport, which shielded runaway former NSA contractor Edward Snowden from the prying eyes of the world for 38 days last summer, might be concealing a much more tantalizing secret: nearly $27 billion in unclaimed cash, which could be the lost fortune of Saddam Hussein or Iranian oil money diverted by US embargo.
Or, insists Moscow's leading tabloid newspaper Moskovsky Komsololets (MK), the mysterious hoard – delivered to Sheremetyevo without a forwarding address six years ago and consisting of 200 pallets of vacuum-wrapped cash – is being held in a heavily guarded warehouse at the airport while Russian authorities figure out what to do with it.
The MK story has stirred up a frenzy in Moscow, and was apparently the main source for a sensational piece in London's Mail on Sunday that dwelt upon theories that it could be the ill-gotten lucre of deposed dictators, Chechen gangsters, or even international bank robbers.
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The only official reaction so far has been a blunt denial from the press service of Sheremetyevo airport.
"We cannot confirm this information. There is no money. No such aircraft landed at our airport. It's even theoretically difficult to imagine such a situation," Sheremetyevo's press spokesman Roman Genis told journalists Monday.
In an article published last week, MK speculated that the vast trove of 100-euro notes, weighing around 200 tons, might be the orphaned riches of deceased dictators Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, spirited away to hoped-for safety in Moscow.
In a second story published today, the paper weaves an even more tangled tale involving revenues from Iranian oil exports, allegedly funneled through Germany's Deutsche Bank Group, which got sidetracked to Moscow when US-inspired sanctions on Iran started to bite.
"It is possible that this is the money of Saddam Hussein," MK quotes an anonymous Russian security official as saying. "I can't confirm that, but am just guessing. It is well known that $60–100 billion dollars belonging to the Iraqi dictator is circulating throughout the world."
Most Russian experts consulted Monday tended to rubbish the story, saying that the huge sum alone – which would beggar even the richest Russian oligarch – makes it extremely unlikely to be true.
The newspaper, MK, is a venerable Moscow tabloid with a huge and loyal readership, but is not the most solid link in Russia's media chain. "Sometimes it's reliable, but sometimes it goes off the deep end with stories about crocodiles in the Moscow metro and such," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an online journal focusing on security issues.
The author of the Sheremetyevo treasure stories, MK correspondent Eva Merkacheva, says she has never actually seen the money, but claims to have documents proving its existence.
Customs lawyer Vadim Lyalin, who is quoted in Ms. Merkacheva's story, told the Monitor by phone Monday that he does indeed have clients who are trying to retrieve the cash, though he cannot name them and hasn't seen the money for himself either.
"It's too big a sum to belong to nobody," Mr. Lyalin says.
Mr. Soldatov says he's very skeptical. "Everything is possible in Moscow, but this strains credulity. It's extremely improbable."
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Russian President Vladimir Putin recently appeared to have the upper hand in his dealings with the Obama administration, advancing a diplomatic plan to prevent a threatened US attack on Syria and providing refuge to National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
But Brian Bremner in Bloomberg Businessweek argues that “beneath Putin’s swagger lies weaknesses at the core of the economy that threaten Russia’s future – and with it, his power base.” And, Mr. Bremner adds, “for that he can blame a familiar nemesis: the U.S.”
The threat to Mr. Putin comes from stiffer US competition for Russia’s key energy sector, which provides half of the revenue for Putin’s government. The prices Russia can get selling oil and gas have weakened as US energy production has soared. Key factors in the stronger US performance: growing use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing as well as projects slated to add 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to the nation’s annual production. The challenge for Putin,
Bremner writes, is to revive the energy sector while trying to reduce Russia’s dependence on hydrocarbon exports.
At the heart of NSA eavesdropping
Gen. Keith Alexander, the man at the center of the National Security Agency eavesdropping controversy, is profiled by Shane Harris in Foreign Policy. As NSA director, Alexander runs the nation’s largest intelligence organization, one that has been in the news for tracking Americans’ telephone calls and online activities. He also runs the US Cyber Command, which defends military computer networks and is charged with responding to hostile acts by potential enemies in cyberspace.
The profile describes Alexander as a patriot, introspective, self-effacing, and given to corny jokes. But critics cited in the lengthy piece also assert that he “has become blinded by the power of technology.”
Alexander’s approach is contrasted with that of his predecessor, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden. “Hayden’s attitude was ‘Yes, we have the technological capability, but should we use it?’ Keith’s was ‘We have the capability, so let’s use it,’ ” according to a former intelligence official who worked with both men.
Enemy inside Camp Bastion
Taliban fighters, dressed as American soldiers, sneaked into a massive US air base in Afghanistan on the night of Sept. 14, 2012. Armed only with rifles and bags of raisins and nuts, the 15 intruders killed two marines, and destroyed six Harrier jets and an Air Force C-130 worth $200 million. In the latest issue of GQ, reporter Matthieu Aikins examines the battle at Camp Bastion, where the United States suffered the largest loss of aircraft in combat since Vietnam.
A number of factors were behind the loss of American lives and aircraft, Mr. Aikins found. Marine leaders cut the number of troops patrolling outside the fence around the base as the US prepared to turn over combat operations to the Afghans. A key section of base perimeter was controlled by the British, who had, in turn, delegated guard-tower duty to a handful of soldiers from the small nation of Tonga who lacked night-vision gear and had sometimes been found sleeping on duty.
How to protect your billions
Zachary Mider, writing for Bloomberg, a news organization founded by a billionaire, recently took an intriguing look at how America’s richest family – the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton – have arranged their affairs to dramatically minimize the effect of the estate tax on their $100 billion fortune.
“The Waltons’ example highlights how billionaires deftly bypass a tax intended to make sure that the nation’s wealthiest contribute their share to government rather than perpetuate dynastic wealth,” Mr. Mider notes.
One tactic the Waltons use is a “Jackie O. trust,” named for former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose will called for one. Jackie O. trusts “can theoretically save so much tax that it leaves a family richer than if it hadn’t given a dime to charity,” Mider writes. Of course, you have to have enough money so you don’t need to touch the trust for 20 years or more.
Fostering gender equity at Harvard
Harvard Business School’s effort to revamp its treatment of female students and faculty gets in-depth treatment in a New York Times Magazine piece. The stereotype is that all the students accepted at HBS are among the fortunate few destined for well-paid jobs in the executive suite. The reality, reporter Jodi Kantor found, was widely differing experiences based on a student’s gender and economic background.
“Harvard was worse than any trading floor,” according to students with a Wall Street background, with aggressive male students with strong finance backgrounds hazing both female students and teachers. Harvard set out to change that, spurred by the university’s female president, Drew Gilpin Faust. How did it turn out? “We made progress on the first-level things, but what it’s permitting us to do is see, holy cow, how deep-seated the rest of this is,” says Francis Frei, an HBS administrator.