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War on Iran has already begun. Act before it threatens all of us | Seumas Milne December 8, 2011

They don’t give up. After a decade of blood-drenched failure in Afghanistan and Iraq, violent destabilisation of Pakistan and Yemen, the devastation of Lebanon and slaughter in Libya, you might hope the US and its friends had had their fill of invasion and intervention in the Muslim world.

It seems not. For months the evidence has been growing that a US-Israeli stealth war against Iran has already begun, backed by Britain and France. Covert support for armed opposition groups has spread into a campaign of assassinations of Iranian scientists, cyber warfare, attacks on military and missile installations, and the killing of an Iranian general, among others.

The attacks are not directly acknowledged, but accompanied by intelligence-steered nods and winks as the media are fed a stream of hostile tales – the most outlandish so far being an alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US – and the western powers ratchet up pressure for yet more sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme.

The British government’s decision to take the lead in imposing sanctions on all Iranian banks and pressing for an EU boycott of Iranian oil triggered the trashing of its embassy in Tehran by demonstrators last week and subsequent expulsion of Iranian diplomats from London.

It’s a taste of how the conflict can quickly escalate, as was the downing of a US spyplane over Iranian territory at the weekend. What one Israeli official has called a “new kind of war” has the potential to become a much more old-fashioned one that would threaten us all.

Last month the Guardian was told by British defence ministry officials that if the US brought forward plans to attack Iran (as they believed it might), it would “seek, and receive, UK military help”, including sea and air support and permission to use the ethnically cleansed British island colony of Diego Garcia.

Whether the officials’ motive was to soften up public opinion for war or warn against it, this was an extraordinary admission: the Britain military establishment fully expects to take part in an unprovoked US attack on Iran – just as it did against Iraq eight years ago.

What was dismissed by the former foreign secretary Jack Straw as “unthinkable”, and for David Cameron became an option not to be taken “off the table”, now turns out to be as good as a done deal if the US decides to launch a war that no one can seriously doubt would have disastrous consequences. But there has been no debate in parliament and no mainstream political challenge to what Straw’s successor, David Miliband, this week called the danger of “sleepwalking into a war with Iran”. That’s all the more shocking because the case against Iran is so spectacularly flimsy.

There is in fact no reliable evidence that Iran is engaged in a nuclear weapons programme. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report once again failed to produce a smoking gun, despite the best efforts of its new director general, Yukiya Amano – described in a WikiLeaks cable as “solidly in the US court on every strategic decision”.

As in the runup to the invasion of Iraq, the strongest allegations are based on “secret intelligence” from western governments. But even the US national intelligence director, James Clapper, has accepted that the evidence suggests Iran suspended any weapons programme in 2003 and has not reactivated it.

The whole campaign has an Alice in Wonderland quality about it. Iran, which says it doesn’t want nuclear weapons, is surrounded by nuclear-weapon states: the US – which also has forces in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as military bases across the region – Israel, Russia, Pakistan and India.

Iran is of course an authoritarian state, though not as repressive as western allies such as Saudi Arabia. But it has invaded no one in 200 years. It was itself invaded by Iraq with western support in the 1980s, while the US and Israel have attacked 10 countries or territories between them in the past decade. Britain exploited, occupied and overthrew governments in Iran for over a century. So who threatens who exactly?

As Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, said recently, if he were an Iranian leader he would “probably” want nuclear weapons. Claims that Iran poses an “existential threat” to Israel because President Ahmadinejad said the state “must vanish from the page of time” bear no relation to reality. Even if Iran were to achieve a nuclear threshold, as some suspect is its real ambition, it would be in no position to attack a state with upwards of 300 nuclear warheads, backed to the hilt by the world’s most powerful military force.

The real challenge posed by Iran to the US and Israel has been as an independent regional power, allied to Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas movements. As US troops withdraw from Iraq, Saudi Arabia fans sectarianism, and Syrian opposition leaders promise a break with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, the threat of proxy wars is growing across the region.

A US or Israeli attack on Iran would turn that regional maelstrom into a global firestorm. Iran would certainly retaliate directly and through allies against Israel, the US and US Gulf client states, and block the 20% of global oil supplies shipped through the Strait of Hormuz. Quite apart from death and destruction, the global economic impact would be incalculable.

All reason and common sense militate against such an act of aggression. Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel’s Mossad, said last week it would be a “catastrophe”. Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, warned that it could “consume the Middle East in confrontation and conflict that we would regret”.

There seems little doubt that the US administration is deeply wary of a direct attack on Iran. But in Israel, Barak has spoken of having less than a year to act; Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, has talked about making the “right decision at the right moment”; and the prospects of drawing the US in behind an Israeli attack have been widely debated in the media.

Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe the war talk is more about destabilisation than a full-scale attack. But there are undoubtedly those in the US, Israel and Britain who think otherwise. And the threat of miscalculation and the logic of escalation could tip the balance decisively. Unless opposition to an attack on Iran gets serious, this could become the most devastating Middle East war of all.

• This article will be open to comments from 9am on Thursday (UK time)

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Afghanistan: the lost decade | Editorial December 6, 2011

There is one set of figures about the war in Afghanistan that puts the problems of trying to end it into their true perspective. The US is spending $120bn more in fighting the war this year than the Afghan exchequer is raising in tax revenue. Even the cost of the war to Britain, at £6bn (according to a former UK ambassador’s evidence to the foreign affairs select committee) is over three times what Kabul can afford. So in what sense is Kabul ready to take over Afghanistan’s security when foreign troops stop combat operations in less than three years’ time? Ten years on from the Bonn conference in 2001, with so many mistakes made, the basic questions only pile up.

Then, Pakistan‘s strategic relationship with US was not in doubt. Now, after a year in which that alliance has been stretched to breaking point, not least by the recent Nato airstrike in which 24 Pakistani troops were killed, it is. Then, the northern warlords were offered seats in government. Now, Hamid Karzai is at odds with them, particularly over their opposition to talks with the Taliban. The insurgents have been suppressed in the south as a result of the surge of US troops, but there has been a 600% rise in attacks in the east, which Nato commanders put down to Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI). History is repeating itself. The no-shows at the conference in Bonn on Monday – Pakistan and the Pashtun who boycotted a recent Loya Jirga – were as significant as the ones who turned up.

There are slivers of good news. Secret talks between the Taliban and the Americans have survived the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani , and progress is being made on setting up a Taliban representative office abroad. But mostly, the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan remains a triumph of hope over realism.

This is as much a British military delusion as an American one. The outgoing British deputy commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, General James Bucknall, revealed to this newspaper that special forces operations were killing between 130 and 140 insurgent leaders every month. He used this statistic as evidence of progress in pushing the Taliban back. Yet it is these same night raids which would have to stop if substantive talks with the Taliban ever got under way. If they have an influence over them, the ISI will now actively hold back Taliban leaders from talking to the Americans. So wherein lies the general’s progress? Is it the ability after nearly six years of deployment for a provincial governor to travel between Lashkar Gah and Nad Ali by road instead of helicopter? Or the handing over of some of Helmand’s districts to ethnic Tajik Afghan forces, who are almost as foreign to the southern Pashtun Helmandis as the Brits are? Before the British blundered into Helmand there was no heartland for the Taliban to terrorise. After five years of bloody fighting, is this progress?

Even those who hope against hope that a pro-western government in Kabul can survive the withdrawal of foreign combat troops in 2014 (longer, that is, than Najibullah survived the withdrawal of Soviet forces) have to admit that the regional landscape today is far more fragile. The drone attacks that Barack Obama is ever more insistent on using in airspace that is not America’s to fly in, like Pakistan’s and Iran’s, travel in exactly the opposite direction from the one that is needed to seek Pakistan’s and Iran’s buy-in to an international settlement of the conflict. Drone attacks are the ultimate Bush-era unilateral weapon and they are so tempting to use because, unlike the investment in blood that Gen Bucknall was talking about, they don’t involve Nato casualties. But they do cause high casualties and generate unswerving local opposition to the peace Nato is trying to impose. No end to the conflict in Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan is possible, until all the governments of the region buy into it. Ten years on, that lesson has still to be learned.

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Herman Cain suspends GOP presidential campaign December 3, 2011

Herman Cain has said he is suspending his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in order to avoid news coverage that is hurtful to his family.

Cain’s announcement came five days after a woman claimed she and Cain had an affair for more than a decade, a claim that followed several allegations of sexual harassment against the Georgia businessman. Cain, whose wife, Gloria, stood behind him on the stage, made the announcement to several hundred supporters gathered at what was to have been the opening of his national campaign headquarters.

Cain had performed well in polls until news surfaced in late October that he had been accused of sexual harassment by two women during his time as president of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.

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Number of N.J. residents receiving food stamps doubled in last four years November 30, 2011


November 29, 2011

by legitgov

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Number of N.J. residents receiving food stamps doubled in last four years 27 Nov 2011 The number of New Jersey residents receiving food stamps has doubled in the past four years and is at its highest level in more than a decade, state and federal data show. As of September, the most recent data released by the state Department of Human Services, more than 400,000 households and nearly 822,000 people were enrolled in the food stamp program, meaning nearly one out of every 10 residents in New Jersey receives assistance.

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As Muslim American as apple pie | Ayesha Kazmi November 24, 2011

Only if you are from the United States will you truly understand the highbrow culture of those from north-eastern region. Besides, if you’re a fan of Thanksgiving, it is obvious that there is no contest with other festivals.

From my earliest years, it became a solidified tradition to go on long drives throughout New England to witness the foliage change, snack on maple candy, cider and donuts. I also grew up making those silly handprint turkeys in art classes at school. As an adult, I do my best to take my 9- and 7-year-old nieces every year on the same hay rides through the apple orchards I visited to pick apples when I was their age.

Growing up, I never perceived a contradiction between my classic New England American upbringing and the things that made me glaringly different from the other kids at school. Today, I could be lauded as a Pakistani Muslim American who amalgamated herself well into US culture. On the other hand, I could be designated a “coconut”.

Despite the biryani that sits next to the 22lb turkey every year at my family’s crazy thanksgiving dinners, the tension over how to delineate myself along the lines between eastern and western cultures no longer concerns me. The painful messages Muslim Americans have endured over the past decade have only strengthened that resolve: I am American as apple pie – perhaps, however, with an extra sprinkle of spice.

The Muslim experience may be new to American history, but it is an integral one. Our concerns not only exhibit the deep love Muslim Americans have for the United States in all its contradictions, but they add another complex layer to its history. Muslim Americans have been the very spectacle of eroded constitutional rights even as they simultaneously add another layer to America’s history of internal expansion, which is most paradoxically rooted in the Thanksgiving holiday.

Over the past decade, American Muslims have been forced to reconcile these incongruities, as they have come face to face with the more bitter aspects of American reality. It should come as no surprise that our nation, whose history originates with conquest, will most certainly govern us as such.

American Muslims are the new faces of the American reality, and they are not going anywhere. We partake in this Thanksgiving, being grateful that American history has grown even deeper and richer as a result of all of our experiences and interactions with it, for better or for worse, whether as indigenous peoples, or as America’s latest “suspects”.

After all, one can only truly love something when able to accept its worst blemishes. Perhaps the apples in my pie are of a more sour variety – but I still love them.

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Herman Cain’s popularity sinks after sexual harassment allegations November 8, 2011


November 7, 2011

by legitgov

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Herman Cain’s popularity sinks after sexual harassment allegations 06 Nov 2011 The allegations of sexual harassment that have dogged Herman Cain for a week have taken their toll on his presidential campaign, according to a poll by Reuters/Ipsos. In the first sign that the claims, which date back to a decade ago when he was head of the National Restaurant Association, have begun to damage his election chances, the poll shows a drop in his popularity among Republicans from 66% a week ago to 57%. Among all registered voters, Cain’s favourability declined 5 percentage points, from 37 to 32.

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Nuclear powers plan weapons spending spree, report finds October 31, 2011

The world’s nuclear powers are planning to spend hundreds of billions of pounds modernising and upgrading weapons warheads and delivery systems over the next decade, according to an authoritative report published on Monday.

Despite government budget pressures and international rhetoric about disarmament, evidence points to a new and dangerous “era of nuclear weapons“, the report for the British American Security Information Council (Basic) warns. It says the US will spend $700bn (£434bn) on the nuclear weapons industry over the next decade, while Russia will spend at least $70bn on delivery systems alone. Other countries including China, India, Israel, France and Pakistan are expected to devote formidable sums on tactical and strategic missile systems.

For several countries, including Russia, Pakistan, Israel and France, nuclear weapons are being assigned roles that go well beyond deterrence, says the report. In Russia and Pakistan, it warns, nuclear weapons are assigned “war-fighting roles in military planning”.

The report is the first in a series of papers for the Trident Commission, an independent cross-party initiative set up by Basic. Its leading members include former Conservative defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Liberal Democrat leader and defence spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell and former Labour defence secretary Lord Browne.

There is a strong case, they say, for a fundamental review of UK nuclear weapons policy. The Conservatives in Britain’s coalition government say they want to maintain a Trident-based nuclear weapons system. However, they have agreed to a “value for money” audit into a Trident replacement as four new nuclear missiles submarines are alone estimated to cost £25bn at the latest official estimate. The Lib Dems want to look at other options. The paper, by security analyst Ian Kearns, is entitled Beyond the United Kingdom: Trends in the Other Nuclear Armed States.

Pakistan and India, it warns, appear to be seeking smaller, lighter nuclear warheads so they have a greater range or can be deployed over shorter distances for tactical or “non-strategic” roles. “In the case of Israel, the size of its nuclear-tipped cruise missile enabled submarine fleet is being increased and the country seems to be on course, on the back of its satellite launch rocket programme, for future development of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM),” the report notes.

A common justification for the new nuclear weapons programmes is perceived vulnerability in the face of nuclear and conventional force development elsewhere. For example, Russia has expressed concern over the US missile defence and Conventional Prompt Global Strike programmes. China has expressed similar concerns about the US as well as India, while India’s programmes are driven by fear of China and Pakistan.

Pakistan justifies its nuclear weapons programme by referring to India’s conventional force superiority, the report observes.

In a country-by-country analysis, the report says:

• The US is planning to spend $700bn on nuclear weapons over the next decade. A further $92bn will be spent on new nuclear warheads and the US also plans to build 12 nuclear ballistic missile submarines, air-launched nuclear cruise missiles and bombs.

• Russia plans to spend $70bn on improving its strategic nuclear triad (land, sea and air delivery systems) by 2020. It is introducing mobile ICBMs with multiple warheads, and a new generation of nuclear weapons submarines to carry cruise as well as ballistic missiles. There are reports that Russia is also planning a nuclear-capable short-range missile for 10 army brigades over the next decade.

• China is rapidly building up its medium and long-range “road mobile” missile arsenal equipped with multiple warheads. Up to five submarines are under construction capable of launching 36-60 sea-launched ballistic missiles, which could provide a continuous at-sea capability.

• France has just completed deployment of four new submarines equipped with longer-range missiles with a “more robust warhead”. It is also modernising its nuclear bomber fleet.

• Pakistan is extending the range of its Shaheen II missiles, developing nuclear cruise missiles, improving its nuclear weapons design as well as smaller, lighter, warheads. It is also building new plutonium production reactors.

• India is developing new versions of its Agni land-based missiles sufficient to target the whole of Pakistan and large parts of China, including Beijing. It has developed a nuclear ship-launched cruise missile and plans to build five submarines carrying ballistic nuclear missiles.

• Israel is extending its Jericho III missile’s range, and is developing an ICBM capability, expanding its nuclear-tipped cruise missile enabled submarine fleet.

North Korea unveiled a new Musudan missile in 2010 with a range of up to 2,500 miles and capable of reaching targets in Japan. It successfully tested the Taepodong-2 with a possible range of more than 6,000 miles sufficient to hit half the US mainland. However, the report, says, “it is unclear whether North Korea has yet developed the capability to manufacture nuclear warheads small enough to sit on top of these missiles”.

Iran’s nuclear aspirations are not covered by the report.

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Special units, CIA to keep waging war October 9, 2011


October 9, 2011

by legitgov

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Special units, CIA to keep waging war 09 Oct 2011 They were the first Americans into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks and will probably be the last U.S. forces to leave. As most American troops prepare to withdraw in 2014, the CIA and military special operations forces to be left behind are girding for the next great pivot of the campaign, one that could stretch their war up to another decade. Recent remarks from the White House suggest the CIA and special operations forces will be hunting al-Qaida and working with local forces long after most U.S. troops have left.

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US thinking post-2014 in Afghan bases talks October 5, 2011


October 5, 2011

by legitgov

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US thinking post-2014 in Afghan bases talks 04 Oct 2011 Bagram Airfield is one of the giant military bases in Afghanistan at the centre of a fierce debate over the US presence after troops withdraw. A decade after the war started on October 7, 2001, Washington has vowed to pull all combat forces out by the end of 2014 but is locked in tricky negotiations with Kabul over a strategic partnership beyond this date. While the US insists it does not want permanent bases in Afghanistan, some Afghans are suspicious of its motives and believe it is putting down long-term roots at bases like Bagram, home to 30,000 troops and contractors.

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Listeria outbreak expected to cause more deaths across US in coming weeks September 29, 2011

An outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe melons in the US may cause more illness and deaths in coming weeks, say health officials.

So far, the outbreak has caused at least 72 illnesses and up to 16 deaths, in 18 states, making it the deadliest food outbreak in the country in more than a decade.

The Colorado farm where the potentially deadly cantaloupes were traced to, Jensen Farms in Holly, says it shipped fruit to 25 states, and people with illnesses have been discovered in several states that were not on the shipping list.

A spokeswoman for Jensen Farms said the company’s product is often sold and resold, so they do not always know where it ends up.

“If it’s not Jensen Farms, it’s OK to eat,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centres for Disease Control. “But if you can’t confirm it’s not Jensen Farms, then it’s best to throw it out.”

The recalled cantaloupes may be labelled “Colorado Grown,” “Distributed by Frontera Produce,” “Jensenfarms.com” or “Sweet Rocky Fords” but not every recalled cantaloupe is labelled with a sticker, the US Food and Drug Administration said. The company said it shipped out more than 300,000 cases of cantaloupes that contained five to 15 melons each, meaning the recall involved 1.5m to 4.5m pieces of fruit.

Frieden and FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said that illnesses are expected for weeks to come because the incubation period for listeria can be a month or even longer. Jensen Farms last shipped cantaloupes on 10 September, and the shelf life is about two weeks. “We will see more cases likely through October,” Hamburg said.

The FDA said Colorado health officials found listeria in cantaloupes taken from grocers’ and from a victim’s home. Matching strains of the disease were found on equipment and cantaloupe samples at Jensen Farms’ packing facility in Granada, Colorado.

Sherri McGarry, a senior adviser in the FDA’s office of foods, said the agency is looking at the farm’s water supply and possible animal intrusions among other things in trying to figure out how the cantaloupes became contaminated. Listeria bacteria grow in moist, muddy conditions and often are carried by animals.

The health officials said this is the first known outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe. Listeria generally is found in processed meats and unpasteurised milk and cheese, although there have been a growing number of outbreaks in produce. Hamburg called the outbreak a surprise and said the agencies were studying it closely to find out how it happened.

Cantaloupe is often the source of other outbreaks, however. Frieden said CDC had identified 10 other cantaloupe outbreaks in the last decade, most of them salmonella.

Listeria is more deadly than well-known pathogens like salmonella and E coli, although those outbreaks generally cause many more illnesses.

Listeria generally affects only the elderly, pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems. The CDC said the median age of those struck with illness is 78 and that one in five who contract the disease can die from it. Symptoms include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms.

Unlike many pathogens, listeria bacteria can grow at room temperatures and even refrigerator temperatures. It is hardy and can linger long after the source of the contamination is gone; health officials say people who may have had the contaminated fruit in their kitchens should clean and sanitise any surfaces it may have touched.

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Market Volatility and Your 401(k)

Roger Wohlner

The stock market has certainly been on a roller coaster ride over the past couple of months.  Most averages currently stand well below the highs reached earlier in 2011. The financial news media regularly speculate whether we are on the verge of another bear market. Many 401(k) investors are certainly wondering if this is 2008-2009 revisited.

[See 5 Questions to Ask Yourself About When You Can Retire.]

As an investor in your company’s retirement plan, keep these thoughts in mind:

Have a long-term game plan. The best defense is a good offense.  Don’t ignore what is happening in the markets and the economy, but don’t react to every market rally or decline either. Rather, start with a financial plan. This should be the basis of your investment allocation for your retirement plan and all of your investments. Your financial goals and risk tolerance should drive your investment allocation.

Time and diversification dampen volatility. A chart used in a recent webinar by JPMorgan Asset Management’s chief market strategist reiterated something that is intuitive to most of us in the investment business: Time and diversification are excellent defenses against market volatility. This particular chart looked at returns from three different types of portfolios: all stocks, all bonds, and an equal mix of the two. One-year returns had the widest range of variation. Going to five-, 10-, and 20-year rolling periods, the variability of returns in all cases became narrower over time. Moreover, the chart illustrated that the 50/50 mix of stocks and bonds never lost money over any rolling five-year period. The chart covered a 60-year time frame ending June 30, 2011.

Was the “Lost Decade” really lost? The news media and others talk about the period 2000-2009 as the lost decade for stocks. This is very true if you were invested in an SP 500 index fund, in many active large-cap mutual funds and ETFs, or in many well-known individual stocks.  But a closer look tells a different story. Well-diversified portfolios holding asset classes such as small- and mid-cap stocks, foreign equities, bonds, and some alternative asset classes did reasonably well over that same time period. While the market drop of 2008-2009 took most asset classes down along with large-cap stocks, that was not true over the span of the decade.

If you need help, get it. Any number of studies has shown that 401(k) participants who use advice do noticeably better than those who do not. Advice might come in the form of a managed account offered within the plan, an online advice tool, or perhaps in-person advice. If you need help with your overall financial situation (including your retirement plan account), look for a qualified fee-only advisor.

Don’t be spooked by what you hear on the news, or even by the volatility that we have seen in the markets lately. Manage your 401(k) account for the longer-term.

Roger Wohlner, CFP®, is a fee-only financial adviser at Asset Strategy Consultants based in Arlington Heights, Ill. where he provides advice to individual clients, retirement plan sponsors, foundations, and endowments. He recently cofounded Retirement Fiduciary Advisors to provide direct investment and retirement planning advice to 401(k) plan participants. Follow Roger on Twitter and LinkedIn. Roger also blogs at Chicago Financial Planner.

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Listeria outbreak from cantaloupe melons kills 13 people in US September 28, 2011

A listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupes from Colorado has killed 13 people and infected 59 others, US health officials have said.

The foodborne outbreak is the deadliest in the United States in more than a decade, exceeding the 2008-2009 salmonella outbreak from tainted peanuts that killed nine and infected more than 700 people in the United States, according to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC).

So far 18 states had reported infections from one of the four strains of listeria involved, the CDC said.

Of the 13 deaths, four were in New Mexico, two in Colorado, two in Texas and one each in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The CDC said it had traced the outbreak to cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado, after finding Listeria monocytogenes in a sample from there.

The company issued a recall on 14 September of its Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes. The fruit was shipped to at least 17 states.

The Food and Drug Administration has advised consumers to throw out the recalled melons.

Listeria bacteria thrive in low temperatures. Outbreaks are usually associated with deli meats, unpasteurised cheeses and smoked refrigerated seafood.

It is the deadliest listeria outbreak in the US since 1998 when contaminated hot dogs and deli meats killed 32 people and made 101 sick.

People with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable to listeria. Pregnant women are 20 times more likely than healthy adults to get listeriosis and people with Aids are nearly 300 times more likely, the CDC says on its website.

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Factory Field Trip September 27, 2011

If you want to feel optimistic about the state of manufacturing in America, you ought to spend a day with Stephen Gray. Then again, if you want to feel depressed about the state of manufacturing in America, you ought to spend a day with — yep — Stephen Gray.

Gray, 46, is chief executive of Gray Construction, a family-owned company, based in Lexington, Ky., that builds factories for big firms. As a result, far more than most people, he has his finger on the pulse of manufacturing in this country.

Not so long ago, Gray told me, the future looked grim. Manufacturing companies were canceling construction projects. The 10 or so factories Gray was building were nearing completion, yet there was nothing new in the pipeline. Gray was forced to lay off employees. The recession was taking a terrible toll.

But, in the summer of 2010, Gray Construction began to turn around because manufacturing itself began to turn around. There were six big jobs up for bid, including a Siemens factory in Charlotte, N.C., and a Caterpillar plant in Winston-Salem. Gray won them all. It now has 22 projects in various stages of development. With the two North Carolina plants nearly done, Gray asked me if I wanted to tour them. I said yes.

It is impossible not to be impressed with modern manufacturing plants like the Siemens and Caterpillar facilities. They are, first of all, immense; the Caterpillar plant in Winston-Salem, for instance, which will make gigantic axles for its mining trucks, is 850,000 square feet. Both plants use complex robotics, yet still convey the brawn we associate with manufacturing, with giant cranes that lift — in the case of the Siemens plant — the 280-ton gas turbines the plant will soon be making.

Secondly, these plants offer something that has become increasingly rare: middle-class jobs that don’t require a college degree. The jobs pay between $20 and $30 an hour, plus benefits, allowing a skilled machinist to make a decent middle-class living.

The key word, of course, is “skilled.” One reason Siemens and Caterpillar chose North Carolina is that Charlotte and Winston-Salem have community colleges that stress manufacturing skills. In Winston-Salem, Forsyth Tech, a local community college, was involved in wooing Caterpillar and created a program, in cooperation with the company, to make sure its graduates have the machining skills the company needs. Job training was part of the incentives packages that were dangled in front of the companies to lure them to North Carolina.

When I asked Richard Voorberg of Siemens why the German company chose to put its new plant in Charlotte instead of, say, China, he said that for highly skilled work, the labor cost differential wasn’t very big and that, in any case, factors like shipping costs and efficiency mattered more. “For this kind of manufacturing,” he said, “the U.S. can compete with China.” Gray Construction’s backlog of projects suggests that other manufacturers — many of them foreign companies — have come to the same conclusion.

That’s the optimistic part.

Now for the depressing part. Despite the size of the factories, the tens of millions in investments the companies are making, not to mention the millions in incentives and tax abatements that Charlotte and Winston-Salem used to land them, neither Siemens nor Caterpillar is going to employ that many people. Caterpillar is getting an estimated $14 million in incentives, yet it will employ only 500 or so workers in Winston-Salem. Siemens doesn’t expect to employ more than 800 people in the Charlotte facility. The same robotics technology that makes these plants so efficient also means they don’t need many people on the factory floor.

At the airport, on my way back to New York, I saw a headline from that day’s Winston-Salem Journal: “Lost,” it read, “108,000 Jobs.” The article was about a study, conducted by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, that claimed that North Carolina had lost that many jobs, most of them in manufacturing, “due in part to the trade deficit with China.”

In particular, North Carolina’s once thriving furniture industry has been decimated in the last decade. But I saw another example just down the street from Caterpillar: a Dell factory that had employed more than 900 people — and had only been open four years — shut down in late 2010. The Caterpillar factory won’t even replace the lost Dell jobs next door, much less put a dent in all the jobs lost in the last decade.

Manufacturing is terribly important. “More than any other sector, manufacturing creates additional jobs in the supply chain,” says Andrew Liveris, the chief executive of Dow Chemical, who has been pushing for a national manufacturing strategy.

It’s encouraging, for sure, that manufacturers again see America as a place where they can build things profitably. But my day in North Carolina suggests that the road back to true manufacturing prosperity is going to be a long one indeed.

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David Cameron finds right alignment in Canada | Colin Horgan September 24, 2011

Over the last decade, there have been a number of surface-level parallels between Canadian and British politics. First, each country replaced a long-standing prime minister with his former finance minister. Then, when each of those in turn gradually drowned under a cascade of leftover grievances and his own failure to unite a divided party, both Canada and Britain turned to their respective opposition Conservatives – but even then, only just.

In 2011, after five years of minority rule, Stephen Harper finally guided his Conservative party into majority territory, opposed and balanced in the House by a party that was once a political afterthought, pushed to prominence by a leader nobody took seriously only weeks before election day. Almost exactly a year earlier, in 2010, a similar narrative played out in Britain, ending with David Cameron‘s Conservative coalition government.

Despite all of that, the realities facing each country when Cameron and Harper were respectively elected were very different – and remain so. On the one hand, the UK was, and still is, staring at the business end of an economic nightmare in the eurozone, to which so many of its decisions, like those of foreign policy, are weighted. It is also still recovering from the 2008 banking system implosion, suffering high unemployment and grappling with its own faltering economy. On the other hand, as Cameron highlighted in his speech to Canadian Parliament in Ottawa Thursday night, no Canadian bank has yet “failed or faltered” during the recession. Canada’s economic relationship with the EU is currently focused on an upcoming free trade agreement, and it is determining the best way to handle a resource-rich export economy. On foreign policy, it looks not to Europe, but to the US.

Even the two leaders seem to differ in their relationship to conservatism and politics: Harper, the wonkish tactician, bred into western Reformist ideology, and an active politician at a young age, versus Cameron, a former PR brain for a TV company, bred into the ethos of noblesse oblige at Eton. 

Yet, as Cameron spoke to a packed House of Commons, similarities seemed to outweigh differences. Cameron hit home ideas that have become familiar tropes for the Harper Conservatives: the threat of the global economic crisis to the success of Canadian private enterprise; the dangers of Islamist extremism, dampened by Canada’s role in Nato missions in Afghanistan and Libya; and the fear of potential government overspending, solved only by continued austerity and deficit reduction. 

It was so much like a Harper speech, that despite the marked differences between the realities of each nation’s relationship to various continued global crises, one could have been forgiven for mistaking the two leaders Thursday.

In his rhetoric, Cameron sounded as if he’d been dipped in a Harper Prime Ministerial gloss and set on a shelf; or marked as the updated operating software of the ideology that finally, after endless processing, spat out a majority government this spring: a sort of Harper 2.0. He appeared just like all other “modernised” politicians, running on an iTunes approach to public policy – immediately detecting a blip of interest in themes and automatically offering up similar options you might also enjoy – only this time, smoother, younger, about an inch taller, wearing a pale blue tie, and flying in on a transatlantic commercial red-eye to Terminal 3 at Heathrow.

Britons might take note.

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Spending Inequity in Colleges Has Risen September 21, 2011

As income inequality has increased in the United States over the last decade, so too has the gap between rich and poor colleges and universities.

Between 1999 and 2009, private research universities that enroll about 1.1 million students increased their education-related spending per student by about $7,500, to almost $36,000. But in that same period, education-related spending stayed nearly flat, at slightly more than $10,000 per student, at the public community colleges that enroll 6.7 million students, according to a report, “Trends in College Spending,” being released Wednesday.

“The growing gap between the haves and the have-nots has become much more exaggerated over the last 10 years,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, the Washington, research group issuing the report.

While tuition has risen at public and private institutions alike, the inequality between the two sectors has grown, as the public colleges’ increased tuition revenues have not been nearly enough to make up for their loss of state and local appropriations.

Just from 2008 to 2009, the latest year for which data is available, community colleges’ net tuition increased $113, but their per-student spending declined by $254, mostly because of shrinking state and local financing. In that year, appropriations to community colleges nationwide fell an average $488 per student. At public research universities, which enroll 4.1 million students, net tuition increased by $369 — but appropriations declined by $751 per student, and spending per student increased only $92.

“If you’re trying to explain to a parent where the money’s going, it’s going into a big hole,” Ms. Wellman said. “Tuition increases are making up for less than half, on average, of what institutions lost in state funds.”

At private institutions, from 2008 to 2009, both tuition and spending have been rising. Private research universities’ per-student spending increased by $907, and private liberal arts colleges’ $298, while their net tuition increased $293 and $381, respectively.

Ms. Wellman said she did not expect any quick turnaround in state financing for public higher education.

Experts in higher education say it is difficult to imagine the nation’s returning to its former position of having the best-educated work force as long as the community colleges that educate the largest share of the population are the worst-financed sector.

“While it’s always been that way, in the last decade, like everything else, it’s been pushed to extremes,” said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “Higher education is more stratified than it’s ever been.”

The Delta Project report did find some good news. Over the last decade, there has been an increase in the share of enrolled students who complete degree and certificate program, and a decline in the number of credit hours they amass in doing so, compressing the cost of their credentials.

“There’s higher degree productivity across the board, but particularly in public institutions,” Ms. Wellman said.

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Airlines Recovering From 9/11 With Extra Fees September 18, 2011

Airlines in the United States lost $55 billion and shed 160,000 jobs during that decade. But the industry has worked through the economic tumult. A decade later, the system is smaller in terms of capacity, but it’s still in good working order. Last year, for example, 720.4 million people boarded airplanes in the United States, slightly higher even than the 719.1 million passengers in 2000.

Two weeks ago, at the annual convention of the Global Business Travel Association in Denver, Michael W. McCormick, the executive director of the group, hinted at a recovery.

“We’re not seeing record profits, but we’re also not seeing the end of airline travel as we know it,” he said. “So have things changed for the better?”

Good question. Planes are more crowded than ever, but fares remain near historically low levels. Other than the airport security challenges, however, the one major difference from 10 years ago is all the extra fees airlines have added to base fares, charging for things that used to be part of the ticket price.

Last year, for example, domestic airlines raised $3.4 billion just from charges for checked bags. In 2007, the year before most airlines started charging extra for checking a bag, the comparable figure was $464.2 million.

“Some would argue that you make more money from ancillary fees than you do operating the airplane, and that you’d like to figure out a way to sell us pillows and things while keeping the plane on the ground,” Peter Greenberg, the CBS News travel editor, joked to airline executives during a panel discussion at the business travel convention.

“It’s the right way to price the product,” replied Doug Parker, the chief executive of US Airways. Like other airline executives, Mr. Parker is adamant that ancillary fees have become a permanent part of the fare structure — and that they actually make a lot more sense than, say, the fees that many hotels charge customers.

“Last night, I stayed at a hotel down the street and I wanted to get a bottle of water and it cost $6,” Mr. Parker said as someone on the stage passed him a free bottle of water. Airlines, he noted, do not charge anyone for a drink of water.

Not that the idea hasn’t come up.

In 2008, he said, US Airways “actually instituted charging for all drinks on board, including sodas and water,” he said. The idea was dropped a few months later because of passenger resistance.

“Six bucks in my hotel room last night for water!” Mr. Parker repeated as the audience laughed. “We just wanted to charge a dollar!”

While airplanes that have been flying mostly full for over two years as capacity has been reduced to cut costs, another inconvenience has arisen. To avoid paying to check a bag, more passengers have been lugging more belongings onto already crowded planes. Some industry analysts have estimated that as many as 59 million extra bags are now being carried onto planes each year.

“It’s much harder to find space for your bag now on the airplane,” Mr. Parker said. He said the trend hasn’t created actual departure delays, “but the boarding process takes longer. We’re starting the boarding process sooner.”

Among the changes he predicted that all passengers can expect to see is a limit on extra checked bags, by airlines and also by the Transportation Security Administration at its checkpoints. “It’s becoming a huge problem for them. When you stand in line at the T.S.A., you see that the line is because of all those bags going through, not because of the people themselves being processed,” Mr. Parker said.

Also ahead is even further contraction in the domestic commercial aviation system. Delta Air Lines, for example, recently announced that it would drop service to 24 small and midsize airports, and US Airways said last week it was reducing service in Las Vegas by an additional 40 percent. At the same time, airlines have been mothballing many 50-seat regional jets, long the backbone of service at midsize airports.

Over the last decade, Mr. Parker said, the domestic airline business came to terms with the reality that it “had gotten way overbuilt, with too many hubs and too many airplanes.”

“We’re being much more rational, not trying to chase market share wherever we can but instead doing what we do well and sticking to that,” he said.

Asked about complaints from travel managers that airlines don’t provide enough “transparency” in showing optional fees clearly along with base fares, Mr. Parker said that business travelers were well aware of the panoply of extra charges, especially those for checked bags. Alone among the major carriers, Southwest Airlines does not charge for checking a bag.

“To suggest that people don’t know about baggage fees is hard to embrace,” he joked. “Because if you haven’t heard about them, Southwest will run an ad every couple of minutes to make sure you do.”

E-mail: jsharkey@nytimes.com

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Official: US dollars ending up in insurgents’ hands September 16, 2011


September 15, 2011

by legitgov

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Official: US dollars ending up in insurgents’ hands –’It’s clear to us some of that money is going to the insurgency.’ 15 Sep 2011 U.S. government money spent on contracts in Afghanistan is ending up in the hands of Taliban insurgents that American troops have been fighting for nearly a decade, and it is unlikely the flow can be shut off completely, a senior Pentagon official [Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend] said Thursday. The Associated Press reported in August that a special U.S. task force estimated that $360 million in U.S. contracting dollars have been lost to the Taliban, criminals and power brokers with ties to both. [The taxpayer-backed Afghan insurgents' stimulus never *once* met an opposition GOP vote or Obusha veto! Only tax dollars for US crumbling bridges can't get a dime! --LRP]

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C.I.A. Examining Legality of Work With Police Dept. September 14, 2011


September 13, 2011

by legitgov

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C.I.A. Examining Legality of Work With Police Dept. 14 Sep 2011 The Central Intelligence Agency has opened an internal inquiry into whether its close cooperation with the New York Police Department in the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks has broken any laws prohibiting the agency from collecting intelligence in the United States. The C.I.A. is prohibited from gathering intelligence on American soil, but some have criticized its counterterrorism cooperation with law enforcement services as a de facto domestic spying campaign. The head of the Police Department’s intelligence unit, David Cohen, is a former C.I.A. official, and the agency has a senior clandestine officer embedded in the New York police force.

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