Nine Circles of Hell!: Thursday, February 16 Nine Circles of Hell!

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The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – today’s nine most hellish news stories, including three extra stories on the growing economic crisis for young people and an additional article on Afghan peace talks, for Thursday, February 16, 2012, are:

“Student loan debt bomb” a drag on the economy for foreseeable future

9/11 memorial poses unique risk of suicide

Is US exploiting aid operations as cover for CIA, black ops?

“Syrian regime is lying” about al Qaeda presence

In Libya, torture, extrajudicial executions, rape of men and women

US intel official says Iran’s not the threat it’s being made out to be

Iran government oil-trading firm buys bigger piece of BP

Taliban denies secret peace talks with Afghanistan

Alcohol kills more people than AIDS, TB or malaria each year

“Student loan debt bomb” a drag on the economy for foreseeable future
Bloomberg
(2/15/12)

Student Loans Near $1 Trillion Hurt Young Buyers

As outstanding student debt approaches $1 trillion, it’s one more reason record-low interest rates aren’t doing more to boost housing. The tighter lending standards that have emerged in the wake of the recession weigh particularly on younger, first-time home buyers, according to a Federal Reserve study sent to Congress on Jan. 4. These households tend to be younger, often have relatively new credit profiles, lower-than-average credit scores and fewer economic resources to make a large down payment, the report said.

“Potential first-time homebuyers have been disproportionately affected by the very tight conditions in mortgage markets,” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said at a homebuilders conference last week. “First-time homebuyers are typically an important source of incremental housing demand, so their smaller presence in the market affects house prices and construction quite broadly.”

The Fed’s white paper said 9 percent of 29- to 34-year-olds got a first-time mortgage between 2009 and 2011, compared with 17 percent 10 years earlier. “These data suggest a large decline in mortgage borrowing by potential first-time homebuyers due to not only weaker housing demand, but also the effect of tighter credit conditions,” the Fed said.

Outstanding education debt surpassed credit-card debt last year for the first time, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, a student loan website. Recent college graduates carry an average debt load of more $25,000 each, which can limit their ability to qualify for mortgages even if they’re fortunate enough to land a job in a market with an unemployment rate of 9 percent for 25 to 34 year-olds.

Calling it a “student-loan debt bomb,” the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys warned Feb. 7 about the effects of rising student debt on recent graduates, parents who cosigned their loans and older Americans who have gone back to school for job training.

“Just as the housing bubble created a mortgage debt overhang that absorbs the income of consumers and renders them unable to engage in consumer spending that sustains the economy, so too are student loans beginning to have the same effect, which will be a drag on the economy for the foreseeable future,” John Rao, vice president of the NACBA, said on a conference call.

People age 25 to 34 made up 27 percent of all home buyers in 2011, the lowest in the last decade and compared with 33 percent in 2001, according to the National Association of Realtors. At the same time, first-time buyers last year accounted for 37 percent of all purchases, the lowest since 2006, when home prices peaked and the housing boom was showing cracks.

“Students coming out of college are burdened with more debt than traditionally they have been, and they are also coming into an economy that is underperforming previous recoveries,” said Rick Palacios, a senior analyst at John Burns Real Estate Consulting LLC in Irvine, California. “These things pile on each other and tell us it’s not going to help the housing recovery right now.”

  • Speaking of home buying, the Los Angeles Times reports in the article, “Citi admits mortgage fraud in $158-million settlement,” that the housing bubble was a fraud perpetrated by the private sector on the public, despite what big banks, the Republican Party and Fox News says:
    Citigroup Inc. is paying $158 million to settle accusations that it took advantage of a federal mortgage insurance program.
    In a settlement with the Justice Department, Citi admitted that it provided misleading information about the quality of its mortgages to a federal insurance program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The government provided backing for the mortgages and ended up losing millions when the borrowers defaulted.
    In the complaint filed Wednesday as part of the settlement, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan said that CitiMortgage violated the rules of the Federal Housing Administration insurance program for six years until it was subpoenaed in July.
    “For far too long, lenders treated HUD’s insurance of their mortgages like they were playing with house money,” U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara said in a statement.
    The government insurance allowed Citi to give cheaper loans to less-credit-worthy borrowers and then to sell the loans to investors. The complaint provides another look at how the nation’s largest banks helped inflate the mortgage bubble by misleading government authorities …
    The lawsuit against Citigroup stems from a series of federal investigations of lenders that made mortgages insured by the FHA.
    The largest of these civil fraud cases to date involved Bank of America Corp. and Countrywide Financial Corp., the Calabasas company BofA acquired in 2008. The companies agreed last week to a $1-billion settlement of claims that Countrywide, once the largest home lender, defrauded the FHA by knowingly writing loans for unqualified buyers and by issuing loans based on inflated appraisals.
    The $1 billion was to be funded half in cash and half in loan modifications for borrowers whose mortgages are greater than their home values. The agreement was part of a $25-billion settlement between the five largest providers of mortgage customer service, federal authorities and the attorneys general of every state except Oklahoma …
    The major banks were part of a program that allowed them to get automatic approval for government insurance for the mortgages they were issuing. As part of the program, the banks were supposed to aggressively pre-screen the mortgages, to make sure they were not too risky and report any signs the mortgages were having trouble.
    The complaint filed Wednesday said that Citi systematically ignored these rules, leading the government to insure lower-quality loans. More problematically, employees in Citi’s mortgage unit are accused of asking members of the compliance department to not report problems with the mortgages to the government.
    “Citi’s quality-control reports became — and remain — a battleground within Citi, with those in Citi’s business production units applying what they describe as ‘brute force’ to pressure Citi’s quality- control managers to downgrade their findings,” the complaint said …
    Ultimately 30% of the loans originated by Citi after 2004 — and 47% of those in 2006 and 2007 — ended up in default.
  • The New York Times reports on other distressing news for young people around the world in, “For London Youth, Down and Out Is Way of Life“:
    Perhaps the most debilitating consequence of the euro zone’s economic downturn and its debt-driven austerity crusade has been the soaring rate of youth unemployment. Spain’s jobless rate for people ages 16 to 24 is approaching 50 percent. Greece’s is 48 percent, and Portugal’s and Italy’s, 30 percent. Here in Britain, the rate is 22.3 percent, the highest since such data began being collected in 1992. (The comparable rate for Americans is 18 percent.)
    The lack of opportunity is feeding a mounting alienation and anger among young people across Europe — animus that threatens to poison the aspirations of a generation and has already served as a wellspring for a number of violent protests in European cities from Athens to London. And new economic data on Wednesday, showing much of Europe in the doldrums or recession, does little to bolster hopes for a better jobs picture anytime soon.
    Experts say that the majority of those who took to the streets in London last summer were young people who were unemployed, out of school and not participating in a job training program.
    Classified by statisticians as NEETs (not in education, employment or training), they number about 1.3 million, or one of every five 16-to-24-year-olds in the country.
    While youth unemployment has long been a chronic issue here, experts say the British government’s debt-reduction commitment to rein in social spending appears to be making the problem worse. Insufficient job training and apprenticeship programs, they argue, contribute to the large pool of permanently unemployed young people in Britain.
  • If you’re looking for work, there’s always the post office, I mean, Germany, according to The Economic Times story, “More than one million unfilled jobs in Germany“:
    More than one million jobs in Germany are unfilled, a survey showed on Thursday, as unemployment in Europe’s top economy stands at record lows and employers complain of a skills shortage.
    The survey, by the research institute for the federal employment agency (IAB), showed a total of 1.13 million positions vacant.
    Also on Thursday, the federal statistics office released figures showing the number of people in active employment in Germany in the fourth quarter stood at 41.6 million, a record high since reunification in 1990.

9/11 memorial poses unique risk of suicide
The New York Times
(2/15/12)

At 9/11 Memorial, Police Raise Fears of Suicide

Amid the serenity and solemnity of the National September 11 Memorial, the two sunken granite pools that designate the footprints of the absent World Trade Center towers have become a natural focal point, drawing visitors with artificial waterfalls that extend three stories down.

But for the New York Police Department, the pools also represent a focal point for an entirely different reason: the fear that people overwhelmed by grief may try to commit suicide there.

Police officials and grief experts share concerns that the memorial poses a unique risk because of its layout and its powerful relationship to the terrorist act of Sept. 11, 2001, and because those who lost loved ones that day may still have unresolved issues of loss.

The concern is as yet unrealized; there have been a million or so visitors to the memorial since it opened last September, and there have been no suicide attempts. Nonetheless, the police said a plan had been put in place.

“We have to think of these possibilities,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in an interview with Esquire magazine. “People might commit suicide. We’re concerned about the possibility of somebody jumping in.”

Grief experts say memorials can set off negative psychological reactions, especially for those who have a direct connection to the event being memorialized. That effect could be magnified at the Sept. 11 memorial, where the memory of what happened there may still be fresh.

Dr. Dana M. Alonzo, associate professor of social work at the Columbia University School of Social Work, said there had been instances of people having new episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder; after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, people have reported worsened symptoms.

“If they have not completed the mourning process, or the mourning process is complicated, which is what generally happens when someone’s loved one dies in a violent type of death,” Dr. Alonzo said, “then the grieving process can take on the form of complicated grief.”

“The memorial, rather than serving as a source of comfort, can heighten feelings of either ‘This is unjust’ or desires for revenge of some sort,” she added. “They can feed into those negative feelings that the person is stuck in.”

Is US exploiting aid operations as cover for CIA, black ops?
The Telegraph
(2/16/12)

How the CIA’s fake aid projects put real humanitarian workers at risk in Pakistan

You don’t need to be a cynic of US overseas aid to know that cash is generally directed to those countries in which Washington has a clear foreign policy objective: Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan are among the top recipients. But perhaps more shocking is the increasing evidence of the way in which the US has been exploiting aid operations as cover for CIA agents and black ops.

Last year it emerged that a Pakistani doctor had set up a fake vaccination programme in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad as a ruse to obtain DNA from members of Osama bin Laden’s family. Dr Shakeel Afridi and his family have since disappeared into custody.

Now, a new book claims that the US used the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir as cover to send intel officers into Pakistan posing as aid and construction workers. They were tasked with gathering information on al-Qaeda members and their Pakistani handlers.

As if aid workers in Pakistan did not already have enough to cope with. American charities in particular have long been suspected of habouring Blackwater staff or CIA agents. Local newspapers with close links to Islamabad spies have delighted in falsely revealing NGO offices as hubs of covert intelligence networks. Now they will be able to say: “We told you so” …

Not only will these secret programmes put brave aid workers in harm’s way, but they will add to the culture of mistrust and suspicion that currently characterises relations between Pakistan and the US.

“Syrian regime is lying” about al Qaeda presence
Al Arabiya
(2/16/12)

Lies being spread about al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria: Islamist activist

Syrian Salafi activist Omar Bakri denied allegations that his group and al-Qaeda will join forces against the Syrian regime or that al-Qaeda is present in Syria in the first place.

“The tyrannical Syrian regime is so desperate as to place the blame on al-Qaeda and Salafi Jihadist movements for what is happening in Syria and none of those are in Syria anyway. The Syrian regime is lying,” he told Al Arabiya’s point of Order Friday.

Bakri said that reports by some Western newspapers about the group to which he belongs, called al-Ghurabaa, Arabic for “The Strangers,” and al-Qaeda interfering in Syria are totally devoid of truth.

“There is no group called al-Ghurabaa to start with and I am not entitled to speak on behalf of al-Qaeda anyway.”

Bakri said that he called upon members of the UK-based Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah, of which he is a founding member, to support the Syrian revolutionaries through closing Syrian embassies in the countries where they live.

“They should all be ready to help their Syrian brethren in case the regime ignites a sectarian war. The regime is committing a heinous crime and we can’t stand still and watch while this happens.”

Bakri denied that his approach is sectarian and that he is only focusing on Sunnis in Syria, yet pointed out that all those killed by the Syrian regime are Sunnis.

“The Syrian regime involved Alawites in the killings and most of them link their destiny to that of Bashar al-Assad and think that his fall means their end.”

Bakri explained that his and the revolutionaries war is not against Alawites or Christians or any other faction, but is rather against the corrupt Baath Party.

Bakri lashed out at Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian regime against the Sunnis in Syria.

“I am grateful to Hassan Nasrallah for the support he gave when a lawsuit was filed against me in Lebanon, yet this does not mean that I endorse his alliances or his party.”

According to Bakri, the only winner in the Arab revolutions is Islamist forces like al-Qaeda, the Salafis, Hizb al-Tahrir, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The ultimate proof is that Islamists already came to power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and the same will happen later in Syria.”

In Libya, torture, extrajudicial executions, rape of men and women
The Associated Press
(2/16/12)

Amnesty accuses Libyan militias of unbridled torture

Armed militia groups in Libya that formed along tribal lines after the ouster of the Moammar Gadhafi regime have turned on one another and now rule most of the country, torturing their opponents with impunity, Amnesty International says.

It’s not just the revenge attacks or tribe-on-tribe feuding, but the gross human rights abuses that go unchallenged by Libya’s new government, CBC’s David Common reports from New York.

When Amnesty International investigators visited detention facilities, inmates told of rape by guards and beatings for hours with whips, cables, metal chains, wooden sticks and electric shocks with live wires, Common reported.

Militia members didn’t bother stopping one beating even when Amnesty’s team arrived, saying inmates who had been ordered released would not be.

At least 12 detainees have died since September after torture, Amnesty said in a report released Wednesday evening.

“Their bodies were covered in bruises, wounds and cuts and some had had nails pulled off,” the group said.

“There’s torture, extrajudicial executions, rape of both men and women,” Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said on Jan. 27.

The Amnesty International report is a fresh blow to Libya’s new government, the National Transitional Council, which helped lead the anti-Gadhafi uprising that broke out one year ago this week and became a brutal, eight-month civil war.

US intel official says Iran’s not the threat it’s being made out to be
Bloomberg
(2/16/12)

Iran Unlikely to Strike First in Conflict, U.S. Intelligence Official Says

The Iranian military is unlikely to intentionally provoke a conflict with the West, the top U.S. military intelligence official said today.

Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Iran probably has the ability to “temporarily close the Strait of Hormuz with its naval forces,” as some Iranian officials have threatened to do if attacked or in response to sanctions on its oil exports by the U.S. and European Union …

Director of National Intelligences James Clapper, who testified alongside Burgess, said it was “technically feasible but probably not likely” that Iran could produce a nuclear device within a year of making a political decision to proceed …

Director of National Intelligences James Clapper, who testified alongside Burgess, said it was “technically feasible but probably not likely” that Iran could produce a nuclear device within a year of making a political decision to proceed …

Asked about how long it would take Iran to recover from an attack on its nuclear facilities, Clapper said he couldn’t corroborate the U.S. military’s view that a strike would deal a setback of one to two years at most.

“I don’t disagree with it, but I think there’s a lot of factors that could play here,” Clapper said.

The uncertainties include “how effective the attack was, what the targets were, what rate of recovery might be,” Clapper said. “There are a lot of imponderables that could affect a guestimate — and that’s all it is.”

Clapper said he had doubts Iran eventually will make the political decision to move forward with assembling a nuclear device.

“They have put themselves in a position, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time,” Clapper said. He declined to say in public testimony what steps Iran hasn’t taken that would be leading indicators of a decision to build a bomb.

Iran government oil-trading firm buys bigger piece of BP
Reuters
(2/16/12)

Special report: For Iran oil trader, Western ties run deep

Reuters has learned that on February 1, The Naftiran Intertrade Company, an oil-trading firm owned by the Iranian government, increased its holding in British oil giant BP Plc by 1.85 million shares. It now holds a stake worth more than $190 million.

In addition to the shareholding, the Iranian company’s ties to BP include the Rhum gas field in the North Sea, a venture that’s now suspended due to sanctions. It also has active projects like a gas field with BP in Azerbaijan, and an investment with Royal Dutch Shell in fuel distribution in Senegal.

An examination of the operations of Naftiran Intertrade, or NICO as it is known, shows just how difficult it is for Western companies to untangle their ties with Iran. NICO is under pressure to leave Europe, but it has a web of assets, joint ventures and relationships with Western firms that will likely prove difficult and expensive for either side to break.

A spokesman at BP said the company would not comment on individual shareholders. “However we regularly review and take legal advice to ensure our compliance with sanctions legislation. We remain confident that BP is in full compliance with all applicable sanctions regimes including UN, EU regulations and US law, and will remain in compliance,” he said. “We continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Taliban denies secret peace talks with Afghanistan
CNN
(2/16/12)

Taliban reject Karzai claim of secret meetings

The Taliban rejected a claim Thursday by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that it was taking part in secret talks with the Afghan government.

“The Islamic Emirate strongly rejects Karzai’s remarks and adds that the Islamic Emirate has never met with the representatives of the powerless Kabul administration, and has made no decision to hold talks with the Karzai government, even in the future,” the Taliban said in a statement e-mailed to CNN.

The statement followed a report in the Wall Street Journal in which Karzai said, “There have been contacts between the U.S. government and the Taliban, there have been contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and there have been some contacts that we have made, all of us together.”

Karzai’s assertion suggested a change in course for peace efforts, because the Taliban has long publicly refused to meet with Karzai’s government, and Afghan officials have complained they were largely sidelined in talks taking place between the United States and the Taliban …

In the statement Thursday, the Taliban insisted that “the enemy has only got propaganda left to show off its power, which in reality has been given to them by someone else and only for a few more days” — an apparent reference to Karzai’s government being bolstered by the United States.

“The Islamic Emirate believes that even if somebody claiming to be from the address of the Islamic Emirate has met with Karzai administration, that person is a fake and, like many times before, once again the Karzai government has been deceived.”

In a statement Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid called Karzai’s government “a puppet and unauthorized,” and said “meeting with them will not be beneficial in solving the issue.”

“The issue is … who is powerful and has got the power to make a decision, and who hasn’t, and everyone around the world knows that the one who has got the authority in opposition to the Mujahideen (the Taliban) is America,” he wrote.

Last June, Karzai said the United States was involved in peace talks with the Taliban, and that representatives of the government and insurgents had been in touch, but that no high-level meetings had taken place.

Karzai arrived Thursday in Pakistan for discussions with President Asif Ali Zardari on improving relations between the two countries and peace efforts in Afghanistan.

  • So why all the denial? Yes, the Wall Street Journal story reported in the above article is part of it. However, it’s also because of articles like, “Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet in Islamabad,” in the GlobalPost:
    It’s not sitting at the table, but the US and its policies will feature heavily in talks here today between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
    A contentious agenda item will likely be the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are allied with the US, although it’s an uneasy alliance, and Iran is not.
    The Iranians are worried that a long-term Afghan-American strategic agreement, which is now under discussion between the two countries, may lead to permanent US bases in Afghanistan, according to Tanvir Ahmad Khan, a political analyst and former Pakistani ambassador to Iran.
    Khan said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would likely try to lure Pakistan away from the US.
    “I’m quite sure Ahmadinejad will offer all sorts of inducements while demanding that we stay away from the anti-Iran coalition and we help them fight the sanctions,” he said.
    Iran would, for instance, offer Pakistan help to speed up the construction of a gas pipeline, a project the United States vehemently opposes but which is of vital importance to Pakistan. And on Tuesday, Seyed Hassan Yahyavi, Iran’s consul general in Quetta, offered increased investment in Pakistani industry and infrastructure, as well as a much-needed 1,000-megawatt boost of electricity to Pakistan.
    Iran, however, will have a hard time prying the two countries out of the grip of the US, which the two have significant financial ties to.
    “Of course Karzai’s dependency on the west on security and budgets remains overwhelming. That limits his options,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, referring to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But he applauds the idea of more regional cooperation.
    “Afghanistan will have to live with its neighbors and it makes sense to establish regular exchanges,” he said.

Alcohol kills more people than AIDS, TB or malaria each year
LiveScience
(2/16/12)

Deadly Alcohol Needs Global Regulation, Health Expert Says

When considering the world’s worst killers, alcohol likely doesn’t come to mind. Yet alcohol kills more than 2.5 million people annually, more than AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis.

For middle-income people, who constitute half the world’s population, alcohol is the top health risk factor, greater than obesity, inactivity and even tobacco.

The World Health Organization has meticulously documented the extent of alcohol abuse in recent years and has published solid recommendations on how to reduce alcohol-related deaths, but this doesn’t go far enough, according to Devi Sridhar, a health-policy expert at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

In a commentary appearing today (Feb. 15) in the journal Nature, Sridhar argues that the WHO should regulate alcohol at the global level, enforcing such regulations as a minimum drinking age, zero-tolerance drunken driving, and bans on unlimited drink specials. Abiding by the regulations would be mandatory for the WHO’s 194 member states.

Far from prohibition, the WHO regulations would force nations to strengthen weak drinking laws and better enforce laws already in place, Sridhar says.

Alcohol consumption is measured in terms of pure ethyl alcohol to compensate for the varying strengths of beer, wine and spirits. A liter bottle of wine with 10 percent alcohol, for example, would be only 0.1 liter of pure alcohol. According to the WHO, Americans each drink 9.4 liters of ethyl alcohol per year on average. That’s equivalent to 94 bottles of the aforementioned wine.

As high as that might sound, Americans don’t even crack the top 50 on the world charts. Europe, in particular Eastern Europe, dominates the drinking scene. Moldova has the top drinkers, downing 18.4 liters of alcohol per capita yearly. That’s equivalent to 184 1-liter bottles of wine, or nearly four bottles a week per person. The legal drinking age in Moldova is 16, and there are few restrictions on when or where alcohol can be sold.

The price of such alcohol abuse is early death. One in five men in the Russian Federation and neighboring European countries dies as a result of alcohol, according to WHO data. Alcohol abuse is associated with cardiovascular diseases, cirrhosis of the liver, various cancers, violence and vehicle accidents. Alcoholic adults have difficulty working and supporting their families, too.

Sridhar argues that the WHO is unique among health organizations in that it can create legally binding conventions. The WHO has done this only twice in its 64-year history: the International Health Regulations, which require countries to report certain disease outbreaks and public-health events; and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which commits governments to making legislative moves to reduce the demand for, and the supply of, tobacco.

No other entity can attack the global problem of alcohol abuse, she said. When it comes to alcohol, though, the WHO has settled on merely recommendations, such as those outlined in the 2010 WHO Global Strategy to Reduce Harmful Use of Alcohol.

“Countries are aware of the problem, but several haven’t made a real commitment to implementing the recommendations,” Sridhar told LiveScience. “The problem is not with ministries of health but with ministries of finance, trade, etc. who prioritize other interests first.”

In her Nature commentary, Sridhar said that the existing WHO recommendations could serve as the framework for a new international convention on alcohol regulation. Yet even the United States would struggle to meet several of the 10 recommended target areas, which include advertising restrictions, price hikes and tougher laws against drunken driving.

“Ministries of health would have a stronger domestic negotiating position in prioritizing alcohol regulation above economic concerns,” with the WHO muscle behind them, she wrote.

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Nine Circles of Hell!: Thursday, February 16
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