Nine Circles of Hell!: Thursday, February 2, 2012
Today’s Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – the nine most hellish news stories, including two extra stories on surveillance, an additional student news article, another report on Egyptian violence and one on Syria, for Thursday, February 2, 2012, are:
NYPD conducting investigations based on religion
The Associated Press
NYPD document: Gather intel info at Shiite mosques
The New York Police Department recommended increasing surveillance of thousands of Shiite Muslims and their mosques, based solely on their religion, as a way to sweep the Northeast for signs of Iranian terrorists, according to interviews and a newly obtained secret police document.
The document offers a rare glimpse into the thinking of NYPD intelligence officers and how, when looking for potential threats, they focused their spying efforts on mosques and Muslims. Police analysts listed a dozen mosques from central Connecticut to the Philadelphia suburbs. None has been linked to terrorism, either in the document or publicly by federal agencies.
The Associated Press has reported for months that the NYPD infiltrated mosques, eavesdropped in cafes and monitored Muslim neighborhoods with plainclothes officers. Its spying operations were begun after the 2001 terror attacks with help from the CIA in a highly unusual partnership.
The May 2006 NYPD intelligence report, entitled “US-Iran Conflict: The Threat to New York City,” made a series of recommendations, including: “Expand and focus intelligence collections at Shi’a mosques.”
The NYPD is prohibited under its own guidelines and city law from basing its investigations on religion. Under FBI guidelines, which the NYPD says it follows, many of the recommendations in the police document would be prohibited.
The report, drawn largely from information available in newspapers or sites like Wikipedia, was prepared for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. It was written at a time of great tension between the U.S. and Iran. That tension over Iran’s nuclear ambition has increased again recently.
Police estimated the New York area Shiite population to be about 35,000, with Iranians making up about 8,500. The document also calls for canvassing the Palestinian community because there might be terrorists there.
“The Palestinian community, although not Shi’a, should also be assessed due to presence of Hamas members and sympathizers and the group’s relationship with the Iranian government,” analysts wrote.
The secret document stands in contrast to statements by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said the NYPD never considers religion in its policing. Kelly has said police go only where investigative leads take them, but the document described no leads to justify expanded surveillance at Shiite mosques.
- In other surveillance news, The Guardian reports, “Surveillance drone industry plans PR effort to counter negative image“:
Companies seeking to enable the routine use of surveillance drones across Britain are planning a long-term public relations effort to counter the negative image of the controversial aircraft.
The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems Association (UAVSA), a trade group that represents the drone industry to the UK government, has recommended drones deployed in Britain should be shown to “benefit mankind in general”, be decorated with humanitarian-related advertisements, and be painted bright colours to distance them from those used in warzones, details from a UAVSA presentation show.
Plans are also under way to establish corridors of segregated airspace to fly drones – or UAVs – between restricted “danger zones” (airspace where test flights take place) in isolated parts of England and Wales.
A series of presentations given by industry figures in recent months show public opposition is considered a major hurdle. UAVSA has discussed how it could use the media to disseminate favourable stories, creating a narrative that presents the introduction of drones in the UK as part of a “national mission”.
A talk three months ago at the Royal Aeronautical Society by Colin Burbidge, UAVSA’s head of information services, cited the website Drone Wars UK as an example of the negative publicity the industry must overcome. Drone Wars documents the use of drones in conflict zones and features a database of more than 80 UAV crashes around the world dating back four years.
Chris Cole, the Drone Wars founder, accused the industry of trying to undermine “genuine public debate” about the use of UAVs in Britain. “They know the public don’t like it,” Cole told the Guardian.
- In still more surveillance news, the Los Angeles Times has the story, “Germany intelligence agency criticized for spying on lawmakers“:
Twenty years ago, a reunified Germany opened the archives of the East German secret police, the dreaded Stasi, to the public. Thousands of Germans were horrified to learn that their friends and neighbors had been spying on them for the repressive East German government.
Now, Germans are once again dismayed by their country’s intelligence service.
First, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution came under fire after the revelation that a group of neo-Nazis had allegedly committed at least 10 killings while eluding authorities with apparent ease. The agency lost track of the group despite monitoring it as far back as the 1990s and having a coterie of paid informants.
Then, the newsweekly Der Spiegel reported last month that 27 members of Parliament, all with a left-wing party, have been under observation by the intelligence service.
Critics contend that the government has badly allocated resources, monitoring harmless left-wing politicians while allowing violent right-wing criminals to run rampant.
“They’ve been looking in the wrong direction, and maybe for political reasons,” said Michael Minkenberg, a political scientist at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) whose work focuses on the radical right. “It raises a very big question mark about the work they do. If they are really concentrating on preventing a danger to democracy in Germany, they are failing on a grand scale.”
The uproar surrounding the neo-Nazi group, which called itself the National Socialist Underground, has crescendoed since the government finally connected it in November to the slayings of nine immigrants and a policewoman from 2000 to ’06. The three members of the group believed to have committed the killings weren’t tracked down until the bodies of two of them, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, were found in a burning trailer, and the third, Beate Zschaepe, turned herself in to police.
Since then, media investigations have pieced together a story of consistent failure on the part of the federal and state intelligence services to cooperate and act on extensive evidence of the trio’s activities.
US soldiers die after using FDA-approved body-building supplement
Soldier deaths during training prompt military probe into supplement use
The deaths of two U.S. soldiers who collapsed during physical training in the last few months have prompted a military investigation of a popular body-building supplement that was found in their systems.
The dietary supplement Dimethylamylamine, or DMAA, has been banned for sale at stores and commissaries in military bases across the country pending the results of the probe.
DMAA is derived from geranium oil and is classified by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive. The supplement acts as a stimulant, giving users that extra boost of energy during a workout or training. Many soldiers use it to meet the strong physical demands of their training and service.
“There’s an incredible amount of pressure to perform well, especially after a reduction of forces,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Rebecca “Becky” Halstead, who now runs a company that specializes in leadership training. “Our safety record is pretty good, but we need to do more with proper nutrition and opportunity for rest. Some might say that it could add to the military’s cost, but what is the cost of not doing it?”
In one incident last summer, a 22-year-old soldier collapsed and died during a training run at a Southwestern U.S. military base. In the other, a 32-year-old collapsed during a fitness test the following fall, and died after a month in the hospital. Autopsies on both revealed the presence of DMAA in their systems.
The Department of Defense has assembled a number of reports of other adverse effects among potential and known DMAA users, including kidney and liver failure, seizures, loss of consciousness, heat injury and muscle breakdown, and a rapid heartbeat, according to a spokesman.
While the FDA considers DMAA to be a safe food additive, its Canadian counterpart, Health Canada, has reclassified it as a drug that requires authorization to be sold legally.
US companies still not telling investors they’ve been hacked
Exclusive: Hacked companies still not telling investors
At least a half-dozen major U.S. companies whose computers have been infiltrated by cyber criminals or international spies have not admitted to the incidents despite new guidance from securities regulators urging such disclosures.
Top U.S. cybersecurity officials believe corporate hacking is widespread, and the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a lengthy “guidance” document on October 13 outlining how and when publicly traded companies should report hacking incidents and cybersecurity risk.
But with one full quarter having elapsed since the SEC request, some major companies that are known to have had significant digital security breaches have said nothing about the incidents in their regulatory filings.
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp, for example, said last May that it had fended off a “significant and tenacious” cyber attack on its networks. But Lockheed’s most recent 10-Q quarterly filing, like its filing for the period that included the attack, does not even list hacking as a generic risk, let alone state that it has been targeted.
A Reuters review of more than 2,000 filings since the SEC guidance found some companies, including Internet infrastructure company VeriSign Inc and credit card and debit card transaction processor VeriFone Systems Inc, revealed significant new information about hacking incidents.
Yet the vast majority of companies addressing the issue only used new boilerplate language to describe a general risk. Some hacking victims did not even do that.
“It’s completely confusing to me why companies aren’t reporting cyber risks” if only to avoid SEC enforcement or private lawsuits, said Jacob Olcott, former counsel for the Senate Commerce committee. The chair of that committee, John D. Rockefeller, urged the SEC to act last year.
US works to end exploitation of foreign students during summer jobs
The New York Times
Company Banned in Effort to Protect Foreign Students From Exploitation
Signaling a sharp change of course in the country’s largest international cultural exchange program, the State Department has banned a leading sponsor company from bringing foreign students to the United States for summer jobs and will add new restrictions to protect students from labor abuse, officials said Wednesday.
The removal of the sponsor, the Council for Educational Travel, USA, was intended to send a powerful message to dozens of private companies participating in the State Department’s summer work program that they will have to monitor foreign students far more closely and ensure that participants are not exploited as cheap workers by employers.
The council, which is known as Cetusa, has been one of the biggest sponsors in the summer program and was responsible for placing about 400 foreign students last summer in a Pennsylvania plant packing Hershey’s chocolates. In August, hundreds of those program participants staged a boisterous walkout from the plant to protest low pay and dangerous job conditions.
The students’ demonstrations set off an investigation of Cetusa by the State Department and accelerated a review of the entire summer program, ordered by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2010. Critics on many sides said the program had become a vast source of temporary foreign workers at a time of high joblessness for Americans and had lost some of its purpose as a source of positive cultural exposure to the United States for foreign university students.
Rick Ruth, acting deputy assistant secretary of state, said the department would issue new regulations in coming months to expand the list of occupations prohibited for foreign summer workers. The list will include most jobs in construction and roofing, he said, and others shown statistically to be the most hazardous.
“We want to make sure that sponsors are not putting the labor aspect in the primary position, when it should be the cultural aspect,” Mr. Ruth said in an interview Wednesday.
- In other students news, Bloomberg reports, “Harvard Targeted in Asian Discrimination Probe“:
The U.S. Education Department is probing complaints that Harvard University and Princeton University discriminate against Asian-Americans in undergraduate admissions.
The department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint it received in August that Harvard rejected an Asian- American candidate for the current freshman class based on race or national origin, a department spokesman said. The agency is looking into a similar August 2011 allegation against Princeton as part of a review begun in 2008 of that school’s handling of Asian-American candidates, said the spokesman, who declined to be identified, citing department policy.
Both complaints involve the same applicant, who was among the top students in his California high school class and whose family originally came from India, according to the applicant’s father, who declined to be identified.
The new complaints, along with a case appealed last September to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging preferences for blacks and Hispanics in college admissions, may stir up the longstanding debate about whether elite universities discriminate against Asian-Americans, the nation’s fastest- growing and most affluent racial category.
Like Jews in the first half of the 20th century, who faced quotas at Harvard, Princeton, and other Ivy League schools, Asian-Americans are over-represented at top universities relative to their population, yet must meet a higher standard than other applicants based on measures such as test scores and high school grades, according to several academic studies.
“Many Asian-Americans live for their children, sacrificing everything to pay phenomenal tuition at these private schools,” said former Delaware Lieutenant Governor S.B. Woo, president of the 80-20 Educational Foundation, an Asian-American advocacy group. “They, at the same time, are very much aware that their kids have to cross a much higher admissions bar.”
Harvard “does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants,” and doesn’t comment on the specifics of complaints under federal review, spokesman Jeff Neal said. Asian-Americans comprised 16 percent of Harvard undergraduates in the 2010-2011 academic year, down from 18 percent in 2005-2006, according to the university’s website.
Did Egyptian soccer violence target ‘Arab Spring’ supporters?
Egypt’s football violence poses uncomfortable political questions
Past This is Hell! guest Martin Chulov writes …
When the anti-Mubarak uprising first burst to life a year ago, young football fans known as ultras were at the vanguard.
They have remained there ever since, taking the fight to riot police in Tahrir Square and relishing their role as an irritant to the country’s military junta, who they believe are clawing back the revolution’s gains.
On Wednesday night, the ultras were playing away in Port Said; far from the alleys and boulevards that spill into the northern end of Tahrir. Instead they were in the home stadium of an arch rival, with whom they had clashed before. Facing a hostile home crowd and ambivalent security, against whom they had held a long and profound grudge, they were left exposed.
The surprisingly small numbers of riot police on standby did nothing to stop the mayhem that erupted at full time.
Somehow the gates to the playing field were open as the triumphant home crowd stormed the pitch to attack the losing Cairo-based al-Ahly side. The cordon of police parted and within several hours the death toll stood at 74.
Key elements of Wednesday night’s carnage seem to support claims that this wasn’t just random football violence that got out of hand.
The first is the large numbers of weapons carried by both sides, but especially visible in the hands of al-Masri supporters as they swarmed into the ground through the open gates. In quieter times, queues to high-stakes football fixtures can be four hours long, mainly because of rigorous security searches.
Those trying to flee the seething fans and their weapons instead found exit gates closed. The ensuing Hillsborough-like situation led to hundreds of people being crushed, as the outnumbered police stood by.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that the chaos had been at least partly engineered to teach a painful lesson to the ultras – and by proxy the Egyptian liberals whose views on the military junta they broadly represent.
The violence also plays to the military’s narrative of an ongoing atmosphere of insecurity across Egypt justifying an extension of some emergency law provisions.
- Apparently, these claims are being taken seriously today amid protests as BBC News reports, “Egypt football riot: Port Said officials sacked“:
Senior officials in the Egyptian city of Port Said and the Egyptian football association have been sacked in the wake of riots on Wednesday at a football match in which 74 people died.
The governor of Port Said resigned, while two senior security officials have been suspended and are in custody.
Security forces fired tear gas as thousands of protesters marched towards the interior ministry in Cairo.
Three days of national mourning have been declared.
Protesters in Cairo chanted slogans against the police and Egypt’s military rulers.
As the marchers neared the interior ministry, which is protected by barricades, police fired tear gas.
West backs off demands for Syrian sanctions, embargo
The Washington Post with Foreign Policy
U.S., allies drop Syria sanctions demand, seek deal with Russia at U.N.
The United States and its European and Arab partners have agreed to drop a demand to impose U.N. sanctions and a voluntary arms embargo on Damascus, in exchange for a commitment from Russia to allow adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution that paves the way for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure from power.
The latest offer — outlined in a new version of a draft resolution under negotiations in the 15-nation council — represents something of a retreat by the United States and its European and Arab allies, stripping the most painful measures, and permitting Syria to continue buying weapons from Russia, its closest ally, to bolster its position.
But the pact would for the first time place the Security Council, and possibly Russia, squarely behind an Arab League plan outlining a timetable for a transfer of power to a government of national unity, and ultimately new parliamentary and presidential elections. And it would mark the first time since the violence began that the council has adopted a binding resolution condemning Syria’s conduct.
Security Council diplomats said they are confident that they have fashioned the broad parameters of a possible deal that would end months of inaction on Syria by the Security Council. But they cautioned that Russia has yet to agree to support an unambiguous endorsement of the Arab League political plan, and that the entire proposal could unravel if they don’t.
“I don’t want to predict . . . but today discussion was conducted in a constructive and roll-up-your-sleeves manner and if that continues, there’s a possibility that we’ll reach agreement, but there’s no certainty,” Susan. E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters late Wednesday. “There are issues of interest and principle that still divide the council.”
Meanwhile, Reuters reports, “U.S. and allies exploring prospects for Assad exile“:
The United States, European governments and Arab states have begun discussing the possibility of exile for Bashar al-Assad despite skepticism the defiant Syrian president is ready to consider such an offer, Western officials said on Wednesday.
While talks have not progressed far and there is no real sense that Assad’s fall is imminent, one official said as many as three countries were willing to take him as a way to bring an end to Syria’s bloody 10-month-old crisis.
Two sources said no European states were prepared to give Assad sanctuary, but one official said the United Arab Emirates might be among those open to the idea.
Talk of exile has surfaced amid mounting international pressure on Assad and a diplomatic showdown over a proposed Arab League resolution at the United Nations aimed at getting him to transfer power. He has responded by stepping up assaults on opposition strongholds.
With the White House insisting for weeks that Assad’s days in power are numbered, it was unclear whether this marks an attempt to persuade the Syrian leader and his family to grasp the chance of a safe exit instead of risking the fate of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who was hunted and killed by rebels last year.
But with Assad showing he remains in charge of a powerful security apparatus and the Syrian opposition fragmented militarily, it could also be an effort to step up psychological pressure and open new cracks in his inner circle.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said neither the United States nor the European Union had taken the lead on the idea, which has been advocated by Arab nations as a way to try to end the violence in Syria.
“We understand that some countries have offered to host him should he choose to leave Syria,” a senior Obama administration official said, without naming any of the countries.
Palestinians becoming increasingly frustrated with PA
The New York Times
Support for Palestinian Authority Erodes as Prices and Taxes Rise
For many Palestinians and their international supporters, the one bright spot in an otherwise dreary political landscape has been the nation-building efforts of Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, who has restored law and order and encouraged economic growth in the West Bank.
But over the past two weeks Palestinians have been taking to the streets here and in other West Bank cities to denounce Mr. Fayyad, protesting soaring prices and recently approved tax increases.
The tax changes have proved so unpopular that Mr. Fayyad has suspended their enactment until mid-February, pending the outcome of talks to resolve the matter.
Condemnation of the fiscal policies of Mr. Fayyad, a Western-educated economist and a political independent, has come from the private sector, the unions and Fatah, the mainstream nationalist movement that dominates the Palestinian Authority. Young protesters sat down in the center of Ramallah with posters bearing legends like “Starving.”
“If the policy does not change, the slogans will change. You remember what happened in Tahrir?” said Khaled Mansour, an activist of the socialist Palestinian People’s Party, who came to Ramallah from a refugee camp near Jenin, in the northern West Bank. He was referring to the square in Cairo where protests started last year and ended with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
Out of ideas about how to end the Israeli occupation, a growing number of Palestinians are already proposing the opposite: that the Palestinian Authority, an interim body set up in the 1990s to practice limited self-rule pending a final peace deal, should dissolve itself and hand the keys back to Israel.
“The authority defends itself by saying, ‘We are still under occupation,’ ” said Muhammad Hassouneh, 30, an air-conditioning contractor from Ramallah. “That is true, so they should dissolve themselves.”
The Palestinian Authority has suffered a worsening financial crisis over the past two years, a situation that Mr. Fayyad, who is also the finance minister, has been trying to address.
The rising prices are a function of global processes and more particularly the high cost of living in Israel, because the West Bank economy is intrinsically linked with Israel’s under the political accords of the 1990s.
The Palestinian Authority imports electricity from Israel, and monthly bills have doubled or even tripled since last winter, according to Salah Haniya, who runs the Palestinian Consumer Protection Society. The price of chicken has almost doubled in the last few months.
“It is related to Israel,” Mr. Haniya said, “but also to the policy of the Palestinian government, which refuses to introduce subsidies or increase salaries. Instead, it is increasing the taxes.”
Differences, freezing cold test Putin opposition
Anti-Putin protesters battle cold and divisions
It took several minutes and a woolly hat to resolve the latest differences among the loose alliance of Russian opposition groups challenging Vladimir Putin’s 12-year rule.
Unable to agree on the order of a protest march through Moscow on Saturday, the organizers, gathered round a few tables shoved together in a crowded Moscow cultural centre, borrowed the hat from a woman bystander and drew lots from it.
A row was averted. Non-affiliated protesters will lead the march, increasing pressure on Putin to allow free elections and open up the political system, and they will be followed by liberals, right-wing groups and nationalists.
The many groups behind the biggest protests since Putin rose to power disagree on more than they agree on, and their chaotic meetings are often an exercise in conflict resolution.
Fearing the Kremlin will exploit any public differences, they are keeping their political demands and sensitive political discussions to a minimum to help maintain the fragile unity.
“A coalition as broad as this can only concentrate on achieving one goal,” said Maxim Blant, a journalist debating the protest movement with other civic activists during a political discussion one snowy evening this week.
“The groups involved all want a level playing field for political competition in Russia. This unites them even though they have different values otherwise. They understand the rules of the game – they must focus on the one goal that unites them.”
Two opposition rallies in Moscow on December 10 and December 24 attracted tens of thousands of people angered by allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election on December 4 that was won by Putin’s ruling United Russia party.
Saturday’s march will test the opposition’s ability to keep up the momentum despite freezing weather, Putin’s refusal to meet their main demands and the prime minister’s all-but certain victory in a presidential election on March 4.
“We know that Putin will win on March 4. But we want to ensure he is naked and wet when he enters the Kremlin, with all respect for him gone,” said Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist who is part of the organizing committee.
Protesters were also united by an announcement by Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev on September 24 that they plan to swap jobs after the presidential election, a move seen by many Russians as openly flouting democracy.
Sucrose is as bad for society as alcohol and tobacco
Sugar Should Be Regulated As Toxin, Researchers Say
A spoonful of sugar might make the medicine go down. But it also makes blood pressure and cholesterol go up, along with your risk for liver failure, obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Sugar and other sweeteners are, in fact, so toxic to the human body that they should be regulated as strictly as alcohol by governments worldwide, according to a commentary in the current issue of the journal Nature by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
The researchers propose regulations such as taxing all foods and drinks that include added sugar, banning sales in or near schools and placing age limits on purchases.
Although the commentary might seem straight out of the Journal of Ideas That Will Never Fly, the researchers cite numerous studies and statistics to make their case that added sugar — or, more specifically, sucrose, an even mix of glucose and fructose found in high-fructose corn syrup and in table sugar made from sugar cane and sugar beets — has been as detrimental to society as alcohol and tobacco.