December 26th, 2011
Three federal air marshals in bulletproof vests and two officers trained to spot suspicious behavior watched closely as Seiko, a German shepherd, nosed Vetter's trousers for chemical traces of a bomb. Radiation detectors carried by the marshals scanned the 57-year-old lawyer for concealed nuclear materials.
When Seiko indicated a scent, his handler, Julian Swaringen, asked Vetter whether he had pets at home in Garner, N.C. Two mutts, Vetter replied. "You can go ahead," Swaringen said.
The Transportation Security Administration isn't just in airports anymore. TSA teams are increasingly conducting searches and screenings at train stations, subways, ferry terminals and other mass transit locations around the country.
"We are not the Airport Security Administration," said Ray Dineen, the air marshal in charge of the TSA office in Charlotte. "We take that transportation part seriously."
The TSA's 25 "viper" teams — for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response — have run more than 9,300 unannounced checkpoints and other search operations in the last year. Department of Homeland Security officials have asked Congress for funding to add 12 more teams next year.
According to budget documents, the department spent $110 million in fiscal 2011 for "surface transportation security," including the TSA's viper program, and is asking for an additional $24 million next year. That compares with more than $5 billion for aviation security.
TSA officials say they have no proof that the roving viper teams have foiled any terrorist plots or thwarted any major threat to public safety. But they argue that the random nature of the searches and the presence of armed officers serve as a deterrent and bolster public confidence.
"We have to keep them [terrorists] on edge," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington. "We're not going to have a permanent presence everywhere."
U.S. officials note that digital files recovered from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan after he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May included evidence that the Al Qaeda leader had considered an attack on U.S. railways in February 2010. Over the last decade, deadly bombings have hit subways or trains in Moscow; Mumbai, India; Madrid; and London.
But critics say that without a clear threat, the TSA checkpoints are merely political theater. Privacy advocates worry that the agency is stretching legal limits on the government's right to search U.S. citizens without probable cause — and with no proof that the scattershot checkpoints help prevent attacks.
"It's a great way to make the public think you are doing something," said Fred H. Cate, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, who writes on privacy and security. "It's a little like saying, 'If we start throwing things up in the air, will they hit terrorists?' ''
Such criticism is nothing new to the TSA.
The agency came under fresh fire this month when three elderly women with medical devices complained that TSA agents had strip-searched them in separate incidents at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Lenore Zimmerman, 84, said she was ordered to pull down her pants after she refused to pass through a full body scanner because she was afraid the machine would interfere with her heart defibrillator.
TSA officials denied the women were strip-searched, but they announced plans to create a toll-free telephone number for passengers with medical conditions who require assistance in airport screening lines. TSA officials said they also are considering a proposal by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to designate a passengers advocate at every airport.
The TSA's viper program hasn't drawn that kind of attention, although it is increasingly active.
In Tennessee in October, a viper team used radiation monitors and explosive-trace detectors to help state police inspect trucks at highway weigh stations throughout the state. Last month in Orlando, Fla., a team set up metal detectors at a Greyhound bus station and tested passengers' bags for explosive residue.
In the Carolinas this year, TSA teams have checked people at the gangplanks of cruise ships, the entrance to NASCAR races, and at ferry terminals taking tourists to the Outer Banks.
At the Charlotte train station on Dec. 11, Seiko, the bomb-sniffing dog, snuffled down a line of about 100 passengers waiting to board an eastbound train. Many were heading home after watching the Charlotte Panthers NFL team lose to the Atlanta Falcons after holding a 16-point lead.
No one seemed especially perturbed by the TSA team.
"It's probably overkill," said Karen Stone, 26, after a behavior-detection officer asked her about the Panthers game and her trip home to Raleigh.
"It's cool," said Marcus Baldwin, 21, who was heading home to Mebane, near Burlington, where he waits tables to help pay for computer technology classes. "They're doing what our tax money is paying them to do."
"I'm mostly curious," said Barbara Spencer, 75, who was heading home to Chapel Hill after watching her grandson perform in a Christmas play. She asked the officers whether a terrorist threat had required the extra security. No, they replied.
Vetter, the lawyer, had attended the game with his son, Noah. They jogged for the train after Seiko had finished his sniff, but Vetter had bigger worries on his mind. "The Panthers blew it," he said.
December 26th, 2011
The Wall Street Journal / SAM DAGHER
BAGHDAD—Iraq's political crisis entered its second week one step closer to the potential dissolution of the government, with a call for elections by a vital coalition partner and a suicide attack that extended the spate of violence that has followed the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—already battling to sustain his Shiite Muslim-dominated government in a standoff with Sunni coalition partners—faced a new threat on Monday as the party loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for the dissolution of Parliament and new polls.
At the center of the crisis are efforts by Sunni-dominated provinces to seek greater autonomy from the central government controlled by Mr. Maliki. Bahaa al-Aaraji, the head of the Sadrist movement's bloc in Parliament, said elections are needed because "present partners [in government] can't come up with solutions in addition to the threat of Iraq's partition."
But Mr. Aaraji said the proposal needed to be discussed further with the movement's Shiite partners, including Mr. Maliki, suggesting that his bloc might not push further.
Mr. Maliki has denounced the autonomy moves as attempts by his opponents to fatally weaken the central government. In recent days, he has sought to head off the Sunni efforts by trying to persuade members of Iraqiya, the Sunni bloc in his coalition, to break away from their bloc, according to representatives of both sides in the discussions. Mr. Maliki has offered several Iraqiya parliamentarians promises of ministerial posts and other inducements to split from the bloc, according to the representatives.
The stakes in the dispute were highlighted on Monday when a suicide car bombing near Interior Ministry headquarters killed five people and wounded at least 39, following a barrage of attacks across the capital on Thursday that killed 60 people and served as a reminder of Iraq's past sectarian warfare.
The political crisis came to a head last week when the government judiciary accused a Sunni Arab leader, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, of organizing assassination squads targeting Shiite figures. Mr. Hashemi, who denies the accusations, fled to the north of Iraq, where he is being protected by the leadership of the Kurds who control the area.
Mr. Hashemi had backed efforts by the leaderships of two provinces, Salahuddin and Diyala, to set up semiautonomous regions, a process authorized by Iraq's constitution and exemplified by the relative peace and prosperity of the Kurdish region. A third Sunni-dominated province, Anbar, has threatened to move toward semiautonomy next week.
In the past few days, Iraqi politicians have held a series of meetings in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region to try to prevent the unraveling of the political system.
One proposal discussed, according to politicians familiar with the talks, was to transfer control of the investigation of Mr. Hashemi to the Kurdish region, which has its own government, judiciary and armed forces. The Kurds, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims but ethnically distinct from the Sunni and Shiite Arabs to the south, have at times mediated between Sunni and Shiite Arab communities.
At the urging of U.S. officials, the two main Kurdish leaders, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, have spent the past several days trying to convene a meeting of feuding political factions.
Mr. Hashemi's Iraqiya faction—a pillar of the coalition government in Baghdad despite its disputes with Mr. Maliki—has continued a boycott of cabinet meetings and parliament sessions that began almost 10 days ago.
The boycott was called to protest what Iraqiya leaders decry as increasingly authoritarian moves by Mr. Maliki. They are particularly angry at his efforts to quash the recent push by Sunni provinces for more autonomy from Baghdad.
"Respect your partners or you will be swept away by the Arab Spring and become a thing of the past," said Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, one of the boycotting Iraqiya ministers, criticizing Mr. Maliki in a news conference on Sunday in Salahuddin, the first Sunni-dominated province to declare its bid for semiautonomy in October.
Yet several Iraqiya ministers have declined to join the boycott, while others haven't declared that their absence is in protest of the government.
Mr. Maliki, apparently attempting to drive a wedge between the harder- and softer-line ministers, has vowed to fire most of those who don't attend meetings in the coming days.
Mr. Maliki has also redoubled efforts to head off provincial semiautonomy plans. In some areas, he has worked closely with tribal figures opposed to the moves.
Mr. Maliki met with a delegation of the Jubour, one of the main tribes in Salahuddin, over the weekend. They promised to push against rival tribes spearheading autonomy if Mr. Maliki fulfills a list of demands, including more jobs for Sunnis in the security forces and an end to what they regard as the marginalization and indiscriminate arrest of people suspected of ties to Saddam Hussein's banned Baath Party, according to people familiar with the meeting.
—Ali A. Nabhan and Munaf Ammar contributed to this article
December 26th, 2011
(CNN) -- Stratfor, a global intelligence company, has been hacked but it was unclear Monday whether the breach and apparent release of credit card information was the work of the activist hacking group Anonymous.
A posting on the website Pastebin said that Stratfor subscriber data, including information on 4,000 credit cards and the company's "private client" list, had been released. The posting cited AntiSec, a Web-based collaboration with the activist hacking groups Anonymous and LulzSec.
U.S.-based Stratfor, which provides independent analysis of international affairs and security threats and describes itself as a publisher of geopolitical analysis, sent an e-mail Sunday to subscribers.
"On December 24th an unauthorized party disclosed personally identifiable information and related credit card data of some of our members," it said. "We have reason to believe that your personal and credit card data could have been included in the information that was illegally obtained and disclosed."
Allen Barr of Austin, Texas, told CNN he was victimized by the misuse of his private information that was hacked from the website before it was posted on websites on the 24th.
A week ago, unauthorized charges totaling $700 were billed to his Visa debit card, he said. The total was charged in increments to a number of charities over the course of about 30 minutes, he said.
But the company quickly identified the transactions as suspicious and called Barr's house, he said. In short order, he had canceled the card, but not before his credit union checking account had been debited, he said. Rectifying that required half a day spent filing police reports and affidavits, he said.
"Two days later, they said that they would credit back my funds, pending completion of the investigation," he added.
Stratfor said the claim that the data included the firm's "private clients" was wrong.
"Contrary to this assertion the disclosure was merely a list of some of the members that have purchased our publications and does not comprise a list of individuals or entities that have a relationship with Stratfor beyond their purchase of our subscription-based publications," CEO George Friedman said in an e-mail to members.
The firm provides intelligence reports to subscribers. A recent e-mail discussed political prospects for Iraq.
The information-sharing website Pastebin posted a news release it said was from Anonymous that said the group had nothing to do with the cyberattack on Stratfor.
"Stratfor is an open-source intelligence agency, publishing daily reports on data collected from the open Internet," the posting said. "Hackers claiming to be Anonymous have distorted this truth in order to further their hidden agenda, and some Anons have taken the bait."
"The leaked client list represents subscribers to a daily publication which is the primary service of Stratfor," it continued. "Stratfor analysts are widely considered to be extremely unbiased. Anonymous does not attack media sources."
Stratfor's Friedman said the company is working closely with law enforcement.
"Stratfor's relationship with its members and, in particular, the confidentiality of their subscriber information, are very important to Stratfor and me," he wrote on the firm's Facebook page.
"We have reason to believe that the names of our corporate subscribers have been posted on other web sites," the Austin, Texas, company said. "We are diligently investigating the extent to which subscriber information may have been obtained."
Asked about the hacking, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Sunday that "Initial indications suggest that there has been no impact" to the Department of Defense grid.
Stratfor's website was not functioning Monday. A banner read, "Site is currently undergoing maintenance. Please check back soon."
Weekend online postings regarding the Stratfor situation mentioned Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who served as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. He faces 22 charges related to the leak of nearly 750,000 U.S. military and State Department documents. Most of them ended up on the WikiLeaks website.
"While the rich and powerful are enjoying themselves with all their bourgeois gifts and lavish meals, our comrade Bradley Manning is not having that great of a time in federal custody," said a Pastebin posting. "Instead of being heralded as a fighter for free information and government transparency, he is criminalized, marginalized, and incarcerated, threatened with life imprisonment."
December 26th, 2011
Paul Roderick Gregory, Contributor
Tax policy should be serious business carried out by serious politicians using real facts and figures. This is why we have the Library of Congress and the Congressional Budget Office, among other expert institutions.
How can we take Congress seriously when the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, makes patently inaccurate, outrageous and bizarre claims on an important tax-policy issue without any heads being turned? I guess this is what we have come to expect of Congress. No wonder citizens with favorable opinions of Congress are as rare as unicorns, to borrow a phrase.
Harry Reid’s statement on December 6 on his proposed 1.9 percent surtax on million-dollar incomes has kicked up some dust. Here is his statement:
“Millionaire job creators are like unicorns. They’re impossible to find, and they don’t exist… Only a tiny fraction of people making more than a million dollars, probably less than 1 percent, are small business owners. And only a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction are traditional job creators…Most of these businesses are hedge fund managers or wealthy lawyers. They don’t do much hiring and they don’t need tax breaks.”
Taking their cue, National Public Radio launched a search for one millionaire job creator. They triumphantly announced:
“NPR requested help from numerous Republican congressional offices, including House and Senate leadership. They were unable to produce a single millionaire job creator for us to interview.”
Were it not for Google, I would have accepted Harry Reid’s unicorn story and NPR’s confirmation. Unlike Harry Reid’s office, I went to the IRS’s Table 1.4 “Sources of income, adjustments, and tax size of adjusted gross income, 2009” to check things out. (I summarize my sources in a separate blog posting). Here is what I found:
There are 236,883 tax filers with incomes of a million dollars or more. By Harry Reid’s count, only one percent, or 2,361 of them, are business owners, and a tiny fraction of them create jobs. I do not know what Harry means when he says “a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction.” If we let 5 percent represent Harry’s “tiny fraction,” we are left with 118 businesses owners who earn a million or more and create jobs. Yes, they are only slightly less rare than unicorns, if Harry is to be believed.
This leaves 236,765 million-dollar-plus tax payers, most of whom are “hedge fund managers and wealthy lawyers” who “don’t create jobs and don’t need tax breaks.”
My Google search for Harry Reid’s quarter million hedge fund managers and wealthy lawyers came up empty handed. I could identify at most sixteen thousand “wealthy lawyers and hedge fund managers,” not Harry Reid’s quarter million.
Well, Harry Reid’s numbers leave much to be desired, but maybe he is right that millionaire business owners do not create jobs.
What does the IRS have to say about this? Millionaire tax filers earn a total taxable income of $623 billion, on which they pay the highest average rate (30 percent) of any tax bracket. (Either Warren Buffet’s secretary has an incompetent tax accountant or Buffet has some pretty juicy tax breaks. I think the latter is more likely). A 1.9 percent tax surcharge on million-dollar-earners would yield $11 billion, assuming those shifty millionaires take no evasive action to avoid the tax.
December 26th, 2011
By Sabina Castelfranco | Rome
Pope Benedict has condemned the Christmas day attacks at churches in Nigeria, calling them an absurd gesture. Militants of the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram have claimed responsibility for the bombs.
For the second consecutive year, the extremist group Boko Haram has staged Christmastime attacks at Christian houses of worship in Nigeria. The group claimed responsibility for three church bombings on Sunday, Christmas Day.
Security forces in Nigeria also blamed the group for two other explosions in the north of the country.
Speaking from his study window overlooking Saint Peter’s Square on Monday, Pope Benedict condemned the bombings that killed dozens of people.
The pope said he learned with deep sadness of the attacks, which again this year, on the day Jesus was born, have brought mourning and pain in some churches of Nigeria. The pope expressed his closeness to the Christian community and to all those affected by this absurd gesture.
St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Madala, a satellite town about 40 kilometers from the center of the capital, Abuja, was packed when the first blast exploded just outside after Christmas Mass.
A few hours later, blasts were reported at the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church in the central, ethnically and religiously mixed town of Jos, and at a church in Gadaka in the northern state of Yobe.
The pope invited everyone to pray for the victims.
He said violence is a path that only leads to pain, destruction and death. He said respect, reconciliation and love are the only path to peace.
The White House also condemned the violence and tragic loss of life. And United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke out against the attacks and expressed his condolences to the people of Nigeria and to the bereaved families.
Fear is growing in Nigeria that Boko Haram is trying to ignite a sectarian civil war in a country split evenly between Christians and Muslims. The two groups co-exist for the most part in peace, but Jos in particular has suffered through bouts of inter-religious violence that have killed thousands of people.
Boko Haram aims to impose Sharia law across Africa’s most populous country. Authorities blame the group for shootings and bombings that have killed hundreds of Nigerians this year, mostly in the country's northeast.
Pope Benedict calls for end to bloodshed in Syria, urges full reconciliation, stability in Iraq and Afghanistan