Barrel Organ Made of 20,000 Lego Bricks Plays Star Wars Theme By Angela Watercutter April 13, 2012 | 4:50 pm Categories: Art, Design and Fashion, movies, sci-fi
In one of the better promotional stunts in recent memory, a German company has built a barrel organ out of 20,000 Lego bricks that plays the Star Wars theme song.
The surface of the giant, spinning musical contraption is divided into several sections depicting scenes from the sci-fi saga, including the Death Star, Tatooine, the snowy surface of Hoth and an Endor forest.
The hand-cranked organ, created by Serviceplan with the help of Lego professional Rene Hoffmeister, works by having Lego figures on the barrel’s surface hit levers as the device spins around. The levers press keys on an attached keyboard, playing John Williams’ classic composition.
“When I was asked to do the project, at first I was not sure if this really was going to happen,” Hoffmeister said in a new making-of video that shows off the amazing project.
The barrel organ has been on tour in Germany since January, going around theaters in the lead-up to the 3-D release of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. Later this year it’ll find a home at Legoland Germany.
See photos of the Star Wars Lego barrel organ, as well as videos of it in action, in the gallery above. The Force is strong with this one.
April 14, 2012 White House Opens Door to Big Donors, and Lobbyists Slip In By MIKE McINTIRE and MICHAEL LUO
Last May, as a battle was heating up between Internet companies and Hollywood over how to stop online piracy, a top entertainment industry lobbyist landed a meeting at the White House with one of President Obama’s technology advisers.
The lobbyist did not get there by himself.
He was accompanied by Antoinette C. Bush, a well-connected Washington lawyer who has represented companies like Viacom, Sony and News Corporation for 30 years. A friend of the president and a cousin of his close aide Valerie B. Jarrett, Ms. Bush has been to the White House at least nine times during his term, taking lobbyists along on a few occasions, joining an invitation-only forum about intellectual property, and making social visits with influential friends.
At the same time, she and her husband, Dwight, have donated heavily to the president’s re-election effort: Mr. Bush gave $35,800 on the day of his wife’s White House meeting last year, and Ms. Bush contributed the same amount a month later. In November, they hosted a $17,900-a-plate fund-raiser at their home, where Mr. Obama complained that the nation’s capital should be more “responsive to the needs of people, not the needs of special interests.”
“That is probably the biggest piece of business that remains unfinished,” the president said, as about 45 guests dined under a backyard tent.
Although Mr. Obama has made a point of not accepting contributions from registered lobbyists, a review of campaign donations and White House visitor logs shows that special interests have had little trouble making themselves heard. Many of the president’s biggest donors, while not lobbyists, took lobbyists with them to the White House, while others performed essentially the same function on their visits.
More broadly, the review showed that those who donated the most to Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party since he started running for president were far more likely to visit the White House than others. Among donors who gave $30,000 or less, about 20 percent visited the White House, according to a New York Times analysis that matched names in the visitor logs with donor records. But among those who donated $100,000 or more, the figure rises to about 75 percent. Approximately two-thirds of the president’s top fund-raisers in the 2008 campaign visited the White House at least once, some of them numerous times.
The reasons someone might have gained access to the White House and made a donation are wide-ranging, and it is clear that in some cases the administration came down against the policies being sought by the visitors. But the regular appearance of big donors inside the White House underscores how political contributions continue to lubricate many of the interactions between officials and their guests, if for no other reason than that donors view the money as useful for getting a foot in the door.
Timing of Donations
Some of the donors had no previous record of giving to the president or his party, or of making donations of such magnitude, so their gifts, sometimes given in close proximity to meetings, raise questions about whether they came with expectations of access or were expressions of gratitude.
Dr. William C. Mohlenbrock, chairman of a health care data analysis firm, Verras Ltd., gave occasionally to political candidates over the years, mostly small amounts to Republicans. But last May he contributed the maximum allowable gift, $35,800, to the Obama Victory Fund, which benefits the president’s campaign and the Democratic Party. Later in the year, with help from a Democratic consultant, he landed a meeting with a top White House aide involved in the health care overhaul, but failed to persuade Medicare officials to require more health data collection as part of the new regulations.
Joe E. Kiani, who heads a medical device company, Masimo Corporation, stepped up his giving to Democrats last year as medical device makers campaigned unsuccessfully for the repeal of an excise tax imposed on the industry. Mr. Kiani had several meetings with White House officials last year, including two with lobbyists from his company and another with representatives from his industry’s trade association. In the midst of these gatherings, he donated $35,800 to the victory fund.
Administration officials insisted that donations do not factor into White House visits, and they cited steps taken to curb the influence of money in politics, including a ban on executive branch employees’ accepting gifts from lobbyists and on appointees’ lobbying the White House after they leave. Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, pointed out that Mr. Obama was the first president to release the visitor logs regularly, and added that “being a supporter of the president does not secure you a visit to the White House, nor does it preclude you from one.”
“The people selected for this article are contributors to the president,” Mr. Schultz said, “but this article excludes the thousands of people who visit the White House every week for meetings and events who did not contribute to the president, many of whom may not have even supported the president.”
‘How This Business Works’
Most donors, including Dr. Mohlenbrock and Mr. Kiani, declined to talk about their motivations for giving. But Patrick J. Kennedy, the former representative from Rhode Island, who donated $35,800 to an Obama re-election fund last fall while seeking administration support for a nonprofit venture, said contributions were simply a part of “how this business works.”
“If you want to call it ‘quid pro quo,’ fine,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want to make sure I do my part.”
Mr. Kennedy visited the White House several times to win support for One Mind for Research, his initiative to help develop new treatments for brain disorders. While his family name and connections are clearly influential, he said, he knows White House officials are busy. And as a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he said he was keenly aware of the political realities they face.
“I know that they look at the reports,” he said, referring to records of campaign donations. “They’re my friends anyway, but it won’t hurt when I ask them for a favor if they don’t see me as a slouch.”
Others, like Ms. Bush, rejected the notion that their donations were tied to access. Her husband said it was a coincidence that his contribution last May — made at a Democratic fund-raiser — came on the same day his wife was at the White House. And Ms. Bush noted that most of her meetings occurred before she made her donation in June. She added that as a longtime lawyer with the firm Skadden Arps, it should not be surprising that her work would occasionally take her to the White House.
“Communications law is what I do for a living,” Ms. Bush said. “Yes, I’m an Obama supporter, but in the end I’m a communications law expert. I had the same clients in the Bush administration as well as the Obama administration.”
Although those in office invariably deny it, the notion that access is available at a price is a well-founded reality of Washington. Memorably, President Nixon was caught on tape remarking that $250,000 should be the minimum donation for an ambassadorship. The Clinton White House offered major donors coffees with the president or sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom. More recently, Republicans in Congress have raised questions about whether Democratic donors who invested in the solar energy company Solyndra and other troubled firms influenced the administration’s support of those businesses, pointing to White House visits and other official contacts. The administration denies there was any wrongdoing.
At a minimum, it is standard for administrations to recognize generous supporters with sought-after invitations to special events. The Obama White House logs are filled with the names of donors welcomed for St. Patrick’s Day receptions, Super Bowl parties and concerts. Last year, several major Democratic donors rounded out the guest list for a film screening with the first lady.
But in addition to social events, business is also carried out in the White House and its executive offices. The logs suggest some Obama fund-raisers and donors have been trafficking in ties they forged to the administration, helping clients get a seat at the table.
When Los Angeles officials wanted White House backing for a program that would speed up local transit projects, they turned last spring to a California political operative, Kerman Maddox, a top Obama fund-raiser and party donor. “We thought he could help our outreach in Washington,” said Richard Leahy, chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
In an internal memo justifying Mr. Maddox’s hiring, the authority wrote that he had “direct access to the Executive Oval Office” and cited his position on the Obama campaign’s National Finance Committee. Mr. Maddox’s company Web site prominently features photographs of him with the Obamas.
One day after the authority signed off on his contract, Mr. Maddox made a $10,000 donation to the Obama re-election effort; he donated an additional $6,000 in June. In August, Mr. Maddox landed a meeting for himself and the authority officials with Melody Barnes, then director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, one of several meetings the officials were able to get.
By ISHTIAQ MAHSUD ASSOCIATED PRESS Last Modified: Apr 15, 2012 01:14AM
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan — Taliban militants battled their way into a prison in northwest Pakistan on Sunday, freeing close to 400 prisoners, including at least 20 described by police as “very dangerous” insurgents, authorities and the militants said.
The raid by more than 100 fighters was a dramatic display of the strength of the insurgency gripping the nuclear-armed country. The escaped prisoners may now rejoin the fight, giving momentum and a propaganda boost to a movement that has killed thousands of Pakistani officials and ordinary citizens since 2007.
The attackers, armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, stormed the prison before dawn in the city of Bannu close to the Afghan border, said police officer Shafique Khan. They used explosives and hand grenades to knock down the main gates and two walls, said Bannu prison superintendent Zahud Khan.
“They were carrying modern and heavy weapons,” said Zahud Khan. “They fired rockets.”
Once inside the building, the attackers headed straight to the area of the prison where death-row prisoners were being kept, he said. They fought with guards for around two hours, setting part of the prison on fire before freeing the 380 inmates, including at least 20 “very dangerous Taliban militants,” said Shafique.
One escaped prisoner, Adnan Rashid, was on death row for his involvement in an assassination attempt against former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, said Zahud Khan.
The prison in Bannu housed 944 inmates.
A Taliban spokesman, Asimullah Mehsud, claimed the movement’s fighters freed 1,200 of their comrades. The group is known to make exaggerated claims.
Pakistan’s military has launched a series of operations against the Pakistani Taliban group in the northwest, where it is strongest and has forged alliances with al-Qaida and other transnational militant movements based there along the Afghan border.
The movement is closely linked to the Afghan Taliban, which is battling U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Soldiers and police have killed or arrested hundreds of militants, but the insurgency has proved resilient. Insurgents have carried out suicide bombings and other attacks across the country in retaliation, raising doubts in some quarters over whether the county can survive. Prison breakouts like the one Sunday have been rare.
Bannu city is the main gateway to North Waziristan, the most militant-infested region along the border.
By Andrew Cawthorne and Brian Ellsworth CARTAGENA, Colombia Sat Apr 14, 2012 11:28pm EDT
A prostitution scandal involving U.S. security personnel in Colombia and an unprecedented regional push to end the isolation of Cuba threatened on Saturday to eclipse President Barack Obama's charm offensive to Latin America.
In a major embarrassment for Washington at the Summit of the Americas attended by more than 30 heads of state, 11 U.S. Secret Service agents were sent home and five military servicemen grounded over "misconduct" allegations in a hotel.
Prostitutes were taken to the hotel, according to a Colombian police source.
The widening controversy was overshadowing a host of weightier topics at the two-day summit that began on Saturday.
"I had a breakfast meeting to discuss trade and drugs, but the only thing the other delegates wanted to talk about was the story of the agents and the hookers," chuckled one Latin American diplomat in the historic city of Cartagena.
Locals were upset about the bad publicity for their city, and the scandal was raising eyebrows around the region.
"Obama's guards expelled in Colombia over prostitution - shame the gringos think that Latin America is a brothel and they act like it too," commented left-leaning Venezuelan political commentator Nicmer Evans via Twitter.
Obama's rapprochement with the region - already undermined by the titillating headlines from Cartagena - also faces a rare display of unity among both leftist and conservative-run nations in Latin America in allowing communist-run Cuba at the next summit.
Argentina's foreign minister said the final summit declaration was stalled over the issue of Cuba, with 32 nations supporting its inclusion in the next Summit of the Americas, but the United States vetoing that.
"We have decided not to participate in future 'Summits of the Americas' without the presence of Cuba," said the leftist ALBA block of nations, founded by Venezuela's theatrically anti-U.S. president, Hugo Chavez.
OAS UNDER STRAIN
Unlike at previous summits, backing for Cuba has also come from Colombia, Washington's strongest ally in South America.
Sunday's proceedings will add to strain on the Washington-dominated system of hemispheric diplomacy that is built around the Organization of American States but is struggling to evolve with changes in the region.
From Havana, Cuba's former president, Fidel Castro, weighed in with a withering newspaper column about the OAS and its "guayabera summit" - a reference to the loose-fitting Caribbean shirts being worn by many heads of state in Cartagena.
Making no reference to the scandal, Obama tackled head-on accusations he had neglected Latin America while dealing with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and other faraway priorities.
"We've never been more excited about the prospect of working as equal partners with our brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean," he told business officials.
Obama also hailed the potential to boost trade between the "nearly a billion consumers" of North and South America.
The reality, though, is different: China has taken advantage of perceived U.S. neglect and is now the main trade partner for various countries, including regional powerhouse Brazil.
Running for re-election in November, Obama is also under pressure from domestic voters to show his foreign policies give priority to trade that creates American jobs.
Latin American leaders are also pressuring the United States for an overhaul of anti-drug policies, including possible narcotics legalization as a way to take profits out of the trade.
"Sometimes those controversies date back to before I was born," Obama said wryly.
"And sometimes I feel as if in some of these discussions, or at least the press reports, we're caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the Cold War, and this and that and the other."
OBAMA FIRM ON DRUGS
Many in Latin America feel a new approach is needed to the drug war - and a shift away from hard-line policies - after decades of violence, in producer and trafficking nations like Colombia and Mexico.
But Obama was firm in rejecting calls to legalize either growing or consuming drugs. "I don't mind a debate around issues like decriminalization. I personally don't agree that's a solution to the problem," Obama said.
Colombian pop star Shakira brought a splash of showbiz to the proceedings by singing her national anthem at the start of the summit.
Missing from the OAS' sixth such hemispheric gathering were Ecuador's Rafael Correa, who is boycotting the event over Cuba's exclusion, and Venezuela's Chavez, who is undergoing cancer treatment.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff gave Obama an earful on U.S. expansionist monetary policy that is sending a flood of funds into developing nations, forcing up currencies and hurting and other rich nations' competitiveness.
"The way these countries, the most developed ones, especially in the euro region in the last year, have reacted to the crisis with monetary expansion has produced a monetary tsunami," she said, as Obama listened.
"Obviously we have to take measures to defend ourselves. Note the word I chose - 'defend,' not 'protect,'" added Rousseff, whose government's actions to curb imports have been decried as protectionism by some in the region.
The host, President Juan Manuel Santos, is using the summit to showcase Colombia's new economic stability after decades of guerrilla and drug violence that scared off investors.
Although seeking to position himself as a regional mediator - particularly between conservative governments and the anti-American bloc led by Chavez - Santos nevertheless weighed in to support Brazil's position in front of Obama.
"In some way, (they) are exporting their crisis to us via the appreciation of our currencies," Santos said, referring to the damage done to local exporters as Latin American currencies gain strength. "I share President Dilma Rousseff's anxiety."
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Laura MacInnis, Helen Murphy, Pablo Garibian, Mario Naranjo, and Luis Jaime Acosta in Cartagena and; Daniel Wallis in Caracas; Editing by Peter Cooney)
Loss of contact with Europe's Envisat monitor raises worries about gaps in environmental data.
Jeff Tollefson 13 April 2012
Officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) say that they have lost contact with Envisat, their premier Earth-observing satellite.
Launched in 2002, the satellite is billed as the most sophisticated environmental monitor in orbit, with ten instruments providing streams of valuable data on everything from ozone, clouds and greenhouse gases to land-use trends and sea-surface temperatures — data that have figured in more than 2,000 scientific publications, ESA says. Over the years, Envisat has also offered a unique vantage point on major environmental disasters such as the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami in southeast Asia and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Now, scientists fear that the satellite's decade-long run has come to an abrupt end.
Problems began on 8 April when the satellite's signal cut out as it was passing over a ground station in Sweden. ESA has been working with a team of scientists and engineers to diagnose the problem and to re-establish contact, but the outlook remains unclear. Officials say that the satellite remains in stable orbit around Earth.
“The silence of Envisat puts another knot in my stomach,” says Inez Fung, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who worked on NASA’s failed Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) before it plummeted into the ocean upon launch in 2009. Envisat has provided a limited capacity for monitoring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the absence of the OCO, and Fung says that its loss would represent yet another setback for scientists tracking a host of climate data.
Envisat provided scientists with important information about the vertical profile of ozone in the atmosphere, and its loss could help to contribute to a gap in monitoring that has been looming for some time, says Neil Harris, an atmospheric chemist and head of the European Ozone Research Coordinating Unit at the University of Cambridge, UK. “If the Envisat problem is not fixed,” Harris says, “then this critical period will be quite a bit longer than we would have liked.”
The satellite has already doubled its five-year design life, and most of its instruments have some kind of analogue on other satellites. But ESA was hoping to maintain Envisat long enough to overlap with the new Sentinel satellite series flying under the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme. GMES head Josef Aschbacher says that the programme is scheduled to begin operations as early as 2013–14, although funding for it is now in doubt.
Aschbacher says that although the programme is funded through 2014, long-term commitments are under negotiation among the European Union Council, Parliament and Commission. This funding, expected to be finalized by the end of 2013, is necessary before any satellites can be launched.
“If these negotiations are not successful, it could lead to launch delays and therefore additional costs,” Aschbacher says. “However, an eventual loss of Envisat puts increased pressure on getting the Sentinels launched as early as possible.”
Fung says that Envisat’s loss would be a troublesome reminder of what is shaping up to be a broad loss of satellite-monitoring capacity over the coming decade, caused by a perfect storm of ageing spacecraft, scheduling delays and generally tight budgets. “How will we meet societal needs with fewer and fewer eyes in the sky?”
Exclusive: Briton killed after threat to expose Chinese leader's wife
British businessman Neil Heywood poses for a photograph at a gallery in Beijing, in this handout picture dated April 12, 2011. Credit: Reuters/China.org.cn/Handout
By Chris Buckley CHONGQING, China Mon Apr 16, 2012 9:26am EDT
The British businessman whose murder has sparked political upheaval in China was poisoned after he threatened to expose a plan by a Chinese leader's wife to move money abroad, two sources with knowledge of the police investigation said.
It was the first time a specific motive has been revealed for Neil Heywood's murder last November, a death which ended Chinese leader Bo Xilai's hopes of emerging as a top central leader and threw off balance the Communist Party's looming leadership succession.
Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, asked Heywood late last year to move a large sum of money abroad, and she became outraged when he demanded a larger cut of the money than she had expected due to the size of the transaction, the sources said.
She accused him of being greedy and hatched a plan to kill him after he said he could expose her dealings, one of the sources said, summarizing the police case. Both sources have spoken to investigators in Chongqing, the southwestern Chinese city where Heywood was killed and where Bo had cast himself as a crime-fighting Communist Party leader.
Gu is in police custody on suspicion of committing or arranging Heywood's murder, though no details of the motive or the crime itself have been publicly released, other than a general comment from Chinese state media that he was killed after a financial dispute.
The sources have close ties to Chinese police and said they were given details of the investigation.
They said Heywood - formerly a close friend of Gu and who had been helping her with her overseas financial dealings - was killed after he threatened to expose what she was doing.
"Heywood told her that if she thought he was being too greedy, then he didn't need to become involved and wouldn't take a penny of the money, but he also said he could also expose it," the first source said.
The sources said police suspect the 41-year-old was poisoned by a drink. They did not know precisely where he died in Chongqing. But they and other sources with access to official information say they believe Heywood was killed at a secluded hilltop retreat, the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel, which is also marketed as the Lucky Holiday Hotel.
The sources said Gu and Heywood, who had lived in China since the early 1990s, shared a long and close personal relationship, but were not romantically involved.
The sources did not know details of the offshore transactions that Heywood facilitated for Gu, but said exposure of the deals would have imperiled her and her ambitious husband, who was campaigning for promotion to the top ranks of China's leadership. Bo has since been ousted over the scandal.
"After Gu Kailai found that Heywood wouldn't agree to go along and was even resisting with threats - that he could expose this money with unknown provenance - then that was a major risk to Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai," said the first source, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.
It was not possible to get official confirmation of the case police are building against Gu. The Chinese government did not respond to faxed questions about the case. Some of Bo's leftist supporters have said the case could be a campaign to discredit him.
Gu, who is in custody and facing a possible death sentence for murder, and Bo could not be reached for comment. Bo has not been seen since appearing at parliament in March, when he held a news conference decrying the "filth" being poured on his family.
Efforts to contact Heywood's mother and sister at their homes in London were unsuccessful. The door to the mother's home carried a note saying she would not speak to reporters.
HEYWOOD WAS GU'S 'SOULMATE'
Heywood had spent his last week in Chongqing in Nan'an district, an area politically loyal to Bo, and stayed at two hotels: the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel and the Sheraton hotel.
Staff at each hotel said they knew nothing of a British man dying there. A guard was barring access to an apparently empty row of villas within the grounds of the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel on Sunday and Monday, saying a meeting was going on.
Heywood's falling-out with Gu followed a period in which she had grown distant from her ambitious, perpetually busy husband and she had turned to Heywood as a soulmate, sources said.
"Bo and Gu Kailai had not been a proper husband and wife for years ... Gu Kailai and Heywood had a deep personal relationship and she took the break between them deeply to heart," said Wang Kang, a well-connected Chongqing businessman who has learned some details of the case from Chinese officials.
"Her mentality was 'you betrayed me, and so I'll get my revenge'," Wang said in his office, decorated with pictures of himself meeting senior officials, including Bo's late father, the revolutionary veteran Bo Yibo, a comrade of Mao Zedong.
Heywood got to know the powerful family when Bo Xilai was mayor of Dalian in the 1990s. Heywood helped with getting the couple's son, Bo Guagua, into an exclusive British school, Harrow, said one of the sources with police contacts.
The scandal over Heywood's death broke in February when Bo's former police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate after he had confronted Bo with allegations of Gu's involvement. He spent about 24 hours inside the consulate before he left into the hands of Chinese central government authorities.
Bo was stripped of all his party positions last week, ending his bid to join the upper echelons of the Chinese leadership at a Party Congress late this year, and opening the door to jockeying among rivals to get a place in the new lineup.
It was not immediately clear how Heywood would have helped Gu shift large sums of money offshore, though China's capital controls pose a formidable barrier to anyone trying to move large sums of yuan out of the country.
Chinese leaders' salaries are not extravagant and there have been questions about how Bo managed to fund the expensive Western schooling and lifestyle for his son, Bo Guagua, who also studied at Oxford university and is enrolled at Harvard. Bo said in March the schools were funded by scholarships.
The sources said there had been no sign of any dispute between Gu and Heywood until October and November when the argument over funds began. The lack of a paper trail made it difficult for police to determine how much money was involved, they added.
Police suspect Heywood took a poisoned drink, according to one of the sources, and died on November 15. Both sources said Gu was not present at the scene.
The sources said Heywood had stayed at the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel, a secluded complex of rooms and villas in green hills overlooking Chongqing that Gu Kailai had visited in the past. Staff there said they had no knowledge of the death of a British man at the hotel in November.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean in LONDON and Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING; Editing by Brian Rhoads, Mark Bendeich and Dean Yates)
New Arab order: In Morocco, uproar over marriage law tests Islamist government By Edward Cody, Published: April 15
KARMIDA, Morocco — Amina el-Filali, a moon-faced Moroccan peasant girl, seemed destined for an obscure life in this dreary little farming village 50 miles south of Tangiers.
But that was before she was lured into sexual relations at age 15 by a 23-year-old unemployed laborer who took her into a shed next to the eucalyptus grove behind her house. That was before she was ushered into an early wedding, with the man who took her virginity, by a traditional Muslim family eager to salvage its honor. And that was before she swallowed rat poison to commit suicide rather than endure what she told her mother was an unbearable marriage.
Since Amina took her life shortly before lunch March 10, she has become a national cause, an icon for women’s groups, human rights organizations, progressive politicians and millions of Western-oriented Moroccans who have demanded changing a law that permits marriage at such a young age.
The law under attack is based on Islamic jurisprudence and tradition. As a result, the demands for change present a particularly unwelcome challenge to Morocco’s new Islamist government, which was elected in November on a promise to make Morocco more Islamic — not less.
The quandary faced by Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane and his Justice and Development Party, Morocco’s main Islamist group, has high stakes for Morocco, which depends heavily on European tourism and thus on its reputation abroad.
But it is emblematic of tensions emerging in places such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where Islamic groups rising to positions of power in the aftermath of the Arab Spring are beginning to confront pressures pitting principles imported from the West against their Islamic traditions.
“Little girls raped in their village — it happens all the time,” said Khadija Ryadi, head of the Moroccan Human Rights Association in Rabat, the capital, about 100 miles south of here. “But it was important this time, because everyone is waiting to see what the reaction of an Islamic government will be.”
The demands for change have arisen only eight years after a landmark modernization of the country’s family code, spearheaded by King Mohammed VI. That effort was widely hailed — by the United States, the United Nations, European governments and human rights groups — as a triumph for the then-newly crowned king and an example for the rest of the Arab world.
The family code, or mudawana, set 18 as the legal age for marriage for both sexes. But it also provided for exceptions to be decided by judges on the basis of special legal and social circumstances. In practice, the provision robbed the age limit of much of its meaning; the Justice Ministry estimates the number of such exceptions at about 35,000 a year.
Now the uproar set off by Amina’s case has led to an effervescent Internet reaction in Morocco, with loose allegations of rape and demands for immediate change, including a Facebook site named “We are all Amina” and a deluge of tweets repeating the slogan.
Anti-rape demonstrations have been staged in the largest cities, attended mainly by women. The U.N. office in Morocco declared that marriage laws should be modernized, and the left-wing Socialist Union of Popular Forces party has petitioned for a parliamentary investigation mandated to recommend amendments.
The parents’ account
Amina grew up in a cinder-block home, one of a few dozen scattered around the dirt lanes of Karmida. Her father, Lahsin el-Filali, 48, a farmhand who makes about $6 a day, took a second wife when Amina was 10. The family remained united, and she was close to her mother, Zohra, 44. Although she was behind several grades, Amina attended a local school and, according to her mother, dreamed of becoming an engineer.
Amina went to the shed by the eucalyptus grove only because the laborer, a neighbor named Mustapha el-Hallaq, forced her to, the mother said. “She was never his girlfriend,” she said. “If she went with him, it was because he would accost her on the way home from school. He would take her to the grove, and that’s where it happened.”
The parents discussed their daughter’s relationship with Hallaq in a lengthy interview at the family’s home, over heavily sugared mint tea, fried eggs and several loaves of bread.
Amina’s father described Hallaq as a local tough and said he had complained to the police about Hallaq’s advances toward Amina. When she revealed the sexual relations, he and Amina’s mother said, she told them that Hallaq had forced himself on her. “Rape” was the word they used.
Nevertheless, the parents met with Hallaq’s parents, and together they decided to go to a judge and ask for authorization for the young couple to marry, what Zohra described as a “compromise” between the families. Both sets of parents knew that in Moroccan tradition, particularly in the countryside, a later marriage to another man would have been impossible once it became known Amina was no longer a virgin. In addition, Hallaq was to pay a bride’s price of $625. According to Moroccan tradition, the amount was specified in the marriage contract. But Amina’s father said it was never paid.
“I did not want the marriage,” said the father, sitting with his first wife across the table and his second, seven years younger than Zohra and the mother of a boisterous 5-year-old daughter, a little to his left. “But Zohra said it was necessary for the honor of our family.”
Informed of the marriage plans, Amina instinctively resisted and then resigned herself, he said. “She said at first that she didn’t love him,” he said, “but then, as the procedure with the judges went on, she said, ‘Okay, he’ll be my husband.’ ”
The couple were formally married Dec. 12, and Amina moved in with Hallaq’s family nearby. Zohra said her daughter visited frequently and soon began to express her misery, citing beatings from Hallaq and unkind treatment from his family.
“I don’t know for sure what was happening, because she was at his house and I was at my house,” the mother said. “But she used to come here and complain that he was beating her. I told her that if that was so, she should go to the police and lodge a formal complaint. But she never did. She was afraid of him.”
(Hallaq was unable to provide his version of events; his mother said he was gone from Karmida. But he told a Moroccan journalist recently that the affair began with a phone call from Amina. He said that all the sexual relations were consensual and that he agreed to the marriage out of regard for Amina. As for the suicide, he said, his bride often seemed sick after her visits home, where, he said, her father would beat her.)
Even on the day Amina went to the market to buy rat poison, the mother said, witnesses saw Hallaq beating her along the way. She bought the poison and took it home in the late morning. She began vomiting after lunch and died in the hospital that afternoon, the parents said.
On the walls of their living room, decorated in gaudy plastic, hung studio photographs of Amina’s two elder sisters, Fatiha and Hamida, both beaming in their wedding dresses. Asked why Amina’s photo was not also displayed, the mother reached into a plastic bag and pulled out an ID-style head shot showing Amina with a strict Muslim covering over her hair and forehead. Another photo in the sack showed Hallaq on the day he married Amina, decked out in new clothes with a stylish scarf around his neck and standing alone in front of an idealized seaside scene painted on the wall.
The government’s stance
The Islamist government’s justice and liberties minister, Mustafa Ramid, and its family affairs minister, Bassima Hakkaoui, declined to be interviewed about Amina’s case. Earlier, however, Hakkaoui said a change in the early-marriage provisions, contained in Article 475 of the penal code, was not on her agenda.
“Article 475 is unlikely to be abrogated from one day to the next under pressure from international public opinion,” she told Moroccan journalists. “Sometimes marriage of the raped woman to her rapist does not bring real harm.”
Hisham Mellati, Ramid’s penal-law attache, said a police investigation, citing neighbors, showed that Amina and Hallaq had been sweethearts for months, stealing off frequently to the shelter of the eucalyptus trees. Mellati, fingering through a thick file at the Justice Ministry in Rabat, said that, on the basis of the investigation and Amina’s testimony, judges concluded that the sexual relations were consensual and that Amina was a willing partner in the marriage.
Much of the agitation surrounding Amina’s case, including its description as a rape, is thus ill-founded, he said.
According to Morocco’s penal law, Mellati said, rape with the use of violence is automatically prosecuted and is punishable by prison. Even if the sexual relations between a young girl and an older man are consensual, he said, there can be a crime classified as “leading a minor astray,” which is roughly parallel to statutory rape. But the degree to which Amina was pressured into the sexual relations was unclear, he said.
In any case, if there is no violence, judges can grant permission for early marriage despite the family code, he said, provided the families petition the court and follow a procedure that takes several months. In Amina’s case, he added, there were five sessions, including one in which the judge sat alone with Amina to ensure she was not being pressured to accept the marriage. “The law was strictly followed,” Mellati said.
New U.S. Interrogation Tool: Science By Spencer Ackerman April 16, 2012 | 6:30 am Categories: Crime and Homeland Security, Shadow Wars, Spies, Secrecy and Surveillance
The U.S.’s premier unit for interrogating terrorists is interested in science. No, not junk science like the Sodium Pentothal “truth serum.”* Actual behavioral science to help learn how to make a terrorist talk — quickly, truthfully and, importantly, humanely.
Earlier this month, the secretive unit, known as the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, put out a call for “behavioral science research to advance the science and practice of intelligence interviewing and interrogation.” Behind that dry and bureaucratic language is a major success for opponents of torture.
It sounds kind of basic: shouldn’t all interrogations use behavioral science as a jumping-off point? As it turns out, this is something of a controversial position. And it’s going to confront a well-publicized counterattack in the coming weeks.
Within months of the 9/11 attacks, the CIA — for reasons it never disclosed — turned to ex-Air Force psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell for help in designing an exceptionally harsh interrogation regimen for use on al-Qaida detainees. Jessen and Mitchell had never participated in a real interrogation. Nor did they have any particular expertise with al-Qaida. But they claimed to understand the conditions of induced discomfort that would force a detainee to spill. A Senate inquiry in 2008 determined that Jessen and Mitchell heavily influenced the Bush administration’s practices of waterboarding; “cramped confinement”; dietary and sleep manipulation; and “stress positions,” among other practices that Bush-era State Department adviser Philip Zelikow recently described to Danger Room as “war crimes.”
Years later, after all this came to light, a group of actual behavioral scientists, military interrogators and terrorism experts came to believe that the torture of al-Qaida detainees was worse than a crime; it was a mistake. Mitchell and Jessen advised the CIA that successful interrogations required stuffing a detainee in a small wooden box containing insects. This loose-knit group considered that both morally repugnant and professionally irresponsible, since it would lead a detainee to say anything to make the pain or fear stop, regardless of the truth.
They set to work creating a blueprint to rectify that mistake — with science.
That blueprint became a two-volume study: http://www.fas.org/irp/dni/educing.pdf (the second volume is classified) called “Educing Information.” The public version of “Educing Information” consists of case studies from different wars and police interrogations that urged professionals to build emotional rapport with the detainees they interviewed. It wasn’t a kindness — it was emotional leverage to exploit, so a detainee would disclose information about a terrorist group against his better judgment or his interest.
To do so would require understanding state-of-the-art social and behavioral science. Some of its research was highly technical, recommending “heart rate and function monitors, skin conductance sensors, thermal photography, voice frequency analysis, and brain activation patterns measured via electronic wave patterns or via magnetic resonance imaging” — all to determine if someone was lying. Other recommendations were as simple as reading interrogation plans from previous wars to figure out what worked and what didn’t.
But the group behind “Educing Information” had an entranceway into the U.S. spy community. It reported to the Intelligence Science Board, an advisory group for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, nominally the head of U.S. spy organizations. In 2009, after President Obama banned the Bush-era torture program, some of the group’s members advised the spies and the Justice Department to create a new unit that would be informed by the available research, and use it on the most important terrorism detainees the U.S. captured. That proposal became the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group.
Now, the group is calling for the next wave of research — essentially following up on “Educing Information.” And those follow ups are extensive.
The group, known inside the government as the HIG, wants outside analysts to “field quasi-experimental studies to evaluate the efficacy of new evidence-based interrogation, intelligence interview and debrief strategies and methods.” It wants “laboratory or field studies of interpersonal processes (e.g., social influence, persuasion, negotiation, conflict resolution and management), with particular attention to cultural and intercultural issues.” It seeks “studies to assess the validity of evidence-based interviewing, deception detection, and other relevant principles and/or methods across non-U.S. populations both with and without the use of interpreters.”
It’s actually a striking admission of ignorance. Over a decade since 9/11, U.S. interrogators don’t sufficiently understand the craft they practice.
That — and, indeed, the whole science-based approach to interrogation — is about to come under serious challenge. By the end of the month, the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, Jose Rodriguez, will publish perhaps the most public defense yet of CIA torture. The book, “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives,” is likely to rekindle the torture debate — and portray Rodriguez, who destroyed nearly 100 videotapes of detainees being tortured, as “a real life Jack Bauer from television’s 24,” according to the book’s promotional material.
Rodriguez may argue that the CIA perfected interrogations, all without the aid of science. But those responsible for conducting interrogations now are turning to it — as a repudiation of the brutal methods Rodriguez helped implement.
*All Sodium Pentothal — or its generic form, sodium thiopental — does is decrease your higher brain functions. It’s like drinking heavily, or doing a lot of barbiturates. A subject is going to be looser with his tongue, not necessarily more truthful. If a friend has ever lied to you while drunk, you know that Sodium Pentothal is far from foolproof.
Memory in Adults Impacted by Versions of Four Genes ScienceDaily (Apr. 15, 2012)
Two research studies, co-led by UC Davis neurologist Charles DeCarli and conducted by an international team that included more than 80 scientists at 71 institutions in eight countries, has advanced understanding of the genetic components of Alzheimer's disease and of brain development. Both studies appear in the April 15 edition of the journal Nature Genetics.
The first study, based on a genetic analysis of more than 9,000 people, has found that certain versions of four genes may speed shrinkage of a brain region involved in making new memories. The brain area, known as the hippocampus, normally shrinks with age, but if the process speeds up, it could increase vulnerability to Alzheimer's disease, the research suggests.
The second paper identifies two genes associated with intracranial volume -- the space within the skull occupied by the brain when the brain is fully developed in a person's lifespan, usually around age 20.
DeCarli is a pioneer in the field of neuroimaging of the aging brain who has been at the forefront of developing and using quantifiable imaging techniques to define the relationship between structure and function in the healthy aging brain and to characterize the changes associated with vascular and Alzheimer's dementias. He is professor of neurology and director of the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center and the UC Davis Imaging of Dementia and Aging Laboratory.
Genetic variants of hippocampus study
The gene variants identified in the first study do not cause Alzheimer's, but they may rob the hippocampus of a kind of "reserve" against the disease, which is known to cause cell destruction and dramatic shrinkage of this key brain site. The result is severe loss of memory and cognitive ability.
Scientists calculated that hippocampus shrinkage in people with these gene variants accelerates by about four years on average. The risk of Alzheimer's doubles every five years beginning at age 65, so a person of that age would face almost twice the Alzheimer's risk if he or she had these versions of the gene.
Looked at another way, if a person with one of these variants did get Alzheimer's, the disease would attack an already compromised hippocampus and so would lead to a more severe condition at a younger age than otherwise, the research suggests.
"This is definitely a case of 'bigger is better,'" said DeCarli. "We already know that Alzheimer's disease causes much of its damage by shrinking hippocampus volume. If someone loses a greater-than-average amount of volume due to the gene variants we've identified, the hippocampus is more vulnerable to Alzheimer's."
Why the aging hippocampus normally decreases in volume is unclear. The new research shows that the genes most strongly linked to shrinkage are involved in maturation of the hippocampus and in apoptosis, or programmed cell death -- a continual process by which older cells are removed from active duty.
The scientists suggest that if the gene variants they identified do affect either maturation or the rate at which cells die, this could underlie at least some of the increased rates of hippocampus shrinkage.
"Either by making more or healthier hippocampal neurons or preventing them from dying with advancing age, the healthy versions of these genes influence how people remember as they get older," said DeCarli. "The alternate versions of the genes may not fully provide these benefits."
The researchers hope that they can find ways to protect the hippocampus from premature shrinkage or slow its decline by studying the normal regulation of the proteins coded by these genes.
The genetic analysis draws on what is known as a genome-wide association study -- research aimed at finding the common genetic variants associated with specific diseases or other conditions. Different versions of a gene usually come down to changes in just one of the tens of thousands of DNA "letters" that make up genes. These one-letter differences are known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs.
The research involved more than 80 scientists at 71 institutions in 8 countries. Many researchers are needed for such a study in order to put together the large samples, or cohorts, of people whose genetic makeup is to be investigated, to measure the hippocampus from magnetic resonance pictures of the brain and for the labor-intensive statistical analysis of the findings.
The study used a very large assemblage of genetic and disease data called the Cohorts for Heart and Aging Research in Genomic Epidemiology Consortium, or CHARGE. The consortium brings together several population-based cohorts in the United States and Europe.
The cohort was made up of 9,232 dementia-free volunteers with an average age of 67. The study identified four different gene variants associated with hippocampus volume decline. One, known as rs7294919, showed a particularly strong link to a reduced hippocampus volume, suggesting that this gene is very important to hippocampus development or health.
The findings were then assessed in two other cohorts. One, including both normal and cognitively compromised people with an average age of 40, showed that three of the suspect SNPs were linked to reduced hippocampus volume. Analysis of results from the third group, comprised primarily of older people, showed a significant association between one of the SNPs and accelerated memory loss.
"With this study, we have new evidence that aging, the hippocampus and memory are influenced by specific genes," DeCarli said. "Understanding how these genes affect the development and aging of the hippocampus may give us new tools to delay memory loss with advanced age and possibly reduce the impact of such diseases as Alzheimer's disease."
Genetic variants of Intracranial-volume study
While the first study deals with the genetic associations with brain shrinkage, the second deals with associations impacting intracranial volume, which is an indirect measure of the size of the brain at full development.
Though brain volume and intracranial volume are both highly heritable, the genetic influences on these measures may differ. To assess the genetic influence on these two measures, researchers in the second study performed a genome-wide association study on cross-sectional measures of intracranial volume and brain volume in 8,175 elderly in the CHARGE consortium.
They found no associations for brain volume, but they did discover that intracranial volume was significantly associated with two loci: rs4273712, a known height locus on chromosome 6q22, and rs9915547, tagging the inversion on chromosome 17q21.
"Since geneticists are already familiar with the other functions of these same genes, associating these particular genes with intracranial volume may help us better understand brain development in general," said DeCarli. "For instance, we know that one of these genes has played a unique evolutionary role in human development, and perhaps we as a species are selecting this gene as a way of providing further advances in brain development."
Both studies involved international teams representing scores of institutions, funded by a variety of NIH grants as well as grants from agencies around the world.
China's Bo backed, then blocked murder probe against his wife: sources
By Chris Buckley CHONGQING, China Tue Apr 17, 2012 7:46am EDT
Chinese politician Bo Xilai initially agreed to a police probe of his wife's role in the murder of a British businessman before abruptly reversing course and demoting his police chief, causing upheavals that led to the downfall of both men, sources said.
The sources' account gives new details of the dramatic breakdown in relations between Bo, an ambitious leader who cast himself as the crime-fighting boss of Chongqing, China's biggest municipality, and his once trusted police chief, Wang Lijun.
Reuters reported on Monday that Briton Neil Heywood was poisoned last November after he threatened to expose a plan by Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, to move money abroad.
The scandal is potentially the most divisive the Communist Party has faced since Zhao Ziyang was sacked as Party chief in 1989 for opposing the brutal army crackdown on student-led demonstrations for democracy centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing that year.
Before his fall, Bo, 62, was widely seen as a contender for a post in China's top leadership committee, which will be decided later this year.
In a tense meeting on or about January 18, Wang confronted Bo with evidence implicating Gu in the death of Heywood, a former friend of the Bo family, said two sources with knowledge of police and government information on the case.
Bo was so angry he ordered Wang out of the office, but after composing himself he told Wang to return and signaled that he would let the inquiry proceed, the sources added.
Two or three days later, Bo backflipped and shunted aside Wang in an apparent bid to quash the inquiry and protect his wife and his career, the sources said.
Wang fled to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu on February 6 in an apparent asylum attempt, which exposed the rift between him and Bo and later brought to light official suspicions that Bo's wife engineered Heywood's murder.
It is not possible to contact Gu, Bo or Wang. Gu and Wang are in custody and Bo has not been seen in public since March, when he was dismissed as boss of Chongqing, in southwest China. He was stripped of his seat on the Politburo last week.
Gu is being held on suspicion of committing or arranging Heywood's murder, though no details of the motive or the crime itself have been publicly released, other than a general comment from Chinese state media that he was killed after a financial dispute.
Shortly before Bo was removed as party chief of Chongqing, Bo said his family was being unfairly vilified by rumors he did not specify, and leftist groups supporting him have continued to maintain he is the victim of a plot.
"Bo was shocked and outraged after he learned about the murder. He asked Wang to leave, saying he wanted to be alone and clear his mind," said well-connected Chonqging entrepreneur Wang Kang, citing accounts of the confrontation by city officials.
"When Wang returned half an hour later, Bo said to him that the issue carried too much significance and he would seriously punish his wife, Gu Kailai," Wang told Reuters in his office, decorated with pictures of himself meeting senior officials, including Bo's late father, revolutionary veteran Bo Yibo, a comrade of Mao Zedong.
A second source with direct ties to senior officials and police in Chongqing corroborated this account of what police and government officials believe happened.
"Bo Xilai was shocked and outraged, and then later saw what a threat the case was," the second source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
"So he quickly removed him from the public security bureau three days later," the source added. "For Wang Lijun that was a terrible shock. If you took away his uniform, you stole his life."
Bo demoted Wang to the much less powerful role of vice mayor for education, culture and science.
Bo's move against Wang led to his police chief dashing into the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, near Chongqing, where he spent about 24 hours before leaving into the hands of Chinese central government authorities. Wang could now face treason charges.
Chongqing officials initially told British diplomats that Heywood's death was natural. Inside the Chongqing government at the time, police were raising suspicions that it was murder and Bo was moving to silence them, the sources said.
Police believe Heywood was poisoned with a drink at Chongqing's secluded hilltop Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel after he threatened to expose a plan by Gu to move money abroad, the second source and another source with knowledge of the police investigation have told Reuters.
Bo and his police chief had grown close during their popular campaign to clean up organized crime in Chongqing. Unlike other officials, Wang could visit Bo's office without informing security first, said the source with direct ties to senior officials and police.
Wang personally took over the case when he found several deputies had refused to sign off on the report of Heywood's death, and he reassured investigators to continue their work even after a connection to Gu was established, the source said.
"When the special case group realized what they were onto about Heywood, they were worried, but Wang Lijun told them not to worry, he would assume full responsibility for their work. He said others shouldn't be implicated," the source added.
Wang Kang, an entrepreneur who also makes documentaries, cited Chongqing officials as saying police chief Wang Lijun had been unwilling to hand over case materials to Bo.
"Wang Lijun was Bo's attack dog, but he also had his own ideas," said Wang Kang, who is no relation of Wang Lijun.
"If Wang Lijun was totally loyal to Bo Xilai, he could have destroyed the evidence."
(Additional reporting by Don Durfee and Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING; Editing by Brian Rhoads, Mark Bendeich and Dean Yates)
April 17, 1790: America Loses One of Its Most Inventive Minds By Tony Long April 17, 2012 | 6:30 am Categories: 18th century, People
1790: Benjamin Franklin dies.
Printer, newspaper publisher, statesman, inventor, scientist, patriot, revolutionary — no one, with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson, cast a more imposing shadow over young America.
Franklin spent his working life as a printer and publisher and much of his legacy rests there. But his contributions to the scientific sphere were equally impressive.
Although not formally trained as a scientist, Franklin was hardly a duffer when he forayed into the field following his retirement from the printing trade. He possessed a keen intellect and a naturally logical and inquisitive mind, and his experiments with electricity, begun in the early 1750s, yielded results that led to a number of technological advances, the lightning rod and the electric battery among them.
Franklin’s work with electricity brought him international fame, several honorary degrees and membership in Britain’s Royal Society, but he was active in other areas, too. He studied weather closely and proposed better methods for tracking storm progression. He invented the catheter while trying to help his ill brother, and he conducted experiments to make agriculture more efficient.
Franklin retained a lifelong interest in science but the events of the day moved him inexorably toward the politics of revolution.
When Franklin died in 1790 at the age of 84, more than 20,000 people attended the funeral.
Mystery continues to shroud a German freighter ship chartered by a Ukrainian company that has been cruising around the Mediterranean Sea for a number of days now under the flag of Antigua and Barbuda. Politicians in Germany are in a state of alarm because of reports that the Atlantic Cruiser may be carrying military equipment and munitions allegedly intended for the regime of Bashar Assad, despite the European Union weapons embargo against Syria. SPIEGEL first reported on the developments over the weekend.
On Monday afternoon, the ship's owner, German shipping company Bockstiegel Reederei, commented officially for the first time on the allegations. The company said it had ordered the crew to inspect part of the cargo the ship is carrying. The company said that no weapons for Syria had been found.
"The cargo currently on board had been loaded in Mumbai, India and was destined for Syria, Turkey and Montenegro," the company said in a press release. The company said that according to documents at its disposal, the cargo destined for Syria is composed of "parts for a thermal power plant" that had been shipped by an Indian power plant manufacturer to the Syrian Ministry of Electricity. The company said it had "no indications that the cargo could be, as supposed in news reports, arms, ammunition and heavy weapons." The company said the charter contract with the Ukrainian company "provide(s) that the vessel is only allowed to carry 'lawful cargo,' i.e. that the cargo itself as well as its transport may not be made in breach of the law."
Despite Bockstiegel Reederei's statement, questions remain. The company has provided extensive information about the contents of the cargo intended for Syria that was supposed to be unloaded at the end of last week in the Syrian port of Tartus. But the shipping company hasn't stated what the cargo destined for Turkey and Montenegro contained.
Abbreviations for Explosives and Electronic Equipment
But disclosures made by Atlantic Cruiser's captain indicate the ship is holding more than just the civilian goods on board that have so far been claimed. At the time the captain conducted the ship's transit through the Suez Canal and later at a planned fuel-tanking stop in Cyprus, he claimed he had been transporting cargo with the hazardous goods classes "UN 0105, 0030, 0029 and 0065," abbreviations for explosives and electrical equipment including detonators. After the contents of the cargo were revealed, a Cypriot firm refused to provide fuel for the ship. The ship was not allowed to enter into Cyprus "because of the embargo on munitions being sent to Syria."
There have been conflicting statements about the cargo from the shipping company and the firm that is responsible for managing its freight, C.E.G. Bulk Chartering, as well from the Ukrainian firm that is currently chartering the Atlantic Cruiser.
According to Torsten Lüddecke of C.E.G. Bulk Chartering, the loading papers list only civilian goods like "pumps and similar things." But the Ukrainian firm chartering the ship claims it contains "dangerous cargo," including munitions. However, the company claims they are intended for Turkey and Montenegro and not Syria. "In fact, the vessel isn't even calling (at) Syria at all!" the company stated in an email to SPIEGEL ONLINE sent over the weekend. Ship owner Bockstiegel Reederei, however, claims the ship had intended to call at Tartus in Syria, but only to unload the power plant parts, according to its statement.
The German government has said it will seek to resolve the case as quickly as possible. After all, in diplomatic terms, things could get extremely uncomfortable for Berlin if a German ship were involved in trafficking weapons to the Assad regime. Earlier this week, the Foreign Ministry in Berlin asked its embassies in Nicosia, Beirut and Ankara to contact officials in their host countries to involve them in the matter.
'Ship Owner Was Requested Not to Call at Syrian Ports'
As of Tuesday, the ship still hasn't entered into any port, although shipping company Bockstiegel Reederei's statement said it will soon dock at the Turkish port of Iskenderun. Last Friday, the ship had been stopped off the coast of Syria, turned around and the driven in circles for a time. The ship had been ordered to stop after Syrian opposition politicians warned it was carrying military equipment.
"The ship owner was requested not to call at Syrian ports," Bockstiegel Reederei's statement read. "Otherwise, the vessel would be attacked and sunk." The company said the email had been sent by an organization identifying itself as the "Syrian Revolution Naval Forces."
It also remains a mystery why the transponder that allows the ship's location to be determined has frequently been turned off for extended periods in recent days. On Monday, the Automatic Identification System (AIS) had been turned off once again -- a step described as highly unusual by shipping industry observers. But the shipping firm defended the measure, saying, "Apparently for the sake of its own protection, the crew deactivated the AIS for a certain amount of time in order to prevent the ship from getting attacked."
But the explanation still sounds a bit odd, especially given that the ship waited for a full day and a half off the coast of Syria before heading in the direction of Turkey.
More military personnel might have been involved in misconduct before Obama’s trip
By David Nakamura and Scott Wilson, 16 April 2012
A probe into the alleged misconduct of nearly a dozen U.S. Secret Service agents has expanded to include more than five military personnel, Defense Department officials said Monday, as the scandal that erupted during President Obama’s trip to Colombia last week put high-level officials on the defensive.
A preliminary investigation by the Defense Department, which included a review of video from hotel security cameras, found that more military personnel than initially thought might have been involved with the Secret Service in the carousing at the center of the probe. Already, 11 Secret Service agents have been placed on leave amid allegations they entertained prostitutes, potentially one of the most serious lapses at the organization in years.
The charges are triggering scrutiny of the culture of the Secret Service — where married agents have been heard to joke during aircraft takeoff that their motto is “wheels up, rings off” — and raising new questions at both the agency and the Pentagon about institutional oversight at the highest levels of the president’s security apparatus.
“We are embarrassed,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon. “We let the boss down, because nobody is talking about what went down in Colombia other than this incident.”
At the same time, details emerged about the night of partying Wednesday that led to the scandal. People in Cartagena familiar with the matter said that some of the Secret Service agents paid $60 apiece to owners of the Pleyclub, a strip club in an industrial section of Cartagena, to bring at least two of the women back to the Hotel Caribe, where Obama’s advance team was staying.
The following morning, one of the women demanded an additional payment of $170, setting off a dispute with an agent that drew the attention of the hotel, the Cartagena sources said.
According to the Pleyclub’s registry at the local chamber of commerce, one of the club’s owners is named Michael Adam Hardy, whom chamber officials described as either American or Canadian.
On Monday, the Secret Service moved to revoke the top-secret security clearances of all 11 men from the agency who are under investigation, spokesman Edwin Donovan said.
The revocation of such clearances is not uncommon, he emphasized, and security clearances can be reinstated after internal investigations are complete, depending on the findings.
In a letter to all agency employees, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan stressed that it is “imperative . . . to always act both personally and professionally in a manner that recognizes the seriousness and consequence of our mission.”
Sullivan promised a “thorough and fair” investigation and concluded by saying that “in the wake of this embarrassing incident, it is my hope that each of us will be steadfast in our efforts to ensure that our performance and behavior mirror the oath we have sworn to uphold.”
The Secret Service personnel under suspicion include a mix of special agents who provide personal protection for the president and uniformed officers who perform building security and logistical support. They were part of an U.S. advance team of up to 200 people sent ahead to prepare for Obama’s arrival.
After the allegations of misconduct came to light Thursday, when hotel staff notified the U.S. Embassy, the service removed the 11 agents and replaced them with a new team. In addition, the military confined five of its personnel to their rooms at the hotel, pending the investigation. Military officials did not say how many more of its personnel might now be suspected of participating in the misconduct.
Prostitution, legal and regulated, is a booming business in the Caribbean tourist hub of Cartagena, a city of about 1 million inhabitants that is famous for its Spanish colonial heart and a modern stretch of Miami-style high-rises. As a byproduct of its lure of cruise ships and conventioneers, Cartagena draws prostitutes from both the city’s poor and upper-class echelons — as well as from different cities around the country.
Before the summit, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos asked the city health department for an action plan outlining disease prevention efforts with prostitutes ahead of the gathering of 30 hemispheric leaders.
Officials at Cartagena’s health department said that there are about 80 streetwalkers in the city’s colonial district, which features bountiful nightclubs, boutique hotels and elegant restaurants. Another 550 women, who will spend the night with a client for about $250, are estimated to be spread out in 15 nightclubs, officials said.
The Pleyclub touts its services by distributing small, glossy advertisements featuring nearly naked women to taxi drivers who drive visitors around town. The ads, in Spanish, promise: “We’re the best good time in the city.”
Inside the Pleyclub, there is a stage with two poles and a glass-enclosed shower in which women perform strip shows.
Several hotel workers said some of the Secret Service agents spoke good Spanish.
The Hotel Caribe, like most hotels in Cartagena, permits overnight visitors to join hotel guests. But there are rules: Young women brought for the night must come after 11 p.m.; cannot spend time in public areas, such as the lobby; must present identification to prove they are adults; and must leave by 6 a.m., two hotel employees said. The hotel also levies a $60 surcharge for each overnight visitor, said the employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the management.
Hotel management declined to comment about the incident, saying that it must protect the privacy of its guests.
Even though Secret Service officials have said Obama’s security was not compromised, lawmakers who oversee the agency have grown increasingly outraged as new allegations surface.
“I find this to be so appalling,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “I can’t help but think, what if the women involved had been spies?. . . It’s such a breach of trust, and it’s virtually unbelievable. I’m truly shocked.”
Staff writers Jason Ukman, Rosalind S. Helderman, Craig Whitlock and Ed O’Keefe and special correspondent Juan Forero contributed to this report. Wilson and Forero reported from Cartagena.
SpaceX crossed another milestone this week as company and NASA officials met for a thorough Flight Readiness Review ahead of the launch of the Dragon spacecraft on a on a demonstration flight to the International Space Station. The Flight Readiness Review, or FRR, is a standard element for NASA, but the upcoming mission is not. As scheduled, the mission will be the first to see a privately built and funded spacecraft rendezvous with the station. If successful, the mission is expected to pave the way toward regular operational commercial cargo missions.
"It's almost like the lead-up to Apollo, in my mind," said Mike Horkachuck, NASA's project executive for SpaceX. "You had Mercury then you had Gemini and eventually you had Apollo. This would be similar in the sense that, we're not going to the moon or anything as spectacular as that, but we are in the beginnings of commercializing space. This may be the Mercury equivalent to eventually flying crew and then eventually leading to, in the long run, passenger travel in space."
Image above: The Dragon spacecraft stands atop the Falcon 9 rocket during a recent test at the launch pad it will lift off from later this month. Image credit: NASA/Cory Huston
California-based Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, is preparing to launch an ambitious mission to dock its Dragon spacecraft to the space station and return it to Earth. The spacecraft will not have a crew, but will carry about 1,200 pounds of cargo that the astronauts and cosmonauts living on the station will be able to use. The capsule will go into space atop a Falcon 9 rocket also built by SpaceX.
NASA and SpaceX officials conducted a thorough Flight Readiness Review on Monday, April 16, that set the stage for a launch on April 30, although there are several additional checks to go through including a test-firing of the Falcon 9's engines.
"Everything looks good heading into the April 30 launch date," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. "I think the teams are very well-prepared. They've done a tremendous amount of work getting ready."
Elon Musk, the owner of SpaceX and the company's chief designer, said his team is not taking the mission's objectives for granted, particularly since both the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket are relatively new to spaceflight.
"We have launched the rocket twice and the spacecraft once so they are pretty new, and the proximity operations will be our first test in space," Musk said following the Flight Readiness Review. "I think it’s important to appreciate that this is fairly tricky and it is important to remember that we are hitting a target within a few inches while it moves over 17,000 mph."
Another review will be held April 23 prior to the targeted launch date on April 30, Gerstenmaier said. There is a single instantaneous launch opportunity at 12:22 p.m. EDT.
Because the mission is a test flight, the cargo is not material deemed critical to the crew, Horkachuck said. Launch is targeted for April 30 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, within sight of the launch pads the space shuttles used to carry the station's components into orbit. There also are several tests and reviews coming up later this month similar to those performed ahead of space shuttle missions.
If this mission is successful, the Dragon is expected to become operational and launch regular supply runs to the station. Unlike any other cargo carrier, the Dragon can bring things back to Earth, too, a boon for scientists whose research is taking place on the orbiting laboratory.
SpaceX already has two successful Falcon 9 launches to its credit, along with a history making demonstration of the Dragon capsule that in December 2010, became the first privately built and operated spacecraft to be launched to and recovered from Earth orbit.
"I think the (first demonstration) mission was more of a question mark in my mind," Horkachuck said, "because no capsule that these guys had built before had gone into space, done the basic maneuvering to show you have attitude control as well as re-entering, so knowing the vehicle came through re-entry relatively unscathed and all the parachute systems worked perfectly, that was a real big deal."
Because of that mission's achievements, NASA and SpaceX agreed to combine the planned second and third demonstration flights into one. Assuming the Dragon spacecraft passes about a few days' worth of equipment checks and demonstration in orbit, it will be allowed to approach the station close enough for astronauts to grab the Dragon with the station's large robotic arm. The arm will berth the capsule to the station and astronauts will unload the spacecraft and put about 1,400 pounds of material inside the Dragon for return to Earth.
The mission is expected to last about 21 days, Horkachuck said.
For Horkachuck, work for this mission began more than five years ago, when SpaceX and NASA signed a Space Act Agreement to work together to demonstrate they could carry cargo to the space station on a private rocket and spacecraft. NASA is sharing the cost for the demonstration missions under the COTS program, short for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services.
"It's been a very good experience," Horkachuck said. "The Space Act Agreement lets us interact with the contractor in a much more cooperative way than the typical government contract does. We can suggest how we've done it in the past and maybe they'll use that, or they'll come up with a slightly altered version to work through a challenge."
Getting the rocket, spacecraft and overall mission together has been a learning experience for both SpaceX and NASA, Horkachuck said. For instance, SpaceX learned how much more work is involved in flying to a space station with a crew on board, compared with launching a spacecraft and recovering it after a few orbits.
"Every big project is going to have various technical challenges," Horkachuck said. "One of the refreshing things has been, once you convince SpaceX they need to make a change and it's the right thing to do from a technical perspective, they just go off and do it. There's not a lot of wrangling."
The partnership has shown NASA a blueprint for handling future missions, too.
"If you've got a good relationship with the partner, it's an outstanding way of doing business," Horkachuck said.
All that said, rocketry and spaceflight remain tricky businesses that are unforgiving of even slight oversights.
"The history of all rocket launches is that you can have a successful mission and then some tiny little thing can come bite you on the next mission," Horkachuck said. "There's so many little things that can go wrong, you have to always be diligent about every little thing."
The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are at Cape Canaveral undergoing final preparations ahead of the launch. For Horkachuck, the three weeks in orbit will be filled with the tension familiar to anyone involved with a spaceflight, he said.
"Once Dragon gets into orbit and is operating, there's certainly going to be a big cheer," he said. "But I think most of the big events and dynamic events in this spaceflight really culminate when you finally have splashdown. Throughout the mission, there will be moments of panic followed by long periods of calm."
Steven Siceloff NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center
DOJ review of flawed FBI forensics processes lacked transparency
17 April 2012 By Spencer S. Hsu, Jennifer Jenkins and Ted Mellnik
The bombshell came at the most inopportune time.
An FBI special agent was testifying in the government’s high-profile terrorism trial against Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind sheik” suspected of plotting the first attack on the World Trade Center.
Frederic Whitehurst, a chemist and lawyer who worked in the FBI’s crime lab, testified that he was told by his superiors to ignore findings that did not support the prosecution’s theory of the bombing.
“There was a great deal of pressure put upon me to bias my interpretation,” Whitehurst said in U.S. District Court in New York in 1995.
Even before the Internet, Whitehurst’s extraordinary claim went viral. It turned out he had written or passed along scores of memos over the years warning of a lack of impartiality and scientific standards at the famed lab that did the forensic work after the World Trade Center attack and in other cases.
With the FBI under fire for its handling of the 1993 trade center attack, the Oklahoma City bombing and the O.J. Simpson murder case, officials had to act.
After the Justice Department’s inspector general began a review of Whitehurst’s claims, Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh decided to launch a task force to dig through thousands of cases involving discredited agents, to ensure that “no defendant’s right to a fair trial was jeopardized,” as one FBI official promised at a congressional hearing.
The task force took nine years to complete its work and never publicly released its findings. Not the results of its case reviews of suspect lab work. Not the names of the defendants who were convicted as a result. And not the nature or scope of the forensic problems it found.
Those decisions more than a decade ago remain relevant today for hundreds of people still in the U.S. court system, because officials never notified many defendants of the forensic flaws in their cases and never expanded their review to catch similar mistakes.
A review of more than 10,000 pages of task force documents and dozens of interviews demonstrate that the panel operated in secret and with close oversight by FBI and Justice Department brass — including Reno and Freeh’s top deputy — who took steps to control the information uncovered by the group.
“It was not open,” said a person who worked closely with the task force and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the bureau and Justice Department maintain a strong influence in forensic science. “Maybe [a coverup] wasn’t the intent, but it did seem to look that way. . . . It was too controlled by the FBI.”
The documents and interviews tell a story of how the Justice Department’s promise to protect the rights of defendants became in large part an exercise in damage control that left some prisoners locked away or in the dark for years longer than necessary. The Justice Department continues to decline to release the names of defendants in the affected cases.
A Washington Post review of the department’s actions shows an agency struggling to balance its goal of defending convictions in court with its responsibility to protect the innocent. The Justice Department’s decision to allow prosecutors to decide what to disclose to defendants was criticized at the time and allowed most of the process to remain secret. But by cloaking cases in anonymity, failing to ensure that defendants were notified of troubles with their cases and neglecting to publicly report problems or recommend solutions, the task force obscured problems from further study.
Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said the federal review met constitutional requirements by allowing prosecutors in the affected cases to make the final decision whether to disclose potentially exculpatory information to the defendants.
“In January 1996 the Department established a Task Force to advise prosecutors of the Office of Inspector General investigation of the FBI lab,” Sweeney said in a statement. The task force worked with prosecutors and the FBI “to notify the relevant prosecutors [local, state and federal] so that they could determine what information needed to be disclosed to defense counsel.”
If the Justice Department was secretive, the agency’s independent inspector general was not. Michael R. Bromwich’s probe culminated in a devastating 517-page report in April 1997on misconduct at the FBI lab.
His findings stopped short of accusing agents of perjury or of fabricating results, but he concluded that FBI managers failed — in some cases for years — to respond to warnings about the scientific integrity and competence of agents.
The chief of the lab’s explosives unit, for example, “repeatedly reached conclusions that incriminated the defendants without a scientific basis” in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Bromwich wrote. The head of toxicology lacked judgment and credibility and overstated results in the 1994 Simpson investigation. After the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the key FBI witness “worked backward,” tailoring his testimony to reach the result he wanted. Other agents “spruced up” notes for trial, altered reports without the author’s permission or failed to document or confirm their findings.
The investigation led to wide-ranging changes, including higher laboratory standards and requirements for examiners.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department set out to evaluate discredited agents’ work in thousands of cases that had gone to trial.
Jim Maddock, the FBI’s assistant general counsel, told reporters that the goal of the new task force was to identify any potentially exculpatory information that had arisen in any criminal case involving agents criticized in the report.
“We are undertaking that review,” Maddock said at an April 15, 1997, news conference. “And when it is done, we will give a full accounting of our findings.”
Interviews and documents show that key decisions about the task force’s work were made at the highest levels, including the decisions to exclude defense lawyers from the review and not publicly release the findings.
Task force participants said Reno signed off on the decision allowing prosecutors to decide what to disclose, because normal legal and constitutional requirements give prosecutors that discretion.
Justice Department officials also believed that the public release of the 1997 inspector general report generated enough publicity to give defense attorneys and their clients opportunities to appeal, task force participants said.
“Our job was to do the scientific reviews and then to send the results to the prosecutors, and they were responsible for determining whether they were going to disclose or not,” Lucy L. Thomson, the chief of the task force, said in an interview. “That was just the way Janet Reno decided to do it.”
Reno is physically ailing and was unable to comment for this article.
Her deputy attorney general until April 1997, Jamie Gorelick, said Reno “was very, very interested in assuring that we weren’t keeping in prison people who deserved to have their convictions reviewed.”
“I am sure she tried as hard as she could to keep the pressure on the bureau and on the criminal division,” Gorelick said.
Documents show that the FBI and Justice Department set strict rules about what information would be disclosed as they prepared to battle defendants who challenged convictions.
The department planned to “monitor all decisions” by federal prosecutors over whether to disclose information, the head of the criminal division, John C. Keeney, wrote in a memo to all U.S. attorneys on Jan. 4, 1996. The division stood ready, if necessary, to “evaluate the allegations and, if appropriate rebut them,” he wrote.
In addition, the Justice Department and the FBI negotiated over the limit and scope of the task force review, the documents show.
For example, in a June 1997 memo, Keeney told federal prosecutors that the criminal division and the FBI would “arrange for an independent, complete review of the Laboratory’s findings and any related testimony” in all convictions in which they found there was a “reasonable probability” that work by discredited agents had affected the conviction or sentence.
But two months later, the senior attorney in charge of the task force told Keeney’s deputy that the FBI indicated that it planned to require “a cursory paper review” only and generally did not plan to reexamine evidence.
That attorney in charge, Thomson, told Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kevin V. DiGregory in an Aug. 19, 1997, memo that the FBI also wanted to keep the focus off the most vulnerable cases by not conducting reviews if a case was still in litigation or on appeal — even though the panel’s work would have been most relevant to a judge at those times.
There were other hitches. One year later, in August 1998, Thomson complained to DiGregory that “no scientists have been retained to date” by the FBI to conduct reviews of cases in which defendants may have been wrongly convicted.
Reviews were “needed as soon as possible in order to avoid possibly undercutting prosecutors’ arguments . . . and to ensure that defendants will not exhaust opportunities to file post-conviction relief motions,” Thomson said.
As it turned out, reviews would continue for six years, leaving defendants in jail after having been convicted in cases with faulty forensics.