How the US may try to destroy Syria's chemical weapons
David Hambling

John Kerry claimed this week that the US now has evidence that sarin was used to kill more than 1400 civilians in the 21 August attack in Syria.

If that is the case, then while any US strikes on Syria may focus on military bases, they might also seek to put chemical stockpiles out of action using "agent defeat" weapons. Since 1998, the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has been developing weapons to attack chemical agents without spreading them. But any attempt to do this would be risky.

The CBU-107 Passive Attack Weapon (PAW) punctures chemical storage vessels without explosives. Delivered at high speed, the 450-kilogram bomb splits mid-air and rains down more than 3700 steel and tungsten rods over an area 60 metres across.

Sarin, like most chemical weapons, is heavier than air, does not travel far at ground level and is degraded by the action of sunlight and oxygen. But PAW would only be suitable where stockpiles are well away from civilian areas and when there is little wind.

Burn it up

The BLU-119/B CrashPAD destroys chemical agents more rapidly. This 900-kilogram bomb contains a small explosive charge to rupture storage vessels with blast or shrapnel, and 300 kilograms of white phosphorus, which burns at up to about 2700 °C.

Sarin is combustible and the high temperatures would quickly break it down. However, any intact chemical agent could be carried high into the air on the thermal updraught and could travel for long distances.

These are the only agent defeat weapons officially in the arsenal. However, the DTRA has sponsored research on a range of other options that may already be available.

These include foaming thermite, incendiaries, high-energy explosives and high-temperature mixtures similar to rocket fuel. One such DTRA option, a warhead casing made of explosive reactive material, was evaluated for use in a cruise missile in 2012.

Drone eyes

Any agent defeat strike would involve planning with the US Air Force's simulation tool, called Serpent. This combines models of blast effects, atmospheric dispersion and the rate of neutralisation of chemical agents to predict the pattern of "collateral hazards" from striking a chemical target with a range of weapons. However, the model needs details of the target, which may be lacking.

The DTRA also aims to assess the effects of a strike as soon as it happens, using a miniature drone released from the tail section of a bomb seconds before impact. This could provide immediate warning if a plume of toxic smoke is released.

However, even with advanced weapons and planning tools, the scale of the task might make it impossible.

"The total tonnage estimates varied from 10,000 down to hundreds of tons and their distribution into dozens of locations, making the whole idea questionable," says James Ketchum, who directed human research at the US Army's Edgewood Arsenal in the 1960s. "It could not be comprehensive and explosions could release intact lethal gas with fatal results, even if done with sufficient heat."

Biophysicist Brian Hanley notes that the components for sarin may be stored separately, because it is usually only mixed shortly before being used (or in some weapons, only when fired) – but bombing storage sites could still cause mixing to occur. "I think that the far better choice if the intent is to destroy sarin munitions, is to go in on the ground, capture, remove and then disassemble and drain them safely," he says.




Responding to Syrian Atrocities
New York Times Editorial Board

 There is little doubt now that President Obama is planning some kind of military response
to what the administration says without equivocation was a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government that killed hundreds of civilians. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry began forcefully making the case for action.

Should the United States and its allies launch air strikes against Syria in response to the Assad regime's reported use of chemical weapons?

Speaking at the State Department, Mr. Kerry said the attack “defies any code of morality” and should “shock the conscience of the world.” He said this “indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders” was a “moral obscenity,” “inexcusable,” and “undeniable,” despite efforts by President Bashar al-Assad and his enablers in Russia to blame rebel forces.

“Make no mistake,” Mr. Kerry added, “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people." Administration officials said Mr. Obama had still not made a firm decision on how to react, but it would be highly unlikely — if not irresponsible — for him to authorize Mr. Kerry to speak in such sweeping terms and then do nothing.

Mr. Obama put his credibility on the line when he declared last August that Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” that would compel an American response. After the first attacks, earlier this year, killed between 100 and 150 people, the administration promised weapons for the rebels but delayed in delivering them.

This time the use of chemicals was more brazen and the casualties were much greater, suggesting that Mr. Assad did not take Mr. Obama seriously. Presidents should not make a habit of drawing red lines in public, but if they do, they had best follow through. Many countries (including Iran, which Mr. Obama has often said won’t be permitted to have a nuclear weapon) will be watching.

Using chemical arms is considered a war crime and banned under international treaties, including the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Geneva Protocol and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Even so, if he decides to use military force, Mr. Obama will have to show that he has exhausted diplomatic options and present a defensible legal justification, and that is not a simple matter. Ideally, the United States would muster a United Nations Security Council resolution to authorize military action. But Russia and China, which have veto power, have long protected Mr. Assad from punishment there and show no inclination to change. It is hard to believe that they would defend his use of chemical weapons, but there is no guarantee that they would not.

Mr. Obama may instead bypass the U.N. and, as in the case of the 1999 NATO air war in Kosovo, assemble an ad hoc international coalition to support military action that would provide legitimacy, if not strict legal justification, for intervening to protect Syrian civilians. American officials are discussing the possibility that states like Turkey and Jordan may make a collective self-defense argument because they could be victims of Syrian chemical weapons.

If Mr. Obama does forgo the U.N., he will need strong endorsements from the Arab League and the European Union, and more countries than just Turkey, Britain and France should join the effort. And if he does proceed with military action, it should be carefully targeted at Syrian air assets and military units involved in chemical weapons use. This, too, will not be easy, but the aim is to punish Mr. Assad for slaughtering his people with chemical arms, not to be drawn into another civil war.

A political agreement is still the best solution to this deadly conflict, and every effort must be made to find one. President Obama has resisted demands that he intervene militarily and in force. Though Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons surely requires a response of some kind, the arguments against deep American involvement remain as compelling as ever.



Farewell, Globovisión
El Universal

Much has been speculated about the sale of news channel, Globovisión. Not only some very renowned figures have left, but also the three chiefs of news management offices have resigned.

She made a lot of questions. She thought about the answers she got. She examined them. She thought them through. And then, she decided to leave. Lysber Ramos Sol was the first one -among the three chiefs in news departments of TV channel Globovisión- to resign, subsequent to the public announcement of the company's new ownership.

And short time was enough for her to make a decision: On April 30, she was able to share opinions and have a talk with the TV channel's new owners, Juan Domingo Cordero and Raúl Gorrín; she had the chance to get to know the criteria these businessmen have regarding journalism; and therefore, to foresee what the TV channel's future would hold under their management: "On May the first, I informed Elsy Barroeta and Carlos Zuloaga about my decision to quit," Ramos Sol, who is called by her colleagues as Lichi, tells. "I like to do my job with commitment and conviction. And I did not feel conviction in the way the TV channel is to be run."

Some meetings were held between Guillermo Zuloaga and some trusted employees of the board of directors, in order to talk about the TV channel's sale. All of them were –of course- held abroad due to the current situation between Zuloaga and the revolutionary justice in Venezuela.

The one in charge of the news department could not attend the first meetings: "We found out about the sale a few days after the death of President Hugo Chávez," Ramos Sol commented. "And for that reason, we could not attend the meetings. So, María Fernanda Flores would keep us posted. Until one day I was able to travel and attend one of those meetings, and therefore, talk to Mr. Cordero and Mr. Gorrín. Gustavo Perdomo was present; however, he never said a word."

On March 15, it was María Fernanda Flores's turn to leave. Flores was the Executive Vice President of the TV channel for 20 years. Was Globovisión going to radically change? Was the TV channel giving in itself to the Venezuelan Government which always considered it "enemy of the revolution?"

In his farewell letter –on May 13-, and in previous conversations with the permanent staff, Zuloaga asserted that the sales would not amount to such thing: "They have even told us and promised that their intentions regarding the TV channel are not in conflict with what has always been our goal: to be an informative channel, where every political opinions and parties are respected, without ceasing to defend freedom, democracy and the right to free expression."

Eleven days later, and in the midst of so many and expected rumors, and after knowing that they had banned the live broadcast of Henrique Capriles' statements, the board of directors announced Ismael García's departure from Aló Venezuela program. During the weekend of May 25 and 26, it was also disclosed that Buenas Noches TV host, Kico Bautista, had also been forced to leave. On May 27, his colleagues Carla Angola and Jorge Luis Flores submitted their resignations to Juan Domingo Cordero.

Packing time

The episodes of staff firing that shocked the most were undoubtedly García's and Buenas Noches TV program team. But perhaps, the worrying and relevant element is more closely related to the News, Programming, and Investigations managements: all these department's directors resigned from Globovisión.

Elsy Barroeta began working for Globovisión on March 1, 1996. The TV channel had been on air for around one year, and the then director Alberto Ravell and María Fernanda Flores proposed her to set up the press department in order to broaden the news national coverage in Venezuela.

"Lisbeth Ramos Sol and I started to work for this TV channel the same day," Barroeta claims. "We both formed this team that would deal with the national news, the share that became the basis of the TV channel."

And what once started up with such reduced staff, it is nowadays a department with 87 people which has under its "jurisdiction" the newscasts and all the news report spots.

But Elsy Barroeta resigned her job on June 7, which amounts to 17 years working for the TV channel.

Lina De Amicis indicates that before starting to work at Globovisión, she made ends meet by working for a few radio stations and newspapers that are labeled as a coup monger by the Venezuelan Government. She began working for the TV channel on February 14, 2004 as news coordinator in the evenings. "You clocked in late in the afternoon, and then you would not know what time you would be going home. For instance, like that time when I was about to leave work, and they called to let me know about public prosecutor Danilo Anderson's killing."

Four years ago, De Amicis took the task of running the Programming management. "I was in charge, among others, of the following TV programs: Aló, ciudadano (Hello, citizen!), Radar de los barrios (Radar of neighborhoods), Yo prometo (I promise) and the spots of National Independent Production. The number of producers and anchors amounts to 19 people." Nevertheless, she finished this story on May 27 of the current year. "Thirty happy years working for this TV channel have transpired. When you manage to have a job in which you feel satisfied, work with people you love, sincere people; and where you are allowed to take part in different tasks, you cannot help think: This is what I love doing for a living. I was hoping to spend much more time working at Globovisión, I had a set of ideas and plans to develop, which had been delayed because of wondering when we would have a more normal country. But it could not be, not for now, at least."

Lysber Ramos Sol was doing great at TV channel Venevisión when María Fernanda Flores proposed her to get to know Globovisión's future plans. "The meeting was attended by María Fernanda, Ravell -who joined us in a hurry as usual -, and this old man sitting, he was quiet, and would not say a word. At some point, I came across an awkward situation: I could not agree with this old man who had not been introduced to me. And finally, they told me: 'This is Mr. Zuloaga.' I never thought that they would hire me. But they did indeed, and such act explains the right to speak and the respect for differences that always prevailed in the TV channel."

Ramos Sol points out another example: "When it was proposed the idea of creating the newscast, Zuloaga told us: 'You launch the news TV channel that you would like to watch on air.' That explains the existing autonomy and trust in every decision made, which prevailed in our work environment."

Hey, my business partner

The three of them celebrate the quality work which always prevailed in the TV channel and that was lost when the businessmen bought Zuloaga's share: "There was a refreshing element that became consecutively stronger in the last years," Barroeta remarks. "It was to feel deep what working for Globovisión meant. You were part of a TV channel that enabled you to get involved in many different parts of it: If you worked for the TV channel, you were in everything."

What we now have is a different story. After fearing the closing of the TV channel, after overcoming multiple fines and threats, it seems that now Globovisión is certainly going through a shift that may well concern something deeper than the replacement of just some of its emblematic figures. It seems there is much ahead to come.

"It is quite obvious that some decisions have been made on the go," Ramos Sol indicates. "And the slump of followers in the twitter account had them make a decision." Let us be clear on something: the regular audience of Globovisión is not a passive one. It demands. It reacts: "The businessmen bought the shares; however, I do not know if they are totally aware that their actual partners are the very Venezuelans."


Camp Pendleton, CALIFORNIA

Lawrence Hutchins III Murder Conviction Overturned By Military's Highest Court
Julie Watson  //  Associated Press

The military's highest court overturned a murder conviction Wednesday against a Camp Pendleton Marine
in one of the most significant cases against American troops from the Iraq war.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces threw out the conviction of Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins III of Plymouth, Mass., who has served about half of his 11-year sentence.

According to the ruling posted on the court's website, the judges agreed with Hutchins, who claimed his constitutional rights were violated when he was held in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer for seven days during his 2006 interrogation in Iraq.

The decision is seen as a major blow to the military's prosecution of Iraqi war crimes.

Hutchins led an eight-man squad accused of kidnapping an Iraqi man from his home in April 2006, marching him to a ditch and shooting him to death in the village of Hamdania.

Hutchins has said he thought the man – who turned out to be a retired policeman – was an insurgent leader. Prosecutors accused the squad of planting a shovel and AK-47 to make it appear he was an insurgent.

None of the other seven squad members served more than 18 months.

The move is the latest in a series of twists and turns for Hutchins, whose case already was overturned once by a lower court three years ago.

The lower court ruled Hutchins' 2007 trial was unfair because his lead defense lawyer quit shortly before it began. The military's highest court disagreed on that point and reinstated Hutchins' conviction in 2011, sending him back to the brig after eight months working at a desk job at California's Camp Pendleton. The high court said at the time that the problem wasn't grave enough to warrant throwing out the conviction.

On Wednesday, it agreed with Hutchins' latest petition.

Hutchins' lawyer, Babu Kaza, said he expects him to now be released in days.

"Sgt. Hutchins and his family have suffered enough with this case, and it's time for this to be over," Kaza said. "Enough is enough."

The Navy can appeal to the Supreme Court or send the case to the convening authority, who can either order a retrial or let the ruling stand.

Navy officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

In their ruling Wednesday, the court's judges said the Naval Criminal Investigative Services violated Hutchins' Fifth Amendment rights when it interrogated him in May 2006 about the incident and then put him in a trailer in Fallujah with no access to a lawyer or phones.

After seven days, the same Navy investigator returned and asked Hutchins for permission to search his belongings. Hutchins said he asked to tell his side of the story and was told he could do so the next day, when he waived his right to counsel and provided a sworn statement about the crimes.

The judges ruled much of the case rested on that confession, which they determined was illegally obtained after Hutchins was held under guard for seven days.

"Accordingly, under the circumstances of this case, it was error for the military judge to admit the statement made by Hutchins on May 19, 2006," the judges concluded in their ruling.

The case was among the most serious Iraqi war crimes prosecuted by the government. In another major case that took six years, the lone Marine convicted in the killings of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a raid in Haditha seven years ago reached a deal to escape jail time.

Another case involved the November 2004 death of an unarmed Iraqi detainee in Fallujah. One Marine was spared prison time after pleading guilty to dereliction of duty, and another was acquitted. Their former squad leader was acquitted in federal court.

Former Navy officer David Glazier, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Wednesday's ruling demonstrates the military's poor prosecution record.

"For these very serious allegations of conduct that one would think of as war crimes, the military justice system has not performed very well in the past couple decades," Glazier said.

"Here this guy's conviction is overturned on the basis that he was mistreated by the government during his initial apprehension, and yet he's already served five years in prison," he added. "If the conviction was unjust in the first place, it's kind of appalling it's taken the military justice system five years to resolve it."

Hutchins' lawyer said his client told him after the ruling that he can't wait to return to his wife and two children.




Carter will irk both sides in Venezuela
Andres Oppenheimer //  eL Nuevo Herald

When I interviewed former President Jimmy Carter on a wide range of issues a few days ago
, I was especially interested in his views about Venezuela’s 2-month-old political crisis.

In the past, Carter, whose Carter Center is known among other things for its international election monitoring missions, has drawn the fury of Venezuelan oppositionists by giving his blessing to several elections that were officially won by Hugo Chávez, the late president and former coup plotter.

Would Carter now approve of the results of Venezuela’s April 14 elections, which according to the pro-government National Electoral Council were won by Chávez protégé Nicolás Maduro? Would he give some credence to opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ claims that the election had been stolen from him?

The Venezuelan government did not allow independent international election observers for the elections. It only allowed electoral tourists from friendly regional groups who arrived shortly before the voting.

(There is a big difference: while international observing missions monitor the entire election process over months, including how much television time candidates are given during the campaign, the visiting teams invited by Venezuela only observed the voting itself.)

After the elections, Venezuela’s electoral commission announced that Maduro had won by 1.5 percent of the vote.

Capriles denounced widespread irregularities, including outdated tallies that allowed multiple voting by government sympathizers, and said that if fraudulent votes were nullified, he would be declared the winner by 400,000 votes.

Asked during the interview, which is to be aired on CNN en Español on Sunday, whether Venezuela’s election process was clean, Carter asserted that “the voting part” of it was “free and fair.”

“Venezuela probably has the most excellent voting system that I have ever known,” Carter said, referring to the touch-screen voting machines and the paper ballots that are used there.

“So far as I know, Maduro did get 1.5 percent more votes than his opponent, Capriles, and that has been substantiated by the recount of paper ballots.”

But Carter added that Venezuela’s electoral commission “has not yet fully addressed” several questions raised by Capriles concerning the accuracy of voters’ lists, intimidation of voters, questionable use of fingerprinting machines and other irregularities.

“My own belief is that the Central Electoral Commission should go ahead and investigate Capriles’ allegations, to see if they are justified or not,” Carter said.

“In the meantime, of course, Maduro is assumed to be the president, pending a final decision.”

He added, “I don’t know what the final result will be, but I do wish that Maduro would reach out to the other 50 percent, roughly, of the people in Venezuela and say, ‘You are part of my administration, of my government.’

Asked whether the overall election rules were fair, Carter said that Maduro had more campaign funds and enjoyed a “tremendous advantage” in television time during the campaign. Maduro followed Chávez’s practice of “mandating” that television stations “follow his long speeches when his opponents are deprived of that right,” he said.

He added that Venezuela’s elections badly need public financing for all candidates’ campaigns, and that “the equalization of access to public and private radio and television would be a very good step in the right direction.”

My opinion: I have to confess that I have a soft spot for President Carter. When I was a student opposing the right-wing dictatorship in my native Argentina in the 1970s, he was the first U.S. president who sided with pro-democracy activists and human rights victims, rather than with oppressive governments.

But I’m intrigued by his failure in recent years to be equally supportive of pro-democracy activists and victims of government abuses in Venezuela and countries where presidents, once elected democratically, usurp near absolute powers and hold questionable elections.

Is it fair to call “the voting part” of an election “free and fair,” when the opposition’s claims of irregularities have not been fully investigated? Is it fair to separate the “voting part” of an election from the entire electoral process, when a president has a more than 10-1 advantage in television time? And if the election was clean, why didn’t Venezuela allow credible international election observers?

To his credit, Carter is requesting an investigation into Capriles’ complaints, and that Maduro reach out to the opposition.

I would only suggest to him that if he says that “the voting part” was “free and fair,” he should also say in equally explicit terms that the entire electoral process was one-sided and unfair.




State Department: Havana provides safe haven to US fugitives
Juan O. Tamayo el Nuevo Herald

Cuba is harboring and supporting U.S. fugitives but may be trying to distance itself from two dozen members of a Basque terrorist group who live on the island, according to the State Department’s annual Country Report on Terrorism released Thursday.

The report for 2012 is totally separate from the department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which now includes Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan and subjects those nations to a special set of U.S. economic and other sanctions.

Advocates of keeping or removing Cuba from the list awaited the 2012 report with special interest because of media reports earlier this year, flatly denied by the State Department, that Secretary of State John Kerry would take Havana off the list.

The Cuba section of the 2012 report appeared to be similar to the section in 2011, with both noting that Havana authorities are continuing to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States and supporting them with housing, ration books and medical care.

One such fugitive is Joanne Chesimard, on the FBI’s “most wanted terrorist” list since 2005. A Black Panther who was convicted in the 1973 murder of New Jersey State Trooper, she escaped from prison in 1979 and turned up in Havana in 1984. The FBI hiked the reward offered for her capture to $2 million in April.

“There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups,” the 2012 report said, in wording almost exactly the same as in the 2011 report.

Both reports also noted “suggestions” that Havana has tried to distance itself from members of Spain’s Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA), classified by Washington as a terrorist group, who live in Cuba by “not providing services, including travel documents, to some of them.”

The 2012 version adds that two dozen ETA members are living in Cuba.

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also classified as a terror group, received refuge in Cuba in past years, according to the latest version. The 2011 report noted that FARC members had received medical assistance. The FARC and Colombian government are currently holding peace talks in Havana.

Both reports also noted that the U.S. Financial Actions Task Force has identified Cuba as having “strategic … deficiencies” in the fight against terrorism financing and money laundering. The latest report adds that Cuba has now joined a regional body designed for that purpose.

Cuba has been on the separate U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1982. Havana also is on a separate U.S. government list, with Venezuela and others, of countries that are not “cooperating fully with United States antiterrorism efforts.”

To remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors, the White House is required to notify the U.S. Congress that Cuba has not engaged in terrorism for some time and promised not to do so again.



SENATE COMMITTEE: US will aid Israel if it strikes

Michael Wilner // Jerusalem Post

An overwhelming majority of the US Senate approved a resolution on Monday that stated the intent of Congress to support the “legitimate self-defense” of Israel, with American diplomatic and military power, if the Jewish state chooses to move ahead with a strike on Iran.

Senate Resolution 65, named in honor of Israel’s 65th anniversary, was brought to the floor by Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), after a significant lobbying effort from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The bipartisan pair attracted 79 cosponsors.

The resolution was passed as a “sense of Congress” proclamation, a piece of legislation that does not carry the force of law. It is essentially a majority opinion issued by the upper chamber of the legislature, which has already approved generous funding for joint military programs with the IDF.

In a possible split from the White House, the resolution states that US policy is to “prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability” – the stated red line of the Netanyahu government.

Obama officials have set a different line: The acquisition of a nuclear weapon – and not merely reaching breakout capacity – has dictated their timeline for action.

The discrepancy is significant, given the extensive revisions made to other sections of the resolution.

Later drafts of the resolution underscored the constitutional requirement of Congress to authorize the use of force or to declare war and noted that this proclamation did neither of those things.

But sources with a pro- Israel organization noted that “in order to give immediate [military] support to an ally, you wouldn’t need additional authorization – you don’t need an action from Congress beyond the authorization of monies, which has already been done.”

Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, said it would be folly to disregard the resolution just because it came out of the legislative branch and not the executive. He continued that it is the Senate that has led State Department policy on Iran and not the other way around.

“What this resolution does is strengthen diplomacy,” Rubin said. “The Iranians have a bad habit of believing their own propaganda, and they remember the Chuck Hagel hearings. But when you have a sense of resolution like this, it reminds the Iranians that divisions within the United States on Israel aren’t as extreme as they might believe.”

Experts said the resolution serves to both reinforce and undercut US President Barack Obama’s position, which skeptical congressmen fear is overly cautious as the Iranian timeline grows ever shorter.

“As [US Secretary of State John] Kerry has now said, as the president has said, as the military and every relevant branch of American power has said, there’s a finite amount of time for Iran to stop its illicit activities,” said Josh Block, executive director of The Israel Project. “It’s important to make clear that this resolution is about standing with Israel, that the US supports its right to self-defense.”

Ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told The Jerusalem Post that the resolution, as amended, “expresses strong US support for Israel’s right to self-defense while recognizing Congress’s constitutional role in authorizing US military action overseas.”

“With recent negotiations to end Iran’s nuclear program having broken down, passage of the resolution will send a strong signal that the US will not tolerate Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Corker said. “[The US] will stand by Israel and the international community in enforcement of aggressive sanctions against the regime in Tehran.”

Matthew Duss, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said that the proclamation “creates certain political commitments when we’re formally talking about military strikes in Congress.”

“Even though it’s not policy, the original draft of the resolution essentially offered a blank check to Israel in the event it decided to strike, and that’s notable because I’m not aware of much precedent for that,” he added.


Pyongyang, North Korea

U.S. to send missile defenses to Guam over North Korea threat
Phil Stewart & Jack Kim //| Reuters

The United States said on Wednesday it would soon send a missile defense system to Guam to defend it from North Korea, as the U.S. military adjusts to what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called a "real and clear danger" from Pyongyang. At the same time, North Korea repeated its threat to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. Pyongyang said it had ratified a potential strike because of U.S. military deployments around the Korean peninsula that it claimed were a prelude to a possible nuclear attack on the North.

Washington had been informed of the potential attack by North Korea, a spokesman for its army said in a statement carried by the English language service of state news agency KCNA. It was unclear how such a warning was given since North Korea does not have diplomatic ties with Washington. Experts say North Korea is years away from being able to hit the continental United States with a nuclear weapon, despite having worked for decades to achieve nuclear-arms capability.

North Korea has previously threatened a nuclear strike on the United States and missile attacks on its Pacific bases, including in Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. Those threats followed new U.N. sanctions imposed on the North after it carried out its third nuclear test in February. "Some of the actions they've taken over the last few weeks present a real and clear danger," Hagel told an audience at the National Defense University in Washington. U.S. stocks sank to their lows of the day after Hagel's comments and the Guam deployment news.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note briefly dropped below 1.8 percent for the first time since January as investors sought safety in government bonds, driving their prices higher. The dollar strengthened modestly against the euro and yen.

The South Korean won hit a six-month low on Wednesday. "I would say that people are taking it a lot more seriously than they used to," said Steve Van Order, a fixed income strategist at Calvert Investments in Maryland, referring to the tensions with North Korea. Despite the rhetoric, Pyongyang has not taken any military action and has shown no sign of preparing its 1.2 million strong armed forces for war, the White House said on Monday.

That would indicate that its threats are partly intended for domestic consumption to bolster young leader Kim Jong-un ahead of celebrations marking the anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the state's founder and the younger Kim's grandfather, on April 15. Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, criticized the latest North Korean statement. "It is yet another offering in a long line of provocative statements that only serve to further isolate North Korea from the rest of the international community and undermine its goal of economic development," Hayden said.

North Korea had "ratified" a merciless attack against the United States, potentially involving a "diversified nuclear strike", the KCNA statement concluded after railing against annual war games between South Korea and the United States that run throughout April. "The moment of explosion is approaching fast. No one can say a war will break out in Korea or not and whether it will break out today or tomorrow," the KCNA statement said.

Hagel said he had to take the threats seriously, language he has used in recent weeks as the United States has revamped its missile defense plans and positioned two guided-missile destroyers in the western Pacific to bolster missile defense. The United States has also flexed its muscle during the military drills with South Korea, flying two radar-evading stealth bombers on a first-of-its-kind practice bombing run over South Korea.

In the latest move, the Pentagon said it was deploying a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to Guam in the coming weeks. The THAAD system includes a truck-mounted launcher, interceptor missiles and an AN/TPY-2 tracking radar.

Last month, Hagel said the Pentagon would add 14 new anti-missile interceptors in Alaska and move ahead with the deployment of a second missile-defense radar in Japan.

Adding to tensions, North Korea on Wednesday closed access to a joint factory zone with South Korea, putting at risk $2 billion a year in trade that is vital to the impoverished state. It said on Tuesday it would revive a mothballed nuclear reactor able to produce bomb-grade plutonium.

Hagel called America's responses so far "measured, responsible, serious" and also said the United States was working with allies to lower tensions. "We are doing everything we can, working with the Chinese, others to defuse that situation on the peninsula," he said.

In Beijing, China's deputy foreign minister met ambassadors from the United States and both Koreas to express "serious concern" about the Korean peninsula, China's Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday. It was a sign that China, the North's major benefactor, was increasingly worried about events spinning out of control.



Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez receives warm welcome in New York City
Juan Carlos Chavez  //  el Nuevo Herald

Yoani Sánchez,
one of the most influential figures in the Cuban dissident movement, arrived Thursday afternoon at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to begin one of the most important stages of her international tour.

As she arrived from Mexico, Sánchez, 37, was welcomed with shows of support and solidarity from friends, intellectuals, and academicians.

“She is one of the strong voices of the opposition and represents hope for many Cubans who desire freedom for our people,” said Cuban exile Rolando Pulido, who has lived in New York City for three decades. “She’s not afraid to tell the truth,” he added.

Several people recognized her and had their pictures taken with her in a relaxed and cordial atmosphere. The situation contrasted markedly with her arrival in Brazil and Mexico, where supporters of the Cuban government protested against her.

“It is an intense tour, but I’m very happy to be here,” Sánchez said. “I’ve boarded 20 planes in the last several weeks.”

True to her style, Sánchez said she was enthused about meeting Americans and exchanging opinions and ideas about the situation on the island. In that context, she said she has not lost hope that Cuba will undertake changes that will lead to a democratic transition.

“I notice a kind of bubbling in civilian society, an increase in criticism, an expansion of the spaces for debate among citizens,” she said.

Calls for change have been coupled with denunciations of a wave of temporary detentions.

Thursday night, Sánchez appeared at Columbia University’s School of Journalism to answer questions.

Sánchez described the problems Cubans have when trying to access the Internet and government surveillance of independent journalists. She also spoke about the changes made by Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

“I would love to pose 50 questions to Raúl Castro. And I anticipate right now that they won’t be answered,” she said.

Sánchez stressed that Cuban government restrictions of the Internet have “been even more aggressive” than she expected.

Cuba is one of 60 countries that censor communications and limit or harass Internet users constantly. The average access to the Internet by Cubans is the lowest in the Western hemisphere. Individual connections are restricted to official entities and educational and cultural institutions, under strict supervision.

Access to foreigners and Cuban citizens must be officially authorized after an exhaustive background check. “But as a journalist I am not frightened by the problems,” said Sánchez. “What’s most important is that the Cuban government and [the Communist Party daily] Granma are reading us. That is why they have created an alternative blogosphere to reply to us. They’re acknowledging us and that’s a first step toward acceptance.”

Earlier, she had said that although the Cuban authorities have hardened their already tough policies to silence dissident voices, the government is “losing” spaces that historically were always under its control.

“We’re a people who specialize in finding out what’s censored,” Sánchez said. “In my personal case, that’s how it was with the topic of travel. It was a journalistic and civilian crusade. I reported on the suffering and documented it.”

The blogger and founder of Generation Y said that the authorities’ ignorance of the people’s most pressing needs could mark the start of a democratic change.

“That is why the government is afraid of the Internet. It is a system that could not withstand the avalanche of information, internal and external,” she said. “The technology has managed to break some of the barriers and the monopoly of the Cuban government.”

Sánchez also referred to Cuba’s travel and economic reforms.

“I think that the so-called Raulista reforms have been made due to pressure from those outside and inside Cuba,” she said. “And, no doubt, some lights have been lit, such as the immigration policy to which we Cubans were condemned.”

At another point in her appearance, which was celebrated with applause and expressions of support, Sánchez urged the exile community to continue to help Cubans on the island with technology and other items.

“The exile [community] is helping a lot, but can help more,” she said. “Send flash drives, mobile phones, anything you can.”

Toward the end of the session, a couple of people in the audience stood up to challenge her. One of them said that Sánchez does not represent “free journalism.”

Shortly before flying to the United States, Sánchez pointed out that some countries are looking away because they think that “Cuba is being reformed.”

This is Sánchez’s first visit to the U.S. and the fifth stop in a tour of countries in Latin America and Europe.

Next week, Sánchez will go to Washington to appear on Capitol Hill and speak at Georgetown University.

Before arriving in the United States, Sánchez sent a Twitter message expressing her appreciation of Mexico, the country she visited before her U.S. tour.

“#Mexico ‘stole’ my heart; I confess that I was tempted not to board this plane and to stay longer there ;-)" she wrote @yoanisanchez.



Erratic North Korea poses serious threat
Lara Jakes & Donna Cassata // Associated Press


An erratic North Korea, with its nuclear weapons and increasingly belligerent tone,
poses a serious threat to the United States and East Asia nations, the director of National Intelligence warned Tuesday in the annual accounting of the threats worldwide. In his extensive overview, James R. Clapper told Congress that a less decentralized terrorist network has significantly altered the threats while the Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East and North Africa has created spikes in the dangers facing American interests in the regions

The intelligence chief offered a sober assessment of threats from potential cyber attacks, weapons of mass destruction and the months-long civil war in Syria. North Korea, Iran and Syria stirred the most concern as the Obama administration and Congress weigh the effectiveness of sanctions against Pyongyang and Tehran.

Clapper testified just days after North Korea's communist regime said it was scuttling the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and has maintained peace on the peninsula for more than half a century. The administration slapped sanctions against North Korea's primary exchange bank and several senior government officials.

North Korea, led by its young leader Kim Jong Un, has defied the international community cin the last three months, testing a long-range missile and a third nuclear device. "These programs demonstrate North Korea's commitment to develop long-range missile technology that could pose a direct threat to the United States, and its efforts to produce and market ballistic missiles raise broader regional and global security concerns," Clapper told the Senate Intelligence committee.

While the intelligence community has figured that Pyongyang's nuclear efforts are designed for deterrence, worldwide prestige and coercive diplomacy, Clapper conceded that that the United States does not know what would be the trigger that would prompt North Korea to act to preserve Kim's regime.

Pressed during the hearing, Clapper said he was "very concerned" about Kim actions, which has included tough talk as well as a recent invitation to former basketball star Dennis Rodman. "The rhetoric, while it is propaganda-laced, is also an indicator of their attitude and perhaps their intent," Clapper said. "So for my part, I am very concerned about what they might do. And they are certainly, if they chose ... could initiate a provocative action against the South."

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general in charge of U.S. Strategic Command said he is "satisfied" that existing U.S. missile defenses can defend against a limited attack from North Korea.

Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler also said he is confident the country is adequately defended from a limited attack by Iran, "although we are not in the most optimum posture to do that today." The Intelligence panel hearing also sought, in part, to rebuild some trust between the nation's top intelligence officials and senators who complain they have been refused administration documents and other information that are necessary for congressional oversight.

Joining Clapper at the witness table were newly minted CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen and Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Philip Goldberg.


Washington, D.C.

Carromero Tells-All About Paya's Murder
The Washington Post:

Ángel Carromero, a leader of Spain’s ruling party, was visiting Cuba last July when a car he was driving crashed, killing Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. Mr. Carromero was convicted of vehicular homicide; in December, he was released to Spain to serve out his term. This week he agreed to be interviewed by The Washington Post about the crash. Mr. Carromero, 27, holds a law degree and has taken a business course at Fordham University in New York.

What happened that day?

Oswaldo Payá asked me to take him to visit some friends, since he didn’t have the means to travel around the island. There were four of us in the car: Oswaldo and Harold Cepero in the back, [Jens] Aron Modig [of Sweden] in front, and me driving. They were following us from the beginning. In fact, as we left Havana, a tweet from someone close to the Cuban government announced our departure: “Payá is on the road to Varadero.” Oswaldo told me that, unfortunately, this was normal.

But I really became uneasy when we stopped to get gas, because the car following us stopped, waited in full view until we were finished and then continued following. When we passed provincial borders, the shadowing vehicle would change. Eventually it was an old, red Lada.

And then another, newer car appeared and began to harass us, getting very close. Oswaldo and Harold told me it must be from “la Comunista” because it had a blue license plate, which they said is what the government uses. Every so often I looked at it through the rearview mirror and could see both occupants of the car staring at us aggressively. I was afraid, but Oswaldo told me not to stop if they did not signal or force us to do so. I drove carefully, giving them no reason to stop us. The last time I looked in the mirror, I realized that the car had gotten too close — and suddenly I felt a thunderous impact from behind.

I lost control of the car, and also consciousness — or that is what I believe, because from that point my memories are unclear, perhaps from the medications they gave me. When I recovered consciousness, I was being put into a modern van. I don’t know how it had gotten there, but neither Oswaldo nor Harold nor Aron was inside. I thought it was strange that it was only me, and I figured that the rest of them didn’t need to go to the hospital.

I began to yell at the people driving the van. Who were they? Where were they taking me? What were they doing with us? Then, woozy, I again lost consciousness.

What happened after that?

The next time I awakened, I was on a stretcher, being carried into a hospital room. The first person who talked to me was a uniformed officer of the Ministry of the Interior. I told her a car had hit our vehicle from behind, causing me to lose control.

She took notes and, at the end, gave me my statement to sign. The hospital, which was civilian, had suddenly been militarized. I was surrounded by uniformed soldiers. A nurse told me they would put in an IV line to take blood and sedate me. I remember that they kept taking blood from me and changing the line all the time, which really worried me. I still have the marks from this. I passed the next few weeks half-sedated and without knowing exactly what they were putting in me.

Some text messages were sent from the scene, and there have been reports of others, not yet disclosed. Do you know about them?

They took away my mobile phone when they took me out of the car. I was only able to use Aron’s mobile phone the time we were together in the hospital. I didn’t remember the messages until I arrived in Spain and I read them, asking for help and saying that our car was hit from behind.

How was your statement obtained?

They began to videotape me all the time, and they kept doing so until the last day I was jailed in Cuba. When they questioned me about what happened, I repeated what I told the officer who originally took my statement. They got angry. They warned me that I was their enemy, and that I was very young to lose my life. One of them told me that what I had told them had not happened and that I should be careful, that depending on what I said things could go very well or very badly for me.

Then came a gentleman who identified himself as a government expert and who gave me the official version of what had happened. If I went along with it, nothing would happen to me. At the time I was heavily drugged, and it was hard for me to understand the details of the supposed accident that they were telling me to repeat. They gave me another statement to sign — one that in no way resembled the truth. It mentioned gravel, an embankment, a tree — I did not remember any of these things.

The hit from the back when we left the road didn’t need to be hard, because I remember that there was no curb or incline. The pavement was wide, with no traffic. I especially did not agree with the statement that we were traveling at an excessive speed, because Oswaldo was very cautious. The last speed I saw on the speedometer was approximately 70 kilometers per hour [about 45 miles per hour]. The air bags did not even deploy during the crash, nor did the windows shatter, and both I and the front-seat passenger got out unhurt.

A video of you describing the accident was shown to journalists by Cuban authorities. Under what circumstances was it made?

Once I left the hospital, they took me to a jail in Bayamo. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever lived through. I was held incommunicado, never seeing the light of day. We walked among cockroaches until they put me in the infirmary cell, along with another Cuban prisoner. The conditions were deplorable. A stream of water fell from the roof once a day, the toilet didn’t have a tank, and you could use it only when you had a bucket of water that you could throw afterward into the bowl. The cell was full of insects that woke me up when they fell on my body. Although I remember almost nothing specific from those days, images come to me — and I only wish they were nightmares, and not memories.

The video that the authorities made public was recorded under these conditions. As viewers can see, my face and my left eye are very swollen and I speak like I am drugged. When an officer gave me a notebook in which the official Cuban government account was laid out, I limited myself to reading statements from that notebook. In fact, you can see me reading Cuban expressions I didn’t know, like “transit accident” (in Spain it’s “traffic accident”) , and you can see me direct my gaze to the right corner, which is where the officer stood who held the notes. I hoped that no one would think that the video was freely recorded, or that what I said there corresponded to what really happened.

Who sent you to Cuba? Why did you travel there?

Nobody sent me to Cuba, and I didn’t even tell my boss about my trip. I traveled there during my summer vacation, like so many other supportive people — because I admire the peaceful defenders of liberty and democracy like Oswaldo, who is very well known in Spain.

What do you think about the trial in Bayamo?

The trial in Bayamo was a farce, to make me the scapegoat, but I had to accept the verdict without appeal in order to have the minimal possibility to get out of that hell. However, I decided at the last minute to not declare myself guilty, thinking of Alan Gross [an American contractor sentenced to 15 years in prison for bringing communications equipment into Cuba illegally].

As for the Spanish authorities, I can only thank them for managing to repatriate me. I don’t want to cause any more problems. I want to get my previous life back. I even understand that, even though I am innocent, I have to continue with my liberty restricted due to the bilateral accord between Cuba and Spain. I only hope that this unjust situation will not last for long.

Despite the accusations to which I am daily subjected by the press and by the defenders of the Castro dictatorship, it’s not my intention to go on talking about this traumatic experience. I’ve received death threats in Spain, and I have had to testify before a notary so that at least the truth would be known if something happened to me.

Why are you speaking out now?

The most important thing for me is that the Payá family always has defended my innocence, when they are the most injured by this tragedy. That’s why, when I met Rosa Maria [Payá’s daughter] this week, I could not hide the truth any more. I am not only innocent — I am another victim, who might also be dead now. I know that this decision could result in more brutal media attacks against me from Cuba, but I don’t deserve to be considered guilty of involuntary homicide, and, above all, I could not live, being complicit through my silence.

I don’t know what they gave me in the intravenous line, but I continue to have large memory lapses. What they didn’t manage to make me forget is that Oswaldo is one of the people who most impressed me in my life. He is the true protagonist of this nightmare. He was an exceptional person, and I will never forget him.



U.S. rehearses mass-migration scenarios at Guantánamo base
Carol Rosenberg  //  The Miami Herald

The boatpeople trying to reach U.S. soil are imaginary and so is the Caribbean nation in crisis.
But the Army general who flew in from Texas to take charge is the real deal for hundreds of troops rehearsing to get ready for a humanitarian crisis.

Guantánamo’s airstrip was abuzz this weekend as about 500 troops descended for an every-other-year drill whose name reflects how little the military wants to draw attention to it — Exercise Integrated Advance.

For a week, soldiers, sailors and Homeland Security officials are rehearsing how to manage an imaginary humanitarian-relief crisis inspired by the tens of thousands of Haitians and Cubans who overwhelmed this base in the 1990s.

But the exact nature of the scenario — how many migrants flood the base, whether there’s unrest, disease, spies in the tent camps — is all classified. Only Pentagon-approved photos of the exercise will be released, and the people involved in acting out the episode from here to Miami to Washington, D.C., are sworn to secrecy.

That’s because nobody wants news about it to touch off a real, live Caribbean exodus. The intent, say organizers, is not to encourage anyone in the Caribbean to get on rafts to reach this Navy base in southeast Cuba, but to be ready in case it happens.

Is the scenario driven by political unrest or a natural disaster? All Army Col. Greg Julian, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, will say is that this 21st century war-game is about a “mass migration event in the Caribbean.”

One thing they’ll rehearse is registering 1,000 migrants in a single day. And if history is any guide, the actors should cram inside the processing tent — desperate, undocumented and disorganized.

“We certainly wouldn’t want to instigate a real event,” said Julian from Southcom, which is spending $2.7 million on the exercise, nearly half of it on transportation for troops and supplies from its Army South headquarters in San Antonio, Texas.

So, “We generally won’t use a nation. We use ‘country 1,’ ‘country 2’ because we don’t want to get into any political issues.”

The exercise is occurring less than a month after Cuba abandoned a policy of requiring citizens to get exit visas to leave the island legally.

But so far, the U.S. government has detected “no spike or anything” of Cubans trying to reach U.S. soil either by land or sea, said a federal official who spoke on condition he not be named because he was not authorized to discuss the Pentagon’s drill.

The drill was planned long before Cuba changed its exit-visa policy, with U.S. government divisions that would answer to the Department of Homeland Security rehearsing a reaction to “whatever that push factor is going to be,” from “political activity” to “natural disaster.”

“It helps us to make sure all the ducks are in a row,” Julian added, “if and when we have to kick this off for real.”

The International Organization for Migration is taking part; the International Committee of the Red Cross is not.

Meantime, just to make sure there’s no misunderstandings, the Navy captain in charge of the base here used the occasion of his monthly meeting with a Cuban Army officer at the U.S. Marine Corps fence line to notify the military across the minefield of the reason for the U.S. troop build-up.

Planners decided against erecting model tent cities for migrants around rows of cinder-block bathrooms and showers the Bush administration had a contractor build in scrubby fields on the base in 2007, just in case. But there’s a razor-wire-ringed command-and-control center for Army Maj. Gen. Frederick Rudesheim — the Army South commander in charge of troops reacting to fake news reports prepared by a training unit in Norfolk, Va., featuring fake TV anchors introducing fake interviews interspersed with real historical footage.

With U.S. forces in constant rotation, “to work together in an exercise before we actually have to do it in a real world situation is very important,” said Army Col. Jane Crichton, leading the public affairs portion of the exercise — what you tell the world, what images you release. “Exercising doing simulation is harder than what you’d do in reality,” the colonel added, because they’re compressing a potential crisis spanning weeks or months into days.

This 45-square-mile base mostly looks like a small town with a McDonalds, pleasure-boat marina and two free open-air movie theaters. But it has long served as a U.S. military safe haven in the Caribbean.

In 2010, the State Department used its airstrip as a massive way station of relief supplies to quake-shattered Haiti. Between 1984 and 1986, Guantánamo sheltered more than 50,000 Haitians and Cubans from the golf course to a stretch of land overlooking the sea where they’d been picked up fleeing their nations.

Now the Pentagon’s prison for 166 captives has become part of the routine — run by 1,700 U.S. military and civilian contractors, atop the place that provided safe haven in the 1980s.

So on the Windward side of the base this weekend, sailors and other residents spent the weekend fishing on the bay, at the beaches or cruising the waters in recreation boats from an $8.9 million marina rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy smashed up the place.

On the Leeward side, the atmosphere bristled with purpose — flights discharged relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks for the latest pre-trial hearings at the war-crimes tribunals while, just beyond the airstrip, Army South was conjuring up classified challenges of a faux migrant crisis.



SEAL who killed Bin Laden blasts government, says he's been abandoned

The former Navy SEAL who says he killed Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden has fallen on tough times, according to a report.

The Navy SEAL who says he put three bullets in the head of Usama bin Laden is out of work, separated from his wife and believes he's been abandoned by his government, according to a new report.

The hero frogman is bitter as he waits for disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to an exclusive story for Esquire by the Center for Investigative Reporting. After quitting just three years short of retirement, he has no health care or pension, he said.

“I left SEALs on Friday,” the unnamed SEAL told author Phil Bronstein last September. “My health care for me and my family stopped at midnight Friday night.

“I asked if there was some transition from my Tricare to Blue Cross Blue Shield. They said no,” the SEAL told Bronstein, executive chairman of the Center for Investigative Reporting. “You’re out of the service, your coverage is over. Thanks for your sixteen years. Go f--- yourself.”

The former SEAL gives a detailed account of the dramatic May 2011 takedown of the Al Qaeda mastermind.

“Instead of counting, for some reason I said to myself the George Bush 9/11 quote: Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended," he said, recalling the moments before he dropped into Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. "I could just hear his voice, and that was neat. I started saying it again and again to myself. Then I started to get pumped up. I’m like: 'This is so on.'"

Once inside, he raced up a staircase and he saw bin Laden inside a darkened room.The terrorist pushed his youngest wife, Amal, in front of him, and the SEAL, wearing night-vision goggles, raised his gun and pumped three bullets into bin Laden's forehead at close range.

"He looked confused. And way taller than I was expecting," the SEAL recalled.

“And I remember as I watched him breathe out the last part of air, I thought: Is this the best thing I’ve ever done, or the worst thing I’ve ever done? This is real and that’s him. Holy s---,” the SEAL recalled. “Everybody wanted him dead, but nobody wanted to say, Hey, you’re going to kill this guy. It was just sort of understood that’s what we wanted to do. His forehead was gruesome. It was split open in the shape of a V. I could see his brains spilling out over his face. The American public doesn’t want to know what that looks like.”

But six months after leaving the military, because "I wanted to see my children graduate and get married," he is physically and psychologically wrecked. He left the military a few years short of retirement eligibility and now has no job and is not qualified for a pension. He is awaiting a VA disability ruling for neck, back and eye injuries.

 Of "Zero Dark Thirty," the Oscar-nominated film about the raid, the SEAL says director Kathryn Bigelow "Hollywooded it up some," but most of his criticisms were minor.


Washington, d.c.

SECRETARY Hillary Clinton on Benghazi: "I do feel responsible"
Associated Press

Testifying before Congress for the first time since the September 11 attacks in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
today took responsibility for the failures that led to those deaths, citing a "personal" commitment to improving diplomatic security abroad. But even while conceding ongoing "deficiencies and inadequacies" within the State Department, Clinton defended her own actions and those of her staff with regard to their response to the violence, and outlined the numerous steps she says have already been implemented to prevent future similar occurrences.

Clinton, growing emotional at times during the course of her testimony, cited the inherent risk of taking an active diplomatic role in the global arena -- particularly in a moment in which "Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region." She lamented the loss of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and the other three Americans who died in the September attacks, and spoke tearfully of having "stood next to President Obama as the Marines [who] carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews."

"I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters," she said. "And the wives left alone to raise their children."  Still, Clinton argued that diplomats "accept a level of risk" in taking posts in high-risk, and that they "cannot work in bunkers and do their jobs."  "So it is our responsibility to make sure they have the resources they need and to do everything we can to reduce the risks," she said.

In that vein, Clinton said, she has worked with the State Department to swiftly implement a series of outside recommendations aimed at ensuring that similar attacks don't occur in the future. She repeatedly stressed her responsibility for the personnel in Libya as well as in the State Department generally, and added that her commitment to protecting future diplomats stretches beyond a policy level.

Hillary Clinton tears up talking about Benghazi victims."As I have said many times, I take responsibility. And nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger, and more secure," she said. "For me, it's personal."

Clinton called the attack in September "one of those terrible tragic times" when the State Department's security assessment of the situation failed to take into account an imminent attack, and she emphasized her commitment to increasing the department's efficacy and operational capabilities before she steps down in the coming months.

"We are constantly assessing. And sometimes we get it wrong, but it's very -- it's rare that we get it wrong," Clinton said. "This was one of those terrible tragic times when, you know, there was an assessment shared by the ambassador, shared by others, that turned out not to take into account the -- the militants attacking that night."

Clinton also said that while she had been broadly aware of security concerns in Benghazi, she had not personally reviewed an August 12 cable requesting reinforcements. "With specific security requests they didn't come to me. I had no knowledge of them," she said. But Clinton noted that she was involved in a "constant conversation" about helping Libya overcome "a deteriorating" security environment as underwent post-Qaddafi governmental transitions.

"We sent teams out, both civilian and military experts to try to help them," she said, in response to a question from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., about Clinton's efforts to both assess and improve the security situation in Libya. "What I found with the Libyans was willingness, but not capacity... What we've been trying to do, and you know, we need your help to help us pay for what we're trying to do, we are trying to help them build a decent security force to try to reign in the militias as best they can. So this was a constant conversation."

Even while Clinton conceded State Department shortcomings in the lead-up to the attacks, she strongly defended both her own response to the violence, as well as that of the White House and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. She was particularly dismissive of the controversy surrounding White House officials' early comments suggesting the attacks might have been the result of spontaneous protests spurred by an anti-Muslim video.

"We had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night and decided to go kill some Americans? At this point what difference does it make, Senator?" Clinton asked Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., when asked why the administration initially gave an inaccurate version of the events that took place.

In the aftermath of the attacks, much of the political controversy has surrounded Rice's September 16 television appearances, in which she suggested protests surrounding the video might have played a role in the attacks. Those comments, which turned out not to be true, were guided by a set of unclassified talking points given to Rice ahead of the appearances. Ahead of Rice's appearances, those talking points were edited to cut specific references to "al Qaeda" and "terrorism," and Republicans pounced on the discrepancies in an apparent campaign to derail Rice's bid to replace Clinton as Secretary of State.

Clinton said she did not ask Rice to go on television following the attacks, but vehemently defended the ambassador's remarks in the appearances she did make. On the suggestion that Rice had knowingly misled the people on Benghazi, Clinton said "nothing could be further from the truth."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was one of the lawmakers most critical of Rice and has relentlessly hammered the administration over Benghazi for months, lambasted the White House for not consulting with people on the ground in Libya before speaking publicly about what happened. In agitated remarks, he called Clinton's testimony "not satisfactory."

"Here we are, four months later, and we still don't have the basic information," McCain said.   Clinton stated her disagreement with McCain on the administration's handling of its response before turning to budget concerns -- and the congressional holds on budget requests she suggested has infringed upon the State Department's ability to adequately do its job.

Sen. Paul to Clinton: I'd have fired you over Benghazi."We've had frequent congressional complaints. Why are we doing anything for Libya?," she said. "Currently, the House has holds on bilateral security assistance, on other kinds of support for anti- terrorism assistance. So we've got to get our act together between the administration and the Congress. If this is a priority and if we are serious about trying to help this government stand up security and deal with what is a very dangerous environment from east to west, then we have to work together."

Not everyone took Clinton at her word. Despite a pervading sense of respectfulness toward the outgoing Secretary of State at the hearing, including among Republicans, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., accused Clinton of accepting culpability "for the worst tragedy since 9/11." He also said he would have "relieved" her of her job had he been president at the time of the attacks.

"I would think by anybody's estimation, Libya has to be have been one of the hottest of hot spots around the world. Not to know of the request for securities really I think cost these people their lives," Paul said. "Their lives could have been saved had someone been more available, had someone been aware of these things, more on top of the job."

Pointing to the outside Accountability Review Board (ARB) report on what went wrong in Benghazi, Clinton noted that "I am the secretary of state and the ARB made very clear that the level of responsibility for the failures that they outlined was set at the assistant secretary level and below." But she also suggested that his comments were  grounded in a political -- not diplomatic -- context.

"The reason we put into effect an accountability review board is to take it out of the heat of politics and partisanship and accusations, and to put it in the hands of people who have no stake in the outcome," Clinton said. "The reason I said 'make it open, tell the world' is because I believe in transparency. I believe in taking responsibility and I have done so. And I hope that we're going to be able to see a good working relationship between the State Department and the committee going forward."


Washington, d.c.

LA SECRETARIA HILLARY Clinton admite ‘deficiencias’ en respuesta al ataque a consulado en Bengasi

La secretaria de Estado de EE.UU., Hillary Clinton,
admitió hoy que ella dirigió la respuesta al ataque al consulado del país en Bengasi (Libia) y que hubo “deficiencias” en la misma, al tiempo que lo enmarcó en un entorno de creciente inestabilidad en el norte de África.

“Bengasi no ocurrió en un vacío”, dijo Clinton al comienzo de una audiencia en el Comité de Relaciones Exteriores del Senado. “Las revoluciones árabes han revuelto las dinámicas de poder y sacudido a las fuerzas de seguridad en toda la región”.

Clinton admitió que “hubo deficiencias en la respuesta” al ataque, que según una investigación independiente estuvo relacionado con una serie de fallos sistémicos de gestión que provocaron que el consulado en Bengasi no contara con la seguridad suficiente en el momento del ataque, el 11 de septiembre de 2012.

Pero la titular de Exteriores también hizo una rotunda defensa de la labor que el Departamento de Estado hace en sus misiones diplomáticas, y se emocionó al recordar a los cuatro estadounidenses que murieron en el ataque.

“Como he dicho muchas veces desde el 11 de septiembre, asumo la responsabilidad. Nadie está más comprometido que yo a corregir todo esto. Estoy determinada a dejar el Departamento de Estado y nuestro país más seguro y más fuerte”, subrayó Clinton, que abandonará en las próximas semanas su cargo.

El cambiante relato oficial, que durante dos semanas achacó el ataque a protestas espontáneas por un vídeo antimusulmán y después lo atribuyó a militantes vinculados a Al Qaeda, hizo que muchos republicanos acusaran al Gobierno de Barack Obama de no querer reconocer un atentado terrorista en plena campaña electoral.


Damascus, syria

Richard Engel Freed In Syria After Kidnapping

Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent, was freed Monday from capture in Syria following a firefight,
five days after being kidnapped.

NBC News president Steve Capus said in a statement Tuesday that Engel, 39, and his crew were freed unharmed after being taken by an unknown group. "We are pleased to report they are safely out of the country,” Capus said.

"It was a traumatic experience," Engel said Tuesday morning, during an appearance with his crew on the "Today" show from Antakya, Turkey. Engel appeared alongside producer Ghazi Balkiz and photographer John Kooistra.

"We're very happy to be here," Engel said. "We're in good health. We're OK. Everyone was great. NBC was fantastic in informing our families, keeping people up to date, keeping the story quiet."

"While we're obviously very happy, there are many people who are still not at liberty to do this kind of thing," Engel continued. "There are still hostages. There are still people who do not have their freedom inside Syria. We wish them well."

An NBC News account noted that Engel's captors did not request a ransom since detaining Engel and the crew last Thursday.

After entering Syria, Engel and his team were abducted, tossed into the back of a truck and blindfolded before being transported to an unknown location believed to be near the small town of Ma’arrat Misrin. During their captivity, they were blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not physically harmed, the network said.

Early Monday evening local time, the prisoners were being moved to a new location in a vehicle when their captors ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group. There was a confrontation and a firefight ensued. Two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped, the network said.

The NBC News crew was unharmed in the incident. They remained in Syria until Tuesday morning when they made their way to the border and re-entered Turkey, the network said. They were to be evaluated and debriefed, but had communicated that everyone was in good health.

Engel provided more details on the "Today" show, telling the hosts that a group of roughly 15 heavily-armed gunman jumped out of bushes and abducted the crew, while killing one of the rebels that was escorting Engel.

While there was no physical torture, Engel said there was psychological torture, such as threat of being killed or being asked to choose who would be shot first.

Engel said he believed the kidnappers were an Iranian-trained Shiite group loyal to Bashar al-Assad, which had hoped to exchange the crew for four Iranian agents and two Lebanese members of the group that had been captured.

Turkish media began reporting Monday that Engel and Aziz Akyavas, a Turkish correspondent working for NBC News, were missing in Syria and could not be reached for several days.

The Huffington Post did not publish an article Monday on Engel's disappearance at the request of NBC News, which cited safety concerns.

It's common for news organizations to make such requests when they believe media attention could put a missing or kidnapped journalist in increased danger. For instance, many news organizations didn't report that former New York Times reporter David Rohde had been kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008, at the paper's request. The Times only revealed that Rohde had been kidnapped seven months later, after he had escaped and was out of harm's way.

But social media played less of a role in the news cycle even just a few years ago, when Rohde was kidnapped. It now seems inevitable that news -- even a single English-language report out of Turkey -- can gain traction over Twitter and get widely disseminated. Several online news outlets linked to the Turkish media reports, however, along with numerous journalists on Twitter. Others held off at the network's request.

Engel, who has covered revolutions, conflict zones and wars around the globe for more than 15 years, reported on Dec. 13 from Aleppo, Syria, as rebels continued battling against Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Journalists have taken great risks covering the long-running conflict, which has reportedly left more than 40,000 dead in the past 20 months. In July, several foreign correspondents expressed frustration to HuffPost about coverage of Syria -- which is often from the outside looking in, given security concerns.

But journalists continue trying to bear witness inside Syria, and Engel isn't the first to be unaccounted for. Austin Tice, an American journalist kidnapped in August, remains missing in the country.



HSBC fined for Cuba, other transactions
Juan O. Tamayo // El Nuevo Herald

The British bank HSBC will pay $1.26 billion to settle U.S. charges of laundering Mexican drug money and another $665 million for violating sanctions on Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Burma, U.S. authorities announced Tuesday.

The Cuba violations appear to stem mostly from the HSBC Mexico subsidiary’s handling of U.S. dollar transactions to and from the island and agreement to hold dollar accounts for Cuban clients.

Documents in the case filed in U.S. court in Brooklyn Tuesday showed the bulk of the settlement, $1.2 billion, was to avoid four felony counts of willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program in its Mexico operations.

HSBC officials in Mexico facilitated the laundering of at least $881 million in drug profits and “‘failed to adequately monitor” more than $9.4 billion in transfers from 2006 to 2010, according to announcements by the Departments of Justice and Treasury.

“HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight — and worse — that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars … and to facilitate hundreds of millions more in transactions with sanctioned countries,” declared Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer.

The bank willfully allowed $660 million in forbidden transactions involving Cuba and the other countries to pass through U.S. financial institutions from the mid-1990s to 2006, the court documents noted.

HSBC “followed instructions from sanctioned entities such as Iran, Cuba, Sudan, Libya and Burma, to omit their names from U.S. dollar payment messages sent to HSBC Bank USA and other financial institutions located in the United States,” the documents added.

Those payments violated U.S. sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the Trading With the Enemy Act and the U.S. embargo. Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan also are on the sanctions list of countries that support international terrorism.

The $665 million that HSBC agreed to pay separately for breaking the sanctions brought to more than $1.9 billion the total assessed for such violations in a decade. The Netherlands’ ING bank was hit with $619 million earlier this year, Credit Suisse with $539 million in 2009 and the Swiss UBS bank with $100 million in 2004.

Court documents provided no further details on the sanctions violations, although an independent report on the HSBC case issued in July by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs revealed some additional details.

Iran accounted for the vast majority of questionable transactions from 2001 to 2007, totaling $19.4 billion out of $19.7 billion, according to the report. Cuba followed in second place, and the other sanctioned countries were far behind.

The Cuba section of the Senate report noted that HSBC processed “potentially prohibited U.S. dollar transactions involving Cuba from at least 2002 through 2007”

“HSBC affiliates in Latin America, in particular, had many Cuban clients and sought to execute transactions on their behalf in U.S. dollars, despite the longstanding, comprehensive U.S. sanctions program,” it added.

The report listed the HSBC branches in Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama.

Internal bank documents showed that in 2005 bank auditors warned that the U.S. list of forbidden Cuba entities had not been fully integrated into the Mexican branch’s automated monitoring system, according to the Senate report.

Two years later, another bank document noted that the Mexico branch “continues to process USD payments involving Cuba. It is very important that is stopped immediately as the regulators are getting very tough and the cost … could be considerable … both in terms of the fine and the rectification work likely to be a pre-requisite to any settlement.”

Another 2007 document indicated that the Mexico branch had 23 Cuban customers with dollar accounts containing more than $348,000, and 61 Cuban customers holding both U.S. dollar and Mexican peso accounts totaling more than $966,000.

HSBC issued a statement Tuesday acknowledging problems in its system for alerting to possible money laundering and saying that it expects to sign similar settlements with British bank regulators soon.

“We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them, and we do so again,” declared Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver. “The HSBC of today is a fundamentally different organization from the one that made those mistakes.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who was active in the UBS case, praised the Treasury Department for “a great achievement in our quest to hold financial institutions accountable for facilitating illicit activities.”

“It is my hope that punishing HSBC’s violations will have a deterrent effect on those entities that would seek to defy U.S. sanctions and other guidelines put in place to dismantle transnational criminal networks and curb violent extremist activity,” she added.


PYONGYANG, North korea

North Korea considers delaying rocket launch
 Associated Press


North Korea may postpone the controversial launch of a long-range rocket that had been slated for liftoff as early as this week,
state media said Sunday, as international pressure on Pyongyang to cancel the provocative move intensified.

Scientists have been pushing forward with final preparations for the launch from a west coast site, slated to take place as early as Monday, but are considering "readjusting" the timing, an unidentified spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology told North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency.

It was unclear whether diplomatic intervention or technical glitches were behind the delay. A brief KCNA dispatch said scientists and technicians were discussing whether to set new launch dates but did not elaborate.

Word of a possible delay comes just days after satellite photos indicated that snow may have slowed launch preparations, and as officials in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, Moscow and elsewhere urged North Korea to cancel a liftoff widely seen as a violation of bans against missile activity.

Commercial satellite imagery taken by GeoEye on Dec. 4 and shared Friday with The Associated Press by the 38 North and North Korea Tech websites showed the Sohae site northwest of Pyongyang covered with snow. The road from the main assembly building to the launch pad showed no fresh tracks, indicating that the snowfall may have stalled the preparations.

However, analysts believed rocket preparations would have been completed on time for liftoff as early as Monday.

North Korea announced earlier this month that it would launch a three-stage rocket mounted with a satellite from its Sohae station southeast of Sinuiju sometime between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22. Pyongyang calls it a peaceful bid to send an observational satellite into space, its second attempt this year.

The launch announcement captured global headlines because of its timing: South Korea and Japan hold key elections this month, President Barack Obama begins his second term next month and China has just formed a new leadership. North Koreans also have begun a mourning period for late leader Kim Jong Il, who died on Dec. 17, 2011.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington was "deeply concerned" about the launch, and urged foreign ministers from NATO and Russia to demand that Pyongyang cancel its plans.

U.S. and others said the launch would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from nuclear and missile activity because the rocket shares the same technology used for firing a long-range missile.

North Korea has unveiled missiles designed to target U.S. soil and has tested two atomic bombs in recent years, but has not shown yet that it has mastered the technology for mounting a nuclear warhead to a long-range missile. Six-nation negotiations to offer North Korea much-needed aid in exchange for nuclear disarmament have been stalled since 2009.

China, the North's main ally and aid provider, noted its "concern" after North Korea declared its plans. It acknowledged North Korea's right to develop its space program but said that had to be harmonized with restrictions including those set by the U.N. Security Council.

In Seoul, officials at the Defense Ministry, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Foreign Ministry said Sunday they couldn't immediately find what might be behind the possible delay.

North Korea may hold off if Washington actively engages Pyongyang in dialogue and promises to ship stalled food assistance to the country, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University.

In February, the U.S. agreed to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea in exchange for a freeze in nuclear and missile activities. The deal collapsed after North Korea attempted to launch a long-range rocket in April. That rocket broke up seconds after liftoff.

Analyst Baek Seung-joo of the South Korean state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul said China must have sent a "very strong" message calling for the North to cancel the launch plans.

"North Korea won't say it would delay the launch due to foreign pressure so that's why they say scientists and technicians are considering delaying it," he said.



Egypt, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula

The conflict in Gaza comes at an interesting time in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Cairo recently saw the Muslim Brotherhood candidate assume the Egyptian presidency, while in the past two years Israel has approved two Egyptian military increases "in the Sinai Peninsula above levels set in the Camp David Accords. The disposition of the forces in Sinai coupled with the presence of the U.N.-mandated Multinational Force and Observers mean at present, Egyptian forces do not pose a significant threat to Israel. How Egypt will respond to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip remains to be seen, but should the Morsi government or Egypt's military decide to support Gaza, such support would likely consist of turning a blind eye toward militant activities and smuggling in the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt is one of Israel's most powerful neighbors. Initially hostile to Israel, the two countries have been at peace for nearly 40 years. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt established guidelines for what Egypt could do in the Sinai Peninsula in a bid to keep the peace. Strategically, the peace agreement made the peninsula a buffer between Israel and Egypt. It permitted only enough forces in Sinai to enforce security.

The agreement divided the Sinai Peninsula into four zones of increasing neutrality. Egypt is allowed an entire mechanized or infantry division in Zone A, which abuts the Suez Canal. In Zone B, its armed presence is limited to municipal police and border patrol. 1,600 international peacekeepers are spread out across 32 bases in the east of Zone C, and Israel is allowed a limited presence in Zone D.

Periodically, Israel allows Egypt to increase the number of troops east of Zone A for temporary missions with goals like combating militants and criminal smugglers. In 2011, Israel allowed Egypt to send 2,500 troops and 250 armored personnel carriers into the normally demilitarized zones B and C as part of Operation Eagle, a mission to provide security during the power transition from then-recently fallen Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Operation Eagle was joined by Operation Sinai, which came in response to a militant attack against an Egyptian border post Aug. 5 that killed 16 border guards.

Together, the two operations increased the total troop count by more than 2,500 -- the exact troop count of Operation Sinai was in the low hundreds -- added 80 vehicles and, with Israeli Cabinet approval, at least two attack helicopters. Egypt also was allowed to deploy armed fighter jets to El Arish to assist its ground forces in Sinai. Significantly, Israel approved all of these deployments, which are monitored by the 1,600 foreign troops that make up the U.N. Multinational Force and Observers stationed throughout Zone C. Israel did so because it is not in its interest to have unrest in Sinai, whether political protests or militant violence.

Much of the previous militant violence on the Sinai Peninsula has been directed against Israel or Israeli tourists at Sinai beach resorts. Such violence continues, as attested by the four rockets fired at southern Israel from the border town of Rafah on Nov. 14 shortly before Israel announced it had killed Ahmed Jaabari. Like Gaza militants, Egyptian militants are believed to possess Qassam and Grad rockets. Israel is content to allow Egypt to secure Sinai to eradicate these threats.

Egypt's expanded force structure in Sinai is designed to deny militants sanctuary by bringing more force to bear than the municipal police alone can provide. Many of the new forces are stationed in the northeast of Sinai along the Egyptian border with Gaza. The official crossing at Rafah and the many illegal tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt together serve as a significant smuggling corridor along which people, supplies and contraband like drugs and weapons move. Egyptian soldiers have set up roadblocks and checkpoints to monitor and inspect traffic transiting the Sinai Peninsula to counter this smuggling. Egypt has an interest in limiting migrants moving between Egypt and Gaza, as Egypt fears the risk of instability from taking on too many Palestinian refugees. They also fear Israeli retaliation against militants in the Sinai Peninsula should Israel decide Sinai was becoming a militant haven: The Egyptian military has no interest in giving Israel a reason to become involved in Sinai.

The number of troops Egypt has in the Sinai Peninsula now does not pose a direct threat to Israel. If Israel in fact viewed the Egyptian military presence as a threat, it would likely ask Egypt to draw down the expanded troop presence. In fact, the biggest threat the Egyptian military could pose to Israel would be by becoming less involved in Sinai.

Unlike during Operation Cast Lead in 2008, when Egyptian border guards kept the Rafah border crossing closed and even engaged in skirmishes with the Palestinians, Egypt announced Nov. 15 that it would open the border crossing to allow injured persons to seek medical attention in El Arish. It reversed course and closed the border Nov. 16, reflecting the limit on Egyptian humanitarian sentiments when it comes to Rafah and taking into account Egypt's fear of a wave of refugees and militants seeking sanctuary.

If Egypt changes course from 2008 and does not keep the border closed during a ground invasion of Gaza, Israel would have to send troops to the Philadelphi route in Gaza along the border with Egypt to cut the Palestinian territory off from Egypt. This would put Israeli and Egyptian troops closer than they have been for decades, heightening the risks for both sides.

The Rafah Crossing will illustrate Egypt's thinking with regard to the current Israel-Gaza conflict. If Egypt allows the Rafah Crossing to stay open, and especially if it leaves the border open if the fighting in Gaza escalates, Egypt would have decided to oppose Israel, even though it would also be going against its interest to avoid a wave of refugees. Any evidence of Egyptian noncompliance to an Israeli request to draw down the added troops would even more clearly show a rift between the two regional powers.



PRESIDENT Obama: Republican criticism of Rice 'outrageous'
Gregory Wallace //  CNN

President Barack Obama called out Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain for their "outrageous" comments
saying they would block U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice if she is nominated for secretary of state.

 "If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after someone they should go after me," Obama said at a White House news conference on Wednesday. "When they go after the U.N. ambassador apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me."

Earlier Wednesday, Graham and McCain said they would block Rice's nomination, should it be made, over her characterization of the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Rice was dispatched to several talk shows, where she said the incident involved a "spontaneous" demonstration. Senior administration officials later said Rice was speaking from talking points prepared for official use and the word "spontaneous" was a poor choice to describe what is now understood to have been a terrorist attack.

The assault killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans and was a flashpoint n the just completed presidential election campaign.

Rice is among the potential nominees to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she does not wish to serve in Obama's second term but is willing to stay on until her replacement is confirmed by the Senate.

McCain took to the floor of the Senate about an hour after Obama's remarks and said that the president and other statements by officials on the attacks were "not true."

"The president of the United States did not tell the American people the truth about the attacks that took four brave Americans' lives that went on for eight, seven hours, for which we were totally unprepared. Mr. President, four brave Americans died. It has now been eight weeks. The American people have received nothing but contradictory statements from all levels of our government," he said, pounding his hand on the lectern.

McCain charged that "this president and this administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a cover up, neither of which are acceptable to the American people."

Graham responded to Obama with a sharp statement of his own: "Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as commander-in-chief before, during, and after the attack.

Asked off the Senate floor how personal the exchanges between the senators and Obama got, Graham said, "Well, you know, all I can say is I do hold him responsible. If he's worried about me not holding him responsible, he's wrong."

"I want to work with him on the fiscal cliff. I want to work with him on immigration. I'd like to work with him on other things that we need to do as a nation but I'm not gonna give him a pass here," Graham said.

Asked if he thought Rice should step down, Graham said, "I'm not asking her to step down. I'm just not going to promote anybody that I think is up to their eyeballs in the debacle."

Graham: I don't trust Susan Rice.

The scandal's impact on the military In his remarks on Wednesday, Obama defended Rice's earlier comments, saying "she made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her."

He said he is open to the appointment for Rice, although he said has not yet decided who he will advance when Clinton steps down. Speculation has also centered on U.S. Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state or defense secretary.

Rice previously served as assistant secretary of state under former President Bill Clinton and was a foreign policy adviser to Obama's 2008 campaign.

Graham and other Republicans have not only questioned her statements, but also why the administration put her forward, rather than another top official who might have been more directly connected to the Libya situation.

"The reason I don't trust her is that I think she knew better, and if she didn't' know better, she shouldn't be the voice of America," Graham said.

Both Graham and McCain have called for a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks, including the U.S. response and preparations, such as whether the consulate had adequate security.

"I just want to find out what happened in Benghazi in a coordinated fashion that the work product would be accepted by the American people," Graham said. "I've got some firm opinions. I think it was poorly handled. But we'll never know. I think it's a symptom of a greater problem."

He reiterated his call for one committee to investigate.

"Instead of going off in three different directions, where you don't coordinate your questions, and having people testify multiple times, let's put one committee together. Democrats will lead it. They should, they're in charge. And find out what happened.

"I'm dying to know -- Mr. President, I've got a simple question: Did you know the consulate was attacked in June? And if you do know it was attacked in June, why didn't you do something about protecting it?



US 'to become world's biggest oil producer'

The United States is to become the world's top producer around 2020, the International Energy Agency said on Monday,
overtaking Saudi Arabia until the middle of that decade.

"The recent rebound in US oil and gas production, driven by upstream technologies that are unlocking light tight oil and shale gas resources, is spurring economic activity," the agency said in its annual outlook on the energy markets of tomorrow.

Up until 2035, "the United States, which currently imports around 20 percent of its total energy needs, becomes all but self-sufficient in net terms ? a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy importing countries."

The US energy market is going through radical upheaval sparked by the development of new technologies, especially the extraction of shale gas through a controversial process called "fracking" that has been limited or banned in other countries.

The IEA also said global thirst for oil will grow in the next two decades driven by demand from emerging nations.

Oil demand will increase by 14 percent between now and 2035 to reach 99.7 million barrels a day, the OECD-linked energy watchdog said in its annual assessment of the energy markets of tomorrow.

This was 700,000 bpd more than the IEA forecast a year ago and signals that world is still figuring out how to put the global energy system on a more sustainable path, the IEA said.

Oil prices will rise too, it said, reaching $125 barrels by 2035 ($215 in nominal terms), from about $107 this year, and instead of the $120 forecast earlier.

"Growth in oil consumption in emerging economies, particularly for transport in China, India and the Middle East, more than outweighs reduced demand in the OECD, pushing oil use steadily higher...," the IEA said.

Transportation "is responsible for almost 40 percent of the increase in global oil demand," the agency said with oil use for trucks ? mainly diesel ? increasing much faster than that for passenger vehicles.

On the supply side, the IEA sees a decade long decline in the dominance of OPEC on the back of unconventional production from non-cartel countries.

 Non-OPEC oil supply should reach 53 million bpd after 2015 (from 49 mbpd in 2011) in a supply rise that should end in 2025 when OPEC production will again dominate.

"Output from OPEC countries rises, particularly after 2020, bringing the OPEC share in global production from its current 42 percent up towards 50 percent by 2035," the IEA said.

The key to OPEC output over the coming decades is Iraq, the IEA said, which could make the "largest contribution by far to global oil supply growth."

The IEA believes that if stability is achieved, Iraq becomes "a key supplier to fast-growing Asian markets, mainly China, and the second-largest global exporter by the 2030s, overtaking Russia."

"Without this supply growth from Iraq, oil markets would be set for difficult times, characterised by prices that are almost $15 higher" than the level tabled its outlook.



China's Hu says graft threatens state, party must stay in charge
Sui-Lee Wee & Ben Blanchard // Reuters

President Hu Jintao warned China's incoming leaders on Thursday that corruption threatened the ruling Communist Party and the state,
but said the party must stay in charge as it battles growing social unrest.

    In a state-of-the-nation address to more than 2,000 hand-picked party delegates before he hands over power, Hu acknowledged that public anger over graft and issues like environmental degradation had undermined the party's support and led to surging numbers of protests. "Combating corruption and promoting political integrity, which is a major political issue of great concern to the people, is a clear-cut and long-term political commitment of the party," Hu said. "If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state. We must thus make unremitting efforts to combat corruption."

    He promised political reform, but only to a degree, saying: "We will never copy a Western political system." "We will neither walk on the closed and rigid road, nor will we walk down the evil road of changing (our) flags and banners," Hu said.

    He also stressed the need to strengthen the armed forces and protect sea territory amid disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian nations. Hu was opening a week-long congress at Beijing's Great Hall of the People that will usher in a once-in-a-decade leadership change in the world's second-largest economy.

    Despite the high profile of the event and the focus on sensitive issues like reform and graft, the comments were not considered unusual since they mainly reinforced existing ideas and themes. "It was a rather conservative report," said Jin Zhong, the editor of Open Magazine, an independent Hong Kong publication that specializes in Chinese politics. "There's nothing in there that suggests any breakthrough in political reforms."

    The run-up to the carefully choreographed meeting, at which Hu will hand over his post as party chief to anointed successor Vice President Xi Jinping, has been overshadowed by a corruption scandal involving one-time high-flying politician Bo Xilai. The party has accused him of taking bribes and abusing his power to cover up his wife's murder of a British businessman in the southwestern city of Chongqing, which he used to run.

    While Hu did not name Bo - a man once considered a contender for top office himself - he left little doubt about the target. "All those who violate party discipline and state laws, whoever they are and whatever power or official positions they have, must be brought to justice without mercy," Hu told delegates, one of whom was his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. "Leading officials, especially high-ranking officials, must ... exercise strict self-discipline and strengthen education and supervision over their families and their staff; and they should never seek any privilege." The New York Times said last month that the family of Premier Wen Jiabao had accumulated at least $2.7 billion in "hidden riches", a report China labeled a smear.

    Hu entered the venue accompanied by Jiang, 86, signaling the former president still wields influence in the party and in the secretive deliberations to decide on the new leaders. As Hu delivered his speech under a massive, golden hammer and sickle, a healthy-looking Jiang sat flanked by senior members, party elders such as Li Peng and incoming leaders such as Xi.

    The congress ends on November 14, when the party's new Standing Committee, at the apex of power, will be unveiled. Only Xi and his deputy Li Keqiang are certain to be on what is likely to be a seven-member committee, and about eight other candidates are vying for the other places.

    The congress also rubber-stamps the selection of about two dozen people to the party's Politburo, and approves scores of other appointments, including provincial chiefs and heads of some state-owned enterprises. "We must uphold the leadership of the party," Hu said. He also named health care, housing, the environment, food and drug safety and public security as areas where problems had "increased markedly".

    The meeting is a chance for Hu to cement his legacy before retirement and ensure a smooth handover of power, and his prime-time speech was a chance to push his achievements and perhaps help steer a course going forward.

    While Hu promised "reforms to the political structure" and more encouragement of debate within the party, he gave no hint that China would allow broader popular participation. "We should ... give full play to the strength of the socialist political system and draw on the political achievements of other societies. However, we will never copy a Western political system," said Hu, who mentioned "socialism with Chinese characteristics" no less than 78 times in his speech.

    While Hu will step down as party leader, Xi will only take over state duties at the annual meeting of parliament in March. Just weeks after anti-Japan riots swept city streets following a row over disputed islands, Hu also said China should strengthen the armed forces, protect its maritime interests and be prepared for "local war" in the information age. "We should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, resolutely safeguard China's maritime rights and interests and build China into a maritime power," he said.

    China is also locked in dispute with Southeast Asian neighbors over areas of the South China Sea. Relations with the United States have been bogged down by accusations of military assertiveness in the region from both sides.

     The government has tightened security in the run-up to the congress, even banning the flying of pigeons in the capital, and has either locked up or expelled dozens of dissidents. Security was especially tight on Thursday around the Great Hall and Tiananmen Square next door, the scene of pro-democracy protests in 1989 that were crushed by the military.

    The party, which came to power in 1949 after a long and bloody civil war, has in recent years tied its legitimacy to economic growth and lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Hu said China's development should be "much more balanced, coordinated and sustainable", and it should double its 2010 GDP and per capita income by 2020, as previous targets have implied. But China experts say that unless the new leadership pushes through stalled reforms, the nation risks economic malaise, deepening unrest, and perhaps even a crisis that could shake the party's grip on power.

    This year marked the first time Chinese Internet users could discuss the congress on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. Many said his reference to not walking on a "closed and rigid road" not the "evil road of changing (our) flags and banners" reflected gridlock between two factions - the reformists and the leftists, who are critical of a market-based reform agenda. "Which road to walk on?" a microblogger wrote. "Both the right and left have blocked you to death, so where can you go?"


Zaarti, Jordan

Western countries shifts efforts to oust Syrian President Assad
Dale Gavlak & David Stringer  //  Associated Press

Western efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad shifted dramatically Wednesday,
with Britain announcing it will deal directly with rebel military leaders.

A Turkish official also said his nation has held discussions with NATO allies, including the United States, on using Patriot missiles to protect a safe zone inside Syria.

The developments came within hours of President Barack Obama's re-election. U.S. allies anticipate a new, bolder approach from the American leader to end the deadlocked civil war that has killed more than 36,000 people since an uprising against Assad began in March 2011.

U.S. officials said Patriots or other assets could be deployed to Turkey's side of the border for defensive purposes against possible incursions, mortar strikes and the like.

But Washington isn't prepared to send any such equipment inside Syria, which would amount to a violation of sovereignty and a significant military escalation, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Like Britain, American officials are considering meeting with rebel military commanders. If the contacts were to happen, they would be most likely conducted by Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador in Damascus, who is currently in Doha for Syrian opposition talks, a U.S. official said. But no final decision has been made.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, said the U.S., Britain and other allies should do more to "shape the opposition" into a coherent force and open channels of communication directly with rebel military commanders.

Previously, Britain and the U.S. have acknowledged contacts only with exile groups and political opposition figures — some connected to rebel forces — inside Syria.

"There is an opportunity for Britain, for America, for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and like-minded allies to come together and try to help shape the opposition, outside Syria and inside Syria," Cameron said. "And try to help them achieve their goal, which is our goal of a Syria without Assad."

The foreign ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy, said discussions about the deployment of Patriot missiles to protect a safe zone had been put on hold until after the U.S. election.

Since the summer, Assad's regime has significantly increased its use of air power against rebels as government forces are stretched thin on multiple fronts.

The Turkish official said any missile deployment might happen under a "NATO umbrella," though NATO has insisted it will not intervene without a clear United Nations mandate.

"With the re-election of Obama, what you have is a strong confidence on the British side that the U.S. administration will be engaged more on Syria from the get-go," said Shashank Joshi, an analyst at London's Royal United Services Institute, a military and security think tank.

On the ground in Syria, rebels made a new push into the capital Wednesday. Opposition fighters fired mortar shells toward the presidential palace — but missed their target — and clashed heavily with troops in the suburbs of Damascus. The regime's capital stronghold has seen a surge in violence this week with some of the fiercest clashes in months.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said the Syrian military was shelling another suburb, Beit Saham, with tanks and mortar shells, killing at least 18 people in that neighborhood alone.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said talks with rebel military leaders would not involve advice on military tactics or support for their operations. Hague also insisted that Britain would not consider offering weapons to Assad's opponents.

Face-to-face meetings with military figures will take place outside Syria, Hague said. Diplomats from the U.S., Britain, France and Turkey are already scheduled to meet with Syrian opposition groups Thursday in Doha, Qatar, though there has been no announcement that those talks will include discussions with rebel fighters.

He said British diplomats will tell rebel commanders to respect the human rights of captured Assad loyalists, amid concern over abuses carried out by both sides.

"In all contacts, my officials will stress the importance of respecting human rights and international human rights norms, rejecting extremism and terrorism, and working towards peaceful political transition," Hague told lawmakers.

At the Zaatari camp, which houses about 40,000 of the estimated 236,000 people who have fled into Jordan from Syria, Cameron said he would press Obama at the first opportunity to drive forward efforts to end the 19-month-old conflict.

Cameron plans to convene a meeting of Britain's National Security Council in London devoted entirely to Syria and discuss how the U.K. can encourage Obama to pursue a more direct strategy.

 "Right here in Jordan I am hearing appalling stories about what has happened inside Syria, so one of the first things I want to talk to Barack about is how we must do more to try and solve this crisis," he said.

Talks with those who had fled the violence had redoubled his "determination that now, with a newly elected American president, we have got to do more to help this part of the world, to help Syria achieve transition," Cameron added.

He flew to the camp by helicopter with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and announced that Britain would offer an extra 14 million pounds ($22 million) in humanitarian aid, bringing its total funding to 53.5 million pounds ($85.5 million) — making it the second largest donor after the United States.

Cameron later held talks with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the capital, Amman.


New York city, new York

US may soon become world's top oil producer
Jonathan Fahey  //  Associated Press

U.S. oil output is surging so fast that the United States could soon overtake Saudi Arabia
as the world's biggest producer.

    Driven by high prices and new drilling methods, U.S. production of crude and other liquid hydrocarbons is on track to rise 7 percent this year to an average of 10.9 million barrels per day. This will be the fourth straight year of crude increases and the biggest single-year gain since 1951.

The boom has surprised even the experts.

"Five years ago, if I or anyone had predicted today's production growth, people would have thought we were crazy," says Jim Burkhard, head of oil markets research at IHS CERA, an energy consulting firm.

The Energy Department forecasts that U.S. production of crude and other liquid hydrocarbons, which includes biofuels, will average 11.4 million barrels per day next year. That would be a record for the U.S. and just below Saudi Arabia's output of 11.6 million barrels. Citibank forecasts U.S. production could reach 13 million to 15 million barrels per day by 2020, helping to make North America "the new Middle East."

The last year the U.S. was the world's largest producer was 2002, after the Saudis drastically cut production because of low oil prices in the aftermath of 9/11. Since then, the Saudis and the Russians have been the world leaders.

The United States will still need to import lots of oil in the years ahead. Americans use 18.7 million barrels per day. But thanks to the growth in domestic production and the improving fuel efficiency of the nation's cars and trucks, imports could fall by half by the end of the decade.

The increase in production hasn't translated to cheaper gasoline at the pump, and prices are expected to stay relatively high for the next few years because of growing demand for oil in developing nations and political instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Still, producing more oil domestically, and importing less, gives the economy a significant boost.

The companies profiting range from independent drillers to large international oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, which increasingly see the U.S. as one of the most promising places to drill. ExxonMobil agreed last month to spend $1.6 billion to increase its U.S. oil holdings.

Increased drilling is driving economic growth in states such as North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Montana and Texas, all of which have unemployment rates far below the national average of 7.8 percent. North Dakota is at 3 percent; Oklahoma, 5.2.

Businesses that serve the oil industry, such as steel companies that supply drilling pipe and railroads that transport oil, aren't the only ones benefiting. Homebuilders, auto dealers and retailers in energy-producing states are also getting a lift.

IHS says the oil and gas drilling boom, which already supports 1.7 million jobs, will lead to the creation of 1.3 million jobs across the U.S. economy by the end of the decade.

"It's the most important change to the economy since the advent of personal computers pushed up productivity in the 1990s," says economist Philip Verleger, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics.

The major factor driving domestic production higher is a newfound ability to squeeze oil out of rock once thought too difficult and expensive to tap. Drillers have learned to drill horizontally into long, thin seams of shale and other rock that holds oil, instead of searching for rare underground pools of hydrocarbons that have accumulated over millions of years.

To free the oil and gas from the rock, drillers crack it open by pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure, a process is known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

While expanded use of the method has unlocked enormous reserves of oil and gas, it has also raised concerns that contaminated water produced in the process could leak into drinking water.

The surge in oil production has other roots, as well:

- A long period of high oil prices has given drillers the cash and the motivation to spend the large sums required to develop new techniques and search new places for oil. Over the past decade, oil has averaged $69 a barrel. During the previous decade, it averaged $21.

- Production in the Gulf of Mexico, which slowed after BP's 2010 well disaster and oil spill, has begun to climb again. Huge recent finds there are expected to help growth continue.

- A natural gas glut forced drillers to dramatically slow natural gas exploration beginning about a year ago. Drillers suddenly had plenty of equipment and workers to shift to oil.

The most prolific of the new shale formations are in North Dakota and Texas. Activity is also rising in Oklahoma, Colorado, Ohio and other states.

Production from shale formations is expected to grow from 1.6 million barrels per day this year to 4.2 million barrels per day by 2020, according to Wood Mackenzie, an energy consulting firm. That means these new formations will yield more oil by 2020 than major oil suppliers such as Iran and Canada produce today.

U.S. oil and liquids production reached a peak of 11.2 million barrels per day in 1985, when Alaskan fields were producing enormous amounts of crude, then began a long decline. From 1986 through 2008, crude production fell every year but one, dropping by 44 percent over that period. The United States imported nearly 60 percent of the oil it burned in 2006.

By the end of this year, U.S. crude output will be at its highest level since 1998 and oil imports will be lower than at any time since 1992, at 41 percent of consumption.

"It's a stunning turnaround," Burkhard says.

Whether the U.S. supplants Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest producer will depend on the price of oil and Saudi production in the years ahead. Saudi Arabia sits on the world's largest reserves of oil, and it raises and lowers production to try to keep oil prices steady. Saudi output is expected to remain about flat between now and 2017, according to the International Energy Agency.

But Saudi oil is cheap to tap, while the methods needed to tap U.S. oil are very expensive. If the price of oil falls below $75 per barrel, drillers in the U.S. will almost certainly begin to cut back.

The International Energy Agency forecasts that global oil prices, which have averaged $107 per barrel this year, will slip to an average of $89 over the next five years - not a big enough drop to lead companies to cut back on exploration deeply.

Nor are they expected to fall enough to bring back the days of cheap gasoline. Still, more of the money that Americans spend at filling stations will flow to domestic drillers, which are then more likely to buy equipment here and hire more U.S. workers.

"Drivers will have to pay high prices, sure, but at least they'll have a job," Verleger says.



The Obama Romney Debate: Who Won (and Why That's Not the Key Question)
Chris Kofinis & Frank Luntz //  aol.com

So the debates are over, and after 270 minutes of partisan disagreement,
we've learned some important lessons. First debates matter a lot. Second debates matter some. And third debates, maybe, not so much?

As we all know by now, Gov. Romney's superior performance in the first debate upended this race and may have put him on the cusp of becoming the next president of the United States. If Romney wins this election, it will be because of that first debate.

The second debate, regardless of whom you think won, did little to change the dynamics of the race. While President Obama did much better, he was unable to reverse Romney's momentum. At best, Obama's second debate performance may have stanched the bleeding, but even that isn't clear.

As for the third debate, let's not sugarcoat it, President Obama won decisively -- at least on the topic of the evening, foreign policy. That's good news for Obama and bad news for Romney. (However, yes, there is a "but" coming later on.)

Obama was strong and forceful throughout when discussing his foreign policy record and vision. He was aggressive, and was clearly determined to put Romney on the defensive. Obama successfully used Romney's previous statements to not only undercut Romney's foreign policy bona fides, but to make his own record look better. If the president had a weak spot, it was that he seemed almost too determined to critique Gov. Romney.

Conversely, Romney was strongest -- as we predicted -- when he tied his answers back to the economy, deficits and jobs. In point of fact, he didn't do this nearly enough. He also came across as tougher on Iran than the president, one of the few areas in which he seemed to best Obama. Romney was also very measured and careful -- maybe too careful. It's clear that Romney's debate strategy this time around was to avoid gaffes and paint himself as a safe alternative not just to American voters in general, but to women voters in particular.

All in all, Obama won most of the exchanges, and landed a memorable zinger or two. Romney made no major mistakes and avoided saying anything that would have crippled his campaign. Both candidates also seem to have accomplished their primary goals. President Obama looked presidential and strongly defended his economic and foreign policy record. Governor Romney, too, came across as presidential, but emphasized a starkly different vision for the economy, while all but bear-hugging the president on foreign policy. So both did what they aimed to do: The question is what will matter most for voters when they cast their ballots on Nov. 6?

But, (yes, here it is) the bad news for Obama, and good news for Romney, is that winning this debate may not matter very much.

Based on the focus group AOL assembled to watch the debate Monday night, while Obama won the debate, he did not win over undecided voters. In fact, only two voters in the AOL focus group changed their minds -- one for Obama, the other for Romney. This was not a critique of the president's performance. Rather, it was a reflection of the fact that undecided voters didn't think this debate or foreign policy issues, in general, influenced how they should vote.

That AOL focus group seems to confirm a simple political truth we've all long known: When the nation is facing tough economic and fiscal problems, voters are far more fixated on local issues than global challenges. As James Carville so memorably said, it's about the economy, stupid, and Monday's debate seemed to confirm this theory once again.

So the president may have indeed won the final debate Monday, but we'll have to wait and see whether the few remaining undecided voters were paying attention to it -- or even care. Based on our focus group, it doesn't seem they did -- which suggests this race will remain close right to the bitter end.

That means 14 more days of harsh 30-second ads, highly orchestrated campaign events, carefully scripted stump speeches in swing states, and an onslaught of conflicting polls.

And you thought it was finally over.

Chris Kofinis is a Democratic strategist. Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and strategist. AOL has an elections content partnership with Chris Kofinis and Luntz Global.


Washington, d.c.

US Military Confronts Nightmare Scenario Of Syrian Collapse
Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

Either way it's a scenario the US military needs to prepare for:
an intervention into a failing state where rival factions have looted a sophisticated arsenal, from tanks to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to weapons of mass destruction.

There's no political will in Washington to intervene (directly) in the Syrian conflict as it now stands. The military cost of breaking down Syria's defenses outweighs the political benefit of stopping the killings. But if the Assad regime imploded -- and it's under greater pressure ever day -- that equation would change: The Syrian defenses would become less coordinated and formidable, though still dangerous, while the pressure on the US to act, if only to secure the regime's chemical weapons, would rise sharply.

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A similar but even uglier calculus would play out if the young Kim Jong Eun's regime collapsed in North Korea, which after all has nuclear arms. Such a conflict, a form of what's often called "hybrid warfare," would combine the multi-sided messiness of an Afghanistan or Iraq with an arsenal of powerful weapons. It's a highly lethal kind of chaos which is sufficiently different from either post-9/11 counterinsurgency -- which has consumed the Army and Marines -- or a future "AirSea Battle" against China or Iran -- which preoccupies the Air Force and Navy -- that it demands special attention.

"These are problems that are certainly under-recognized in the current defense strategy," said Nathan Freier, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and Iraq veteran who now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and has written on strategy for AOL Defense.

"Rewind the clock back to Somalia in the early '90s," Freier said. "That battlespace was lethal enough with AK-47s and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. Imagine circumstances where the failed state is somebody who's been amassing relatively sophisticated military hardware for decades," he told AOL Defense. "A US intervention for very limited objectives -- we're not even talking about putting Humpty Dumpty back together again -- [might] in certain circumstances be considered almost unavoidable."

What could a Syrian collapse unleash? So far, "the chemical weapons are under pretty tight control," said Jeffrey White, who spent decades as a Mideast specialist at the Defense Intelligence Agency before joining the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But in the chaos of the breakdown of the regime and the military command structure, people could just walk away from storage areas, just leave them [unguarded]. So it'd be important for somebody to come in and police them up."

"We know how to do those kinds of things but it would be tricky," White said. "There'd be no way to really be sure what kind of situation you'd find on the ground."

The most straightforward scenario for a Syrian collapse would be de facto partition, with the coastal regions dominated by the Allawi minority -- the regime's main supporters -- breaking away from the Sunni Arab provinces inland. "That would be fairly clear-cut," said White. But Damascus lies outside the hypothetical "Allawi-stan," and White doubts the regime would be willing to give up the capital and retreat to the coast: "What I think is more likely is the regime will fight for Damascus as long as it can, and when that falls it will be a matter of flight, every man for himself."

In that event, the Syrian army and security forces would splinter. Allawis dominate the intelligence services, a few elite units like the Republican guard, and the shabiha militia, but they're spread thin across most of the army, which is largely by increasingly reluctant Sunni conscripts. "I doubt if any Allawi officers would be staying around because their hands are almost all dirty [in the repression]," said White, "so you have a bunch of guys with guns without leaders." Some might defect to local rebel leaders, some might just go home -- with or without their guns -- and some might start looting.

The upside of intervening into a state in collapse, as opposed to one in full command of its forces, is that complex systems requiring large-scale coordination and specialist personnel would probably not be functioning. "You don't just drive up in your Scud launcher and fire it: It takes someone who's trained," said White. Likewise, he said, "the air defense system would be somewhat or largely disabled; people would be not manning the radars or the missile batteries."

The downside is that whatever weapons remain could be in all sorts of unknown hands. "There's lots of MANPADs [shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles], including fairly sophisticated ones like the SA-24," said White. "They're issued down to the battalion level," which would put them under control of dozens of relatively junior commanders. In general, White went on, "there'd just be huge amount of conventional arms available, and there are a lot of people how know how to operate tanks and artillery."

In an intervention against a hostile nation-state, the crucial question would be where those weapons are and how to target them. In an intervention into chaos, there's the added dimension of know who currently controls them and what their intentions are. Will they welcome US forces? Shoot at them? Stay neutral? And how can the US conduct the intervention to minimize the number of factions that oppose it? Just going in guns blazing might be safest in the short run but guarantees making enemies for tomorrow.

"It puts a huge premium on good intelligence," said White. "Knowing where the [chemical weapons] site is isn't enough....You need to know who's there and what they're doing."

A regime collapse in North Korea is an even more nightmarish scenario. "I'm frankly more worried about collapse than I am about war," said David Maxwell, a retired Special Forces colonel with extensive experience in Korea, now associate director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies. Another North Korean invasion of the South is the devil we know and have beaten before. "If war comes it'll be bad, but the outcome is not in doubt," Maxwell went on. "Collapse could be more complex in many ways but just as brutal and bloody."

If the regime in Pyongyang loses control of its field forces, "you're going to have factions of military leaders... fighting for survival," Maxwell said. "You have corps commanders out there who have weapons of mass destruction; they have access to 'Department 39,' which is their global network of organized crime," which gets precious hard currency for the regime by selling everything from drugs to missile technology to bootleg cigarettes. North Korea has massive conventional forces, Maxwell noted, but it invests heavily in special operations units as well, and the founding myth of the regime is Kim Il-sung's experience (in reality very limited) as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese in World War II.

Most dangerous of all, any US and South Korean intervention heading north to succor refugees or secure nuclear weapons would have to avoid an accidental collision with the Chinese heading south. "They're not going to sit idly by," Maxwell said. "I believe they will cross into North Korea; they will secure the entire border; they will penetrate deep to Pyongyang; they will try to recover [evidence of] their complicity in the nuclear program."

Coming face to face with Chinese forces amidst the chaos of a North Korean collapse, or encountering Iranian agents and proxies amidst a Syrian one, would be a much messier business than the relatively sterile long-range conflict envisioned by "AirSea Battle" doctrine. "Right now, the entire Defense Department wants to focus on a highly organized, lethal opponent," said Freier. What he's more worried about is a threat that's highly disorganized -- and still lethal.

So what does the military need to do differently? "The Army and Marine Corps need to be focused on intervention in conditions of disorder, because they're eminently postured best to deal with the challenge of human conflict occurring in close proximity to populations," said Freier. The kind of technical intelligence provided by satellites and drones would not suffice: It would be critical to get human intelligence on the factions' allegiances and motivations -- without the years-long learning curve the US needed to learn the players in Afghanistan and Iraq. How to jumpstart effective understanding of this "human domain" is getting increasing emphasis in Army thinking.

Across the services, "we need to improve our capability for forcible airborne and amphibious entry at multiple points," Freier went on. "Right now that capability has atrophied substantially over the last ten years." That kind of 21st century D-Day landing has been a major focus in recent wargames and exercises held by both the Army and the Marines. The simulated results aren't always pretty.

Intervening into chaos is a distinctly difficult and ugly form of war, one that any policymaker would want to avoid. That doesn't mean we will always be able to avoid it.