Monday, March 31, 2014

UKRAINE - Updates on Situation With Russia

"Russian troop presence builds near Ukraine’s border" (Part-1) PBS NewsHour 3/29/2014


SUMMARY:  Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with President Obama on the phone Friday about a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine.  Despite the development, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have deployed near the border of Ukraine with no sign of pulling back.  Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Is history repeating itself in Crimea?" (Part-2) PBS NewsHour 3/30/2014


SUMMARY:  The Russian Navy agreed to pull out of the Black Sea around Crimea on March 30.  Not March 30, 2014, but 158 years ago in 1856.  NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan reflects on the history of the region that is again at the center of a geopolitical crisis.

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 3/28/2014

"Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Vatican visit and a health reform milestone" PBS NewsHour 3/28/2014


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including efforts by the U.S. and the European Union to deter Russia from entering more regions, President Obama’s meeting with Pope Francis, a milestone for Affordable Care Act enrollment and a new internal report on the New Jersey bridge lane closure scandal.

SAUDI ARABIA - President Obama's Diplomatic Visit

I totally agree with the highlighted comment below.  We (U.S.) should have done this a long time ago.  Of course the West fiddles as the Middle East spins more out of control, and we are going to pay the price in the future.

"In visit to Saudi Arabia, Obama seeks to heal U.S. rift with key partner" (Part-1) PBS NewsHour 3/28/2014

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  President Obama has wrapped up his weeklong trip overseas with stop in Saudi Arabia, in an effort to heal a growing rift with a key partner in the Middle East.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  The president arrived in Saudi Arabia at a tense time in U.S. relations with the desert kingdom.  He met with King Abdullah for two hours at a royal farm outside Riyadh.  The elderly monarch wore what appeared to be an oxygen tube.

He was joined by Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, who’s just been named second in line to the throne.  There were no public statements, but aides said Mr. Obama hoped to reassure Abdullah on key concerns.

On Syria, for example, the Saudis want the U.S. to provide more military aid to Sunni rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.  He’s backed by Shiite Iran.

In Washington today, the State Department’s Marie Harf sought to play down divisions over Syria.

MARIE HARF, State Department Spokeswoman:  We have always had same goals with Saudis, right?  We have had some tactical differences.  We have had conversations and worked through them and today feel like we are in a stronger place, with our two countries closely coordinating even more what kinds of assistance we’re providing, how we can increase that assistance, what makes the most sense, and how we can change the balance of power there.

JEFFREY BROWN:  In fact, reports today indicated the President may reverse his opposition to supplying the Syrian rebels with surface-to-air missiles.

But Riyadh also harbors deep doubts about U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran.  And the Saudis took a dim view of U.S. support for Arab spring uprisings in Egypt and other Arab states.

All of this led senior Saudi officials last year to warn of a — quote — “major shift” away from their longtime reliance on the U.S.  The kingdom even turned down a seat on the U.N. Security Council, accusing that body of failing to take firm action on Syria and other issues.

"What’s behind the widening division between U.S. and Saudi Arabia?" (Part-2) PBS NewsHour 3/28/2014


SUMMARY:  Saudi Arabia has warned of a “major shift” away from their long-time reliance on the U.S. amid strained relations over concerns like the war in Syria, nuclear negotiations with Iran and turmoil in Egypt.  Jeffrey Brown talks to Toby Jones of Rutgers University and Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for a closer look at this relationship.

Friday, March 28, 2014

HEALTH - Cause For Autism?

"New research suggests possibility of common underlying biology in children who develop autism" PBS NewsHour 3/27/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Let’s turn to some new findings on autism, especially research showing brain changes happening in the womb.  Scientists compared the brain tissue of children who had autism and died with those who didn’t have autism.  They found that kids with autism had disorganization in regions of their brain essential for social functioning, emotions and communication, a conclusion drawn from discovering disruptions in these sections of the brain.  Those gaps are shown here in purple.

The news came as the government revised upward its estimate of the prevalence of the disorder to one out of every 68 children in the U.S.  That’s more than the previous autism estimate of one out of every 88 kids.

Eric Courchesne is an author of today’s research about the brain.  He’s the director of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego.

VATICAN - Pope Francis and President Obama

"President Obama and Pope Francis discuss social issues, inequality concerns during first meeting" (Part-1) PBS NewsHour 3/27/2014

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  President Obama’s meeting with the pope today focused international attention on two of the most well-known leaders on the planet, what they share in common, and how they differ.

The president’s first ever visit with Pope Francis began with pomp and ceremonial tradition, as he proceeded through the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Wonderful to meet you.

GWEN IFILL:  Their private meeting lasted nearly an hour, almost twice as long as expected.  It came as Francis enjoys tremendous popularity in the second year of his pontificate.

Going in, the President told the pope he’s a great admirer.

Later, at a news conference with Italy’s prime minister, he underscored that sentiment.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems, and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.

GWEN IFILL:  But the two sides offered strikingly different accounts of the papal audience.  Mr. Obama said they focused largely on areas where they have similar views.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  The largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his.  One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.  And then we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.

GWEN IFILL:  By contrast, Vatican officials emphasized differences with the president’s policies.  High atop that list is the Affordable Care Act mandate that requires employers to include birth control coverage.  Another is abortion.  President Obama supports abortion rights, while the pope defends the Roman Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance.

A Vatican statement said:  “There was a discussion the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform.”

The president acknowledged addressing those subjects, but with the Vatican’s secretary of state, not the pope.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  We actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness.  In fact, that really wasn’t a topic of conversation.  I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues.  Some of them, I differ with.

GWEN IFILL:  Whatever their differences, the two men were all smiles as they parted.  The pope may travel to the U.S. in September of next year for a world gathering on families in Philadelphia.

Note "Vatican officials" is news-speak for 'Vatican spin-doctors' who are meant to hold to the 'party' line.  Pope Francis is NOT quoted.

"How might the pope and the president work together?" (Part-2) PBS NewsHour 3/27/2014


SUMMARY:  With public opinion ratings “the envy of every politician in Washington,” Pope Francis received President Obama at the Vatican for an hour-long visit.  Gwen Ifill talks to Rev. Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter and Stephen Schneck of the Catholic University of America to make sense of the meeting and assess what unites the pontiff and the president.


Interesting excerpt

STEPHEN SCHNECK, Catholic University of America:  You know, I think probably the most important thing to realize is that, at one level, they both share kind of an interesting vision.

That is, both gentlemen, I think, take the measure of civilization to be the quality of life for the poorest and the most vulnerable in the world.  And so that’s something that they both share.

This is NOT what Republicans practice.  Republicans, 'take the measure of civilization to be the quality of life for the richest and the least vulnerable in the world."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

INTERVIEW - Former President Jimmy Carter

"Jimmy Carter on Ukraine, Israel and addressing injustices faced by women around the world" PBS NewsHour 3/26/2014


SUMMARY:  Former President Jimmy Carter sits down with Judy Woodruff to discuss Russia’s annexation of Crimea, progress and limitations of working with Israel for the Obama administration and his own commitment to fight discrimination and violence against women and girls around the world.  Carter has written his 28th book, “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.”

TECHNOLOGY - Facebook Steps Into the Rift, Virtual Reality

"Facebook invests in a virtual reality future with $2 billion Oculus Rift acquisition" PBS NewsHour 3/26/2014


GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Like other fabled tech Cinderella stories, this one started as a young man with an idea working out of a garage.

Yesterday, Facebook announced it would pay $2 billion for Oculus VR, a company that makes a virtual reality headset for video games.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman recently featured the company in a pair of reports about virtual reality. We start with this excerpt.

MAN:  This is insane.

PAUL SOLMAN (NewsHour):  Though not yet ready for retail — it’s expected to sell for about $300 — the Oculus Rift is already being hailed as the Holy Grail of gaming, a lightweight, affordable headset to deliver totally immersive virtual reality, or V.R.

NATE MITCHELL, Oculus VR:  A lot of us got into the games industry to build virtual worlds and explore — build and explore neat places.  And being able to step inside those places for the first time is incredibly exciting.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

NSA - President Obama's Attempt to Impose Limits

I paraphrase statement from a congressman; 'Finding terrorists is hunting for pins in a haystack, but first you have to have the haystack.'  The telephone records are the haystack.

As to the "one hop" comment on tracing calls, that would be foolish.

Scenario: The UK identifies a terrorist phone number in Yemen and pass it to the NSA.  At present the NSA can search the database for the suspect phone number to see how many calls came into the U.S., and how many (if any) calls from the U.S. to suspect number were made.  Note at this time there is NO names attached.  The NSA notes a pattern; incoming call from suspect phone to U.S. phone (1), which within 15min results in 5 calls from phone (1) to other phone numbers within the U.S.  This MAY be a terrorist cell leader in the U.S. contacting 5 cell members in the U.S.  At that time the NSA applies courts to find out the names attached to the phone numbers.  This is why "one hop" is a foolish and dangerous idea.

"What’s behind Obama’s campaign to limit bulk data collection by the NSA" PBS NewsHour 3/25/2014


GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  We return now to the president’s proposal to limit the NSA’s ability to gather telephone information on Americans.

As intelligence agencies and Congress prepare to debate that balance between privacy and security, we turn to Gary Schmitt, staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee and executive director of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Ronald Reagan, and Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties advocacy group.

How big a concession was it for the president — we are going to hear the details later this week, no doubt — Kate Martin, to decide to rein in this bulk collection program?

KATE MARTIN, Center for National Security Studies:  Well, it’s a significant step.

It’s the president saying to his intelligence community, you haven’t made the case that you need this authority, and I’m going to limit it.  So, it’s an important recognition.  You know, he did it after two separate outside reviews which said that this particular authority wasn’t needed and hadn’t actually been effective in doing anything.

GWEN IFILL:  Gary Schmitt, a significant step or going too far?

GARY SCHMITT, American Enterprise Institute:  Definitely a significant step.

Remember, when the president made his speech about a month or so ago, he called the program important.  He said that nobody had broken any laws and that it was an important tool for counterterrorism.  But yet he has put together a proposal that will make the system for collecting this kind of information a little less flexible and we will have a little less information to go with.

INTERVIEW - Ukraine PM: Putin Intends to Reinstate the Soviet Union

"Prime Minister Yatsenyuk: Concern over Russia is about global security, not just Ukraine" PBS NewsHour 3/25/2014


SUMMARY:  In an exclusive interview, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner sits down with acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Kiev to discuss Western sanctions on Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-term intentions and a growing sense of unity among Ukrainians.

SUPREME COURT - Affordable Care Act and Corporate Religious Rights?

"Can corporations exercise religious rights?  Supreme Court hears case on contraception coverage" PBS NewsHour 3/25/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The hotly contested — or debated issues of contraception, religious freedom, and the president’s health care law took center stage today at the U.S. Supreme Court.

We start with a look at the people involved in the case.

It comes from Tim O’Brien, who filed this report for the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”

TIM O’BRIEN, Correspondent, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly:  The challenge is from the Conestoga Furniture Company in East Earl, Pennsylvania and by Hobby Lobby, a national chain of craft stores with some 28,000 employees.

Both companies are run by devoutly religious families who say requiring them to include certain contraceptives in their health insurance violates their religious convictions.  The Obamacare contraception mandate requires companies to provide coverage for 20 government-approved methods of contraception.

The plaintiffs object to only four of them, those they say work like abortifacients, such as the morning-after pill.

STEVE GREEN, President, Hobby Lobby, Inc.:  This is an issue of life.  We cannot be a part of taking life.  And so to be in a situation where our government is telling us that we have to be is incredible.

DAVID GREEN, CEO, Hobby Lobby, Inc.:  And there’s no way we’re taking anybody’s rights away.  It’s our rights that are being infringed upon to require us to do something that’s against our conscience.

TIM O’BRIEN:  In deciding these cases, the Supreme Court will not be writing on a blank slate.  Rather, it will be drawing on two of its most controversial decisions in recent memory.

In 1990, the court ruled Native American Indians could be punished for ingesting the hallucinogenic drug peyote, even though it was part of their religious rituals.  More important, the court held that laws that apply equally to everyone do not have to make exceptions for religion.

EGYPT - Military Dictatorship's Latest Crackdown

"Dissent in Egypt persists despite government’s mass trials, death sentences" PBS NewsHour 3/25/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Finally tonight: the continuing crackdown in Egypt, this time in the courts; 638 suspected Islamists stood trial today on charges of murder or attempted murder during attacks on police stations back in August.  No defense lawyers were present.

Yesterday, in a similar scene, more than 500 suspected supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death.

We explore these developments with former State Department Middle East specialist Michele Dunne.  She’s now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

HEALTH - Doctors Paid to Advise and Promote Big Pharma

"Double Dip:  Doctors Paid to Advise, Promote Drug Companies That Fund Their Research" by Charles Ornstein and Ryann Grochowski Jones, ProPublica 3/25/2014


This story was co-published with The Boston Globe.

Pharmaceutical companies pay for the clinical trials that Dr. Yoav Golan conducts on antibiotics at Tufts Medical Center.

They also pay him tens of thousands of dollars a year to give speeches and advice on behalf of their drugs.

If Golan worked at some teaching hospitals, he would be barred or severely restricted from accepting both research funding and personal payments for promotional speaking or consulting from drug makers.  These hospitals fear the money could influence clinical findings, or at least create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Yet Tufts and many other academic medical centers allow doctors to accept overlapping payments — and some doctors still take them.

A ProPublica analysis shows that more than 1,300 practitioners nationwide received both research money and speaking or consulting fees from the same drug maker in 2012.  All told, they received more than $90 million in research grants — plus nearly $13 million for speaking engagements and another $4 million for consulting.

Critics say doctors who conduct a clinical trial while accepting personal payments from the company sponsoring the study can feel beholden to the drug maker.

“The pharmaceutical company has a paramount stake in a favorable outcome.  The [research] grant recipient has a stake in a favorable outcome and the honorarium recipient or consultant has yet another stake in the outcome,” said David Rothman, director of the Center for Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University.  “It’s not only my lab.  It’s my mortgage.”

ProPublica used its Dollars for Docs database, which tracks payments to practitioners by 15 drug companies, to conduct the review.  Not every company discloses all types of payments — research, speaking and consulting — or distinguishes between the types.  The analysis covered the nine companies that disclosed payments in this form.

Golan, an infectious disease specialist, was the only doctor who received speaking, consulting, and research payments from three companies in 2012, the most recent year for which data has been compiled.  Pfizer, Merck, and Forest Labs gave Tufts $51,000 for his research that year, in addition to paying him $125,000 to speak about their drugs and $13,000 for consulting.  His speaking fees ranked second nationally among all the researchers examined, and his total personal payments ranked fourth.

Golan referred questions to the public relations department at Tufts Medical Center, which said in a statement that Golan complies with its research conflict-of-interest policy and that officials keep a close watch over his work.

“Dr. Golan’s work has contributed to the development of two important antibiotics, including the first antibiotic developed in the past 25 years to treat the growing threat of deadly C. difficile,” the statement said.

Pharmaceutical companies’ payments for promotional speaking and consulting appear to have decreased in recent years, as blockbuster drugs have lost patent protection and the push for transparency has advanced.  Beginning this fall, all drug companies will have to publicly disclose payments they made to doctors, under the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

But industry-backed clinical studies, which can lead to advances in care, have largely been seen as a separate matter.

ProPublica’s is the first large-scale analysis of how frequently researchers receive additional payments from companies that fund their clinical trials.  About 10 percent of researchers for the nine companies examined for this story also received money for speaking or consulting, or both.

One doctor’s conflicts:  When research meets promotion

Dr. Yoav Golan, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center, received speaking, consulting and research payments from three companies in 2012, the only physician in ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database that met those criteria.  Some ethicists question doctors’ abilities to stay impartial when receiving both research and personal payments from pharmaceutical companies.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

JAPAN - Dismantling World's Nuclear Arsenal, Update

Live and learn.  I was not aware that Japan had any weapons-grade plutonium, given their experience with being on the receiving end of such weapons.

"Japan surrenders part of its nuclear stockpile for disposal" PBS NewsHour 3/24/2014


GWEN IFILL (NewsHour): ..... dismantling the world’s nuclear arsenal.

Japan agreed today it would relinquish enough weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium to make dozens of nuclear weapons.  The announcement came as leaders from around the globe gathered in The Hague for a nuclear security summit.

Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear proliferation issues at the John F. Kennedy school of government at Harvard University, joins us to explain the day’s developments.

So what led up to this handover, and if, in fact, they were so insecure, this fissile material, then what took so long?

MATTHEW BUNN, Harvard University:  Well, this is something the United States has been talking about with Japan for some years.

And I wouldn’t say that it was very insecure in Japan.  There have been some important security improvements there in recent years.  After the 9/11 attacks, they added armed guards at this site.  There have been some more significant security improvements quite recently.

But this is really a tremendous step forward.  This is some of the best material for terrorists if they could get their hands on it, that exists in states without nuclear weapons.  And now we’re going to be getting rid of it entirely.  It’s material that’s really the same stuff you would get if you broke into a U.S. nuclear weapons facility, but not with the same kind of security that exists at those facilities here in the United States.

INTERNET - Who Should Oversee the World Wide Web?

The title of this article is slightly misleading to non-techies.  NO single entity controls the WEB.  The issue is who assigns the Internet Protocol (IP) Addressing and assigning of Domain Names to IPs.

"As the U.S. government relinquishes control, who should oversee the Web?" PBS NewsHour 3/24/2014


SUMMARY:  The Commerce Department recently announced it would give up oversight of ICANN, the California nonprofit that manages the unique domains of the world's websites and email servers.  There's been international pressure to make the change, especially in light of revelations about NSA surveillance.  Vint Cerf of Google and Randolph May of the Free State Foundation join Judy Woodruff to offer debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Who controls the World Wide Web, and how is it overseen and governed?  These are the questions that most of us don’t really know the answers to, but the Obama administration announced a change in the role played by the United States, one that’s stirring up concerns about the Internet’s future and freedom from censorship.

FADI CHEHADE, CEO, ICANN:  To become the world’s ICANN, we have to go to the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Change was in the wind as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, kicked off a meeting in Singapore this weekend, its purpose, to start crafting a transition from U.S. control of administration of the Internet.

Since 1998, the California nonprofit has had a federal contract to manage the unique identifiers of the world’s Web sites and e-mail servers, regulating domain names such as dot-com and dot-gov.

WASHINGTON STATE - Nightmare Mudslide

"Washington state mudslide conditions present ‘nightmare scenario’ for rescue team, says geologist" PBS NewsHour 3/24/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Rescue teams are continuing a difficult, hazardous and grim hunt this evening for survivors in a large mudslide in Washington State.  More than 100 people are unaccounted for, although the precise number of people missing is uncertain.  At least eight are confirmed dead.

The huge slide has prompted many questions about the cause — the cause of this.

Jeffrey Brown explores that part of the story.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  The mudslide destroyed some 30 homes and occurred about 55 miles northeast of Seattle, near the town of Oso right off state Route 530.  Just before 11:00 a.m. Saturday, a wall of mud and debris slammed into the former fishing village, covering an area about one-square-mile wide and 15-feet deep in some places.

David Montgomery is a geologist at the University of Washington.  And he joins us now with more.

Well, thanks for being with us.  So what can we say so far?  What appears to have happened to cause this mudslide?

DAVID MONTGOMERY, Geologist, University of Washington:  Well, the proximal cause is that we had one of the wettest months of March on record.  That region had something north of seven inches of rain, as I understand it, in the last month.

It’s been very wet out here lately.  But that slide — that slide had actually slid before.  This is a reactivation of a prior slide that was actually a reactivation of a much older prior slide.  So the hill had failed before, so it was prone to weak — it had been weakened by the act of sliding in the past.

And the material that forms that hill is glacial sediments.  It’s fairly weak material for such a tall cliff.  And so you had a naturally unstable exposure that received an awful lot of rainfall lately.  And there’s this other factor of a river that’s been cutting into the toe of the slide for the past few decades.

Monday, March 24, 2014

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 3/21/2014

"Shields and Brooks on strengthening Russia sanctions, midterm election math" PBS NewsHour 3/21/2014


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including how President Obama’s response to the Crimea annexation will be evaluated, the latest media push to promote the health care law, the outlook for midterm elections and remembering former DNC chair Bob Strauss.

MALAYSIA - Flight MH370 Updated 3/25/2014

"Using social media to scour the ‘haystack’: More than 3 million join search for Flight 370 from home" PBS NewsHour 3/21/2014


SUMMARY:  The overflow of information generated during a crisis like the Malaysian airliner gone missing can be just as paralyzing as the absence of information for those officials charged with searching.  A crowdsourced search for Flight 370 harnesses the energy and time of the more than 3 million people who have volunteered to scour satellite imagery.  Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

"Missing plane search focuses on new satellite imagery data" PBS NewsHour 3/22/2014


SUMMARY:  After two weeks of searching, the missing Malaysian Airlines plane has yet to be found.  In recent days both Australian and Chinese satellite imagery have picked up on objects that could be aircraft debris.  What does this mean for search?  Hari Sreenivasan speaks with WSJ reporter Andy Pasztor about the technology authorities are using to find flight 370 and how it is affected by nature.

"Malaysian government says Flight 370’s final satellite ping ended over the Southern Indian Ocean" PBS NewsHour 3/24/2014


SUMMARY:  Around the time the passengers on board Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 should have arrived in Beijing, their plane came down in the empty Indian Ocean 6,000 miles away — with no chance that anyone survived.  Tom Clarke of Independent Television News reports on the announcement on the presumed fate of the airliner by the Malaysian government.

"Still facing abyss of questions, what gives Malaysia confidence in its Flight 370 conclusion?" PBS NewsHour 3/24/2014


SUMMARY:  After 17 days of searching for the missing airliner, Malaysian officials announced that they believe it went down in the Southern Indian Ocean and that no one survived.  Michael Schmidt of The New York Times joins Judy Woodruff to discuss lingering questions for the Malaysian authorities in light of their conclusion.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

AUTO MAKERS - What Toyota's Billion Dollar Settlement Means

"What Toyota’s $1.2 billion settlement means for the auto industry" PBS NewsHour 3/19/2014


GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Four years after launching a criminal investigation of Toyota, the government wrapped up its case today by announcing a major settlement, in which the company admitted criminal wrongdoing for concealing safety concerns.

ERIC HOLDER, Attorney General:  Today, we can say for certain that Toyota intentionally concealed information and misled the public about the safety issues behind these recalls.

GWEN IFILL:  In a toughly worded statement, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the record $1.2 billion settlement this morning.  Toyota, the federal investigators said, purposely concealed what it knew about the full scope of unintended acceleration issues, linking them to faulty brakes, sticking gas pedals and tangled floor mats.

ERIC HOLDER:  Toyota confronted a public safety emergency as if it were simply a public relations problem.  Put simply, Toyota’s conduct was shameful.  It showed a blatant disregard for systems and laws designed to look after the safety of consumers.  By the company’s own admissions, it protected its brand ahead of its own customers.

GWEN IFILL:  Recalls began in 2009, and ultimately spread to more than 10 million Toyota vehicles.  Company sales plunged, but have since rebounded.

In a news release today, Toyota USA’s chief legal officer, Christopher Reynolds, insisted the auto giant has become more responsive since 2009.

He said, “This agreement, while difficult, is a major step toward putting this unfortunate chapter behind us.”

But Holder said the case also serves as a warning to others in the auto industry.

ERIC HOLDER:  Other car companies shouldn’t repeat Toyota’s mistake.  A recall may damage a company’s reputation, but deceiving your customers makes that damage far more lasting.

UKRAINE - Distrust of Putin's Playbook

.....'with the lies from Russia'.....

"View from Ukraine: Mistrust in government poses challenge to new Kiev leadership" PBS NewsHour 3/19/2014


SUMMARY:  Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner is in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, where fierce street battles have erupted between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian supporters.  Judy Woodruff interviews Margaret about Kiev’s plan to pull its troops from Crimea, and the biggest challenges Ukraine’s new government faces in garnering support across the country.
MARGARET WARNER (NewsHour):  At a shopping center tonight, I would say the number one reaction was one of grief.  You know, Crimea is a place that Ukrainians love to go to vacation, fabulous hiking, great beaches.  And people told us they were actually very sad about this.  One man said, “I’m feeling more Ukrainian now that part of my country has been taken away.”

There was a gentleman who said he had lived in Belarussia and he thought it was marvelous the some Crimeans — some Ukrainians, that is, those in Crimea can go back to the mother country.  So there’s a split.

The thing that again Kiev has to be worried about is a couple of people we talked to said, you know, I don’t want to be part of Russia, I have relatives there.  I don’t want really to live in Russia, but I’m not going to go out and fight for this Ukrainian governor either.  Every single leader we have gone independent has been a crook.  Let them go out and fight.

And this is really the problem that the Kiev government faces, which is to make people feel they have a stake in Ukraine as an independent country.

FLORIDA - Seeing the Effect of Climate Change

"Flood-prone South Florida considers proactive investment against rising seas" PBS NewsHour 3/19/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  It’s often difficult to see how climate change is altering the environment in our daily lives.  To counter that and draw attention to the issue, the White House today launched a new website to visualize scientific data on droughts, wildfires and the rise in sea levels.

As you will see in this report (26:36 video), the residents of South Florida are already noticing how higher water is changing their local landscape.

Special correspondent Kwame Holman narrates our story.  It was done in collaboration with the South Florida public media station WPBT, and it begins with longtime fishing boat Captain Dan Kipness.

DAN KIPNESS, Fishing Boat Captain:  I have lived in Florida my whole life.  I’m actually a native.  And, more importantly, I have been on Miami Beach for like 55 years, and I’m a captain.

Captains are used to looking at the ocean.  If you look at it long enough — and I have had enough time to look at it — you can see small changes turn into big changes over a period of time.  You’re going to see water coming out of Biscayne Bay, up the storm sewers, and onto the streets until it’s about a foot deep.

And that’s not freshwater.  That’s saltwater.  There’s no rain.  There’s not a cloud in the sky.  Everyone can see that.  Some people go, oh, we broke a sewer main or a water main broke.  That’s not what it is.  That’s sea level rise.

U.S. DEMOGRAPHICS - Massive Changes

"How the values, uphill optimism of the Millennials compare to older generations" PBS NewsHour 3/19/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Next, there’s the so-called silent generation, the boomers, Generation X, and most recently the millennials.  Each has left, and is leaving, an imprint unique to their times.

But now we know more about the ways the youngest adults differ from and clash with their parents and grandparents.  That’s the focus of the new book “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown” by Paul Taylor, the executive vice president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

I talked with him recently.

Paul Taylor, it’s great to have you back on the program.

PAUL TAYLOR, Pew Research Center:  What a pleasure.  What a pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So let’s talk about this.  The looming showdown, what do you mean by that?  And, as you talk, I want our audience to look at how we break down those age groups just to remind everybody.

But what do you mean by looming generational showdown?

PAUL TAYLOR:  Well, there is a book about demographic change and its generational equity.

The country has gone through two massive demographic changes simultaneously.  We’re becoming a majority non-white nation.  In 1960, we were 85 percent white.  By 2060, we will be 42 percent white.  At the same time, we’re going gray; 10,000 baby boomers a day, today, turned 65.  Another 10,000 tomorrow will turn 65.  This continues every single day until 2030, at which point we have doubled the number of people on Social Security and Medicare and those systems don’t work anymore.

So what this book does is look at those changes and it looks at the potential generational conflicts they set up, because young and old today, because of these changes, don’t look alike, they don’t think alike and they don’t vote alike.  And we are going to have to figure out how to rebalance our social safety net to make it work in the 21st century with a lot of political differences between young and old.

SELLING POT - What Can the Dutch Teach the U.S.?

"What can the Dutch teach U.S. about selling pot?" PBS NewsHour 3/19/2014


SUMMARY:  As Colorado and Washington begin selling legal marijuana, questions remain about the practical process of changing drug policy.  NewsHour travels to the Netherlands -- the one nation that's been openly selling pot for over forty years -- to see what might be in store for the United States.  Correspondent Wiliam Brangham and producer Saskia de Melker report.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  When you first visit Amsterdam’s famous coffee shops (that’s what all the marijuana shops here are called), the thing you notice is how normal it all seems.

It’s not unlike a quiet cafĂ© or Starbucks in the U.S.: people, mostly foreign tourists, sitting around, sipping coffee, all the while openly smoking the marijuana they bought right there in the shop.  What could easily get you arrested in most American cities, here, it’s just fine.

WALL STREET - Robber Barons at Goldman Sachs

"Greed is good, greed works."  They do not need ethics.

"Goldman, the Muppets and the Mystery of ‘Pretty Fishy & Dodgy’ Holdings" by Jesse Eisinger, ProPublica 3/19/2014

The “revolt of the Muppets” is heating up.

That’s how a Georgetown finance professor, James J. Angel, characterizes the combat by him and other investors over Goldman Sachs’ takeover of a hotel company a few years ago.  (The phrase comes from a former Goldman employee, Greg Smith, who wrote that Goldman bankers referred to clients as the famous Henson puppets, a charge the bank disputed.)

The fight raises such a cornucopia of financial issues that it could shoulder an entire business school course.  The holders of preferred stock in the company have taken to commenting to the Securities and Exchange Commission in outrage.  Professor Angel accuses Goldman of multiple securities law violations.  In essence, the question is: In these post-financial crisis days, what constitutes improper conflicts of interest?

First, some back story (and a friendly warning to readers: Goldman plays more roles in this than Joanne Woodward in “The Three Faces of Eve.”)

In 2007, a Goldman private equity fund called Whitehall took a company that runs franchised motels, like Residence Inn, private in a $2.2 billion transaction.  It renamed the company W2007 Grace Acquisition.  A Goldman entity, Goldman Sachs Mortgage Company, was the main lender for the leveraged buyout.  Grace is run by current Goldman employees.

Goldman did not buy the publicly traded preferred shares, however.  Instead, Grace went “dark,” as Floyd Norris explained last year.  That meant it no longer filed financials with the Securities and Exchange Commission, a move allowed for companies with fewer than 300 shareholders.  Grace delisted from the New York Stock Exchange and stopped paying dividends.  It took other steps to make it difficult for anyone, including the preferred holders, to get any information about the company.  Shareholders had to request the financials from the company and, at one point, had to pay 10 cents a page for the privilege of finding out how their investment was doing.  They also had to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

All of this made it onerous for a shareholder to sell the stock to another investor.   Not surprisingly, the preferred shares plummeted in value.  They had a value of $25 a share, but sank to a low of 5 cents.  (The real estate slump and the dividend cessation probably accelerated the drop, but the opacity surely hurt, too.)

In 2012 and 2013, a mysterious entity named PFD Holdings started buying those battered-down preferred shares.  In 2012, PFD was paying $3 to a little more than $5 a share.  Soon after, the preferred doubled in price, and now the shares trade at about $12.  As of its last announcement, PFD owns 58 percent of the preferred shares.  Nice trade!

So, what is PFD Holdings?  Few outsiders really know because there’s little information out there about PFD.  In Grace’s news releases, the company calls it a “sister company.”  In other words, Goldman is ultimately behind PFD.  I asked a former Goldman executive.  He hadn’t heard of it but jokingly suggested the initials stood for Pretty Fishy and Dodgy.  Well, in truth he used another “F” word, but you get the idea.

A Goldman spokeswoman wrote to me that “PFD acquired those shares in two privately negotiated transactions from two groups of shareholders who approached us to sell.  Any assertion we acted inappropriately is unfounded.”  She added, “The claims made by the preferred shareholders are without merit.  They are a matter of ongoing litigation and we are defending ourselves vigorously.  We have no further comment at this time.”

If all Goldman had done was take steps to suppress information about the shares to snap them up on the cheap, that might have been troubling enough.  But just wait, there’s more.

For one, Grace has not filled spots for independent directors on its board.  Grace has announced meetings to hold votes on those directors, but then said the meetings failed to reach quorums.  In the latest attempt last August, Grace said it was delaying yet another special meeting to vote for seats.  This time, the issue was that the mysterious PFD had told the company “of its intention to consider a tender offer“ for the remaining shares it did not own “later in 2013,” according to a Grace news release.

That was good timing because this one may just have reached a quorum, given all the angry preferred holders.  And then, guess what?  No tender offer materialized in 2013, and hasn’t yet.

Here’s another issue: In 2009, Goldman Sachs Mortgage forgave $545 million in Whitehall’s debt, receiving mainly an option to buy control of about 80 percent of most of Grace’s hotels.  Grace was in trouble, and this may have saved the company.

In 2012, Goldman Sachs Mortgage sold that option back to Whitehall for $175 million.  Were these deals, in which Goldman negotiated with Goldman, fair?  There do not appear to have been any independent, third-party voices involved (Goldman had ceased to be the controlling lender in 2008 and says that Whitehall’s outside investors approved the 2009 transaction).  The end result of these transactions is that Goldman’s Whitehall appears to have ended up recreating its ownership in most of the hotels at a cheap price.  Also, some preferred holders fear their interest in the company has been subordinated to that of Goldman’s private equity fund.

So where does the Muppet Revolt stand?  Grace may have to start making its financials public again, which could bring out more detail about Goldman’s various dealings with itself.  An investment adviser from Wedbush Securities requested a shareholder list from the end of the year and tallied them up.  In a letter he sent to the S.E.C., he says he has counted 418 shareholders of record.  That would be enough to revive the requirement to file financials.

Now we are in what Professor Angel calls the “Florida vote-counting” stage, trying to determine who should count as a “shareholder,” with Goldman’s lawyers battling against the preferred holders.

Another issue — I warned you that I was packing an entire semester into one column — is how this all comports with the Volcker Rule.  Under the rule, banks are not allowed to own more than 3 percent of a private equity firm.  They are not allowed speculate in securities.  But there is a merchant banking exemption that allows banks to take over companies directly on a temporary basis.  Is PFD permitted by the Volcker Rule?  It might be helpful if some regulator asked some pointed questions.

Speaking of which, where is the S.E.C. in all this?  So far, the agency hasn’t been heard from on the question of how many shareholders there are or in response to any of the allegations from the preferred holders.

When deals like this go down, I feel like we are nation of Jake Gitteses, watching big bank deals with incomprehension.  In “Chinatown,” the private detective asks the wealthy baron Noah Cross: “Why are you doing it?  How much better can you eat?  What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”

The scary thing about this Grace deal is that the money is so small (well, relative to Goldman, at least).  The preferred shares amounted to about $146 million initially.  It’s almost as if Goldman does it because it can.

HEALTH CARE - Persuading the Young on ACA Enrollment

"Administration Plays to Young in Health Push" by MICHAEL D. SHEAR and TANZINA VEGA, New York Times 3/19/2014

Russian troops were rolling through Crimea when Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff and a foreign policy expert, was deployed on a mission to do media outreach.  But the focus of Mr. McDonough’s calls to local talk radio stations was not geopolitical tensions in Eastern Europe, it was health care.

Mr. McDonough chatted with Andy Baskin and Jeff Phelps, hosts of a popular sports talk radio program on WKRK-FM (92.3) in Cleveland, about the coming N.F.L. draft, basketball at the White House and his days playing college football in Minnesota.  Mr. McDonough then pitched a new website featuring games, videos and superstar athletes explaining the benefits of health insurance: a sports-themed portal to

“We’ve all seen it happen,” said Mr. McDonough, promoting the portal, GamePlan4Me, to the hosts of “Baskin & Phelps” and their mostly young, mostly male audience.  “Somebody’s playing hoops, and they blow out a knee or something.  And then all of a sudden, if you don’t have health care, you’re going to bankrupt yourself.”

Persuading millions of young people — especially African-Americans and Latinos — to buy insurance using is consuming every spare moment at the White House as President Obama and his aides race against a March 31 deadline, when enrollment ends for the year.  They are waging their final public relations push with a zeal that underscores how critical success is for Mr. Obama’s political legacy, and how far behind they remain.

Officials have scaled back their original estimate of signing up seven million people, to six million.  But according to enrollment figures released Monday, more than one million sign-ups will be needed to reach the reduced goal by the end of March.  And there is concern that the administration still needs a larger proportion of 18- to 34-year-olds, the young and presumably healthy people whom insurance companies need as customers in order to keep premiums reasonable for everyone.

In an effort to reach young men, the White House is trying to turn March Madness into a frenzy about health care coverage as well as basketball.  Mr. Obama’s N.C.A.A. tournament bracket, released on Wednesday, was accompanied by a “16 Sweetest Reasons to Get Covered” bracket. LeBron James, the Miami Heat star forward, is starring in 30-second ads promoting that will air during the college basketball games.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama will urge daytime TV viewers to sign up for coverage in an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” from the White House.  In the past three weeks, Mr. Obama has met with YouTube personalities in the Roosevelt Room, hosting some of the younger generation’s online favorites: a science geek, a drunken chef and an Obama impersonator.  He dialed into Rickey Smiley’s hip-hop radio show and sat down in the Diplomatic Reception Room for separate interviews with the comedian Zach Galifianakis and a health care expert from WebMD.

“We are going to leave no stone unturned,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president and the leader of the White House public engagement office, which is coordinating the Affordable Care Act effort.  “Our goal is to meet people where they are.”

Michelle Obama, the first lady, urged people to sign up in an appearance at a health center in a black neighborhood in Miami, and made the pitch on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”  Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. plugged the health care site at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta.

From January until the end of March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs the site and administers the Affordable Care Act, will have spent $52 million on paid media, officials said.  Conservative opponents of the law have concentrated their spending on ads focusing on Democratic candidates and sowing doubts about the viability of the law.

The final push comes at a time when the administration is juggling other priorities.  On March 6, at the height of the crisis in Ukraine, Mr. Obama spoke on the phone with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for an hour before going across town to urge Latinos to enroll during a town-hall-style meeting at a museum broadcast on three Spanish-language television networks.  He returned to the White House a couple of hours later to announce the first sanctions on Russia.

“We’ve organized our outreach in a way so we can take care of the non-A.C.A. business that needs to be taken care of while devoting a great deal of time and energy to this effort,” Ms. Jarrett said.

Outside of Washington, the president’s allies are staging a final surge to enroll as many people as possible.

The targets in the last few days of the campaign are young people and minorities, with a particular focus on Hispanic and black youths — two crucial groups that are more likely to be underinsured, officials said.  On a conference call last week with almost 3,000 pastors, Mr. Obama declared it “crunchtime” and asked them to do whatever they could do to urge members of their churches to sign up.

At a small church in the Tampa, Fla., neighborhood of Sulphur Springs, the Rev. Timothy Wynn took up the challenge on Sunday.  In front of about 50 parishioners, he delivered a sermon that combined his religious guidance with a pitch for insurance.

“I know you came here for the word of God, and I’m going to give you the word of God,” he said.  But before delivering that word, the pastor asked his parishioners, most of whom are black, to take out their cellphones and text friends to remind them to come to the church and sign up.  He also asked them to go to the church’s Facebook page and “like” an open-enrollment flier there.

“Can you do that for me?” he said.  “God not only cares about our spiritual being, he cares about our physical being as well.”

At the back of the church, All Nations Outreach Center, two health care “navigators” were positioned at tables with stickers and information pamphlets about how to sign up.  At the end of the service, about 10 people stopped to ask questions.

Tiffany Pate, 33, a hairstylist in Brandon, Fla., who was the sole person to enroll on site, said that while she already had health insurance, her new plan would save her $50 a month.  “It made sense,” she said of the switch.

In addition to trying to galvanize clergy and black mayors around the country, the Obama administration has been working hard to attract African-Americans and Hispanics through such media efforts as interviews on popular black and Hispanic radio programs like “The Steve Harvey Morning Show” and “Erazno y La Chokolata,” a Spanish-language program based in Los Angeles.  It has also begun social media campaigns in English and Spanish and hosted Google chats.

“People get busy in their daily lives,” Ms. Jarrett said.  “But as you approach a deadline, it’s easier to get people’s attention and say, ‘OK, come on now, you only have a few weeks left.  It’s time to get serious about this, go on the website, explore your options and sign up.’ ”

Though the administration is spending heavily on airtime, it is also courting unpaid endorsements that might go viral on the Internet.  In late February, nine stars of hit YouTube videos were invited to a conversation about health care at the White House.  Among them was Michael Stevens, the star of “Vsauce,” a popular video show about science that regularly gets millions of views online.

“The 15- to 35-year-old group is the heart of my audience,” Mr. Stevens said in an interview.  “The White House made it clear they want to talk to everyone.”

His wonky videos ask questions like “Why do we kiss?” and “What if you were born in space?”  He is working on a special video about the science of assessing risk — and the need for insurance.

Another YouTube star at the meeting was Hannah Hart, whose show “My Drunk Kitchen” is irreverent and hugely popular.  An episode about making a grilled cheese sandwich while tipsy has gotten more than three million views, and a brunch episode, during which Ms. Hart repeatedly downs mimosas as she cooks pancakes and eggs, has gotten two million.  In a video she made after leaving the White House meeting, Ms. Hart plugged the president’s website for her viewers.

“If you want to show your body that you love yourself, go ahead and sign up for health insurance at,” she said.

“I’m simply talking to all my friends who are independent business professionals who think they are going to live forever,” she continued.  “Get covered!”

Since it was posted on March 4, her video has been seen about 250,000 times.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

INEQUALITY - San Francisco's Private Tech Buses

"How private tech industry buses became a symbol of the economic divide in San Francisco" PBS NewsHour 3/18/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The national battle over inequality, the rich vs. the rest of the population, has taken a curious turn in the San Francisco Bay Area, where buses carrying high-tech workers have become a symbol of the divide.

NewsHour special correspondent Spencer Michels has our story.

SPENCER MICHELS (NewsHour):  Every weekday morning, between 7:30 and 10:00, dozens of big, sleek buses roll down Valencia Street in the heart of San Francisco’s traditionally Latino Mission District and other city thoroughfares.

Using bus stops created for city buses, the private coaches pick up a cargo of workers who for the most part have moved into the city and work 30 or 40 miles south of it at places like Google, Facebook, Apple, eBay and Yahoo!  The free buses, generally referred to as Google Buses, are one of the perks for high-tech workers in high demand in Silicon Valley.

When they began rolling six or seven years ago, they were generally praised as an alternative to crowded highways and carbon emissions from cars.  But that’s not the issue, says writer Rebecca Solnit, one of the first to charge that the buses were more than a way to get to work.

REBECCA SOLNIT, Writer:  They’re unmarked, and with tinted windows, so you don’t know who’s inside.  They’re like a cross between a limousine and an armored personnel carrier, cruising around the central city.

SPENCER MICHELS:  Critics say the buses are clogging city bus stops.  And while the tech companies have recently agreed to pay the city a dollar per bus per stop for their use, the critics say it isn’t enough to make up for the congestion they cause.  So feelings are raw.

HEALTH - Saturated Fat NOT Bad, Really?!

CAUTION - This does NOT mean you can pig-out on all the buggers you want.  Also, we are to trust the opinion of a Chef/Restauranteur on health matters?

Also, at the start Mr. Armstrong's is perpetuating a misconception about science research findings.  They have never blankly said that saturated fats and other foods are bad for you, they say that OVER CONSUMPTION of these foods are bad for you.  And today too much of the foods we consume already have more 'bad' things than we should have.  Armstrong does correct his initial comments on this later in the interview.

"New research challenges old wisdom on saturated fat" PBS NewsHour 3/18/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  People have been warned for years about the dangers of eating too many saturated fats and the risks they pose for heart disease.

But a new analysis of more than 70 studies finds that saturated fats do not necessarily lead to greater problems with heart health.  The research, published in “The Annals of Internal Medicine,” also found no real benefit from taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements, like fish oil.

Cathal Armstrong is a chef and co-owner of the restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia.  He’s long been focused on these issues in his work and in cooking, and he joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

CATHAL ARMSTRONG, Chef/Restauranteur:  Thanks for having me. Alright.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  This was a medical study.  And, you know, we might normally talk to a scientist, but we want to talk to somebody who works with food, thinks about food issues every day.

So, first of all, were you surprised that the result was that saturated fats may not necessarily be bad for your heart?

CATHAL ARMSTRONG:  No, I wasn’t surprised at all.

I mean, we have known for years that animal fats are actually good for you.  And, you know, being involved in the food industry and what we do, it always boggles my mind when you hear these people come up with this idea that this area of food is bad for you or this area of food is bad for you, you shouldn’t be eating carbs, you shouldn’t be eating fats, you shouldn’t be eating this.

And to brush things with broad strokes like that generally is not going to be accurate.  Food is a much more complicated, much more complex thing than that.  And a perfect example of it is orange juice.  For years, everybody was telling you that they should drink orange juice.  And then, all of a sudden, it turns out that orange juice is nothing but sugar.

Because the complexity of the orange, we’re missing out on the benefits.

COLD WAR II - Putin Makes Crimea Part of Russia

"In signing treaty, Putin declares Crimea has always been ‘inseparable’ part of Russia" (Part-1) PBS NewsHour 3/18/2014


MARGARET WARNER (NewsHour):  With a stroke of his pen, Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed a treaty, adding Crimea to the map of Russia.  It followed an emotional address, as a defiant Putin told his Parliament he acted legally to right a historical wrong.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter):  Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia.  Both time and circumstances could not erase it.  Dramatic changes that our country went through in the 20th century could not erase it either.

MARGARET WARNER:  Putin dismissed Western claims that Crimea’s referendum Sunday, to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, was illegitimate.  He also rejected any suggestion that Russia means to seize other parts of Ukraine.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (through interpreter):  Do not believe those who try to scare you about Russia.  Who is shouting that Crimea will be followed by other regions?  We do not want the division of Ukraine.  We do not need it.

MARGARET WARNER:  It was only two weeks ago that Putin made similar comments, denying any plans to take over Crimea.  Today’s speech was watched with great interest in the Crimean capital, Simferopol.

Immediately afterward, workmen removed all references to Ukraine from the part of the parliament building.

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

"Calculating a U.S. response to ‘new reality’ of Russia’s claim in Crimea" (Part-2) PBS NewsHour 3/18/2014


SUMMARY:  What does Russia’s swift claiming of Crimea portend for the region and Russian ambitions?  How should the U.S. and the international community respond?  Judy Woodruff gets views from Dimitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest, Jessica Mathews of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

BIOGRAPHY - 'Stokely: A Life'

"Beyond ‘Black Power,’ recounting the under-told story of Stokely Carmichael" PBS NewsHour 3/17/2014


GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Stokely Carmichael marched with Martin Luther King Jr.  He campaigned for voting rights and against the Vietnam War and ultimately devoted himself to a Pan-Africanist movement that linked him to controversial leaders across that continent.

But, in most history books, he will be forever remembered as the activists who coined the term black power during years of racial turmoil in the United States.

A new biography, “Stokely: A Life,” tells a more complete story of a man who shaped the contemporary and sometimes conflicted civil rights movement.  Its author is Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University.

UKRAINE - 'Cold War II' Update

"Obama, EU challenge Crimea secession with Russia sanctions" (Part-1) PBS NewsHour 3/17/2014


SUMMARY:  President Obama and leaders in the European Union announced new penalties against Russia a day after citizens in the Ukrainian region of Crimea voted to secede.  But Russia appeared unfazed in the face of its toughest sanctions since the end of the Cold War.  Meanwhile the Ukrainian government vowed to oppose the annexation, with force if necessary.  Hari Sreenivasan reports.

"How will Crimeans who oppose Russian annexation respond to referendum outcome?" (Part-2) PBS NewsHour 3/17/2014


SUMMARY:  After Sunday's referendum, Crimea's parliament dispatched a delegation to Moscow to work out details of joining Russia, reflecting the jubilation of that region's ethnic Russian majority.  But not everyone in Crimea is happy about the results.  Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talks with Judy Woodruff from Simferopol about the reactions on the ground.

"In wake of Crimea’s vote, West struggles to anticipate Putin’s next move" (Part-3) PBS NewsHour 3/17/2014


SUMMARY:  Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has declared Crimea independent from Ukraine.  How quickly will Russia move to annex the region, and will Moscow stop there or push to neutralize the whole country?  Judy Woodruff talks to Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group and Nikolas Gvosdev of the Naval War College for perspectives on Putin’s goals and the standoff between Russia and the West.

MALAYSIA - Flight MH370, 10th Day

"Pilot’s political views raise fresh questions in search for missing Malaysian airliner" (Part-1) PBS NewsHour 3/17/2014

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The latest now on the investigation into Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  There were more questions raised today about the pilot himself after reports confirmed he attended the trial of a leading jailed political opposition figure just hours before the flight.

New video also showed the pilot and co-pilot passing through security detectors before they took off.

Lucy Watson of Independent Television News begins our coverage.

LUCY WATSON, Independent Television News:  Little did they know that such routine movements would be so scrutinized.  This is Zaharie Shah, the pilot, and Fariq Abdul Hamid, the co-pilot of MH370.

Mohd Othman has known Captain Zaharie for 40 years, but now his friend’s anti-government views are being cited as a reason why he may have taken control of the flight.

MOHD NASIR OTHMAN, Friend of Pilot:  He’s just a normal, typical Malaysian who has his own political beliefs.  But to say he’s obsessed, I don’t think so.  He’s a professional.  He wouldn’t endanger the passengers.

LUCY WATSON:  But 10 days on, speculation is great, with the focus on the crew.  The airline doesn’t want us to talk to their families.  And the families aren’t being given a say.

We have just been escorted out of this hotel by Malaysia Airlines, because this is where the families of the 12 crew members are being held.  And they have been here for just over a week and they’re not allowed to talk to the media.  Malaysia says the plane was deliberately diverted.

A vast area is now being searched by teams from 26 countries with particular focus on two possible flight paths.  The last voice message from the aircraft was from the co-pilot, who said, “All right, good night,” at 1:19 a.m. local time, 12 minutes after tracking systems sent their last transmission before they were disabled.

Since then, these men continue to confront criticism.

Is it not time for the Malaysian government to admit that they have made some mistakes and at least apologize to the families?

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, Transport Minister, Malaysia:  That’s purely erroneous, because I have also got a lot of feedback that in the circumstances that they are facing, we have been very responsible in our actions.

LUCY WATSON:  But actions yet to show results and many questions, with few real answers.

"26 countries searching for missing airliner face lack of big breaks, vast terrain" (Part-2) PBS NewsHour 3/17/2014


SUMMARY:  Confusion reigns and theories abound on the 10th day of the burgeoning search for the missing Malaysian jet.  Officials offered contradictory information about the timing of the disabling of the jet’s communications, while investigators and the press chase information on the pilot’s political activity.  Judy Woodruff gets an update from Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal.

SCIENCE - The Beginning of Everything

"‘Ripples’ of the Big Bang reveal the beginning of the universe" by Rebecca Jacobson, PBS NewsHour 3/18/2014


Scientists believe that almost 14 billion years ago, the universe was a hot, dense place that rapidly expanded after the Big Bang.  The idea that the universe underwent a rapid expansion is called inflation; the universe spread out and cooled down, forming atoms that later made gas, dust, stars and planets.

But what exactly happened at the start of the universe has been unconfirmed until now.  With a radio telescope at the South Pole, scientists followed gravitational waves 13.8 billion years into the past and found the first direct evidence of the universe’s rapid expansion immediately following the Big Bang.  Scientists discussed their findings at a press conference Monday at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“This is a totally new, independent piece of cosmological evidence that the inflationary picture fits together,” said theoretical physicist Alan Guth of MIT, who proposed the idea of inflation in 1980.

This is the first concrete evidence of gravitational waves, a phenomenon first predicted by Einstein 100 years ago.  After major cosmic events like the merging of black holes or the Big Bang, gravity makes waves in spacetime that travel like ripples on a pond.  These ripples travel at the speed of light, but Einstein thought they would be so feeble, they would be undetectable.

But scientists suspected that these ripples could still be found.  Billions of years later, the waves are too weak to measure directly, so scientists have been looking for imprints left on the “cosmic microwave background”, a soup of elementary particles leftover from the Big Bang.  A U.S.-led team, headed by scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, along with the University of Minnesota, Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, used a specialized radio telescope called BICEP2 (which stands for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) at the South Pole to hunt for the gravitational waves.  The dry air, thin atmosphere and distance from cell phone and radio towers made the South Pole the ideal wave-hunting location.

The results will be submitted to a scientific journal this week for review and publication, said John Kovac of Harvard, who led the research project.

Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University said if the evidence of gravitational waves is confirmed, the discovery “gives us a window on the universe at the very beginning,” when it was less than one-trillionth of a second old, he told the Associated Press.  He added that the results still need to be confirmed, but this study is the “best hope” of proving the universe’s early growth spurt.

“It’s just amazing,” he said.  “You can see back to the beginning of time.”

Monday, March 17, 2014

HEALTH - Resurgence of Measles?

"Measles outbreak sparks fear of resurgent diseases" PBS NewsHour 3/16/2014


HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  We want to turn now to another story that’s gotten a lot less attention this week — recent outbreaks of measles on both the East and West Coasts.  It’s part of a larger story about how infectious diseases that had all but disappeared in the U.S. are now reappearing.  For more, we’re joined by Stephen Morse, he’s a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.  So nearly 20 cases of measles in New York, but nationwide the number of measles cases according to the C.D.C. was up three times last year.  So why is this happening?

STEPHEN MORSE, Columbia University:  Well measles is vaccine preventable and so to a large extent it’s because of people who are not being immunized or are too young to be immunized.  Normally we start recommending immunization at about one year.  But for example we had an outbreak last summer in Brooklyn largely because the decision in those communities was to wait before immunizing the children and vaccinate them later, and so some of the younger children got infected.

UKRAINE - Update on Crimea

"Tensions Rise in Eastern Ukraine After a Series of Rallies" PBS NewsHour 3/15/2014


HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  For more about the situation in eastern Ukraine we’re joined now via Skype by James Jones who is in Kharkov reporting for Frontline.  Again, the Russians call it Kharkov, the Ukrainians call it Kharkiv, just an indicator of how tense the situation is on the ground.  This is the second largest city.  This is where Yanukovych ran to for support.  What’s happening on the ground as this vote takes place in Crimea?

JAMES JONES, Frontline:  Here the situation is incredibly tense.  And as a way of kind of showing their solidarity with Crimea, and their own desire to perhaps gain independence, and join Russia; they had this kind of unofficial and actually illegal referendum on the square here today.  It seemed like about 10,000 people came.   And they were chanting “Russia, Putin save us,” slagging off the new government in Kiev who they see as kind of fascists and thugs, effectively.  And so then they had this big vote, which frankly is meaningless it’s not an official referendum and has no consequences , but it’s just a show of strength.  And then just outside, about 200 meters from where I’m sitting now, they are trying to storm the government building.  And it’s very hard to tell what proportion of the population here support what they’re doing, but certainly this minority is incredibly vocal and sometimes can be violent.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So this is a city where neighbor is fighting neighbor on this particular issue.

JAMES JONES:  That’s right.  On the streets there are constant arguments breaking out between people, some of whom know each other, but simply they are miles apart.  Some of these people are desperate to become part of Russia, in fact even going back to the Soviet Union.  You know there are hammers and sickles – flags showing hammers and sickles on the square – enormous flags and people chanting about the Soviet Union.  It’s kind of a weird time warp we’re in here.  And yet the other half of the city are incredibly supportive of the revolution in Kiev so it feels very, very tense here.  On Friday night a couple of people were killed by Ukrainian nationalists.  And that potentially is the kind of provocation that gives Putin legitimate reasons, or at least the pretext, to send Russian troops in.

"Crimea votes in favor of joining Russia" PBS NewsHour 3/16/2014


SUMMARY:  Defying international protests that called the process illegitimate, Crimea today went ahead with a referendum and voted overwhelmingly to join Russia.  What was it like at the polls today?  Hari Sreenivasan speaks with NewsHour’s chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner about today’s vote and what that could mean for Crimea in the coming days.

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 3/14/2014

"Shields and Brooks on Crimea consequences, CIA accusations" PBS NewsHour 3/14/2014


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the significance of political turmoil in Crimea, allegations from the Senate about misconduct by the CIA, a move by the White House to revisit deportation policies and the midterm election outlook for Democrats.

MEDIA - A Book On a Traitor, ‘The Snowden Files’

"In ‘The Snowden Files,’ revealing the man who revealed NSA secrets" PBS NewsHour 3/14/2014


JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Finally tonight: He’s a wanted man in the U.S., but this week, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden spoke, via video from Russia, to the annual gathering called South By Southwest.  He argued to the crowd gathered in Austin, Texas, that the tech industry needs to do more to protect the privacy of Americans in the digital age.

A new book examines what Snowden revealed and pulls together the threads of one of the biggest security breaches in American history.

Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  It began with an e-mail, “I am a senior member of the intelligence community,” the beginning of revelations leaked by Edward Snowden of the vast surveillance and collection of data by the National Security Agency and the beginning of a new book titled “The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.”

Author Luke Harding is a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardia, which broke the initial Snowden story.

MALAYSIA - Flight MH370 an Act of Piracy?

"Window may be closing on possibility that Malaysian jetliner disappearance was aviation accident" PBS NewsHour 3/14/2014


HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  After nearly a week, the search and speculation continue to grow.  Ships and planes from a growing number of nations have expanded the hunt to the west and the east.  Various news accounts today quoted unnamed officials, both Malaysian and U.S., that it’s increasingly likely the Boeing 777 changed course, possibly in an act of piracy.

What’s now known is the plane left Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing, reached an altitude of 35,000 feet, and then stopped communicating with air traffic controllers around 1:30 in the morning last Saturday, somewhere over the South China Sea.  One possibility, it made a hard left turn.  The search areas now encompass thousands of miles, stretching further into the South China Sea and also pushing Westward into the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean.

That’s in keeping with reports the plane traveled several hours after disappearing, although Malaysia won’t confirm or deny it.

"New details on missing plane emerge shifting investigation’s direction" PBS NewsHour 3/16/2014


SUMMARY:  With new information released Sunday about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, authorities have taken both the search and investigation in a new direction.  Where are investigators focusing their efforts?  Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Michael Schmidt, who has been covering the story for the New York Times, about the current focus on the pilot and other recent developments.

Friday, March 14, 2014

SYRIA - Hezbollah Widens Conflict

More on 'the West (including the U.S.) fiddles while Syria burns.'

"Hezbollah close to cutting off key route for Syrian rebels, refugees" by Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor 3/14/2014

A painstaking Hezbollah and regime offensive in Syria's Qalamoun region is coming to its climax. A victory would sever the main route to Lebanon for fleeing civilians and military supplies.

The grainy black-and-white infrared images from the night-vision camera show a group of rebel fighters, apparently members of Al Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra, as they creep through the night, unaware Hezbollah is watching them.

After a few moments, a Hezbollah man monitoring the screen in an operations room gives the order: “Abdullah, go ahead and detonate.”  A massive explosion fills the screen and the rebel fighters disappear behind a black cloud of smoke.  The sound of the blast reaches the operations room seconds later.

The ambush occurred along a trail used by Syrian rebels to sneak from Lebanon into Syria, where the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah is spearheading an offensive to seize the mountainous Qalamoun area north of Damascus.

The fighting has centered on Yabroud, a Sunni and Christian town and the largest in northern Qalamoun.  It has been battered for weeks by Syrian Army artillery fire and the notorious barrel bombs, a mix of explosives, and fuel oil dropped from helicopters as Hezbollah fighters gradually seized outlying areas.

“We are on the outskirts of Yabroud and I can see the enemy as clearly as I can see you,” says a veteran Hezbollah fighter who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Jamal.  He returned from the Qalamoun front a week earlier and agreed to discuss the offensive on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Assad regime launched the offensive against Qalamoun in mid-November in order to secure the critical highway that links Damascus to the Mediterranean coast.  It swiftly seized three towns in the first weeks of the campaign, but the offensive slowed as Hezbollah’s fighters pursued a more cautious approach toward the key objective: Yabroud.

Yabroud is the last significant rebel-held town adjacent to a Sunni-populated area of Lebanon that has been a bedrock of support for rebels.  Smuggling tracks link the Lebanese town of Arsal to Yabroud, used by civilians fleeing the fighting in Qalamoun and by rebels as a supply line.  Some of the car bombs that targeted Shiite Hezbollah-supporting areas of Lebanon in recent months are believed to have originated in Yabroud.

Last week, a village three miles north of Yabroud was captured, and several hills overlooking the town have also been seized.  An escape route to Lebanon has been left open in the hope that the remaining rebels and civilians will flee, rather than stand and fight.

“We have no orders to invade Yabroud.  We are doing reconnaissance and sniping,” says Abu Jamal.

Hezbollah units are deployed in Qalamoun for a month at a time – instead of the usual week in Damascus and its suburbs – because of the difficulty reaching the frontlines.  The route entails a lengthy, uncomfortable drive in SUVs on dirt tracks from Hezbollah-controlled areas on the Lebanese side of the border, across a barren rugged mountain chain into northern Qalamoun.

The whine of Hezbollah's reconnaissance drones can be heard sometimes along the border.  The fighters use sophisticated long-range surveillance cameras and heavy weaponry from the Syrian military, including the powerful improvised short-range rocket known as the Volcano, in which a barrel of explosives is fitted to a 107mm or 122mm rocket motor.  The Volcano has proved devastating in urban environments, sometimes bringing down a building with one strike.

Abu Jamal says that Hezbollah fighters are even operating tanks and self-propelled four-barreled 23mm anti-aircraft guns, known as Shilkas, an unusual addition to its capabilities that indicates Hezbollah’s increasing sophistication.

Yet it has taken a slow, cautious approach toward Yabroud, a lesson learned from the May and June assault on the town of Qusayr, five miles north of the Lebanese border.  The rebels lost the 17-day battle, but it came at a high price for Hezbollah: 70 to 110 fatalities.

Civilians have not returned to Qusayr, and today it has become a Hezbollah base, according to Abu Jamal.  The battle-scarred ruins are used for urban warfare training, he says.

It is less certain that the overstretched Syrian Army can secure northern Qalamoun like it did Qusayr once Yabroud falls, because the regime lacks the manpower to indefinitely garrison the rugged mountainous terrain.  Rebels based in Lebanon could slip back into the area around Yabroud fairly easily.  The only way to prevent the area from falling back into rebel hands may be to bring the war to Lebanon – and no one seems ready to do that.

“The problem is that Hezbollah’s Qalamoun offensive will be wasted if the major rebel bases around Arsal… are not also neutralized because neither Hezbollah nor the Syrian regime will have enough manpower to keep the Qalamoun mountain area after the conquest,” says a European diplomat in Beirut with extensive contacts in Syria.

“But any attempt to take control of Arsal and other Sunni areas in the Bekaa Valley conducted by the Lebanese army, backed by Hezbollah, is likely to create much wider sectarian division and conflict in Lebanon.”