Saturday, December 20, 2014

Polls show shift in favor of US-Cuba relations


President Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba on Wednesday sparked fierce debate, but polling shows he’s on the right side of public opinion.

Two polls released this year show a broad shift among Cuban-Americans in Florida and Americans nationally in favor of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

A Florida International University poll of Cuban-Americans from June found that a strong majority — 68 percent — favors reestablishing diplomatic relations with the island country, and 69 percent favor lifting travel restrictions.

The same poll from 2004 found that only 39 percent of Cuban-Americans favored reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, with 52 percent in opposition. In 1993, the same poll found that 80 percent favored the policy of no diplomatic ties with Cuba.

In addition, 52 percent of Cuban-Americans now oppose the U.S. trade embargo, with 71 percent saying it hasn’t worked. The same poll from 2004 found that strong majority — 59 percent — in favor of continuing the trade restrictions. In 1993, 85 percent favored tightening the embargo.
The trends among Cuban-Americans in Florida mirror how voters nationally view U.S. policy toward Cuba.
An Atlantic Council poll from February found that 56 percent are in favor of normalizing relations with Cuba, including 62 percent of Hispanics nationwide. That support crossed both parties, with 60 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans favoring normalized relations.

Gallup’s polling from the last 17 years shows a steady increase in American perceptions of Cuba. While 57 percent still have a negative view of the country, compared to 38 percent with a positive view, in 2006 those numbers stood at 71 percent negative and 21 percent positive.

Still, the politics of U.S.-Cuba relations are complicated. Sixty-three percent of Cuban-Americans say the country should remain on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, according to the university poll.

And while President Obama has strong support from Hispanics nationally, he failed to win the Cuban-American vote in both 2008 and 2012.

The university survey of 1,000 Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade County has a 3.1 percentage point margin of error.

The Atlantic Council poll of 1,024 U.S. adults was conducted Jan. 7-22 and has 3.1-point margin of error.

EBay follows tech crowd, cutting ties with conservative group


Online auction and shopping giant eBay is the latest tech company to cut ties with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
"After our annual review of eBay Inc's memberships in trade associations and third party organizations we've decided not to renew our membership with American Legislative Exchange Council," the company said in a statement on Friday.
The move comes months after other major tech companies began an exodus from the group, with some citing ALEC’s resistance to climate change legislation.Ryan Canney, a senior campaigner at Forecast the Facts — an environmental action group that has been pressuring companies to ditch ALEC — called the move “a major victory.”
“Denying climate change has no place in the modern economy, and this decision shows the credibility of eBay’s commitment to climate change,” he added.
The move follows similar decisions from Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yelp and other companies, which have come under pressure to ditch the organization over its conservative stance.
ALEC offers draft legislation for state lawmakers and lobbies them to support conservative and market-friendly policies, which has earned it wide support from many businesses.
Those same policies have also earned it ire, however, especially from green groups pushing for new environmental protections.
EBay declined to say why it was leaving the group, but executive director John Donahoe has previously opposed its stance on climate change and other issues.
“We only are with ALEC on one issue: Internet,” Donahoe told activists earlier this year. “So, on climate change and other things, we are not with them. We’re with many other organizations — so, it’s that one small issue."
The recent tech exodus was prompted by Google, after executive chairman Eric Schmidt accused the company of “literally lying” about climate change.
“The facts of climate change are not in question anymore,” he said during an interview on NPR in September. "And so we should not be aligned with such people.”
Now that eBay has left the organization, Forecast the Facts said that it was going to target AT&T, Verizon, FedEx and UPS next to leave the organization.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Russian Ruble Crashes to World's Worst-Performing Currency

The Moscow Times

The ruble collapsed by 10 percent against the U.S. dollar Monday earning the Russian currency the dubious laurels of the world’s worst-performing currency this year.
The Russian currency has now fallen 49.3 percent against the greenback since January, according to data from the Moscow Exchange. The drop takes it below the Ukrainian hryvna, which has weakened 47.9 percent in 2014.
Monday’s plunge was the largest single-day fall for the ruble since the financial crisis of 1998 when Russia was forced to default on its debt after exhausting its reserves in a fruitless bid to prop up the currency.
In evening trading Monday the ruble was worth 64.4 against the dollar and 78.8 versus the euro. The currency earlier dropped past 100 rubles to the British pound.
Russian stocks followed the ruble downward with analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch labeling the 10 percent decline for some shares “local capitulation.”
The dollar-denominated RTS Index, particularly vulnerable to ruble weakness, fell 10.12 percent Monday to 718.32 points, its largest drop since March when Russia moved to annex Ukraine’s southern Crimean Peninsula.
The ruble’s depreciation has gathered pace in recent days with the currency shedding 15 percent versus the dollar in the last three days of trading alone.
The ruble has been under heightened pressure from falling oil prices — with Brent crude now trading at almost $60 a barrel down from a June high of $115 — but appeared Monday to decouple from its traditional link to the oil price. Oil initially strengthened Monday, before reversing gains after stock markets closed in Moscow.
“The ruble today became detached from oil fundamentals,” Tom Levinson, currency strategist at Sberbank CIB in Moscow, said in written comments.
“The problem is that there is no obvious 'end game' for investors to grab hold of when it comes to a possible turnaround. Markets are pushing at an open door,” he said.
The Ghanian cedi and the Argentinian peso occupy the places above the hryvna and the ruble at the bottom of the table of this year's worst-performing currencies. The hryvna has been battered by a full-blown recession in Ukraine exacerbated by a war in the east of the country and the introduction of capital controls.
Monday's moves by the ruble were “staggering,” said Timothy Ash, an emerging markets analyst at Standard Bank, in a note to investors.
Currency traders said that the Central Bank intervened on the market to support the ruble Monday afternoon, according to the Reuters news agency. In line with the regulator's approach since letting the ruble free-float on Nov.10 however, the interventions were relatively small — apparently designed to slow the currency's fall rather defend a certain level.
"The policy response from the Russian authorities has been close to non-existent," according to analyst Ash. “This is a really high-risk strategy from the Central Bank.”
Experts earlier warned that the Central Bank could stage a large intervention on the market to punish traders betting on the ruble's continued decline, but such expectations appear to be fading.
There is an increasing conviction that “ruble bears will not be subject to any sudden bounce back,” said strategist Levinson.
While Russia has spent over $70 billion defending the ruble this year, it still has $420 of its foreign currency reserves left, according to Central Bank data.
Additional downward pressure on the ruble was generated by fears of an increase in tensions between Moscow and the West after the passage through the U.S. House of Congress at the weekend of a new bill that could harden sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis if signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The Ukraine Freedom Support Act would “be negative for market sentiment,” analysts at Sberbank CIB said in a note Monday.
The speed and extent of the ruble's disintegration in recent days has also raised fears that the Russian government could resort to more extreme measures, including restrictions on the free flow of capital, in order to restore stability to the market.
“There is a growing sense that the currency crisis is spiraling out of control,” London-based macroeconomic research company Capital Economics said in an emailed report Monday.
“Hard-liners inside the Kremlin are most likely to be making the case for capital controls.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

How Brownback Is Relying On O-Care To Close Kansas' Huge Budget Hole


"In the simple version, it would be like with your own bank account, you are transferring money from your savings account to your checking account," Duane Goossen, former Republican state legislator and state budget director who now blogs independently, told TPM in a phone interview on Friday.
The Kansas Health Institute first outlined what was happening in a story last week. They noted that Kansas Budget Director Shawn Sullivan didn't credit the federal law when explaining why the state would be able to use that money to close the gap.
"The additional revenue from the rebates is the result of higher-than-expected pharmacy utilization among the Kansas Medicaid population and better pharmacy program administration by the MCOs in the state,” Sullivan said, per KHI.
When contacted by the news agency, a state health department spokesperson initially told reporter Andy Marso that Obamacare "doesn't have a role" in the $55 million that will help save the state's finances. But the spokesperson later corrected themselves, saying they "had gotten incorrect information about the ACA's role in the pharmacy rebate program."
The rebate program is complicated, but here is the gist, as it was explained to TPM on Friday by George Washington University professor Brian Bauen. Under the program, pharmaceutical companies pay rebates to states and to the federal government, based on a percentage of their sales to the Medicaid program that year.
What the ACA did was allow Medicaid managed care (which is different than traditional fee-for-service) to participate in the drug rebate program. Kansas has recently reformed its Medicaid program to include significantly more managed care, though a health department spokesperson told TPM that the reforms had not been made because of the federal health care law.
Obamacare also increased the rebate rates, from 15.1 percent of the average manufacturer price for most brand-name drugs to 23.1 percent, and from 11 percent to 13 percent for generic drugs. The exact impact can be hard to suss out, but according to Bauen's analysis of federal data, Kansas saw an increase in rebates from $60 million in 2009 to $90 million in 2012.
So while Brownback's administration seems to want to credit more drug purchases and its own Medicaid reforms for the revenue that it is now using to fill its budget hole, Obamacare would also have played a role, as the health department spokesperson eventually acknowledged to KHI.
"Oh yeah, they definitely are saving money," Bauen said. The ACA "would have increased the revenue from rebates."
There are no legal restrictions for what states can do with the Medicaid rebate money, Bauen said. According to Goossen, it has historically been used to help pay for the state's Medicaid program. But desperate times, desperate measures.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fox News deceptively edits Al Sharpton’s anti-violence speech to include chant for ‘dead cops’


The Fox News morning show Fox & Friends edited a video clip of Rev. Al Sharpton to make it seem that demonstrators had chanted calls to kill police officers during his speech on Saturday, even though the two pieces of video were from two different cities.
“In Washington, the rally was held by the Rev. Al Sharpton, host of MSNBC program — and there he is,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson as video of Sharpton’s Saturday speech played. “Sharpton got up and explained, ‘We’re not against the police.’ This was his claim, listen.”
At that point, Fox News showed a clip from a protest later that evening in Manhattan.
“What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!” the protesters reportedly shouted.
The video then flipped back to Sharpton: “We’re not saying all police are bad. We’re not even saying most are bad. We’re not anti-police, but we’re anti-brutality. And the federal government must have a threshold to protect that.”
Fox News host Anna Kooiman pointed out after the clip aired that she had accidentally gotten stuck in traffic because of the protests in New York City, and never heard calls for violence against police.
“But what they were doing was making this into a racial issue,” Carlson opined. “What I don’t think this is about is race, I don’t think these are examples of racism. And I think it’s totally unhelpful to make this a conversation about white vs. black.”
“And it’s ridiculous to have it led by Al Sharpton who has zero credibility at all, he’s a hustler, and I think a criminal.”
Kooiman argued that instead of focusing on police violence and race issues, protesters should be outraged over bad parents in the black community.
“Where is the same outrage about the destruction of the family, and where are moms and dads in the household trying to raise kids right?” she asked. “Where’s the outrage about that? Or where’s the outrage when a police officer gets killed in the line of duty.”
Co-host Clayton Morris agreed that Sharpton should be speaking to protesters about the “real issue, which is the family breaking down.”
“Because it’s too hard!” Carlson exclaimed. “It’s so much easier — and you see the president of the United States doing this exact same thing. It’s so much easier just to claim white racism is America’s biggest problem.”
“It takes the onus off you, you don’t have to do anything about massive unemployment in the black community, about crime in the black community, about the destruction of the black family,” Carlson continued. “Those are the real issues. But you get to ignore them when you blame it all on racism.”...............................

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

17 Disgraceful Facts Buried In The Senate’s 600 Page Torture Report


The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s extensive use of torture reveals that the agency regularly misled the White House and Congress about the information it had obtained from detainees and used techniques that are far more brutal than it — or former Bush administration officials — had previously acknowledged.
For instance, President George W. Bush insisted that “[t]his government does not torture people” and claimed that the intelligence it produced was instrumental to preventing terrorism on American soil and capturing high-value targets, including Osama bin Laden. But the Committee’s five year investigation — and examination of more than six million CIA documents — reveals all of those assertions to be false.
For its part, the CIA acknowledged that it “did not always live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves” and “made mistakes” in how it ran the program, particularly “early on” when the CIA “was unprepared and lacked the core competencies required.” However, it insisted that “there are too many flaws for [this report] to stand as the official record of the program” and strongly disputed “that the agency’s assessments were willfully misrepresented in a calculated effort to manipulate.”
Republicans are similarly shielding the agency from criticism, claiming that the report is “ideologically motivated and distorted recounting of historical events.” “The fact that the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program developed significant intelligence that helped us identify and capture important al-Qa’ida terrorists, disrupt their ongoing plotting, and take down Usama Bin Ladin is incontrovertible,” Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement.
Below are just some of the most damning findings from the Committee’s report:
1. Torture did not lead the CIA to the courier who ultimately helped capture Osama bin Laden.
“The most accurate information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti — facilitator whose identification and tracking led to the identification of UBL’s compound and the operation that resulted in UBL’s death — “obtained from a CIA detainee was provided by a CIA detainee who had not yet been subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques; and CIA detainees who were subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques withheld and fabricated information about Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.” [Page 379]
2. CIA personnel objected to torture techniques, but were “instructed” by the CIA headquarters to continue.
“The non-stop use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was disturbing to CIA personnel at DETENTION SITE GREEN. These CIA personnel objected to the continued use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques against Abu Zubaydah, but were instructed by CIA Headquarters to continue using the techniques…”Several on the team profoundly affected.. .some to the point of tears and choking up. [Page 473]
3. The two psychologists who helped the CIA create the torture techniques earned over $81 million.
“In 2006, the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.” [Page 11]
4. Colin Powell was not briefed on CIA interrogation methods because he would “blow his stack”.
“At the direction of the White House, the secretaries of state and defense – both principals on the National Security Council – were not briefed on program specifics until September 2003. An internal CIA email from July 2003 noted that “… the WH [White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.” Deputy Secretary of State Armitage complained that he and Secretary Powell were “cut out” of the National Security Council coordination process.” [Page 7]
5. The CIA used rectal feeding on detainees.
“At least five CIA detainees were subjected to “rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. …Majid Khan’s “lunch tray” consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins was “pureed” and rectally infused. [Page 4]
6. CIA leadership refused to punish an officer who killed a detainee during torture session.
“On two occasions in which the CIA inspector general identified wrongdoing, accountability recommendations were overruled by senior CIA leadership. In one instance, involving the death of a CIA detainee at COBALT, CIA Headquarters decided not to take disciplinary action against an officer involved because, at the time, CIA… In another instance related to a wrongful detention, no action was taken against a CIA officer because, “[t]he Director strongly believes that mistakes should be expected in a business filled with uncertainty,” and “the Director believes the scale tips decisively in favor of accepting mistakes that over connect the dots against those that under connect them.” In neither case was administrative action taken against CIA management personnel.” [Page 14]
7. The CIA tortured innocent people.
“Of the 119 known detainees that were in CIA custody during the life of the program, at least 26 were wrongfully held. Detainees often remained in custody for months after the CIA determined they should not have been detained….Other KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] fabrications led the CIA to capture and detain suspected terrorists who were later found to be innocent.” [Page 485]
8. The CIA held an “intellectually challenged man” to use as leverage against his family.
“[A]n “intellectually challenged” man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information, two individuals who were intelligence sources for foreign liaison services and were former CIA sources, and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.” [Page 12]
9. The CIA intentionally mislead the media to “shape public opinion.”
“The CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and senior CIA officials coordinated to share classified information on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program to select members of the media to counter public criticism, shape public opinion, and avoid potential congressional action to restrict the CIA’s detention and interrogation authorities and budget.” [Page 8]
10. CIA officers threatened to kill and rape detainees’ mothers.
“CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee's] mother’s throat.” [Page 4]
11. The CIA dismissed information that wasn’t obtained through torture, even though it proved to be true.
“KSM’s reporting during his first day in CIA custody included an accurate description of a Pakistani/British operative, which was dismissed as having been provided during the initial “‘throwaway’ stage” of information collection when the CIA believed detainees provided false or worthless information.’” [Page 82]
12. CIA torture techniques included mock burials and use of insects.
“(1) the attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap, (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) waterboard, (10) use of diapers, (11) use of insects, and (12) mock burial.” [Page 32]
13. Some interrogators had previously admitted to sexual assault.
“The Committee reviewed CIA records related to several CIA officers and contractors involved in the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, most of whom conducted interrogations. The Committee identified a number of personnel whose backgrounds include notable derogatory information calling into question their eligibility for employment, their access to classified information, and their participation in CIA interrogation activities. In nearly all cases, the derogatory information was known to the CIA prior to the assignment of the CIA officers to the Detention and Interrogation Program. This group of officers included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.” [Page 59]
14. One interrogator played Russian roulette.
“Among other abuses…had engaged in ‘Russian Roulette’ with a detainee.” [Page 424]
15. The CIA tortured its own informants by accident.
“In the spring of 2004, after two detainees were transferred to CIA custody, CIA interrogators proposed, and CIA Headquarters approved, using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques on one of the two detainees because it might cause the detainee to provide information that could identify inconsistencies in the other detainee’s story. After both detainees had spent approximately 24 hours shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position, CIA Headquarters confirmed that the detainees were former CIA sources. The two detainees had tried to contact the CIA on multiple occasions prior to their detention to inform the CIA of their activities and provide intelligence. [Page 133]
16. The CIA tortured detainees in a dungeon.
“Conditions at CIA detention sites were poor, and were especially bleak early in the program. CIA detainees at the COBALT detention facility were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste. Lack of heat at the facility likely contributed to the death of a detainee. The chief of interrogations described COBALT as a “dungeon.” Another seniorCIA officer stated that COBALT was itself an enhanced interrogation technique.” [Page 4]
17. The CIA spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the torture program.
“CIA records indicate that the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program cost well over $300 million in non-personnel costs. This included funding for the CIA to construct and maintain detention facilities, including two facilities costing nearly $X million that were never used, in part due to host country political concerns. To encourage governments to clandestinely host CIA detention sites, or to increase support for existing sites, the CIA provided millions of dollars in cash payments to foreign government officials.” [Page 16]

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

ND landowners believe state is bowing to oil companies

ANTLER, N.D. – As state officials met in Bismarck to approve new oil conditioning standards and to discuss the drop in crude oil prices, landowners from the Oil Patch gathered at a separate meeting to review a different side of the Bakken oil boom – spills, soil contamination and landowner rights.
Landowners gathered in Antler, north of Minot near the U.S.-Canadian border, on Tuesday and discussed with David Glatt, director of the state Department of Health, how the state is working to limit harmful spills, improve land reclamation and protect the rights of North Dakotans.
The small group that gathered decided a meeting involving more of the players in the game was needed, along with more in depth discussions and explanations about policies.
Organized by state Reps. Bob Hunskor, D-Newburg and Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, the meeting was also supposed to include the director of the state Department of Mineral Resources Lynn Helms, but he was at the state Industrial Commission meeting on oil conditioning in Bismarck.
The state representatives, who have only a small voice in the Republican-dominated state Legislature, said the meeting was meant to improve communication between the landowners and the state agencies regulating the oil industry.
“How do we make things better?” Hunskor asked. “The oil companies are not going anywhere anytime soon and landowners aren’t leaving.”
Many of the frustrations voiced during the meeting stemmed from the perception that state officials have bowed to the interests of oil companies to the detriment of landowners – a growing concern in the state.
“I’m disappointed with the governor,” landowner Pete Artz said. “I believe they let the flood of money take over.”
The meeting comes two weeks after The New York Times published two investigative stories that quantified the number of oil and saltwater spills in the state and questioned the way the Industrial Commission regulates an industry that it also promotes.
Those stories also covered how the Industrial Commission commonly reduces fines for companies that violate regulations, a practice Helms and Gov. Jack Dalrymple said helps to foster cooperation between the oil companies and the state.