Every day, the National Security Agency's massive surveillance apparatus hoovers up nearly 5 billion records drawn from the location data of cell phones around the world. That's according to the Washington Post's latest installment in their coverage of the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Snowden saga has taken a very different turn. On Tuesday, Alan Rusbridger, the affable, rumpled editor of the Guardian appeared before a Parliamentary committee to testify about his paper's articles based on the Snowden documents. Wednesday's article in the Post about the NSA's collection of geolocation data is one of the most aggressive articles since the Snowden documents began appearing in public. The article details specific tactics used by the NSA in utilizing cell phone data and exposes several innovative methods used by the agency in tracking its targets. It also reveals that Americans' geolocation data are often "incidentally" hoovered up as well. Despite all this, it is all but unimaginable that Marty Baron, the editor of the Post, would be dragged before Congress and made to testify about his editorial decisions.
When he was asked on Tuesday whether he loves "this country," Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian's affable, rumpled editor scoffed at the question. "We live in a democracy. Most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country," he said. "But yes, we are patriots, and one of the things that we are patriotic about is the nature of a democracy, and the nature of a free press, and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things."
Rusbridger was speaking before a Parliamentary hearing on the stories his paper and others have run about the documents provided by Edward Snowden. Those articles have shed unprecedented light on the massive data collection and surveillance tools employed by the National Security Agency and its allied agencies. Critics of Snowden and the papers who have run stories based on those documents have repeatedly argued that they pose a dangerous threat to national security and expose intelligence practices that they say have prevented another major terrorist attack like those of Sept. 11, 2001. On Wednesday, the Washington Post published the latest installment in their coverage of the Snowden leaks when they revealed that the NSA is gathering nearly 5 billion records every day on the location of cell phones around the world.
On Tuesday, the British government and its allies in Parliament made clear to just what lengths they may be willing to go in order to prevent additional such stories from being published. While they aren't about to admit it outright, that response is based on large part on a doctrine known as prior restraint, aimed at suppressing material before it is published.
That's a doctrine that's been largely discredited and outlawed in the United States. The same can't be said for the United Kingdom.
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It's Wall Street's latest counterstrike against Washington and its attempts to rein in the financial industry after the crisis that plunged the U.S. economy into recession in 2008. And if the legal attack is successful, it could leave an opening for banks to return to some of the dangerous deals that were a Wall Street hallmark before the crash.
The trade groups, which represent U.S. and international banks, filed a lawsuit Wednesday aimed at one of the central parts of the regulatory overhaul intended to prevent another financial crisis like 2008. It's the latest step in a long campaign by global banks to push back on stricter U.S. regulation and oversight of trades done in other countries. If a judge agrees with the Wall Street groups, it could spell the end for a central plank of the law meant to curtail risky trading and make the banking system safer.
Wall Street's chief trade group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, along with two international trade groups, sued to stop the United States from regulating deals American banks do abroad. In a complaint filed Wednesday, the trade groups ask the court to "halt an unprecedented and unlawful effort" by U.S. regulators to "regulate financial activity around the world."
Regulators have beat back some of Wall Street's legal challenges, like a suit by Bloomberg LLP over other trading rules. But this suit comes at a vulnerable time. The chief regulator who pushed for the provision is about to step down. If it's shot down, it's unlikely to be passed again in the same form.
The lawsuit challenges one of the most controversial aspects of the regulatory overhaul: rules for complex contracts called derivatives. Derivatives are financial contracts linked to the value of something else, like interest rates or currency exchange rates. Companies and financial firms use the contracts to offset risk in their business or to bet on the fluctuating values. After the financial crisis, lawmakers targeted derivatives as an accelerant to the financial crisis and decided to rein in the market with regulations aimed at making it more transparent and less risky.
Derivatives brought insurance giant American International Group to its knees during the financial crisis. Too many derivatives deals souring at the same time nearly killed the insurance giant, but they also linked the failing company to lots of other firms on Wall Street, threatening to bring them all down with it. The U.S. government opted to rescue the insurer, rather than face a possible financial market collapse.
Some of those AIG derivatives deals were done in London. That's been an oft-repeated talking point for the regulator charged with writing the new derivatives rules, Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairman Gary Gensler. Gensler has agued that if U.S. regulations don't apply to U.S. banks and hedge funds doing deals in other countries, you might as well "blow a hole out of the bottom" of the new oversight regime.
Gensler has faced pushback not only from Wall Street lobbyists, but also fellow Democrats and other U.S. regulators. But by far his most vocal critics have been European and Asian officials, who have argued that the United States is overstepping its jurisdiction. Gensler compromised with his critics in July, delaying part of the new regulatory regime, but now he faces a new challenge in court just as he is about to leave the agency at the end of the year.
A spokesman for Mr. Gensler's agency declined to comment.
U.S. and international banks, through their trade groups, are arguing that the agency is hurting global derivatives markets. The trade groups said regulators were "harming the business relationships of U.S. companies" by "dictating private parties' obligations through sudden and unpredictable regulatory fiat." Stephen O'Connor, chairman of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, said on a conference call that the rules would be "harmful to the global economy" because non-U.S. banks will stop doing business with American ones because they don't want to get roped into the U.S. regulatory system.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of challenges to the financial overhaul law, which have targeted rules on everything from mutual funds to the labeling of products that contain minerals from conflict-torn countries. The suits have been successful in some cases and have forced regulators to move more slowly and carefully in rolling out the new rules. But if this challenge is successful, it'll be the biggest blow yet to the regulator that has moved swiftest in completing its post-crisis rules.
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Guantánamo Bay's reputation as the dark heart of America's war on terror tends to overshadow its more banal role as a naval base -- filled with troops, their families and, to a lesser extent, their pretty, pretty cars.
Late last month, the base organized a car show for its residents to show off their wheels while enjoying the temperate Caribbean climate. "From POV to Command, we want you! Get that auto shinned up and ready for show. Categories to include: GTMO Specials, Classics, Motorcycles, Cars, Trucks, and last but not least Command Vehicles," Gitmo's Morale, Readiness, and Welfare organization announced.
According to the account of the event that ran in the Wire, the base newsletter, engines roared, "gargantuan bass sound systems" rumbled, and polished chrome tail pipes gleamed. (In some other corner of the base, Gitmo's roughly 160 detainees continued their indefinite incarceration. Could they hear the rumbling of the bass?)
Say what you will about China's state-run media -- they are enthusiastic cheerleaders. On Dec. 2 Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-graft organization, published its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, which scored China at 40 out of 100 points, and ranked it 80th out of the 177 countries and territories surveyed. Yet what caught the attention of China's Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, was the country's progress: Although China's ranking remained unchanged from 2012, its 2013 grade has risen by a single point on a 100-point scale.
The Global Times gleefully covered the news in a widely reposted Dec. 4 article entitled "Transparency International: China's Transparency Index Improves for Three Continuous Years." Transparency International has warned against comparisons with pre-2012 data, in part because the organization has changed its methodology. But this did not stop the Global Times from arguing China's improved grade "shows that the international community continues to think more and more highly of China's anti-corruption efforts." (Corruption remains endemic in China, and President Xi Jinping's months-long effort to curtail it have thus far fallen short.)
The OECD's test score rankings of 15-year-olds around the globe came out Tuesday, and, as usual a familiar set of faces tops the charts. Shanghai (which, as many have pointed out, is not a country), Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Korea, and Japan continue to dominate in math. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to stagnate and declinists continue to fret.
But overlooked amidst this familiar routine is the ongoing rise of Poland: Eastern Europe's new education powerhouse.
Poland -- that ex-Warsaw Pact world-beater -- continued its run up the charts of the last decade, earning spots in the top ten in reading (10) and science (9), and turning in a strong performance in math (14). It outperformed much wealthier countries, from Britain to Sweden, across the board, and even nudged out the Canadians in science.
This is from a country that in the early 1990s had one of the lowest participation rates in secondary education -- that is, high school level schooling -- among OECD countires. When the country took the test in 2000, nearly 70 percent of basic vocational school students tested at the lowest literacy level. The country's transformation has been much-admired in education policy circles. This year, Poland was treated as an education superpower alongside the likes of South Korea and the vaunted Finns in journalist Amanda Ripley's book The Smartest Kids in the World. As Britain's Daily Telegraph put it: The former eastern-bloc country's schools may "make a poor impression on the outside. But the ageing and slightly shabby appearance of the buildings belie...one of the world's best performing education systems."
How did Poland get from there to here? The end of communism in Poland saw massive reforms of a sort that other societies might struggle to undertake. Like many other eastern bloc countries, Poland had an education system organized around the express purpose of preparing people for jobs. Students were put into a rigid tracking system that promptly funneled them into vocational or technical schools following primary school. Only the top 20 percent of students went on to an academia-focused secondary education.
Part of the overhaul included shortening the amount of time spent in primary school from 8 years to 6, then tacking on three years of middle school so that students had an extra year before being put onto a vocational track. They also included, of course, stripping out the ideological part of the curriculum, developing the concept of a core curriculum to give schools more local autonomy, and introduced a system of tests at the end of primary and middle school, among other reforms.
Are there lessons in Poland's speedy rise up the charts for countries whose education systems might be struggling? That depends, of course, on what you think was really behind the the improvement. As this great blog post by Jay Greene (h/t Ben Wildavsky) points out, the release of these results every three years or so functions as a sort of Rorschach test, where people see what they want to see. The World Bank believes giving students an extra year before putting them on a vocational track made the difference; Polish educators interviewed by the Telegraph argued that repression under communism gave Polish people a thirst for knowledge. Or maybe you're one of those people who wants to argue that the importance of these tests is overblown.
Whatever the case, it's a reminder that the PISA scores contain more than just the story of "Diligent Asia, indolent West" as the Economist put it, that tends to dominate headlines. So: while you're busy fretting about the Korean or the Taiwanese students who will steal your child's job someday, don't forget to keep an eye on those Poles.
JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BEIRUT - As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gained the upper hand over an internal uprising in the past year, he received a major boost from his allies across the Middle East. The Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Iranian military advisors, have all been key in turning the tide of the battle. Now, it appears a new group has entered the fray on the side of the Assad regime: Shiite fighters from Afghanistan.
After a dozen years in Afghanistan and thousands of Americans lives lost, the United States also finds itself in an awkward position by the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While the U.S. occupation of the country was intended to pave the way for the eradication of lawless militias, fighters from Afghanistan are now engaged on both sides of the Syrian conflict. In addition to the Afghan Shiite fighters, a small number of Afghan jihadists have also joined the rebel cause. This dynamic is even clearer in Iraq, where Shiite militias and Sunni jihadists have also joined the Syrian battle - reopening old sectarian wounds and threatening the fragile stability back home.
Now, the Syrian war may be helping to bring these same Sunni-Shiite animosities to Southeast Asia. At the behest of Saudi Arabia, Pakistani military trainers have already been employed to train Syrian rebels - even as Pakistan struggles with sectarian violence that has claimed the lives of hundreds of Shiites over the past year. One Pakistani source cited this violence as one of the most important reasons that Islamabad could not intervene more aggressively in Syria, saying simply, "They have their hands full."
Tasnim News Agency, an Iranian news site close to the country's hardliners, reported recently that 10 Afghan fighters were "martyred" in Syria defending the Sayyida Zeinab Shrine, a Shiite holy site south of Damascus. The bodies of the fighters, according to the article, were then sent to Iran where they were buried in the cities of Mashhad, Isfahan, Tehran, and Qom. The funeral for two of the fighters in Qom, Ibrahim Rezai and Najibullah Mirzai, was reportedly attended by a large number of Afghan refugees.
There have long been scattered claims from partisans on both sides that Afghan Shiites were fighting alongside Assad's forces. As researcher Phillip Smyth wrote over the summer, Syrian rebel supporters were the first to make the claim, passing around a video allegedly showing an Afghan Shiite fighter firing a machine gun. Facebook posts from Assad supporters, meanwhile, also claimed that Afghan fighters had joined the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, a Shiite militant group fighting in Syria that includes many foreign fighters.
But beyond these claims in social media, there was scant evidence that Afghan Shiites were actually present in Syria - until now.
"Seeing as Tasnim has been out there with this, [Afghan Shiite fighters] are finally getting more official credit" for fighting in Syria, said Smyth. "It's important to note that all of the ‘Afghan martyrs' were never named before this point."
Tasnim News Agency was launched last year with the explicit purpose of "defending the Islamic Revolution against negative media propaganda." Its launch was attended by former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who ran for president in 2013 with the support of some elements of Iran's conservative establishment. It is considered by some analysts to be close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and indeed has been the first news agency to publish some IRGC statements and interviews with top IRGC commanders.
While the Assad regime has played down the importance of foreign fighters in its recent gains, Iranian media may have an incentive to publicize the exploits of its allies in Syria. By publicizing the presence of Lebanese, Iraqi, and now Afghan fighters, outlets like Tasnim News Agency may be seeking to craft an image of "a global, mainly Shia jihad in Syria," said Smyth.
Afghanistan's Shiite community comprises roughly 20 percent of the country's population, according to a CIA estimate. The community was brutally persecuted by the Taliban during the 1990s, though has seen their lot improve somewhat under the new government. Even as some Afghan Shiite fighters appear to be supporting Assad, the Taliban has publicly supported the rebellion, releasing a statement in August that "the oppressed Syrian nation has been burning in a raging fire."
Some analysts, however, believe that Iranian officials may be employing their Afghan allies in Syria with the express purpose of preparing them for future battles in their own country.
"Facilitating Afghans volunteers for the Shia cause in Syria not only means a response to Saudi mobilization of transnational Sunni radicals to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's regime," said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow focused on the IRGC at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish American think tank. "[I]t also provides combat experience to Afghan Shia whose country most likely will descend into another dark war by proxy when the U.S. forces leave Afghanistan."
SALAH AL-ASHKAR/AFP/Getty Images
No facility is more important at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons research facility, than the so-called "Superblock." Situated at the heart of the 820-acre complex, the Superblock handles the facility's plutonium, a key component in nuclear weapons. The facility is protected by a mesh fence to guard against airplanes, ultra-thick walls, and Gatling guns.
But one recently spotted feature at the Superblock probably isn't part of those security arrangements. Someone -- it's unclear who -- has added a beach volleyball court inside its premises.
The United States wants China to pull back from its gambit to try to rewrite the East China Sea's status quo, but the Chinese are having none of it. On Dec. 2, the U.S. State Department said China's newly-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), a California-sized swath over the East China Sea that includes a disputed island chain the Chinese call the Diaoyu and the Japanese call the Senkaku, has "caused confusion and increased the risk of accidents." U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sounded a similar warning while in Tokyo, before departing for Beijing this week.
Chinese have heard this argument before, and they are still not convinced.
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