Tuesday, December 23, 2014

12-23-14 Newsletter

December 23, 2014, Issue 211
For email notices sabout new publication, contact us — jacdon@earthlink.net
For calendar (click) December Calendar
1.   Quotes of The Month: José Martí (1853-1895)
2.   Welcome Home Cuban Five!
3.   Behind Obama’s Change of Cuba Policy
4.   Islamic State Enslaves Thousands of Women
5.   Hunger, Homelessness Rise in U.S. Cities
6.   New York Paves the Way to Ban Fracking
7.   Twas The Night Before Xmas, Or Maybe Not
8.   Books: "Hand To Mouth"
9.   Mixed Results at UN Climate Meeting
10. Economically, China’s Number One
11. Obama Names Hawkish Defense Secretary
12. Obama Tightens Chokehold on Russia
13. Shameful Revelations in Torture Report
14. Saudi Oil and the Shi’ite Crescent

15. German State Elects Socialist Leader
     José Martí (1853-1895)

Writer, poet, political theorist and revolutionary, Martí was killed in 1895 at the age of 42 leading the Cuban people’s second war of independence from Spain. He was exiled to Spain at 16 for participating in the first liberation struggle but eventually made his way back to Cuba 
via the U.S. Martí is Cuba’s national hero for his selfless sacrifices to defeat Spanish colonialism and for his fame in the field of Latin American literature. He is honored in Cuba as his country's “Apostle of Cuban Independence.

1.     If I survive, I will spend my whole life at the oven door seeing that no one is denied bread and, so as to give a lesson of charity, especially those who did not bring flour.

2.     There can be no racial animosity, because there are no races.... The soul, equal and eternal, emanates from bodies of different shapes and colors. Whoever foments and spreads antagonism and hate between the races, sins against humanity.

3.     We are free, but not to be evil, not to be indifferent to human suffering, not to profit from the people, from the work created and sustained through their spirit of political association, while refusing to contribute to the political state that we profit from.

4.     Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.

5.     Happiness exists on earth, and it is won through prudent exercise of reason, knowledge of the harmony of the universe, and constant practice of generosity.

6.     One just principle from the depths of a cave is more powerful than an army.

7.     Life on Earth is a hand-to-hand mortal combat... between the law of love and the law of hate.

                              2. WELCOME HOME CUBAN FIVE!

By the Activist Newsletter

As a result of the Dec. 17 agreement lowering tensions between the United States and Cuba, the Cuban Five are shown back together in their homeland Dec. 20 for the first time in 16 years. The five men were unjustly imprisoned in the United States after being arrested by the FBI on Sept. 12, 1998, and convicted in U.S. federal court in Miami in 2001, in a political prosecution by the U.S. government. They are Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González.

The Five, who were sent to different U.S. prisons far from Cuba, were falsely accused by the U.S. government of committing espionage conspiracy against the United States, and other related charges. Their actions were never directed at the U.S. They were on a mission in Miami, beginning in 1990, to monitor the actions of Miami-based terrorist groups, in order to prevent those groups from carrying out attacks on their country.

They never harmed anyone or ever possessed any weapons. Their objective was to warn Havana beforehand if they learned an attack was planned. For more than 40 years, terrorist organizations based in Miami have engaged in hundreds of terrorist activities against Cuba, and against anyone who advocates a normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. A total of 3,478 Cubans have died as a result of terrorist violence, and 2,099 have been injured.

The men are considered national heroes in Cuba and their homecoming was tumultuous. Many American individuals and groups supported the five during during their 16 years of imprisonment, primarily the National Committee to support the Cuban Five (http://www.freethefive.org).


Students celebrated in Havana after news that the  Cuban Five heroes are free at last.      AFP/Getty Image

“The United States seems destined to plague us with
miseries in the name of liberty.”
Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of Latin America

“Once the United States is in Cuba, who will get it out?
José Martí, Cuban national hero.

By Jack A. Smith, Editor

Fair minded people and governments around the world have praised the U.S. decision to finally ease up on Cuba after 55 years of unmitigated hostility. The final agreement, which included a prisoner swap, was hammered out in nine meetings over 18 months of secret talks in Canada between representatives of Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro, with the Vatican acting as intermediary.

But what is the true meaning of President Obama’s historic announcement Dec. 17 about establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and eliminating some — though hardly all — of the diverse punishments imposed upon this small socialist society a stone’s throw away from the vengeful Yankee Colossus?

It means that efforts to destroy the communist government of Cuba — from a CIA invasion to the imposition of seemingly endless draconian economic and political sanctions — have failed. In this David-Goliath contest, David was seriously wounded, but won. However, there is a second round to this competition that will likewise test David’s powers.

Obama’s policy change does not signify Washington accepts the existence of socialist or communist governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. They remain forbidden in the hemisphere presided over by the world’s richest and most militarily powerful capitalist state. Washington’s continual effort to undermine Venezuela’s momentum toward socialism is one more evidence of this fact.

The United States remains dedicated to transforming or ejecting revolutionary socialism in Cuba but recognizes the old Cold War method didn’t work. The “bad cop” with the bludgeon botched the job, so the “good cop” with the smile takes over.

President Obama and President Raul Castro
earlier this year in South Africa at the 

for President Nelson Mandela.
This is why Raul Castro, who became president when his ailing brother Fidel stepped down in 2006, made it clear in a speech Dec. 20 that communism will not fade away. “Every country has the inalienable right to choose its own political systems,” he said. “No one can claim that improving relations with the United States means Cuba is renouncing its ideas.” At the end of the speech he declared “Viva Fidel,” a tribute to the elderly infirm man who helped keep the wolf from the door all these years.

This new U.S. approach still remains an act of uninvited intervention by a powerful country into the affairs of a small country. Washington’s continuing intention is to transform a socialist society into a capitalist society in the name of bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to Cuba along with foreign investment and substantial support for “civil society” but not the government.

This perspective intentionally overlooks the liberalizing changes that have been made by the Havana regime over the last several years under the leadership of President Castro and the Communist Party that are part of a long-range plan to modernize the society within a socialist context. The Obama Administration wants modernization toward capitalism, not socialism.

Obama’s speech and the just published White House “Fact Sheet” on Cuba make this clear if one reads between the lines.

In the speech, Obama declared: “In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.... 

“Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades. We have done so primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island, preventing the most basic travel and commerce that Americans can enjoy anyplace else.  And though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people. Today, Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power half a century ago.... I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight.... U.S. engagement will be critical when appropriate and will include continued strong support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms.”

Remembrances of Che Guavara adorn many walls.
“Overnight?” The implication about an eventual transformation is clear in the fact sheet: “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.... Today, the President announced additional measures to end our outdated approach, and to promote more effectively change in Cuba that is consistent with U.S. support for the Cuban people and in line with U.S. national security interests.” 

In effect, the White House indicated all that was wrong with its “well-intentioned” effort to crush a sovereign country was that it flopped. Actually, Washington’s anti-Cuba policy amounted to a gross long-term violation of the human rights of 11 million Cuban citizens in hopes they would rebel under such pressure, but they didn’t.

The program about which the Oval Office is “proud” included: Over five decades of strangulating economic and political sanctions; thousands of acts of subversion; an invasion and war; completely cutting off credit and loans from international banks; preventing free trade; hundreds of attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro; crop destructions, travel bans; uninterrupted anti-Cuban propaganda; and support for terrorist exile groups safely headquartered in Florida. Cuba’s only retaliation was to survive.

The U.S. added Cuba to Washington’s State Sponsor of Terrorism list 32 years ago, although the country has not engaged in or sponsored terrorism. The designation was intended to embarrass and further cripple the country by tightening restrictions. Among Obama’s new measures is a six-month study to determine whether the designation should be removed. Members of the Cuban Five, who were traded for a Cuban and American in the island’s prisons, were accused of spying on the U.S. but they actually were anti-terrorist agents eavesdropping on violent Cuban exile organizations in Florida. The U.S. was well aware of this fact when they jailed the five for 16 years.

University students  celebrate Cuba-U.S. agreement Dec. 18.
Other aspects of President Obama’s new policy include: Discussions with Cuba on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, which the U.S. severed in July 1961; opening the embassy in Havana (until now called the U.S. Interests Section); carrying out high-level exchanges and visits; working with Cuba on matters of mutual concern and that advance U.S. national interests; ending, not just loosening travel restrictions; raising remittance levels from $500 to $2,000 per quarter for general donative remittances to Cuban nationals; making efforts to empower the nascent Cuban private sector; initiating certain limited trade areas; availing Cuban citizens with more sophisticated communications equipment.

The remaining issue — the biggest — is sanctions, which have not been ended. Sanctions serve a critical function in crushing Cuba but have also become a major international humiliation for the United States. On Oct. 28 the UN General Assembly voted for the 23rd year in a row to condemn the U.S. commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba. This year’s vote was 188-2, with only Israel siding with Washington.

Obama indicated he wanted to drop sanctions but said that was a matter for Congress, where the Republicans will control both houses. He has some executive powers in this regard, but Congress is responsible for passing two of the most important anti-Cuba restrictions. Obama stated: “We cannot unilaterally bring down the embargo.... I don’t anticipate that that happens right away.” President Castro later noted, “an important step was taken, but the essential problem of the economic embargo still needs to be solved.” Without this, all talk of even a phony rapprochement is virtually meaningless.

Bipartisan sanctions, the worst of Washington’s retribution for Cuba’s choice of socialism, have been growing in strength since first launched in 1960 by President Eisenhower. President Kennedy increased sanctions in 1962 following his failed invasion a year earlier. In 1992, after the Soviet Union imploded — a tragedy for Cuba, which lost its biggest trading partner by far — Congress passed the mislabeled Cuban Democracy Act that extended the economic and trade sanctions to subsidiaries of U.S. firms abroad. In 1996 President Clinton signed the cruelest measure of all, the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act, also known as the Helms-Burton bill, which not only bars any foreign company from trading with Cuba but also has an attached proviso permitting Congress to supersede a White House order to end the program.

Many Republicans, but not all, are determined to retain the sanctions, Many, but fewer Democrats, have supported the sanctions but most will now follow their president.

An encouraging sign in the end-sanctions argument is the fact that very large sectors of U.S. business and agriculture desperately want access to the Cuban market which has been deprived of many goods for decades. The New York Times reported Dec. 18: “Within hours of President Obama’s historic move to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, companies in the United States were already developing strategies to introduce their products and services to a market they have not been in for the better part of 50 years — if ever.”

In addition to the failure of the White House anti-Cuba policy up until now, another reason for change is that the U.S. has lost considerable authority in Latin America and the Caribbean in the last 15 years. This is a region of nearly 600 million people over which Uncle Sam ruled for 100 or so years.

The prolonged mistreatment of Cuba by its northern neighbor is certainly a factor in reduced influence. Most Latin American governments have insisted on a change in U.S. behavior toward Havana. They have developed close relations with Cuba. Another factor has been Havana’s continual criticism of Washington’s neoliberal policies, which has had an important impact on the region and was picked up by progressive nations such as Venezuela and Bolivia, among others.

 Hardliners protest in Miami Dec. 20.    Joe Raedle/Getty.     
The reaction to Obama’s announcement from the nearly two million Cubans in the U.S. is more muted than anticipated. The mostly older “anti-Castro” hardliners are a passing breed. A small demonstration of the ultras took place in Miami Dec. 20, mainly denouncing Obama for selling them out. At the rally, according to the Times, Roberto Delgado Ramos, 78, declared that “all Obama is doing is throwing a lifeline to the Castros so that they can continue crushing the people of Cuba.”

Florida International University in Miami, which has been polling Cuban-Americans since 1991, reported in a recent poll of Cuban-Americans that 68% favor restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. (Among younger respondents, it was 90%.) Some 69% of all respondents favor the lifting of travel restrictions impeding all Americans from traveling to Cuba. Regarding elections, 53% said they would be likely to vote for a "candidate for political office who supported the reestablishment of diplomatic relations." A large majority of 71% thought the U.S. embargo of Cuba either has not worked at all or has not worked very well.

The great majority of people in the United States know little about the situation in Cuba before what they have been told was a “communist takeover,” but it is a large factor explaining Havana’s intense commitment to national independence.

Fidel waving from tank entering Havana, Jan. 1, 1959.
At 10 minutes after 2 o’clock on the New Year’s morning of Jan. 1, 1959, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista frantically boarded a plane in Havana to flee his country as liberation forces of the 26th of July Movement, led by Fidel Castro, were preparing to declare victory throughout the largest island in the Caribbean Sea after several years of intense struggle.

Fidel, this year at 88, visited by Brazilian
Dilma  Roussef.
The peoples’ victory was the first time in 467 years that Cuba was totally cleansed of foreign domination. This is certainly a compelling reason why loyalist Cubans have held on so tenaciously to national independence against the brutal Yankee onslaught.

Spain claimed possession of the island when it was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492, oppressing the native people, African slaves and former slaves until 1898 when the U.S. seized Cuba in the Spanish-American War. The Cubans themselves, who had earlier launched two liberation wars that did not succeed, demanded control of their own country after Spain’s fall but were brushed aside by Washington.

U.S. military forces took command on Jan. 1, 1899. A one-sided independence arrangement was forced upon the Cubans in 1902 transforming the country in effect into a U.S. protectorate. Washington controlled much of Cuba  — particularly its foreign affairs and less so the economy— ordering U.S. Marines to restore imperial order from time to time in the early decades of the relationship. (The right of the U.S. to occupy sole use of Guantanamo for insignificant rent emanated from this period. Cuba has sought its return for decades but was thwarted. The territory now functions as a detention and torture facility for its high and mighty neighbor.)

Testifying before a Congressional committee soon after the 1959 revolution, former U.S. ambassador to Havana Earl Smith stated: “Until the advent of Castro... the American ambassador was the second most important [official] in Cuba, sometimes even more important than the [Cuban] president.”  Batista, the last Washington puppet, was a corrupt, anti-democratic dictator who catered to the wealthy and U.S. criminal elements which invested heavily in turning Havana into a playground for foreign tourists, featuring big time gambling and prostitution.

It is amazing that the Havana government managed to survive Washington’s hostility, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its associated countries nearly a quarter century ago. The U.S. created extremely hard times for the Cuban people, many of whom took advantage of the policy providing all those who reached American shores from Cuba with an immediate green card and various benefits to settle in Florida or New Jersey. This was done to embarrass the Havana government. In the early years after the revolution it was mainly the better off sector of the population that left for the U.S. Later, the reasons were largely economic.

Friends of Cuba throughout the world are overjoyed by the news Obama is modifying U.S. antagonism toward Cuba, and most also realize that Yankee “friendship” could well be a two-edged sword intended to “capture the castle from within.”

There can be little doubt, however, that once the economic boycott is terminated and the U.S. removes its chokehold of sabotage, propaganda and continual efforts to manipulate the political direction of the Havana government, Cuba at last will breathe freely and socialism will have the opportunity to flourish.



A 15-year-old Yazidi girl enslaved by the Islamic State (face concealed)                    AP Photo
By the Activist Newsletter

The religio-fascist Islamic State occupying portions of Iraq and Syria has been responsible for the abduction and enslavement of thousands of women and sometimes their children as well. This doesn’t count women who have been molested but not abducted.

According to the Russian newssite Sputnik Dec. 14: “The Research and Fatwa Department of the Islamic State has released what it calls a Pamphlet on Female Slaves. The manual, written in the form of a Q&A, has been translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based press monitoring organization, and posted on its website.

“Amongst other revelations, the Pamphlet equates female captives to disposable property and allowing them to be put up for sale. 'It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of as long as that doesn't cause [the Muslim ummah, i.e., collective community] any harm or damage.'”

Most of the enslaved women were captured in the Yazidi sector of  of Kurdish Iraq. The Yazidis are an ancient non-Muslim people practicing a religion linked to Zoroastrianism.

According to Vian Dakhil, the only Yazdi MP in Iraq’s Parliament, some 5,000 Yazidi girls and women remain enslaved. She said that she had been in touch with several of the captives, who complained of daily torture and rape.

Journalist Scott Lucas, writing recently in EA WorldView, revealed: “The jihadists have now not only acknowledged the kidnappings and enslavements but have put forth a lengthy religious justification. In its official publication Dabiq, the Islamic State denounces the Yazidis as a sect which “never accepted Islam nor claimed to have adopted it.” Therefore, “their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates [lapsed Muslims] who… cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword.” (A video link to the a slave market, and a BBC report is at the end.)

The text continues: "If the owner dies, his female captives are distributed as part of his estate, just as all [other parts] of his estate [are distributed]. However, they may only provide services, not intercourse, if a father or [one of the] sons has already had intercourse with them, or if several [people] inherit them in partnership....

"It is permissible to beat the female slave as a [form of] darb ta'deeb [disciplinary beating], [but] it is forbidden to [use] darb al-takseer [literally, breaking beating], [darb] al-tashaffi [beating for the purpose of achieving gratification], or [darb] al-ta'dheeb [torture beating]. Further, it is forbidden to hit the face."

The manual also puts restrictions on having sexual intercourse with a captive woman, forbidding sex with the slave if she is not owned exclusively. "It is forbidden to have intercourse with a female captive if [the master] does not own her exclusively. One who owns [a captive] in partnership [with others] may not have sexual intercourse with her until the other [owners] sell or give him [their share]."

The pamphlet also states that running away from the master is "among the gravest of the sins."

— A 2:33 min. YouTube video of Islamic State young men joking and horsing around as they await the beginning of a slave auction is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJI5bqkVirI.
— A 3 min. BBC news clip of Yazidi women and children trafficked for sex is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ihFuB4hLQw.



By Nadia Prupis, Common Dreams, 12-12-14

Food insecurity and homelessness in cities around the country spiked in the past year, a new report released Dec. 11 has found.

According to the United States Conference of Mayors' annual Hunger and Homelessness Survey, 71% of the 25 cities surveyed saw an increase in requests for emergency food assistance — a majority of those coming from families. Low wages were the biggest cause of hunger among those cities, followed by poverty, unemployment, and high living costs.

The report comes as low-pay workers around the country continue to call for an increase in minimum wage, marching through their cities and staging strikes and protests in front of fast food restaurants and retail stores. Among those who reported needing food assistance in the Mayor’s report, 38% were employed.

In a troubling dynamic highlighted in the report, the increased need for public services has arrived alongside a decrease in government services. More than 80% of emergency kitchens had to slash the amount of food an individual could take in one visit or per meal. Of the 25 cities surveyed, 21 said they expected food needs to increase in the next year.

Homelessness also grew among families and individuals, a trend that was primarily caused by the lack of affordable housing, the report found. Unemployment was also one of the leading factors, followed by poverty and the lack of needed services for those struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.

A Department of Agriculture  study published in September reported that 50 million Americans continued to struggle with food insecurity, despite the so-called economic recovery, and the National Coalition for the Homeless reported that homelessness among children is higher now than at any point in U.S. history.


By Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch

Fantastic news came from New York State last week when the Cuomo administration announced its decision to ban fracking in the state. This exciting decision is a tribute to the many thousands of activists in various organizations who worked hard to protect the state from the ravages experienced elsewhere from high-volume hydraulic fracturing, the formal name of this dangerous but profitable method of extracting natural gas and oil from shale deposits.

On Dec. 17, the Gov. Cuomo convened a cabinet meeting where Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker presented the findings of the Department of Health’s review on fracking. He described the peer-reviewed studies showing that fracking contaminates air and water and harms health, and he highlighted that many of the long-term health effects are still unknown, as epidemiological studies have not been conducted. Commissioner Zucker ended his presentation by saying, “Would I live in a community that would allow fracking? The answer is no.”

Then in this real-time drama, Joe Martens, the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation indicated the department would issue “legally binding findings to prohibit high volume hydraulic fracturing in New York.” They will be included in the supplemental generic environmental impact study that will be released in the New Year, an approach that Gov. Cuomo supports, and that will effectively ban fracking in New York.

This is particularly exciting because just three years ago, conventional wisdom in New York’s mainstream environmental community held that fracking was inevitable in New York and that strong regulation was the best we could hope for. 

But Food & Water Watch, Frack Action, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Water Defense, United for Action, Citizen Action of New York and many other organizations joined together to launch New Yorkers Against Fracking (NYAF) – with the audacious goal of winning a complete ban in the state of New York.

For the next three years, thousands of people engaged in activities around the state, from massive demonstrations, to sending in comments to the Department of Environmental Conservation on the health risks of fracking. NYAF grew to over 250 national, state, and local groups. (Among the many groups active in the fracking fight is the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition, located in the town where the Activist Newsletter is situated.)

For the last two years, it has been impossible for Gov. Cuomo to go anywhere in the state without “fractivists” by the dozens, hundreds, or thousands rallying outside his appearances, delivering the clear message: ban fracking now. At his polling place this November, Cuomo recognized the movement as the most powerful protest movement in the state.

Organizing took place throughout the state.
In contrast to Cuomo’s decision, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley recently released regulations for fracking in his state. The Obama Administration’s EPA has refused to reopen investigations on instances of water contamination from fracking. Gov. Hickenlooper in Colorado continues to oppose even communities’ ability to prevent fracking. Gov. Brown in California continues to burry his head in the sand when it comes to the real health and environmental impacts of fracking, and Gov.-Elect Wolf in Pennsylvania is floating a severance tax as a way for the state to make money off fracking, rather than taking on this dangerous practice.

Politicians with national influence or larger political aspirations should take note that support for fracking nationally has fallen, especially among Democrats and Independents, over the past few years. A PEW poll issued this November found that a 47% plurality of Americans, 59% of Democrats and 53% of Independents nationally oppose increased fracking. This ban in New York comes exactly one week after Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced a bill to ban fracking on public lands, the strongest federal bill on fracking to date.

The decision in New York will have a ripple effect across the country and act to strengthen efforts against fracking nationwide. The story of how tens of thousands of fractivists fought and won in New York with their blood, sweat and tears is awe-inspiring and demonstrates that we should fight for what we want – not just the best that can be negotiated in a backroom deal or what others say is politically feasible. Instead we should work to change the political reality in order to win real improvements in people’s lives and protect our fragile planet for future generations.

— From Common Dreams, Dec. 18, 2014

By Valerie Tarico, AlterNet, Dec. 12, 2014

Psychologist Valerie Tarico interviews Dr. Tony Nugent, scholar of world religions. Dr. Nugent is a symbologist, an expert in ancient symbols. He taught at Seattle University for fifteen years in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and is an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Many Americans have heard that December 25 was a birthday of Roman gods long before it was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some people also know that our delightful mélange of Christmas festivities originated in ancient Norse, Roman and Druid traditions – or, in the case of Rudolph, on Madison Avenue. But where does the Christmas story itself come from: Jesus in the manger, the angels and wise men?

Nugent: The familiar Christmas story, including the virgin conception and birth of Jesus, is found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Scholars have pointed out that these stories are somewhat disconnected from other parts of these Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. In fact, by the time he is a young boy in the temple, Jesus’s parents seem to have forgotten the virgin birth. They act surprised by his odd behavior. There is never any other mention in the New Testament of these incredible events! These stories seem to be an afterthought, written later than the rest of the gospels that contain them. To make matters more interesting, the stories themselves have inconsistencies and ambiguities – contradictory genealogies, for example. Our Christmas story is actually a composite.

Or consider the idea that Mary is a virgin. The Greek writer of Matthew quotes Isaiah as saying: “a parthenos shall conceive and bear a child.” The Hebrew word in Isaiah is “almah,” which means simply “young woman.” But the Greek word parthenos can mean either a virgin or a young woman, and it got translated as “virgin.” Modern Bible translations have corrected this, but it is a central part of the Christmas story.

That’s a lot of added complications. If the rest of the New Testament doesn’t refer to these stories or need them, then how did we end up with them? Where do they come from?

Nugent: One part of the answer comes from Hellenistic culture. (It is no accident all New Testament books were written in Greek.) In this tradition, when a man did something extraordinary there was the assumption that he did this because he was different, either divine or semi-divine. They would make up a story about how he came to be divine. Almost all Greek heroes were said to be born of a human woman and a god–even Alexander the Great, Augustus and Pythagoras.

The father typically was Zeus or Apollo. The god would come and sleep with the woman, pretending to be the husband or as a bolt of lightning, or some such. Greek mythology also shows up in the book of Genesis: the gods lusting after the women and coming down and mating with them.

Why were they added to the Christian story?

Nugent: Jewish Christians, the first Christians, didn’t believe in the virgin birth. They believed that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. Part of their Christology was “adoptionism”–they thought Jesus was adopted as the unique son of God at some time later in life. There were disagreements about when – Mark suggests the baptism, Paul suggests the resurrection.

Over time, gentile Christianity replaced Jewish Christianity. There were Jewish-Roman Wars. The Jewish Christians were marginalized and oppressed. The Gentile branch became dominant. Eventually we get the gospel of John which pushes the sonship of Jesus back to the beginning of time. This writer is at the other end of the spectrum from the Jewish Christians.

No HO,HO, HO for this dear child.
But Matthew and Luke think that the sonship of Jesus began at birth. And they want to tell a story that reinforces this point. Matthew and Luke are the source of the Christmas story as most of us learned it.

Why didn’t the writers do a better job of cleaning the contradictions?

Nugent: They did, some. This is called the “orthodox corruption of scripture.” But it appears that these birth stories were added toward the end, so scripture got frozen before they could get integrated.

I was raised that the bible was the literally perfect, “inerrant” word of God, essentially dictated by God to the writers. What you are saying about the Christmas story sure calls into question this point of view.

Nugent: Which Bible?! There are thousands of manuscript variations. Most biblical stories are probably fiction, not non-fiction. They are mythology in the deepest sense of the word. But we need to get beyond the issue of whether biblical reports happened in the historical, physical sense to understand what they mean spiritually and mythically.

Ok. Back to Christmas. Of all the images from the Christmas story, the one that people fall in love with most is angels. The Christmas story is full of angels, beings of light. Is this because of the solstice tradition?

Nugent: Actually it comes from the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish scriptures that were eventually adopted into the Christian Bible as the Old Testament. It also comes from the Jewish literature written between the Old and New Testaments that didn’t get into the biblical canon. Some of these are even quoted in the New Testament, for example Enoch, from the 2nd Century BC. It’s all about angels.

What are angels in these stories? Who are they?

Nugent: The Bible calls them the sons of God, the Divine Council. The word used for God in parts of the Hebrew Bible, Elohim, is plural implying a family of deities. Angels are the lesser gods of the deposed pantheon of ancient Israel. They are under the rulership of Yahweh. Together with Yahweh they are part of Elohim, a plural word that we translate “God” in the book of Genesis. Elohim/God says “Let us make humans in our image.” Christians understand this to refer to the trinity, but that is a later interpretation. These angels came from the ancient pantheons of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Many of these gods come from stars. There is a strong astral dimension. “Heavenly Hosts” are stars.

The Luke story focuses on one angel specifically: Gabriel. Is he the archangel?

Nugent: Gabriel is the Angel of the Lord. He is one of two angels who are named in the Jewish canon and the Christian canon outside of the apocrypha: Gabriel and Michael. They are the angels of mercy and judgment. Gabriel means “Strong One of El.” He is first named in Daniel.

If you go into an Eastern Orthodox church you have two icons on the north and south. Michael is on the North to fight with Satan who lives there. Gabriel is on the south. He is more like what the angels originally were, which is messengers of the gods. That is what angel means. The idea that God has a special messenger is exactly what we read about in the Middle Eastern mythologies. Each of the earlier gods has his own special messenger. Enki, who becomes Yaweh, has Isimud. The goddess Inana has Ninshubur. Each high god will have an envoy or assistant, who is a lesser god. The angel of the lord is the same thing. The distinction between angels and gods came later.

So Gabriel is a star person? Or one of those semi-divine descendants of gods and women.

Nugent: He is one of the gods who would come down to earth.

Why do you say that?

Nugent: The offspring of the gods mating with women are called Gaborim–from the same root as Gabriel. In the second century, Gabriel appears in the Epistula Apostolorum. It talks about Jesus and these secret teachings that he gave to his apostles after the resurrection. One of the secrets is that he is actually Gabriel. After Gabriel took on flesh and united with Mary, then he becomes Jesus. The idea that Christ was an angel was extremely popular in the early church. Later we find this really strict separation between humans and angels; between gods and angels. (more)

We have time for just one more favorite Christmas story: The Star of Bethlehem and the Magi.

Nugent: The Magi are astrologers. They are Zoroastrian priests. Just to the east of the Roman Empire was the Persian Empire, which was Zoroastrian. They see this star at its rising (the better translations don’t say in the East). The astrologers paid a lot of attention to this. It is likely that what this refers to was a heliacal rising, which is the first time that a star appears over the horizon during the course of a year. They thought this was a sign of the Jewish messiah. Scholars speculate that they would have been living in Babylon, where there were lots of Jewish merchants. The Jews had been there from the time of the Jewish exile from Babylonia. We have cuneiform records from them.

Are you assuming that this story is historical?

Nugent: Think of it as a frog and pond. The pond is real, the frog is not. They are fictional stories in a real setting. They don’t always get the details of the setting right, but they are fictional characters in real places. The Magi follow their star from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The author has in mind a real star that would be in front of you in this situation. It would have to be a star in the far southern sky. Remember what I said about the Heavenly Host being stars? The star in Matthew and the angel in Luke are two variants of the same mythology.

Happy holidays from the Hudson
Valley Activist Newsletter.
Have a good new year.
My former fundamentalist head is spinning. Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing?

Nugent: We need to be able to appreciate these stories as myths, rather than literal histories. When you understand where they come from, then you can understand their spiritual significance for the writers and for us.

— Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of "Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light" and "Deas and Other Imaginings." Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com. This interview first appeared at the Huffington Post, December 25, 2008

By Alexander Gilmour, Financial Times

“Hand to Mouth: The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World,”
 by Linda Tirado, Virago, 224 pages.

“Hand to Mouth” started life as a short essay in response to a question posed online: “Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?” Now, in 200-odd lethal pages, Linda Tirado explains further.

“Our bodies hurt, our brains hurt, and our souls hurt.” Poor people are exhausted, degraded, angry and depressed most days of their hopeless lives. Many details are personal – Tirado, hustling two-to-three jobs at a time, was too poor to have her rotten teeth fixed – but the message is universal: “This is just what life is for roughly one third of Americans.” What’s wrong with poor people? They are poor.

Every person lucky enough to have a disposable income should read these lethal pages.

From the foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dimed”:

"I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. Well, not this book, because I never imagined that the book I was waiting for would be so devastatingly smart and funny, so consistently entertaining and unflinchingly on target. In fact, I would like to have written it myself – if, that is, I had lived Linda Tirado’s life and extracted all the hard lessons she has learned. I am the author of Nickel and Dimed, which tells the story of my own brief attempt, as a semi-undercover journalist, to survive on low-wage retail and service jobs. Tirado is the real thing."

— Readers may be interested in a recent interview with Linda Tirado at http://mathbabe.org/2014/11/03/hand-to-mouth-and-the-rationality-of-the-poor

Climate march in Lima during UN meeting. (City insisted on having soldiers in front.)

By The Guardian Correspondent, Dec. 14, 2014

International negotiators at the Dec. 1-14 Lima climate change talks agreed on a plan to fight global warming that would for the first time commit all countries to cutting their greenhouse gas emissions.
The plan, approved at overtime United Nations talks the last day, was hailed as an important first step towards a climate change deal due to be finalised in Paris next year. The proposals call on countries to reveal how they will cut carbon pollution, ideally by March next year.

Many groups from smaller, less industrialized countries and climate oriented Non-government Organizations were sharply critical of the meeting, Negotiators acknowledged they had put off the most difficult decisions for later. And with this year on course to be the hottest on record, campaigners warned the plan was far too weak to limit warming to the internationally agreed limit of 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, or to protect poor countries from climate change.
“It’s definitely watered down from what we expected,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Critics also warned that negotiators had left too many contentious issues unresolved before the deadline for reaching a deal in Paris. “The countdown clock to Paris is now ticking. Countries had the chance to give themselves a head start on the road to Paris but instead have missed the gun and now need to play catch up,” said Mohammed Ad  which overran by two days — officials said they were satisfied with the outcome.

“It was contentious along the way but it fundamentally accomplished what we wanted it to,” Todd Stern, the U.S. State Department’s climate change envoy, said.

The final five-page text — now officially known as the Lima Call for Climate Action — represents the embryonic phase of the deal due to be delivered in Paris. As sketched out in Lima, all countries, rising economies as well as rich countries would pledge action on climate change. Wealthy countries are supposed to help developing countries fight climate change, by investing in clean energy technology or offering climate aid.

Countries already threatened by climate change – such as small island states which face being swallowed up by rising seas – were promised a “loss and damage” programme of financial aid.
The all-inclusive nature of the emissions cuts constitutes a break with one of the defining principles of the last 20 years of climate talks — that wealthy countries should carry the burden of cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

Marchers demanded more action on climate change.
“I think for the first time ever the world can contemplate a global deal applicable to all and Lima has helped that process,” the UK’s energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, said.

If all goes well, China, whose emissions have overtaken the U.S., will as part of the agreement formally pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, as will India, Brazil and other rising economies.
But much remains uncertain about the prospects of a strong deal emerging from Paris – not least because of the problems that arose during the negotiations in Lima.
The Lima negotiations had opened Dec. 1 amid a spirit of optimism following an agreement last month between the U.S. and China to cut carbon pollution.

But it soon became apparent that the U.S.-China deal on its own would have no effect on bridging the perennial dividing line of climate negotiations — the responsibility for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Intense arguments broke out over which countries should carry the burden of fighting climate change.

There were also disputes over climate finance. Wealthy countries were accused of failing to live up to their earlier promises of mobilizing billions to help developing countries fight climate change.

The U.S., China, and the European Union have already come forward with pledges for cutting greenhouse gas emissions after 2020. Under the plan, countries are due to announce their proposed emissions reductions targets by March 2015. The United Nations would calculate whether the collective action was enough to limit warming to 2C.

But much remains vague or poorly defined. The countries put off decisions about the legal structure of the agreement, and deferred decisions about ensuring a flow of finance to developing countries.

The biggest issue left unresolved for Paris is the burden for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The draft text retains language of “common but differentiated responsibilities” that has over the years given developing countries a pass on cutting emissions. That language remains in the text although with a rider “in light of different national circumstances”. Stern acknowledged to reporters the issue was likely to come up again at Paris.

And the final document no longer makes it mandatory for countries to provide detailed information about their prospect reductions targets.

Campaigners said that would make it increasingly difficult to be sure the deal would manage to keep warming within the 2 degree threshold.

By the Activist Newsletter

China has become the largest economy in the world, replacing the United States, the International Monetary Fund reported recently. The IMF’s latest annual global calculations show that China will produce $17.6 trillion in terms of goods and services — compared with $17.4 trillion for the U.S.

Just 14 years ago, the U.S. produced nearly three times as much as China. Several years ago economists predicted it would take 20 or likely more years for China to surpass the U.S.

Clearly, the Chinese Communist Party has been extraordinarily adept at constructing a capitalist economy (from 1980 until today) in the name of  “using capitalism to build socialism.” Many left critics think the reverse has actually occurred — that socialism was used to build capitalism. But the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who broke with the egalitarian socialist economy of his predecessor, party chairman Mao Zedong, insisted that an economically superior form of socialism would be the end result in years to come.

Fox News notes that each country reports its data in its own currency. In order to compare data, each country's statistics must be converted into a common currency. But there are several ways to manage that conversion and each can result in different answers.

One essentially reliable measure of an economy’s strength is its “purchasing power parity” or PPP — the rate at which the currency of one country would have to be converted into that of another country to buy the same amount of goods and services in each country.

The IMF measures both GDP in market-exchange terms, and PPP terms. On the purchasing-power basis, China has now overtaken the U.S. and accounts for 16.5% of the global economy compared with 16.3% for the U.S.

China’s economy is now the world’s largest, but it’s still not the richest. The Chinese population of nearly 1.4 billion is over four times that of the U.S. and its GDP per head is still less than a quarter of U.S. levels.

So far in about the last 25 years some 600 million Chinese people — nearly twice America’s entire population — have emerged from poverty as a result of Deng’s policy of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and continuing gains in GDP are expected.

The question of socialism or capitalism for China has yet to be determined. The matter of a restoration of the revolutionary communism of the 1949 to 1979 period can be ruled out, but an eventual transformation from the present configuration to a recognizable socialist society remains possibile.


By Glen Greenwald

At a White House ceremony Dec. 5, President Obama today introduced his nominee to head the Pentagon, Ashton Carter. The first paragraph of the New York Times article on this event describes Carter as someone “who may advocate a stronger use of American power.” For a country at war for 13 straight years with no end in sight, and which more or less continuously bombs multiple countries simultaneously, what would a “stronger use of American power” look like?

Carter’s recent past provides some clues, as he wrote a Washington Post op-ed in 2006 with former Defense Secretary William Perry that advocated the bombing of North Korea:

President Obama and Ashton Carter.
“[I]f North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead.... This is a hard measure for President Bush to take. It undoubtedly carries risk. But the risk of continuing inaction in the face of North Korea’s race to threaten this country would be greater.”

Carter, who has served on and off in high Pentagon positions since 1993,  also “believed the U.S. should have left a robust residual troop force in Iraq and believes the military has been asked to swallow dangerously large budget cuts.” Similarly, he was furious when Obama “decided at the last moment to call off military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.”

Moreover, “he was one of the legal architects of the administration’s policy on targeted killings using drone strikes.” And for good measure, he said this in May at a panel discussion at Harvard: “We had a cyber Pearl Harbor. His name was Edward Snowden.”

It’s no wonder, then, that – as the Times article put it — “Mr. Carter, 60, is expected to face smooth confirmation hearings from Senate Republicans, who say they foresee no opposition to him.” A prior Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, showered Carter with praise today, declaring: “Ash Carter is an excellent nomination by the President for Secretary of Defense. He will bring broad experience, demonstrated skill, and dedication to his post.”

Well, a Democratic partisan would undoubtedly say, hands in the shrugging position: what is Obama supposed to do? Who else could he nominate?

The leading contender had been former Obama Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy. She currently “runs the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that’s largely funded by defense contractors.” She has also “advocated for increased defense spending and a stronger U.S. role in the world.” But she recently withdrew from consideration. Why? Because she is “considered a top contender to be defense secretary in the next administration if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2016, especially if it’s Hillary Clinton.”

Yet again we confront the most extreme myth that Washington loves to tell itself: that there is no bipartisanship, that the two parties agree on virtually nothing of significance and are perpetually unwilling and unable to agree on anything, that the Republicans vindictively obstruct everything President Obama wants. On so many vital issues, that is the opposite of reality.

By the Activist Newsletter

President Obama will sign extreme anti-Russian bipartisan legislation passed this month by a vengeful Congress titled “The Ukraine Freedom Support Act.”

The legislation calls for increasing already heavy economic sanctions and authorizes $350 million for war supplies to the regime in Kiev, which is now well within Washington’s political orbit nearly 10 months after a U.S.-backed coup removed an elected president who maintained cordial relations with Russia.

Obviously the measure is intended to be part of a one-two punch to a Russian economy already shaken
by a sharp drop in oil revenues, Moscow’s principal earner. Russia’s currency, the ruble, has descended precipitously in recent weeks as a consequence. A number of key European Union nations are not expected to follow Washington’s latest round of punishment.

Before the vote, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, told the France 24 television network: “We have been in much worse situations in our history, and every time we have got out of our fix much stronger.” He told the interviewer there were reasons to believe Washington sought to create conditions for regime change in Moscow resulting in the removal of President Vladimir V. Putin.

Forbes, the conservative business publication, published an article on the new sanctions by Doug Bandow Dec. 15 that that carried this headline: “ How Many Enemies Does America Want?” The article contained this critique:

"Congress long ago learned that public scrutiny makes it harder to pass bad bills. So on Dec. 11 in the midst of negotiations to avoid another government shut-down both houses of Congress rammed through new sanctions against Russia, the misnamed “Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.” Indeed, the House version, H.R. 5859, was introduced earlier the same day and approved by a sparse crowd late at night. The Senate legislation, S. 2828, passed on a voice vote.

"The measures sanction Russian weapons exports and oil production imports, and financial institutions which facilitate such transactions; target Gazprom if it “is withholding significant” gas supplies from specified states; provide money to “strengthen democratic institutions and political and civil society organizations” in Russia; bar the lifting of sanctions so long as Moscow supports groups undermining “the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine”; boost financial transfers to Kiev; order U.S. officials to work with Ukraine to solve such problems as electricity and fuel shortages; authorize weapons transfers to Kiev; and increase funds for government Russian-language broadcasting services.

"Congress appears determined to turn an adversary into a forthright enemy and encourage retaliation against more significant American interests. Observed my Cato Institute colleague Emma Ashford: “the provisions in this bill will make it all the more difficult to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine crisis, or to find a way to salvage any form of productive U.S.-Russia relationship. No wonder Congress didn’t want to debate it openly.”

"Unfortunately, the legislation offers a belligerent foretaste of what to expect from the incoming Republican Senate. The legislation’s chief sponsor was Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), slated to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He at first sought an even more confrontational bill he named “The Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014."


By Igor Volsky, ThinkProgress, Dec. 9, 2014

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. The Committee’s five year investigation  and examination of more than six million CIA documents — reveals those assertions to be false.

The United States has used torture
as a weapon of war for many years.
Above is a cover of the original Life
magazine from 1902 depicting U.S.
troops water-boarding a Filipino
civilian during the American war
against the Philippines.
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.” Republicans are similarly shielding the agency from criticism, claiming that the report is “ideologically motivated and distorted recounting of historical events.” 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 CIA headquarters said  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…” [Page 14]

During the Vietnam war U.S. troops and South Vietnamese
 cohorts under their control tortured tens of thousands of
suspected supporters of the liberation struggle. Many of
the tortures took place in the field using electrical devices.
Water-boarding was obviously in use, as you can see from
this photo. Unless the government officials who  permit
these practices to continue are prosecuted as war
 criminals, such torture will continue.
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....” [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....” [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. [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.

14. One interrogator played Russian roulette.

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....” [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....” 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 millions 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]


[When the international price of oil began dropping a few months ago from over $100 a barrel to below $60 today, our first thought was that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were rigging the price to punish Russia, Venezuela and Iran, major oil-producing nations that are harmed by the decline. But according to the long-time former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar, in a superb analysis below, there is a quite different reason.

[Sunni Saudi Arabia, which essentially controls OPEC, is largely responsible by increasing output as international demand is dropping. This is principally aimed at Shi’ite Iran and is the product of what the Financial Times  defined as the Saudi kingdom’s “visceral hatred of its Shia rivals.” The U.S. may be the hegemon in the region as in the world, but the antagonistic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran often defines events in the Middle East, including the rise of the Sunni Islamic State and the jihadist campaign to overthrow the Syrian government. The “Shi’ite Crescent” of the headline refers to the informal alliance between between three east to west neighbors — Syria, Iraq, and Iran.]

By M. K. Bhadrakumar

The U.S. has defended the reactionary Saudi
Arabian monarchy since the end of World War II.
The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s dramatic description of the recent decline in oil price as due to “Muslim treachery” calls attention to Saudi Arabia’s motives. At a cabinet meeting in Tehran on Wednesday, he said, “The fall of crude prices is not merely an economic issue, rather it is the result of certain states’ political plot and planning.

“The decrease in oil price is a plot against the regional people and Muslims which merely serves the interests of some other countries. Certainly, people will react to such schemes and the countries which have hatched this plot should know that they have just increased the Muslim world’s hatred for themselves,” Rouhani added.

The many interpretations and conspiracy theories in vogue currently on the issue of the drop in oil price in the world market broadly fall into three categories. One, the phenomenon of oil price is attributable to the demand-supply situation prevailing in the world market – that is, a glut in supply has resulted due to increased production and fall in demand (due to slowing demand in China, Japan and Europe), and the plunge in oil price ensued.

Two, this is an invidious political plot hatched by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to weaken the Russian and Iranian economies. Three, what is happening is partly political and partly economic.

The second thesis is the most alluring, of course. Who wouldn’t like a conspiracy theory? However, the Russians and the Iranians themselves do not think that President Barack Obama has hatched a plot against them.

Moscow, despite its problems with Obama, sees through issues rationally and calmly and is disinclined to see his shadow behind every bush – that is, even despite Washington’s determination to fight Russia on the beaches, in the air and in the hills.

The Russian news agency Sputnik, in fact, just featured an incisive analysis to explain that the U.S. shale gas industry is actually skating on thin ice if the current decline in oil price persists and, in turn, this may eventually bring the roof down on the American economy if the current “shale bubble” meets the fate of the dotcom bubble and real estate bubble.

The Russian commentary just stopped short of making the point that the U.S. and Russia have shared interests here – although, it is improbable that anyone in Washington is in a mood to listen to the sage Russian expert advice.

[Rep. Dennis Kucinich reported Dec. 16 that the recent anti-Russia sanction bill  is “a hydra-headed incubator of poisonous conflict. The second provocative anti-Russian legislation in a week, it further polarizes our relations with Russia, helping to cement a Russia-China alliance against Western hegemony, and undermines long-term America’s financial and physical security by handing the national treasury over to war profiteers."]

Interestingly, Rouhani too kept Uncle Sam out of the matter. But, unlike the Russians who have been confabulating with the Saudis on the oil price issue to find common ground, he points the finger at Riyadh (the Saudi capital ,without naming it explicitly) for deliberately hurting the Iranian economy.

There was a time when Iran would have most certainly brought in the “Great Satan” somewhere into all this but times have changed. The U.S.-Iranian engagement has gained traction. (On the crucial Afghan issue, Rouhani has been openly endorsing the U.S.-backed national unity government in Kabul) and it is entirely conceivable that while eating together or sipping tea in the corridor on the sidelines of their meetings, American and Iranian diplomats have exchanged notes on what is happening on the world oil market.

Besides, Tehran exudes cautious optimism that the seven-month extension of the nuclear negotiations could be leading to a resolution of the problem. In a report this week, the International Crisis Group broadly concurs with such an estimation, too – “Obstacles notwithstanding, there is a credible path to an agreement…. Now that the fog has receded, the parties should move ahead quickly.”

Rouhani couldn’t have been propagandistic when he hit at a Saudi plot against Iran. The point is, he has been a long-time advocate of an Iran-Saudi rapprochement. Evidently, his patience is wearing thin that there are no signs of a change of thinking toward Iran in the Saudi calculus, which is still permeated by a strong antipathy bordering on hostility toward the prospect of Iran’s imminent integration with the international community. [Sunni Saudi Arabia does not want the rival minority Shi’ite sect of Islam — the official religion of Iran — to gain power in the Middle East.]

Indeed, the Saudi-Iranian tango over oil price is not a new development. Books, in fact, have been written on the subject. (The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East By Andrew Scott Cooper.)

A pivotal moment came when the Saudis replaced Iran (following the Islamic Revolution in 1978) as the principal power broker in the OPEC. It still becomes a debatable point as to how far the U.S.-backed Saudi ascendancy in the OPEC in the post-1973 period might actually have been contributory factor in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran (who was critically dependent on oil revenue for the massive urbanization program to transform and ‘modernize’ Iran.)
Suffice it to say, it is an entrenched belief in Riyadh that the Iranian regime’s popular legitimacy and social base is directly linked to its ability to provide a certain level of economic prosperity to the country.

In the prevailing regional milieu, there is the added factor that the Saudis are extremely worried about Iran’s surge as regional power and Tehran’s possible replacement of Riyadh as a key interlocutor for the U.S. in the latter’s regional strategies. The Saudis are also rooted in the belief that Tehran is providing covert support to the Shi’ite empowerment in the region in such crucial theatres as Bahrain and Yemen, which have direct bearing on Saudi Arabia’s political economy.

Having said that, the big question is how much of a lethal blow the Saudis could be inflicting on the Iranian economy by keeping the oil prices low?

The fact of the matter is that Tehran anticipates a prolonged period when oil prices may remain low and is ably adjusting to the new reality. The Iranian budget, which has been presented in the Majlis (parliament) in Tehran last week, suggests that the economy can absorb the body blow from the Saudis. Some indicators:

  1. Despite a 28% decline in the base crude oil price, the budget projects only an 8% decline in oil and gas export revenues.
  1. The defense and security expenditure increases by 32% ($12.6 billion).
  1. Infrastructure expenditure will increase by 25%.
  1. The economy has succeeded in reducing its dependence on oil income to somewhere around one-third of all income. Tax revenues and proceeds of privatization amply compensate for the shortfall in oil income, as non-oil exports have done well and are expected to register a 20% growth in the coming year.
Put differently, Tehran knows that time is working in its favor and the sanctions regime is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Ironically, the Western sanctions may have helped Iran to emerge as the only petrodollar state in the region with a diverse industrial base and indigenous military capabilities to safeguard its national security.

All in all, Saudis are immensely experienced in oil politics and their calculus would have several templates and most of them are interlocking. There is no denying that the global oil production is changing and the diminishing importance of the traditional producers is a cause of genuine concern.

Nonetheless, the Saudis have been explicit about their hostility toward Iran. The Financial Times reported Dec. 9 the vignette of a private conversation between the Secretary of State John Kerry and a “senior Saudi official” and where the latter remarked, “ISIS [The Islamic State] is our [Saudi] response to your [U.S.] support for the Da’wa [Tehran-aligned ruling party of Iraq].”

— From the Activist Newsletter: Re-read the last paragraph above. It’s not just a throwaway line but a confession that Saudi Arabia materially contributed to the growth of the Islamic State in retaliation for allowing the Shia majority in Iraq to assume power. Saudi Arabia, plus a couple of Gulf states it dominates, has also financed the effort to overthrow the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, a religious Alawite (an offshoot of the Shi’ite branch of Islam) and a close friend of Iran.

— From  Indian Punchline, Dec. 11, 2014.

By Erik Kirschbaum 

(BERLIN, Reuters, Dec. 5) — The reform communist Left party took power in a German state Dec. 5 for the first time since reunification, ending a quarter century of conservative rule in Thuringia
 and raising the chance of a left-wing threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel in the next federal vote.

Bodo Ramelow.
The Left, which traces its roots to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that once ruled East Germany and built the Berlin Wall, will run the state southwest of Berlin with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens in a three-way coalition.

Thuringia voted in September in state elections that produced a close result, leading to protracted negotiations involving four parties. Eventually the three left-leaning parties agreed on a coalition and the state assembly elected the Left party's Bodo Ramelow, a 58-year-old trade unionist from West Germany, as premier of Thuringia.

 It is the first time these three parties have ruled together in one of Germany's 16 states. If they succeed in Thuringia, they could decide to band together in the next national election in 2017 in an attempt to knock the chancellor's conservatives from power.

The center-left SPD, which rules with Merkel in a right-left federal “grand coalition,” has long refused to cooperate with the Left at the national level, largely because of the party's foreign policy views, which include opposition to NATO.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the national leader of the SPD and a likely candidate for chancellor in 2017, denounced a rising national “hysteria” over Thuringia. “It's nonsense" to think Ramelow wants to restore East German communism, he said.

Ramelow, who is often seen with his pet terrier Attila, was confirmed in a second round vote in the assembly in the state capital of Erfurt, after falling just shy of a majority in the drama-filled first round.
“We need reconciliation instead of division,” he said in an emotional speech to the 91-seat assembly. Ramelow is an unabashed backer of socialism and campaigned for September's election with a bright red bust of Karl Marx at his side.