Making sense of Pakistan drone death reports

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The tension arises from recent claims by international rights groups that a large number of civilians are being killed in drone strikes in tribal areas where Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have sanctuaries.  Ironically the issue seems to have put rights groups on the same page as the pro-Taliban forces in Pakistan.  Both are using what they call “high” civilian deaths as the centrepiece of their campaign to denounce the drone programme.  In contrast, the liberal elements in Pakistan and those living in tribal areas seem to be in greater agreement with the official American version, which plays down the number of civilian casualties in those strikes.  The latest twist in the tale came on Wednesday when the Pakistani government issued its own official estimates, putting civilian deaths since 2008 at a mere 67 – much lower than the estimates released by the international rights groups.  Recent investigations have placed estimates of civilian deaths in drone strikes at somewhere between 400 and 900. One by a British lawyer and United Nations rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, also estimated at least 400 civilian deaths from drones since 2004.

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German BND spy agency sees shale depressing oil prices for decades

The BND said the U.S. shale boom would have a greater impact on global markets than it predicted in a previous analysis earlier this year.  “The effects from the unconventional production of oil and natural gas in the United States will be pronounced over the next 10 to 20 years,” the report said.  It added that it now expects global oil prices to sink substantially, which will cause considerable problems for gas and oil producers such as Russia and Libya and trigger changes in the Middle East.  The report said such changes would cause the biggest risks for Iran, Libya, Venezuela and Yemen, because the governments in these producer countries were banking on high prices.  It said it is possible crude oil prices will fall lastingly to about $80 per barrel.  A Reuters survey published on Wednesday found Brent crude will average $95 a barrel over the course of 2020, a drop of $20 from the estimate in a similar poll a year ago even though spot oil prices have changed little since then.

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Puget Sound orcas circle ferry carrying artifacts

SEATTLE —A large pod of orcas swam around a Washington state ferry in an impressive display as it happened to be carrying tribal artifacts to a new museum at the ancestral home of Chief Seattle, and some people think it was more than a coincidence.  Killer whales have been thrilling whale watchers this week in Puget Sound, according to the Orca Network, which tracks sightings.  But they were especially exciting Tuesday when nearly three-dozen orcas surrounded the ferry from Seattle as it approached the terminal on Bainbridge Island. On board were officials from The Burke Museum in Seattle who were moving ancient artifacts to the Suquamish Museum.  The artifacts were dug up nearly 60 years ago from the site of the Old Man House, the winter village for the Suquamish tribe and home of Chief Sealth, also known as Chief Seattle. The Burke, a natural history museum on the University of Washington campus, is known for Northwest Coast and Alaska Native art.

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China builds sea power to shield oil, mineral supplies

MOMBASA, Kenya, Oct. 31 (UPI) — China disclosed this week that its nuclear submarines have started regular sea patrols, underlining Beijing’s plans to build a powerful naval force to protect the strategic Indian Ocean shipping lanes that carry the oil and raw materials from the Persian Gulf and Africa that fuel China’s expanding economy.  The official Xinhua news agency released photographs of what appeared to be Xia-class subs that will extend Chinese naval operations.  These are China’s first-generation of nuclear-armed submarines and are now decades old. Xinhua said they were being “declassified” for the first time, probably because they’re being replaced by more advanced Jin-class boats.  But the open display of the Xia-class subs, which Xinhua said “would gallop to the depths of the ocean, serving as mysterious forces igniting the sound of thunder in the deep sea,” reflects the growing assertiveness of China’s military forces, notably in the disputed oil-rich South China Sea.  At the same time, China’s been substantially extending its stake in Africa’s oil and gas fields and the continent’s other strategic minerals, and the Indian Ocean ports along the East African coastline.  The Indian Ocean has long been dominated by the U.S. Navy and its aircraft carrier battle groups, and the Americans are unlikely to relinquish control of that vast maritime region, so vital to Beijing’s strategic planning, anytime soon.

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Yemen’s Slide Into Chaos Risks Militant Haven on Saudi Border

In the impoverished capital of Yemen, tribal militias roam freely and their leaders drive through crowded streets guarded by heavily armed followers.  Security in Sana’a has deteriorated since popular unrest pushed President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office in 2011. Dozens of intelligence and security officials have been assassinated, al-Qaeda continues to attack government targets and Shiite-Muslim Houthi rebels, who are fighting Sunni Islamists in the north, are encamped in the city. Western diplomats who visit do so with greater protection and foreign nationals fear kidnapping more than they did a year ago.  “Yemen is slipping into chaos,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said by phone. “Assassinations of intelligence figures and threats to foreigners are rising.”

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Greenland’s Rare Earths Gold Rush

Gravgaard_GreenlandRare2_650.jpgBenedikte Vahl, a retired schoolteacher, has just one hope for Narsaq, her hometown of colorful wooden houses on a fjord in southern Greenland: that a mine will open soon in nearby Kuannersuit, bringing badly needed jobs and investment. Times are so tough that, over the past five years, more than 600 of her neighbors have left an already small municipality of 7,000. Mining might be the last hope. “I see no other solution,” Vahl says.  Kuannersuit has long been of interest to geologists. It is filled with pretty stones such as the pink tugtupite (“reindeer blood” in Greenlandic) and is home to more than 200 rare minerals, 15 of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. But these days, all eyes are on the region’s so-called rare earth elements — raw materials essential to technology products such as cell phones, wind turbines, and hybrid cars. For years, China has held a near monopoly on the global supply, controlling an 85 percent share. (That figure is down from a high of 95 percent a year ago, thanks to U.S. and Australian efforts to start mining their own rare earths.) Kuannersuit contains as much as 10 million tons of such metals and could potentially produce 40,000 tons a year. In total, Greenland could potentially produce upward of 20 to 25 percent of the world’s supply.

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Confessions of a Drone Warrior

He was an experiment, really. One of the first recruits for a new kind of warfare in which men and machines merge. He flew multiple missions, but he never left his computer. He hunted top terrorists, saved lives, but always from afar. He stalked and killed countless people, but could not always tell you precisely what he was hitting. Meet the 21st-century American killing machine. who’s still utterly, terrifyingly human.  From the darkness of a box in the Nevada desert, he watched as three men trudged down a dirt road in Afghanistan. The box was kept cold—precisely sixty-eight degrees—and the only light inside came from the glow of monitors. The air smelled spectrally of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. On his console, the image showed the midwinter landscape of eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province—a palette of browns and grays, fields cut to stubble, dark forests climbing the rocky foothills of the Hindu Kush. He zoomed the camera in on the suspected insurgents, each dressed in traditional shalwar kameez, long shirts and baggy pants. He knew nothing else about them: not their names, not their thoughts, not the thousand mundane and profound details of their lives.

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$5B food stamp cut hits Friday

Poor families across the country will have a harder time stretching their food budgets after Friday, as stimulus funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) automatically expires. The 13.6 percent boost in SNAP benefits the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act instituted in April 2009 ends Nov. 1.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the cuts translate into $29 per month less for an average family of three. They will be left with $319 per year or $1.40 per person per meal, based on cost estimates from the Department of Agriculture’s “Thrifty Food Plan.”  Since the funding increase came from federal dollars, every SNAP recipient will experience reduced benefits. (See GovBeat’s maps of SNAP cuts by state and SNAP participation by state and congressional district).

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The Incredible Shrinking Buffer

On the eve of a basketball game between the United States and Angola during the 1992 Olympics, a reporter asked NBA superstar Charles Barkley how he felt about the coming matchup. “I don’t know anything about Angola,” Barkley replied, “but Angola’s in trouble.”  Two weeks ago, a Lebanon-based journalist told me that a Salafi Syrian rebel commander gave him a similar response when asked what he thought about the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the multinational force put in place in May 1974 to preserve the cease-fire between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The mere presence of UNDOF, the militant said, would not change his military calculations nor make him more cautious in his fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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A Welcome US/Saudi ‘Reset’

Last week it was reported that Saudi Arabia decided to make a “major shift” away from its 80 years of close cooperation with the United States. The Saudi leadership is angry that the Obama administration did not attack Syria last month, and that it has not delivered heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad government. Saudi Arabia is heavily invested in the overthrow of the Assad government in Syria, sending money and weapons to the rebels.  However, it was the recent diplomatic opening between the United States and Iran that most infuriated the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is strongly opposed to the Iranian government and has vigorously lobbied the US Congress to maintain sanctions and other pressure on Iran. Like Israel, the Saudis are fearful of any US diplomacy with Iran.

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Geography in the News: International Shipping Chokepoints

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Egypt’s stability and security remain uncertain. Amid calls by opposition supporters for the president’s removal in early 2011, the country erupted into widespread demonstrations against the government and President Hosni Mubarak was removed. General elections brought Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi into power, he subsequently was overthrown by the military.  These actions sparked speculation about Egypt’s strategic geographic position in the region. Widespread unrest could jeopardize security of the Suez Canal, which is an important world oil chokepoint.  While incredibly important and providing passage for a large portion of the oil that arrives in the North America and Europe from the Middle East, the Suez Canal is but one narrow strait (called “chokepoints”) through which oil passes on its way to oil-dependent countries. According to an article by Business Insider, seven oil chokepoints of the world are crucial to the world economy. These chokepoints moved about half of the world’s oil production of 84 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2010.

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World’s anger at Obama policies goes beyond Europe and the NSA

WASHINGTON — Whether miffed over spying revelations or feeling sold out by U.S. moves in the Middle East, some of the United States’ closest allies are so upset that the Obama administration has gone into damage-control mode to ensure the rifts don’t widen and threaten critical partnerships.  The quarrels differ in their causes and degrees of seriousness. As a whole, however, they pose a new foreign policy headache for an administration whose overseas track record is seen in many quarters at home and abroad as reactive and lacking direction.  In Europe and the Middle East, rifts that once would’ve been quietly smoothed over have exploded into headlines and public remonstrations.  The uproar in Europe over revelations from fugitive former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the United States spied on as many as 35 government leaders, including Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, has become so great that early Friday 28 European leaders said Merkel and French President Francois Hollande would open negotiations with the United States over a “no-spying agreement.”

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Health insurance gets pricier as Obamacare rolls out

Thousands of Californians are discovering what Obamacare will cost them — and many don’t like what they see.  These middle-class consumers are staring at hefty increases on their insurance bills as the overhaul remakes the healthcare market. Their rates are rising in large part to help offset the higher costs of covering sicker, poorer people who have been shut out of the system for years.  Although recent criticism of the healthcare law has focused on website glitches and early enrollment snags, experts say sharp price increases for individual policies have the greatest potential to erode public support for President Obama‘s signature legislation.  “This is when the actual sticker shock comes into play for people,” said Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “There are winners and losers under the Affordable Care Act.”

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Wave of attacks kills at least 66 people in Iraq

BAGHDAD —A series of attacks including car bombings in Baghdad, an explosion at a market and a suicide assault in a northern city killed at least 66 people Sunday across Iraq, officials said, the latest in a wave of violence washing over the country.  Coordinated bombings hit Iraq multiple times each month, feeding a spike in bloodshed that has killed more than 5,000 people since April. The local branch of al-Qaida often takes responsibility for the assaults, although there was no immediate claim for Sunday’s blasts.  Sunday’s attacks were the deadliest single-day series of assaults since Oct. 5, when 75 people were killed in violence.  Police officers said that the bombs in the capital, placed in parked cars and detonated over a half-hour period, targeted commercial areas and parking lots, killing 42 people.

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Israel quietly feeding Syrian refugees

(ISRAEL TODAY) – Over half a million refugees fleeing Syria’s ongoing civil war have flooded into northern Jordan over the past year. Nearly half of them are living in a large U.N. refugee camp, but the rest are relying on care from various NGOs, including at least one from Israel.  Among the organizations funding and distributing physical and emotional aid to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians is IsraAid, an Israeli humanitarian group with years of experience in Africa and other regions. In Jordan, the group is buying and putting together large sacks of essential goods that are passed out to Syrian refugees daily. But, they must do so discreetly.

Battlehawks and rocks that spy: 3 wild new military technologies from AUSA

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What do a kamikaze drone, a “field and forget” surveillance system and an Israeli robot have in common? Buzz at the annual AUSA Army meeting in Washington, D.C.  Here are three new pieces of tech revealed at this year’s show.  A new “kamikaze” drone that blows itself up — and takes its target with it — was revealed at AUSA.  Made by Textron System, the Battlehawk is similar to Aerovironment’s widely publicized Switchblade. Both are drones that can be carried in a backpack and hand-launched. And they both represent a movement towards making drones more accessible at a squad level.  Rather than call in air support, a squad would have a drone literally in their hands to deploy against threats like a sniper or an ambush waiting around the corner. The Battlehawk is made of carbon-fiber wings – wings that can be curled up for deployment from a 22-inch tube launcher.

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After JPMorgan $13B Deal, Banks Seek Protections in Future Bailouts

As the U.S. government closes in on a $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase & Co. over its mortgage practices, lawyers specializing in bank mergers are looking for ways to protect their clients from big losses in similar cases in the future.  A big chunk of the record settlement is attributed to bad mortgage loans at Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns – two banks that U.S. financial regulators encouraged JPMorgan to buy during the 2008 financial crisis.   That has triggered discussions among bank merger lawyers about how they can get indemnification clauses into future bailout deals, and obtain greater protection from losses from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which seizes and sells troubled banks.  When the FDIC coordinates the sale of such banks, it often agrees to limit the losses that the acquiring bank may face on troubled assets. It did this, for example, in 2008 to help Citigroup Inc. buy parts of Wachovia Corp., which was ultimately bought without government assistance by Wells Fargo & Co.

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Pentagon agency creating digital map of the world

Future military operations may use a constantly updated digital “image skin” for a comprehensive map of the world under development by the Pentagon’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).  This week the NGA sought information from potential contractors to help develop the “orthorectified image skin” that would provide the base layer for the world map. Such a map would give the military a clearer picture of any potential trouble spot where they would have to operate.  Orthoimagery, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, are “high resolution aerial images that combine the visual attributes of an aerial photograph with the spatial accuracy and reliability” of a traditional map.  “A key element necessary to support global readiness is the availability of a current and accurate worldwide image base to ensure a common operational picture for all users,” the NGA document says.

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The sultan’s dream

ABDUL MEJID I, the Ottoman’s 31st sultan, had a dream. Reigning between 1839 and 1861, the determinedly Western-leaning sultan envisaged the construction of a submerged tunnel under the Bosphorus Straits connecting Asia to Europe. A French architect duly came up with a blueprint. But a dearth of technology and cash stood in the way.  The sultan’s dream is now coming true, 150 years later. The world’s first sea tunnel linking two continents will be inaugurated on October 29th, marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of Ataturk’s Republic. Stretching over 76km (47 miles), and with 1.4km of it laid at the bottom of the sea, the $3 billion “Marmaray” rail system will “eventually link London to Beijing, creating unimagined global connections” boasts Mustafa Kara, mayor of Istanbul’s Uskudar district, where the tunnel comes out.

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Most Americans accumulating debt faster than they’re saving for retirement

A majority of Americans with 401(k)-type savings accounts are accumulating debt faster than they are setting aside money for retirement, further undermining the nation’s troubled system for old-age saving, a new report has found.  Three in five workers with defined contribution accounts are “debt savers,” according to the report released Thursday, meaning their increasing mortgages, credit card balances and installment loans are outpacing the amount of money they are able to save for retirement.  The imbalance is expanding even as policymakers are encouraging people to set aside more by offering generous tax breaks and automatically enrolling workers in retirement accounts that in some cases automatically escalate the amount of money over time.  Currently, workers with retirement savings accounts put aside more than 11 percent of their pay for retirement — 5 percent in their own accounts, and 6.2 percent in Social Security.  Despite that — and despite the $2.5 trillion the report says employers have poured into defined contribution accounts from 1992 to 2012 — the retirement readiness of most Americans has been slipping, according to the report by HelloWallet, a D.C. firm that offers technology-based financial advice to workers and conducts research of economic behavior.

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