Every day, the National Security Agency's massive surveillance apparatus hoovers up nearly 5 billion records drawn from the location data of cell phones around the world. That's according to the Washington Post's latest installment in their coverage of the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Snowden saga has taken a very different turn. On Tuesday, Alan Rusbridger, the affable, rumpled editor of the Guardian appeared before a Parliamentary committee to testify about his paper's articles based on the Snowden documents. Wednesday's article in the Post about the NSA's collection of geolocation data is one of the most aggressive articles since the Snowden documents began appearing in public. The article details specific tactics used by the NSA in utilizing cell phone data and exposes several innovative methods used by the agency in tracking its targets. It also reveals that Americans' geolocation data are often "incidentally" hoovered up as well. Despite all this, it is all but unimaginable that Marty Baron, the editor of the Post, would be dragged before Congress and made to testify about his editorial decisions.
When he was asked on Tuesday whether he loves "this country," Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian's affable, rumpled editor scoffed at the question. "We live in a democracy. Most of the people working on this story are British people who have families in this country, who love this country," he said. "But yes, we are patriots, and one of the things that we are patriotic about is the nature of a democracy, and the nature of a free press, and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things."
Rusbridger was speaking before a Parliamentary hearing on the stories his paper and others have run about the documents provided by Edward Snowden. Those articles have shed unprecedented light on the massive data collection and surveillance tools employed by the National Security Agency and its allied agencies. Critics of Snowden and the papers who have run stories based on those documents have repeatedly argued that they pose a dangerous threat to national security and expose intelligence practices that they say have prevented another major terrorist attack like those of Sept. 11, 2001. On Wednesday, the Washington Post published the latest installment in their coverage of the Snowden leaks when they revealed that the NSA is gathering nearly 5 billion records every day on the location of cell phones around the world.
On Tuesday, the British government and its allies in Parliament made clear to just what lengths they may be willing to go in order to prevent additional such stories from being published. While they aren't about to admit it outright, that response is based on large part on a doctrine known as prior restraint, aimed at suppressing material before it is published.
That's a doctrine that's been largely discredited and outlawed in the United States. The same can't be said for the United Kingdom.
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It's Wall Street's latest counterstrike against Washington and its attempts to rein in the financial industry after the crisis that plunged the U.S. economy into recession in 2008. And if the legal attack is successful, it could leave an opening for banks to return to some of the dangerous deals that were a Wall Street hallmark before the crash.
The trade groups, which represent U.S. and international banks, filed a lawsuit Wednesday aimed at one of the central parts of the regulatory overhaul intended to prevent another financial crisis like 2008. It's the latest step in a long campaign by global banks to push back on stricter U.S. regulation and oversight of trades done in other countries. If a judge agrees with the Wall Street groups, it could spell the end for a central plank of the law meant to curtail risky trading and make the banking system safer.
Wall Street's chief trade group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, along with two international trade groups, sued to stop the United States from regulating deals American banks do abroad. In a complaint filed Wednesday, the trade groups ask the court to "halt an unprecedented and unlawful effort" by U.S. regulators to "regulate financial activity around the world."
Regulators have beat back some of Wall Street's legal challenges, like a suit by Bloomberg LLP over other trading rules. But this suit comes at a vulnerable time. The chief regulator who pushed for the provision is about to step down. If it's shot down, it's unlikely to be passed again in the same form.
The lawsuit challenges one of the most controversial aspects of the regulatory overhaul: rules for complex contracts called derivatives. Derivatives are financial contracts linked to the value of something else, like interest rates or currency exchange rates. Companies and financial firms use the contracts to offset risk in their business or to bet on the fluctuating values. After the financial crisis, lawmakers targeted derivatives as an accelerant to the financial crisis and decided to rein in the market with regulations aimed at making it more transparent and less risky.
Derivatives brought insurance giant American International Group to its knees during the financial crisis. Too many derivatives deals souring at the same time nearly killed the insurance giant, but they also linked the failing company to lots of other firms on Wall Street, threatening to bring them all down with it. The U.S. government opted to rescue the insurer, rather than face a possible financial market collapse.
Some of those AIG derivatives deals were done in London. That's been an oft-repeated talking point for the regulator charged with writing the new derivatives rules, Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chairman Gary Gensler. Gensler has agued that if U.S. regulations don't apply to U.S. banks and hedge funds doing deals in other countries, you might as well "blow a hole out of the bottom" of the new oversight regime.
Gensler has faced pushback not only from Wall Street lobbyists, but also fellow Democrats and other U.S. regulators. But by far his most vocal critics have been European and Asian officials, who have argued that the United States is overstepping its jurisdiction. Gensler compromised with his critics in July, delaying part of the new regulatory regime, but now he faces a new challenge in court just as he is about to leave the agency at the end of the year.
A spokesman for Mr. Gensler's agency declined to comment.
U.S. and international banks, through their trade groups, are arguing that the agency is hurting global derivatives markets. The trade groups said regulators were "harming the business relationships of U.S. companies" by "dictating private parties' obligations through sudden and unpredictable regulatory fiat." Stephen O'Connor, chairman of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, said on a conference call that the rules would be "harmful to the global economy" because non-U.S. banks will stop doing business with American ones because they don't want to get roped into the U.S. regulatory system.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of challenges to the financial overhaul law, which have targeted rules on everything from mutual funds to the labeling of products that contain minerals from conflict-torn countries. The suits have been successful in some cases and have forced regulators to move more slowly and carefully in rolling out the new rules. But if this challenge is successful, it'll be the biggest blow yet to the regulator that has moved swiftest in completing its post-crisis rules.
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A spectre is haunting Poland -- the spectre of George W. Bush.
In the years following 9/11, as the White House accelerated efforts to strike back at al Qaeda, the CIA detained two high-ranking al Qaeda operatives, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah. Both those men are now being held at the Guantánamo Bay prison, but prior to being shipped off to Cuba, the two men allege that they were tortured at secret CIA prisons in Poland.
That's a history that Polish authorities would rather forget, and on Monday and Tuesday government representatives went through the strained motions of trying to defend their country against allegations that Nashiri and Zubaydah had their human rights violated while on Polish soil. The two men have brought suit against the Polish government before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which is currently trying to establish the facts in a case that has already deeply embarrassed the Polish government.
The case goes to the heart of Poland's political future. Since breaking off from the Soviet Union in 1989, Poland has established itself as a close ally of the United States. In the aftermath of 9/11, Poland was one of the few European countries to fully back the Bush administration's wartime efforts in not only Afghanistan but also Iraq. Now, Poland is moving back toward Europe, having joined the European Union in 2004 and serving as a bulwark of European influence in the east.
The case in Strasbourg has become a litmus test for the Polish government's allegiances and convictions. Torn between its ties to the United States and its role as a regional human rights champion -- both of which have historically been a great source of pride for the country -- Poland is facing a painful dilemma in which the imperatives of America's war on terror have run headfirst into Poland's -- and Europe's -- human rights commitments.
Bob Dylan may be an icon of the American civil rights movement, but that hasn't stopped a Croatian community group in France from suing the folk singer over allegedly racist comments he made last year.
With songs like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Oxford Town," and "Hurricane," Dylan established himself as an eloquent chronicler of issues of race in America. The same probably can't be said about the internecine conflicts of the Balkans. In an interview with the French edition of Rolling Stone, Dylan waded into a conflict he would probably have been better advised to stay out of. "[The United States] is just too fucked up about [skin] color," Dylan said. "... If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that ... Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood."
That throwaway line about Serbs being able to sense Croat blood has landed the singer-songwriter in some hot water and has infuriated a group of Croats who aren't too happy about being lumped with slave masters, the Ku Klux Klan, and Nazis.
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Poor Silvio Berlusconi. On Wednesday, his colleagues in the Italian Senate effectively declared him unfit for office and voted to expel him from the body.
The vote effectively caps the former prime minister's tumultuous fall from grace, one that has featured rampant allegations of tax fraud, underage prostitutes, and wholesale corruption. In short, Europe is losing arguably its worst and most entertaining politician.
That has headline writers around the world in dismay, and no one would like to see Berlusconi launch a second act more than the journalists who have gleefully covered his time in politics.
To that end, here at FP we have some ideas about how good ol' Silvio might spend his retirement. Without further ado, here are some suggested career paths for how Italy's most polarizing politician can put his sunset years to good use.
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Warsaw's red-and-white National Stadium will return to its usual role as host of soccer matches and Madonna concerts after the United Nation's marquee climate change conference draws to a close on Friday. The talks, which started on Nov. 11, intended to lay the groundwork for a plan to replace the expiring Kyoto protocol, to be signed in Paris in 2015, and hash out new goals for curtailing greenhouse gas emissions after 2020. And while the conference was slated as little more than climate-negotiation housekeeping -- perhaps the single most boring phrase in the English language -- the talks became a rollicking display of collective dysfunction.
Against the backdrop of the disastrous cyclone in the Philippines and Japan's sharp revision of its carbon targets, developing nations clashed with developed ones, green groups staged one of the biggest walk-outs at a climate conference to date, a Filipino delegate went on a hunger strike, and the talks' hosts -- Poland -- gave a terrible PR performance. Effectively, the conference just became a rendition of the constant tug-of-war that occurs when money and the environment come into the same equation.
Welcome to the latest chapter of the stumbling, bumbling international effort to reach a climate agreement. Here are the highlights.
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If John Larkin, Northern Ireland's attorney general, has his way, crimes perpetrated before the end of the country's three-decade conflict between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant loyalists will no longer be prosecuted. That conflict, better known as the Troubles, left 3,500 people dead and ended in 1998 with the Good Friday agreements. But 15 years after the conflict's end, over 3,000 killings remain unsolved and unprosecuted. In short, Larkin is proposing to the close the book on the darkest chapter of Northern Ireland's history.
On the heels of Larkin's announcement Wednesday to end pre-Good Friday prosecutions, the attorney general has come under a hailstorm of criticism. (Notably, the announcement came as former U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland Richard Haass visited Belfast for his own reconciliation project.) "Murder is murder, is murder. It has no sell-by date," said Jim Alluster, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party; Patrick Corrigan, a representative from Amnesty International, called the plan "an utter betrayal of victims' fundamental right to access justice."
If Larkin's plan is adopted, it could mean an end to prosecutions in such famous incidents as 1972's Bloody Sunday killings, the massacre of 13 Irish protesters by British soldiers; the alleged kidnapping and murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10, at the hands of the Irish Republican Army later that year; the 1976 Kingsmills massacre, where 11 Protestant workers were gunned down by republican paramilitary members; and the unsolved murders of hundreds of "Disappeared," as those who were taken by the IRA and never heard from again are known.
As a result, Larkin's proposal has been roundly criticized as a de facto amnesty law. But that's only half true. According to Larkin and others involved in building pre-Good Friday cases, there are hardly any prosecutions to speak of, and there probably aren't going to be many more.
That reality raises a painful question for the people of Northern Ireland. Thousands of victims from the Troubles will likely never see justice, and Larkin's proposal is a surprisingly frank acknowledgement of that reality. But is that a reality the country is prepared to live with?
An unusual Dutch initiative aims to put an end to one of Amsterdam's worst nuisances -- those bawdy, loitering alcoholics -- by employing them in a kind of street cleaning corps. The problem, though, is that the state-financed Rainbow Foundation behind the project pays the self-professed chronic alcoholics in beer for their labor.
"The aim is to keep them occupied, to get them doing something so they no longer cause trouble at the park," Gerrie Holterman, who heads the Rainbow Foundation, told AFP, referring to Amsterdam's Oosterpark, an apparent favorite haunt of the alcoholics. And at least some of the participants agree on the apparent benefits of the initiative. One man in the program named Frank told AFP, "Lots of us haven't had any structure in our lives for years, we just don't know what it is, and so this is good for us."
But by offering positive reinforcement to Amsterdam alocholics' worst tendencies, the weirdly commonsense solution to the problem of drunks causing a ruckus in public parks raises some serious ethical questions. The two groups of about ten people work three days a week cleaning city streets and are paid ten euros a day for their labor, along with a half-packet of rolling tobacco and five cans of beer. The men start the day off with two cans, have another two at lunch, and finish off with a last can in the afternoon. Did being an alcoholic ever pay so well?
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It's a political divide that could only materialize in France. On one side, 343 "bastards" telling their countrymen and government not to "touch my whore." On the other side, a feminist minister crusading to end prostitution. These are the battle lines over a proposed law that would penalize those who pay for sex, a measure aimed at cracking down on prostitution.
The legislation would fine those who purchase sex with a $2000 penalty and is part of an effort by Women's Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to tighten restrictions on the world's oldest profession. Citing human trafficking and rights abuses, the government wants to eventually eradicate the practice.
According to a parliamentary report, as many as 90 percent of France's 40,000 sex workers are migrants, and if Vallaud-Belkacem has her way that number may drastically decrease -- but with potentially disastrous consequences for French prostitutes.
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Forget the Snowden leaks, the birth of Prince George, and the Syria chemical weapons deal -- 2013 shall be remembered as the year of the first Papal selfie. Following in the pioneering footsteps of Anthony Weiner, Bill Clinton, and even Michelle Obama, Pope Francis went this year where no pope has gone before: in front of an iPhone held aloft by a smiling teenager.
So it's probably not surprising that selfie is the 2013 Oxford Dictionaries word of the year. Usage of the term increased by 17,000 percent since last year, according to Oxford Dictionaries editors, driven by both social and mainstream media use. Selfie beat out bitcoin, binge-watch, and even twerk for the distinction.
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Pope Francis has already become a favorite of progressives with his fairly open-minded statements on homosexuality and birth control. But that adoration may go into overdrive, now that the Pope has adopted a new role as an environmental crusader, too. On Monday, the Pope was photographed with environmental activists holding T-shirts with anti-fracking slogans.
The photographs were taken after a meeting in the Vatican on Monday in which the Pope spoke with a group of Argentine environmental activists to discuss fracking and water contamination. He reportedly told the group he is preparing an encyclical -- a letter addressing a part of Catholic doctrine -- about nature, humans, and environmental pollution.
In the pictures, one of the men standing with the Pope is movie director and Argentine politician Fernando 'Pino' Solanas, known for his activism against "environmental crimes" and his film "Dirty Gold" about mega-mining. In particular, Solanas is a vocal opponent of an August agreement between the Argentine government and Chevron to develop shale oil and gas, which he calls "the largest environmental disaster in the Amazon." Drilling for these resources often requires hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," which is criticized by opponents for relying on toxic fluid and posing water contamination risks.
The Chevron deal is just one instance of American oil companies looking further and further afield to develop shale oil and gas as vast foreign reserves promise imitations of the United States' own shale oil revolution. Particularly in lower-income countries like Argentina, the promise of such a revolution is too lucrative to resist -- especially with so many betting on its potential. The United States Energy Information Administration has ranked Argentina fourth behind Russia, the United States, and China in terms of shale oil reserves. In terms of shale gas reserves, Argentina is ranked second only after China. But the government's embrace of Chevron has been met with fierce protests, some of which have prompted a brutal crackdown from police with tear gas and rubber bullets. Argentina's indigenous Mapuche Indian community has been a firebrand group behind the protests, claiming they weren't consulted on the deal as required by international treaties covering indigenous peoples.
According to one report of the meeting, His Holiness's concern was "clear" when hearing about the Chevron deal in Argentina and other environmental disputes in the region. On Tuesday, Sarah Palin said she was shocked by the pontiff's "liberal" statements. Wait 'til she hears about his new role as the face of Argentina's environmentalist movement.
On Nov. 11 1918, the end of World War I, Poland regained its place on the map of Europe, after having been wiped off for 123 years. Now, on Poland's Independence Day, the capital's sky gives off a red glow and its streets are enveloped in smoke. That's not because there's been an elaborate fireworks show. It's from the bright flares held by violent nationalist protesters. This November, young men in balaclavas set fire to two significant elements of the Warsaw landscape: a huge rainbow in the city center, seen by many as a symbol of tolerance and openness -- or gay rights -- and the guard post at the Russian embassy, reflecting age-old tensions between the two countries.
In recent years, the country's capital has regularly spun into complete mayhem on Independence Day. On a supposedly joyous national holiday, in a stable country that has been called Europe's "green island" during the financial crisis, having never descended into red while the rest of Europe was hurting, cars are trashed, Molotov cocktails fly in the air and parents warn their children to stay at home. This year, on the 95th anniversary of Polish statehood, the violence was particularly pronounced.
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In an unprecedented parliamentary hearing resembling a scene from Skyfall, three British intelligence chiefs made the case for spying and secrecy in the modern world, while assuring the assembled that their agencies adhere to strict legal and ethical guidelines. The heads of Britain's electronic spying agency (GCHQ), domestic security service (MI5), and secret intelligence service (MI6) appeared before Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee Thursday to answer questions about the scope and nature of their surveillance operations.
It was a major departure for the notoriously secretive agencies. Before 1992 -- when the identity of MI5's director was made public for the first time -- the chiefs tended to avoid the spotlight. The British government didn't even acknowledge the existence of MI6 until 1994. But in a 90-minute open session, MI5's Andrew Parker, MI6's John Sawers, and GCHQ's Iain Lobban appeared unfazed as they were quizzed about torture, terrorism, and privacy in the wake of the leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Naturally, the presence of Britain's most famous spy -- James Bond -- was acutely felt, if only because Sawers used him to illustrate how the agencies do not operate these days.
Here are a few other claims made Thursday by the British spy chiefs:
1. GCHQ does not spy on (most of) its citizens: When asked whether GCHQ spies on innocent civilians in its efforts to weed out a "minority of evildoers," Lobban insisted that the agency does not listen to the phone calls or read the emails of the vast majority of citizens. "I don't employ the type of people who would do [that]," he argued. "If they were asked to snoop, they would leave the building." But he acknowledged that plenty of communication is necessarily monitored in an effort to "draw out the needles" in the haystack.
"It would be very nice if all terrorists or serious criminals used a particular method of communication and everybody else used something else," he said. "That is not the case.… If you are a terrorist, a serious criminal, a proliferator, a foreign intelligence target, or if your activities pose a genuine threat to the national or economic security of the UK, there is a possibility that your communications will be monitored. If you're not, and if you're not in contact with one of those people, then they won't be. And that's true if you're British, you're foreign, and wherever you are in the world."
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Women of the world: pack your warmest sweaters, and head immediately to Iceland. According to a newly-released report from the World Economic Forum[pdf], Iceland is the #1 country in the world for gender equality, for the fifth year in a row. And that equality is helping propel Iceland and its fellow Nordic nations to new economic heights. Turns out, the smaller the gender gap, the more economically competitive the nation. Even when that nation is totally freezing.
The notion that gender equality drives development (rather than the other way round) has been so widely celebrated in recent years that it begins to seem trite. But as the newly released 2013 Global Gender Gap Index -- which measures gender parity in 136 countries -- reminds us, gender equity isn't simply a matter of equal rights. It's a matter of efficiency. Many countries have closed the gender gap in education, for example, but gender-based barriers to employment minimize their returns on that investment; Their highly educated women aren't working. The highest ranking countries in the index have figured out how to maximize returns on their investment in women, and are consequently more economically competitive, have higher incomes, and higher rates of development.
The report notes a strong correlation between Global Gender Gap Index rankings (which measure health, education, labor political and participation) and measures of global competitiveness, as the graph below illustrates. The smaller the gender gap, the better off the economy. Perhaps it's no surprise that less-developed nations lke Yemen and Pakistan are near the bottom of the Index. What's more surprising is that relatively economic powerhouses like Turkey and Japan are right there in the basement with them.
Take the Philippines. It ranks #5 on the Global Gender Gap Index, higher than any other Asian nation. It's the only country in Asia that has fully closed the education gender gap, and its labor force boasts growing ranks of women workers, especially professionals and managers. Not surprisingly, the Philippines is now the fastest growing economy in Asia, having recently edged out China (#69 on the index). There are many reasons for this, including macroeconomic policy reforms under Aquino, but the role of a large, educated and diverse work force shouldn't be discounted; Indeed, gender parity in Filipino education and labor preceded recent economic growth.
Though not exactly analogous, something similar is playing out in the corporate world. A 2012 report by Credit Suisse found that companies with at least one woman on the board outperformed those without by about 26 percent. A 2012 report by McKinsey & Company similarly found that companies with more diverse boards boasted higher profit and higher returns on equity than others. It could be that better performing companies are in a better position to give women a chance, but the researchers at Credit Suisse suggest that simply diversifying the leadership pool can generate surprisingly positive results.
So, what are the highest ranking countries doing right, exactly?
One major factor, which the report notes every year, is that high ranking countries "have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in high female employment, more shared participation in childcare, more equitable distribution of labor at home [and] better work-life balance for both women and men."
Meanwhile, in the United States, the notion that women could conceivably someday successfully combine work and family is still constantly under debate. Incidentally, the U.S. dropped one place in the rankings to #23 -- below Burundi, Cuba and, god forbid, Canada.
The lowest ranking country is Yemen, which has only closed about half of its gender gap. Japan fell four places to #120, due in part to a widening gap in political participation: The number of women in parliament fell from 11 percent to 8 percent during the past year. And, though Japan has made significant investments in education over the years, it has not removed barriers to employment for women meaning it has yet to cash in on this investment. The report argues that simply closing the gap between male and female employment in Japan would boost GDP by up to 16 percent. Turkey remains among the lowest ranking countries in Europe. Despite some gains in literacy, educational enrollment and labor force participation, the country still has fewer women professionals, managers, and politicians relative to other European nations.
In short: It's awesome to be a woman if you're in Iceland. In Yemen, not so much.
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Wednesday marked the 567th birthday of the Korean alphabet. And South Korea's prime minister, Chung Hong-won, chose a rather unconventional way to honor the occasion, known colloquially as Hangul Day: delivering a speech deploring young South Koreans' use of slang, foul language, improperly conjugated verbs, and other "verbal violence." He then called for a "national language purification" campaign to "remedy this bad culture."
Such campaigns are not new in South Korea, where civil society groups have long opposed the adoption of foreign words and characters. The invention of the Korean alphabet, in fact, was an early effort at establishing linguistic purity (at the time, classical Chinese was the lingua franca of Korea's educated and elite), but it failed to take off until the mid-20th century when South Korea's independence -- and the subsequent establishment of Korean as the national language -- necessitated the adoption of a distinct writing system accessible to a wide swath of citizens. Hangul, with its 24 easy-to-master characters, was perfect.
The country of Franz Kafka and inexpensive beer has a branding problem. Time and again, people seem to have trouble remembering that the "Czech Republic" is a two-word concoction. "Czech" is an adjective describing someone or something from the Czech Republic, not the country itself. "Czechoslovakia," a hybrid state of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, has been defunct for 20 years. And Chechnya, though some claim otherwise, is definitely not a country south of Poland and Germany and north to Austria. But at last -- in the wake of a meeting between Israeli President Shimon Peres and Czech President Milos Zeman -- a solution may be at hand.
This week, during a trip to Israel, Zeman met with Peres, who in English-language remarks used the word "Czechia" to refer to the country his visitor leads. Zeman embraced the name, saying, "I am very happy that you used the term 'Czechia' just as I do. I use 'Czechia' because it sounds nicer and it's shorter than the cold 'Czech Republic.'" (Incidentally, the Hebrew word for the Czech Republic is also "Czechia.")
The president of Czechia's comment was less off-the-cuff than it sounds. According to the Prague Post, Zeman actually uses the term fairly often. As do some of its most fervent supporters in the Czech Republic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a direct appeal to the American public in an editorial in Thursday morning's New York Times. "The potential strike by the United States against Syria," he writes, "despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.... It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
But Putin seemed notably less concerned about civilian deaths and the second-order effects of military intervention when he took to the same opinion page in 1999 to make the case for intervention -- in Chechnya. In an editorial titled "Why We Must Act," he defended Russian military action, writing that "in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that." Despite international concerns, though, he assured readers that the Russian counterinsurgency operation would not cause widespread harm to civilians. "American officials tell us that ordinary citizens are suffering, that our military tactics may increase that suffering," he wrote then. "The very opposite is true. Our commanders have clear instructions to avoid casualties among the general population. We have nothing to gain by doing otherwise." Because when the Russians stage a military intervention, it's different.
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Europe's four-year economic collapse has left an indelible scar on the continent, and the depressing data-points documenting its decline just keep rolling in. On Thursday, a Spanish suicide help-line reported that it saw a 30-percent increase in the number of calls it fielded in 2012. With a quarter of the Spanish population and half of its youth out of work, despair is just around corner for Spaniards these days, and Thursday's numbers offer a glimpse of what has become one of the more dismal sub-plots of the eurozone recession: a marked increase in the number of suicides.
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On Wednesday, Eurostat released statistics showing that the eurozone economy has finally exited its 18-month recession, growing by o.3 percent in the second quarter of 2013. That sound you're hearing is a collective sigh of relief from the European policymakers who have somehow managed to shepherd the continent through its agonizingly slow-moving crisis.
So does this -- coupled with other recent good news, such as Greece's surprising budget surplus -- mean that the eurocrisis is finally receding? Not exactly. "There are still substantial obstacles to overcome: the growth figures remain low and the tentative signs of growth are still fragile," European Commission Vice President Olli Rehn cautioned today.
Here, in graphic form, is a guide to the considerable challenges still facing the European economy.
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He's been counted down-and-out prematurely before, so those predicting that a decision on a tax-fraud conviction -- slated to come down from Italy's Supreme Court as early as Thursday -- will finally spell the end for the resilient Silvio Berlusconi may want to hold back. But even if the former prime minister really is temporarily banned from holding public office -- as this conviction, in theory, requires him to be -- those who fear that the Italian political scene will grow too boring (or too functional) without him need not worry: there's another Berlusconi waiting in the wings to carry on the family name.
Reports say Il Cavaliere is eyeing eldest daughter Marina Berlusconi to take over leadership of his center-right People of Liberty party -- perhaps as part of a larger rebranding of the party slated for this fall, when Berlusconi plans to change its name back to the original "Forza Italia" and "focus on young people." Marina, 46, is seen as better equipped to challenge Florence's dynamic 38-year-old mayor Matteo Renzi, a likely leader of the center-left in Italy's next elections.
So far, Marina maintains she doesn't want to succeed her father, professing that her heart is in business. But even without holding elected office, as head of the Berlusconi family holding company, Fininvest, and its publishing arm, Mondadori, Marina has become one of the most powerful people in a country where hardly any women have real clout in the realms of politics and business. Does that make the daughter of the man who brought Bunga Bunga into our vocabulary a lean in-style feminist?
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Update: Commissioner Georgieva's comments about cases of polio reappearing in Syria have been refuted by the World Health Organization, which has no confirmed cases of polio in Syria or the Syrian refugee diaspora. FP has learned that the European Commission has followed up with its source for the information in the Lebanese government and now believes detected symptoms of acute flaccid paralysis are being caused by diseases other than polio. The post's headline has been revised to reflect this.
Original Post: The lawless conflict in Syria is rekindling dangers -- from disease to forms of political violence -- that have been dormant for decades, Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union's Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid, and Crisis Response, told FP on Monday. "We have spent, as humanity, decades to eradicate polio," she said in a conversation at FP's office, "only to see it again now because of this negligence to simple, basic rules of war -- even in a war there are rules to be followed."
According to the World Health Organization, polio was eradicated in Syria in 1995. But the disease has returned during the country's civil war. "To get polio, that was eradicated, to return," Georgieva said, "this is not only a danger for the Syrians, and it is criminal for the children of this country, but it is a danger for Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey and Egypt and the rest of the world because the refugees will bring it out. We have already gotten reports that cases of polio are being registered among the refugee population." Other diseases -- including measles, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, and leishmaniasis, informally called the "Aleppo boil" -- have also proliferated in the absence of professional medical care.
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Authorities in France have struck yet another "Anglo-Saxon" term from the country's lexicon and replaced it with a domestic equivalent. As of this week, the French no longer engage in "le binge drinking" -- the proper term in la langue française is now "beuverie express" (literally "fast drinking").
The French General Commission of Terminology and Neology made the announcement on Sunday, and France 24 translated their definition as a "massive consumption of alcohol, usually as part of a group, designed to cause intoxication in a minimum amount of time." The French newspaper Le Monde quantified this as having more than four to five drinks in less than two hours -- although the news outlet did not specify the type of alcohol or precise portion size. (The French are well-known for weeding out foreign words from their language, with the Commission recently swapping the word "hashtag" for "mot-dièse.")
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center launched a poster campaign in Germany this week in an attempt to track down the last surviving Nazi war criminals. "Late, but not too late," the posters read and encourage those with information to call in tips to a hotline in the hopes that some former Nazis can still face justice before their deaths.
In Germany itself, the Center estimates there to be 60 people left who are still fit to stand trial for war crimes. Other former Nazis, including most of those on the Wiesenthal Center's top ten most wanted are believed to have slipped into hiding throughout Europe and the Americas.
But the number one most-wanted, potentially-still-alive Nazi war criminal on the list is suspected to be in Damascus, possibly in the Meridien Hotel, living -- last we know of, anyway -- under the protection of the Syrian government. The Wiesenthal Center admits that the chances that Alois Brunner, born in 1912, and last spotted in 2001, is still among the living are 'slim' - "but until conclusive evidence of his demise is obtained" the hunt for Brunner should continue, the Center says. How did Brunner, Adolf Eichmann's second in command, who deported at least 128,000 Jews to Nazi camps, come to find refuge in Syria where he built a "safe and glowingly prosperous" life?
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you've probably been exposed to the nearly wall-to-wall coverage of the impending birth of Kate and Will's Baby. And while the media frenzy is sure to provoke some earnest "why-should-we-care?" think pieces -- as well as some more pointed "Royal-Baby-as-symbol-of-nefarious-inherited-privilege" columns -- Royal Baby coverage, much like an outbreak of Spanish Influenza, is largely inescapable.
But, just because journalists have to cover William and Kate's as yet nameless, genderless progeny, that doesn't mean they have to like it. Exhibit A is BBC newsreader Simon McCoy, seen here taking an exasperated shot at his network's round-the-clock coverage:
McCoy's snark continued well into the day with this deadpan reading of e-mails to the BBC featuring gems like "what a load of sycophantic rubbish" and "God help us if this ends up a long labor" (sentiments with which he appears to sympathize), before admitting to the audience that, until the birth, "we're going to be speculating about this royal birth with no facts at hand."
McCoy obviously isn't the only one who feels that Royal-Baby-mania has gone over top. The Guardian website is currently offering readers of its website a "Republican" button that hides all mention of the various members of the House of Windsor. The Telegraph's Michael Deacon asks readers to sympathize for the poor cable news reporters asked to fill hours of dead air waiting for an announcement. The Independent, meanwhile, rounds up "Five Things We Didn't Need to Know About the Pregnancy" including the important news that the mother-to-be is "in a hurry to eat some curry." There's also this surreal photo gallery of the journalistic feeding frenzy, which, Reuters notes, "had taken all the disabled people's parking spaces."
Meanwhile, Russian-based broadcaster RT, which would never stoop to such fluff, is attempting to one up the Guardian in the "we-don't-care" sweepstakes by issuing a series of tweets such as this one:
Of course, one could also say that trolling the RoyalBaby hashtag to promote just how much you don't care is not exactly rising above the fray.
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On Wednesday, the story of Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA station chief in Milan, Italy, took another improbable turn when he was arrested in Panama near the Costa Rican border. Lady has been living quietly in the United States since fleeing an Italian investigation that resulted in him and 22 other Americans being convicted in absentia for their roles in the 2003 abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical cleric the CIA believed was helping recruit jihadists to fight in Iraq.
Nasr, who also went by Abu Omar, was pulled off a Milanese street during a daily noon-time walk. He was thrown into the back of a van, driven to Aviano Air Base, near Venice, and then flown to Egypt, where he was interrogated and tortured. The practice of seizing suspected terrorists and forcibly removing them to a third-party state for interrogation is often known as extraordinary rendition; in the eyes of the Italian judicial system, though, Nasr's abduction was kidnapping. After an investigation implicated a collection of CIA agents in Italy, tying their cell phones to the place and time at which Nasr was thrown into the van, the Italian government conducted a trial that sentenced 23 Americans to seven to nine years each in prison. The convictions were upheld last September by the Italian Supreme Court.
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Another day, another ballooning corruption scandal in southern Europe. On Monday, the former treasurer of Spain's ruling center-right Popular Party (PP), Luis Bárcenas, admitted in court to authoring handwritten ledgers detailing the secret flow of cash from private firms to top-level officials in the PP. Bárcenas also alleged, after months of speculation in the media, that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy accepted regular payments from the illegal slush fund.
A day after Bárcenas's damning testimony, the opposition Socialist Party has threatened to call a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister -- a symbolic gesture given the PP's dominant parliamentary majority. And while it's unclear whether the scandal will bring down Rajoy's government, it has played into the common narrative these days about the connection between government corruption and economic stagnation in Europe's periphery. As the BBC notes, the revelations in Spain "have enraged a country in the depths of recession and record unemployment."
But just what is the relationship between malfeasance and economic performance? The answer might surprise you.
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Not everyone in France is thrilled with the new postage stamp featuring a youthful Marianne, one of the symbols of la République Française, that François Hollande unveiled at the Élysée Palace on Bastille Day -- as part of a tradition in which each new French president chooses an image of Marianne to appear on stamps.
The controversy erupted after one of the artists behind the stamp revealed over Twitter that high-profile Ukrainian FEMEN activist Inna Shevchenko -- whose controversial feminist group often stages topless protests -- was one of the inspirations for the postage design, along with French women such as actress Marion Cotillard and French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira.
"For me, Marianne, who is represented bare-breasted, would probably have been a Femen in 1789 (the French revolution) because she fought for the Republic's values -- liberty, equality and fraternity," artist Olivier Ciappa told AFP. (This isn't the first time Ciappa's art has drawn fire in France; his exhibit showing photos of same-sex couples was vandalized in June, and he received death threats.)
France's right-wing Christian Democratic Party isn't appreciating the comparison and has called for a boycott of the stamp, while Ciappa penned a rebuttal for Le Huffington Post noting that French students overwhelmingly voted for his design in a national competition before it was approved by Hollande.
But perhaps the most pointed response came from Shevchenko herself, who tweeted, "FEMEN is on French stamp.Now all homophobes,extremists,fascists will have to lick my ass when they want to send a letter." (Shevchenko was recently granted asylum in France after facing threats in Ukraine over a protest where she sawed down a crucifix in solidarity with the Russian punk band Pussy Riot.)
By Tuesday, the stamps will be available at post offices across France. But it doesn't seem like anyone will be holding their tongues until then.
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On Monday, the United States and the European Union officially launched talks on creating a new free trade zone -- one that could become the largest in the world, covering roughly $31 trillion in combined GDP and 30 percent of global trade -- by 2014. But while the U.S. and EU may be allies, don't expect the talks to go smoothly. The world's two largest economies don't always see eye-to-eye when it comes to economic and regulatory policy, and bickering over things like gluten and fancy cheese has become something of a tradition.
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Ramadan, the Islamic holy month marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, begins Monday evening in many parts of the world (just when continues to be the subject of debate). And in a intentionally provocative move, the British broadcaster Channel 4 has announced that it will be airing the call to prayer, or adhan, live every morning throughout Ramadan (an autoplay version will also be available on its website five times daily). The first call to prayer will air at 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday and "[p]rogrammes in the schedule will be cut to accommodate the adhan."
Writing for Britain's Radio Times magazine, Channel 4's head of factual programming, Ralph Lee, called the decision "a deliberate 'provocation' to all our viewers in the very real sense of the word," noting that the broadcaster expected to be "criticized for focusing attention on a 'minority' religion." Lee went on to point out that nearly five percent of the country will be participating in Ramadan. "[C]an we say the same of other national events that have received blanket coverage on television such as the Queen's coronation anniversary?" he asked.
Be it the next pope or the next Nobel Prize winner, an international news event is not an international news event without a rush of betting on its outcome. Enter the British online gambling website William Hill, which is currently allowing users to bet on Edward Snowden's location as of New Year's Day, 2014 (the NSA leaker is currently hiding out at a Moscow airport as U.S. officials seek his extradition, with few options for outbound flights). As you can see below, the odds-on favorite for Snowden's destination is Cuba (7/4), with the United States (3/1) and Ecuador (4/1) close behind. Notice the reference further down the list to Ecuador's embassy in London, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is currently holed up:
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