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Pentagon adopts new policy on religious beards and apparel

US ArmyThe US military has eased restrictions on religious tattoos, hairstyles or apparel that troops can display while in uniform, as long as they do not jeopardise “unit cohesion”.

The Pentagon said on Wednesday the rules it unveiled marked the first time the agency had laid out a general policy on the issue.

“The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members unless they have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion, and good order and discipline,” spokesman Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen said in a statement.

As long as a unit’s mission is not put at risk or its safety jeopardised, the regulations would allow an exception to standard “clean-cut” grooming standards on religious grounds, including facial hair or other hairstyles, tattoos and piercings that reflect a soldier’s spiritual faith.

However, certain apparel or other expressions of religious faith would not be permitted if it “interferes with the wear or proper function of special or protective clothing or equipment,” such as helmets, flak jackets or flight suits, Christensen said.

The policy mainly affects Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and members of other groups that wear beards or articles of clothing as part of their religion. It also could affect Wiccans and others who may obtain tattoos or piercings for religious reasons.

But advocacy groups expressed concern that the updated policy does little to protect Sikhs and others from the whims of their commanders.

“What is disappointing is that the presumptive bar on Sikh articles of faith remains”, said Amardeep Singh, a spokesman for the human rights organisation Sikh Coalition.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he welcomed any move to broaden religious accommodation in the US military.

“We’ve dealt with this issue on a number of occasions, whether it was with beards or with head scarfs or even in support of the Sikh community on the issue of turbans and skullcaps for the Jewish military personnel,” he said.

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U.S. Announces Six Test Sites For Drones

DronesUS aviation regulators on Monday released the names of sites picked to test civilian drones whose slated 2015 debut over American skies has sparked privacy concerns.

Testing of the unmanned aircraft is due to start within three months and could continue until February 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said in a statement.

The FAA has said some 7,500 small unmanned aircraft can be expected in US airspace in the next five years — provided regulations are in place to handle them.

As well as law enforcement, supporters say civilian drones could be used for a vast range of applications, including tracking the progress of wildfires, helping to find lost skiers, identifying criminals or mapping inhospitable terrain.

Data from the testing “will help the FAA answer key research questions such as solutions for ‘sense and avoid,’ command and control, ground control station standards and human factors, airworthiness, lost link procedures and the interface with the air traffic control system,” the FAA said.

Operators include the University of Alaska, whose winning proposal covers seven climatic zones and foresees testing in the states of Hawaii and Oregon.

The state of Nevada will, among other things, focus on how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of drones.

New York’s Griffiss International Airport, meanwhile, will study the integration of drones into the heavily frequented northeast airspace.

Another chosen operator, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, is the only one to offer testing in a temperate, continental climate and a variety of different airspaces, according to the FAA.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi plans to develop system safety requirements.

The sixth operator, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, known as Virginia Tech, will conduct “failure mode testing,” with sites in both Virginia and New Jersey.

The FAA said it had received 25 proposals from 24 states and made its selection following a 10-month selection process.

It noted in its announcement that, as laid out in November, test site operators must comply with federal, state and other privacy laws and have a “written plan for data use and retention.”

Michael Toscano, president and chief executive of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, representing drone makers, welcomed the FAA’s announcement, calling it “an important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft.”

According to Toscano, the market for civilian drones will lead to the creation of 100,000 jobs over the first decade following their integration into US skies. That would generate more than $82 billion, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union urged Congress to ensure the protection of privacy.

“We’re pleased the FAA acknowledges the importance of safeguarding privacy in the testing areas where drones will be flying, but requiring test sites to have privacy policies is no guarantee that every site will put strong protections in place,” Catherine Crump, the group’s staff attorney, said in a statement.

“Someday drones will be commonplace in US skies and, before that happens, it’s imperative that Congress enact strong, nationwide privacy rules.”

About 80 law enforcement agencies currently operate unmanned aircraft under special authorization.

Earlier this month, Amazon head Jeff Bezos floated a futuristic mini-drone delivery plan that would drop small packages at doorsteps in just 30 minutes.

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NSA surveillance lawful says Federal Judge

National Security AgencyA federal judge in New York has ruled that the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance program, which collects millions of Americans’ phone records, is lawful.

Ruling on American Civil Liberties Union et al v. Clapper et al, US District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 13-03994, US District Judge William Pauley said the federal government could dismiss a complaint against the program brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“While robust discussions are underway across the nation, in Congress and at the White House, the question for this court is whether the government’s bulk telephony metadata program is lawful. This court finds it is,” he wrote in his 54-page ruling.

“The question of whether that program should be conducted is for the other two coordinate branches of government to decide,” he added.

Last week, another US District Judge, Richard Leon in Washington, DC, ruled that the NSA phone data collection program was likely unconstitutional because it violated protections against unreasonable searches.

But Pauley argued that protections under the Fourth Amendment do not apply to records held by third parties, like phone companies. “This blunt tool only works because it collects everything,” he said.

“Technology allowed al Qaeda to operate decentralized and plot international terrorist attacks remotely,” he said. “The bulk telephony metadata collection program represents the government’s counter-punch.”

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Snowden leaves Hong Kong Voluntarily

Image representing Edward Snowden as depicted ...

 

Edward Snowden  the former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, charged by the United States with espionage, was allowed to leave Hong Kong on Sunday because the U.S. extradition request did not comply with the law, the Hong Kong government said.

Snowden left for Moscow on Sunday and his final destination may be Ecuador or Iceland, the South China Morning Post said, a move that is bound to infuriate Washington.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was unaware of Snowden’s whereabouts or travel plans. The WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website said it helped Snowden find “political asylum in a democratic country”. It did not elaborate.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said last week he would not leave the sanctuary of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London even if Sweden stopped pursuing sexual assault claims against him because he feared arrest on the orders of the United States.

U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, with the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act.

The United States had asked Hong Kong, a special administrative region (SAR) of China, to send him home.

“The U.S. government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden,” the Hong Kong government said in a statement.

“Since the documents provided by the U.S. government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR government has requested the U.S. government to provide additional information … As the HKSAR government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 and although it retains an independent legal system, and its own extradition laws, Beijing has control over Hong Kong’s foreign affairs.

The South China Morning Post earlier quoted Snowden offering new details about the United States’ spy activities, including accusations of U.S. hacking of Chinese mobile telephone companies and targeting China’s Tsinghua University.

Documents previously leaked by Snowden revealed that the NSA has access to vast amounts of data such as emails, chat rooms and video from large companies, including Facebook and Google, under a government programme known as Prism.

The government statement said Hong Kong had written to the United States “requesting clarification” on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by U.S. government agencies.

“The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong,” it said.

China’s Xinhua news agency, referring to Snowden’s accusations about the hacking of Chinese targets, said they were “clearly troubling signs”.

It added, “They demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”

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First US drone strike under new Pakistan Prime Minister Kills Seven

Dec. 17 airpower summary: Reapers touch enemy forcesA US drone strike Friday killed seven militants in northwest Pakistan, the first since Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as prime minister this week calling for an end to such attacks, local officials said.

The missiles hit a compound in Shokhel village, more than 100 kilometres southwest of Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan tribal district that is known as a stronghold of Taliban and al Qaeda-linked militants.

“The US drone fired two missiles targeting a militant compound and killing at least seven militants,” a senior local security official told AFP.

Another official confirmed the strike and casualties but said the identities of those killed were not yet known.

The strike came just two days after Sharif was sworn in for a historic third time and asked the United States to end its campaign of drone attacks against militants.

“We respect the sovereignty of others and they should also respect our sovereignty and independence. This campaign should come to an end,” he said after lawmakers endorsed him as premier on Wednesday.

He had also publicly criticised the drone strike that killed Taliban deputy Waliur Rehman last week, echoing long-held Pakistani complaints that the US campaign violates national sovereignty.

Waliur Rehman, the number two in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) faction, died along with at least five others when a drone fired two missiles on a house in North Waziristan on May 29.

Waliur Rehman, who had a $5 million US government bounty on his head, was killed after US President Barack Obama outlined new more restrictive guidelines on drone use.

Washington had accused Waliur Rehman of organising attacks against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and also wanted him in connection with a suicide attack on an American base in Afghanistan in 2009 that killed seven CIA agents.

Drone missile strikes are very unpopular in Pakistan, but Washington views them as a vital tool in the fight against Taliban and al Qaeda militants holed up in the lawless Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Ties with Washington will be a key part of Nawaz Sharif’s tenure, particularly as NATO withdraws the bulk of its forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year after more than 12 years of war.

The families of Pakistani victims of US drone strikes on Thursday wrote to Nawaz Sharif urging him to stop the campaign – by shooting the unmanned aircraft down if necessary.

The Peshawar High Court on May 9 declared the CIA drone strikes targeting suspected militants to be a “war crime” and ordered Islamabad to take steps to halt them.

Victims’ families and their lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar have written to Sharif urging him to heed the court’s ruling, which calls on the government to take the matter up at the UN Security Council. Akbar said that if Pakistan failed to persuade the US to stop the strikes through the United Nations, “the court has very clearly ordered to shoot down the drones”.

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U.S. – China seek improved relations amid hacking scandal

US China Relations

Throwing formality aside at a desert retreat, the US and Chinese leaders pledged a new approach in ties, but President Barack Obama took the rising power to task on cyber-hacking charges.

Skipping the usual summit pageantry, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping both went without neckties at a resort under the blazing California sun as they looked to forge a personal chemistry that could shape the years to come.

In their first meeting since Xi assumed power in March, Obama voiced hope the US superpower and fast-growing China “can forge a new model of cooperation between countries based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

“It is in the United States’ interests that China continues on the path of success because we believe that a peaceful and stable and prosperous China is not only good for the Chinese, but also good for the world and the United States,” Obama said before a leisurely dinner.

Hovering over the summit at the Sunnylands retreat was a vexing question for both countries — whether China’s rise to regional and global prominence will mean an inevitable clash with the United States.

Obama wasted no time in hitting a key theme of the visit from the US side — complaints of an alleged Chinese Internet spying effort targeting American military and commercial secrets and intellectual property.

He voiced concern over the alleged theft — which a recent study said was costing the US economy hundreds of billions of dollars a year — and urged “common rules of the road” to protect against hacking.

“President Xi and I recognize that, because of the incredible advances of technology, the issue of cybersecurity and the need for rules, and common approaches to security, have become increasingly important,” Obama said.

“It’s critical, as two of the largest economies and military powers of the world, that China and the United States arrive at a firm understanding,” Obama said.

Obama, who will hold a second day of talks with Xi on Saturday, said they had not yet discussed cyber-security in-depth. Ahead of the summit, the two countries announced working-level talks to clear up the issue.

Xi said he wanted “good-faith cooperation” to clear up “misgivings” by the United States about cybersecurity, telling reporters that China was also “a victim of cyberattacks.”

“The Chinese government is firm in upholding cybersecurity and we have major concerns about cybersecurity,” Xi said, adding that recent media coverage “might give people the sense that cybersecurity as a threat mainly comes from China.”

Xi invited Obama to pay a parallel informal visit to China. Mirroring his host’s theme of a new approach, Xi said: “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China.”

“We’re meeting here today to chart the future of China-US relations and draw a blueprint for this relationship,” Xi said, next to aides in identical business casual outfits.

Xi, who is expected to lead China during a decade in which it will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, reiterated his frequent, if occasionally vague, call for world powers to think differently about relations.

“We need to think creatively and act energetically, so that, working together, we can build a new model of major country relationship,” Xi said.

The 59-year-old leader holds credibility as the son of one of China’s founding revolutionaries and speaks in a confident, free-flowing style, a shift from the stilted formality of his predecessor Hu Jintao that frustrated the White House.

The two leaders had not been expected to meet until the G20 summit in Russia in September. But both sides, sensing uncertainty seeping into a complicated and often difficult relationship, saw value in an earlier encounter.

“Our decision to meet so early I think signifies the importance of the US-China relationship,” Obama said.

The president also pledged that the United States would raise the issue of human rights, a longstanding concern of US lawmakers and campaigners who deplore China’s harsh treatment of democracy advocates, religious groups and ethnic minorities.

“History shows that upholding universal rights will ultimately be a key to success and prosperity and justice,” Obama said.

In troublesome optics for Obama, the summit comes as he faces criticism over revelations that the United States has run a massive Internet and telephone surveillance program for security purposes.

The White House rejected charges the scandal weakened Obama’s hand and instead said the row showed how the United States holds vibrant discussions on individual rights.

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Eurozone Unemployment hits a record 12.2 percent in April

Countries using the Euro de jure Countries and...

The unemployment rate across the 17 European countries that use the euro hit a record 12.2 percent in April, and the number of unemployed is on track to reach 20 million by year’s end.

The worsening jobs crisis points to the recession that has gripped the euro alliance. Many countries are struggling to stimulate growth while grappling with a debt crisis that’s led governments to slash spending and raise taxes.

Unemployment in the eurozone rose in April from the previous record of 12.1 percent set in March, Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office, said Friday. In 2008, before the worst of the financial crisis, the rate was far less — around 7.5 percent.

The number of unemployed rose 95,000 to 19.38 million. The currency bloc’s population is about 330 million.

Private companies in the eurozone haven’t managed to fill the vacuum created by drastically reduced government spending. In the United States, by contrast, governments have imposed far milder spending cuts and tax increases. Unemployment, at 7.5 percent, is far lower. And consumers and private companies have kept spending, steadily if modestly.

The unemployment rate for the overall eurozone masks sharp disparities among individual countries. Unemployment in Greece and Spain top 25 percent. In Germany, the rate is a low 5.4 percent.

The differences are particularly stark for youth unemployment. More than half of people ages 16 to 25 in Greece and Spain are unemployed. In Italy, the rate for this group tops 40 percent. For Germany, it’s just 7.5 percent.

“Youth joblessness at these levels risks permanently entrenched unemployment, lowering the rate of sustainable growth in the future,” said Tom Rogers, senior economic adviser at Ernst & Young.

The disparities reflect the varying performances of the euro economies. Greece is in its sixth year of a savage recession. Germany’s economy has until recently been growing at a healthy pace.

As a whole, the eurozone is stuck in its longest recession since the euro was launched in 1999. The six quarters of economic decline represent a longer recession than the one that followed the 2008 financial crisis, though it’s not as deep.

The U.S. economy, the world’s largest, has demonstrated far more resilience. It’s grown steadily since the end of its recession in June 2009. And the U.S. job market has steadily improved: The unemployment rate has fallen sharply from a peak of 10 percent.

The eurozone marks the epicenter of Europe’s debt crisis. But other countries in the region are also struggling to recover. Some, like Britain, are focused on shrinking their deficits even while demand in their main export market — the eurozone — is falling.

As a result, unemployment in the wider 27-nation EU, which includes the non-euro countries such as Britain and Poland, has risen in recent months. In April, the rate remained 11 percent.

A key factor behind Europe’s economic decline has been a broad focus on paring debt by raising taxes and slashing spending. As long as many governments continue to cut spending and the confidence of consumers and businesses remains low, economists don’t expect any meaningful recovery in coming months.

Friday’s data showed that the sharpest change in unemployment rates among the 17 euro countries was in Cyprus. Its unemployment rate jumped to 15.6 percent from 14.5 percent.

The small Mediterranean island nation became the fifth euro country to seek financial help in March. Unlike with other bailouts, Cyprus was asked to raise much of its rescue money from bank depositors. That decision led to a nearly two-week shutdown of its banks and battered economic confidence.

The European Central Bank has sought to ease the pressure on Europe’s businesses and consumers by cutting its main interest rate to a record low 0.5 percent this month. Another cut is possible. But most economists say it’s unlikely, even though the inflation rate remains under the ECB’s target of just below 2 percent.

Eurostat said inflation in the eurozone rose to 1.4 percent for the year that ended in May, from the 38-month low of 1.2 percent in April. It attributed the increase to rising food, alcohol and tobacco prices.

Analysts said the ECB is more likely to act to shore up lending to small and medium-sized businesses, which are key job creators in Europe. Such companies are taking out few loans out of fear that the economy might worsen and because banks are charging high rates.

“So far, the ECB’s actions have not translated into lower lending rates for businesses and households, failing to boost activity,” said Anna Zabrodzka, economist at Moody’s Analytics.

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