Daily Archives: July 6, 2008

Queen creates two new Knights of the Thistle

Insignia of a Knight of the Order of the Thistle. (Source: Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas (1799 – 1848) History of the Orders of Knighthood of the British Empire, of the order of the Guelphs of Hanover)

Lord Cullen and Sir Garth, pledged to be loyal and true to the Queen.

The Times | Jul 2, 2008

Edinburgh The judge who led the inquiries into the Piper Alpha and Dunblane tragedies received the highest public honour in Scotland from the Queen.

Lord Cullen, right, who has retired, was installed as a Knight of the Thistle in a ceremony at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. Joining him was Sir Garth Morrison, Lord Lieutenant of East Lothian, a former chairman of East Lothian NHS Trust and a former Chief Scout of the UK.

The colourful ceremony began with a fanfare by Her Majesty’s Household Trumpeters in Scotland to mark the arrival of the Royal guests. The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Princess Royal joined a procession through the cathedral to the Thistle Chapel – a small chapel founded in 1911 for such ceremonies. Guests at the ceremony included Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and Lord Steel of Aikwood.

The Queen spoke briefly before bestowing the honours on Lord Cullen and Sir Garth, who pledged to be loyal and true to the Queen.

The Order of the Thistle is second only in precedence in Britain to the Order of the Garter. It honours Scottish men and women who have held public office or contributed to public life.

The date of the order’s foundation is not known, although it was revived by Queen Anne in 1703.

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Order of the Thistle
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Mexicans urged to reclaim a piece of Texas

Telegraph | Jun 26, 2008

By Tom Leonard

Mexicans are being encouraged to reclaim a piece of Texas, more than 150 years after they lost the Lone Star state to the United States.

Texan estate agents are heading south of the border to drum up the interest in buying cut-price land and property in the foreclosure-hit state.

Thanks to a rising Mexican peso and an economy which is growing faster than that of the US, a country that has previously been looked on by America as a source of cheap labour is now seen as a potential source of rich investors.

A “Texas for Sale” sign and cowgirl-clad models greeted visitors to a recent property fair in Monterrey, Mexico, at which hundreds of Mexicans looked over lists of potential investment opportunities. Virgilio Garza, a Monterrey developer, said he and his partners were considering investing $8 million in buying up foreclosed homes in Texas.

He told Bloomberg: “Texas is like our home. We believe there can be some opportunities.”

Marco Ramirez, a Texas estate agent, said that residents of Monterrey, which is 150 miles from the Texas border, were his best hope of buying the 120 foreclosed properties on his books.

“Many of these people have children who are studying in the US. They’ve been renting or leasing and now it’s a great time to buy.”

America annexed Texas in 1845 after Texans gained independence from Mexico nine years earlier following the Battle of the Alamo.

A three-year war between the two countries resulted in Mexico losing about half its territory – including what is now Arizona, Nevada and California – to the United States.

Foreclosures in Texas have risen by 29 per cent in a year with one in every 274 households now going through the process.

The peso has risen by 5.9 per cent against the dollar since the beginning of the year.

German tears Hitler’s head off

A wax figure of Adolf Hitler is pictured in a mock bunker at the German ‘Madame Tussauds’ in Berlin, July 3, 2008.  (Tobias Schwarz/Reuters)

Reuters  | Jul 5, 2008

BERLIN (Reuters) – A man tore the head from a controversial waxwork figure of Adolf Hitler on the opening day of Berlin’s Madame Tussauds museum Saturday, police said.

Just minutes after the museum opened, the 41-year-old German man pushed aside two security men guarding the figure before ripping off the head in protest at the exhibit, a police spokesman said. The police were alerted and arrested the man.

The waxwork figure of a glum-looking Adolf Hitler in a mock bunker during the last days of his life was criticized as being in bad taste. A media preview of the new branch of Madame Tussauds Thursday was overshadowed by a row over the exhibit.

Critics said it was inappropriate to display the Nazi dictator, who started World War Two and ordered the extermination of Europe’s Jews, in a museum alongside celebrities, pop stars, world statesmen and sporting heroes.

Dressed in a grey suit, the figure of Hitler gazed downwards with a despondent stare, his arm outstretched on a large wooden table with a map of Europe on the wall of his gloomy bunker.

About 25 workers spent about four months on the waxwork, using more than 2,000 pictures and pieces of archive material and also guided by a model of the “Fuehrer” in the London branch of Madame Tussauds where he is standing upright.

It is illegal in Germany to show Nazi symbols and art glorifying Hitler and the exhibit was cordoned off to stop visitors posing with him.

Unobtrusive signs asked visitors to refrain from taking photos or posing with Hitler “out of respect for the millions of people who died during World War Two.” Camera surveillance and museum officials were meant to stop inappropriate behavior.

Institutions such as the foundation for Germany’s central Holocaust memorial site condemned the idea of the exhibit as tasteless, saying it had been included to generate business.

The wax figure is the latest in a gradual breaking down of taboos about Hitler in Germany more than 60 years after the end of the war and the Holocaust in which some six million Jews were killed.

The 2004 film “Downfall” provoked controversy as it portrayed the leader in a human light during the last days of his life and last year a satire about Hitler by Swiss-born Jewish director Dani Levy was released in Germany.

How America is snooping on YOU … and may soon be snooping a whole lot more

Under western eyes: US authorities are leaning on European governments for personal information about their citizens

Daily Mail | Jul 5, 2008

By  David Rose

Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie In’t Veld was becoming irritated. Whenever she tried to board a flight in America – something she does several times each year  – she was delayed by special security checks, subjected to questioning, additional searches of her bags and screening for explosives.

‘No one has ever accused me of involvement with terrorism or organised crime,’ In’t Veld said. ‘So I tried to discover why I was being singled out.’

Security expert In’t Veld, 41, wrote to three US government departments – State, Justice and Homeland Security – asking what they had on her in their files.

She especially wanted to know whether she had unjustly been deemed ‘high-risk’ under a scheme known as ATS, the Automated Targeting System.

It is a secret computer database whose conclusions can, under American law, be shared with a wide range of US and foreign government agencies and in some cases, employers.

Despite invoking America’s Freedom of Information Act, In‘t Veld got nowhere. Last week, she filed a US lawsuit, the first of its kind, demanding access to her records.

‘They say there are means of redress if US agencies hold damaging but inaccurate information about you,’ she said. ‘They don’t seem to work.’

Her case comes at a critical juncture. Since the start of this year, operating almost entirely beneath the public radar, the US Government has been making a concerted, multi-faceted push for unrestricted access to vast volumes of personal data held by governments on this side of the Atlantic.

What the US is after goes far beyond the ability to make requests case by case. They seek the ability to go on electronic fishing expeditions among British and other European databases held by law enforcement, immigration, financial and other official bodies – without even having to inform the databases’ custodians, let alone their subjects.

Some of this information – misleading police intelligence reports based on malicious hearsay, for example – might well turn out to have much more serious consequences than whatever titbit is responsible for inconveniencing Ms In’t Veld at airports.

Theoretically, it could lead to the extradition of British subjects to face criminal trial in America on the basis of unverified information derived from UK files, even in cases where authorities in Britain do not consider prosecution justified.

The 2003 Extradition Act has already made American extradition requests effectively immune to legal challenge, by removing any need for a prima facie case.

Last week Statewatch, the civil liberties monitoring group, obtained a copy of the final report of a group of senior US and European Union officials – the ‘High Level Contact Group on information sharing and privacy and personal data protection’.

Supposedly, its job was to agree some international standards to ensure the rights of EU citizens will remain protected under agreements to make European data available to America. In practice, these safeguards look alarmingly weak.

The report says the Americans want instant information from EU members’ databases for ‘the prevention, detection, suppression, investigation or prosecution of any criminal offence’, as well as ‘non-criminal judicial or administrative proceedings’ – in other words, pretty much anything.

It is difficult to read the report’s final section without feeling chilled. There is, for example, no prohibition on supplying details of someone’s ethnic origins, political, religious or philosophical beliefs, or personal information about health or sexual life.

Confidential data transferred to America under the terms of the document could also include details of personal investments, bank and credit-card spending.

All information could be disseminated to US agencies, and in some circumstances, to third countries.

There must, the report promises, be ‘independent oversight’. Yet it accepts that, sometimes, decisions could be taken by machines.

For example, a computerised warning making it impossible to board an aircraft  might be issued because a piece of American software determined a person posed a threat.

The report says such ‘automated decisions’ can be taken ‘without human involvement’, as long as there are ‘appropriate safeguards in place, including the possibility to obtain human intervention’.

‘In the real world, such protection is meaningless,’ said Tony Bunyan, Statewatch’s director. ‘If there’s no right to be informed what a database says about you, the first you’re going to know is when you’re wrongly arrested, when you don’t get that job, or when you can’t get on that plane.’

While the High Level Contact Group has been busily diluting future data protection, the Americans have spent the past several months making some sweeping, more immediate demands.

Their chosen vehicle is the Visa Waiver Programme – the system that allows British and most EU citizens to visit America without passport visas. Henceforth, under the 9/11 Commission Act, passed in the US last year, visa waiver countries will be obliged to agree to stringent new security standards – including access to data.

In the words of the Act, decisions on whether to allow nations visa-free travel will depend on whether America decides they are ‘actively co-operating with the US to prevent terrorist travel, including sharing counter-terrorism and law enforcement information’.

America’s demands – set out in May by Richard Barth, assistant secretary for Homeland Security – in recent secret negotiations with the EU and individual states have been extraordinarily broad.

What the US sought, Barth said, was ‘requirements to provide certain information on air passengers, serious crimes, known or suspected terrorists, asylum and migration matters, and timely reporting of lost and stolen passport data, as well as co-operation on airport and aviation security.’

Of course, sharing information internationally can play a key role in combating terrorism and serious crime. But it is vital there must be rigorous methods of quality control and means to correct inaccurate records.

Neither Barth nor his officials have made any mention of this.

Yet another secret EU document leaked to Statewatch suggests Europe has already conceded America’s requests without putting up resistance on these key issues.

Dated April 11, it is the EU ‘mandate’ setting out the terms of Europe’s negotiating position – and accepts as its starting point that the EU should ‘explore the scope for agreement’ to the provisions of the 9/11 Act.

The document does say that any US-EU deal must ‘comply with fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals including the rights to privacy and data protection’.  But as to how this lofty objective might be achieved, it is silent.

‘The safeguards are so minimal they might as well not exist,’ Bunyan said. ‘I’ve yet to see an occasion where Europe has refused American demands. They are in effect the 28th member of the EU.’

Civil libertarians like former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis have, rightly, become concerned at British Government measures such as 42-day detention for terrorist suspects.

But for most ordinary citizens, the pressure to share data from across the Atlantic is a far greater threat.