Daily Archives: August 10, 2008

Powerful “Old Boy Network” obstructing investigation of childrens’ deaths and sex abuse

Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper standing outside Haut de la Garenne. He broke the “code of silence” in digging up dark secrets of the past. Photo: Jane Mingay

An “old boy network” of officials is deliberately obstructing police investigating decades of alleged abuse at care homes in Jersey, according to the police officer who spearheaded the inquiry.

He is convinced that someone deliberately concealed the bones and teeth of five children, perhaps after murdering them.

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“Known perpetrators are not being arrested, let alone prosecuted. Police are being thwarted by those in charge of the prosecution”.

Telegraph | Aug 9, 2008

Jersey abuse case: ‘Old boy network’ is obstructing police investigation

By Gordon Rayner, Chief Reporter

Deputy Chief Officer Lenny Harper angrily hit out at the figures who he says have engaged in a “day by day attack” on the inquiry team and the alleged victims of abuse at Haut de la Garenne and other island institutions.

In his most outspoken criticism of the Jersey authorities, Mr Harper told the Telegraph: “I can quite clearly say that the investigation is being held up. There are people on the island who just don’t want us going down the route of this inquiry.”

Mr Harper, who handed over the reins of the investigation to his successor on Thursday and officially leaves the Jersey force at the end of the month, also revealed fresh details of why he is so convinced that someone deliberately concealed the bones and teeth of five children, perhaps after murdering them.

But he has effectively conceded defeat in the quest to discover exactly how the children died, and who might have killed them, as forensic tests have failed to establish how old the bones are.

“If the test results on the final samples are no more accurate, then the answer is that something very nasty happened in there, we don’t know exactly what, and because we can’t prove who or what it was there is no possibility of a successful homicide investigation,” he said.

Mr Harper has repeatedly said that because some of the 100 bone fragments had been cut, and because the 65 milk teeth found at the home had roots on them, meaning they did not come out naturally, children were either murdered or their bodies were illegally concealed.

But he has faced ridicule from some of the island’s politicians, one of whom nicknamed him Lenny Henry, and who will, no doubt, be pleased to see the back of a policeman who has dared to break what he claims is Jersey’s code of silence by digging up dark secrets from the past.

He said: “We have had problems dating the bones, but instead of people saying how unfortunate it is that the science can’t be of more help to us, the politicians are saying ‘this is a waste of time’. The fact that we’re trying to bring people to justice for awful abuse is ignored and it’s just a constant day by day attack on the inquiry and on the victims.”

Police currently have 80 names of people suspected of physical and sexual abuse at Haut de la Garenne, three of whom have been charged and are awaiting trial.

More suspects would have been charged by now, said Mr Harper, if it hadn’t been for delays in the island’s legal system.

“We are walking through treacle at the moment,” he said. “One file has been with the Attorney General’s office since April 29 and it’s still showing no signs of moving at the moment. It’s been very frustrating.

“I don’t think they are involved in child abuse, it’s more like an old-boy network.

“The ordinary people of Jersey are overwhelmingly in favour of the inquiry, but how many expressions of support and sympathy for the victims have we heard from the politicians? None. They don’t do sympathy for the victims.”

Mr Harper, who expects the investigation to continue for another year, rubbished reports that the bones and teeth found at Haut de la Garenne could have been brought in among rubble infill during building work.

He said: “They had been taken from one part of the building to another and put on top of the hard, compact, undisturbed original floor of the cellars. They had been spread about and covered with a thin layer of topsoil. Why would someone do that unless there was a deliberate attempt to conceal them?”

Mr Harper said tests on soot found with the bones showed they had been burned in a furnace in another part of the building, while archaeological evidence suggested they had been concealed in the 1960s or 70s.

“People might say these killings must have happened in the 60s, but there may have been someone who had been working there for 30 or 40 years, who knew that something had happened, but even then it might not have been a homicide, it could have been that children died of natural causes, accidents or suicide. We just don’t know.”

A spokesman for the States of Jersey said ministers had made public statements of sympathy for the victims and given “unlimited resources” to the police investigation. The Attorney General’s office denied there had been any deliberate delays.

William Bailhache, Jersey’s Attorney General, said: “It is absolutely incorrect to say that we have obstructed the administration of justice and quite improper to make such a comment.”

Baroness Thatcher’s son paid handsomely to promote murderous dictatorship

Mark Thatcher meeting with Djusebayev and the grandson of President Kulibayev

Nazarbayev has been accused of running a corrupt country where criticising him is a criminal offence. Kazakhstan’s leader since 1991, he has now effectively been made president for life.

Previous elections have been strongly criticised for widespread intimidation and fraud and opposition leaders have been murdered.

Sunday Times | Aug 10, 2008

Mark Thatcher ‘paid to promote despot’

by Daniel Foggo

Sir Mark Thatcher used his mother’s name to help secure a deal worth up to £300,000 a year promoting an oil company connected to the despotic regime in the central Asian country of Kazakhstan.

In return for the cash, Thatcher was expected to use his influence to enhance the image of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s president, according to one of those involved in the agreement.

Thatcher met the Kazakh president in May 2004 bearing a letter from Baroness Thatcher which expressed support for his government. The next day the son of the former prime minister signed a deal with a company, Ar-Oil, which was owned by a member of Nazarbayev’s extended family.

According to a source involved in the deal, it was understood that in return for quarterly payments of $150,000 (£75,000), Thatcher would use his influence and family name to promote not only Ar-Oil’s interests abroad, but those of the Kazakh regime in general.

Thatcher, 54, said last night that the money paid was less than half that amount and that his “consultancy” did not include representing the Kazakh government.

Thatcher has been accused in the past of trading on his mother’s name and reputation, something that he has always denied.

Nazarbayev has been accused of running a corrupt country where criticising him is a criminal offence. Kazakhstan’s leader since 1991, he has now effectively been made president for life.

Previous elections have been strongly criticised for widespread intimidation and fraud and opposition leaders have been murdered. Nazarbayev’s family controls much of the country’s wealth through a network of companies.

Thatcher met the dictator at a meeting in May 2004 which was attended by Yerzhan Dosmukhamedov, an adviser to the president’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, whose father Askar was the leading shareholder in Ar-Oil. It is not known whether he retains his stake.

Dosmukhamedov said: “Mark Thatcher stated to Nazarbayev that his family, his mother and himself would be delighted to help him with his image internationally.

“No money was discussed with Nazarbayev, as it would not have been considered ‘elegant’, but the next day Thatcher agreed a deal with Ar-Oil and the first payment of $150,000 was made to his account in New York.

“The money was for him to represent not just the company, but also the country. It was to keep him sweet.”

The deal was signed in Kulibayev’s office in the Kazakh city of Almaty, before a celebratory meal in Thatcher’s honour at the Bellagio restaurant.

Shortly after receiving the first payment, which this weekend Thatcher recalled as being “more like £30,000”, the deal was dissolved.

Dosmukhamedov, who is now chairman of Atameken, a Kazakh opposition party, said that this was because in August 2004 Thatcher was arrested in South Africa over his involvement in helping to fund the failed plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.

Thatcher said that his consultancy with Ar-Oil had already been terminated by then because he came to realise that he would be required to spend too much time in Kazakhstan.

However, he has continued to enjoy a business relationship with Ar-Oil over the past four years. This weekend he said he had “brokered” oil contracts involving the company.

Last week, at the request of Assan Dyussebayev, the Ar-Oil president, Thatcher sent an e-mail to a senior executive of TNK-BP, the British-Russian oil company, to provide a “trade reference” for Dyussebayev, who is attempting to close a deal between the two firms.

Thatcher wrote: “As well as being a personal friend of my family I have enjoyed a business relationship with Assan and Ar-Oil for the past five [sic] years during which time our business has grown from a small consulting agreement into a wider and more sophisticated arrangement.”

Since signing the deal with Ar-Oil, Thatcher also provided references to help to secure work placements in London for Askar Kulibayev’s grandson Beksultan, including one position with Goldman Sachs, the banking firm.

Thatcher admitted sending an e-mail last week to TNK-BP and described his relationship with Ar-Oil as “friendly and commercial, I suppose”.

He confirmed that he had given the Kazakh president a supportive letter from his mother at an airport meeting.

Dogged by scandal

The career of Sir Mark Thatcher has frequently been punctuated by scandal.

In 1984, Margaret Thatcher faced questions in parliament after she lobbied for a company, which her son represented, to secure a contract in Oman. Mark Thatcher is also said to have received a commission from the £20 billion Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which his mother signed in 1985, although he denies having received payment.

Following a civil legal action for alleged racketeering in the US, settled out of court, he moved to South Africa.

His most notorious escapade involved his role in providing finance, and allegedly helping to plan a coup against Equatorial Guinea, for which he was fined and given a suspended sentence in 2005 after pleading guilty to unwittingly abetting the coup.

India, ASEAN agree to create EU-like free-trade zone

Domain-B.com | Aug 8, 2008

Mumbai: India and the 10-nation Association of South-East Asian Nations have reached a free-trade deal in goods that aims to create a European Union-style single market.

A deal that would create a larger trading block – covering a population of over 1.5 billion – than the EU is expected to be signed in December in New Delhi.

The deal that will cut import tariffs on goods, but not services or investment, is expected to boost annual trade between ASEAN and India, which  currently stands at $28 billion.

The two sides have trimmed down the list of items for negotiations from over 1,400 `sensitive items` proposed by India to 400. Most items on the list related to agriculture or textiles.

New Delhi has agreed to cut import tariffs to around 5 [per cent from around 30 per cent now and committed to gradually phasing them out altogether within a few years.

Once the pact is in place, officials will start talks on liberalizing service sectors, such as finance, telecommunications and investment.

The ASEAN comprises of Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Georgia sends troops from Iraq to South Ossetia

Georgian soldiers sit on a tank moving near the town of Tskhinvali, some 100 km (62 miles) from Tbilisi, August 10, 2008. Georgia has withdrawn its forces from breakaway South Ossetia, where they had been fighting Russian troops for control, the Georgian interior ministry said on Sunday. But the Russian army said Georgian forces were still there. The announcement of a pullout followed three days of fighting in a Georgian push to take control of the pro-Moscow enclave from separatists, which prompted Russia to pour troops into South Ossetia and launch air strikes inside Georgia.  REUTERS/Gleb Garanich (GEORGIA)

Times Online |  Aug 10, 2008

Deborah Haynes in Baghdad

Half of Georgia’s 2,000 troops in Iraq plan to leave the country by Monday to join the fight against separatists in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, with the rest following as soon as possible, their commander said.

“First of all we need to remove 1,000 guys from here within 96 hours, after that the rest of the guys,” Colonel Bondo Maisuradze told The Times this morning.

“The US will provide us with the transportation,” he added.

Georgia had said initially that it planned to withdraw just half of its contingent in Iraq.

The US military said the sudden departure of the soldiers would impact operations in the short-term.

The Georgian contingent has been taking part in an operation with US and Iraqi forces to clear the south-eastern corner of Diyala province, north of Baghdad, a known al-Qaeda stronghold.

Some 150 Georgian soldiers also guard the Iraqi Parliament building as well as other key structures inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

In addition, one battalion is helping to support the Iraqi security forces in Wasit province, south of the capital, near the Iranian border.

Asked about the impact on operations, the US military said: “The unplanned redeployment of Georgian forces will have some impact in the near term, however, as with any change in force structure, we will make adjustments to ensure sustainment of coalition operations.”

It continued in a statement: “We do not anticipate their departure will result in a significant long-term impact on the overall security situation in Iraq.”

Colonel Maisuradze said that his men were anxious to get home after seeing images on television of the unrest in South Ossetia as Russian forces support separatist militias under assault from Georgian troops.

“They want to go home as soon as possible and help,” he said, noting that the experience that Georgian troops have gained of fighting an insurgency in Iraq would benefit them as they tackle the problems in their own country.

“We have the same situation in our home as here, though the territory is different, we have no desert,” Colonel Maisuradze said.

Last year, the Georgians raised the number of troops in Iraq from 850 to 2,000 at a time when most non-American contingents were cutting back — a move that won them points with US commanders.

Russia expands bombing blitz in Georgia

A Georgian man cries next to his brother’s body in the town of Gori, 80 km (50 miles) from Tbilisi, August 9, 2008. A Russian warplane dropped a bomb on an apartment block in the Georgian town of Gori on Saturday, killing at least 5 people, a Reuters reporter said. The bomb hit the five-story building in Gori close to Georgia’s embattled breakaway province of South Ossetia when Russian warplanes carried out a raid against military targets around the town.  REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili (GEORGIA)

Associated Press | Aug 10, 2008

by DAVID NOWAK

TBILISI, Georgia – Russia expanded its bombing blitz Sunday against neighboring U.S.-allied Georgia, targeting the country’s capital for the first time while Georgian troops pulled out of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, as Russia has demanded.

Georgia’s Security Council chief Alexander Lomaia says that Georgian troops have relocated to new positions outside South Ossetia.

“They are outside the region entirely,” he said in a telephone conference.

Russia has demanded that Georgia pull out its troops from South Ossetia as a condition to negotiate a cease-fire. It also urged Georgia to sign a pledge not to use force against South Ossetia as another condition for ending hostilities.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said that Moscow now needs to verify the Georgian withdrawal. “We must check all that. We don’t trust the Georgian side,” he said.

Russian jets raided a plant on the eastern outskirts of Tbilisi that builds Su-25 ground jets used in the conflict by Georgia, a U.S. ally whose troops have been trained by American soldiers. The attack damaged runways but caused no casualties, said Georgia’s Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili.

“We heard a plane go over and then a big explosion,” said Malkhaz Chachanidze, a 41-year old ceramics artist whose house is located just outside the fence of the factory, which has been running since the Soviet era. “It woke us up, everything shook.”

The risk of the conflict setting off a wider war increased when Russian-supported separatists in another Georgia’s breakaway region, Abkhazia, launched air and artillery strikes on Georgian troops to drive them out of a small part of the province they control. Fifteen U.N. military observers were told to evacuate.

Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since splitting from Georgia in the early 1990s and have built up ties with Moscow. Russia has granted its passports to most of their residents.

In yet another sign that the conflict could widen, Ukraine warned Russia on Sunday it could bar Russian navy ships from returning to their base in the Crimea because of their deployment to Georgia’s coast.

Russian jets have been roaming Georgia’s skies since Friday. They raided several air bases and bombed the Black Sea port city of Poti, which has a sizable oil shipment facility.

The Russian warplanes also struck near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline which carries Caspian crude to the West, but no supply interruptions have been reported.

Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili called it an “unprovoked brutal Russian invasion.”

President Bush called for an end to the Russian bombings and an immediate halt to the violence.

“The attacks are occurring in regions of Georgia far from the zone of conflict in South Ossetia. They mark a dangerous escalation in the crisis,” Bush said in a statement to reporters while attending the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Jim Jeffrey, Bush’s deputy national security adviser, warned that “if the disproportionate and dangerous escalation on the Russian side continues, that this will have a significant long-term impact on U.S.-Russian relations.”

A Russian raid on Gori near South Ossetia Saturday which apparently targeted a military base on the town’s outskirts left numerous civilian casualties.

An Associated Press reporter who visited the town shortly after the strike saw several apartment buildings in ruins, some still on fire, and scores of dead bodies and bloodied civilians. The elderly, women and children were among the victims.

Russian officials said they weren’t targeting civilians, but Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Georgia brought the airstrikes upon itself by bombing civilians and Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. He warned that the small Caucasus country should expect more attacks.

“Whatever side is used to bomb civilians and the positions of peacekeepers, this side is not safe and they should know this,” Lavrov said.

The U.N. Security Council met for the third time since late Thursday night to try to help resolve the situation. Another meeting requested by Georgia was scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

Georgia launched the major offensive to regain control over South Ossetia overnight Friday.

Lavrov told reporters Saturday that some 1,500 people had been killed in South Ossetia since Friday, with the death toll rising. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

But residents of the South Ossentian provincial capital Tskhinvali who survived the bombardment by hiding in basements and later fled the city estimated that hundreds of civilians had died. They said bodies were lying everywhere.

Lomaia, Georgia’s Security Council chief, estimated that Russia sent 2,500 troops into Georgia.

In Saturday’s meeting with refugees in the city of Vladikavkaz across the border, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin described Georgia’s actions as “complete genocide. Putin also said Georgia had effectively lost the right to rule the breakaway province — an indication Moscow could be preparing to fulfill South Ossetians’ wish to be absorbed into Russia.

Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said the country was “in a state of war” and accused Russia of beginning a “massive military aggression.” The Georgian parliament approved a state of martial law, mobilizing reservists and ordering government authorities to work round-the-clock.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev said that Moscow sent troops into South Ossetia to protect its peacekeepers and civilians on a mission to “enforce peace.” He said that Russia would seek to bring the Georgian attackers to criminal responsibility.

Medvedev said he was ordering the military prosecutor to document crimes against civilians in South Ossetia.

Georgia borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the breakup of the Soviet Union. Today, Russia has approximately 30 times more people than Georgia and 240 times the area.

Russia also laid much of the responsibility for ending the fighting on Washington, which has trained Georgian troops. Washington, in turned, blamed Russia.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush had spoken with both Medvedev and Saakashvili. But it was unclear what might persuade either side to stop shooting — both claim the other violated a cease-fire declared Thursday.

Georgia said it has shot down 10 Russian planes, including four brought down Saturday, according to Lomaia. It also claimed to have captured two Russian pilots, who were shown on Georgian television.

Russian Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the General Staff, confirmed Saturday that two Russian planes had been shot down, but did not say where or when.

Russian military commanders said 15 peacekeepers have been killed and about 150 wounded in South Ossetia, accusing Georgian troops of killing and wounding Russian peacekeepers when they seized Russian checkpoints. The allegations couldn’t be independently confirmed.

In Abkhazia, the separatist government said it intended to push Georgian forces out of the Kodori Gorge. The northern part of the gorge is the only area of Abkhazia that has remained under Georgian government control.

Separatist forces also were concentrating on the border with Georgia’s Zugdidi region, and Russia’s NTV television reported that additional Russian troops landed in Abkhazia Sunday, heading in the same direction.

Russia also has sent a naval squadron to blockade Georgia’s Black Sea coast, the Interfax news agency reported. A Russian Navy spokesman refused to comment on the report.

Lomaia, the Georgian security chief, confirmed that Russia has imposed what he called an “illegal blockade” on Georgia and turned back several ships with humanitarian supplies.

Lomaia said that Georgian administrative buildings and two villages in Abkhazia’s Kodori Gorge were bombed by Russians. He said there were no casualties.

Lomaia said that Russians also raided a Georgian military facility in the Zugdidi region just south of Abkhazia, inflicting no casualties.

‘Fakeproof’ e-passport is cloned in minutes

The Times | Aug 6, 2008

by Steve Boggan

New microchipped passports designed to be foolproof against identity theft can be cloned and manipulated in minutes and accepted as genuine by the computer software recommended for use at international airports.

Tests for The Times exposed security flaws in the microchips introduced to protect against terrorism and organised crime. The flaws also undermine claims that 3,000 blank passports stolen last week were worthless because they could not be forged.

In the tests, a computer researcher cloned the chips on two British passports and implanted digital images of Osama bin Laden and a suicide bomber. The altered chips were then passed as genuine by passport reader software used by the UN agency that sets standards for e-passports.

The Home Office has always argued that faked chips would be spotted at border checkpoints because they would not match key codes when checked against an international data-base. But only ten of the forty-five countries with e-passports have signed up to the Public Key Directory (PKD) code system, and only five are using it. Britain is a member but will not use the directory before next year. Even then, the system will be fully secure only if every e-passport country has joined.

Some of the 45 countries, including Britain, swap codes manually, but criminals could use fake e-passports from countries that do not share key codes, which would then go undetected at passport control.

The tests suggest that if the microchips are vulnerable to cloning then bogus biometrics could be inserted in fake or blank passports.

Tens of millions of microchipped passports have been issued by the 45 countries in the belief that they will make international travel safer. They contain a tiny radio frequency chip and antenna attached to the inside back page. A special electronic reader sends out an encrypted signal and the chip responds by sending back the holder’s ID and biometric details.

Britain introduced e-passports in March 2006. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the United States demanded that other countries adopt biometric passports. Many of the 9/11 bombers had travelled on fake passports.

The tests for The Times were conducted by Jeroen van Beek, a security researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Building on research from the UK, Germany and New Zealand, Mr van Beek has developed a method of reading, cloning and altering microchips so that they are accepted as genuine by Golden Reader, the standard software used by the International Civil Aviation Organisation to test them. It is also the software recommended for use at airports.

Using his own software, a publicly available programming code, a £40 card reader and two £10 RFID chips, Mr van Beek took less than an hour to clone and manipulate two passport chips to a level at which they were ready to be planted inside fake or stolen paper passports.

A baby boy’s passport chip was altered to contain an image of Osama bin Laden, and the passport of a 36-year-old woman was changed to feature a picture of Hiba Darghmeh, a Palestinian suicide bomber who killed three people in 2003. The unlikely identities were chosen so that there could be no suggestion that either Mr van Beek or The Times was faking viable travel documents.

“We’re not claiming that terrorists are able to do this to all passports today or that they will be able to do it tomorrow,” Mr van Beek said. “But it does raise concerns over security that need to be addressed in a more public and open way.”

The tests also raise serious questions about the Government’s £4 billion identity card scheme, which relies on the same biometric technology. ID cards are expected to contain similar microchips that will store up to 50 pieces of personal and biometric information about their holders. Last night Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Home Secretary, called on ministers to take urgent action to remedy the security flaws discovered by The Times. “It is of deep concern that the technology underpinning a key part of the UK’s security can be compromised so easily,” he said.

The ability to clone chips leaves travellers vulnerable to identity theft when they surrender their passports at hotels or car rental companies. Criminals in the back office could read the chips and clone them. The original passport holder’s name and date of birth could be left on the fake chip, with the picture, fingerprints and other biometric data of a criminal client added. The criminal could then travel the world using the stolen identity and the original passport holder would be none the wiser.

The Home Office said last night that it had yet to see evidence of someone being able to manipulate data in an e-passport. A spokesman said: “No one has yet been able to demonstrate that they are able to modify, change or alter data within the chip. If any data were to be changed, modified or altered it would be immediately obvious to the electronic reader.”

The International Civil Aviation Organisation said: “The PKD ensures that e-passports used at border control points . . . are genuine and unaltered. In effect it renders the passport fool-proof. However, all states issuing e-passports must join the PKD, otherwise that assurance cannot be given.”

Going biometric

1999 International Civil Aviation Organisation begins study into possibility of worldwide use of travel documents carrying biometric data

2002 After 9/11 US announces all passports issued from 2006 and used to enter the country must contain biometric information or holder will require a visa

2006 Britain and many EU countries introduce biometric passports

2008 45 countries have introduced biometric passports. 100 million have been issued globally

Olympic medal table will demonstrate the New World Order – with China on top

A police dog stands by under a banner of the Beijing 2008 Olympics slogan ‘One World One Dream’ in Beijing, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008, a day before the Summer Games’ opening ceremony. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Independent | Aug 9, 2008

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

They are little golden baubles that signify only athletic prowess, in disciplines as irrelevant to raw political muscle as gymnastics and beach volleyball.

But gold medal tables throughout the modern Olympic era have offered a fascinating snapshot of global power – coupled, it must be said, with home advantage. And with resignation rather than any burning sense of failure, America is virtually conceding in advance that at the Beijing Games of August 2008, China will seal its international emergence by knocking the United States off its golden throne.

If you have any doubts that the past 100 years have been the American century, the Olympics should banish them. True, back when a quarter of the world was coloured pink in the atlas, Britain dominated proceedings at the Home Games in London in 1908, winning 56 golds, more than double the American haul of 23. But thereafter the US ruled, until the emergence of a rival superpower. Between 1956 and 1988, America and the Soviet Union (abetted on occasion by its steroid-fuelled surrogate East Germany) battled for gold medal supremacy, a duel interrupted only by the reciprocal boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Games in Moscow and Los Angeles respectively.

After the collapse of Communism in 1991, the US was back in the driving seat. But China was creeping up in the rear view mirror. In Los Angeles in 1984 – the Middle Kingdom’s first Games after a quarter-century boycott during the Mao era – China won 15 gold medals, the fourth largest national haul.

By Sydney 2000, it had climbed to third, and at the last Olympics, in Athens four years ago, it came second, behind the US. This time the progression should reach its climax. If the old yardstick of global might plus home advantage is any guide, China should make it to number one. Such, too, is the best guess of US prognosticators. An analysis in yesterday’s USA Today predicts that China will top the medal count over the next fortnight, with 51 golds compared with 43 for the US.

It will be the first time in 72 years that a country other than the US or the former Soviet Union heads the table – the last being Germany at the Hitler Games of 1936, (another example of how rising national power plus home advantage has been a reliable gauge of Olympic dominance). But there is no gnashing of teeth here, merely an acceptance that the US is looking at second place. “We’re not used to being an underdog,” Pete Ueberroth, who ran the Los Angeles Games and now chairs the US national Olympic Committee, told USA Today. “So we’ll get used to that and do our best.”

This may be a case of the politicians’ game of downplaying expectations. But all the non-sporting, as well as the sporting, indicators are pointing south for the US. Its economy is in the biggest crisis of a generation, its global reputation has tumbled, its relative power is waning. It is tempting to see these Games as a hinge of history, the passage from the former American century to a new Chinese one. But there is little of the bitter antagonism that used to mark the US rivalry with the Soviets during the Olympics of the Cold War. For one thing, there is relatively little sporting overlap. The US still dominates in track and field and swimming, while much of China’s medal haul will come in events which barely figure on the radar screen here.

More important, however, for all the complaints about its human rights record, China just isn’t perceived to be that threatening.

Bush Declared 422 Major Disasters So Far During Presidency

Related

Weather Warfare Information

Weather as a Force Multiplier

During his seven and a half years in office, President Bush has declared 422 major disasters — severe storms, tornadoes, wildfires and floods — or more than one a week. That is 11 percent more than President Bill Clinton’s disaster declarations and 130 percent more than President Ronald Reagan during their full two terms in office.

NY Times | Aug 10, 2008

All those natural disasters translate into more federal government spending. Under Mr. Bush, the government has committed to spend $87 billion in disaster relief money to help states and localities clean up after floods, fires and storms, compared with Mr. Clinton’s nearly $29 billion. Even after adjusting for inflation, the Bush administration has spent 2.5 times more than the Clinton administration on disaster relief.

Governors can petition the president to declare a state or region a disaster. If granted, that results in the release of emergency relief money, which can be used to repair roads, assist with other repairs and defray emergency costs. When a state applies for aid, the Federal Emergency Management Agency dispatches a team to conduct a damage estimate. Washington usually covers at least 75 percent of the total cost and the state provides the rest. Individual assistance may be made available to homeowners as well, with a cap of $28,800 per household.

Of the $87 billion obligated under the Bush administration, $36 billion is from cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest natural disaster on United States soil. An additional $4 billion went toward Hurricane Rita’s aftermath, which also occurred in 2005. Even excluding that $40 billion commitment, Mr. Bush outspent each of his predecessors on disaster aid. The figures do not include disaster loans.

One explanation, though highly contentious, for why the country has been more disaster prone under Mr. Bush is global warming. Most scientists agree that greenhouse gases are heating up the earth’s atmosphere but most generally agree that no single weather-related disaster can be attributed to climate change with certainty.

While most experts say they cannot correlate the rise in the number of disaster declarations with global warming, they accept that the trend will continue, and that that means a growing cache of federal tax dollars will need to be diverted to help states cope. Others offer alternative explanations, including that Mr. Bush’s disaster relief decisions have been politically motivated, either to help Republican governors or to shield him from the kind of criticism he received for his handling of Hurricane Katrina.

By acting quickly to declare disasters, presidents “can shine, or they can look to be out of touch or inconsiderate of the suffering of others,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that monitors federal spending. He added: “One of the other ways they can show they care is with the taxpayers’ checkbook. They’re quick to open it, especially when it gets into the papers or cable news.”

But in the case of Mr. Bush, the numbers do not support this view. In each year after Hurricane Katrina, the White House did not declare as many disasters as it did in 2004.

Bush Tours America To Survey Damage

Still, some experts believe that politics plays a role in disaster declarations. Roger A. Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado, said that historically presidential declarations had risen nearly 50 percent in years where the president had been up for re-election. Indeed, the largest number of disaster declarations under Mr. Bush — 68 in 2004 — occurred the year he was running for re-election. The same pattern holds for Mr. Clinton, the first President Bush and Mr. Reagan.

“As far as the politics go, certainly as the president found out, there are good ways to handle disasters and bad ways to handle disasters,” Mr. Ellis said, “which suggests that presidents are trying to keep citizens happy in the years they are running for re-election.”

Mr. Pielke, who assisted in a study of major disaster declarations from 1964 to 1998, said the study found no patterns of partisanship in choosing the states that received assistance. That appeared to be true as well in 2004, when states across the electoral map received aid, not just the states whose electoral votes Mr. Bush was courting. This summer has seen a spike in spending because of downpours and severe floods in the Midwest and other states. Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Dakota have also received assistance because of severe storms and floods. The Bush administration has committed $6.6 billion in federal aid through June and, if that pace continues, the total for 2008 could be close to $9 billion, only the fifth-highest year in disaster spending under Mr. Bush.

“The general sense is that you can’t peg any particular weather event to climate change, but everything we’re seeing is consistent with what the models predict,” said Tony Kreindler, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund. Mr. Kreindler said he had no doubt that there would be a correlation between increased federal spending on weather-related emergencies and climate change in the future.

A study released in June by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration seems to indicate that climate change can lead to increased storms, drought conditions and weather-related natural disasters that may increase over the next century. Tom Karl, director of the agency’s National Climactic Data Center, said the economic impact of climate change would increase directly because of carbon emissions.

“What we’re able to do today is to take a look at some events and to see if they would have occurred either as frequently or as extreme if it weren’t for human changes to the atmospheric composition,” said Mr. Karl, noting that floods like those that struck Iowa this summer could become more frequent.

There appears to be more consensus among scientists that increases in rainfall from downpours can be traced to global warming, and that the resulting floods are made worse because of development of flood-plain zones and coastal areas. Many experts agree that much of the damage could be prevented if such development was scaled back.

Russians seek New Age wisdom, powers and health from “mysterious” fiberglass pyramid

Rumors of the 12-story pyramid’s mysterious, miraculous powers have spread through the suburbs and into the capital. The pyramid is made of 55 tons of fiberglass. (Photos by Sergei L. Loiko for the Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Times | Aug 10, 2008

By Megan K. Stack

KOZENKI, Russia – You can see it from miles away, looming over the birch forests and wildflower fields and construction sites crammed with future dachas for Russia’s rich and ruthless.

Stabbing toward heaven from its hilltop perch, the pyramid gleams white under the blast of northern sun. Twelve stories high and made of 55 tons of fiberglass, the pyramid swarms with Russians desperate to rearrange their energy fields and cure their karma.

Everybody, it seems, has heard some miracle tale about the pyramid: The sterile woman miraculously impregnated after a visit. The prisoners pacified with drafts of saltwater charged by the energies of the pyramid. The pillar of mysterious force allegedly emanating from the peak, healing the ozone layer over Russia.

“You can’t expect to build a pyramid and see everything change overnight. It happens gradually,” says Alexander Golod, a Ukrainian defense contractor who has spent millions of dollars building pyramids around the former Soviet Union and beyond.

“The possibility of any emergency decreases, including hurricanes and typhoons. It seriously changes physical and psychological conditions.”

Golod sits in a yard of bright grass and vibrant poppy beds in a Moscow suburb. His wife chases their grandson through the fruit trees. Between the rooftops, the pyramid blocks the horizon – he and his family live well within reach of the pyramid’s energy, he says.

Asked what drives his obsession with pyramids, Golod takes a long time to answer. He blinks his blue eyes. Finally, he says: “The pyramid changes the structure of space.”

Olympic athletes visit the pyramid to boost their strength, he says, and Russian cosmonauts are so fond of the pyramid that they have taken keepsakes from within the structure into space. (An official at Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center could not confirm this claim, but said he doubted its truth.)

Rumors of the pyramid’s mysterious powers have spread through the suburbs and into the city. People come looking for peace of mind, strength, health, insight. Life is hard these days in Moscow. The city is a place of blank expressions and cold shoulders. Prices climb high and then higher still.

But the pyramid is quiet and cool, a sort of New Age monastery. There’s no sign, no gate, and no admission tickets. Visitors park, wander inside, and stay as long as they like. Swallows wheel in circles up in the roof. Summer sun filters thinly though the fiberglass, casting an amber glow. Three massive globes, one each for geography, topography, and astronomy, swell in the center of the floor, surrounded by benches. On one sits a stooped woman, stretching her arms to the ceiling, scooping them through the air and pulling them down to her heart.

“Try it for yourself,” she says. “Feel how you are drawing the energy to yourself.”

Another woman, Lidiya Okhapkina, 70, brought visiting family members to the pyramid. She’s heard it can cure sickness and pain. She only wants to be healthy.

“So far,” she sighs, “I don’t feel much.”

Kseniya Simonova, arm laced around her boyfriend, has heard the stories, too. A crew team visited the pyramid, then rowed to first place, boosted by supernatural powers. “We’ve heard you get crazy energy from it,” she says.

But that’s not why Simonova and her boyfriend, recent college graduates, have driven all the way out to the pyramid. The truth is, they’re looking for a good hangover cure.

“They say no pills can help you like the pyramid,” she says.

Behind glass counters stacked with stuffed pandas, jewelry, and stone eggs, Olga Vorobyova keeps watch. Three years ago, when she took a job peddling crystals and water in the pyramid, she was sick and weighed down with troubles. But now, because of the “positive energy” of her work space, she has been cured.

“Bad things used to happen. My husband drank a lot and we had no money,” she says. “Now I live alone and life is better. I feel healthier.”

Civilians bear the brunt of Russian attacks in S. Ossetia

A wounded Georgian woman lies in front of an apartment building, damaged by a Russian airstrike, in the northern Georgian town of Gori Photo: AP

The ground shook and a series of explosions rippled through the air. From the middle of a housing estate in the Georgian town of Gori a huge fireball rose into the sky, twisting and mushrooming as if in slow motion. Choking dust swirled above the debris, darkening the sky. A brief silence followed and then the screaming started.

Georgia conflict: Screams of the injured rise from residential streets

Telegraph | Aug 10, 2008

By Adrian Blomfield in Gori

For two days, Georgia has been convulsed by a Russian air and ground assault in a conflict that has escalated rapidly from a localised war against separatist rebels in South Ossetia into a full-scale military confrontation.

But this was the first time that Russian bombs had struck a residential area.

The fighter jets responsible for the devastation had been targeting a military barracks in the built-up outskirts of Gori, a Georgian town 15 miles from the Ossetian frontier. They missed.

Just one of their bombs struck the base. At least two others fell in a compound of long, low-slung apartment blocks, five of which were quickly reduced to blackened shells. A third hit a small secondary school, which crumbled to the ground in a pile of rubble and twisted girders.

From the gutted buildings, survivors began to emerge, some hobbling, others bleeding from shrapnel and flying glass, all covered in a cloak of soot and dust.

Then they brought out the dead.

In front of a row of garages, a corpse, covered in a chalk-like film, lay on the ground. Kneeling beside the body of her son, a middle-aged builder identified by neighbours as Iano, the white-haired woman cursed the Russians, then cursed God. Then she beseeched his forgiveness and cursed the Russians again.

“You have taken my boy, you pigs, you criminals,” she said in a low voice, before turning her face towards her dead son as she tenderly stroked his matted hair. “I loved you like I loved no other. Now be with God.”

Standing to one side, her frail husband propped himself up on a walking sticks and stared into space, blank incomprehension in his eyes.

Up a small flight of steps in a nearby courtyard, a young man, bare-chested and kneeling on the ground, cradled the head of his brother in his lap. Shaking off hands offered in comfort from neighbours, he moaned in agony and begged – in ever more frantic tones – for his brother to live.

Still wailing, he was hauled away from the body by Georgian troops who bundled the corpse into the back of a Lada. His face streaked in his brother’s blood, the man raced to keep up with the car, his hand repeatedly pawing the rear window.

Slowly, his legs buckling beneath him, he began to fall behind. Giving up the chase, he knelt unmoving in the middle of the road, his face staring in the direction of the receding car.

More dead were brought out of the buildings, among them a mother and her daughter who were laid side by side in the back of a military truck.

Those who survived stood in small groups on the road outside their shattered homes, bewilderment etched on their faces.

Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians, and insists that the offensive in Georgia is not war but a “peacekeeping mission”.

Few of the people of Gori believe that. So powerful were the bombs aimed at the barracks that they shattered windows in a half-mile radius. Even if all had hit their intended target, the chances of collateral damage would have been high.

As a lone fire engine battled the inferno, with flames spreading across the roofs of two blocks of flats, this small part of Gori began to resemble another scene of Russian military retribution: Grozny.

The Chechen capital was pounded into submission in 1999 on the orders of Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, with little regard for civilian life. By the time Chechen rebels lost the city, barely a single building stood intact, forcing residents to eke out an existence in cellars and basements for six years until Moscow finally began serious reconstruction in 2006.

While the bombing of Gori has not been remotely comparable, Grozny was in the back of many peoples’ minds as they took shelter.

“We know what the Russians are capable of,” said Nina Kogiddze, a teacher who was flung to her kitchen floor by the force of the blast as she was brewing coffee. “Do you think that when they fight wars, they abide by civilised rules? They hate Georgians. They would be happy to kill us all.”

No official death toll from the apartment bombings has been released as yet, but there can be no doubt that the casualty rates would have been much higher if most of Gori’s residents had not fled the previous day, after the first Russian bombs fell.

It was fortunate, too, that the school holidays were under way.

“If classes were in progress, we would have a hundred children dead,” said Givi, the headmaster of the Lyceum College, as he surveyed his devastated school.

Other Russian bombing raids in Gori killed at least two civilians in another block of flats in a nearby suburb.

On the road to Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s ramshackle capital, and the main stronghold of the Moscow-backed rebels, Russian jets maintained their bombardment, strafing Georgian artillery positions in the fields near the frontier.

The rebels, who have been reinforced by Russian tanks and ground troops, claimed to have retaken the town after intense hand-to-hand fighting.

Georgia says it still controls a significant portion of Tskhinvali and claims to have shot down four Russian jets yesterday. Georgian officials showed to Western reporters the papers of one Russian pilot they claimed to have captured.

Russia also launched air strikes across Georgia’s wider territory for a second day, striking an airport at Kutaisi in the west and the country’s main Black Sea port of Poti.

“The Russians are now bombing civilian targets at will, including a port, an airport and a railway station where 17 people were killed,” said Shota Utiashvili, an interior ministry spokesman.

Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-western president, was preparing to declare martial law, a process that would involve the full mobilisation of every man of fighting age, Mr Utiashvili said.

Against the might of the million-strong Russian army, it is unclear how effective such a strategy would be. Reservists have already been drafted onto the front line, but few have any battle experience and most have had just a week’s training.

When a bomb fell close to their positions, one company of new recruits scattered frantically for cover, ignoring pleas and orders from their commanders to remain in place.

“On Tuesday I was a bank clerk,” one fresh-faced reservist said. “Then they woke me up in the middle of the night and gave me half-an-hour to report. I’ve been up on the front line and I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

Given the challenges, it may prove difficult for Mr Saakashvili to sustain morale.

Already his tactics seem to have back-fired, analysts and diplomats say that he may have launched military actions with the intention of forcibly reclaiming South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia in a short but brutal war 17 years ago. His gamble may have been that Russia would not intervene militarily.

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